The curatorial statement of the inaugural Lagos Biennial (2017) calls participants and audiences alike to “re-think” and to “re-imagine”. It seems to align itself with a transgressive attitude to instigate political action through art and to shift the siting of art from the autonomous space of the white cube into the theatrical realm of the community.1 The premise for this is based on an artistic investigation into the hopeless conditions of “losers in societies around the world — the unseen majority who are pushed to the brink of their existence” 2, in other words, global sufferers in a neoliberal world disproportionately bearing the injustice of policies of privatization and deregulation resulting in wealth concentration, worker insecurity, atomization, invasion of privacy, you name it.

At the risk of falling into conservative traps of regionalism, the statement again calls for a reflexive approach: to consider the city of Lagos and its multicultural dynamics as leitmotif to reflect on conditions that impact this global mass of precariats. This anti-regionalist position seems to invoke, at the very least, the conception of art as an expansive site that has the capacity of inclusivity to be able to address the aforementioned problems from various regions across the world through international participation3.  At the end, the artistic director summarizes things in this way: “[A]rt will be put to the ultimate test; can it save the world or at least make an attempt?”.

There is a sense of naive optimism in the rhetorical question which could be problematic as a political basis for the biennial’s engagement of local communities in Lagos. It seems to be taking the redemptive potential of art for granted without critically considering the contradictions of capital and contemporary art. First of all, the traditional postwar large scale international exhibition structure — of which the biennial is one— is itself in crisis and may have run its course and so using it as the platform to speak to issues of poverty may be a contrivance.4 For the simple reasons that it relies on blockbuster budgets and has become excessively commercialized events for cultural tourism, the opposite can be true that contemporary art too is complicit in this socio-economic dynamic of financialization, exploitation and disempowerment that artists and curators often delude themselves about intervening in. And so rather than save the world, art can sometimes create more problems for it. Hito Steyerl summarizes this point more succinctly when she says “[i]f contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?”

 To highlight this paradox is neither to take away from the potency nor the legitimacy of art in our time. Artists and curators who take the symbolic freedoms offered within the limits of art for granted may be shocked to learn that there is an outside world often infested with harsh realities to be engaged. There is no reason to overburden mega art events such as the biennial (which has internalized capitalist systems for its operations) with the task of salvation. Even if so, we cannot expect all artists to fulfill this interventionist call; it would be for the politically engaged artists to make that decision. (And within this category of practitioners we can further distinguish between so-called productivists and reformists. The former seek to deracinate the status quo in favor of a new system altogether while the latter are preoccupied with preserving the conventions of the status quo but by changing it at the symbolic level).

When a critical context is not set for such political claims for an exhibition project, it only gives fodder for misinterpretation. The controversy surrounding the biennial and the condition of the squatters at the Old Running Shed provides an insightful example into what I mean here. In an article titled “Life in Lagos imitates art as squatters evicted for biennial exhibition”6 a journalist seems to be attacking this uncritically benevolent position taken by the biennial organizers. For the journalist, “[i]t is not just the fact of the evictions [of the squatters], but the violent manner in which they are often carried out.” The article does three things as I see it:

1. It exposes the flaws in the curatorial claims and raises the corollary that art can exacerbate misery for poor people.

2. The writer conveniently side-steps aesthetic judgments so as to overemphasize political and moral ones in her discussion of an artistic project. At best her description of the few art works mentioned is burlesque and based on a priori judgments. There are equally aesthetic concerns to be raised about the biennial as there are ethical ones. Once equivocated, this imbalance could mar the whole process of criticism.

3. The article sensationalizes as well as mystifies the problem of poverty in Lagos, as if there is something essentially special about poor people in Nigeria. But very little distinguishes poor people in Lagos from those in North Philadelphia or New Delhi, for example, apart from geography. What they have in common is a geopolitical structure that conspires against them to remain in that condition in order for the system to thrive.

It is true that sensationalism in mainstream media is what sells. But beyond this “intensified bottom-line orientation”7 of mass media institutions, I suspect a much deeper reason for this kind of deft primitivism. Mass media has become contemptuously assimilated as a propaganda tool by private corporations —  that is, they too have become actively culpable agents of neoliberal capitalism. The journalist betrays this fact by resorting to a simplistic moralist accusation of the biennial organizers rather than performing a systemic analysis of the conditions that manufacture inequality to produce binary oppositions of rich and poor, haves and have-nots in Lagos — such as colonialism, economic globalization, deregulation, Structural Adjustment Policies, and so on. The sanitized judgments passed in the article are no more useful than the naive optimism expressed in the sentiment of art saving the world. Art and media practitioners today ought not be blindly self-righteous in their critique of social injustices. The question is not whether the biennial (or its organizers) can stop or delay the inevitable fate of the precariats at the Old Running Shed (indeed, it seems to have facilitated their eviction). There is a global community of such desperate and disempowered groups and the solution is not only to appeal to them symbolically through art. This tendency merely psychologizes the problem of poverty and ends up with the desire to make poor people ‘happy’ rather than resort to the solution of attacking the root cause of economic disempowerment by redistributing wealth.8

To its credit, the Lagos Biennial functioned in somewhat unorthodox fashion to the traditional biennial system by the fact of it being low-budget and relying primarily on volunteers, goodwill of sponsors, commitment of artists who largely mobilized their own funds and optimizing limited resources in a milieu famished of cultural support. It also enhanced cross-regional collaborations by featuring thirty nine artists from over nineteen countries worldwide. To the extent that it functioned in this way it paradoxically gained something and lost it at the same time: it gained in the sense that its very existence could have been a potent critique of the postwar exhibition model currently in crisis. What it lost is in the way it reneged this vital opportunity from which to intentionally enunciate an anti-biennial politics from the perspective of Lagos. Is it not perilous to be this dispositionally indifferent in such a political arena?

