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17th ACASA (Arts Council of the African Studies Association) Triennial Symposium on African Art
Session 7.4 – Emancipation: Critical Art Teaching in Kumasi and the Rise of Independent Public Art Projects in Ghana
Paper by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh
August 10, 2017

The Politics of Relationality

The assumptions historically underlying Socially-Engaged or Community-based practices often take marginalized groups as a starting point for political engagement. Artists then go on to identify these communities as their ‘sites of intervention’. If poverty is systemically produced then to what extent are the symbolic solutions proposed by artists sufficient as responses to this problem? Do we as artists ourselves not benefit from the conditions we denounce in the domain of the other both in symbolic and material terms? Is there not a tendency of exploitation inimical to engaging already disempowered marginal communities — be they autistic children, senior citizens groups, women’s groups, African American communities, LGBTQ societies, Hispanic communities, and so on?

The ever diminishing role of governments in regulating global finance in our neoliberal epoch animates community-engaged art practices in ways that should compel artists in the early decades of this century to re-think the assumptions that underlie this kind of practice. Exacerbating the phenomenon of excessive privatization is the “NGO-ization of everything”, where NGOs seem to offer answers with the funding they provide. But do they really?

So too must we rethink the historical Relational Aesthetics: that is, art that takes conviviality as its premise and form, if we are to respond to the crises, contradictions and finitude of capitalist processes.

I propose that politically-engaged art practices must, in equal measure, consider the oppressed or exploited other — in whose name they make their political interventions— in terms of history (cultural identity), economics, geopolitics, ethical judgment, aesthetic judgment and personal responsibility.

1. History: Is in terms of the socio-cultural events that define the sites of intervention.

2. Economics: Looks at the economic relations that pertain between members of this community group and the dominant culture or status quo.

3. Geopolitics: Takes into account global political events that compel a holistic disposition in diagnosing how ‘sites of intervention’ are produced in a financialized world economic system. These sites are not accidents and also relate one to another.

4. Ethical judgment: This is the reason for which the artist is making their intervention in the first place.

5. Aesthetic judgment: Takes into account the quality of the artwork. If the form is relational, then the formal qualities must be assessed on this basis, actively engaging the tensions and antagonisms implicit in the “means of production” where exploitation, disempowerment, marginalization and so on are produced.

6. Personal Responsibility: Looks at potential complicity. This is where the artist must reflexively ask “What is my role in all this?” The artist has identified this site and, in most cases, has nominated him/herself as the intercessor. They must, first of all, deal with the tendency of exploitation in themselves that is always inimical to any act of alienation (which is implied in their decision to make any kind of intervention) so as not to perpetuate the pertaining status quo, if that is a concern.

If the former model takes its subject as a passive collaborator to be “saved” and only reads them in terms of cultural identity, the model I have proposed seeks to invoke the oppressed or exploited person or groups as a complex agent or set of agents no different from the artist him/herself when we locate their agency in their own will — that is, whether or not they are willing to collaborate with the artist or cultural institution initiating whichever project; whether or not they are even willing to subvert the conditions they find themselves in and so on.

This dimension, the will, introduces an immensely complex dynamic between the marginalized group, the artist and/or art/funding institution.

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The mad man is not the man who has lost his reason. The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
— Gilbert Keith Chesterton

 

Whenever someone who means well says “follow your passion”, they are implying the ones which lead to good ends, the positive ones, so to speak. They surely do not mean the ones that will destroy its subject. For there are some of our passions — such as vindictiveness, envy and so on— which must be suppressed at all costs. Those who are in the habit of fulfilling them are abhorred by the rest of us. The other day I listened to a prominent entertainer preach total freedom in his music. Specifically, his was the kind that freed us to our erotic passions — the irresponsible kind. He talked about that expression of love as if its pursuit is itself an end. It struck me then that he was equivocating love with pleasure, or more generally, desire. Very often we talk about freedom as something that is intrinsically good or as a condition better than its converse whether or not others agree with us. We talk about it as a moral virtue that is objectively binding, that is, it ought to be desired, approved of or acquired as a universal standard. Notice that it comes with an imperative. But just because one ought to do something does not mean one cannot choose to do otherwise — even if it goes against their own self- or communal interest. This dimension to freedom is what I intend to discuss below.

In our politically correct times terms like “objective”, “moral” and the like attract virulent remarks when invoked. I seek interlocution with those of my readers who believe in democratic intellectual engagements by following the argument where it leads without censoring any idea a priori. For those of my liberal readers who may, for any peculiar reason, retort by saying, “Yes, freedom is a good thing” but that “there are no such things as objective standards”, we would have to analyze what they really mean. First of all the former claim contradicts the latter. While this reader is asserting that freedom is indeed a good thing they are not qualifying it with “I think…” or “for me…” or “for us…”, all of which would effectively de-fang the statement of its authority. They mean it for everybody including those with whom they are in disagreement. It is one thing to make the universal claim that objective standards do not exist and another to say that one disbelieves in them. It is perfectly reasonable to accept the existence of something (either an idea or a physical thing one has yet to encounter) and then to go on to disagree with or disbelieve in it. In fact, it is only by granting a thing the privilege of existence that one subsequently possesses any meaningful right to reject, affirm or be indifferent to it. If I insist that it can not or does not exist at all, I am forced not to even think about it. But the mind, in principle, must be free to think whatever it pleases and so any ideology that seeks to attack this principle is unnatural and should be abolished. The truly free thinker is free, as well, to restrict her own thoughts.

Furthermore, this liberal reader has no basis upon which to counter my statement because his own philosophical position forbids him from doing so. If I asked him why I could not say that goodness is objectively binding he would, or rather should, respond that it is because “everything is contingent”. But this infinite sceptic has not anticipated the follow up question “how can you be certain of that?” This seemingly harmless and simplest of questions exposes a principal weakness in his worldview. Lacking humility to concede his intellectual incompetence, our ideologue proceeds to do one of two things: either resorting to the anti-democratic sentiment “… because I say so” or else he proceeds to offer defensive circular arguments. Our liberal friend is really a dogmatist. The statement “everything is contingent” is itself an unconditional, objective statement denouncing objective statements. His argument is wildly incoherent. Their denunciation is not an intellectual one (although it pretends to be): in truth, they are rejecting the principle because of where or from whom it is coming and not necessarily for the reason that the assumption is faulty.

Now that we have exposed the bigotry in my liberal friend’s rebuttals we can move on to treating the topic at hand. If freedom is good and if goodness is not a contingent moral virtue then we must now come to terms with its complexities. There is an implicit nature of goodness that I find stimulating. The moment a thing, action or event is deemed good, it necessarily comes with its opposite, because every good thing is potentially corruptible. It is what makes the thing meaningful because it can crack or fail and become something other than itself. This tendency is always there, undermining the thing itself. Abena is at liberty to eat whatever suits her taste so she can nourish her body but this desire to eat, if left unrestrained, may lead her into an obsessive desire for food. She ends up a glutton or bulimic — both of which are dangerously detrimental to her own health. As a corollary, Abena’s desire to eat has no effect on the reality that there are foods out there that will poison her body once ingested. She must be strictly selective if her aim is to sustain her own life.

Furthermore, a desire or passion is not necessarily legitimized by its expression. I am talking here about owning up to the sense of responsibility that is inextricably bound to any kind of freedom: both to our own selves and to the next person. It is not sufficient to seek and espouse goodness in itself. The precarious relationship it has with the will means it can fail. These days the context for discussing the rhetoric of freedom is power — and power is a game always reserved for the few. I have often wondered why love is not as often posited as a revolutionary ethic in our time. Love, although it has a tendency for perversion, is also the supreme ethic that takes us closest to ideals of equality and democracy. Love, by definition is inclusive. It inheres respect, trust and mutuality. It can be critical of its object — even while it may condemn their actions. It does not stultify. But power, on the other hand — lacking such checks— tendentiously corrupts its subject and perpetuates inequality.

James Baldwin teaches about fighting power with love. Baldwin understands, fully well, the myth of the ‘color line’ when he states in characteristic sharpness and conviction that “[c]olor is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality. But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West has not been able to make it yet. And at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this [American] nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains.”1 He understands that the identity conferred on one on either side of the racial divide in America is one that becomes valid only when used for political currency, that is, by the megaloman. In an open letter to fellow activist Angela Davis, he illustrates this more clearly by asserting “[w]hat the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil is not a racial war but a civil war.”2 I find his use of “brothers” a very loaded metaphor.

A person can so preoccupy themselves with the desire for freedom and its pursuit that it paradoxically makes them slavish without them realizing it. This slavishness is euphemistically justified today as the dogmatic assertion of one’s human rights. Clive Staples Lewis reminds us that “if all men stood talking of their rights before they went up a mast or down a sewer or stoked a furnace or joined an army, we should all perish; nor while they talked of their rights would they learn to do these things. […] the man preoccupied with his own rights is not only a disastrous, but a very unlovely object; indeed, one of the worst mischiefs we do by treating a man unjustly is that we force him to be thus preoccupied.”3 If we think this 20th century prophetic voice not attuned to our time, Arundhati Roy offers a more politically sensitive description suited to a 21st century world plagued by refugee crises, mass surveillance, censorship, increased worker insecurity, and obscene concentration of wealth in an ever diminishing global minority. Roy, in critiquing NGOs as global finance’s apparatus of controlling public commons, states that “[NGOs] have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals, and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation, ushering them in the direction of multiculturalism, gender equity, community development — the discourse couched in the language of identity politics and human rights.”4 There comes a time when one must suspend their own rights for the benefit of another.

It is as if we have come to lack the capacity for vulnerability, which can really be a position of strength if we are bold enough to think so. We become weak in the pursuit of power. Freedom has become a vacant term synonymous with consumerism. The freedoms we insist on — the irresponsible kind—, in the context of political emancipation, are not liberating at all but oppressive and tyrannical. We become slaves to our own passions and to those who possess the means to profit from them.

Given the consequences of modernity barreling down since the 15th century into today’s neo-liberal epoch — amidst precarious labor groups, ecological threats, new forms of exploitation and apartheid systems, etc — liberty is a necessary ideal. However, I hold the view that freedom is not an absolute concept. It, too, has its problems and limitations. And so I wish to discuss two kinds of people who I think embody some of the lapses in living free without consideration of another or care for responsibilities: namely the child and the madman.

Children are an interesting kind of people. They possess the strength to delight in the mundane. They are wild, uninhibited, impassioned, and indifferent— in terms of how they engage objects. A child will treat a pen with the same attitude they would a rock. The vitality in their disposition opens them up to wondrous pleasures in ordinary things. They are quick to rage and forget in equal measure when something is done to them of which they do not approve. They want what they want when they want, unquestioned. Not premeditatedly so but by disposition. Precisely because of this is why adults usually exhaust themselves trying to keep them from living so, and with good reason. Now this is the point I wish to put across: because they wish to espouse freedom in this sense, they cannot be responsible, neither to themselves nor to anyone else. Someone else must fill that hole created, not them. As such we do not trust them. No responsible adult would leave their toddlers unattended to. A child can suddenly burst with excitement of seeing something across the street and wander into it oblivious to speeding traffic. Very few of us would blame him if he hurt himself from this mindless action. We would direct our displeasure to the negligent adult who let this happen.

Another sort of free human being is the madman. She is totally, and excusably so, free from all societal or cultural norms. While some societies who claim to be more advanced criminalize mental health, others seek to cure them by collecting them into disciplinary spaces often referred to as Rehabilitation Centers or Psychiatric Homes. This, for me, is enough proof that although today’s societies would not admit it, we really believe, as a matter of principle, that no man nor woman should be left to be so free. For the societies that leave them to be, we see what freedom from social restrictions really mean.

The concept of freedom implies that its subject can, at any time terminate it simply by exercising a will to do so. In the same way we cannot talk about an a one-ended stick, we must — regardless of the political positions we bring to the table — discuss the other sides of our choices and decisions for we cannot escape their consequences. Those who preach absolute freedom to our erotic passions, artistic sensibilities, natural proclivities and dispositions exhibit one of two traits: they are either irresponsible or morbidly single-minded. Like the child, these people have to grow up! Or else be cured at once from their  disease of morbid single-mindedness for what they are proposing is an unlivable ideal.

–2017.

Notes:

Epigraph: Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Popular Classics Publishing, 2012, p11,

  1. See James Baldwin, Letter From a Region In My Mind, The New Yorker, November 17, 1962 issue. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind
  2. James Baldwin, An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis, 1970. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/01/07/an-open-letter-to-my-sister-miss-angela-davis/
  3. C. S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, Ed. Walt Hooper, Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 240.
  4. See Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Haymarket Books, 2014, pp. 34. Roy contextualizes the phenomenon of NGOs as an apparatus of control in corporate globalization by stating: “As the IMF enforced structural adjustment and arm-twisted governments into cutting back on public spending on health, education, child care, development, the NGOs moved in. The Privatization of Everything has also meant the NGO-ization of Everything. As jobs and livelihoods disappeared, NGOs have become an important source of employment, even for those who see them for what they are. And they are certainly not all bad. Of the millions of NGOs, some do remarkable, radical work, and it would be a travesty to tar all NGOs with the same brush. However, the corporate or foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally as shareholders buy shares in companies, and then try to control them from within. They sit like nodes on the central nervous system, the pathways along which global finance flows. They work like transmitters, receivers, shock absorbers, alert to every impulse, careful never to annoy the governments of their host countries.” ibid, pp. 33.

Eric Gyamfi’s black-and-white photographic series Just Like Us (2016), explores subjectivities of desire, sexuality, conviviality, despair, anxiety, intimacy, joy, and mundaneness and portrays the normality that circumscribes queer lives in Ghanaian society. The series is a documentary project developed over a yearlong period with subjects (some of whom are friends of the artist) who identify within the LGBTQ spectrum and others who do not. He describes the process as “living with people for weeks and months” to be able to tell stories from their perspectives. Sexuality, through this body of work, becomes a starting point to begin to explore themes of everydayness and raise questions about the problematics inherent in the concept of ‘normality’. Gyamfi, born in Ghana, received his bachelor’s in Economics and Information Studies from the University of Ghana and later developed his interest in photography by training in the Nuku Studio master classes —an annual photography workshop program open to local and international photographers.

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view8

See Me See You (2016) the resulting exhibition from the series — supported by the Magnum Foundation’s Emergency Fund — seeks to “instigate a kind of questioning of perception and reality” by raising the following questions: “Are queer/LGBT persons evil? Does queerness really equate to perversion? Can queerness be reconciled with religion? How do I see queer people and is the perception really true? What is the truth?”. The artist’s inquiry opens up a vast array of personal, socio-cultural, moral, political and philosophical concerns to extrapolate. This interest is not only raised in abstract propositions but implemented in tangible forms through the exhibitionary model Gyamfi implements at the Nubuke Foundation gallery— a contemporary art space in Ghana’s capital city, Accra.

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view2

Although the questions may elicit a binomial “Yes/No” mode of interaction, the exhibitionary form, however, complicates the dynamic. It functions as a site which permits an artistic interrogation into the social systems which determine what we perceive, how we can perceive what we are able to perceive, who is permitted in this process and the unspoken rules which determine the boundary lines between normativity, otherness and what could —if we are not too fixed on the inevitable binaries produced by such systems— potentially be interstitial positions with regard to sexuality. By the exhibition strategy, not only are spectators contemplating what is before them in the printed photographs mounted on black boarding against pristine white walls: it is a participatory and reflexive model countenanced by an ensemble of photographic objects, a black board and mirrors all of which are mounted in different halls of the exhibition space.

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view1

From the point of view of spectatorship, the photographic work becomes a transitive object which initiates a conversation between the artist and his audience(s), the latter of whom may then be compelled to contribute to the conversation by writing brief notes on sticky paper to be displayed on a black board. The board montages personal paraphernalia collected by the artist from the subjects he had photographed, their handwritten texts, and sticky notes with brief statements left by the exhibition’s public. Through this form, threads of conversations emerge and the exhibition’s public is implicated in a meaning production process that is initiated but not solely determined by the artist. In this way, the artist’s [pro]position confronts those of his ‘participants’ (the photographed subjects) and audiences: the outcomes of which may be antithetical, complementary, or perhaps even, indifference.

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view7

 

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view6

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view9

*”See Me See You” showed at the Nubuke Foundation/gallery from the 26th of November 2016 to the 28th February 2017.

– Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist who lives and works in Kumasi, Ghana.

Curatorial Statement:

of blood, soil and more… SILENCE SPEAKS is a serialized installation of mechanically produced African masks which juxtapose narratives of dehumanization (slave trade and colonialism), modernity and contemporaneity at the Cape Coast Castle. The Castle, built in 1653, has survived occupation by Swedish, Dutch and British colonialists. One of the narratives the exhibition opens up is a critical event of the 19th century that took place within the walls of the Castle, which laid the foundation for transition of the Gold Coast into a British colony, euphemistically referred to as The Bond of 1844. On 6th March 1844, in the Palaver Hall of the Castle, an agreement was signed between nine Fante Chiefs and Commander Hill, the representative of the British Crown. This agreement essentially ceded juridical powers from the Chiefs to the Crown. “By the Bond,”,  J. B Danquah explains, “a free people who were not subjects of the British sovereign, voluntarily placed themselves under a binding agreement to the British Crown”.1 This formal agreement had set the stage for what happened thirty years later with the issuance of the Order in Council of 24th July in 1874 by the Earl of Carnarvon — a proclamation emanating from the sole authority of the Queen. By this proclamation, the Gold Coast had legally become a British colony. One hundred and thirteen years after the Bond was signed, on 6th March, 1957 the Declaration of Independence — which marked “the liberation of the chiefs and the people of the Gold Coast from the legal effect of the Bond of 1844”2 — birthed the nation-state Ghana.

The litany of face masks distributed in various locations within the Castle — entrance of the castle, Door of No Return, male and female dungeons, Palaver Hall, and so on — function, on the one hand, at a representational level alluding to bodies and souls that have lived through this site of trauma and on the other hand as a poetic invocation linking themes of resilience, fortitude and fertility to memories of shared histories across the Atlantic Ocean. To this effect, the artist claims “each mask in [my] installation represents an individual interacting, mediating in a larger social network and simultaneously connecting time, space and geographies; the iconic Cape Coast Castle embodies these eventful social mappings.”

The face masks Edwin Bodjawah [re]produces are made from decommissioned lithographic plates from the Ghanaian print industry and corrugated roofing sheets as well as other objects and materials appropriated from building sites. Borrowing from multi-layered processes embedded in African masking systems and their theatrical role in social life, Bodjawah improvises with techniques of mechanical reproduction, similar to industrial embossment and stamping. This nominalist gesture reclaims the African mask from the white cube gallery system— a colonial apparatus which flattens it into an autonomous object to be contemplated by a disembodied eye — and reinfuses the new forms with collective processes of production and spectatorship.


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

Notes:

1. Danquah J.B. “The Historical Significance of the Bond of 1844”. Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1957), pp. 3-29. Web. JSTOR. 1 Nov. 2015
2. Ibid.

“of Blood, Soil & more… SILENCE SPEAKS”, Edwin Bodjawah solo exhibition
Opening: 28th April, 2017
Time: 4:00pm
Venue: Cape Coast Castle
Duration: 28th April, 2017 – 26th May, 2017 (MON – SAT, 8:00am – 5:00pm daily)

Part I: An Historical and Theoretical Discussion of the Project

“We keep those trapped in our internal colonies, our national sacrifice zones, invisible.”1
Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco

 

The genealogy of community- or site-oriented art in the United States can be traced back to mid-twentieth century tendencies which sought to literalize art as a form of critiquing the medium-specific assumptions of high modernism — shifting focus from the surface of the medium to the museum space, from institutional frames to discursive networks, filtered through socio-political movements such as feminism, civil rights, etc, marking a cultural turn.2 This turn was hinged on the assumption that the site of artistic and political transformation had moved from the galleries and museums into communities marginalized by the dominant culture: senior citizens groups, women’s groups, African American communities, LGBTQ societies, Hispanic communities, and so on. “Culture in Action”, an exhibition project directed by Mary Jane Jacob in 1993 in Chicago, typified this political rhetoric of democratizing art (a value advanced by Russian Constructivists and European Dadaists earlier in the twentieth century) in what would eventually be termed by Susanne Lacy as ‘new genre public art’.3 The cultural other in the United States had become the subject of community-oriented art and in whose name the committed artist, so called, contests the capitalist status quo or institutions of art — galleries, museums, the academy, the market, etc. By this time site-specificity had evolved from an inseparable relationship between art object and physical environment to a conceptual one unhinged from its intrinsic reliance on literal space.

When a dialectical prescription was proposed in the 1930’s by Walter Benjamin to “operative” artists charging them to palpably take a position within the means of production — which to Benjamin is the site where inequality is produced— thereby massifying the means to construct alternative imaginations to the bourgeois status quo, the caveat was that it was a revolutionary struggle being “fought between capitalism and the proletariat”4. Benjamin further expresses a cautionary note that “to supply a production apparatus without trying, within the limits of the possible, to change it, is a highly disputable activity even when the material supplied appears to be of a revolutionary nature. For we are confronted with the fact […] that the bourgeois apparatus of production and publication is capable of assimilating, indeed of propagating, an astonishing amount of revolutionary themes without ever seriously putting into question its own continued existence or that of the class which owns it.”5 Regarding the revolutionary struggle, I found an interesting equivocation by Benjamin to place an idea (capitalism) in antagonism to a personage (the proletariat). This may have been his way of buttressing the vulgarity of the problem. For who invents these ideas and/or implements them in the first place? But he was drawing attention to the disparity between a soulless economic system whose set of assumptions and imperatives, thriving on scarcity and concentration, work to the detriment of disempowered masses. In this way, if it is not done away with or altered radically it can only offer what its logical outworking compels it to in the pursuit of profit accumulation and power.

Sixty odd years after Benjamin’s call, Hal Foster’s seminal essay, published in The Return of the Real (1996), juxtaposes the former’s ‘Author as Producer’ model (which reads its subject in terms of economic relations) to a contemporary model termed by Foster as ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’ which reads its subject in terms of cultural identity. Foster demonstrates that both paradigms share three common assumptions: Firstly, that the site of political transformation is the same as that of artistic transformation. Secondly, that this site is always located within the field of the other (be they the exploited underclass or marginalized communities). Thirdly that if the artists in question are perceived of as other themselves, they then possesses automatic access to a transformative power which is essentialized as belonging in the field of the other — in the one instance, people of color, in the other, poor people. Foster goes on to make the point that the inclinations of contemporary artists in the ethnographic epoch runs the tendency of committing the abominable sin termed by Benjamin as “ideological patronage” by performing their critique solely on the basis of cultural identity and not, as well, on economic affairs. Because they become more concerned with the politics of alterity, their critique is therefore done through an ethnographic lens: anthropology becomes their choice discipline as it is the discipline of social science which concerns itself with the study of culture.6

A recent example could be cited with Dutch artist, Renzo Martens’s reflexive documentary “Enjoy Poverty” — where he critically exposes this tendency on the part of the artist as well as his audience — in which he attempts to use art as a tool for capital accumulation: as a way of making the poor class in that part of Congo also benefit monetarily from their condition of poverty (through photography) as were the media, mining, humanitarian and other corporations operating in the region. karî’kạchä seid’ou, philosopher, poet, artist and lecturer at the College of Art in KNUST, Ghana, analyzes it in this way: “In Martens’ estimation, politically engaged art today typically changes the way artists and audiences talk about exploitation and inequalities and so forth by showing work to elite audiences while being indifferent to the work’s position within the exploitative processes of production and spectating.”7

The only people who do not benefit from poverty are the poor people themselves.

Read full essay here.

More about the project here.

Notes:

1. Chris Hedges & Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction: Days of Revolt, 2012, Nation Books, pp 65
2. See “The Return of the Real”, Chapter 6: The Artist as Ethnographer by Hal Foster, Cambridge, Mass : MIT Press, c1996.
3. See Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific and Locational Identity, MIT Press, 2002.
4. Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer, Verso, 1998, pp. 103
5. Benjamin ibid, pp. 93-4. Benjamin critiques Activism and New Objectivity movements of his time stating that “I wish to single out two of these movements, Activism and New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), in order to show by their example that political commitment, however revolutionary it may seem, functions in a counter-revolutionary way so long as the writer experiences his solidarity with the proletariat only in the mind and not as producer.” pp. 91
6. See “The Return of the Real”, Chapter 6: The Artist as Ethnographer by Hal Foster, Cambridge, Mass : MIT Press, circa 1996.
7. Renzo Martens: Tretiakov in Congo?, kąrî’kạchä  seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in conversation

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

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

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

“I am an artist, what do you do?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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