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In Praise of ‘Ghana Freedom’: On the Nation’s Debut Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale

 

Abstract: 

This paper analyses the historical significance and local relevance of Ghana’s debut Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. By using the historical materialist thesis that an event in the past is not necessarily historical, the paper highlights how, beyond pomp, the Pavilion could have done more to confront the latency of conformism in its desire for representation and inclusion. The paper also offers how the Pavilion could have taken advantage of its happening on the 20th anniversary of the South Meets West (1999) exhibition to critically reflect on and update Ghana’s contemporary art history in addition to recounting postcolonial and transnational genealogies. 

 

 

Read full article here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paradox of Plenty (2019) examines the complementary relationship, and resultant politics, that exists between media technology and nature. Not only is the exhibition wittingly reflecting on the geological substance of our media cultures determined by the plethora of technological devices available today, but also “on the implications between the history of technology and the inner histories of colonial and neocolonial societies.”1 Hence, the artistic research orbits stultifying narratives of mineral extraction and geology particularly stemming from European expeditions to Africa and South America; the politics of representation in natural history museums necessarily linked to colonialist conquests of the 19th century; and the ecological, social and economic axes of our accelerating tech culture. The exhibition also comes to terms with the politics of “accumulation by dispossession” operating at the heart of this phenomenon whose endgame is profit without compunction for the health of the planet and its inhabitants2.  

Hugo de Almeida Pinho, Paradox of Plenty, 2019, installation view, photo courtesy artist.

 

Paradox of Plenty seems to, on the one hand, visualise nature or geological phenomena while replicating it on the other hand through immersive, optical and aural strategies with the relationship existing between these situations being both indexical and open-ended. This calculated conflation is done through imaging technologies such as lightboxes, carousel slide projectors, light therapy glasses, light filters, LED display panel, among others. The mise en scène of still, moving, gestural and embodied spectacles is designed via installation, sculpture, photography, video, film, performance and happenings.

The fact that we can trace the components of our various technological devices to natural raw materials is one thing (for eg. Tin, Tantalum and Tungsten are significant metals in this regard); but the autonomy that these components consequently acquire, coupled with their functions, to shape the given reality within which they come to participate can be considered to be the subversive potential of this transformation from natural substances into mechanical, digital or artificial things— to paraphrase the artist, this is self-evident in the nature and potential of images to alter and manipulate reality as well as our apparatuses of perception3. In this way, not only is the artist directing our attention to the naturalness of such technologies, but also to its entanglement with the fictions inherent in nature4 itself— making it possible to stage such a recursive ensemble of organic, synthetic, and/or artificial images that enter into dynamic relationships— first with themselves, and then with human as well as other bodies.   

Hugo de Almeida Pinho, Paradox of Plenty, 2019, installation view, photo courtesy artist.

To the extent that fiction connotes “using the means of art to construct a “system” of represented actions, assembled forms, and internally coherent signs”5, we can discuss Pinho’s exhibition as a “system” indulging audiences in fictional documentaries6— fictional because the artist utilises the above-mentioned operations and documentary because of the factographic depiction of subject matter. The tensions generated by this paradox invokes the figure of a politically-motivated quasi-ethnographer artist who appears indifferent to mining the void of primitive and contemporary image forms. For example, the geological matter, image objects/mechanisms or evidentiary documents— the stones, their warped print representations on paper, the zoomed-in photographs animated in the form of lightboxes, the motorized carousel projections equipped with self-timers, the artificial rubber plant automatically revolving on a display stand, the seemingly unending stream of texts on LED panel in an immersive “green” environment which is, in turn, periodically animated with the performance of a “body non-body”7, and so on and so forth— consign themselves to a documentary fiction at once drawing attention to their ontic referents as much as to other-worldly experiences. The metonymical value acquired in this constellation frees the ensemble up to exist as signifiers participating in the dialogic discourses of imperialism, techno-science and the evolution of images as such. 

Hugo de Almeida Pinho, Paradox of Plenty, 2019, installation view, photo courtesy artist.

In short, these artificial and organic things acquire the polysemic quality of speaking for themselves in Pinho’s controlled world of image presences (whether invented or existing, in physical form or otherwise). The artist’s “system” attests to a condition of the image fervently affirming its conformist tendencies (merely acting as a “faithful copy” of an originary something, illustrating/documenting the subject matter) and then proceeding to utilize the power of fiction to create a constellation which calls its operation of contingency and indeterminacy to play8. Such might the enigma be of creating an intricate web binding the virtual enchantments of the subject matter to the ugliness of its real-world effects.

— IUB (2020)

** Paradox of Plenty (23/05 – 16/06/2019) is a solo exhibition by Hugo Almeida Pinho which happened at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. For more information on the exhibition visit https://www.bethanien.de/en/exhibitions/hugo-de-almeida-pinho/ 

For more on Pinho’s work see http://www.hugodealmeidapinho.com 

 

Endnotes:

1 See exhibition press release. Additionally, the crux of the exhibition could be summarised thus: “Paradox of Plenty addresses two subjects that have become relevant in understanding our natural and technological condition: the processes of nature artificialization and the intensive integration of mineral resources into technological devices – whose economic, ecological and social traces implicate the history of technology in the histories of colonial and neo-colonial societies”. See exhibition statement by Sara Castelo Branco. 

2 That is to say the law of commodification of the kind stretching from imperialism well into neoliberal globalisation.

3 See Paradox of Plenty (2019) press release. 

4 There is a durational performance in the exhibition titled similarly as “Nature Fictions”. 

5 Jacques Rancière suggests that “[…] “fiction” is not a pretty story or evil lie, the flipside of reality that people try to pass off for it. Originally, fingere  doesn’t mean “to feign” but “to forge.” Fiction means using the means of art to construct a “system” of represented actions, assembled forms, and internally coherent signs.” See ibid. 158. 

6 I owe this thought to Rancière who applies this theory to moving images in particular. For him, “[d]ocumentary fiction invents new intrigues with historical documents.” See Jacques Rancière. Film Fables (Talking Images). 2006. Trans. Emilliano Battista. Berg Publishers, Oxford, New York. 18.

7 The artist defines this as “a human at negative and as a shadow, who in a slow movement assumes various static and sculptural positions in space, wearing only glasses that constitute a set of light artificialization devices used in the therapy of various conditions triggered by the routines of contemporary life”. This is the performance titled “Nature Fictions” in note 4. 

8 Rancière contends that the term ‘image’ refers to “two different things. There is the simple relationship that produces the likeness of an original: not necessarily its faithful copy, but simply what suffices to stand in for it. And there is the interplay of operations that produces what we call art: or precisely an alteration of resemblance. This alteration can take a myriad of forms”. See Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image, 2019,  trans. Gregory Elliott, Verso, London/New York, 6.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modernist architecture in the early twentieth century aimed to reflect the shift in industrial society from manual to mass production. One of the ways it achieved this was to render the surface of its buildings in a way that depicted no representational motifs illustrative of the building’s purpose. This consequence of modernity had jettisoned all decorative and stylistic conventions in the classical attitude to the architectural skin in favour of a kind of utilitarian essence according to which its elements were composed— for instance, modular grids organized into simplified rectilinear forms emphasizing liberal ideas of democracy and individualism as well as expressing the capitalist logic of standardisation became its characteristic idiom. The buildings were designed to emphasize structural relations as much as functional value primarily through the use of glass, steel, and reinforced concrete1. The aesthetic imperative was one committed to achieving enormous levels of transparency on the facade of the building envelope by opening “its walls like curtains to admit a plenitude of fresh air, daylight and sunshine”2 (figs. 1 & 2).

These principles animated so-called International Style architecture whose less neutral and more expressive variant, namely Tropical Modernism— responding particularly to the tropical climate by treating the building facade as a porous membrane that responds to natural ventilation3— also transformed the skylines and landscapes in countries from Ghana to Israel, Brazil, Colombia and others during the late colonial period into the Independence era and beyond.

In tandem, high Modernism was also making strides to surpass naturalistic or representational traditions in modernist painting and sculpture so as to emphasize opticality as such. “Self-definition” had become the mantra of this paradigm which, in this context, meant a kind of purity where the essence of the painting medium was considered strictly in terms of the properties of pigment, flatness of surface and shape of the support while upholding the two-fold pictorial conventions of “flatness, and the delimitation of flatness”4. For sculpture, which is already in the domain of three-dimensions (a forbidden zone for high and late modernist painting), the combo of shape and colour had become crucial factors to cleanse or cure its surface from literalness or “objecthood”5, which simply means intentionally securing the sculpture from any arbitrariness, towards muteness and authenticity, with the supreme purpose of uniformly absorbing6 the disembodied eye(s) of its spectator(s). In pictorial terms, the structural hierarchy between literal shape (boundaries of the canvas) and depicted shape (content of the canvas) privileged the latter over the former in terms of value. Later mid-century movements in art— Minimalism, Conceptualism, Institutional Critique, Pop Art, Feminist art and others— will problematize these purist and totalistic notions and pervert them altogether. Postmodern architecture from the late 1960s also reinstated representational mechanisms in its treatment of the building envelope as a gesture of critique towards its predecessor.

If Elolo Bosoka’s preoccupation with “flatness, objecthood and theatricality”7 in his solo exhibition Lines, Planes and Ridges in Between (2018) seems to be responding to such dated formalist discourses in art and architecture, then his speculative approach extends them with the extra elements of materiality and contingency. In his ensemble of objects, situations and encounters created with fashioned and found objects— including industrially woven Polypropylene raffia sacks for bagging various commodities, used tomato paste cans (a standard of measurement for commodities in open markets and other sites of exchange), wooden shelves, video on screen and light fixtures— the artist ventures into the realms of contemporaneity8. Pictorial, sculptural, installation and architectural forms are subsumed into the generalized category of objects, capturing the artist’s indifference and sensitivity to the materials and mediums employed.

The used plastic raffia bags are theatrically treated in the following ways: 1. Montaged and stretched onto wooden frames to achieve flatness in a painterly sense (fig. 5) and 2. Scorched with electric burners to transform them into eerily wrinkled concatenations of indistinctly seared tapestries (fig. 6) which are stretched out on the floor, stacked on top of each other or hung on vertical elements. His montaged panels appear flat and pristine but a closer inspection punctures this guile with evidence of an arbitrary “hand” through sewn patches, frayed ends or the bare materiality of slits in the fragile ribbons of the woven bag consequent of the pressure applied in stretching them on wooden frames. Variations in colour, text and other symbolic traces emerge as accidentals natural to the synthetic material.

Architecture is necessarily bound to the question of use or function in a way that art is not. The elevated volume or upper level of the low-rise modernist structure of the Senior Staff Club House9 (fig. 8) is supported by a series of rectangular columns, slab and a lower volume. Apart from the building’s fenestration and modular grid-screened facade, this form of elevation adds to the several passive cooling techniques achieved in the building. It goes without saying that the building also demands visitors to submit to the rhythm of its interior and exterior design.

In terms of spectatorship, Bosoka’s angular frames, triptych wooden shelves, video on screen, and indistinct plastic raffia tapestries all correspond to a frontal orientation for the viewer who becomes transfixed before them. For this to happen the work demands the viewer’s attention. And this retinal attentiveness (which is synonymous to absorption) is what, at the same time, causes disinterest in the interior and exterior peripheries of the architectural context in a traditional exhibition setup. But since the artist nominally includes the building as a component in the exhibition itself he actively complicates the effect of total absorption as the works toggle between asserting their self-importance and acting as backdrop or lure to other equally interesting experiences (figs. 7-9). One’s awareness of the architectural dimension sharply attunes their senses to the plurality of existential elements at play within that given moment. They are not only called upon to gaze at things but to also, for example, participate in a game of snooker, watch a TV show, have a drink, embody the coolness of the building’s loggia and the temperance of natural and artificial lighting, and so on and so forth.

 

In short, the architectural presence, in its scale, content and form, undermines the effect of pure opticality thereby dialecticising the tensions between absorption, distraction and participation within the exhibition space when it becomes an active component in the ensemble of things. These parameters beckon us to wander within the domain of the exhibition site as we would habitually do with any other habitable environment.

— IUB (2020)

 

1 Walter Gropius, leading figure of this formalist movement (what was then referred to as The New Architecture), in celebrating the age of machine production states that the “fresh technical resources have furthered the disintegration of solid masses of masonry into slender piers, with consequent far-reaching economies in bulk, space, weight, and haulage. New synthetic substances— steel, concrete, glass— are actively superseding the traditional raw materials of construction. Their rigidity and molecular density have made it possible to erect wide-spanned and all but transparent structures for which the skill of previous ages was manifestly adequate. This enormous saving in structural volume was an architectural revolution in itself.” See Walter Gropius. The New Architecture and the Bauhaus. 1965. Trans. P. Morton Shand. The M.I.T Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp. 25.  

2 Ibid. pp. 43-44.

3 Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew outline what they consider to be the “three main considerations influencing architectural design in the tropics” as 1) The people and their needs, 2) climate and its attendant ills, and 3) materials and the means of building. See Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. Tropical Architecture in the Dry and Humid Zones. 1974. Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, Huntington, New York. 

4 see Clement Greenberg’s essay Modernist Painting (1960).

5 See Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood (1967) where he outlines what for him constitutes art and non-art in the high Modernist canon. 

6 For a detailed treatment of this concept of absorption see Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality and Art and Objecthood. 

7 Refer to exhibition press release.

8 For artist, poet and pedagogue kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, “”art” in the contemporary conception encompasses also all creative expression valued for their contemplative, aesthetic or theoretic value”. See seid’ou k. 2006. Theoretical Foundations of the KNUST Painting Programme: A Philosophical inquiry and its contextual relevance in Ghanaian Culture [Unpublished PhD Thesis]. Kumasi: KNUST. pp. 74.

9 The Senior Staff Club House was constructed in Ghana’s Republican era in the 1960s and was designed by Professor John Owusu Addo (b. 1928). Owusu Addo’s iconic projects include the Unity Hall in KNUST, Bomso Clinic in Kumasi and Cedi House in Accra.

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

 

“[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. 

 

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