The Greyhound coach had made a scheduled stop in Pittsburgh. KwƐƐku was en route to Philadelphia. While standing in line to get some snacks for the rest of the journey — with very little time in-between waiting and boarding the next bus— an American man who stood ahead of KwƐƐku noticed two books in his left hand and asked politely to know what he was reading. KwƐƐku, who was caught off guard by the question, raised the books to read from the cover page of the one on top. “Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy” came the words as he read out to the man. Nodding his head, as if he had just learned something profound, the American man asked “Who is he?”

“She”, started KwƐƐku, “is a writer and political analyst”.

The two men acquainted themselves in the line. After paying for their snacks at the counter one after the other, they headed for the waiting area. When the time came they boarded and sat next to each other on the bus. KwƐƐku, as if feeling obliged to talk to the man next to him, said “Jon. KwƐƐku Jon is my full name”. The man shook his hand and said “pleasure to meet you sir, I’m Thirteen”.

“I am an artist, what do you do?”

“My wife tells me I do too many things” came the reply. The two men laughed.

They both felt the vibration in their seats as the driver revved the engine about to pull out of the bus station. As the bus came into motion KwƐƐku noticed Thirteen pulling out a book from a bag he had tucked under his seat. The book bore the title “Everyone is African”.

“The imperial mentality is wondrous to behold.”
Noam Chomsky, Who Rules the World?, Metropolitan Books, 2016, p 207.

When racism is prefixed to the ideology referred to, strangely, as white supremacy it congeals into a worldview — that is, a set of propositions or doctrines which make up a philosophy by which and through which all who belong to it formulate their perception or experience of the world. This worldview posits a power system which ought to be regarded as self-evident and which privileges its ideologues while oppressing those outside of its safety net. It is patriarchal and purist. Its set of ideals seek to function as the standard by which the world must advance. It seeks power and domination and wishes to possess these absolutely. According to its dogma history is a monolithic accumulation of events in time destined to favor its side of the divide. When it wants to prove its inherent supremacy it relies on history, law, politics and the sciences. This worldview is by definition intolerant as well as antagonistic to all other antithetical philosophies: it must dominate or else be obsolete. It does not negotiate, it defines, describes and prescribes. Its definitions are absolutely true whether you, who are outside of this hegemonic construct, believe them or not. Essentially, racism white supremacy, like caste, like xenophobia, operates with a logic that translates into something like this: “we are here and you are there — outside of the parameters which distinguish us from you — and we who are here are privileged because we are here and we are here because we belong here; it is our birthright and while we find the validation of our existence in ourselves, you will derive yours from us while our foots restrain your necks.” The logic is not at all profound, rather, it is straightforward, violent, single-minded and circular — it literally means everything it says and justifies itself by itself because it assumes that outside of itself there is no center.

If you perceive yourself to be white then no doubt you must think of yourself, and others like you, as the standard by which all others must calibrate their progression or retrogression (but progression mainly because retrogression is not familiar to the vocabulary of whiteness). If white is pure (or the center) and if you are white then you can think of yourself in no less terms. This is the cross you are burdened to carry and history unequivocally demonstrates how no human being has borne this burden without being poisoned by its venom — breeding extreme forms of anxiety, fear, paranoia and a blatant hatred for anyone or thing perceived to belong anywhere else on the racial spectrum. But the concept of whiteness, beyond it being a myth of cultural identity (like most forms of cultural identity), is also internally conflicted. It does not merely accommodate every pale-skinned person. Even within itself it proceeds to further implement exclusionary measures and segregates based on class (and gender) for the benefit of a few men (and necessarily so if it holds on to the delusional ideal that it can refine and purify itself until it reaches perfection or whiteness). And so barreling down from feudalism, to slavery, to colonialism, to our modern capitalist era, this supremacist ideology balls up and concentrates economic power and cultural authority in a plutonomy — the small percentage of the world’s population gathering increasing wealth.

One can easily see how poisonous this ideology can be when carried to its logical conclusion and we know that ideas have consequences. Several million ‘black’ and ‘brown’ souls, with brutally mangled bodies everywhere around the world wail from unmarked graves to attest to this grotesque form of megalomania since the invention of ‘the white man’. Several millions more are plagued by its consequences today. Any ideology that is purist at its core which does not mitigate this value with love — that is to say an unconditional acknowledgment and acceptance of the humanity of another person or group of people — is doomed, logically and necessarily, to wreak havoc on those human beings it considers subordinate for it can only harbor imperialistic ambitions and seek insatiably to gratify this wanton passion. Love is not oblivious to difference, neither to faults; it may wish them away, but is drawn to its object nonetheless. And respect can only thrive on a foundation of love.