That said, contemporary art is a minefield of contradictions and is often elusive to classical logic. Rather than argue that it will save the world, it may be better to assess that contemporary art is already embedded in the problems of the world (and sometimes culpably so); this permits us to then begin our dialectical expositions. Curatorial work in Africa in the twenty-first century must prove itself rigorous not only to invent new canons but also to come to terms with this unique moment in history that makes it necessary to significantly shape art world polemics. We must seize this opportunity with resolute conviction.

— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is a curator based in Kumasi, Ghana. He participated in the Lagos Biennial 2017 as guest curator.

 

Notes:
1. On the question: “What are the results you are expecting from this first edition?” asked by Bisi Silva, Folakunle Oshun, the artistic director begins by responding, “[w]e intend to go beyond the “white cube” and into the community letting the city dictate the pace.” See biennial catalog, conversation between Folakunle Oshun and Bisi Silva titled “Lagos: The Making of an African Capital of Culture”.

2. On the question “What is the curatorial premise [of the biennial]?” Oshun responds “[t]he first edition of the Lagos Biennial (www.lagos-biennial.org) hopes to highlight the stories of individuals, groups, and communities in the society who are marginalized from the center. This type of engaged intervention – critiquing the socio-political climate from outside in, is essential in a city like Lagos where the dichotomy of rich and poor prevails. Themed “Living on the Edge” the biennial seeks to explore the experiences of artists living in and around crisis situations across the world”. See biennial catalog, conversation between Folakunle Oshun and Silva titled “Lagos: The Making of an African Capital of Culture”.

3. It is recorded on the Biennial Foundation website that the Lagos Biennial is “not driven by Afrocentric ideologies but rather embraces the unifying simplicity of the human experience”. See http://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/lagos-biennial-nigeria/

4. Are we not already in a post-biennial paradigm? What have we learnt from such longstanding curatorial interventions on the African continent such as Dak’Art, Bamako Rencontres, and Marrakech biennials? The ghosts of Johannesburg bienniale, Cape Town biennale and Benin biennale still come back to haunt us. Why could they not go beyond two editions? Documenta in its 14th edition and the Marrakech biennial are amongst prime examples of mega international art events riddled with debts. See the following links for more information: “Documenta rescued from bankruptcy”, https://artreview.com/news/news_13_sept_2017_documenta_rescued_from_bankruptcy/, “Marrakech Biennial cancelled due to lack of funds”: http://theartnewspaper.com/news/marrakech-biennale-cancelled-due-to-lack-of-funds. We must rethink these structures (especially the ones that exist in Africa) if they exist in schizophrenic limbo to serve neocolonialist interests. In response to problems of cultural tourism, exploitation of labor and intellectual property, all of which the traditional biennial format cannot adequately deal with (because it also thrives on it), events such as Arte Nueva InteractivA, inSITE and The Roaming Biennial of Tehran serve as alternative models. Proposing exhibition models that rely on collectivism, low-budget, non-site-specific and nomadic orientations, they also optimize virtual social media platforms. As insufficient as these may seem, they, at least in attitude, remain resolutely intolerable to annexation by governments and commercialized interests.

5. Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, e-flux Journal, Sternberg press, 2012, pp. 93. Steyerl goes on to state that“[t]he art field is a space of wild contradiction and phenomenal exploitation. It is a place of power mongering, speculation, financial engineering, and massive and crooked manipulation. But it is also a site of commonality, movement, energy, and desire.”

6. See Ruth Maclean’s article published by The Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/oct/26/lagos-biennial-holds-mirror-to-gentrification-as-squatters-evicted. The Lagos Biennial Team responded via Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=915341811940512&id=596729820468381&pnref=story

7. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky write about this twentieth-century century phenomenon where they focus on “[t]he growth of media conglomerates that control many different kinds of media (motion picture studios, TV networks, cable channels, magazines, and book publishing houses), and the spread of the media across borders in a globalization process.” See Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, Introduction, 2002

8. Arundhati Roy, in the wake of the Occupy Movement, gave a speech to the People’s University published as the afterword in her book Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014), in which she makes the following demands for the abolishment of capitalism:

“They (the 1%) say that we don’t have demands… they don’t know, perhaps, that our anger alone would be enough to destroy them. But here are some things — a few “pre-revolutionary” thoughts I had— for us to think about together. We want to put a lid on this system that manufactures inequality. We want to put a cap on the unfettered accumulation of wealth and property by individuals as well corporations. As cap-sits and lid-ties, we demand:
One: An end to cross-ownership in businesses. For example: weapons manufacturers cannot own TV stations, mining corporations cannot run newspapers, business houses cannot fund universities, drug companies cannot control public health funds.
Two: Natural resources and essential infrastructure — water supply, electricity, health, and education — cannot be privatized.
Three: Everybody must have the right to shelter, education, and health care.
Four: The children of the rich cannot inherit their parents’ wealth.”
See Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Haymarket Books, 2014, pp. 95

