Paragraphs on the Contemporary
Contemporary art confers an unprecedented sense of responsibility on its practitioner. The art world is no longer thought of as existing in provincial exclusivity but in global oneness. This purports to present a de-centered condition that makes it possible for different voices to speak from their unique positions1. Nothing is neutral in this paradigm. All are considered to be immanent in this global oneness and the contemporary artist, today’s practitioner, possesses an attitude which always positions him or her to address or speak to the global. The distinction between ‘artwork’ and ‘everyday object’ no longer matters, “[…] what becomes crucial is the distinction between a marked, installation space and unmarked, public space.”2 With that said, not every piece of artwork is necessarily considered an installation; the installation inheres within it a consistent and intentional process of inclusions and exclusions, situating objects in this marked or demarcated space. Consequently, the exhibitionary models for such a paradigm must be invented; it must critique existing standards and must itself be critiqued in light of the new conditions which animate contemporaneity.
The exhibition is no longer thought of in terms of its physicality but of its site-specificity. The site, unhinged, is here the location of communication, the text, which now operates in networks such as discursive, linguistic, social as well as institutional frameworks3 , thus making mapping a relevant conceptual framework by which relations between sites could be traced. In this theater, the spectator is neither neutral nor innocent. In fact, meaning-making becomes a concerted negotiation between the body, space, objects, technology and so on. Technology here plays a vital role in expanding our logistics of perception. Each individual or spectator also comes into this encounter with their own unique set of experiences, ideas and worldviews which further complicate the initial position of the exhibition. It is not always possible to totalize exhibitions, or artworks for that matter, in the context of the contemporary.
A paradigm as complex, dialectical and contextual as this offers the twenty-first century practitioner — artist, theorist, writer, critic, curator, and so on — a fertile ground with possibilities of inventing what art could be while aware of the geopolitical conditions that shape our realities today as well as the advancements and limitations of science and technology…
The Ghanaian art scene has evolved in the ways it has positioned itself to respond to contemporaneity and addressing its various publics in recent years. To this effect, we can trace radical tactics in gallery shows but more so in the heterogenous site-specific exhibitions — notable amongst them are ‘Silence Between The Lines: Anagrams of Emancipated Futures’ (2015), an exhibition organized by BlaxTARLINES which transformed both the interior and exterior of a car showroom in Kumasi into a site, ’Voyage of [Re]Discovery’ (2015), an exhibition which happened simultaneously at the Nubuke Foundation Gallery and the Ussher Fort in Accra, ‘The Gown Must Go To Town’ (2015), an exhibition of 52 students, lecturers and alumni of the College of Art, KNUST in Accra and the annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival (since 2011), also in Accra. For the purpose of this note I will think through the medium of photography vis-à-vis a recent exhibition in Accra, while engaging its history and the extent to which an artist who is interested in politics can take the claims they make with the camera as a tool.
Don’t Call Me Beautiful4 is a photography exhibition held at Alliance Française d’Accra gallery. The exhibition deals with the politics of representation of Africa — specifically of the plight of the African woman. The exhibition, according to the artist, was to celebrate a certain ‘resilient’ characteristic of the African woman as her existence is constantly berated. The photographs depict women (young and old) engaging in mostly generic activities to express their everyday realities — some of them cooking, others leisurely hanging out at the beach, and so on. Some of these women are also, according to the artist, living with HIV/AIDS and others have been raped but these facts are not self-evident in the portraits. The pictures suggest a certain intimacy between the photographer and his subjects; a relationship consequently shared between spectator and picture.
The crux of the artist’s argument for the exhibition is shared in an anecdote: “I cannot think of a significant life moment, I have had, that didn’t involve some woman. These photographs are both a song in celebration of the African woman, and a criticism of how our societies deliberately impede their every movement.”4 Apart from the generalizations in the statement, it would also be hard to object to the artist’s personal experiences, precisely because they are his subjective opinions on the issue to which he is entitled. Indeed, his sentiments may be true or not to some conditions but what matters primarily is how he sustains his argument. Upon listening to the artist in a talk at the exhibition’s finissage, he seemed not to be cognizant of some implications of the politics to which he has committed himself. I am making my commentary on the exhibition and its claims first, for the reasons aforementioned on the conditions of contemporaneity, secondly because it was posited in the context of an art exhibition: this gesture, by participating in the public domain impugns the artist’s autonomy and therefore subjects the collection of works and the exhibition statement (the two of which function as the artist’s reason for exhibiting and a defense of this reason) to participate in a multiplicity of perspectives.
If we foreshadow this exhibition with how the medium of photography has been used — particularly in the anthropological, pseudo-scientific colonial project dating as far back as the nineteenth century — to perpetrate primitivist stereotypes of Africans (women, men and children), it opens up its politics a little more. The artist seems to be taking his chosen medium for granted, almost as if it is devoid of any complicity throughout its history of use in the subject matter he seeks to tackle with the exhibition. By neglecting this history, I am of the opinion that the artist himself becomes a part of the problem he seeks to denounce. The camera is a neutral tool; it will only frame whatever or wherever you point it. It will give visual form to one’s ideas, intentions and/or prejudices; and photography, as a site, has long been a battleground both of perpetuating and contestation of this primitivist fantasy till today — for both definer and defined.5
Looking at the collective elements which make up the exhibition — the photographs, the captions (or titles of the works), the gallery space within which they are displayed, the arguments proposed by the artist in the exhibition statement — there are serious questions that need to be raised of the artist’s intentions and consequently of the exhibition. For example, how is the artist coming to terms with an implicit relationship between the theme of the exhibition, his chosen medium of photography and showing his work at the Alliance Française gallery (keeping the colonial rhetoric in mind and the fact that the pristine walls of the exhibition venue can neither be thought of as neutral nor innocent when we consider the history of dehumanization of this same [African] woman on the continent)? By using photography solely as a medium to realize his activism, does the artist not stand the risk of merely aestheticizing the politics that he proposes to engage? Is his solidarity not weakened when photos of these women — who he claims are victims of oppression and/or exploitation — are taken and placed in an art exhibition and the images offered to a bourgeois public to consume, buy or own? Has the artist not ‘beautifully’ framed and/or commodified the plight of his subjects for his own economic benefit (considering also that the medium makes it possible for him to make infinite reprints of a single picture)? Or worse, is he not risking the banal effect of merely entertaining his public, by not being thoroughly aware of his position in the social commentary he is making? Also, does the artist not fall prone to the danger of alienating himself from his subjects and their condition — a tendency inimical to photo-journalism, in which the process of [over]identification leads to a narcissistic position or even to dis-identification such that there is an objective (and perhaps patronizing) ‘I-You’ relationship between the artist and his subject of interest?
The questions go on. These and many more, I think, are legitimate contributions to the discourse which the exhibition has determined (particularly so if you consider the exhibition as a site for the production of meanings). The camera, as stated earlier, is not a tool that is intrinsically political and can therefore be worthless for such purposes: with the best of intentions, its functions can lead to superficiality. Likewise, a photographer is not necessarily an artist simply because they produce images. The camera and what it offers as a medium however has the potential of executing its user’s political will or intent with magnificent outcome if thought through coherently. My argument is that today’s practitioner is burdened with much more than ideas and tools of expression. He or she is confronted with a real obligation to think and produce work in more challenging ways, beyond ideology, and this may require him or her to transcend conventional roles hitherto thought to be productive.
III: My Mother’s Wardrobe
Serge Attukwei Clottey’s oeuvre has grown expansively since he first begun painting about 15 years ago. The artist now incorporates assemblage, site-specific installations, painting, sculpture, performance, and photography in a spirit of experimentation to create interesting forms. My collaborations with him started about three years ago when he had already begun his plastic tapestries considered now by most as his signature work. I have been following his practice since then and have observed a tendency in his work which his recent solo exhibition, “My Mother’s Wardrobe”(7) at Gallery 1957 in Accra, brings to the fore and causes me to think through in depth. Here I will focus more on the formal qualities of his works in this exhibition rather than on the cultural or anecdotal relations for reasons which suit the purpose of this text.
My Mother’s Wardrobe displays Clottey’s plastic installations by hanging them on the walls in the gallery. Not only are the serialized plastic members stitched into a tapestry (in a grid logic), the works for this exhibition further incorporate a sequence of painted vertical and horizontal lines on the surfaces of the tapestries. All but three of the works are free of framed edges: these three, similarly painted in linear fashion, additionally incorporate Chinese lettering sprayed from stencils onto the plastic surfaces and are bounded behind glass in wooden frames. Let me highlight three implications of the framed borders as I see it: first of all, it diversifies the range of works in the exhibition space, secondly it substitutes open-endedness for totality when the tapestry of plastics are confined to the borders of the frame (further distanced from the viewer when placed on a support within the frame to be perceived through glass), and thirdly it affirms the characteristic of ‘surfaceness’, akin to flatness, connotative of a nostalgia for painting. It is for this nostalgic tendency that will be the burden of this essay to argue. I associate ‘surfaceness’ with characteristics intrinsic to the medium of painting— made to be displayed on a wall; framed edges bound the picture in completeness; appeals to the viewer from an objectively frontal position; this frontality leads the spectator to focus on the markings or patterns made on the plastic members rather than the gestalt of plastics.
This is the first exhibition of Clottey’s I have seen in a white cube space even though he has exhibited extensively in Ghana and abroad. I am more familiar with his site-specific installations and performances in public spaces around La and Jamestown in Accra. Being familiar with the artist’s processes and techniques, this is where it gets complex. Clottey begun his practice as a painter — this medium emphasizes frontality; is made to be displayed on a wall; requires the spectator to alienate themselves from the painting so as to contemplate what is within the boundaries of the canvas, and this contemplation is done from a singular or objective standpoint; the painting as an artwork is indexical and can therefore be totalized; it is restricted to the area it occupies on a wall with everything existing outside of its edges external to its spatial logic. One may immediately contest my observation and propose that Clottey’s installations do not abide by these rules so natural to painting and I would agree with them, but with the evidence of this exhibition, only to an extent.
For me, ‘My Mother’s Wardrobe’ offers a paradoxical presentation of Clottey’s work — the push-pull between flatness and three-dimensionality — only to undermine itself in the days to follow. Here is what I mean: the exhibition opening emphasized surfaceness of the plastic montages and broke this flatness by juxtaposing human bodies with the plastic tapestries in the gallery while opening up the space of the exhibition beyond the gallery. The exhibition opened with a performance by Clottey and his GoLokal collective who travelled from La to the premises of the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City, where the gallery is located, in a ‘Mummy wagon’. The performance connected the entrance of the hotel to the courtyard where plastic gallons hung from trees and littered its lawns. After the outdoor spectacle, members of the performance collective, both male and female, clothed in women’s apparel, remained with the plastic tapestries on show in the gallery.
According to the curator, the proximity between the bodies and plastic tapestries was to mimic the claustrophobic interior of a wardrobe. This effect was exacerbated when members of the public trooped into the gallery. Its phenomenological implications, as I see it, are as follows: on the one hand the bodies and plastic tapestries compel the spectator to interact reflexively in the exhibition environment as opposed to a passive engagement with the disembodied eye, on the other hand, this cluttered wardrobe effect could also needlessly congest the 140 square meter exhibition space, saturating the gallery with too many objects and overwhelming the audience. The latter also made it so that only few audience numbers were admitted into the gallery at any given time. But this seemed to be a desirable consequence of the curatorial decision. In the days following the exhibition opening, however, there remain no traces of the dynamic bodies, leaving only the plastic montages hanging on the walls of the gallery. It is in this sense that I refer to the exhibition as nostalgic of painting.
The exhibition on its opening day somewhat suspended gratifying the disembodied eye only to indulge it after the fact. Take one of the centrally located works for example, “Independence Arch” (2015-16). The work is designed after Ghana’s Independence architectural monument. This is the only work among the plastic tapestries that overtly seeks to achieve a representation outside of itself. To achieve this likeness, linear markings have been painted on the stitched plastic members which now function as support. Another explicit example noticed during the performance is the installation set up against a wall at the entrance of the hotel with a half-portrait achieved through spraying and painting vertically oriented gallons (this time not dismembered into rectangular parts but displayed in their wholeness) with the words “Freedom and Justice” and “1957” stenciled against a black background on both sides of the half-portrait on gallons resting horizontally. The portrait is painted in black and white coordinated with the ubiquitous yellow natural to the plastic gallons.
The logic of representation at play here— which is referential and aspires to an ideal outside of itself — undercuts the logic of serialization or repetition internal to the system of interconnected plastic elements or gallons, and the latter is the logic by which Clottey’s experimentation is consistent.
My point becomes clearer when we consider a comment made by the artist in an interview saying: “When I started this [using the plastic gallons], people did not understand it. Some people even doubted if what I was doing was art. […] I went ahead to experiment with plastic gallons, using them as canvases where people get the chance to write on them.”(8) Clottey’s nostalgia for painting is implicit here (albeit through alternative media). If one considers the repetition of rectangular plastic members stitched together with binding wire as canvases it follows necessarily that they will use the material as support thus subjugating potentiality in the invented form to the flatness of the painting medium. In short, the work loses its ‘thingness’ when surfaceness is overemphasized. But the artist, in the aforementioned statement, also hints his intention to involve audiences either at some point in the process of making the work or when the work is mounted or displayed. My Mother’s Wardrobe with all its efforts reifies painting not to challenge or subvert the medium but to preserve its ideals. It would seem that the methods of stenciling and spraying are used as decorative measures to wrest the gallons (either dismembered or whole) from their austereness so as to infuse into them an artistic aura. What happens when the concealed surfaces of the plastic tapestries against the walls also become part of the experience of the work?
My critique stems from an analysis of a tendency in the context of the artist’s practice that has the potential of undermining his claims and contradicting his intentions however radical or transformative they may be. My concern with the exhibition lies not in the fact that the works were painted on but precisely because they were painted on and displayed in a format which orients the spectator almost exclusively to perceive them frontally.
As a counterpoint, the curator of the exhibition (who, in this case, also doubles as the Creative Director of the gallery) and management of the gallery, in agreement with the artist, are free to represent the artworks as suits their institutional ethos or motives. If its aims are of commodification, decoration or fetishization, I think that the strategies implemented for this exhibition are safe and effective; more so to increase their commercial value.
- There has been a shift from medium-specificity (emphasized in modernism, with its purist ideals described in Clement Greenberg’s text ‘Modernist Painting’) to the spatial and phenomenological (advocated by the minimalists of the 1960s onward which was later critiqued by feminist art by politicizing the body implicated in this phenomenological experience) to the cultural field which shifted the siting of art to exist in the discursive and social networks. Civil rights, postmodernism, postcolonial discourse, multiculturalism have also had a role to play in this development.
- Boris Groys, Politics of Installation, e-flux journal #2 — January 2009
- Hal Foster discusses this subject in his book ‘The Return of the Real’ (1996), in the chapter “The Artist as Ethnographer”, pg 171 – 204.
- Don’t Call Me Beautiful, an exhibition of works by photographer Nana Kofi Acquah at Alliance Francaise d’Accra, 3rd February – 9th March, 2016.
- Tamar Garb’s essay ‘Encountering the African Archive: The Interwoven Temporalities of Distance and Desire’ offers a perspective on this through The Walther Collection’s holdings of vintage prints and historic photographs.
- My Mother’s Wardrobe, Serge Attukwei Clottey solo exhibition, curated by Nana OforiAtta-Ayim, Gallery 1957, 6th March – 25th May.
- See http://www.design233.com/gallery-1957/