“[T]he emancipation of the African continent is the emancipation of man.” — Kwame Nkrumah (1964)1

“A master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom. When we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or, rather, what we “always-already” wanted without knowing it).” — Slavoj Zizek (2018)

“Fiction interests me in that it is more real than reality; it’s an enhanced reality.”— Simon Njami (2018)

 

I became interested in this undertaking upon reading an exchange triggered by an article written by Enos Nyamor about KAB18 to which Simon Njami, its curator, responded. I propose to analyze their arguments in relation to the curatorial direction of the biennale summarized in its official mascot which appropriates a section of Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio; A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life (1854-1855). Indeed, the title of the biennale seems to have been derived from Courbet’s painting. That Courbet was able to summarize contemporaneous social, political, and intellectual happenings of his time in his realist tableau while preserving open-ended interpretations through symbolism offers a lot to extrapolate in relation to the biennale. The painting, seminal for its time, combined religious painting, still life, genre painting, landscape and portraiture within its composition in an era when the hierarchy of subject matter was orthodoxy. Courbet’s “real allegory”, what could be read as a contradiction in terms, as the metaphor for KAB18’s curatorial impetus sets the tone for what could have been a conceptually nuanced biennale.  

Kampala Art Biennale 2018 official poster. Source: http://kampalabiennale.org

The biennale mascot remixes Courbet’s painting by subjecting it to new operations: zooming and cropping into the right half of the painting, thereby shifting the hitherto centralized quartet of figures — the seated artist finishing a painting, the model standing behind him, the child in tattered clothes whose countenance is upon the painter, and the playful cat — to the left of the new poster, superposed with text bearing the title of the biennale. Behind the artist and the half-naked model, the heads of the seven “Master” artists — Myriam Mihindou, Aida Muluneh, Bili Bidjocka, Godfried Donkor, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Radenko Milak and Abdoulaye Konate — have been digitally manipulated onto existing figures within the painting. What necessitates this superposition? What does it add to or take from Njami’s libretto? How does this montage account for time in its realist, allegorical and virtual senses? What does Courbet and his artistic idiom or tradition have to say to us today? Does the biennale take socio-political events in today’s Uganda into account?

To acquire a better perspective into the latter question we must first study the premise for KAB18 itself. What did the organizers want from the biennale? For this third edition the central question explicitly asked by the organizing team was “[h]ow can we build KAB’s sustainability and interest our [Ugandan] government in the future to support Art through the Biennale?”. On this basis, Simon Njami “proposed the presence of contemporary art masters in Kampala and the transmission of knowledge”. This “naturally made him [Njami] the Librettist of KAB18”. What character or form would this knowledge transmission take? It was intended to “naturally” flow from “one generation of artists to the next”—a unidirectional trajectory of older artists teaching younger ones. The biennale also sought to go against the grain of “the common format of major biennales which historically show and promote the best of their time, as a platform where professionals and the market can come and choose the next big artist”. In this spirit KAB18 chose “a format [which] vehicles our continent’s original values of sharing and transferring knowledge” [emphasis mine] thus, arriving at a “master/apprentice [sic] format to allow for the transmission of artistic skill from international contemporary art masters to young Ugandan, East African and African artists. This is especially crucial as it evokes the traditional African transfer of knowledge from the experienced to the future generation” [emphasis mine]. Why is this event necessary? So that economic support can be bolstered for “Art” (referred to as “cultural capital”) from 1) the state, and 2) from “public and private sponsorship” because “[a]rt is an important contributor to social cohesion and nation-building through the promotion of intercultural dialogue, understanding and collaboration.”

The “cultural essentialism” employed to articulate why the “master/apprentice” approach is necessary masks another significant issue at play: that dependence on state and private capital potentially depoliticizes biennales into functioning as prosthetic limbs in service of the status quo. It cannot, so to speak, bite the hand that feeds it.  This is also one of the reasons why international tourism is a big feature of the large scale exhibition format today. In such a case, the aims of the event are contrived to suit nationalist directives stipulated by the respective cultural ministry as well as other “hidden hands”, if not wholly determined by them. 

Simon Njami, in the concept statement, expands the introductory thesis of the biennale to trace analogous histories between African and European traditions of apprenticeship. There he makes it clear that the “master/apprentice” system is not exclusive to Africa. In this tradition “[s]ome of these apprentices” Njami writes, “ later became masters and kept the tradition alive”. And this was to involve technical, spiritual and philosophical forms of engagement. The political reason stated is to wrest the African artist from “[m]odern practices, notably in Europe, [which] have turned the artist into a solitarian Genius who creates masterpieces in the silence of his studio.” To boot, Njami writes “Africa was [sic] not a preserve by this trend. It seems to us of the utmost importance for Africa to reinvent new ways of addressing art, in a more endogenous manner” [emphasis mine]. Again, the temptation to use an ethnocentric justification for the insularity that is determined not simply by cultural but economic categories as well. Furthermore, Njami states that “Africa is still [sic] a space where the community plays a critical role. It is, through this third edition of the Kampala biennale, our aim to revitalise ancient practices that are more than needed in our contemporary world. Practices that would bring back notions like transmission and togetherness”. In a word, nostalgia. We know that time and history are both contingent concepts, that something can happen today to change the past, and so on. So if, indeed, such “ancient practices” are relevant today, their intersubjective and political relations would need to be rethought.

Furthermore, on whose terms would this “transmission and togetherness” be achieved? Ultimately, this determination will be on the curator’s terms because it is he who nominates the “master” artists. The ubermaster, who is the curator, is now the expert whom, in symbolic terms, becomes the luminary. The librettist — that is to say, the owner of the master book— is the “author and finisher” of the book that is the biennale. The unidirectional logic of the “experienced” artists transferring what they know to the “future generation” is preserved. On such stipulations, the condition upon which an “apprentice” can become a “master” is conformity— to learn what the “master” already knows, not what they may be independently interested in. Harmony, nay, uniformity, is the supreme ethos of Njami’s community of togetherness and determines how one can be part of it. By implication, nothing that would jeopardize the internal stability of this exchange will be tolerated, not even one’s own individual freedom. Also, there is nothing that the “master” can learn from the “apprentice”, for the former is considered the apogee of artistic development. Hence, there is good reason to suspect a hidden authority in Njami’s project, and it is precisely because of this that I think it is completely empty of any emancipatory potential for us today. This specific project, KAB18, is therefore conceptually sterile of any innovative approaches to “reinvent[ing] new ways of addressing art” in the 21st century, as Njami himself puts it. For this reason we must transcend its conclusions, urgently. There seems to have been a missed opportunity to problematize the traditional “master/apprentice” stultification with KAB18 given all the possibilities it had opened up initially by its own paradoxical starting point, apropos Courbet, to really probe and initiate something new even if it takes traditional form. 

Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist, oil on canvas, 361 x 598 cm (Musée d’Orsay). Source https://flic.kr/p/21XZj16

When I read Enos Nyamor’s polemical essay on KAB18 it seemed the writer came into the exercise already knowing what Simon Njami ought to have done— that is, what the curator should have said (or otherwise), where to have sited the studios, etc. He begins by claiming that the “the idea of “The Studio”, the title of the biennale” is “itself a Eurocentric concept”. Nyamor does not tell us why, or even how, he arrived at this conclusion. We must simply take his word for it. In any case Njami had anticipated such responses when he drew analogous relationships between African and European traditions of apprenticeship. Nyamor then proceeds to conflate the potency of a curatorial direction, strategy or concept with one’s ethnic or national background. This is where the danger is for me. Nascent generations of “Afrocentric” ideologues are wont to commit the same atrocities they identify as problematic of the so-called Big Other in the name of identity politics. Njami’s national identity or where he is based does not necessarily make him “an outsider” (Nyamor uses those exact words) or bar him from making profound work in Africa or anywhere else for that matter. Did Okwui Enwezor need to be Italian or German in any way to have curated the 56th Venice Biennale and Documenta11 respectively? Can the “outsider” not offer a legitimate perspective? Must every identitarian particularity close itself out to those which exist beyond its peripheries? Njami responds aptly: “Being an outsider –which I really enjoy – provides me with the necessary distance we need in order to understand processes. That necessary critical distance enables us to grasp a bigger picture and to escape the easy game of ethnocentrism.” The biennale format, historically speaking,—since the second edition of bienal de la Habana, in 1986— thrives on expansion of geographic, conceptual and cultural cognates of participation. Nyamor’s uncritical position banally leads to populism. He accuses Njami of being a reactionary but is no less one himself.

But he raises a vital concern in his critique of the biennale which should be considered:  that “[i]n the context of the volatile political, economic, and social conditions in Kampala today, the show seems detached from such realities, from the dilemmas faced by young Ugandans, which include not only the need for education and mentorship but also the need for economic opportunities. Incredibly, over 700 students graduate annually from fine arts schools across Uganda”. Implying that most are left unemployed. Since the 1980s economies of African countries have been opened up to the ‘free market’ system and have since been strong-armed by Structural Adjustment Policies under neoliberal capitalism— the postmodernist era of economic globalization where privatization of state/national assets, deregulation, devaluation of currencies, financialization, etc, thrive— which accelerates the creation of ‘poverty industries’ such as the one Nyamor has identified in Kampala. Biennales, as large-scale transnational exhibitions, have already internalized such market-oriented modalities of capital accumulation (for many are already in debt). So Nyamor is right to infer that the biennale becomes complicit in the ongoing class struggle in Uganda by taking a reactionary position on the fiction Uganda currently calls its democracy. The fact of the matter is that capital needs increasing numbers of employable people to be unemployed so as to effectively exploit labor to ensure more profit. 

Nyamor makes another interesting observation that “[a]ll the works [in the biennale] are credited to the master” artists. The irreversible stultification embedded in the relational dynamics of the two (which is left unproblematized in the biennale) will always privilege the “master”. And so an outworking, in the first instance, would be that the works (objects/experiences) produced will be attributed to the “master” artists, and secondly the organizational ensemble will be credited to the “master” curator. There is no way around this even if there had been a team of co-curators unless this position is itself challenged. In his defense Njami claims that “the masters acted as mentors, big brothers, uncles”. But, for me, the real question is, could they have acted as sons or perhaps, daughters? Given the paradoxical backdrop of Courbet’s “real fable” upon which KAB18 conceptually feeds, it could have been possible. My point becomes even more clearer with a compelling example from Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, a.k.a H. E. Bobi Wine— the dissident musician, critical of the Museveni regime, who was elected as representative of Kyadondo East Constituency in central Uganda in a 2017 by-election — who lyricizes a response in Uganda Zukuka where he sings: “Can we [the youth] ourselves find solutions since our leaders don’t seem to care for the next generation but instead care for the next general election?”. He goes on to make an inspired assertion proclaiming “[w]e are the leaders of the future, and the future is today”. This statement absolutely undermines the entirety of Njami’s libretto. Wine has effectively destabilized Njami’s teleological framework, rooted in nostalgia, by sublating the future, past and present into a singular moment; the “today”. He is saying that “if we are the leaders of the future, then our time is now. And since you have stopped caring about us, we are the ones who will have to teach you what you may already know but have probably forgotten.” Bobi Wine represents the generation in Uganda who have only known one president. 

Njami’s curatorial horizon for KAB18 does not take the “stopped caring about us” into account. He takes it for granted that all older generations still care for the younger. Even more, he proceeds, necessarily, from the assumption that the “future generation”, generally speaking, needs this kind of mentorship (that is why he is attempting to “revitalise [such] ancient practices that are more than needed in our contemporary world”). But what if either one, master or apprentice, wills against it? Here, Bobi wine teaches Njami that there can be an exception. In a swift moment of political subjectivation, Wine unravels and inverts the roles: this time dispelling the illusion of consensus by coming to terms with inherent antagonisms. The lines are drawn, one must make a choice either to act for what they believe in or not. This is when true politics begins: the subject elects her/himself and legitimates it by basing their actions on a truth that is addressed to all of humanity. Wine’s politics is consistent with the axiom of universal equality: not just of ability but also of intelligences, for the young too can teach the old. Wine corroborates the universal ethic in Nkrumah’s imperative quoted in the epigraph. Hence if we desire the emancipation of the African, as the example, it is truly for all of humanity that this is necessary. The moment the particular-universal negotiation is severed to focus exclusively on the particular difference-in-and-of-itself, it becomes impotent for any progressive cause and will perpetuate the status quo if/when it acquires power. 

In conclusion, I propose to take Njami on; to take him at his word when he made the radical pronouncement in his response to Nyamor that “[b]eing an outsider, I don’t look at where the tools I am using come from as long as they serve my purposes.” This form of indifference is a necessary disposition for the African subject today, given the trauma of slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism. It is as explicit to Nkrumah’s theory of the African Personality as it is vital to Bobi Wine’s activism. Nostalgia is luxury we cannot afford. It would therefore seem that, in this instance, Njami is not radical enough to follow through the conclusions of his own proposition. 

One common legacy of colonialism is the proliferation of the myth that opposes reason to emotion summarized, ironically, by Léopold Sédar Senghor — prominent Senegalese poet and politician of the Négritude movement— as “L’émotion est nègre et la raison hellène.” (Emotion is Negro and reason Greek)”2. Kwame Nkrumah, leading Pan-Africanist theorist and politician (who passionately contested this dictum), helps us in this direction with the dialectical materialist ideology he termed philosophical consciencism. It is “the map [sic] in intellectual terms of the disposition of forces which will enable African society to digest the Western and the Islamic and the Euro-Christian elements in Africa, and develop them in such a way that they fit into the African personality. The African personality is itself defined by the cluster of humanist principles which underlie the traditional African society. Philo­sophical consciencism is that philosophical standpoint which, taking its start from the present content of the African conscience, indicates the way in which progress is forged out of the conflict in that conscience3 [emphasis mine]. The African Personality, according to Nkrumah, is neither given, nor rooted in nostalgia. It must immanently emerge through “conflict” and tension in such a way that if the past is to be returned to or invoked, it would have to participate in the conditions of the contemporary moment. It cannot remain the same.

Hence, in an unlikely stroke of affairs, Njami and Nyamor both find themselves tangentially allied with each other on opposing sides of a one-ended stick: Njami preserves a depoliticized status quo founded on nostalgia while Nyamor is yet to come to terms with the emancipatory potential of the African identity as a “vanishing mediator” for egalitarian politics. They both have, as Njami put it, “one or two useful things” to un-learn.  

-Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist, writer and curator based in Kumasi, Ghana.

 

Notes:

  1. Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology of Decolonization, pp. 78, https://libyadiary.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/consciencism-philosophy-and-the-ideology-for-decolonization.pdf
  2. As quoted by Cheikh Anta Diop in The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, 1974, trans. Mercer Cook, Lawrence Hill & Company, New York, Westport, pp. 25.
  3. Op. Cit. Kwame Nkrumah. pp. 79. 

 

Advertisements

“We want to see the newest things. That is because we want to see the future, even if only momentarily. It is the moment in which, even if we don’t completely understand what we have glimpsed, we are nonetheless touched by it. This is what we have come to call art.”
—Takashi Murakami1

 

In the spirit of responding to the question of what art is – or, better still, what art could be, unique to one’s social, political and historical perspective– Asafo Black collective opened the ‘Vibes’ (2018) contemporary art exhibition at the National Theater of Ghana.

On this speculative journey, the collective — a group of six Generation Z artists namely Denyse Gawu Mensah, Larry Bonćhaka, Scrapa, Samuel Baah Kortey (Mantse Kristo), Nuna Adisenu-Doe and Jeffrey Otoo— merge influences from global pop and consumer culture, virtual reality, and bio-fiction to create works which include paintings, installations, video and graffiti. ‘Vibes’ continues the series of guerilla exhibitions Asafo Black has been organizing between Kumasi and Accra after Holy Grail, The Show and Why So Serious (all in 2018). The collective relies on the recreational and convivial atmosphere natural to party culture to create situations for audiences to participate in. They typically explore a variety of elements in visual culture related to fashion, art, music, comics, literature, film and fantasy to create work.

‘Vibes’ could generally be thought of as an aura, spirit or mood that brings people together, if only for the moment. During this moment (or series of moments) experiences may be shared and ideas exchanged. We could also celebrate each other and create spaces in which hierarchies in socio-economic life are suspended so as to be able to relate to each other more freely. In this sense, ‘Vibes’ could be read as a potential call for mobilization.

The collective’s interventions extend from art to curating. They have previously staged exhibitions in hostel rooms and derelict fuel stations beckoning publics from all walks of life and demographic groups. Asafo Black describe their aesthetic approach for this exhibition as deploying “objects, installations, paintings, texts, postproduction techniques, graffiti, GIFs, etc embedded in humor, wit, and sometimes obscenities, as decoy for what could turn into political engagement between producers and audiences.” Their initiatives are nurtured by blaxTARLINES KUMASI, the contemporary art institution based at the Department of Painting and Sculpture in the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST).

blaxTARLINES’s ethos is inspired by kąrî’kachä seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teachingwhich compels artists to take responsibility for what they create and put out into the world. Practitioners of this disposition are politically sensitive to what they produce so that they are not taking questions such as what they do, how they do it, where, when or why it is done, for granted. This is particularly relevant if we consider that what we produce is influenced by the histories we inherit even as it consequently participates in the global network of ideas, forms and market systems.

Asafo Black assert this responsibility by embodying what they regard as the new spirit “instigated by blaxTARLINES KUMASI, which testifies to the universality of art – that art can be anything, is everywhere and is potentially available as a means of expression and avenue of experience to anyone”.  This is evidenced by Gawu’s “scorpio eyes” – a meta-fiction digital composition on screen montaging various worlds which touch our own; Bonćhaka’s inflated balloons and army of plastic vintage dolls some of which are torturously scorched to mutilate parts of their exanimate bodies; Scrapa’s painting on wooden board influenced by graffiti and Hip-Hop culture; Kortey’s drawings on plywood with animal blood sourced from abattoirs as well as single-channel video installation elucidating his process; Adisenu-Doe’s transparent-sticker idiom which appropriates texts and slogans commonly associated with mass transportation and storefront culture in Ghana sited on the glass balustrades within the foyer of The National theatre; and Otoo’s repertory of still life objects (wooden display cases) and acrylic paintings on canvas evoking display strategies of wrist watch merchants in urban centers. His paintings also make allusions to memento mori symbolism through ornate use of birds and flowers.

The foyer of the National Theater hosted this refreshing constellation of objects, experiences and ideas. Audiences were engaged by flat paintings or drawings to be seen frontally, there were objects they could walkaround (the installation of screens and wooden cases mounted on plinths), there were also inflated balloons which could be touched, kicked and punched around in the exhibition space by adults and children alike. Music fills the room to complement the festive vibe.

‘Vibes’ is happening two years after Ibrahim Mahama’s Malam Dodoo National Theater 1992-2016 installation of sown jute sacks animated the exterior façade of the National Theater (an area of 11,000 square meters), and comes to add to the ever-growing verve of artistic interventions which affirm the axiom that art is for everyone, sited in unconventional spaces in Ghana. Asafo Black contributes significantly to this radically new spirit.

 

 

Notes:

  1. https://gagosian.com/exhibitions/2018/murakami-abloh-technicolor-2/
  2. For further reading on seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teaching and blaxTARLINES KUMASI, see (i) http://garj.org/full-articles/gold-coast-hand-and-eye-work-a-genealogical-history.pdf?view=inline, (ii) http://www.ijhssnet.com/jou…/Vol_5_No_10_October_2015/14.pdf, (iii) seid’ou, k. (2006). Theoretical Foundations of the KNUST Painting Programme: A Philosophical inquiry and its contextual relevance in Ghanaian Culture[Unpublished PhD Thesis]. Kumasi: KNUST, (iv) seid’ou, k. (2014). Adaptive Art Education in Achimota College; G. A. Stevens, H. V. Meyerowitz and Colonial False Dichotomies. CASS Journal of Art and Humanities.

 

*A previous version of this article has been published here.

A recent exposure has brought a scandalous story of assault which had been festering in the Ghanaian cultural scene for the past 10 months or so to light. An anonymous writer first published an article essentially accusing one man of beating his business and romantic partner and threatening her and her friends to be quiet. The article also accused players in the art community of consenting to this abuse through our silence even after we came to know of it. In response to this, the alleged victim (who emphatically referred to herself as a “survivor” in her own statement) requested that the aforementioned article be taken down by the website on which the anonymous writer initially published the article for reasons which border on violation of her privacy and safety. Subsequently, the “survivor” saw her statement as an opportunity to discredit the anonymous writer who had so insensitively wrested her private matter into public domain. By neither confirming nor refuting the alleged abuse, the situation was complicated even further when the “survivor” proceeded to defend the institution which she and the accused had built together and to also exonerate her confidants who gave her solace through such turbulent moments of her life. Another article surfaced. This time published by the anonymous writer which, amongst other things, passionately lashed out at the implications of what they regarded as a non-committal statement issued by the “survivor”. Targaryen Tyrion Nudho, the persistent anonymous writer, interpreted the “survivor’s” statement as distracting from the matter at hand; by their standards, it seemed the “survivor” had reneged a golden opportunity to come out with the truth of the matter to the world so that the perpetrator could be targeted and brought to justice. 

Speculations as to whether or not the incident happened took a different turn when a third voice entered the scene publicly proclaiming that the accused man had sexually assaulted her sometime last year. The accused has yet to make any public statements, but it is easy to conclude from the foregoing that there could be some fire to this smoke. This series of events has divided the art community into three broad factions: 1. Those on the side of the accused perpetrator who believe that his contribution to the growth of the art scene in Ghana is too significant to overlook at a time like this. 2. Those who are offering Politically Correct prescriptions of protecting victims’ rights at all cost while finding solutions to issues of domestic abuse against women. And 3. those who seek retribution (symbolic or legal) on the basis of universality whether it is with the “survivor’s” consent or not.

In the end everyone wants some closure to the case but how it is done and who it favours is what creates these partitions. I grossly oversimplify this murky sequence of scenarios to raise some concerns of my own and also to locate some lessons it yields.

First of all, now that the matter is public, if we leave it to the liberals who advocate “decency” and who overemphasize respect for the victims’ wishes all the time it would paralyze us from any kind of political action because we would be too preoccupied with manners— how not to offend anyone by our actions or statements. When we have to be blunt with one another, Political Correctness could get in the way. For example, one commentator prescribed that we ought to “take our cues from the survivor [on] how and when we should speak”, and went on to remark chidingly that women should be relieved of the “extra burden” of having to step “forward to dismantle the problem” of sexual abuse. Without realizing it, she had virtually offered us mutually exclusive positions. If we grant the latter, we would have to breach the unconditional autonomy earlier prescribed. It becomes evident that this commentator has, in principle, violated her own terms of decency by attempting to pluralize who should speak. We can actually have it both ways by fostering conditions where victims are willing to carry this “burden” because they desire justice and also opening up the space for other voices to participate.

This initiates us towards the reality that now that the matter exists within the public domain we must sublate this notion of autonomy into a universal principle. What this would have to mean is that we go through the victims’ or “survivors” pain— possibly reliving the trauma— not to worsen it, but as the only way out of it if we are to unrelentingly deal with this cancerous symptom of patriarchal domination. Otherwise, they could be blackmailed with/by it, and this would be a much worse position to be in. My proposition is not as insensitive as it sounds and was demonstrated when the third voice entered into the fray to lay unequivocal accusations of sexual assault against the perpetrator. 

For an ideological example, feminism proceeds from the presumption of the Universal epithet that ‘we [all of humanity] are equal”. It connects the particular case of marginalization or debasement of women to the universal imperative of egalitarian humanism. This is where it finds its sustenance and vitality. Here, we are talking about the particular category of women— all women, from Adiza the Kayayoo to Angela Merkel. The moment we violate this principle by elevating some women over others— by making excuses for those who may be our friends or family members, protecting them more than we would others, giving preferential treatment, and so on— we inevitably discharge partial justice and this is the kind we all abhor.

On this same point, there are those who are cynical of pursuing legal action because they believe the criminal justice system is flawed and skewed towards favoring men in such instances. This is true to a large extent. But the corollary is equally true, that in a traditional patriarchal society it is permissible for men to violate women and childrens’ rights. My question would be, why are we willing to not accept the latter but seem eager to throw our hands up in despair regarding the justice system organized within this social structure? It is precisely because the system is tilted in favor of men that we must agitate against it. If for no reason, to prove that it too needs restructuring. We must be prepared to follow through with where it leads if we are to enact any kind of revolution. If we want to alter society as it is, the means of dispensing justice through legal frameworks must change with it necessarily, and so we cannot disempower ourselves by using the reason to undermine the system as the reason not to cause its disruption.

To be able to actualize progressive politics based on equality I claim that we must question how, in this case, the violation of one woman [two, in fact] potentially affects all women and act from there. The stakes are high, it is for the sake of all of humanity — born and unborn — that we must seek justice in this specific instance of abuse and assault. The sense of urgency is much greater here. If we too become partisan, we risk letting perpetrators off the hook and become complicit in the problem we claim to denounce but actually endorse by [in]action. But I must distinguish what I mean by equality here. True equality recognizes difference but does not hierarchize it. I am reminded of the popular liberal saying in Ghana that “whatever a man can do a woman can do too”. This statement may be true in some cases, but its half-truth also betrays a latently dangerous assumption, which is implicit, that “whatever a man cannot do, a woman cannot do too.” And this would be absolutely false. There is a hidden patriarchal authority in the statement which still privileges the man as its “measure of all things”. The same would be true if we swapped the subjective noun. But our equality must work at the level of intrinsic value and not ability (which is contingent on one’s interests, ambitions, disposition, technical training and so forth). A woman may wish not to do what a man does and still have a right to exist in an egalitarian society and vice versa. It is important to keep the afforementioned intimacy between the Universal and the Particular in mind here. 

The next lesson is about censorship. For reasons well stated in the “survivor’s” statement, she requested the website to take down the initial post published by Nudho and it was granted. What I find curious here is that the “survivor’s” move was not to engage what had already been put out in the public domain but rather to control who may participate in this space of commons by resorting to online censorship. This is the excess my liberal friend did not consider in her admonition to let the “survivor” determine “how and when we should speak”. What if this privilege is abused? (in an extreme but possible scenario, if  the “survivor” is a manipulative person they will employ it to this end, pure and simple). There is no easy solution to dealing with this, but it certainly does not help if we make some of these questions taboo. The intention to silence another voice is what I am analyzing here and not necessarily the purpose of what had been written. The “survivor” could have outrightly refuted the crux of Nudho’s accusation if it was false when she did make her statement so we could disregard them. But to engineer the removal of the post altogether when the counter-statement does not offer anything concrete is a dangerous precedent to the level playing ground of public discourse. If this was a genuine course of action then why is the subsequent statement published by Nudho— which was much harsher in tone and more revelatory— yet to be taken down on the same website? Or has the request been made and is still pending? Does this gesture imply that as many online publishing platforms as are utilized to expose the issue there will then be equal attempts to take down? It becomes futile. The more we kick against how the message is shared and not the truth of its content, we betray a lot. 

Even worse, a few people have emerged who are defending the accused based on his accomplishments in the art scene. For them, it would seem that his accomplishments supersede any wrongdoing and renders him invincible. Oddly enough, these bigots actually cite the statement written by the “survivor” to blackmail the rest of us into leaving the issue to rest within the privacy of two adults who have fallen out with each other romantically. Aside the obvious toxicity of their manliness, it is evident that they have found a clear distraction to the real issue. And they use the “survivor’s” statement as ammunition in this direction. In this sense, the statement issued by the “survivor” is as ambiguous as it is loose and can be used to prove abuse (by what it does not explicitly deny), disprove abuse (by what it does not overtly confirm), and also to protect the “survivor’s” wishes for privacy leading to Politically Correct codes of conduct that can actually let the perpetrator off the hook by wrongfully diverting attention from the perpetrator, who must be brought to account, to the “survivor”. 

In all of this it is clearly evident that the culture of abuse against women is alive and well globally, but particularly amongst nascent left-leaning groups in Ghana. The ‘demon’, so to speak, is not necessarily out there but stalks each and every one of us through our tendencies. It is a tendency inimical to any of us if we do not prioritize equality. As we mobilize across our differences to effectively deal with this problem within our art community, we have to put Truth at the center of our cause. 

 

More on the issue: 
https://www.facebook.com/animaaxolotl/posts/10156632428419719
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2549944631685950&set=a.155434714470299&type=3&theater

*The following was given as a presentation at the ‘African Modernism: Architecture of Independence’ symposium on the panel “Exchange. Exchanger. Before, After and Hence”. Ibrahim Mahama confronts Max Gerlach, Drew, Fry and Owusu-AddoA longer essay will be published forthcoming. 

 

For this symposium I propose to interpret Ibrahim Mahama’s politically engaged practice in terms of contradictions in the way it responds to the global neoliberal catastrophes at hand— migration crises, privatization, precarious work and so on. I prefer the dialectical method which proves more dynamic in dealing with immanent contradictions. Through this lens, we can come to terms with oppositions without having to cast one aside or wish the other away. In this context it then becomes imperative that as Mahama confronts the bigger issues affecting the masses of humanity he must also question his own assumptions and potential complicity in this system of economic disempowerment as it relates to his internal processes of acquisition and negotiation of/for objects, materials and labor (especially as he works with Kayayei1, “shoe-shine” boys, truck drivers, students, refugees, and so forth who are already vulnerable to many forms of exploitation by belonging to the economic underclass).

An example of dialectical tension in Mahama’s practice can be cited when he smuggles commodification back into art by causing alienation of the everyday materials he nominates from the labour class that rely on its use value and when he, at the same time, attempts to universalize the principle of freedom of movement for non-European people. Let me briefly explain what I mean. When Mahama participated in the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, he had intended to travel with five of his workers/collaborators to assist in producing and mounting his walk-through installation at the Arsenale. All five of them were denied visas by the Italian Embassy. However, the overused jute sacks, which have now acquired the status of commodity through circulation in the art market, had already been shipped from Accra to Venice with minor problems. The reason these workers were denied entry into that part of Europe is because the embassy was certain they would not return to Ghana, their home country, given their condition as economically precarious workers. 

As Europe is currently dealing with rising Right-wing xenophobic/racist populism by the threat of African and Arab refugees knocking on its doors, it is as if the Italian Embassy recognizes the urgency to thwart Mahama’s attempt to globalize “Free Movement” — one of the founding principles of the European Union (EU) that recognizes and preserves the principal right of EU nationals to move and work in member countries— by extending it to citizens of other parts of the world, and how dare he! In fact, to paraphrase the European Commission (EC), the freedom to move to another EU country to work without a permit is, more or less, an exclusive right reserved for EU nationals.2 

Slavoj Žižek points out that “[t]he actualization of this freedom [that ‘everyone has the right to settle in any other part of the world, and the country they move in to has to provide for them’] presupposes nothing less than a radical socio-economic revolution”3. Why? Because, as in Mahama’s gesture, it intends to proffer an obverse reality rooted in equality and universality which overturns the “commodity fetishism” most of the world has been absorbed in since industrial capitalism took shape in the 19th century— that is, in the way we prioritize commodities over people.

We see by the foregoing that those whose labour produce the commodities Mahama’s practice relies on are those who are themselves restricted from moving across those same borders the product of their labor has transcended. This is a contradiction of corporate capitalism. Now, in the same example, an internal contradiction to Mahama’s practice is revealed: that Mahama, in the name of art, causes alienation of the everyday objects he nominates from the labour force which produce it — whether they are old jute sacks, sewing machines, wooden ‘shoe-maker’ boxes, etc. This way, the materials, when they become art, reinforce the class antagonisms which keep the poor and rich as they are. This is owed to the fact that after production, the works are fetishized as they participate in the art market (the capitalist market system) and circulated within elitist galleries around the world. It is this alienation which makes it nearly impossible for the labourers to become co-authors or co-producers, except in a symbolic sense, as far as ownership and spectatorship of the work is concerned. A gulf is created between the space they inhabit as producers and the elitist places of spectatorship. The magnificent tapestries may travel the world but the bodies of its labourers tend to be left behind. 

But if Mahama’s nominalist gesture portends to alienation, his efforts to globalize free movement undermines it— that is, attempts to mitigate the distance reinforced by alienation. Mahama’s insistence on making these invisible labourers seen became more productive two years after the visa denial incident when he participated in documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens in 2017. During this time the artist was able to get two of his workers to travel to Kassel to produce his installation and also to become spectators of the prestigious quinquennial. This is something that would have otherwise not happened had it not been for the artist’s stubborn approach to confronting these new forms of apartheid.

I perceive these tensions as necessarily bound to Mahama’s processes of negotiation and objectification through art. Through them the artist forges a compelling reality. Before we morally deride his work as predatory, we must understand that, as an artist, he is intervening in a political economic system which prioritizes profit as its supreme ethic and which is indifferent to morality. Consequently, he must also adopt a strategy that can speak to the system from deep within its bowels. As Mahama shows his work in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and elsewhere, he is simultaneously bringing attention to the multiplicity of ways labourers are exploited and the complicit role art can play in this condition. The way I see it, the artist has adopted a positive posture to coming to terms with the inconsistencies inherent in the status quo and has consciously appropriated these processes into his work. This has become his ethical method. His aesthetic approach, therefore, could be said to be taking advantage of the contradictions of capitalism to reveal its problems to us by implicating himself. What is to be done is therefore an open question to all of us.

Notes:

  1. Typically, Kayayei are women who have migrated from the Northern region of Ghana to Accra, the capital city, who carry goods for shoppers in open markets in Accra. Those who move outside the markets work as domestic cleaners who go around cleaning people’s homes with the aim to do any house chore permissible— some wash and babysit, others fetch water for households without running water and so on. The excesses of such workers flooding into the capital city annually means that value for their services keeps plummeting. Owed to their precarious conditions of work and desperate accommodation situations (some sleep on sidewalks, in front of shops, in wooden kiosks, overcrowded rooms, under trees, etc), they are left vulnerable to a wide range of factors including landlords who extort rent, shoppers who merely pay them meagre sums for their services, rapists, robbers, reckless drivers, rainfall, social prejudices and on and on. According to Citi News, they earn between nothing to about GHC 30.00 (approx. $5 or $6) per day with no health benefits. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=jPTUcapcu58. 
  2. See http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=470&langId=en
  3. See Slavoj Žižek, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours, 2016, Penguin Random House, UK, pp. 83, e-pub (iBooks).

*This text is an extract from Curatorial Models, an essay detailing the exhibition strategies employed in Spectacles. Speculations… (2018), curated by the author in Kumasi, Ghana.

 

The Age of blaxTARLINES KUMASI

blaxTARLINES KUMASI is a collectivist response to the hopeless conditions that characterize the state of institution-building in contemporary art in the “cultural slum”that is Ghana. It is the contemporary art institution based at the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST directly responsible for successfully implementing a radical openness to the concept and practice of art. This loose community consists of kindred spirits of artistic and non-artistic dispositions who have mobilized together based on core principles of economico-intellectual emancipation and political sensitivity to one’s practice. This community shares amongst itself and with the broader world through writing, publishing (catalogs, monographs, etc), exhibitions, interviews, artist talks, studio visits, library, etc.

At the turn of the century, a “silent revolution” swept through the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST — instigated by artist, poet, mathematician and scholar Dr. kąrî’kạchä seid’ou with fervent support from younger faculty namely Mr. Kwaku Boafo Kissiedu (Castro), Dr. Edwin Bodjawah, Mr. George Buma Ampratwum and their networks — with consequences for the Ghanaian art scene as a whole. Premised on values such as universality and multiplicity of art, the retro-colonial curriculum of the Department was to be transformed and expanded from its historical [over]dependence on “the authority of [human-centered] European traditional and early Modernist media, genres and formats” to include “photography, time-based media, local artisanship, new materiality, curating, text, performance, post-humanist media, robotics, video gaming, site specific and community practices”.2

What the kinship hoped to advance at the time is “a field of “general intellect” which 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 way, the stain instigates a new vision, which requires a necessary shift in the spectator’s perspective. And this shift in perspective leaves the older picture as a stain in the new picture.”3

The democratic principle encapsulated in this metaphor wrests absolute autonomy from the proverbial “bigger picture” and makes it contingent to the subversive potential of both anamorphic stain and spectator. The artist-as-anamorphic-stain possesses not only the right but also the ability to create a new image with the old picture as a stain in it. The spectator’s gaze can no longer remain disembodied, they must correlate to the change that has happened in the picture by adjusting their positionality in relation to it— if this results in the assertion of an indifferent posture, it would be borne out of intention.

The metaphor is close in spirit to Jacques Rancière’s emancipatory politics. For Rancière politics proper begins when the excluded masses (the supplementary part of a population who remain unnamed (dēmos) or the lower classes who are by design elided from positions of power (polis) by the ruling oligarchy), through political subjectivization, assert for themselves the entitlement of inclusion in the exercise of power based on the only universal epithet “we are all equal”. (i.e. this particular group demands universal rights and proceeds to rupture relations in the public sphere by radically affecting the dynamics of inclusions, exclusions and permissions that regulate what is communally common, in a word, the distribution of the sensible(Rancière: 2004, pp.12). Further, the Universal is the space that is common to all of humanity, the space we all must take for granted, the thing we can all appeal to at any moment that is not the predestined property of any race, gender, group, nor state.

seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teaching— a pedagogic model that advocates “the dissolving of genres in “activist” and participatory practice”6— has inspired the community that is blaxTARLINES KUMASI to prefer political indifference to any particular trend, style, medium, process, etc. His pedagogic model exemplifies that of the “ignorant schoolmaster” (Rancière: 1991, 2004) who acknowledges the equality of intelligences at work in every teaching opportunity and is concerned not with transferring the knowledge he knows onto the ignoramus but with creating democratic conditions that make it possible for the ignoramus to bridge the distance between what she knows and what she does not yet know— that is, so that she can empower herself to learn what she does not yet know but can know on condition that she wills to endeavor into the forest of signs.

Beginning with the axiom that “art is anything that is radically new”,blaxTARLINES KUMASI proceeds to posit art as a site of multiplicity. Art that emerges “from a void: with neither content nor prejudice for any particular medium, skill, material, or process”8. The void here does not presuppose anything, neither is it a negation of pre-existing content: it is a state of criticality born from a disposition which understands given historical and institutional definitions of art. Art is here radically emptied of such presumptive associations so as to permit an egalitarian regeneration of its content; hence art is anything that is radically new.

This can be formulated in another way with the question “what is art?”. In this specific context, the question must necessarily be its own answer. If we consider the inquiry as lacking content from the outset when posed, it spurs the questioner on to search, discover and learn about what they do not yet know on the basis that they can know. And each questioner can, in principle, begin their own journey into uncovering answers. The question is the void which permits the questioner to regenerate or populate new content. There is, of course, always the tendency to be dogmatically ensnared within a radical breakthrough at a particular moment in this evolution as is seen with modernist avant-garde movements of the past century. Insofar as proponents of these movements purported to have the destiny of art in sight, shrouded in a logic of purity, truth and linearity of time (or history) it was bound to become stale and eventually irrelevant to the times. What is at stake here, then, is to figure out how one can grow the vigor and vitality to sustain the question-as-answer throughout one’s practice.

Furthermore, the motive here is to create democratic as well as enabling conditions of self-determination for any person, regardless of their cultural or economic background, to be able to thrive based on their own intentionality and will. If this is the case, then a logical corollary must be confronted. Democracy inheres antagonisms, as it is not a perfect state of harmony. And this kind of emancipation, although based on a Universality, would not be available to all since it is conditioned on the will or action of its subject. So we find that this democratic ideal, if it is to be truly egalitarian, must dialectically permit its subject to freely reject the terms of emancipation it is itself offering. But what distinguishes this participatory regime from modernist presuppositions based on classical logic, with binaries of either-in-or-out, is that the subject may reject its thesis and still have a right to exist. It is neither premised on the illusion of perfection nor on the myth of total harmony (which would itself be a state of tyranny). It identifies the failures and cracks immanent to its ideals and negotiates those tensions.

Illustrated in the foregoing is the praxiological thesis animating contemporary art coming from KNUST that has established the Department of Painting and Sculpture as an important hub in contemporary art emerging from West Africa. These ideas have manifested curatorially in blaxTARLINES KUMASI’s critically acclaimed end of year exhibitions in Kumasi and Accra since 2014.The exhibition as testing ground for new symbolic relations between artworks and the production of knowledge, intergenerational conversations, collective curating and accessibility programming (translating exhibition material into braille and other local languages, creating areas within the exhibition space for physically challenged persons who could not access the lower and upper floors of its large-scale exhibitions to get a sense of the works on every floor) are some of the core strategies fervently implemented.

At a time when independent curating has become an itinerant practice, collective curating as a strategy is a laudable response to making the curator (or group of curators) present at any moment in time throughout the duration of the exhibition to ensure that the integrity of the works is protected and preserved through daily care. My trans-disciplinary practice (working as artist, writer and curator) as well as consideration of a multiplicity of spectators (children, older people, visually impaired, workers and people coming from various class backgrounds), translating exhibition material (curatorial statement and captions) into braille, and selecting works that offer multi-sensorial experiences for Spectacles. Speculations… comes as a direct influence of blaxTARLINES KUMASI’s inclusive and egalitarian ethos.

 

— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist, writer and curator based in Kumasi, Ghana.