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17th ACASA (Arts Council of the African Studies Association) Triennial Symposium on African Art
Session 7.4 – Emancipation: Critical Art Teaching in Kumasi and the Rise of Independent Public Art Projects in Ghana
Paper by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh
August 10, 2017

The Politics of Relationality

The assumptions historically underlying Socially-Engaged or Community-based practices often take marginalized groups as a starting point for political engagement. Artists then go on to identify these communities as their ‘sites of intervention’. If poverty is systemically produced then to what extent are the symbolic solutions proposed by artists sufficient as responses to this problem? Do we as artists ourselves not benefit from the conditions we denounce in the domain of the other both in symbolic and material terms? Is there not a tendency of exploitation inimical to engaging already disempowered marginal communities — be they autistic children, senior citizens groups, women’s groups, African American communities, LGBTQ societies, Hispanic communities, and so on?

The ever diminishing role of governments in regulating global finance in our neoliberal epoch animates community-engaged art practices in ways that should compel artists in the early decades of this century to re-think the assumptions that underlie this kind of practice. Exacerbating the phenomenon of excessive privatization is the “NGO-ization of everything”, where NGOs seem to offer answers with the funding they provide. But do they really?

So too must we rethink the historical Relational Aesthetics: that is, art that takes conviviality as its premise and form, if we are to respond to the crises, contradictions and finitude of capitalist processes.

I propose that politically-engaged art practices must, in equal measure, consider the oppressed or exploited other — in whose name they make their political interventions— in terms of history (cultural identity), economics, geopolitics, ethical judgment, aesthetic judgment and personal responsibility.

1. History: Is in terms of the socio-cultural events that define the sites of intervention.

2. Economics: Looks at the economic relations that pertain between members of this community group and the dominant culture or status quo.

3. Geopolitics: Takes into account global political events that compel a holistic disposition in diagnosing how ‘sites of intervention’ are produced in a financialized world economic system. These sites are not accidents and also relate one to another.

4. Ethical judgment: This is the reason for which the artist is making their intervention in the first place.

5. Aesthetic judgment: Takes into account the quality of the artwork. If the form is relational, then the formal qualities must be assessed on this basis, actively engaging the tensions and antagonisms implicit in the “means of production” where exploitation, disempowerment, marginalization and so on are produced.

6. Personal Responsibility: Looks at potential complicity. This is where the artist must reflexively ask “What is my role in all this?” The artist has identified this site and, in most cases, has nominated him/herself as the intercessor. They must, first of all, deal with the tendency of exploitation in themselves that is always inimical to any act of alienation (which is implied in their decision to make any kind of intervention) so as not to perpetuate the pertaining status quo, if that is a concern.

If the former model takes its subject as a passive collaborator to be “saved” and only reads them in terms of cultural identity, the model I have proposed seeks to invoke the oppressed or exploited person or groups as a complex agent or set of agents no different from the artist him/herself when we locate their agency in their own will — that is, whether or not they are willing to collaborate with the artist or cultural institution initiating whichever project; whether or not they are even willing to subvert the conditions they find themselves in and so on.

This dimension, the will, introduces an immensely complex dynamic between the marginalized group, the artist and/or art/funding institution.

The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
— Gilbert Keith Chesterton

 

Whenever someone who means well says “follow your passion”, they are implying the ones which lead to good ends, the positive ones, so to speak. They surely do not mean the ones that will destroy its subject. For there are some of our passions — such as vindictiveness, envy and so on— which must be suppressed at all costs. Those who are in the habit of fulfilling them are abhorred by the rest of us. The other day I listened to a prominent entertainer preach total freedom in his music. Specifically, his was the kind that freed us to our erotic passions — the irresponsible kind. He talked about that expression of love as if its pursuit is itself an end. It struck me then that he was equivocating love with pleasure, or more generally, desire. Very often we talk about freedom as something that is intrinsically good or as a condition better than its converse whether or not others agree with us. We talk about it as a moral virtue that is objectively binding, that is, it ought to be desired, approved of or acquired as a universal standard. Notice that it comes with an imperative. But just because one ought to do something does not mean one cannot choose to do otherwise — even if it goes against their own self- or communal interest. This dimension to freedom is what I intend to discuss below.

In our politically correct times terms like “objective”, “moral” and the like attract virulent remarks when invoked. I seek interlocution with those of my readers who believe in democratic intellectual engagements by following the argument where it leads without censoring any idea a priori. For those of my liberal readers who may, for any peculiar reason, retort by saying, “Yes, freedom is a good thing” but that “there are no such things as objective standards”, we would have to analyze what they really mean. First of all the former claim contradicts the latter. While this reader is asserting that freedom is indeed a good thing they are not qualifying it with “I think…” or “for me…” or “for us…”, all of which would effectively de-fang the statement of its authority. They mean it for everybody including those with whom they are in disagreement. It is one thing to make the universal claim that objective standards do not exist and another to say that one disbelieves in them. It is perfectly reasonable to accept the existence of something (either an idea or a physical thing one has yet to encounter) and then to go on to disagree with or disbelieve in it. In fact, it is only by granting a thing the privilege of existence that one subsequently possesses any meaningful right to reject, affirm or be indifferent to it. If I insist that it can not or does not exist at all, I am forced not to even think about it. But the mind, in principle, must be free to think whatever it pleases and so any ideology that seeks to attack this principle is unnatural and should be abolished. The truly free thinker is free, as well, to restrict her own thoughts.

