Spectacles. Speculations… employs strategies of site-sequencing to produce a constellation of virtual and physical spaces where images, dispersed in time, dramaturgically participate in each other. The curatorial model adopted for the exhibition coalesces influences from three contemporary art exhibition-making currents from Latin America, Europe and Africa which can be genealogically mapped from the 1980s into the 1990s and presently. First from the transnational mega-exhibition format (the Bienal de la Habana in Cuba), then from experimental exhibition practices espousing the “museum as laboratory” ethos of the late 1990s countenanced mainly by practitioners of the historical Relational Aesthetics and finally from blaxTARLINES KUMASI — a community of thinkers, activists, curators, students, artists, and non-artists based at the Department of Painting & Sculpture at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology (KNUST) in Ghana — invested in rethinking canons of their respective practices in the twenty-first century.
The proliferation of biennials on a global scale, since the earliest salon-style incarnation of the Venice Biennale in 1895, have instituted them as very important mega-exhibition events on art calendars. Historically speaking, the twentieth century saw additions of the São Paulo Bienal in 1951, documenta 1 in 1955 and the Bienal de la Habana in 1984 introducing alternative perspectives to the Venetian model. The Bienal de la Habana, from an ideological perspective, was poised to “build artistic connections within Latin America and the Carribean, as well as to reach out laterally to other “non-aligned” nation states around the world”.1 Its first edition (1984) had largely been confined to participants from Latin America but the second in 1986 opened up participation to artists, curators, critics and scholars across the Third World. This second edition is described by co-curator, Gerardo Mosquera, as “the first global contemporary art show ever made: a mammoth, uneven, rather chaotic bunch of more than fifty exhibitions and events presenting 2,400 works made by 690 artists from 57 countries.”2 The third edition of the Bienal in 1989 retained the idea of a central exhibition but exploded out into a constellation of smaller exhibitions all over Havana. It distinguished itself from the Venice Biennale by rejecting national representations in favor of an overall theme; it discontinued the practice of awarding prizes; and also, quite radically at the time, initiated the practice of having a team of curators work on the biennale as opposed to one “orchestrator”.
Considering that this has become the norm in transnational exhibition practices it positions itself as the watershed event for most contemporary art mega-exhibitions from the surreal year of 1989 onwards. Today it is considered conventional practice to have international participation, exhibitions within exhibitions, satellite programming spanning wide geographical regions, symposia, et al. typified, for example, in Okwui Enwezor’s postcolonial decolonization of documenta 11 in 2002.
Although Spectacles. Speculations… is a significantly diminutive exhibition in comparison to the scale of the Bienal, what inspires me about the models invented by its organizers is in what Mosquera says about it, that the event was conceived of not as an exhibition but “as an organism consisting of shows, events, meetings, publications, and outreach programs”3 [emphasis mine]. The exhibition-as-organism appeals to me such that it permits me to consider the life of the exhibition as one not contrived for the opening and closing dates but that can be extended, delayed and re-invented in terms of programming, publications, interviews and site-sequencing strategies across various locations with the possibility of physical and virtual encounters. Adopting these ideas equipped my thinking about programming artist talks/interviews in Kumasi and Accra, staging an outdoor open mic event a day after the opening (Koliko collective), distributing artworks such that not all of them are present at the same time to emphasize how images happen to us (Bright Ackwerh’s videos were screened on the exterior walls of the literal exhibition site for two nights only in the space of two weeks, Dzyadzorm’s live spoken word performance was programmed a month into the opening of the exhibition, the video iteration of MENonBLACK’s black box theater, “The Trial”, was screened two months into the life of the exhibition). In-between these were screenings, interactive/discursive and tour sessions with individuals, schools and members of the general public sustaining the exhibition throughout the three months it lasted.