Extra Links:

 

Notes:

  1. kąrî’kạchä seid’ou explains this concept in an interview with Jelle Bouwhuis stating that “[o]ne expected Neo-Liberal privatization, economic and cultural deregulation, affirmation of freedom of choice and rule of law to stimulate private investment in cultural institutions dedicated to human self-determination. However, if we could say that Ghana’s private mass media thrived in this era, we cannot say so about art departments, galleries, museums and so on. So in terms of cultural institution building, Ghana is a good example of the contradictions of Neo-Liberalism and its globalising processes”. See ‘Silent Parodies. kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis’, in Project 1975 – Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious (J. Bouwhuis and K. Winking eds.), SMBA/blackdog publishing, Amsterdam/London 2014, p.p 109-118
  2. Department of Painting & Sculpture, KNUST. About Us. Retrieved from https://painting.knust.edu.gh/about . It states on the website that “The Department of Painting and Sculpture has the oldest history in the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and among the pioneering art departments in Africa. […] In the Nkrumah Republican period (1960-1966), the School became an autonomous College of Art headed by the painter E. V. Asihene, an Achimota and Goldsmiths alumnus. In the new College, the Department’s curriculum was based on the recommendations of the First Coldstream Report (1960) which had kick-started the upgrade of art schools in the UK to degree status. Principally, external moderators of the new KNUST programme were either social realist artists or affiliates of the British avant-garde teaching at Goldsmiths, the Slade and the Royal College of Art. The succeeding curriculum of the mid 1970s, through the 1980s, had a group of African Modernists from Nigeria as external assessors and moderators. Among them were the eminent artists Ben Enwonwu, Uche Okeke, Solomon Irein Wangboje, and Demas Nwokwo. With an increasing focus on Africanist narrative realism in painting and official statuary in sculpture, the authority of European traditional and early Modernist media, genres and formats remained unchallenged. The curriculum’s range of painting genres still remained within the bounds of still life, landscape and pictorial composition with the stylistic dominance of geodesic (freshman) cubism, the so-called Tek Style which undergirds most murals on campus”. For a critical analysis of the legacy of the vocationalist curriculum in the colonial Gold Coast “Hand and Eye Work” and its legacy in post-independence art teaching in Ghana see also seid’ou k. (2014). Gold Coast Hand and Eye Work: A Genealogical History. Retrieved from http://garj.org/garjhpsir/index.htm
  3. seid’ou k. & Bouwhuis J. Silent parodies: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis,” in Project 1975: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious, eds. Jelle Bouwhuis and Kerstin Winking Amsterdam and London: SMBA and Black Dog Publishing, 2014, pp.109 – pp.18
  4. Rancière theorizes this as that which “reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed. Having a particular ‘occupation’ thereby determines the ability or inability to take charge of what is common to the community; it defines what is visible or not in a common space, endowed with a common language, etc.” See Rancière J. (2004, pp. 12), The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum International Publishing Group, London/New York.
  5. seid’ou’s pedagogic model is based on his communist political persuasion which desires to “transform art from the status of commodity to gift”. In his own words this meant “going on artistic strike, stop “making art” symbolically and to inaugurate a practice of “making artists.” See Enjoy Poverty: A History of its Reception, Sternberg Press, New York, ed. Els Roelandt and Renzo Martens, forthcoming, RENZO MARTENS: TRETIAKOV IN CONGO?: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in conversation (interview held in 2016). Around the time of his appointment as faculty in KNUST in 2003 seid’ou introduced “Interactive Series”, a seminar programme in Kumasi to host contemporary artists and art professionals for talks, workshops, exhibitions, overviews and critique sessions. He also converted his Drawing Class into a curatorial project of guerrilla exhibitions on campus and in the city of Kumasi. Campus and city alike came alive with site-specific exhibitions  with critiques and overviews each year. The blaxTARLINES team in an interview with Contemporary And (C&) recounted a “small revolution” in 1996 at the College of Art at KNUST, see Aicha D. & KNUST Team (2017), Department of Now: The teaching methods at Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology Has Cultivated a New Generation of Innovative Artists (July 4th, 2017). Retrieved from http://www.contemporaryand.com/magazines/past-present-and-future-about-art-in-kumasi/
  6. Enjoy Poverty: A History of its Reception, Sternberg Press, New York, ed. Els Roelandt and Renzo Martens, forthcoming, RENZO MARTENS: TRETIAKOV IN CONGO?: kąrî’kạchä  seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in conversation (interview held in 2016)
  7. kąrî’kạchä  seid’ou made this statement in one of his lectures
  8. See https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/iub-projects-2/2017-2/od-curatorial/
  9. The end of year exhibitions have featured undergraduate students, alumni, faculty, teaching assistants and other guest artists living or dead (For example in 2017, “Orderly Disorderly” featured Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami (1940 – 2016) and Camerounian conceptual artist Goddy Leye (1965-2011). In 2014, a smaller scale exhibition featuring works by students from the graduating class of that year were shown in an exhibition at Nubuke Foundation in Accra. The following year, the trilogy of large-scale exhibitions at the Museum of Science and Technology in Accra — 1. “The Gown Must Go Town” (2015) featuring 57 selected artists and inspired by Kwame Nkrumah’s speech “The African Genius” made in 1963 when he officially opened the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon. The exhibition also celebrated alumni Ibrahim Mahama and El Anutsui for their participation in the Venice Biennial of that year “All The World’s Futures”, and El Anatsui receiving the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the Biennial. 2. “Cornfields in Accra” (2016) featuring 87 selected artists. The exhibition was inspired by Ama Ata Aidoo’s poem of same title written c. 1964-65. The exhibition honored the memory of Camerounian conceptual artist Goddy Leye, founder of ArtBakery in Cameroun. 3. “Orderly Disorderly” (2017) featuring 106 selected artists (fresh graduates, alumni and special guest artists including Professor Ablade Glover, Galle Winston Kofi Dawson, S. K Amenuke, Dr. Dorothy Amenuke, Agyeman Ossei). The exhibition honored the lifework of Professor Ablade Glover and Abbas Kiarostami and featured a body of archives of the Kumasi School among which are manuscripts of poems authored by Uche Okeke. See Ohene-Ayeh K. (June 2017). “Orderly Disorderly” Curatorial Statement. Retrieved from https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/orderly-disorderly-curatorial-statement/

Cutting through the ‘Spectacles’
at blaxTARLINES KUMASI Project Space

 Spectacles. Speculations…’ Exhibition Review by Robin Riskin

Spectacles. Speculations… installation view. Work by Kelvin Haizel, Akwasi Afrane Bediako, Ibrahim Mahama, Aisha Nelson, Poku Mensah. Image courtesy of Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh

 

A dialectical tension. Seduce and cast out. Inside and outside. Lights on, lights off. White cube, black box. Surface or meaning. Flatness or depth. Mediation or immediacy. Spectacle or direct experience of reality. What is reality? What is truth?

Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh’s exhibition ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ deals with all of these contradictions and inconsistencies that mediate contemporary experiences of life and social relations. Riding the current of Guy Debord and the Situationists in France; Espinosa, Solanas, Getino and Third Cinema practitioners of the ’60s-’70s in Latin America; as well as other vanguard movements of the past century, Ohene-Ayeh joins a contemporary conversation on the spectacle (essentially, human relations as mediated by images) which looks at how conditions of our time have been reshaped by technology and globalisation.

The exhibition deals with two main curatorial premises: one, to unhinge the image from its historically dominant pictorial/representational format; and two, that images are not neutral. The idea is to start from the point of multiplicity, from the void; where visual, aural, gestural, linguistic, and other means of image-making all lie on an equal plane. The exhibition does not claim to cover all modes of image production, but it proposes a plurality that, as Ohene-Ayeh has said, alludes to a bigger picture.

Braille translation of curatorial statement

From various angles, then, ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ speaks to the material conditions of our times. At first glance, the space may appear to be dominated by electronically powered screen-based works (monitors, wall projections, hanging projections, even visitors’ own smartphones). We are, after all, living in the ‘screen age’, as curator Nicolas Bourriaud has argued[1]. However, a bit of patience and attention will attune visitors to the presences of non-electrical/non-digital elements. Braille wall texts mark individual works. Metal-plate masks line the edges of the space (a sculptural installation by Edwin Bodjawah). Printed texts on paper are mounted to the wall (by Aisha Nelson and Francis Kokoroko, for whom the paper is merely an avenue to his Instagram). Theatrical and performative events, likewise, take place at various moments—e.g. spoken word by Dzyadzorm, a musical night hosted by Koliko collective, a video recorded iteration of black box theatre by MENonBLACK, and Bright Ackwerh’s animated projections of his computer-aided drawing process.

Clearly, even these gestural, textual, and aural means overlap with screen-based productions—things do not sit neatly in their categories. The exhibition also leads us to consider the sculptural and compositional qualities of the screens themselves and how they have been placed or produced. Think of Mawuenya Amudzi’s vertical sequence of vintage TVs, or the translucent fabric used for Poku Mensah’s filmic projection, which also serves as the site for various screenings throughout the exhibition period. ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ takes ‘technology’ in a broad sense of the word, with every means of production operating as a kind of technology—going back to the root of the word tekhnēas in ‘art’ or ‘craft’; and tekhnologiaas ‘systematic treatment’. The point is to unhinge our approach to the idea of ‘image’ or ‘technology’; to start from a position of equality.

The 15 artists featured in ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ (from hereon, ‘Spectacles’) work with the idea of the image in various ways. Their coming together in the blaxTARLINES KUMASI project space[2]under the curatorial direction of Ohene-Ayeh makes for a sparse and tightly argued exhibition.

If the other main premise is that images are not neutral, then ‘Spectacles’ makes that strikingly clear. Throughout the space are various points and counterpoints that draw the viewer out of a state of absorbed contemplation, and prompt awareness of the constructed nature of the experience and one’s place in it. A white cube space is sliced at the side by a black corridor. A relatively rectangular room and wall displays are cut off diagonally by a hanging screen. An indoor space is juxtaposed with temporal outdoor projections (Ackwerh’s political cartoons). A pair of video monitors at the centre shows you watching yourself (work by Akwasi Afrane Bediako)—but to see your face or see where the camera is coming from, you must turn around, and thus lose sight of the image.

Ohene-Ayeh argues that we must reflect on the ways we produce, disseminate, and consume images, and the ways we inherit them.[3]Taken collectively, the artists present diverse but consistent positions on this question, and on the histories of modernity that have inscribed it.

How have images been used in conditioning the global imagination, Ohene-Ayeh asks. The ideologies behind them can lead us to believe that our current conditions are just the way things are, or the best way things could be. And if for our ancestors things were different, that is because they lived in a time of primitive savagery or medieval darkness—but our times are better, more progressive, more enlightened. Civilisation always moves toward progress, is the mantra.

In recent decades, new modes of technology have exponentially transformed the accessibility and speed with which we access images from around the world. More recent technologies have involved not just one-way image dissemination to a viewing/listening subject (the movie, the phonograph, the TV or radio), but multi-way exchange between users who receive and communicate in both directions (the internet and social media, the computer and cell phone and their ever-evolving prostheses). These devices and platforms have reoriented the ways in which we consume and spread news, stories, text, sound, images. They could have had the emancipatory effect of opening up communications and their interpretation to the masses, but collectively thus far, have only been reincorporated into the capitalist machine. The contemporary failure to effectively democratise new media technologies presents itself as a site of critique for Ohene-Ayeh and artists featured in the show.

Framing the World

Working with a paraconsistent logic enables the exhibition to thrive on contradictions. Tensions between surface and depth, appearance and object, concealing and revealing, recur throughout the scope of ‘Spectacles’. Even with seemingly more fixed formats, meanings begin to slide and spaces unfold beyond their literal dimensions.

In Kokoroko’s work, for instance, a set of printed instructions invites the viewer to sit down and interact on his Instagram page, leading the physical site of exhibition to a virtual flow of images where time runs on a different pace, and an endless newsfeed threatens to perpetually absorb attention. The material presence of Nelson’s work, meanwhile (a translation of her poem from English to Ga), may appear to ground the viewer, who theoretically must wage a mental struggle against colonisations of language. For exhibition-goers who do not speak Ga, the work may operate in a sense like a modernist painting, in which no deeper meaning is to be accessed beyond its surface. At another level, however, a formalist sensibility is disrupted, as meanings creep in from different sides—a) for those who can understand Ga, or with the poem’s original form in English, and b) in the extended analysis/account of the work narrated on Nelson’s blog, which opens up the work to the discursive space of the internet.[4]

Spectacles. Speculations… installation view. Work by Aisha Nelson, Akwase Afrane Bediako, Mawuenya Amudzi, Poku Mensah, Kwabena Afriyie Poku. Image courtesy of Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh

As much as technology can be used to make appearances present, it can also operate to obscure. Images of violence proliferate throughout the exhibition, and yet through digital mediation, their brutality is softened, even concealed. Kelvin Haizel stretches the time of a hip-hop video that recalls Apartheid police violence, such that all the viewer can see are pixellated stills of an abstracted vulture. María Leguízamo appropriates a YouTube compilation of footages of explosions that appear out-of-focus. The images are doubly filtered, having been made by filming the online video as it appeared on screen. A dead fly is stuck onto the exhibited monitor screen with honey, re-invoking the image’s presence as a physical object, or perhaps emphasising its distance.

Poku Mensah projects a photographic appropriation of Dutch Golden Age still life aesthetics depicting a dinner setting. It is only upon repeated or extended attention that the image reveals itself as moving filmic projection, in which the main platter is a black human body curled up on a dish of silver. Ironically, Kwabena Afriyie Poku’s video montage of himself performing martial arts moves may read as potentially aggressive to those familiar with the action movie industry, but are as much premised on rhythms and motions of dance.

The artists’ work highlights the extent to which we imbibe images through their mediation—and their tendency to mask and desensitise; even more so to project as natural or eternal, conditions which are in fact extremely contingent, historically formed, and specific to our time. What the image does is to cut out a frame from reality, and to freeze time, as if its contents were divinely preordained.

This has been the aim of traditional and dominant forms of art since the time human beings began to put representation to the world through pigment. The point was to assure as sanctified the dominant social orders, whether they be of God, King, nation, or more recently, money itself. This was achieved through conventions of beauty, morality, purity, and sacredness. It was validated by the ritualistic experiences of spectatorship constructed in the art museum, gallery, auction house, institution; or historically, the church, temple or palace; or even in Palaeolithic times, the cave.

The artists in ‘Spectacles’ recognise the political forces at work in contemporary productions and historical residues of image-making. Their work attempts in some ways to prompt reflection on, in other ways to question, these conventional orders.

Distance and Intimacy

For instance, Edwin Bodjawah explores the historical production of the so-called primitivist paradigm, engineered as part of the European colonial domination project. Ibrahim Mahama negotiates material residues and exchanges of commodities under systems of global capital. Mawuenya Amudzi, in his recent work, re-situates images from Ghanaian funerary pamphlets—a symptom of the modern disciplinary order not to ‘kill them’ but to ‘let them die’.[5]All of these systems have been designed as a way to separate the self from the other through a relationship of hierarchy—white from black, rich from poor, civilised from savage, human from slave, propertied class from subjects.

Spectacles. Speculations… exhibition production. Image by the author

It is this vital separation that the spectacle makes possible: once it is cut away from its reality, I need not relate to its subject in the same space and time as the one in which I am standing. The distance protects me from entering into dynamic human relations, and keeps me at a safe remove. Thus, images of tragedy and disaster in the world “out there” make welcome fodder for entertainment, even sympathy, but rarely act as means to prompt into self-critical action. One image is just a click or a scroll away from the next, and oh so far away; or so it seems.

However, it is also possible to take distance as something productive. In this sense, it is the very gap produced by the work, the space between artist and audience, that makes it possible for readers to play the role of active interpreters, and thus writers of their own iteration of the story. Such is the case with Afriyie Poku’s martial arts montages, for instance, which resist narrative sequence and play out over time. Through the act of reading or spectating, audiences may translate and/or reform the work. Their understandings may even be subversive to the author’s intentions, which are no more final or authoritative than the reader’s position. A spectator may be a spectator, and an artist an artist—we can acknowledge the roles without presuming a relationship of hierarchy.

Indeed, most of the screen-, text- and image-based works in ‘Spectacles’ (all cohering under the broader concept of the image) demand contemplation and call for time spent studying them. Yet in certain discursive and temporal elements, the distant position of spectatorship is eluded, and a human interaction is yielded. From Dzyadzorm’s spoken word performance and Koliko collective’s music and dance session; to discussion panels taking place in Kumasi and Accra; to phases of exhibition production and daily operations; communities and relations within existing communities have been forged and strengthened through the work, in spontaneous response to given events and needs. Building off the legacy and spirit of previous blaxTARLINES exhibitions, a number of which Ohene-Ayeh has worked on, the situation has not only suggested but actualised the potential of individuals to come together as a group and take hold of their means of production, and to make or assemble new forms.

The dialectical tension between distance and intimacy in ‘Spectacles…’ is not a hierarchical one, but rather productive. The contradictions were called to light (quite literally) during a discussion panel, “In Terms of Images”. Just as Dzyadzorm’s performance was taking off, the power went out and lights and screens shut down. A collective moan filled the room, but immediately audience members and organisers began to switch on their cell phone torches. The whirring of projectors came to a pause, and Dzyadzorm performed by the light of those surrounding her—cutting through the spectacle to the human, and yet still, ultimately, illuminated by its machine.

Dzyadzorm performs spoken word at “In Terms of Images” event, by the light of Selom Kudjie and others’ cell phones. Image by the author

Means of Production

From various points, then, ‘Spectacles’ oscillates in this space between distance and direct contact; individual spectatorship and collective co-presence. Either can be an effective method, as we can acknowledge the equality of the roles of acting and spectating, which are in fact contained within each other. The question, then, is whether new tools are offered to the masses through the production of the work; whether the means of production are democratised.

Does the exhibition intimidate and impress audiences with its apparent authority, specialised expertise, and perfected production values, as Espinosa asks[6]? Is it one where the work exists in a separate, ideal space from the audience, and which only elite art audiences are meant to understand? Or does the work set an example that could be emulated, reformed, remodelled—a teaching function premised on universality? Are the modes of production and spectatorship offered for the consumption and participation of a select few, or are they ones that could be owned by all?

While maintaining high exhibition standards, ‘Spectacles’ leaves signs of its own ground-up, improvised and community-formed basis. The ‘white cube’ model provides a relatively neutral backdrop for presenting works, but is not perfected to the point that the reality of the space dissolves. Exposed beams, uneven rafters, and other apparent ‘imperfections’ remind viewers of their own presence; negating the typical ‘white cube’ idiom of transcendent space or disembodied viewership. They might even suggest the potential of one’s own capacity for production.

Individual artists’ work, moreover, offer models that are increasingly accessible, produced through common technologies and media platforms—YouTube, Instagram, digital editing softwares, smartphone cameraapplications, mini-surveillance devices, alongside age-old practices of writing, drawing, and performing. Digital mediums make it possible to stage an exhibition with artists who practice in disparate places in the world (Ghana, Colombia, and Holland, in this case), and to reproduce works in situ without having transportation costs to cover.

Even the most ‘spectacular’ and high-budget of works—Ibrahim Mahama’s monumental architectural interventions, as documented and conveyed through film—makes an argument for the principle of equality of intelligences. Members of the political and economic underbelly of society, hired as collaborators in the work, take the role of active interpreters who must make sense of their own role in the production. Meanwhile, Bodjawah’s sculptural installation of decommissioned lithographic plates and corrugated roofing sheets, while formed through a series of mechanical tasks that make heavy material demands, is produced with collaborative efforts from studio assistants. It is this community spirit in the College of Art at KNUST that makes ambitious projects possible without outside funding.

Ownership of the Commons

On both an intellectual level and a practical one, then, ‘Spectacles’ defends an art of and for the commons, even as it relates to the issue dialectically.[7]The question that remains, one posed by Ohene-Ayeh’s curatorial premises but which has yet to be resolved, is that of the ownership of the commons. In effect, the art may concern, be produced by, and be exhibited with the masses in mind, but how will the work materially operate when it comes into an economic arena? How artists and curators choose to deal with this question may form the next revolutionary terrain on which art is staged.

In our time, digital and reproducible work proliferate in the artistic field; work made collectively is common practice. Originality in its pure sense has long been lost to history, and the mark or skill of the artist’s hand is no longer deemed necessary. Despite these technological revolutions in aesthetics, the market retains time-old conventions that bring the work back to singularity, in its mission to promote and protect authenticity and thereby commodify and accumulate (cultural) capital.

For even as technology democratises, it also excludes. Aside from arbitrary limitations placed on works for the sake of economic demands, there are other very actual delineations enacted by digitally based works. Digital means make it possible for the curator and artists to make ambitious and widely reachable work on a relatively low budget—but they may also leave out the non-digitally savvy or non-digitally equipped visitor. You will be required to use a smartphone with an internet connection”, read the instructions to enter Francis Kokoroko’s Instagram-based work, as if calling attention to its own borders.

As imperial strongholds of European and American culture exhaust their cultural cachet, they turn to further and further sites upon which to articulate predominant notions of democracy—liberal, progressive iterations that affirm ideals of peace and unity without questioning hegemonic realities of financial capitalism. Such are the conditions of the contemporary global order. Yet even as ideological centres of the world incorporate ever-wider margins into their realm, some artists and practitioners resist the system from within it. Through independent practice premised on modest means but carried out with commitment, the means of production may be democratised toward participation of the masses.

Such is the ethos promoted by blaxTARLINES KUMASI, and shared by the artists participating in ‘Spectacles’ (to an extent). It is not an easy nor straightforward road, and the artists and individuals who choose it must constantly check and reexamine their position. This is where ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ leaves us, in the space between the institutionalised art world and its conventions, and the precarious throes of charting our own path through the network of signs and significations.

Perhaps we might be aided here by kąrî’kạchäseid’ou’s proposal of the “anamorphic stain” as a way to conceptualise the dialectical mode of practice encouraged among young artists at the College of Art in KNUST.[8]The idea is to work “paradoxically”, as kąrî’kạchä describes it, “by first becoming an anamorphic stain in the bigger picture itself”:

This way, the stain instigates a new vision, which requires a necessary shift in the spectator’s perspective. And this shift in perspective leaves the older picture as a stain in the new picture.[9]

In other words, the point is not simply to reverse (op)positional hierarchies in a hegemonic system, nor to reject the system entirely, but to operate as a stain from within that system in order to enact a [re]distribution of the sensible(of modes of sensing, speaking and acting). The site must not be entered based on an illusion of harmony. Rather, it should be intervened in through dynamics of tension and conflict. When an artist asserts their place in that dynamic, a shift in relations can be produced. When this assertion is premised on the principle of universal equality, thus will be to enact politics.

 

— Robin Riskin is a curator based in Kumasi, Ghana and born in Brooklyn, New York. Her work thus far has revolved around architectural and aesthetic residues of modernity, taking inspiration from a multiplicity of ecologies. She has co-curated the blaxTARLINES KUMASI exhibitions “the Gown must go to Town…” (2015), “Silence Between the Lines” (2015), her MFA Curating exhibition if you love me…” (2016), and written texts for publications produced by documenta 14 and the White Cube Gallery (2017). She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana.

Read more about the Exhibition here. 

 

Notes:


[1]See Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘Relational Aesthetics’ (1998/trans. 2002 by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods with Mathieu Copeland).

[2]blaxTARLINES KUMASI is the project space of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. Its operations have been quietly at work for years, and were brought under a name and launched to the public in 2015.

[3]Ohene-Ayeh made this point in the discussion panel titled, “In Terms of Images”, held on 9 March at the ‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ exhibition space.

[4]Nelson’s blog can be accessed on aishawrites.wordpress.com; Kokoroko’s Instagram feed at @accraphoto, as well as Ohene-Ayeh’s blog under the name iubeezy.wordpress.com.

[5]Thus is the modus operandi of a modern political state that monitors and fosters the life of its subjects, as opposed that ofa feudal sovereign who determines their life or death. (A deeper and more compelling analysis can be found in Michel Foucault’s notion of biopolitics.)

[6]See, For an imperfect cinema”, by Julio García Espinosa (1979), as well asTowards a Third Cinema”, by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (1968), which echo arguments made by Walter Benjamin in The Author as Producer” (1934). Benjamin references the operative and productivist practices of Tretyakov, Brecht, Artaud and artists of the Soviet revolution, particularly through mediums like the newspaper, theatre and film. Espinosa, Solanas and Getino re-situate concerns toward the politicisation and massification of art in a postcolonial context, with the “Third World” as the source/site of worldwide liberation movements. They apply these questions to what they deem a “Third Cinema” that arose in Latin America in the ’60s-’70s and with counterparts in Asia and Africa, as a committed technique of guerrilla practice—to revolutionise not only the aesthetics but also the production and distribution of film; in which the art operates as merely a pretext for political consciousness and mobilisation.

For Rancière, meanwhile, politics is not premised on ‘conscientising’ or bringing spectators into action, but is enacted in the moment when the masses recognise their excluded position from the authority to speak or act (the partitioning of the sensible) and thus enunciate for themselves, based on the principle of universal equality (see ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’, 2004). For Rancière, spectatorship is already something active, and looking is an act that reconfigures and transforms the world.

Ultimately, the differing perspectives come back to the same point: to revolutionise the means and tools of production toward a society based on universality. This is the universal principle of the equality of intelligences; of the equal endowment amongst all of the capacity to see, speak, and act; the universal ability to be in the world and also to reflect on it, as made possible through the equalisation of configurations of space-time. For Benjamin, Brecht, Nicolas Bourriaud and others, such a work should be reproducible; it should act as a teaching model. Thus, the many who participate (or for Rancière, spectate) in it can learn from and then reproduce the tool on their own terms.

[7]While much theoretical debate has been waged on the topic of the commons, in this context it can be taken to mean the masses with a shared stake in global resources and social space, who might ideally operate on the basis of collective as opposed to individual interest. Žižek refers to Hardt and Negri’s understanding of the commons as the “shared substance of our social being”, which under capitalism is violently privatised (“How to Begin from the Beginning”, New Leftist Review 2009). “Today, we are all potentially homo sacer” (proletarian, oppressed, excluded), Žižek writes, “and the only way to avoid actually becoming so is to act preventatively”, on the principle of universality as proposed by Rancière.

[8]The artist kąrî’kạchä seid’ou is a teacher in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST (including my own teacher as well as the curator’s and many of the participating artists’).

[9]seid’ou, kąrî’kạchä and Jelle Bouwhuis (2014). “Silent Parodies: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Bouwhuis.” In Jelle Bouwhuis and Kerstin Winking [eds.], Project 1975: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious. London: Black Dog Publishing, pp. 111-117.