Furthermore, this liberal reader has no basis upon which to counter my statement because his own philosophical position forbids him from doing so. If I asked him why I could not say that goodness is objectively binding he would, or rather should, respond that it is because “everything is contingent”. But this infinite sceptic has not anticipated the follow up question “how can you be certain of that?” This seemingly harmless and simplest of questions exposes a principal weakness in his worldview. Lacking humility to concede his intellectual incompetence, our ideologue proceeds to do one of two things: either resorting to the anti-democratic sentiment “… because I say so” or else he proceeds to offer defensive circular arguments. Our liberal friend is really a dogmatist. The statement “everything is contingent” is itself an unconditional, objective statement denouncing objective statements. His argument is wildly incoherent. Their denunciation is not an intellectual one (although it pretends to be): in truth, they are rejecting the principle because of where or from whom it is coming and not necessarily for the reason that the assumption is faulty.

Now that we have exposed the bigotry in my liberal friend’s rebuttals we can move on to treating the topic at hand. If freedom is good and if goodness is not a contingent moral virtue then we must now come to terms with its complexities. There is an implicit nature of goodness that I find stimulating. The moment a thing, action or event is deemed good, it necessarily comes with its opposite, because every good thing is potentially corruptible. It is what makes the thing meaningful because it can crack or fail and become something other than itself. This tendency is always there, undermining the thing itself. Abena is at liberty to eat whatever suits her taste so she can nourish her body but this desire to eat, if left unrestrained, may lead her into an obsessive desire for food. She ends up a glutton or bulimic — both of which are dangerously detrimental to her own health. As a corollary, Abena’s desire to eat has no effect on the reality that there are foods out there that will poison her body once ingested. She must be strictly selective if her aim is to sustain her own life.

Furthermore, a desire or passion is not necessarily legitimized by its expression. I am talking here about owning up to the sense of responsibility that is inextricably bound to any kind of freedom: both to our own selves and to the next person. It is not sufficient to seek and espouse goodness in itself. The precarious relationship it has with the will means it can fail. These days the context for discussing the rhetoric of freedom is power — and power is a game always reserved for the few. I have often wondered why love is not as often posited as a revolutionary ethic in our time. Love, although it has a tendency for perversion, is also the supreme ethic that takes us closest to ideals of equality and democracy. Love, by definition is inclusive. It inheres respect, trust and mutuality. It can be critical of its object — even while it may condemn their actions. It does not stultify. But power, on the other hand — lacking such checks— tendentiously corrupts its subject and perpetuates inequality.

James Baldwin teaches about fighting power with love. Baldwin understands, fully well, the myth of the ‘color line’ when he states in characteristic sharpness and conviction that “[c]olor is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality. But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West has not been able to make it yet. And at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this [American] nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains.”1 He understands that the identity conferred on one on either side of the racial divide in America is one that becomes valid only when used for political currency, that is, by the megaloman. In an open letter to fellow activist Angela Davis, he illustrates this more clearly by asserting “[w]hat the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil is not a racial war but a civil war.”2 I find his use of “brothers” a very loaded metaphor.

A person can so preoccupy themselves with the desire for freedom and its pursuit that it paradoxically makes them slavish without them realizing it. This slavishness is euphemistically justified today as the dogmatic assertion of one’s human rights. Clive Staples Lewis reminds us that “if all men stood talking of their rights before they went up a mast or down a sewer or stoked a furnace or joined an army, we should all perish; nor while they talked of their rights would they learn to do these things. […] the man preoccupied with his own rights is not only a disastrous, but a very unlovely object; indeed, one of the worst mischiefs we do by treating a man unjustly is that we force him to be thus preoccupied.”3 If we think this 20th century prophetic voice not attuned to our time, Arundhati Roy offers a more politically sensitive description suited to a 21st century world plagued by refugee crises, mass surveillance, censorship, increased worker insecurity, and obscene concentration of wealth in an ever diminishing global minority. Roy, in critiquing NGOs as global finance’s apparatus of controlling public commons, states that “[NGOs] have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals, and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation, ushering them in the direction of multiculturalism, gender equity, community development — the discourse couched in the language of identity politics and human rights.”4 There comes a time when one must suspend their own rights for the benefit of another.

It is as if we have come to lack the capacity for vulnerability, which can really be a position of strength if we are bold enough to think so. We become weak in the pursuit of power. Freedom has become a vacant term synonymous with consumerism. The freedoms we insist on — the irresponsible kind—, in the context of political emancipation, are not liberating at all but oppressive and tyrannical. We become slaves to our own passions and to those who possess the means to profit from them.

Given the consequences of modernity barreling down since the 15th century into today’s neo-liberal epoch — amidst precarious labor groups, ecological threats, new forms of exploitation and apartheid systems, etc — liberty is a necessary ideal. However, I hold the view that freedom is not an absolute concept. It, too, has its problems and limitations. And so I wish to discuss two kinds of people who I think embody some of the lapses in living free without consideration of another or care for responsibilities: namely the child and the madman.

Children are an interesting kind of people. They possess the strength to delight in the mundane. They are wild, uninhibited, impassioned, and indifferent— in terms of how they engage objects. A child will treat a pen with the same attitude they would a rock. The vitality in their disposition opens them up to wondrous pleasures in ordinary things. They are quick to rage and forget in equal measure when something is done to them of which they do not approve. They want what they want when they want, unquestioned. Not premeditatedly so but by disposition. Precisely because of this is why adults usually exhaust themselves trying to keep them from living so, and with good reason. Now this is the point I wish to put across: because they wish to espouse freedom in this sense, they cannot be responsible, neither to themselves nor to anyone else. Someone else must fill that hole created, not them. As such we do not trust them. No responsible adult would leave their toddlers unattended to. A child can suddenly burst with excitement of seeing something across the street and wander into it oblivious to speeding traffic. Very few of us would blame him if he hurt himself from this mindless action. We would direct our displeasure to the negligent adult who let this happen.

Another sort of free human being is the madman. She is totally, and excusably so, free from all societal or cultural norms. While some societies who claim to be more advanced criminalize mental health, others seek to cure them by collecting them into disciplinary spaces often referred to as Rehabilitation Centers or Psychiatric Homes. This, for me, is enough proof that although today’s societies would not admit it, we really believe, as a matter of principle, that no man nor woman should be left to be so free. For the societies that leave them to be, we see what freedom from social restrictions really mean.

The concept of freedom implies that its subject can, at any time terminate it simply by exercising a will to do so. In the same way we cannot talk about an a one-ended stick, we must — regardless of the political positions we bring to the table — discuss the other sides of our choices and decisions for we cannot escape their consequences. Those who preach absolute freedom to our erotic passions, artistic sensibilities, natural proclivities and dispositions exhibit one of two traits: they are either irresponsible or morbidly single-minded. Like the child, these people have to grow up! Or else be cured at once from their  disease of morbid single-mindedness for what they are proposing is an unlivable ideal.

–2017.

Notes:

Epigraph: Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Popular Classics Publishing, 2012, p11,

  1. See James Baldwin, Letter From a Region In My Mind, The New Yorker, November 17, 1962 issue. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind
  2. James Baldwin, An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis, 1970. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/01/07/an-open-letter-to-my-sister-miss-angela-davis/
  3. C. S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, Ed. Walt Hooper, Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 240.
  4. See Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Haymarket Books, 2014, pp. 34. Roy contextualizes the phenomenon of NGOs as an apparatus of control in corporate globalization by stating: “As the IMF enforced structural adjustment and arm-twisted governments into cutting back on public spending on health, education, child care, development, the NGOs moved in. The Privatization of Everything has also meant the NGO-ization of Everything. As jobs and livelihoods disappeared, NGOs have become an important source of employment, even for those who see them for what they are. And they are certainly not all bad. Of the millions of NGOs, some do remarkable, radical work, and it would be a travesty to tar all NGOs with the same brush. However, the corporate or foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally as shareholders buy shares in companies, and then try to control them from within. They sit like nodes on the central nervous system, the pathways along which global finance flows. They work like transmitters, receivers, shock absorbers, alert to every impulse, careful never to annoy the governments of their host countries.” ibid, pp. 33.

Frank Gyabeng’s curatorial project “Its a Hit” is an artistic extrapolation of the film medium vis-a-vis Ghana’s history of cinema. Working with filmmakers, actors, and crew from Kumawood (a loose term that refers to film productions in the Akan language made in Kumasi), the exhibition posits a critical relationship between film, video, performance and theater. The curatorial model incorporates video, sound, and installation, and permits a conflation between actors and non-actors, artists and non-artists in a concerted process of collaboration. The exhibition is splintered across sites identified as History Room, Living Room, “live shoot”, live stream (via Facebook) and “sound on trees”. I will focus centrally on the History Room and live shoot to think through themes of form, fiction, time as well as other characteristics of the medium.

The History Room in the exhibition displays props from Samuel Atta Frimpong’s set design for the live shoot, and a copy of the Ghana Film Act (Act 935) of 2016. The Act serves as “the legal framework for the production, regulation, marketing and development of the Ghanaian film industry”. It established the National Film Authority with the mandate to create “[an] economically self-sustaining and culturally conscious Ghanaian film industry to develop local production, distribution, exhibition and marketing of its films”. The Act had been in Parliament for over two decades before being passed.

Other objects in the History Room include handwritten and printed film scripts by Kwaw Ansah, Christopher Kyei and Enoch Agyenim-Boateng and two videos on screen: the one is a documentary titled An Honest Reality made by filmmaker and academic, Jim Fara Awindor, that discusses the evolution of cinema in Ghana from celluloid to digital technologies (the birth of the internet, rise of home videos, etc), its economic and socio-cultural implications. The other video work is a lot more ambiguous: it is not titled and is also not indexically traceable to an author when encountered in the exhibition. The work was done by the curator himself. Per conjecture, this could be a strategy to undermine his own project by inserting its counter-argument, or done in the spirit of jest, or as some sort of decoy. Or not.  This “hole” is left open for speculation since the curatorial statement is silent on it.

The video is a two-minute-fifty-second split screen of scenes extracted from 20th century Soviet Union and Third Cinema classics, Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Heritage Africa (1988) by Sergei Eisenstein and Kwaw Ansah respectively. The former’s “Odessa Steps” is juxtaposed with the latter’s “Petition scene” — when workers were massacred after they had marched to the colonial headquarters and insisted to deliver a petition to the governor — with overlays of sound from both scenes.  The issues brought to the fore are not only technical, i.e highlighting similarities in directing and editing techniques, but also centering on the politics they share of agitation and inciting working class revolution.

At the exhibition opening, the short film Uncalculated Love was shot in situ, edited and premiered the following day targeting the same audiences who witnessed the production live. The decision to combine pre-production, production and postproduction in rapid succession, unimpeded by duration, countenances the hyper-proliferation of Kumawood films, demystifying filmmaking in terms of production and distribution. Taking a quasi-Medvedkin1 approach, the live shoot and consequent screening introduced a reflexive dynamic to the experience of the exhibition. The dynamics of filming, editing and screening to audiences of the same bracket is further complicated by the fact that, for this shoot, some members of the audience were spontaneously cast as extras. And so, at the same time that the audience are contemplating the spectacle of cast and crew before them during the production, there is also participation.

During the screening, some obvious but important things happened that merit discussion: the finished video that is being screened contains elements of what is factually there when the spectators were witnessing the shoot but, of course, omitting the presence of the camera and crew. In the film we neither see the several takes that the actors performed nor the varying dialogues they improvised on set. We also presently watch things in the film that could only have been possible in postproduction such as the special or visual effects. The medium, with all of its tools, techniques, and operations presents us with what we know to be true of the moment as well as what we know it not to be. But the fact that the finished work belongs as much to fiction as to reality is not an impediment to the spectators’ fascination with it. In fact it is precisely because of this dialectic at play, I think, that makes possible any wonderment of the images moving before their eyes. This dialectic also contributes to the poetics of the moving images.

If we think of the camera as a tool that records what there is in the objective world, editing is the operation that subverts this factography; fictionalizing what has been captured in realtime. One may raise the challenge that continuity editing poses to such a claim.  But I think that fiction is still a compelling aspect of film — even more so of the documentary film genre since it presents what is historically true by relying on archival footages, interviews, and other materials from various (sometimes random or arbitrary) sources and stringing them into a coherent sequence. This implies that the story is constructed in postproduction (ie. during the process of editing). The logic of its composition is therefore based on the principle of montage. And montaging, in terms of film, is essentially inventing mythic relations between hitherto unconnected images (still and/or moving).

On another point, the camera estranges the actor from his/her image. And so alienation is always happening as a fact of the medium — the camera performs alienation on one level with the images it records, while the editing bench and distribution channels for the film exacerbate estrangement of the image[s]. Walter Benjamin discusses this kind of alienation politically, in terms of the actor’s estrangement from their own image through the mechanical reproduction processes the camera offers. He draws a parallel between the kind of estrangement that happens between a factory worker and the product their labor produces and the actor before the camera whose image is now unhinged, severable and commodifiable destined for the consumer market.2

The live shoot at the exhibition is a process that highlights the deconstruction of the “fourth wall” (breaking the illusion/distance between what is shot and what is seen on screen) to, in a sense, massify the process of filmmaking — typifying the spirit of Kumawood. Spectators witnessed and participated in the filmmaking process from beginning to end. But between what was witnessed live and what was viewed on screen there was a third, hidden, element— the editor’s hand. This hidden hand, as hinted earlier, is also the authority by which we experience the story unfolding on screen.

These are some of the paradoxes we are invited to contemplate in Gyabeng’s curatorial project. For me, the most remarkable aspect of the project is that he forged collaborations with a diverse group of non-artists. “Its a Hit” opens up the principle of multiplicity in contemporary art.

— IUB (2017).

Credits:

It’s A Hit: Part 4&5
5th – 6th May, 2017
Old Techsec Block – KNUST
Curated by Frank Kofi Gyabeng
Collaborators: Isaac Danso aka Sptous, Samuel Antwi aka Khemical, Samuel Atta Frinpong a.k.a Attas, Marfoa Acheampong, Joseph Amoasah a.k.a Black Scorpion, Jim Fara Awindor, Kwaw Ansah, Nana Osei Bonus, Bright Donkor, Gideon Osei, Anita Adu
Supporting institution: blaxTARLINES KUMASI, project space for contemporary art, KNUST

Notes:

  1. Aleksandr Medvedkin was a Soviet filmmaker whose revolutionary ‘Cinetrain’ films — documentary in form — were shot, edited and screened from mobile train cars and showed to the peasant workers on kolkhozes (collective farms in the Soviet Union).
  2. For Walter Benjamin “[t]he feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera […] is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. But now the reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is it transported? Before the public. Never for a moment does the screen actor cease to be conscious of this fact. While facing the camera he knows that ultimately he will face the public, the consumers who constitute the market. This market, where he offers not only his labor but also his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach. During the shooting he has as little contact with it as any article made in a factory. This may contribute to that oppression, that new anxiety which […] grips the actor before the camera. The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity. So long as the movie-makers’ capital sets the fashion, as a rule no other revolutionary merit can be accredited to today’s film than the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art. We do not deny that in some cases today’s films can also promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property. However, our present study is no more specifically concerned with this than is the film production of Western Europe”. See Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, Schocken/Random House, ed. by Hannah Arendt; transcribed by Andy Blunden 1998; proofed and corrected Feb. 2005, pp. 12, source: UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, translated by Harry Zohn. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

 

Orderly Disorderly (2017) completes the trilogy of large scale end-of-year exhibitions held by blaxTARLINES KUMASI, the contemporary art incubator and project space of KNUST, in collaboration with Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (GMMB) and its subsidiary, the Museum of Science and Technology (MST) in Accra. The exhibition features works by fresh graduates, alumni, and guest artists (living and dead). The previous two exhibitions — The Gown Must Go to Town… (2015) and Cornfields in Accra (2016) — honored Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and Ama Ata Aidoo respectively. “Cornfields” also honored the memory of Cameroonian conceptual artist Goddy Leye (1965-2011). Orderly Disorderly shares and celebrates the political vision of artist and educator Professor Ablade Glover who mobilized artists toward economic emancipation within a hopeless artistic milieu in the early 1990s when Ghana’s cultural institutions had been famished of domestic and international support.

Intergenerational conversations, collective curating and accessibility programming are vital to the curatorial model adopted by blaxTARLINES KUMASI during this series of exhibitions. blaxTARLINES actively collaborates with GMMB and MST in programming and curating to incorporate artefacts in their permanent collection into its exhibitions. The terms of the exhibition trilogy were set by “Silence between the Lines” in 2015 based on a deliberate misreading of the Sankɔfa legend by karî’kạchä seid’ou. In this new reading, the Sankɔfa bird unfastens its customary anchor of nostalgia and “attempts to grasp what it might have forgotten from futures that are to come”. This summarizes the new spirit of the Kumasi Art School which would be interpreted as anagrams of emancipated futures.

Orderly Disorderly combines the political attitudes and principles underlying Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s practice — notably The Bread and the Alley (1970), Orderly or Disorderly (1981) and The Chorus (1982) — and seid’ou’s emancipatory art pedagogy. Kiarostami is reputed for his deliberate use of non-actors and unprofessional crew to produce very significant films. His vital efforts to intervene in the film form saw him subvert conventions of filmmaking in order to transform and reinvent the medium. This spirit aligns with that which animates contemporary art production in the Department of Painting and Sculpture (KNUST, Kumasi). seid’ou’s egalitarian and emancipatory teaching practice “encourages student artists and other young artists to work in the spirit of finding alternatives to the bigger picture which excluded their voices but paradoxically by first becoming an anamorphic stain in the bigger picture itself.” This typifies his politics of ironic overidentification.

With this background the exhibition reflects on the status of art in the early decades of the 21st century. The exhibition posits art as a site of multiplicity. Art that is de-substantialized and emerges from a void: a state of indifference that is not pre-emptively prejudicial to any particular medium, content, skill, material, trend or process. If anything can be said to be art today it must necessarily be invented.

There are important analogies to be drawn from the artistic and political indifference espoused by the curatorial team of Orderly Disorderly, and the state of hopelessness and indifference experienced by sufferers and witnesses of the current global crises of public commons (refugee crisis, economic precarity, threats of ecological crisis in the epoch of anthropocene, new forms of apartheid emerging as invisible walls in the public sphere, gentrification of digital space and intellectual property, etc). As a response, the exhibition features a generic participant, ‘The Unknown Artist’. This character embodies the void, the disavowed, which haunts the consistency of exhibition projects operating within the finitude of contemporary capitalist processes but disavowing the precarity they leave behind.

Orderly Disorderly countenances diverse multi-site projects extending from MST into the city of Accra and further into virtual spaces — straddling human-centered and posthuman, art and non-art practices alike — by over 90 artists, including seminars, outreach programs, art talk events and a body of archives of the Kumasi School among which are manuscripts of poems authored by Uche Okeke. The exhibition invites its audience to deal with the contradictions that are constitutive of their everyday lives.

Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh and Curatorial Team.

‘ORDERLY DISORDERLY’: KNUST end of year exhibition
OPENING: Friday, 30TH June – Friday 1st September, 2017
Museum of Science & Technology, Accra
Organizers: blaxTARLINES KUMASI
Supported by: Ghana Museums & Monuments Board (GMMB)

 

PRESS RELEASE

Orderly Disorderly is the third in a trilogy of large-scale end-of-year exhibitions held in the Science and Technology Museum, Accra, by fresh graduates, alumni and special guests of the KNUST Fine Art Department in Kumasi. The terms of the trilogy were launched by Silence between the Lines, an experimental exhibition of emergent art held in Kumasi in February, 2015. Some common features of this body of exhibitions are intergenerational conversations, collective curating, accessibility programming, especially, braille translations of exhibition texts and open-source coordination, and off-site ‘prosthesis’ projects.