Relational Aesthetics emerged in Europe in the 1990s as an art form which “consider[s] interhuman exchange an aesthetic object in and of itself”4. In his text of the same title Nicolas Bourriaud argues that this move into the realm of the relational by contemporary artists of the ‘90s was a political project because it was at a time when the dominant cultural practice (mostly in Western Europe and North America) was a shift to automation — with cash machines, automatic public toilets, machines replacing human workers, and so on. Interpersonal relations, were, for Bourriaud, diminishing as a result of these developments in technology and economic practices and needed to be responded to artistically as well as curatorially. He described the relational artwork as ‘social interstice’, an exhibitionary idea he appropriates from Karl Marx who uses it to describe societies that exist outside of capitalist economies that do not conform to the law of profit. Similarly, Bourriaud saw an opportunity for the contemporary art exhibition to elicit “free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrast with those structuring everyday life, [as] it encourages inter-human commerce that differs from the “communication zones” that are imposed on us” (Bourriaud: 2002, pp. 16). Consequently his curatorial decisions led him to explore sociality (conviviality, participation, interaction and inter-subjectivity) through artists whose works employed such deaestheticized procedures as appointments, casting sessions, meetings, user-friendly areas and so on. Notable artists of relational aesthetics include Rirkrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, Sophie Calle, Angela Bulloch amongst others.
According to Terry Smith, while Nicolas Bourriaud was the curator at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, he redesigned the interior of the museum to look like an abandoned factory or concrete warehouse.5The “museum as laboratory” ideal (Claire Bishop describes this ethic as the active manipulation of curatorial conventions) permits its practitioners to treat the exhibition site (and by extension, the artworks) as they would a studio or workshop where realtime testings, modifications and other plastic manipulations of the exhibition medium are possible. The exhibition venue is turned into a “filmless camera” or “still short-movie” – what Bourriaud terms director’s art. In contrast to exhibition-making models of the ‘60s where objects are separately assembled (as in a store), Bourriaud proposes that the exhibition site of the ‘90s has turned into a film set— a dynamic environment which features “the unitary mise-en-scène of objects” and where time can become material to be manipulated (Bourriaud: 2002, pp. 72-73).
Although critics such as Claire Bishop are sceptical of the political claims made by Bourriaud for Relational Aesthetics stating that it does not go far enough as an emancipatory model since the methods employed by its practitioners seem to smoothen over class antagonisms for the sake of conviviality6— something like the carnivalesque which temporarily suspends social hierarchies only to be gone back to once the festival moment is over (however long it spans) — I think this reconceptualization of the white cube or museum space as laboratory practiced institutionally by Palais de Tokyo, Kunstverein Munich and curators such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, Maria Lind et al, possesses symbolic merit as a participatory strategy today while understanding its limitations.
In my own implementation, I transformed the literal exhibition site into a dynamic and reflexive theatre of relations. By implementing the contradictions inherent to the spectacle — that it is the illusion that has become reality; the lie that has become truth – in literal space, I juxtaposed what appears to be a white cube, when one first enters the exhibition site, with its antithesis, a dark corridor painted all black that seems to draw the spectator into itself (see gallery). A schizophrenic situation is thus countenanced in the interior confines of the exhibition site with implications for spectatorship. That the white cube used in Spectacles. Speculations… is itself contradictory to the modernist ideological apparatus of display will be elucidated below…
What creates the contradiction is not so much in the literal or commonplace opposition of white to black as it is with respect to the organizing ethos of the space. The white cube as ideological apparatus for high and late modernist art is, in essence, a transcendent, neutral and pure space augmenting the timeless and siteless qualities of modernist painting and sculpture. “Presence before a work of art, then”, Brian O’Doherty continues, “means that we absent ourselves in favor of the Eye”7. The spectator is therefore oriented to encounter the artwork enshrined in the sacred space of the white cube exclusively with a disembodied eye, totalizing the work before it and scanning its surface for plastic relations within its shape. These works derive their importance from within themselves and must, of necessity, be oblivious to contingencies of time and place. Although they exist in time they are not of it and are therefore not subject to history. They may be moved from gallery to gallery, place to place, but will always preserve their aura (formalist critic Michael Fried refers to this metaphysical quality as “presentness” (Fried: 1967) or gracefulness, to put it in another way, as opposed to the non art quality of temporal “presence” asserted by neo avant-gardist Minimalist sculptures, such as those by Robert Morris that famously made the work contingent on “space, light and the spectator’s field of vision” (Morris: 1968).
And so, in essence, the ‘white cube’ of Spectacles. Speculations… is not a white cube at all. The works featured in the exhibition would go against the ethos or traditional conventions of the white cube since all the works, in one way or another, share the same time and space with the spectator; from Francis Kokoroko’s installation with text inviting the spectator to take a seat and enter another virtual site (Instagram) on their smart device; Ibrahim Mahama’s converging two-channel video installation looping with sound sourcing content from economic and social relations; Aisha Nelson’s translated text from English to Ga printed on paper and mounted on wall critiquing the idealism of language; Edwin Bodjawah’s serialized face masks made from lithographic printing plates and corrugated roofing sheets attesting to a modernity shaped by colonialism that occupy the ceilings and walls of the exhibition space; María Leguízamo’s video mounted on wall with sound and another silent video object sited directly on the floor pensively framing a tension between illusion and reality; Mawuenya Amudzi’s convex geometric objects vertically stacked, equidistant, at a scale that necessitates a co-present spectator; Akwasi Afrane Bediako’s installation of two flatscreen monitors, and cameras taking/recording content from the exhibition space; Kelvin Haizel’s theatrical video object on screen; Kwabena Afriyie Poku’s ensemble of four screens, with sound, echoing movements in time and space; Steloolive’s manipulation of sounds from readymade objects distributed through loudspeakers; Bright Ackwerh’s videos projected on the exterior walls of the exhibition space; the relational form Koliko introduces in the dynamic through live music sited in public space; black-box theatre performance by MENonBLACK restaged via video; Dzyadzorm’s live spoken word performance; to Poku Mensah’s aesthetic appropriation of Dutch Golden Age painterly techniques into film and photography.
Such is the experimental approach the exhibition takes to confronting and rethinking existing artistic and curatorial conventions.
blaxTARLINES KUMASI is a collectivist response to the hopeless conditions that characterize the state of institution-building in contemporary art in the “cultural slum”8 that is Ghana. It is the contemporary art institution based at the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST directly responsible for successfully implementing a radical openness to the concept and practice of art. This loose community is made up of kindred spirits of artistic and non-artistic dispositions who have mobilized together based on core principles of economico-intellectual emancipation and political sensitivity to one’s practice. This community shares amongst itself and with the broader world through writing, publishing (catalogs, monographs, etc), exhibitions, interviews, artist talks, studio visits, library, etc.
At the turn of the century, a revolutionary wave swept through the Department of Painting and Sculpture at KNUST — instigated by artist, poet, mathematician and scholar kąrî’kạchä seid’ou with fervent support from younger faculty namely Mr. Kwaku Boafo Kissiedu (Castro), Dr. Edwin Bodjawah, Mr. George Buma Ampratwum and their networks — with consequences for the Ghanaian art scene as a whole. Premised on values such as universality and multiplicity of art, the retro-colonial curriculum of the Department was to be transformed and expanded from its historical [over]dependence on “the authority of [human-centered] European traditional and early Modernist media, genres and formats” to include “photography, time-based media, local artisanship, new materiality, curating, text, performance, post-humanist media, robotics, video gaming, site specific and community practices”.9
What the kinship had hoped to advance at the time is “a field of “general intellect” which encourages student artists and other young artists to work in the spirit of finding alternatives to the bigger picture which excluded their voices but paradoxically by first becoming an anamorphic stain in the bigger picture itself. This way, the stain instigates a new vision, which requires a necessary shift in the spectator’s perspective. And this shift in perspective leaves the older picture as a stain in the new picture.”10
The democratic principle encapsulated in this metaphor wrests absolute autonomy from the proverbial “bigger picture” and makes it contingent to the subversive potential of both anamorphic stain and spectator. The artist-as-anamorphic-stain possesses not only the right but also the ability to create a new image with the old picture as a stain in it. The spectator’s gaze can no longer remain disembodied, they must correlate to the change that has happened in the picture by adjusting their positionality in relation to it— if this results in the assertion of an indifferent posture, it would be borne out of intention.
The metaphor is close in spirit to Jacques Rancière’s emancipatory politics. For Rancière politics proper begins when the excluded masses (the supplementary part of a population who remain unnamed (dēmos) or the lower classes who are by design elided from positions of power (polis) by the ruling oligarchy), through political subjectivization, assert for themselves the entitlement of inclusion in the exercise of power based on the only universal epithet “we are all equal”. (i.e. this particular group demands universal rights and proceeds to rupture relations in the public sphere by radically affecting the dynamics of inclusions, exclusions and permissions that regulate what is communally common, in a word, the distribution of the sensible11 (Rancière: 2004, pp.12). Further, the Universal is the space that is common to all of humanity, the space we all must take for granted, the thing we can all appeal to at any moment that is not preordained property of any person, group, nor state.
seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teaching12— a pedagogic model that advocates “the dissolving of genres in “activist” and participatory practice”13— has inspired the community that is blaxTARLINES KUMASI to prefer political indifference to any particular trend, style, medium, gender, etc. His pedagogic model exemplifies that of the “ignorant schoolmaster” (Rancière: 1991, 2004) who acknowledges the equality of intelligences at work in every teaching opportunity and is concerned not with transferring the knowledge he knows onto the ignoramus but with creating democratic conditions that make it possible for the ignoramus to bridge the distance between what she knows and what she does not yet know— that is, so that she can empower herself to learn what she does not yet know but can know on condition that she wills to endeavor into the forest of signs.
Beginning with the axiom that “art is anything that is radically new”,14 blaxTARLINES KUMASI proceeds to posit art as a site of multiplicity. Art that emerges “from a void: with neither content nor prejudice for any particular medium, skill, material, or process”15. The void here does not presuppose anything, neither is it a negation of pre-existing content: it is a state of criticality born from a disposition which understands given historical and institutional definitions of art. Art is here radically emptied of such presumptive associations so as to permit an egalitarian regeneration of its content; hence art is anything that is radically new.
This can be formulated in another way with the question “What is art?”. In this specific context, the question must necessarily be its own answer. If we consider the inquiry as lacking content from the outset when posed, it spurs the questioner on to search, discover and learn about what they do not yet know on the basis that they can know. And each questioner can, in principle, begin their own journey into uncovering answers. The question is the void which permits the questioner to regenerate or populate new content. There is, of course, always the tendency to be dogmatically ensnared within a radical breakthrough at a particular moment in this evolution as is seen with modernist avant-garde movements of the past century. Insofar as proponents of these movements purported to have the destiny of art in sight, shrouded in a logic of purity, truth and linearity of time (or history) it was bound to become stale and eventually irrelevant to the times. What is at stake here, then, is to figure out how one can grow the vigor and vitality to sustain the question-as-answer throughout one’s practice.
Furthermore, the motive here is to create democratic as well as enabling conditions of self-determination for any person, regardless of their cultural or economic background, to be able to thrive based on their own intentionality and will. If this is the case, then a logical corollary must be confronted. Democracy inheres antagonism, as it is not a perfect state of harmony. And this kind of emancipation, although based on a Universality, would not be available to all since it is conditioned on the will or action of its subject. So we find that this democratic ideal, if it is to be truly egalitarian, must conversely permit its subject to freely reject the terms of emancipation it is itself offering. But what distinguishes this participatory regime from modernist presuppositions based on classical logic, with binaries of either-in-or-out, is that the subject may reject its thesis and still have a right to exist. It is neither premised on the illusion of perfection nor on the myth of total harmony (which would itself be a state of tyranny). It identifies the failures and cracks immanent to its ideals and negotiates these tensions.
Illustrated in the foregoing is the praxiological thesis animating contemporary art coming from KNUST that has established the Department of Painting and Sculpture as an important hub in contemporary art emerging from West Africa. These ideas have manifested curatorially in blaxTARLINES KUMASI’s critically acclaimed end of year exhibitions in Kumasi and Accra since 2014.16 The exhibition as testing ground for new symbolic relations between artworks and the production of knowledge, intergenerational conversations, collective curating and accessibility programming (translating exhibition material into braille and other local languages, creating areas within the exhibition space for physically challenged persons who could not access the lower and upper floors of its large-scale exhibitions to get a sense of the works on every floor) are some of the core strategies fervently implemented.
At a time when independent curating has become an itinerant practice, collective curating as a strategy is a laudable response to making the curator (or group of curators) present at any moment in time throughout the duration of the exhibition to ensure that the integrity of the works is protected and preserved through daily care. My trans-disciplinary practice (working as artist, writer and curator) as well as consideration of a multiplicity of spectators (children, older people, visually impaired, workers and people coming from various class backgrounds), translating exhibition material (curatorial statement and captions) into braille, and selecting works that offer multi-sensorial experiences for Spectacles. Speculations… comes as a direct influence of blaxTARLINES KUMASI’s inclusive and egalitarian ethos.
— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist, writer and curator based in Kumasi, Ghana.
- About the Exhibition
- Artists’ Profiles
- Curatorial Statement
- Gallery/About the works
- [Essay] Spectacles Speculations: In Terms of Images
- Smith T. (2012, pp. 89). Thinking Contemporary Curating. New York, Independent Curators International (ICI)
- ibid, pp. 118
- ibid, pp. 119
- Bourriaud N. (2002, pp. 33). Postproduction Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, New York, Lukas & Sternberg
- Smith T. (2012, pp. 129). Thinking Contemporary Curating. New York, Independent Curators International (ICI).
- Bishop C. (2004). Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. October Magazine, OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, pp. 51 – pp.79
- O’Doherty B. (1986, pp. 55). Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. San Francisco, The Lapis Press.
- kąrî’kạchä seid’ou explains this concept in an interview with Jelle Bouwhuis stating that “[o]ne expected Neo-Liberal privatization, economic and cultural deregulation, affirmation of freedom of choice and rule of law to stimulate private investment in cultural institutions dedicated to human self-determination. However, if we could say that Ghana’s private mass media thrived in this era, we cannot say so about art departments, galleries, museums and so on. So in terms of cultural institution building, Ghana is a good example of the contradictions of Neo-Liberalism and its globalising processes”. See ‘Silent Parodies. kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis’, in Project 1975 – Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious (J. Bouwhuis and K. Winking eds.), SMBA/blackdog publishing, Amsterdam/London 2014, p.p 109-118
- Department of Painting & Sculpture, KNUST. About Us. Retrieved from https://painting.knust.edu.gh/about . It states on the website that “The Department of Painting and Sculpture has the oldest history in the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and among the pioneering art departments in Africa. […] In the Nkrumah Republican period (1960-1966), the School became an autonomous College of Art headed by the painter E. V. Asihene, an Achimota and Goldsmiths alumnus. In the new College, the Department’s curriculum was based on the recommendations of the First Coldstream Report (1960) which had kick-started the upgrade of art schools in the UK to degree status. Principally, external moderators of the new KNUST programme were either social realist artists or affiliates of the British avant-garde teaching at Goldsmiths, the Slade and the Royal College of Art. The succeeding curriculum of the mid 1970s, through the 1980s, had a group of African Modernists from Nigeria as external assessors and moderators. Among them were the eminent artists Ben Enwonwu, Uche Okeke, Solomon Irein Wangboje, and Demas Nwokwo. With an increasing focus on Africanist narrative realism in painting and official statuary in sculpture, the authority of European traditional and early Modernist media, genres and formats remained unchallenged. The curriculum’s range of painting genres still remained within the bounds of still life, landscape and pictorial composition with the stylistic dominance of geodesic (freshman) cubism, the so-called Tek Style which undergirds most murals on campus”. For a critical analysis of the legacy of the vocationalist curriculum in the colonial Gold Coast “Hand and Eye Work” and its legacy in post-independence art teaching in Ghana see also seid’ou k. (2014). Gold Coast Hand and Eye Work: A Genealogical History. Retrieved from http://garj.org/garjhpsir/index.htm
- seid’ou k. & Bouwhuis J. Silent parodies: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis,” in Project 1975: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious, eds. Jelle Bouwhuis and Kerstin Winking Amsterdam and London: SMBA and Black Dog Publishing, 2014, pp.109 – pp.18
- Rancière theorizes this as that which “reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed. Having a particular ‘occupation’ thereby determines the ability or inability to take charge of what is common to the community; it defines what is visible or not in a common space, endowed with a common language, etc.” See Rancière J. (2004, pp. 12), The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum International Publishing Group, London/New York.
- seid’ou’s pedagogic model is based on his communist political persuasion which desires to “transform art from the status of commodity to gift”. In his own words this meant “going on artistic strike, stop “making art” symbolically and to inaugurate a practice of “making artists.” See Enjoy Poverty: A History of its Reception, Sternberg Press, New York, ed. Els Roelandt and Renzo Martens, forthcoming, RENZO MARTENS: TRETIAKOV IN CONGO?: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in conversation (interview held in 2016). Around the time of his appointment as faculty in KNUST in 2003 seid’ou introduced “Interactive Series”, a seminar programme in Kumasi to host contemporary artists and art professionals for talks, workshops, exhibitions, overviews and critique sessions. He also converted his Drawing Class into a curatorial project of guerrilla exhibitions on campus and in the city of Kumasi. Campus and city alike came alive with site-specific exhibitions with critiques and overviews each year. The blaxTARLINES team in an interview with Contemporary And (C&) recounted a “small revolution” in 1996 at the College of Art at KNUST, see Aicha D. & KNUST Team (2017), Department of Now: The teaching methods at Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology Has Cultivated a New Generation of Innovative Artists (July 4th, 2017). Retrieved from http://www.contemporaryand.com/magazines/past-present-and-future-about-art-in-kumasi/
- Enjoy Poverty: A History of its Reception, Sternberg Press, New York, ed. Els Roelandt and Renzo Martens, forthcoming, RENZO MARTENS: TRETIAKOV IN CONGO?: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou and Jelle Bouwhuis in conversation (interview held in 2016)
- kąrî’kạchä seid’ou made this statement in one of his lectures
- See https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/iub-projects-2/2017-2/od-curatorial/
- The end of year exhibitions have featured undergraduate students, alumni, faculty, teaching assistants and other guest artists living or dead (For example in 2017, “Orderly Disorderly” featured Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami (1940 – 2016) and Camerounian conceptual artist Goddy Leye (1965-2011). In 2014, a smaller scale exhibition featuring works by students from the graduating class of that year were shown in an exhibition at Nubuke Foundation in Accra. The following year, the trilogy of large-scale exhibitions at the Museum of Science and Technology in Accra — 1. “The Gown Must Go Town” (2015) featuring 57 selected artists and inspired by Kwame Nkrumah’s speech “The African Genius” made in 1963 when he officially opened the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon. The exhibition also celebrated alumni Ibrahim Mahama and El Anutsui for their participation in the Venice Biennial of that year “All The World’s Futures”, and El Anatsui receiving the Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award at the Biennial. 2. “Cornfields in Accra” (2016) featuring 87 selected artists. The exhibition was inspired by Ama Ata Aidoo’s poem of same title written c. 1964-65. The exhibition honored the memory of Camerounian conceptual artist Goddy Leye, founder of ArtBakery in Cameroun. 3. “Orderly Disorderly” (2017) featuring 106 selected artists (fresh graduates, alumni and special guest artists including Professor Ablade Glover, Galle Winston Kofi Dawson, S. K Amenuke, Dr. Dorothy Amenuke, Agyeman Ossei). The exhibition honored the lifework of Professor Ablade Glover and Abbas Kiarostami and featured a body of archives of the Kumasi School among which are manuscripts of poems authored by Uche Okeke. See Ohene-Ayeh K. (June 2017). “Orderly Disorderly” Curatorial Statement. Retrieved from https://iubeezy.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/orderly-disorderly-curatorial-statement/