Archive

ISSUES…

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

Advertisements

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.

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”.