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Exhibition reviews

Upon visiting Elia Nurvista’s Früchtlinge (2019) solo exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, one is confronted with a theatre of images where autonomous digital, virtual and biological technologies interact with each other. This ensemble of images, producing both complementary and contradictory symbolic relations between independent objects—six digital prints, an installation of three dough sculptures set on a low-standing table supplemented with fresh fruits and flour and a video animation installed with sound—, carries aesthetic consequences. The role of the audience is not necessarily to validate the works but to join and possibly contribute to their multi-dimensional and multi-sensorial system.

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019)

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo courtesy Elia Nurvista.

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019)

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo courtesy Elia Nurvista.

The digital pictures are printed and mounted on walls, which is to say that they exist on a planar support. Flat objects tend to highlight what is on their surfaces. In this case there are pictorial illusions of three-dimensional still lifes and landscapes set on two-dimensional surfaces. The eye is goaded on to perceive distance, depth, volume and mass; all of which are merely optical. The eye is also beckoned to contemplate a picture that is contrived to exist solely within the boundaries of the rectangular shape of the support in a particular position in space and can only be seen from an angle that is exclusively frontal. The video animation gives virtual form to the ensemble with moving pictures projected onto an opaque surface. The materiality of this image, as opposed to one mediated by a screen, for example, makes it such that any opaque object that enters the region of the streams of light rays, beaming from a source projector, temporarily alters the image form: it could be a fly or a human being breaking the flow of images by becoming immersed in it. Employing this display method also allows for the possibility of liberating flatness and frontality from pictorialist limitations and transforming them into qualities that are enhanced when combined with the aural form. The installation of objects displays unprocessed foods including pineapples, pomegranates, grapes, oranges as well as wheat flour on a table centred in the exhibition space with some components placed directly onto the floor.

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019)

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo by author.

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019)

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo courtesy Elia Nurvista.

There are similarities and tensions between the effects of how the still and moving pictures mounted on various faces of the walls in the exhibition and the installation of perishable and processed food objects interact, augment and even undermine one another. In a sense, the wall-mounted prints—digitally manipulated pictures remixing 17th century Vanitas still life paintings and other genre scenes—come into conversation with a video animation with sound and the real food objects in the installation, thus conflating the digital, biological and virtual. Whereas the stills operate on a fictional logic of montaging (where new meanings are produced between already-existing images through juxtaposition or other methods of sequencing, evidenced in Nurvista’s DJing of content mined from the internet) and offer artistic experiences accessible only to the eye, the video allows the spectator to encounter virtual worlds by employing both optical and aural images. Even though both still and moving images lead viewers into a frontal position by totalising what is before them, the degree to which this is achieved is more inflexible with the still pictures than it is with the video projection; hence complicating the distance between the form itself and the spectator.

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019),

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo by author.

It is important to reflect on this distance (also used as an artistic technique in the exhibition) because it regulates the confrontational encounter between the flat works and their audiences. For the digital prints, the illusion of space is extrinsic to the viewers’ temporal contingencies, commanding only the ‘disembodied eye’. The video animation organises its mode of experience by engaging the body in such a way that it can see, hear and move about in front of the moving image and still be able to come to terms with the work. The experience is made somewhat relative to one’s position in relation to the work, unlike what happens with the printed stills. If the stills display worlds alienating the viewer from realtime, the video animation smuggles a consciousness into the order of things with a body that is aware of itself (and here we cannot evade the question of time and how its literal and conceptual dimensions impact the nexus of relations constituted within the entire exhibition).

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019)

Elia Nurvista, Früchtlinge (2019), solo exhibition, Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery, Berlin, photo courtesy Elia Nurvista.

The installation of food objects comes in to obliterate any semblance of a transcendent or ‘over there’ time as it already situates elements directly on the floor. In addition to the possibility of audiences literally picking up any of the fruits—whether to eat or simply to touch and feel—, the work is infused with a kind of readiness or immediacy in terms of experiencing it in the here and now. Literal time becomes the element that activates unpredictable contingencies through perishability. The consumables in the exhibition space produce smells which intensify as they decay. This natural biological event, on its own, also has the potential of inviting other non-human organisms into the experience. In this sense the work can be said to elicit a kind of interactivity and participation that is not exclusive to the human spectator but is one that involves and can be activated by a multiplicity of agents.

In sum, Nurvista’s world of image objects in Früchtlinge seems to thrive as much on coherence as it does on oppositional relations: permanence exists vis-à-vis the ephemeral, transcendence (eternal time) with the profane (or secular time). Its logical framework permits inelastic alienation and proceeds to radically abolish it elsewhere within the constellation through participation. The organising principle of inclusion in the exhibition, even at the risk of unpredictability, attempts to open up the ambit of visuality in order to complicate what/how we see, hear, feel, taste, smell and to involve and implicate even more.

… (2019)

*The exhibition run at Künstlerhaus Bethanien from 17th January to 10th February 2019.
*A version of this text is soon to be published in the exhibition catalog.

www.elianurvista.com

 

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“[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 ironically summed up in the formula posited 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.  

– (2018).

 

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. 

 

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.