I write this while in the United States, two days after the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling by two police officers. One morning I was invited to have breakfast with a friend’s family in Philadelphia. As we were going through maps of the city and excitedly listing interesting places to see and how to get there, my friend’s mother suddenly offered a strong piece of advice to me: she told me to be extremely careful of the police and to absolutely comply with them “even if they ask you to do the most outrageous things”, she said. I could sense the genuine concern in her voice. She, like me, had a deep knowledge of a brutal truth of an ongoing phenomenon in the United States where the ideology of white supremacy functions as an ingrained institutionalized system. I knew she was right, I knew she had my best interest at heart, I knew that she would probably not need to feel this fear for her own family but for me the danger is ominous. She knows and I know that here in America, it would be of little consequence whether you are Ghanaian or African — you are black, and by that your identity inherits from five centuries of subjugation and “knowing your place” — a psychic burden I too carry from which I cannot wrest myself, for even if I did, the cancerous ideology which has coursed its way through the veins of America’s social fabric stands before me to enforce judgment. The reality of this simplistic ideology in the 21st century viscerally dawned on me as she spoke. I have felt this fear in other parts of the world too. It is hard not to think you have been a victim of racial profiling when you have disembarked from a European airline at a European airport, being the only ‘colored’ person on board, going through security check and are asked to “see my colleague” as your luggage is scanned, and then subjected to aggressive body searching when everybody else is made, quite simply, to pass without having this procedure performed on them. Maybe I missed something, but when we arrived in Berlin from London I was the only person from my batch who underwent this process of being bodily searched. I had to assume the official was just doing his job; what he had been trained to do. It only made me wonder why he was being so selective at it. I can, of course be a threat to him, just in the same way as he can be to me. I am a threat to him insofar as he is a threat to me. Racism white supremacy does not tolerate this logic of reciprocity because it is a power system. In that moment his prejudices may have been backed and legitimized by an institutionalized framework which borrows from the same ideological doctrine. And it is precisely because of this which makes him — the one who has been indoctrinated with an essentialist worldview —, and me — the other who is an outsider to the locus of power — equally dangerous.

Thinking literally, white is white only in relation to another hue. But in this context it is not a color, it is the standard by which all other colors on the racial spectrum are determined. As a result, we must analyze it in such a way as to realize that the opposite of white is not black but rather ‘not white’. Whiteness must stand in contradiction to all other hues on the spectrum because it must have absolute power. If whiteness is the standard, then anything which belongs on the spectrum which exists outside of its purist ideal is necessarily opposed to it, and the outworking of this opposition is mostly violent. This is the same for any ideology which does not mitigate difference with love at the substructural level. Ethnicity is sacred, it ought not to be violated and difference is what gives meaning to such concepts as unity, collaboration and coexistence.

I had a conversation with Johannesburg based artist and filmmaker, Kitso Lynn Lelliott, about the theoretical underpinnings, conceptual preoccupations, techniques, visual and display strategies which characterize her work. Full interview below.

IUB: What are the core subjects or questions raised in your work?

Kitso: Mmm…I may have been clear(ish) on the answer to this at some point in my practice and explorations, but at the moment its hard for me to say. I know we are supposed to always be perfectly clear and concise about what we do, yet I’m afraid I’m just not. I’m struggling with things at the moment. I suppose in some ways my questions are about being, ways of being, and ways of coming into being. I suppose there are multiple ontologies, but the one that is dominant in the space you occupy, the hegemonic, tells you that your space of being is questionable, that your humanity is questionable, that you are constituted by lack… despite one’s own embodied reality rendering such questions nil, void and utterly absurd – how does one find a space to be in such an environment? So my questions have to do with competing realities, ontologies, and how these determine one’s being and capacity to be/become. I imagine the comprehension of any ontological reality from the perspective of its other to be somewhat of an apparition, something beyond its reality, in another realm and thus ghostly. So I think through the ghostly in terms of the ways something from beyond the bounds of comprehension from any one perspective might appear, and how ghosts can interrupt on and be in spaces they are not supposed to be. Ghosts give me a way of articulating things that are where they are not supposed to be, where they are denied, as they don’t really abide by the parameters of being that are ascribed to them there.

“Sankɔfa Hauntings, Ghosts of a Futures Past” Installation view inside women’s dungeon of Cape Coast Castle, 2015 image by Desire Clarke

Kitso Lynn Lelliott, “Sankɔfa Hauntings, Ghosts of a Futures Past” Installation view inside women’s dungeon of Cape Coast Castle, 2015 image by Desire Clarke

IUB: On ghosts, you have also said elsewhere that they “not only articulate the presence of something missing but also embody the violence in processes of eliding that produces them”, and that this violence is not only visceral (i.e. acted upon the body) but epistemological with deleterious effects on one’s consciousness (or a collective consciousness for that matter). What are the ways in which the ‘ghostly’, perceived in this sense as inhabiting a position of alterity (from the perspective of the other), manifest in your work?

Kitso: I suppose it’s a thing of questioning the idea of alterity as a static singular state of being in a way. I think the ghostliness or what I am describing as ghostly is dependent on the perspective that is perceiving it. Alterity from the perspective of hegemony is not (or not necessarily) alterity from oneself as I am both the centre of my own experience as much as I may be the marginalized outsider/denied being from the perspective of power. I suppose the ghostly lets me explore this simultaneity as well as trouble and bring some crisis to the ‘reality’ that would produce me as other in the first place.

I feel like there is some ambiguity in the question itself “alterity (from the perspective of the other)”… is this to say the ‘other’ of those who are socially and structurally othered? That is to say seeing from the perspective of the other, the marginalized, rendering the otherwise ‘normative’ as other? Or, alterity in reference to the those who are normatively othered?

But this “convolution” in the question itself starts to point to the things I am playing with in my work and conjuring of ghostly.

There is a woman in my work. She is kind of a ghost, an ancestor, a traveler through time who carries a lot of baggage with her. She is haunted herself, carrying the experience from her past lives with her while she time travels and troubles the futures that has come out of her experience. She appears in places that are tied up with processes of erasing her, her humanity, her agency and even presence. Her presence in these places insist on a reconfiguring of their narratives bringing their complicity in her dehumanization, and the dehumanization of those like her, to the centre of the narrative while her presence also denies the ability to erase her.

She is a ghost troubling a world where alterity is possible, a world where things that are not held within the bounds of hegemony’s normative can be denied, where people and their humanity can fall within or without the bounds of human. It’s a way of shifting the way of seeing that is privileged so that her/my being is no longer seen from the perspective of hegemony as an exotic, peculiar other somewhere beyond the realm of human — the image prescribed by hegemony’s discursive production of alterity — but rather a being described from where she is. A place where her difference from another, her other, does not render her peculiar, as she enunciates herself. So the ghost is just about being – being in ways and showing up in places where one is not supposed to be and owning it. Hegemony denies her and would make her a non being. But she is there, somewhere between her denial and her being, that struggle between absence and presence pointing to a tension between the hegemonic world as it is and a more inclusive world as she would re-make it. She troubles hegemony and the very idea of alterity I think…

Kitso Lelliott, Alzire of Bayreuth, Neues Schloss (Bayreuth), installation view

Kitso Lynn Lelliott, Alzire of Bayreuth, 2015, video still, installation view inside Neues Schloss Bayreuth

IUB: What are some of the visual strategies and techniques that are used to articulate stories or ideas in your work as well as in exhibitions? For example, how do functions like repetition, loops, simultaneity and sound come together in the way you compose your moving images and installations?

Kitso: Repetition, or maybe something more closely resembling multiplicity can be seen in this woman who reappears through multiple avatars throughout a great deal of my videos. She is many versions of a subjectivity, a singular kind of entity but she is also porous and is refracted and reflected across multiple subjectivities. She is a marker of what they have in common. She has lived through many incarnations, in different places and different times, circumstances,  realities and has a sense of how fickle ‘reality’ can be. I think each time she appears in a different guise or avatar she speaks to a different part of this subjectivity, but also across her own difference — between the different version of herself. So she will often appear in different ways in different videos in the same installation. The simultaneity and slippages between her various selves is a key strategy I think. Simultaneity, opacity and the poly/many/multiple and fragmentary.

She is a self that becomes in relation and is constantly becoming in relation and her constantly shifting presence in spaces and palaces shift those contexts that in turn are constantly shaping her. So there is a relational dimension to her constitution where she is simultaneously shaping the world as it shapes her. She exists in a sense of a loop, a labyrinth of relation where the parameters of self and the world are constantly in negotiation. She produces a sense of instability in time and place and even in the presence and being of her own character.

Repetition is also a key strategy as it complicates temporality and the realities situated in ordered linear time. With the sound elements the repetitions function to leave one suspended in moments that keep returning. Repetition along with simultaneity of difference and the relation across it pulls the experience (of the installation) out of seaming linearity into this labyrinthine space where the world is not set, refuses to be set, comes apart at the seams of what is tenable and as such necessitate active fabrication, creation. The repetition, opacity, uncertainty makes some space for stories that are elided to be imagined, for them to inform perception, for one to conceive of her body differently from how a context would have prescribed.

“My story, no doubt, is me/older than me” (2015), 5min57sec

Kitso Lynn Lelliott, “My story, no doubt, is me/older than me” (2015), video still, 5 min 57secs

In this way place is an important part of the work process/set of strategies I use. My work is predominately presented in site-specific locations. As much as there is a sense of simultaneity and relation across videos in any one installation or iteration of the work there is also a relational aspect that runs across exhibitions in different places with a tracing of relations across multiple space in which this woman appears. Each iteration making visible and contesting the historical processes that produce lack through eliding humanity, and in the process tracing links across multiple moments where this ghostly woman interferes with those histories. As the project travels it augments, picking up fragments and traces of each place it comes into contact with, changing form in response to each place and its histories. She travels across space and time each time the work takes form in a place, her presence in that moment transforming space as it transforms her until she moves on, taking the trace with her to where she goes next.

Because I am concerned with articulating things that are just beyond a grasp or capacity to reach I tend to have to speak towards them or in that gesture that Trinh T Minh-Ha describes as speaking nearby. I gesture towards the articulation/visualisation of a thing that is itself not ‘graspable’. The tension between articulation and a refusal to be articulated comes to be imbued in my work through those strategies.

IUB: On site specificity, your work seems to also belong to the paradigm in contemporary art where the site is thought of as ‘unhinged’ (Miwon Kwon), which is to say expanded from its physicalness and/or geographical boundaries into a more “discursive network of different practices and institutions, other subjectivities and communities” (Hal Foster): where the site as text derives its specificity from the location of communication — which could be desire, memories, or in your case beingness. This then leads me to the Bakhtinian theory of the dialogic work; in the way relationships are built across your videos in an installation or how you describe your woman as “constantly shifting presence in spaces and palaces shifting those contexts that in turn are constantly shaping her.” That is essentially what Bakhtin’s literary theory proposes with respect to meaning, form and context. For example, I could see this more evidently in your installation ‘Sankɔfa Hauntings’ (2015) at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. The work participates in the histories of the Castle, proposes its own argument to that discourse as well as is informed by other projects you have carried on from places like Bahia (Brazil) and Saint Louis (Senegal). Could you elaborate a little more on how projects like Transatlantic Saudades (2013), ‘Sankɔfa Hauntings’ (2015) and Rituals of the Living (2015) speak to each other and engage the broader contexts of your research?

“Sankɔfa Hauntings, Ghosts of a Futures Past” Installation view outside door of no return Cape Coast Castle, 2015 image by image by Desire Clarke

Kitso Lynn Lelliott, “Sankɔfa Hauntings, Ghosts of a Futures Past” Installation view outside Door of No Return, Cape Coast Castle, 2015, photo by Desire Clarke

Kitso: The work certainly is about, or functions through a discursive process. I suppose these things, these moments of relation, dialogue, encounter and intersection become central to and are apparent, or pronounced in my work as they constitute the thrust, or mode or operational underpinnings that my practice hinges on. On the one hand it is about the theory and the importance of this kind of intersectionality in enacting the decolonial gestures that permeate all the things that I try to do, but it is also a lot of the time my default impulse and instinct. I don’t necessarily have a lot of this theory apart from Bakhtin. I have had a look at the writing by these theorists since reading your question and yes, what they say is relevant to my practice in some ways. But in practicing and doing on my part I was not thinking about it in these terms explicitly, the practice grew kind of organically out of process, experience and opportunities. The various works are almost different articulations of the same impulse, so they speak to each other through a relation to the underlying questions and preoccupations I bring to each space. The spaces themselves also have their own relationship to each other, which is why I suppose I am drawn to them and seek them out in order to work through my questions. My questions have to do with certain things, and I work in response to places that are pertinent to those questions, thus the connections are there because I am asking a set of questions governed by particular preoccupations so I am producing some kind of relationship in that respect, and, on the other hand, the spaces that I necessarily seek out have something to do with those preoccupations already in their own right which is why I am drawn there in the first place.

So the projects you have mentioned deal with the idea of erasure and eliding, and are in a gesture towards making the processes of erasure that the places were/are complicit invisible while at the same time contesting the erasure by speaking from that elision that is being produced. It is contesting the production of erasure in a place that is potent, a pregnant site in relation to how erasure is/has been produced. If we exist in a space that sees the systematic erasure of certain kinds of bodies and peoples and voices and value for certain kinds of lives I tend to seek out and interfere with these potent places that were involved in producing erasure and because they are related to each other the work necessarily starts to produce its own network across these already networked places, but this time tracing connections of contestation and interference through that relational dialogue of utterances of difference that would have been silenced.

Kitso Lynn Lelliott, Alzire of Bayreuth, 2015, installation view inside Neues Schloss Bayreuth

Kitso Lynn Lelliott, Alzire of Bayreuth, 2015, installation view inside Neues Schloss Bayreuth

Kitso Lynn Lelliott Bio:

KITSO LYNN LELLIOTT has an MFA in art and is a PhD candidate at Wits University. Her work has shown at film-festivals, art galleries and museum shows around the world. She is preoccupied with articulations from spaces beyond epistemic power and the crisis such epistemically disobedient articulations cause to hegemony. Her current work and doctorate engage socio-cultural formations that took shape over the Atlantic during the African slave trade, a project initiated during her residency with the Sacatar Foundation in Brazil. Her work is an enactment of enunciating from elision and between historically subjugated subjectivities while privileging South-South relations imaginatively and epistemologically unmediated by the Global North. She is alumna of the Berlinale Talents in Durban and Berlin. She was one of the Mail & Guardian’s leading 200 young South Africans, was laureate of the French Institute 2015 Visas pour la création grant and exhibited in the Bamako Encounters 2015.

www.kitsolynn.wordpress.com

III: My Mother’s Wardrobe

Serge Attukwei Clottey’s oeuvre has grown expansively since he first begun painting about 15 years ago. The artist now incorporates assemblage, site-specific installations, painting, sculpture, performance, and photography in a spirit of experimentation to create interesting forms. My collaborations with him started about three years ago when he had already begun his plastic tapestries considered now by most as his signature work. I have been following his practice since then and have observed a tendency in his work which his recent solo exhibition, “My Mother’s Wardrobe”1 at Gallery 1957 in Accra, brings to the fore and causes me to think through in depth. Here I will focus more on the formal qualities of his works in this exhibition rather than on the cultural or anecdotal relations for reasons which suit the purpose of this text.

My Mother’s Wardrobe displays Clottey’s plastic installations by hanging them on the walls in the gallery. Not only are the serialized plastic members stitched into a tapestry (in a grid logic), the works for this exhibition further incorporate a sequence of painted vertical and horizontal lines on the surfaces of the tapestries. All but three of the works are free of framed edges: these three, similarly painted in linear fashion, additionally incorporate Chinese lettering sprayed from stencils onto the plastic surfaces and are bounded behind glass in wooden frames. Let me highlight three implications of the framed borders as I see it: first of all, it diversifies the range of works in the exhibition space, secondly it substitutes open-endedness for totality when the tapestry of plastics are confined to the borders of the frame (further distanced from the viewer when placed on a support within the frame to be perceived through glass), and thirdly it affirms the characteristic of ‘surfaceness’, akin to flatness, connotative of a nostalgia for painting. It is for this nostalgic tendency that will be the burden of this essay to argue. I associate ‘surfaceness’ with characteristics intrinsic to the medium of painting— made to be displayed on a wall; framed edges bound the picture in completeness; appeals to the viewer from an objectively frontal position; this frontality leads the spectator to focus on the markings or patterns made on the plastic members rather than the gestalt of plastics.

This is the first exhibition of Clottey’s I have seen in a white cube space even though he has exhibited extensively in Ghana and abroad. I am more familiar with his site-specific installations and performances in public spaces around La and Jamestown in Accra. Being familiar with the artist’s processes and techniques, this is where it gets complex. Clottey begun his practice as a painter — this medium emphasizes frontality; is made to be displayed on a wall; requires the spectator to alienate themselves from the painting so as to contemplate what is within the boundaries of the canvas, and this contemplation is done from a singular or objective standpoint; the painting as an artwork is indexical and can therefore be totalized; it is restricted to the area it occupies on a wall with everything existing outside of its edges external to its spatial logic. One may immediately contest my observation and propose that Clottey’s installations do not abide by these rules so natural to painting and I would agree with them, but with the evidence of this exhibition, only to an extent.

For me, ‘My Mother’s Wardrobe’ offers a paradoxical presentation of Clottey’s work — the push-pull between flatness and three-dimensionality — only to undermine itself in the days to follow. Here is what I mean: the exhibition opening emphasized surfaceness of the plastic montages and broke this flatness by juxtaposing human bodies with the plastic tapestries in the gallery while opening up the space of the exhibition beyond the gallery. The exhibition opened with a performance by Clottey and his GoLokal collective who travelled from La to the premises of the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City, where the gallery is located, in a ‘Mummy wagon’. The performance connected the entrance of the hotel to the courtyard where plastic gallons hung from trees and littered its lawns. After the outdoor spectacle, members of the performance collective, both male and female, clothed in women’s apparel, remained with the plastic tapestries on show in the gallery.

According to the curator, the proximity between the bodies and plastic tapestries was to mimic the claustrophobic interior of a wardrobe. This effect was exacerbated when members of the public trooped into the gallery. Its phenomenological implications, as I see it, are as follows: on the one hand the bodies and plastic tapestries compel the spectator to interact reflexively in the exhibition environment as opposed to a passive engagement with the disembodied eye, on the other hand, this cluttered wardrobe effect could also needlessly congest the 140 square meter exhibition space, saturating the gallery with too many objects and overwhelming the audience. The latter also made it so that only few audience numbers were admitted into the gallery at any given time. But this seemed to be a desirable consequence of the curatorial decision. In the days following the exhibition opening, however, there remain no traces of the dynamic bodies, leaving only the plastic montages hanging on the walls of the gallery. It is in this sense that I refer to the exhibition as nostalgic of painting.

The exhibition on its opening day somewhat suspended gratifying the disembodied eye only to indulge it after the fact. Take one of the centrally located works for example, “Independence Arch” (2015-16). The work is designed after Ghana’s Independence architectural monument. This is the only work among the plastic tapestries that overtly seeks to achieve a representation outside of itself. To achieve this likeness, linear markings have been painted on the stitched plastic members which now function as support. Another explicit example noticed during the performance is the installation set up against a wall at the entrance of the hotel with a half-portrait achieved through spraying and painting vertically oriented gallons (this time not dismembered into rectangular parts but displayed in their wholeness) with the words “Freedom and Justice” and “1957” stenciled against a black background on both sides of the half-portrait on gallons resting horizontally. The portrait is painted in black and white coordinated with the ubiquitous yellow natural to the plastic gallons.

The logic of representation at play here— which is referential and aspires to an ideal outside of itself — undercuts the logic of serialization or repetition internal to the system of interconnected plastic elements or gallons, and the latter is the logic by which Clottey’s experimentation is consistent.

My point becomes clearer when we consider a comment made by the artist in an interview saying: “When I started this [using the plastic gallons], people did not understand it. Some people even doubted if what I was doing was art. […] I went ahead to experiment with plastic gallons, using them as canvases where people get the chance to write on them.”2 Clottey’s nostalgia for painting is implicit here (albeit through alternative media). If one considers the repetition of rectangular plastic members stitched together with binding wire as canvases it follows necessarily that they will use the material as support thus subjugating potentiality in the invented form to the flatness of the painting medium. In short, the work loses its ‘thingness’ when surfaceness is overemphasized. But the artist, in the aforementioned statement, also hints his intention to involve audiences either at some point in the process of making the work or when the work is mounted or displayed. My Mother’s Wardrobe with all its efforts reifies painting not to challenge or subvert the medium but to preserve its ideals.  It would seem that the methods of stenciling and spraying are used as decorative measures to wrest the gallons (either dismembered or whole) from their austereness so as to infuse into them an artistic aura. What happens when the concealed surfaces of the plastic tapestries against the walls also become part of the experience of the work?

My critique stems from an analysis of a tendency in the context of the artist’s practice that has the potential of undermining his claims and contradicting his intentions however radical or transformative they may be. My concern with the exhibition lies not in the fact that the works were painted on but precisely because they were painted on and displayed in a format which orients the spectator almost exclusively to perceive them frontally.

As a counterpoint, the curator of the exhibition (who, in this case, also doubles as the Creative Director of the gallery) and management of the gallery, in agreement with the artist, are free to represent the artworks as suits their institutional ethos or motives. If its aims are of commodification, decoration or fetishization, I think that the strategies implemented for this exhibition are safe and effective; more so to increase their commercial value.

 

Notes:

  1. My Mother’s Wardrobe, Serge Attukwei Clottey solo exhibition, curated by Nana OforiAtta-Ayim, Gallery 1957, 6th March – 25th May.
  2. See http://www.design233.com/gallery-1957/

 

Exhibition photographs.

who becomes the self, who remains the other? the case of an unwilling transvestite
by michelle afrifah

all through history, the west has viewed the rest of the world as a secondary civilization, one shaped by the ideas, philosophies and influence of the west. the african, among others, has each time been examined in relation to her history as a colonized subject; hence her admittance into a ‘still under-construction’ cosmopolitan culture has often been met with the glare of jealously-guarding white-male gate-keepers. in the first place, colonial rule has coded the african as a culturally inferior and primitive signified. consequently, her art objects and normative expressions have been assigned a similar status. ‘magiçiens de la tèrre’, 1989, paris, curated by jean-hubert martin show-cased the western and the non-western artists on the same platform. in many respects the exhibition became arguably the first major challenge to the ideological foundations of a hitherto hardly questioned western cultural hegemony. where hubert-martin may have failed in his bid was his use of a bipolar scheme of choice; while western arts were selected on the basis of their conformity or their challenge to ‘modern’ artistic canons, the arts of their non-western counterparts were selected largely on the basis of their naiveté. this clearly did little to dispel the already bloated western ego of cultural superiority.

nevertheless, some subsequent exhibitions continued to seek to eliminate such dysfunctional ideologies. ‘africa explores the 20th century’, curated by susan vogel, held in 1991, conceptually, a sequel to ‘magiçiens’, made visible previously invisible currents in contemporary african art. its aim was to challenge certain stereotypes in cultural reading and canonizing, especially the notion that africa’s celebrated traditional art belonged to cultures glorious but extinct, dead upon contact with the west, that there is no modern african art of merit and that contemporary african arts were mere surrogates of western culture[1]. the 11th ‘documenta’, curated by the nigerian okwui enwezor[2], and his team of nine co-curators from three different continents, to a very large extent, kept its promise of a programme for global inclusion; it successfully challenged western complacency and pretensions to commitment to cosmopolitan cultural inclusiveness. the efforts of okwui enwezor and his kind in this direction have made remarkable impact but their inherent pitfalls may be located in the consequent unbridled diasporization of evolving artistic canons of contemporary africa. the privileged ‘self’ may be expanding his domain to include the hitherto invisible ‘other’, an unwilling transvestite. who remains the ‘other’?

 

notes:
*michelle afrifa was a final year bfa student in 2004 when she wrote the article. the article predates sylvester ogbechie’s “the curator as culture broker” (2009) and rikki wemega-kwawu’s “the politics of exclusion” (2011/2012). the article was first published in gbedidi journal of contemporary art and culture, student edition vol 1, no. 1, april 2004, founder and editor: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou. the article is from the archive of blaxtarlines kumasi, project space of contemporary art, department of painting and sculpture, knust.

[1] for example, a british critic, brian sewell, had stated that non-western artists deserved nothing more ‘than a footnote in the history of modern art in the 20th century’. see hassan salah m. and oguibe olu, ‘authentic/ex-centric: conceptualism in contemporary African art’, new york: forum for African arts, 2001.

[2] okwui enwezor also curated the 2nd johannesburg biennale. the aim of the setting up of the biennale was to present inclusive and comparative narratives of contemporary art with sufficient evidence of the presence and strength of African artists as part of a global contemporary culture. the exhibition was amazingly well-received internationally but was attacked in south africa partly because of the perception that it failed to serve much of the ‘national community’.

The claims I make in this note follow from  assumptions already stated in Paragraphs on the Contemporary I

II.

The Ghanaian art scene has evolved in the ways it has positioned itself to respond to contemporaneity and addressing its various publics in recent years. To this effect, we can trace radical tactics in gallery shows but more so in the heterogenous site-specific exhibitions — notable amongst them are ‘Silence Between The Lines: Anagrams of Emancipated Futures’ (2015), an exhibition organized by BlaxTARLINES which transformed both the interior and exterior of a car showroom in Kumasi into a site, ’Voyage of [Re]Discovery’ (2015), an exhibition which happened simultaneously at the Nubuke Foundation Gallery and the Ussher Fort in Accra, ‘The Gown Must Go To Town’ (2015), an exhibition of 52 students, lecturers and alumni of the College of Art, KNUST in Accra and the annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival (since 2011), also in Accra. For the purpose of this note I will think through the medium of photography vis-à-vis a recent exhibition in Accra, while engaging its history and the extent to which an artist who is interested in politics can take the claims they make with the camera as a tool.

Don’t Call Me Beautiful(1) is a photography exhibition held at Alliance Française d’Accra gallery. The exhibition deals with the politics of representation of Africa — specifically of the plight of the African woman. The exhibition, according to the artist, was to celebrate a certain ‘resilient’ characteristic of the African woman as her existence is constantly berated. The photographs depict women (young and old) engaging in mostly generic activities to express their everyday realities — some of them cooking, others leisurely hanging out at the beach, and so on. Some of these women are also, according to the artist, living with HIV/AIDS and others have been raped but these facts are not self-evident in the portraits. The pictures suggest a certain intimacy between the photographer and his subjects; a relationship consequently shared between spectator and picture.

The crux of the artist’s argument for the exhibition is shared in an anecdote: “I cannot think of a significant life moment, I have had, that didn’t involve some woman. These photographs are both a song in celebration of the African woman, and a criticism of how our societies deliberately impede their every movement.”(2) Apart from the generalizations in the statement, it would also be hard to object to the artist’s personal experiences, precisely because they are his subjective opinions on the issue to which he is entitled. Indeed, his sentiments may be true or not to some conditions but what matters primarily is how he sustains his argument. Upon listening to the artist in a talk at the exhibition’s finissage, he seemed not to be cognizant of some implications of the politics to which he has committed himself. I am making my commentary on the exhibition and its claims first, for the reasons aforementioned on the conditions of contemporaneity, secondly because it was posited in the context of an art exhibition: this gesture, by participating in the public domain impugns the artist’s autonomy and therefore subjects the collection of works and the exhibition statement (the two of which function as the artist’s reason for exhibiting and a defense of this reason) to participate in a multiplicity of perspectives.

If we foreshadow this exhibition with how the medium of photography has been used — particularly in the anthropological, pseudo-scientific colonial project dating as far back as the nineteenth century — to perpetrate primitivist stereotypes of Africans (women, men and children), it opens up its politics a little more. The artist seems to be taking his chosen medium for granted, almost as if it is devoid of any complicity throughout its history of use in the subject matter he seeks to tackle with the exhibition. By neglecting this history, I am of the opinion that the artist himself becomes a part of the problem he seeks to denounce. The camera is a neutral tool; it will only frame whatever or wherever you point it. It will give visual form to one’s ideas, intentions and/or prejudices; and photography, as a site, has long been a battleground both of perpetuating and contestation of this primitivist fantasy till today — for both definer and defined.(3)

Looking at the collective elements which make up the exhibition — the photographs, the captions (or titles of the works), the gallery space within which they are displayed, the arguments proposed by the artist in the exhibition statement — there are serious questions that need to be raised of the artist’s intentions and consequently of the exhibition. For example, how is the artist coming to terms with an implicit relationship between the theme of the exhibition, his chosen medium of photography and showing his work at the Alliance Française gallery (keeping the colonial rhetoric in mind and the fact that the pristine walls of the exhibition venue can neither be thought of as neutral nor innocent when we consider the history of dehumanization of this same [African] woman on the continent)? By using photography solely as a medium to realize his activism, does the artist not stand the risk of merely aestheticizing the politics that he proposes to engage? Is his solidarity not weakened when photos of these women — who he claims are victims of oppression and/or exploitation — are taken and placed in an art exhibition and the images offered to a bourgeois public to consume, buy or own? Has the artist not ‘beautifully’ framed and/or commodified the plight of his subjects for his own economic benefit (considering also that the medium makes it possible for him to make infinite reprints of a single picture)? Or worse, is he not risking the banal effect of merely entertaining his public, by not being thoroughly aware of his position in the social commentary he is making? Also, does the artist not fall prone to the danger of alienating himself from his subjects and their condition — a tendency inimical to photo-journalism, in which the process of [over]identification leads to a narcissistic position or even to dis-identification such that there is an objective (and perhaps patronizing) ‘I-You’ relationship between the artist and his subject of interest?

The questions go on. These and many more, I think, are legitimate contributions to the discourse which the exhibition has determined (particularly so if you consider the exhibition as a site for the production of meanings). The camera, as stated earlier, is not a tool that is intrinsically political and can therefore be worthless for such purposes: with the best of intentions, its functions can lead to superficiality. Likewise, a photographer is not necessarily an artist simply because they produce images. The camera and what it offers as a medium however has the potential of executing its user’s political will or intent with magnificent outcome if thought through coherently. My argument is that today’s practitioner is burdened with much more than ideas and tools of expression. He or she is confronted with a real obligation to think and produce work in more challenging ways, beyond ideology, and this may require him or her to transcend conventional roles hitherto thought to be productive.

Notes:

  1. Don’t Call Me Beautiful, an exhibition of works by photographer Nana Kofi Acquah at Alliance Francaise d’Accra, 3rd February – 9th March, 2016.
  2. http://afaccra.org/cultural-events/upcoming-events/francais-dont-call-me-beautiful/
  3. Tamar Garb’s essay ‘Encountering the African Archive: The Interwoven Temporalities of Distance and Desire’ offers a perspective on this through The Walther Collection’s holdings of vintage prints and historic photographs.

Paragraphs on the Contemporary (I)

Contemporary art confers an unprecedented sense of responsibility on its practitioner. The art world is no longer thought of as existing in provincial exclusivity but in global oneness. This purports to present a de-centered condition that makes it possible for different voices to speak from their unique positions.(1) Nothing is neutral in this paradigm. All are considered to be immanent in this global oneness and the contemporary artist, today’s practitioner, possesses an attitude which always positions him or her to address or speak to the global. The distinction between ‘artwork’ and ‘everyday object’ no longer matters, “[…] what becomes crucial is the distinction between a marked, installation space and unmarked, public space.”(2) With that said, not every piece of artwork is necessarily considered an installation; the installation inheres within it a consistent and intentional process of inclusions and exclusions, situating objects in this marked or demarcated space. Consequently, the exhibitionary models for such a paradigm must be invented; it must critique existing standards and must itself be critiqued in light of the new conditions which animate contemporaneity.

The exhibition is no longer thought of in terms of its physicality but of its site-specificity. The site, unhinged, is here the location of communication, the text, which now operates in networks such as discursive, linguistic, social as well as institutional frameworks(3), thus making mapping a relevant conceptual framework by which relations between sites could be traced. In this theater, the spectator is neither neutral nor innocent. In fact, meaning-making becomes a concerted negotiation between the body, space, objects, technology and so on. Technology here plays a vital role in expanding our logistics of perception. Each individual or spectator also comes into this encounter with their own unique set of experiences, ideas and worldviews which further complicate the initial position of the exhibition. It is not always possible to totalize exhibitions, or artworks for that matter, in the context of the contemporary.

A paradigm as complex, dialectical and contextual as this offers the twenty-first century practitioner — artist, theorist, writer, critic, curator, and so on — a fertile ground with possibilities of inventing what art could be while aware of the geopolitical conditions that shape our realities today as well as the advancements and limitations of science and technology…

 

Notes:

  1. There has been a shift from medium-specificity (emphasized in modernism, with its purist ideals described in Clement Greenberg’s text ‘Modernist Painting’) to the spatial and phenomenological (advocated by the minimalists of the 1960s onward which was later critiqued by feminist art by politicizing the body implicated in this phenomenological experience) to the cultural field which shifted the siting of art to exist in the discursive and social networks. Civil rights, postmodernism, postcolonial discourse, multiculturalism have also had a role to play in this development.
  2. Boris Groys, Politics of Installation, e-flux journal #2 — January 2009
  3. Hal Foster discusses this subject in his book ‘The Return of the Real’ (1996), in the chapter “The Artist as Ethnographer”, pg 171 – 204.