Following Gown must go to Town…(2015) and Cornfields in Accra (2016) respectively, Orderly Disorderly (2017) presents a constellation of projects by over 80 selected artists, and a body of archives of the Kumasi School which includes manuscripts of poems authored by Uche Okeke. Supplementing the artist list is a generic participant ‘The Unknown Artist’, marking the ineluctable site of exception which haunts art projects operating within the finitude of capitalist processes. The curatorial muse is Iranian film maker Abbas Kiarostami, the author of Orderly or Disorderly (1981), whose films star children and amateurs in lead roles.

The exhibition also honours the lifework of Ghanaian modernist Ablade Glover, dubbed Order in Disorder, which culminated in the political vision of an artists’ alliance in the early 1990s when decades of domestic and international neglect had left Ghana’s cultural institutions emaciated. This modest vision of emancipatory politics and courageous social action in a milieu of hopelessness, inspires blaxTARLINES KUMASI, the contemporary art incubator and project space of KNUST organising this exhibition.

Orderly Disorderly will be opened by the guest of honour, the artist El Anatsui.

 

‘ORDERLY DISORDERLY’: KNUST END OF YEAR EXHIBITION

OPENING: FRIDAY, 30TH JUNE, 2017

MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, ACCRA

ORGANISERS: blaxTARLINES KUMASI

SUPPORTED BY: GHANA MUSEUMS AND MONUMENTS BOARD

Orderly Disorderly (2017) poster

…from Love and all ITS Friends…Part 1 is an art exhibition featuring Georgina Fynn, Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson, Louisa Badger, Dickson Artoqui, Gideon Olaga-Jumpa, Praises Adu Benhene, Daniel Osei Poku, Kelvin Haizel and Emmanuel Ocran, curated by Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah. The exhibition puts together works that altogether raise questions of how synthetic and mechanical objects interact with biological lifeforms when they encounter each other.

Benhene’s damp decommissioned clothes — folded, stacked, hanged, cast in p.o.p — collected from “galamsey” (illegal mining) and car fitting sites are presented in sculptural and installation form. Not only do they embody a presence of things in decay but also of materials frozen in time and of things that are becoming. The clothes that have been preserved in their natural state with accumulation of dirty oil stains, sweat, and dust have molds/mildew/fungi growths on them. Poku’s installation of severed cattle horns strung together grotesquely hang from the ceiling. Visible on them are horn moths that feed on its keratin. What happened to the cattle? The question is answered in a video work by the artist which shows how the commodified ungulate animals are transported from various parts of the Northern region of Ghana and subjected to brutal fates of butchery for a ready consumer market. Both Benhene’s and Poku’s works emit smells consequent from the immanence of decaying and emerging life forms.

Artoqui and Olaga-Jumpa are horticulturalists whose plants are brought into conversation with synthetic materials. The former’s experimental attitude has permitted him to successfully cultivate strawberries in Kumasi.1 The latter’s plants — Snake Tongue, Urn, Lillies, Purple Heart, etc — are distributed within the exhibition space. Both are cared for throughout the period of the exhibition. Thompson’s plastic forms made from melted polystyrene mit oil paint appear in conversation with these plants. She melts the polystyrene with gasoline (which is almost like a reflexive gesture of transforming something with its own self to test what it becomes). In the family of petroleum-based products, Ocran’s installation of bended, torched and twisted PVC pipes and plastic gallons extends the space of the exhibition from its interior boundaries into an outdoor environment. Badger’s participatory work — writing on blackboard sited on the fence of the old KNUST Museum (away from the other works) — locates itself in an outdoor space and invites public intervention by way of writing on the blackboard to continue the preambles she defines on subjects such as love, rain, journeying, and so on.

Still within the interior space of the exhibition, Fynn’s and Haizel’s objects exist in varying states of objecthood. The former’s are made with brown paper and stiff fabric through processes of soaking, wood-block printing, bleaching, dying and drying. One is sculptural —a mould made from a log displayed on the floor— the other is a rectangular board, with the same brown paper treatment, diagonally mounted to connect the ceiling to the floor. Haizel’s process of printing and pasting opaque and transparent images onto disused car doors and lamps respectively also inheres the idea of mapping images onto objects. The lamps are electrically wired and powered by car batteries.

The exhibition becomes a theatre of various technologies of life participating in the dialectical process of being and becoming… Could Love, then, be the attitude that acts as the universal binder for these forms?

— Written by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017)

Note:

1. It is not impossible to grow strawberries in tropical climates. Appropriate soil, water and care conditions (i.e. love) will ensure its success.

…from Love and all ITS Friends… Part 1
Opening: Thursday 27th April 2017, 5:30pm
Closing: Wednesday 31st May 2017
Opens from 9am — 8pm
Venue: The Painting and Sculpture Department
Participants:
Georgina Fynn, Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson, Louisa Badger, Dickson Artoqui, Gideon Olaga-Jumpa, Praises Adu Benhene, Daniel Osei Poku, Kelvin Haizel and Emmanuel Ocran.

Curator:
Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah