Paragraphs on the Contemporary III

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.

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