Spectacles. Speculations… exhibition review by Billie McTernan

 

Imagine you are watching some action on a digital screen and the screen goes blank. The sound continues but you see nothing. You keep your eyes on the screen urging the action to return to it. You shuffle in your seat. You look around you. You desire it. What if the action, as you saw it, never returns. Instead another image appears on the screen and it is of you. You are now looking at yourself, looking at yourself.

Curator Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh introduces the exhibition hall for ‘Spectacles. Speculations…‘ as a laboratory, a testing ground for visual and auditory stimuli. The exhibition seeks “an experimental exhibitionary approach to analysing the contemporary condition of the image given its immanence of aesthetics and politics,” he writes in his curatorial statement. To this end Ohene-Ayeh focuses on spectacles by way of mass media, advertising, and the Internet. Tools of our time used to transmit, and receive, information.

Pointing to the last century, he further describes the spectacle as “a regime of images manufactured by ruling classes to subvert reality and indeed to replace it.” It is the means by which the global power struggle between capitalist, socialist, communist and fascist ideologies played out in the arts – in film in particular – and the way images were used and disseminated as a means of justifying causes. In the current age, as capitalism rules supreme, images are created to feed an appetite of consumerism. By regime, a word associated with political oppression, there is little room to mistake the curator’s misgivings about the modern way images are presented.

To think about the image I look to philosopher Vilém Flusser’s forward-looking essay – first published in 1985 – Into the Universe of Technical Images. In which he writes:

“Technical images are currently connected so that their senders are at the center of society, places from which the images are broadcast to scatter and disperse the society.”

With the propensity of social and digital media, we are in the position to increasingly observe but not necessarily interact with each other. He points to the illusionary nature of these centres of society, the subversion of reality.

He later adds:

“They are like the proverbial onion: layer after layer comes away, but when everything has been understood, explained, there’s nothing left. It appears that no one and nothing lies at the center of contemporary society: senders are nothing but those dimensionless points from which the media bundles stream.”

Where Flusser views this as a non-place that has developed from an increasingly automated and functionary use of technology, here, in this room filled with screens and video projections it feels as though we have stepped into a control room. A physical behind-the-scenes place we would normally not have access to.

One of the most striking pieces in the show is ‘Fooding‘ by Poku Mensah, who, like a roasted turkey, is crouched, tied up and gagged on a chopping board, while hands grab the potatoes and oranges on plates around him. Occasionally a meat cleaver is clenched and a piece of bread wiped along his back. When the artist, in his portrayal, looks around the room he is in and occasionally looks into the camera there is a sense of desperation. It is uncomfortable to watch and yet I can’t take my eyes off of it. I feel like a voyeur, passively observing the destruction and exploitation of his body.

On four screens, adjacent to each other, we watch a sequence of a man performing sequences of Karate katas. It would seem that he has mastered those steps, he moves methodically, carrying out a ritual. Through Kwabena Afriyie Poku‘s installation we are peering into his space, his process, watching his hands sway, the thrust of his leg and stamp of his feet. Though less harmful than that of the previous piece, the voyeuristic feeling returns.

There is a fly stuck to an old television screen, in a piece by María Leguízamo. At first glance it appears to be inside the box, part of the image that is being shown. But as you get closer, as you put your nose up against it, you see that it has been stuck on. Let’s take ourselves to be the fly. Edging ever closer to the alluring images on our screens until one day, we are stuck.

The three-month long exhibition culminates with the screening of a black box theatre production by MENonBLACK, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The TrialIn the piece the protagonist is arrested and charged with a crime that is unknown to him and unknown to the state that has charged him. The dangerous absurdity that comes with an almost deranged system is cutting. What if the order flips? How does one know what should be considered normal or just when the establishment is ultimately flawed?

A Big Brother of sorts appears in different parts of the exhibition. There are the serialised face masks by Edwin Bodjawah that run across the wall and the ceiling upon entering the exhibition hall, and a live camera feed overhead recording the visitors seeing themselves seeing things.

‘Spectacles. Speculations…’ encourages viewers to question what they consume. It encourages a questioning of the systems that propagate that consumption and the question about who benefits from our consumptions. We are reminded here that data is king. The hottest commodity of our time.

To drive home this point a more deliberate social media campaign by the curatorial team would have been welcomed. A considered anti-campaign approach to counter what fills our mobile and laptop devices. Though the exhibition hall as a centre for the points of consideration was fulfilled, interaction through newer technologies and platforms on which these issues currently play out could have been more engaging.

While Flusser posits that there is nothing at the centre of contemporary society, no “dark men behind the scenes or gray eminences with evil intentions that can be exposed,”  Spectacles suggests that these sinister beings do indeed exist, or at least a sinister system, couched in purposeful manipulation to control thought and subvert reality. But we are not removed from this system. We are both the senders and receivers of images. We also create, and curate, our own spectacles.

As the visitors shuffle around the exhibition hall I watch them through the live camera feed. I catch a glimpse of myself and check that my hair is not out of place or my clothes dishevelled. I look around with caution to see if anyone noticed. I can’t tell. Maybe there is another camera in the room, watching from some undetected place.

 

Billie A. McTernan is a writer and editor covering the arts, culture and political affairs across Africa and the black diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @billie_mac.

 

Read more about the Exhibition here. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— IUB (2017).

Credits:

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Written by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017)

Note:

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

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

Curator:
Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah