The Global Art Project

The Radical Beauty of Iké Udé‘s Portraits

Back in the day, when Andy Warhol was the talk of the town, on the cusp of making a household name for himself by dissolving boundaries and challenging convention, he experimented in ways that had an unprecedented impact on the prevalence of portraiture. Warhol’s portraits of celebrities and socialites were popping up everywhere from Park Avenue to Hollywood as he rapidly became as famous as the subjects he depicted. With photography as the point of departure, Warhol extended beyond the limits of the medium to create photographic silkscreen prints based on washed out Polaroid images. Similarly, Iké Udé extends beyond traditional photography by taking advantage of digital technology to create his own signature style that is as painterly as it is poetic. He doesn’t simply take photographs; he makes portraits through a time-consuming process that involves an inordinate amount of staging, preening, styling, and attention to every imaginable detail. The results are seen in perfectly balanced compositions that equate to pure visual poetry.

Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits are uniquely situated between the timeless and the contemporary, while the subjects are perfectly posed between the worlds of fashion, art, and cinema. These portraits involve the kind of excessive pageantry one might associate with ornate Renaissance painting. Beauty is revealed in sumptuous details that are reminiscent of both classical portraiture and high fashion photography. Radical beauty is conveyed in a contemporary African narrative that is as much about substance and empowerment as it is about style, elegance, and aesthetics.

As I reflect over the Nollywood Portraits series I can’t help but hear bell hooks’ voice in my mind, reminding me that “Photography has been, and is central to that aspect of decolonization that calls us back to the past and offers a way to reclaim and renew life-affirming bonds. Using images, we connect ourselves to a recuperative, redemptive memory that enables us to construct radical identities, images of ourselves that transcend the limits of the colonizing eye.”   This is part of what makes the Nollywood Portraits so interesting to me – they convey radical identities. Radical because these are portraits of contemporary Nigerians, photographed by a Nigerian-born photographer, in a fully empowering manner. The Nollywood Portraits make a wonderful, bold statement about African identity at a time in American history when the vestiges of colonialism and racism, mixed with ignorance and violence, continue to threaten black lives on a daily basis. So, while these portraits convey radical beauty, even more urgently, they reclaim, reconstruct, and redefine notions of African identity.

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Stuart Hall wrote prolifically about the fluid, ever-changing nature of cultural identity, describing it as something that is in a constant state of transition rather than something that is rigid and fixed. In his seminal work Cultural Identity and Diaspora, Stuart Hall writes,  “Cultural identity is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending time, place, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation.”   At this moment in time Nollywood and the Nollywood individuals featured in these portraits are in a state of transformation, prepared to break free from what has been a mostly quantitative ranking (number two worldwide behind Bollywood), ready to focus more on the qualitative aspects that are necessary to change the outcome of comparisons between Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood. For quite some time Nollywood has had a tremendous cultural impact throughout the African continent and the African diaspora. Nollywood is a vital part of a transnational, transcontinental conversation that extends down to South Africa, east to Kenya, and as far west as Jamaica. The fact that Nollywood also has its own capital in the United States (Houston) tells the story of a film industry with a global impact that is steadily on the rise. The timing couldn’t have been better for Iké Udé to capture the beauty of Nollywood.

Philosophical reflections on the role of beauty and aesthetics in art have provided an ongoing source of discussion since antiquity. Great philosophers, poets, and writers from Plato and Kant to Baudelaire and Stendhal have been fascinated with defining the most paradoxical aspect of beauty: its fleeting, indefinable quality. Arthur C. Danto once said that art is beautiful because its beauty is embedded in the meaning of the work.  Whether or not we accept this as a universal truth, his statement is interesting if we extend it to say that beauty is embedded in the radicalism of the work. In this case, beauty is more than what meets the eye. I discussed this at length in my essay The Cracked Mirror of Beauty, written in relation to South African contemporary art:

At the juncture where issues of beauty are set free from a strictly visual definition, at the moment when beauty is considered within the context of what is felt, what is inferred and what is implied, is precisely when beauty becomes a valuable expressive device for contemporary artists. Even when beauty plays a traditionally aesthetic role, if it is also used for the further purpose of raising fundamental questions surrounding the implications of beauty in the first place, it turns out that beauty is so much more than what meets the eye. Especially when beauty is not the only goal, when it is used as part of a questioning of its own underpinnings and ramifications, that is when beauty outdoes itself in its potential to move, to give pleasure, to raise questions, to make us do a double take that involves an ultimate reconsideration of what we may have thought was true, universal, shared, right, or even wrong about beauty.

Iké Udé is highly aware of the inherent power of beauty to capture our attention. There is no denying that these portraits are breathtakingly beautiful, and it’s hard not to be star struck and dazzled by the glamour and elegance of these Nollywood stars. However, I would like to delve beneath the surface of these impeccably composed compositions, to discover what lies beyond the beauty of the subjects and the exquisite balance between composition, form, and color. I am interested in the factors that make these portraits not simply beautiful, but radically beautiful, the factors that make us do a double take, the factors that make the Nollywood Portraits series Iké Udé’s most ambitious and culturally significant body of work to date.

During a career that has already spanned decades, Iké Udé has consistently challenged classic distinctions between art and fashion, and proven himself to be at the forefront of both. Udé is perhaps most widely recognized for his performative, often autobiographical approach to photography that is typically outrageous, ironic, playful, and inquisitive. His 1994 Cover Girl series is a perfect example of his early artistic practice, which involved an unusual combination of critical discourse disguised by the fun and flair of fashion. In a world where plaids mix with floral prints, there are no gender rules, and the past melds with the present, Iké Udé ripped fashion, art, and culture apart at the seams and offered us refreshingly original, and sometimes provocative, creations that questioned all kinds of cultural and social misconceptions. With the Cover Girl series, he found the perfect platform to play the multiple roles of dandy, provocateur, model, photographer, artist, and social critic decades before topics of gender and cultural identity were brought into the average living room. Each cover is a tribute to radical beauty, perfectly composed to grab our attention and tease us with just the right amount of wit and humor. In case you somehow don’t detect the clever irony throughout, one of the headlines quips: “What is Art? Experts Disagree”. The answer is right there. When it comes to Iké Udé, art is almost always about radical beauty. 

With the launch of his legendary art, culture, and fashion magazine aRUDE in 1995, Iké Udé set the standard for what would be a flourish of similar magazines worldwide in the years to follow. The title pays homage to the quintessentially stylish Jamaican rude boys of the fifties and sixties. To this day, there are few magazines that even begin to compare in terms of bridging the visual and intellectual gap between content and style. I would say that aRUDE was, and still is, equally as relevant as Andy Warhol’s Interview.  Subsequently, Iké Udé continued to secure his position in the New York art world with his solo exhibition Beyond Decorum, which featured the most comprehensive presentation of his photographs to date. With his solo exhibition Paris Hilton: Fantasy and Simulacrum, he once again reminded the world that when it comes to revealing and questioning the underpinnings of popular culture, nobody does it better than Iké Udé. At a time when Paris Hilton had more media presence than Beyoncé, Gigi Hadid, and the Kardashians combined, and well before selfies and Instagram took over our smart phones, Iké Udé was questioning and commenting on celebrity culture in ways that surely would have fascinated Walter Benjamin. Finally, with Style and Sympathies, his solo exhibition at Leila Heller Gallery in 2013, he was on the verge of a stylistic breakthrough that would ultimately influence the Nollywood Portraits.

Iké Udé captures the essence of each of his subjects with the skill of a master painter. Stylistic elements reminiscent of David, Ingres, and John Singer Sargent are all there, to name only a few, in addition to Raphael in the case of the School of Nollywood mural.  I find it interesting that Iké Udé’s photographs always remind me of painters, and here is the key that unlocks the compositional magic of his work. Clearly, he has the proper amount of respect and understanding for art history, which makes his portraits really sparkle. As such, he has truly succeeded in creating his own signature style. He paints with color and light to create portraits that are tweaked to perfection through a keen attention to detail and use of unusually vivid, vibrant colors. The result is a refreshing counterpoint to the instant imagery typical of our digital age. Iké Udé works outside of time, in a place that is inspired by the past, driven by the present, and headed towards the future.

As I linger over the sumptuous details of the Nollywood Portraits I find myself transported back in time to the style of Jacques-Louis David. The iconic painting Madame Recamier is a perfect example of David’s attention to decorative elements, punctuated by a gorgeous, centrally placed chaise longue. Madame Recamier’s dramatic, contrapposto pose, the luminosity of her skin, and the delicate drapery of her dress are precisely the kind of details that make the subjects in Iké Udé’s portraits shine so brightly. The chaise longue alone immediately brings to mind the carefully measured placement of furniture throughout the Nollywood Portraits, and in the portraits of Genevieve Nnaji, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Daniella Chioma Okeke, and Linda Ihuoma Ejiofor in particular, the effect of which is heightened by their dramatic, stylized poses. However, if I were to choose only one master painter whose portraits I regard to be as regal as Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits, I would probably choose David’s student Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres. Iké Udé’s painstaking attention to pattern, decoration, and texture, his beautifully posed subjects, and the rich details that speak the unequivocal language of wealth and success all echo Ingres’ neoclassical portraits. Similar to how the rich brocades, velvets, and silks contribute to the visual impact of Ingres’ portraits, Iké Udé combines impeccably styled attire, carefully curated pieces of furniture, the inclusion of unusual details ranging from genie bottles to Persian-inspired carpets as magical as One Thousand and One Nights, to create visual poetry through portraiture. 

Equally fluent in the languages of high art and haute couture, Iké Udé travels between cultures with the grace and ease of the most sophisticated cosmopolitan.  His photographs speak the rich visual language of classical portraiture, while the context extends the conversation to a timely discussion about the social and cultural impact of Nollywood worldwide. These portraits convey the style and elegance of the individuals who have played an active role in making New Nigerian Cinema what it is today: a globally recognized movie industry that has captured the hearts of fans all over the African continent and throughout the African diaspora. While each of the portraits conveys what makes Nollywood sparkle, the exhibition as a whole emphasizes the significance of Nollywood as a cultural phenomenon that has succeeded in transcending cultures and continents, with an overall impact that can only be compared to Bollywood or Hollywood. As such, the Nollywood Portraits series truly does convey a radical beauty.

Bringing The Art of Storytelling to the Morro do Palacio Favela

This is a story about how art and literature can be used as tools for inspiration and empowerment on a societal level. As an exhibition centered on the power of storytelling I was interested in finding ways to allow completely new stories and narratives to unfold. With emphasis on Brazilian artists presented within an international context I sought to make the exhibition relevant and accessible to the local community. The tangible result is the exhibition catalog/book. Each hand-painted cover, and the collaborative work featured in the exhibition, was created by youth who participated in workshops that took place before the exhibition.

Inspired by my exhibition The Storytellers: Narratives in International Contemporary Art, for which the Argentinian artist/writers collective Eloísa Cartonera created one-of-a-kind cardboard covers for the special edition of the publication, I contacted Lúcia Rosa of the Dulcinéia Catadora collective of artists and writers that is based on the same ideals as Eloísa Cartonera. I hoped that Lúcia might be interested in collaborating with me to develop a book project that would engage youth from the local community in the creative process and outcome of this book. There was no hesitation in her enthusiastic response, which resulted in a wonderful collaboration that quickly became integral to the entire exhibition project. We also invited other artists and writers into our book project, including Magne Furuholmen, Rosana Ricalde, Fabio Morais, Paulo Scott, Xico Sá and Sergio Sant´Anna, further emphasizing the dialogue between art and literature that is the source of inspiration for the exhibition.

 

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Upon hearing that a-Ha were scheduled to play at Rock in Rio around the same time as our workshops, I contacted the artist Magne Furuholmen, who happens to be the lead keyboardist of a-Ha, to see if he was interested in participating. His proposal really captured the spirit of what we were aiming to achieve. He suggested creating graffiti-like sculptures with the youth, which added a new dimension to our project. The direct source of inspiration came from his series Literary Constructs, 2015 featured in the exhibition. The artists Keiko Mayama and Gabriel Bernardo prepared the massive blocks of clay that were used as a basis to stamp words into the clay with the use of aluminum letters. Participants were offered a unique hands-on experience that involved an active dialogue between text and form, poetry and art that extended far beyond what anyone could have imaged or hoped for. The gradual deconstruction and decay of the sculptures in the time leading up to the exhibition was a vital part of the concept, playing directly with the construction and deconstruction of both language and form. Within minutes of completion one of the five sculptures sank to the ground as if on cue. Our goal was to bring the exhibition down from the walls and into the local community, which is precisely what these sculptures did. With each passing day, as the effects of sun, rain and wind take a toll on the sculptures, visitor’s interest in and engagement with the sculptures has continued and will do so for as long as nature permits.

With artistic and literary inspiration as the essential motivating factors, Furuholmen’s intervention fit nicely into the framework of the Dulcinéia Catadora workshops. The truth is that we could never have anticipated how talented and receptive to these experiences the participants would be. Yet, with each new workshop, as we gradually became familiar with the teenagers, the results also became increasingly interesting.  Slowly but surely, with each inspiring poem read aloud by Lúcia, with each linguistic game, with the laughter and discussions that took place during the workshops, and with every blank piece of cardboard that was transformed into a one-of-a-kind cover, we were all taking part in a truly inspiring story.

Wake the World and Tell the People

The Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who made an extraordinary contribution to postcolonial discourse during his lifetime, suggested that one should think of culture not necessarily as a return to roots, but rather in terms of routes, an idea that fully embraces a very expansive notion of culture. This includes the routes by which people travel and also how culture travels, moves, develops, changes and migrates. The exhibition title Jamaican Routes pays homage to Stuart Hall, and also serves to emphasize that although rooted in Jamaica, the exhibition embraces an expanded notion of Jamaican contemporary art that reaches well beyond Jamaica. The routes of this exhibition are complex and intertwined, reach from past to present, and back again. These routes are as influenced by history as they are by personal experience, whether they extend from Jamaica to Trinidad, The United States to Mauritius, from Kentucky to Kingston, or whether they are local routes that lead from Half Way Tree to the hills of Saint Andrew.

Already well known in Jamaica and the Caribbean, the eleven participating artists featured in Jamaican Routes are young artists whose careers are on the rise internationally. The selected works have been carefully chosen to provide a nuanced impression of Jamaican contemporary art that reveals its formal and conceptual depth. The participating artists address a wide range of topics through their work, including, but not limited to the social, cultural and political implications of Jamaican music. Through the years, the development of Jamaican music in its many forms has provided an unlimited source of inspiration for musicians worldwide. Jamaican music is a treasure trove in terms of how it reflects the social, political and cultural climate of Jamaica, and continues to have a tremendous impact on popular music around the world. In fact, Jamaica is one of the few countries that can lay claim to planting the seed for more than one contemporary musical genre. From Kingston to the world and back again, Jamaican music has been truly instrumental to the development of other forms of popular music. As such, the intricacies of Jamaican music and the social and cultural implications of its development provide a powerful undertone for many of the works featured in Jamaican Routes. Considering the overall importance of Jamaican music, both in and outside of Jamaica, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

 

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For those who know a little about the history of Jamaican music both before and after Bob Marley, and who know that hip-hop culture was created long before the likes of Kanye had much to say, the exchange between reggae and rap music is a match made in heaven. Particularly for those who know their reggae royalty, from King Tubby to Prince Jammy, Lee Scratch Perry to Burning Spear, and who can also differentiate between Grandmaster Flash and The Sugarhill Gang, the constant give and take between reggae, hip-hop, crossover, and other musical genres is simply in the mix. Not long after Lauren Hill, the queen of hip-hop, married Bob Marley’s son Rohan Marley, she was in on an amazing remix of Bob Marley’s Turn the Lights Down Low. The song was one of the main titles on what is probably among the most dynamic crossover albums ever, Chant Down Babylon, produced by Bob Marley’s son Stephen Marley in 1999. For roots reggae purists the album is more rap than reggae, but it’s really not far from a classic ‘version’ – a true Jamaican remix. Just listen to hip-hop prodigy Wyclef Jean at his most ‘rootical’ if you need proof that reggae is as relevant today as it was when Bob Marley was still alive. It’s already been twelve years since Wyclef rocked the house with his legendary crossover album Preacher’s Son, and he continues to create positive vibrations with his unique mash-up of reggae/calypso/soca-inspired rap. Of course, true reggae enthusiasts know that the significance of reggae, if perhaps more prevalent than ever before, has been relevant ever since the seventies.

If reggae has had an influence on hip-hop music, the atmosphere in Jamaican dancehalls has also been influenced to an equal extent by American hip-hop culture, where it was adopted quite some time ago as an important source of inspiration for the development of modern Jamaican music. When dreadlocks in Jamaica are exchanged for ‘gangsta rap’ attire, and hip-hop stars in New York wear dreadlocks, and consciously dress in red, yellow and green it’s not just ‘crossover dressing’, more importantly it speaks of a vital exchange between different music forms.

While new generations continue to discover the magic of reggae, reggae music itself has also gone through some vital developments. A lot has changed since the good old days of conscious roots reggae, even during the past few years. Somewhere along the timeline, in the gradual transition from roots reggae to the most provocative forms of dancehall, various cultural and social shifts have taken place that have tremendous ideological and sociological implications that are worthy of discussion within the framework of contemporary art. Especially right now, in the midst of the current reggae revival , with Chronixx, Protojé and Jesse Royal among the movement’s rapidly rising stars, fascinating things are happening in Kingston that have implications far beyond Jamaica, both in terms of music and art. Just as the most relevant art and music anywhere in the world often reflects a bigger cultural phenomenon, Jamaican music, and dancehall culture in particular, is an ongoing source of inspiration for several of the participating artists in this exhibition.

Ebony G. Patterson’s intricately detailed tapestries and installation works encrusted with glitter, rhinestones, fabric, silk flowers, jewelry, sunglasses, toys, and other paraphernalia provide a fascinating visual platform for her ongoing investigation of topics that relate specifically to Jamaican dancehall culture. While it’s easy to understand these strong and highly significant cultural links, her work is also highly relevant within a wider international context.

When I first encountered Ebony G. Patterson’s sparkling installations and tapestries they immediately brought to mind the work of Liza Lou. In Patterson’s case, the politics of identity and fashion unfold in the shared space of contemporary art and dancehall culture. Deeply embedded within the complicated structures of both art and fashion is the notion of identity. Within this context, Patterson places dancehall style right where it shines most brightly – front stage and center. Of course, there is a lot more going on in the work than ‘simple dancehall pageantry’. Intricate patterns of identity are found in the glittering details that are meticulously hand-sewn into massive installations that rip dancehall style apart at the seams, offering up new and contradictory perspectives surrounding notions of gender, beauty and masculinity.

While Liza Lou became famous for transforming well known cultural symbols into extraordinary objects and magnificent installations, doing with Tide, Budweiser and Barbie, what Warhol did with the Brillo box and the Campbell’s soup can, Patterson hones in on the specifics of Jamaican dancehall culture, with Vybz Kartel, Bounty Killer and Shabba Ranks as likely suspects in her investigation of a wide range of identity issues that typically challenge preconceived notions of beauty, gender, sexuality and race. Most importantly, she unveils some of the fundamental driving factors behind the primping, preening and peacocking that is integral to dancehall culture. If Liza Lou captured everyone’s attention by transforming the mundane into the dazzling, Ebony G. Patterson is well on her way to becoming equally renowned for pimping up the bling.

In a statement about her own work, Ebony G. Patterson explains it succinctly:
My ongoing body of work explores constructions of the masculine within popular culture - while using Jamaican dancehall culture as a platform for this discourse. My works seeks to measure the masculine by looking at how popular culture has contributed to these transformations. The early work looked at the fashionable practice of skin bleaching, followed by investigations of so-called ‘bling culture’ and its relationship to the masculine within an urban context. While still making references to dancehall culture, my work raises larger questions about beauty, gender ideals and constructs of masculinity within so-called ‘popular black culture’. It examines the similarities and differences between ‘camp aesthetics’– the use of feminine gendered adornment - in the construct of the urban masculine within popular culture. This body of work raises questions about body politics, performance of gender, gender and beauty, beauty and stereotyping, race and beauty, and body and ritual. 
Throughout her work Ebony G. Patterson makes the invisible visible, pushing this idea to the utmost extreme to the extent that the final result almost morphs into camouflage. The implications of this tension between the visible and invisible are crucial to her work. Works such as Trump, Stump and Dominoes, 2014, featured in Jamaican Routes, or Lily, Carnation and Rose Budz, 2014 occupy the space with a glittering sea of seemingly innocent details, including flowers, toys, dolls, baby shoes and party clothes. These shimmering, sparkling works immediately come across as almost celebratory. To the contrary, they are based on crime scene photos. What might seem like an unlikely source of inspiration is precisely what anchors Patterson’s work within a serious critical framework.
Beyond the overwhelming visual impact, Ebony G. Patterson’s work reveals the complicated politics of a hypervisual negotiation for visibility. She captures our attention with pure optical overload, and subsequently forces us to consider and reconsider a whole range of topics that relate to gender, race, beauty and sexuality. For instance, the flamboyantly dressed men in her large-scale installations challenge traditional conceptions of masculinity and femininity.  Ultimately, she demands our attention in very much the same way that dancehall participants compete for the spotlight by making themselves visible. These guys are all dolled-up in flowery over-the-top outfits that, from a conservative perspective, would be considered effeminate. This is the very distinct visual currency used to buy and secure visibility within male-dominated dancehall culture, where the ultimate badge of masculinity is actually unabashedly feminine.      
André Woolery’s work is similarly entrenched in dancehall culture. In a recent statement about his own work he explains, “My subject matter is the exploration of Black identity, culture and history.  Too often the narratives surrounding Black experience and existence are undocumented, altered or one-dimensional.  What it means to be Black is not static or a monolithic term that has to succumb to historical context. Blackness links the experiences of the African diaspora so it remains a dynamic and moving target.  I want to create visual language that defines who we are through identity, captures our power through culture, and defines our paths through history.” 

I can almost hear Barkley L. Hendricks’ wise, articulate voice in those words, which reminds me that there are also some interesting similarities between Hendricks’ Passion Dancehall series and André Woolery’s Freedom of Expression series. As one of the foremost American painters of our time, Barkley L. Hendricks’ work has become a source of inspiration for some of the hottest young artists today, such as Kehinde Wiley and Jeff Sonhouse. His iconic portraits stand out in their grandeur, with a sumptuousness and attention to detail similar to Renaissance masters. With the talent of a master painter and an eye for style comparable to a high fashion photographer, Hendricks creates cool, ethereal portraits that capture the individual presence and attitude of his subjects. Hendricks’ painterly skill is coupled with humor, subtle irony, and a healthy dose of rebelliousness that serves to question and challenge all kinds of preconceived notions and stereotypes.  It’s worth mentioning that Hendricks, although he is not Jamaican, has spent a considerable amount of time in Jamaica over the course of the past 30 years and has a true and nuanced understanding of Jamaican culture, as seen in his Passion Dancehall series in particular. 

While André Woolery’s Freedom of Expression series bears similarity to Barkley L. Hendricks’ Passion Dancehall series, Woolery’s paintings lack nothing in terms of originality. The divas in his paintings come across, first and foremost, as proud individuals. This is fashion with an attitude as it plays out in full dancehall style, where plunging cleavage, tight-fitting jeans, flashy jewelry and dangerously high-heels are pretty much the norm for women. What makes it so interesting is how Woolery succeeds in capturing all this in such an elegant and respectful manner.   While Hendricks’ paintings reveal every sexy detail between couples on the dance floor, and are undeniably powerful in their own right, Woolery’s paintings fully embrace dancehall fashion in a somewhat less provocative manner. These portraits are all about attitude, and the enviable confidence of street style at its best, reminiscent of South African artist Nontsikelelo Veleko’s iconic portraits of urban youth in Johannesburg.  These kinds of connected voices are quite relevant to Woolery’s approach to contemporary art practice. He speaks about placing emphasis on a collective perspective that engages with what it means to be Black through a cross pollination of Black perspectives, and this is precisely what he achieves through his work as an artist. 

In Leasho Johnson’s ongoing investigation of Jamaican dancehall culture he pumps up the volume with brightly colored works that practically jump out from the wall, making us think twice about what we are looking at, both visually speaking and in terms of content. As a painter, illustrator and designer, Johnson is quite adept at combining elements of graffiti with a Pop Art-inspired aesthetic in his ongoing social commentary of contemporary Jamaican culture. He simultaneously pushes all boundaries while also managing to keep the visual language neat, precise and surprisingly approachable.   

His interest in various aspects of dancehall culture such as the highly sexualized and aggressive form of dancing known as ‘daggering’, and the raw, loud, and edgy music associated with ghetto youth culture are translated into complex works that challenge existing hierarchies between ‘high’ and ‘low’, institution and street, and between art and design.  The blatantly dirty imagery and what it represents almost seems to contradict his clean and meticulous approach to illustration and painting. His work is imbued with irony and humor that consciously plays with various perceptions and pre-conceived notions about Jamaican culture in a very playful and refreshing way. 

Using the visual language of cartoons enables Johnson to approach rather disturbing issues in a very direct manner. The results border on the humorous, conveyed with just enough seriousness to keep it real.    Just imagine if the subject matter of Back a Road, 2014 were photographed, painted, or drawn more realistically.  The simple neon orange cartoon-like forms somehow transform bawdy and indecent scenes into fun and playful social critique. There is definitely a lot to take in, but don’t be shy. Look carefully and observe every detail, because that’s where you will find the underlying messages that make Johnson’s work pop. 

With Back a Road, 2014 the contrast between the flat mural and the three-dimensional sculptures is quite significant. What plays out in the acrylic and cut vinyl mural is amplified in the speakers featured next to the mural. As such, these painted speakers highlight important details that are worthy of emphasis. For instance, the speaker painting Bruck-Out features a woman bending down suggestively in front of a banana leaf, which emphasizes the idea of a banana as a symbol of masculinity, and can also be interpreted as a reference to the banana plantations of colonial Jamaica.  Throughout his work, Johnson plays with the hidden and not-so-hidden meanings of the images and titles he choses, heightening the impact through the use of clever wordplay, often borrowed from Jamaican Patois and sometimes taken from the titles of well-known Jamaican dancehall songs. His vibrant visual language typically includes sound system speakers, sugar cane, bananas, banana leaves, dogs in heat, faceless helmet-clad women with huge lips, gyrating and fornicating couples, as well as the occasional pimped-up Red Stripe or liquor bottle. All in all, Leasho Johnson’s works are stunning, but what they depict is not exactly pretty, which is the perfect combination for a contemporary artist who is committed to addressing important social and identity issues throughout his work. 

Matthew McCarthy is a street artist, muralist and illustrator with a fascination for Jamaican street signs, old school dancehall illustrations, and global street art movements. He cleverly combines these various sources of inspiration into a comprehensive artistic project that is firmly grounded in urban Kingston with roots that extend in various creative directions. McCarthy, who is also known as ‘Eye-dealist’, is as comfortable creating a live painting on the stage of a Protojé concert as he is spreading words of wisdom through his underground magazine Regal Zeen, or collaborating with other artists to implement street art as a tool for societal change.

As an artist who actively engages with the community outside of the art world, he is committed to art that is made for and speaks from the streets. Although his work is influenced by the trend towards politically engaged street art worldwide it continues to grow and flourish locally. His work speaks the language of conscious roots reggae, with just enough of a rebellious and satirical tone to give the red, green and gold added layers of meaning. His distinct visual style is not only inspired by reggae consciousness, it actually embodies its principles. With social consciousness, collaborative creative practice and a desire to create change as three of his fundamental ideals, Matthew McCarthy is more than an artist who happens to be interested in the visual culture of reggae; his work fully embraces its highest ideals.

As with many of the artists featured in the exhibition, Matthew McCarthy’s work is driven by social critique and a youthful dissatisfaction with the systems that structure our social reality. Collaborative art practice is at the core of his creativity, which contributes to making his work highly relevant within a contemporary global context that extends beyond the art world. He is dedicated to creating change on the grassroots level to the extent that this influences each carefully chosen word and phrase and every cartoon-like illustration. On the same note, this sets the tone for his various interventions and punctuates every aspect of social commentary that runs throughout his work. McCarthy is driven by clearly defined ideals that he sums up beautifully in a description of the Paint Jamaica urban renewal project,  “Walls that once bore the marks of opposing political parties, fuelling the negative aspects of urban tribalism are now transformed into mediums of artistic expression. My work looks at issues as well as the strengths of how we connect in our social spaces.” 

Matthew McCarthy’s Regal Zeen is an integral part of his art practice. Regal Zeen is a print and online ‘zine’ that makes regular interventions into Jamaica’s social and artistic environments. There is an interesting double entendre at play here. A ‘zine’ is understood as an alternative magazine or newspaper published outside of mainstream media, typically printed on a photocopy machine, with an unpolished layout and bold designs. In this case, the word has been adapted to ‘zeen’, which means ‘OK’ in Jamaican Patois. According to McCarthy, Regal Zeen manifested out of the need to establish a sustainable and artistic lifestyle archive among young like-minded creative individuals, with the greater intention of inspiring a productive change in the environment, and represents a significant shift towards increased social consciousness. Indeed, Regal Zeen is a vital part of McCarthy’s generous approach to contemporary art practice that is fuelled and driven by pure reggae consciousness.  

Perry Henzell’s classic 1972 film The Harder They Come, starring and featuring the music of reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, has maintained its position through the years as the most well known Jamaican film worldwide. The movie conveyed the crime-ridden atmosphere of Kingston in the seventies and captured people’s hearts with the infectious lyrics and rhythm of its classic reggae soundtrack. Storm Saulter’s 2011 film Better Mus’ Come is also set during the seventies when Kingston was caught in the crossfire of politically fueled gang warfare. Straight out of jail, the main character Ricky becomes drawn into partisan fighting between the ruling People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labor Party. Adding to his struggle, Ricky’s romance with Kemala is also threatened by the pervasive atmosphere of violence that looms over Kingston. The narrative culminates in a scene inspired by the Green Bay Massacre of 1978, in which soldiers killed several suspected gang members. It’s an intense visual journey into a particularly tumultuous time in Jamaican history.

In addition to a special screening of Better Mus’ Come at Nordic Black Theatre the exhibition features two additional works by Storm Saulter that give a sense of the full range of his practice as a visual artist. Similar to how the New York-based artist Andrew Dosunmu works freely between the worlds of art, fashion and music, Saulter’s videos and photographs balance perfectly between the worlds of music and art. Few filmmakers have made an equally captivating music video as Storm Saulter’s take on Chronixx and Protojé’s hugely successful hit-song Who Knows. Saulter’s ability to translate a massive hit into an interesting visual narrative certainly contributed to it spreading like wildfire beyond the shores of Jamaica.

Storm Saulter’s work reads like a top-ten list of the hottest names on the island, and directs attention towards some of the fresh young voices that are following in Bob Marley’s footsteps. All in all, Saulter’s work reveals his obvious understanding of the personalities behind the people he chooses to photograph or film whether a talented musician or the fastest runner on the planet. Further anchoring Storm Saulter’s position as an artist that has one foot set firmly in the music world and the other in the art world, Jamaican Routes also features Dark Morass, a collaborative work between Storm Saulter and visual artist Rodell Warner.

References to the culture and history of Jamaica are a recurring source of inspiration for Cosmo Whyte. Whether he is working with photography, performance, video, installation, or works on paper, he approaches topics linked to a shared Jamaican cultural inheritance in ways that are universally relevant.   Among his most striking works is the diptych drawing Ginal , based on the famous photograph of the main character Ivanhoe Martin in the film The Harder They Come, in which he poses defiantly as a fashionable ‘rude boy’ and gunman. The work appropriates a very specific detail from Perry Henzell’s famous film that is immediately recognizable to most Jamaicans. Choosing to create a drawing out of such a familiar image without it coming across as derivative or outdated was certainly no easy task. Yet, he proves his artistic talent by appropriating this iconic image of Ivanhoe and turning it into a fresh and relevant contemporary artwork.

As significant as these references are, the power of Cosmo Whyte’s diptych also transcends its cultural specificity. From a strictly formal perspective this meticulously drawn work is enough to secure his position as a highly talented artist. He demonstrates a keen understanding of drawing techniques on a par with the best contemporary artists anywhere. He seems equally as conscious of the power of an eraser as Rauschenberg so famously was, and is clearly aware of the effect of each and every line and detail. Beyond the subtle nuances in shadows and tones and the stark contrast between light and dark, Ginal conveys a sense of movement that is further emphasized in the shift from one panel to the next. What is clearly defined in the fist panel is subsequently deconstructed, twisted and abstracted in the next, resulting in a drawing that conveys the intensity of Ivanhoe’s trials and tribulations in the film. 

Extending the cultural references to Africa and the United States, Jamaican Routes features Cosmo Whyte’s new sound-based work The Well Traveled African, 2015. The installation includes a traditional Jamaican pushcart with speakers that play an extended soundtrack compiled of samplings of reggae and dancehall music mixed in with news bytes and fragments from sociopolitical speeches. This little pushcart spreads its message with the force of a full Jamaican sound system, with emphasis on the politics of race in particular. We enter into occupied territory, where the sweet voice of Dennis Brown and Augustus Pablo’s soulful melodica compete with Stephen Marley, Capleton and Sizzla who steal the ‘rock stone’ from Bob Marley’s ‘Talking Blues’ and turn it into their own pillow. This is pure rebel music that echoes all around the world. Listen carefully and you just might hear the voices of great intellectuals such as Stuart Hall, James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey and Fela Kuti. The Well Traveled African is one of three parts in a larger body of work that also includes a stacked sound system (Wake the Town and Tell the People) and a photograph of a handheld megaphone (Town Crier). While the pushcart and sound system are immediately associated with Jamaica, the megaphone widens the geographic context of the work to also include West Africa, where its use has gradually replaced the traditional use of drums. These components come together as the core aspects of a body of work that, according to Cosmo Whyte, “addresses issues surrounding diaspora identity at a time when the racial climate in the US homogenizes the black experience both for the need of solidarity and oppression.” 
This is precisely the kind of political and social engagement that runs throughout Cosmo Whyte’s work. He fits into the category of cosmopolitan artists who typically move back and forth, up and down, between here and there, constantly navigating the landscapes of their mind that are rooted in multiple locations and cultures. These artists are often influenced by memory and driven by shared histories and dreams that consistently translate to a rich visual language that has no geographical boundaries. Many of them navigate the ever-shifting terrain of dislocation, defined by past and present, here and there, dream and reality. This is the kind of work that encourages us to reflect upon the specificity of personal experience as understood within a historical context that is deeply imbedded within the trajectory of postcolonial discourse, and is as relevant in relation to Cosmo Whyte’s work as it is to several of the other participating artists in the exhibition.
Stuart Hall was not the first to discuss the concept of roots versus routes, but his specific implementation of and elaboration upon the inherent difference between these two words is a topic that he discussed throughout his career. In relation to what Stuart Hall observed as a deep concern about identity and ones relation to the present and the past, he posited that this relationship could not be accurately expressed in terms of a return to roots. Stuart Hall’s approach to cultural identity theory, influenced as it was by concepts of fluidity, heterogeneity and hybridity, was a breath of fresh air for everyone who felt suffocated by the idea of cultural identity as strictly defined by shared similarities and a fixed, unchanging relation to history. In his seminal essay ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, Stuart Hall laid the groundwork for the kind of critical thinking that would come to define his work as a leading cultural theorist, describing cultural identity not only in terms of shared similarity but also in terms of difference.
There is, however, a second, related but different view of cultural identity. This second position recognizes that, as well as the many points of similarity, there are also critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute ’what we really are’; or rather – since history has intervened – ’what we have become’. We cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ’one experience, one identity’, without acknowledging its other side – the ruptures and discontinuities which constitute, precisely, the Caribbean’s ’uniqueness’. Cultural identity, in this second sense, is a matter of ’becoming’ as well as of ’being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something that already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything, which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ’play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ’recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.
Stuart Hall stated that cultural identity is “always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth. Cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning. Hence, there is always a politics of identity, a politics of position, which has no absolute guarantee in an unproblematic, transcendental ’law of origin’.”  This is precisely where many of the artists in this exhibition are positioned. Perhaps not so much ‘positioned’ as in a state of transition and growth, which is inspired both by historical and contemporary issues, and equally linked to the past and present as to the future.
Camille Chedda investigates themes of identity, class and race in work that speaks about notions of disposability and temporality. Her innovative approach to painting and drawing often involves the use of common materials such as garbage bags that she transforms into intriguing mixed-media installation works. As she explains it,  “In my work, the bag functions in varied ways depending on the type of bag used, where it is placed and how it has been manipulated. The portrait subject, whether it has been painted or drawn on the bag, often functions as an object or commodity, which inevitably expires with time and display.”  

For Wholesale Degradables Camille Chedda implemented the kind of cheap plastic bags that are prevalent throughout the Caribbean. In Jamaica these are known as ‘scandal bags’.  Typically, these are black and opaque, thereby making it possible to conceal their contents. Although predominantly used for carrying groceries, criminals also use ‘scandal bags’ to conceal weapons, drugs, stolen goods and even body parts. Chedda is interested in the idea of these bags’ role as a keeper of a person’s social identity. With these ideas as her point of departure she painted portraits on translucent bags, providing a window into various identities. Each portrait also functions as an object, as a container of identity. Of course these bags are not only containers they also represent waste. ‘This Bag is 100% Degradable’ is stamped on the bottom of some of the bags—not biodegradable, but degradable.

If these bags are to be understood as containers of identity, the reference also seems to extend to the individuals whose portraits are depicted both on and in the bags. Clearly, to be degraded is to be shamed or humiliated, yet these individuals appear relaxed and nonchalant; at least the ones on the outside – the visible ones. In stark contrast, the portraits painted on the inside come across as decidedly less at ease, less comfortable, less visible. Their identities are concealed, similar to the objects that might be hidden within these bags. This subtle play between visibility and invisibility, between what is perceptible and what isn’t makes Wholesale Degradables resonate on many levels. By the time these bags finally do disappear and dissolve, perhaps beyond the lifetimes of these individuals, their identities will also be erased, creating a profound visual metaphor for temporality.

Andrea Chung takes us far away from Jamaica to an island off the East coast of Africa with her installation Sink & Swim. Chung’s work typically examines the complexities of previously colonized countries. She often makes use of archival material such as photographs or tourist brochures to reconstruct critical narratives that challenge preconceived notions and misconceptions about a particular culture, equally relevant in relation to Mauritius as it is to Jamaica. For instance, by manipulating tourism imagery she investigates how island nations are sold to tourists through picturesque, idealized fantasy. She thereby inspires us to question fiction versus reality as we try to make sense of these conflicting narratives. Environmental issues, the power structures of labor, and an exploration of migration patterns are also recurring topics that tend to influence her work. As such, she consistently exposes the bare and complicated roots of a particular place, revealing the extent to which certain cultures have been created through the influence of what she describes as multiple ‘mother cultures’.

To create Sink & Swim she cast liquor bottles out of sugar to reference a method of fishing used by some Mauritian fishermen. The bottles are hung in the space accompanied by small replicas of fishing tackle, wrapped and tangled in fishing line, and left to the elements of the space. Depending on the environment where the work is created, the bottles will crack, shatter, and slowly disappear over time, resulting in a strong symbol for the disappearance of both a community and a trade. Beyond the visual impact and fragility of the work, there are numerous subtexts that give the work additional impact. Andrea Chung’s description of the historical events that inspired this work sheds important light on the installation, “After the abolition of slavery in Mauritius, many newly freed slaves (also known as Creoles) became fishermen and subsequently established small fishing villages, particularly in the southern part of the island, rather than return to the cane fields to work for their former enslavers. Many of these fishing villages remain today and these fishing traditions have been passed down for generations. Unfortunately the trade is now threatened due to over-fishing.”  Although this relates specifically to Mauritius, it is an overly familiar narrative throughout the world.  

What might be described as the reconstruction of picturesque landscapes seen throughout her work brings to mind what bell hooks describes as diasporic landscapes of longing.   In a text about the work of Carrie Mae Weems bell hooks discusses the return to a dreamed-about home and the notion that every bit of history and experience is seen as essential to the unfolding of one’s destiny. She continues with a discussion surrounding the commonality of longing, of the shared experience of yearning for connection, for home Africa as present and yet far away, as both real and mythic. As an artist born in the US of Jamaican and Trinidadian heritage, who is clearly interested in and influenced by more than one culture, it is easy to see how aspects of cultural connectivity and longing contribute to Andrea Chung’s unique artistic perspective.

Olivia McGilchrist explores translocation and physical expressions of various emotional states in photographs, performances and videos that relate directly to issues of cultural identity. She frequently implements her alter ego ‘whitey’ in her artistic investigation of Jamaica, which she describes as a space of utter difference. Born in Kingston to a French mother and a Jamaican father, and educated in France and the UK, her work is directly influenced by an ongoing exploration of her own cultural identity. In general terms, she incorporates her body in her own practice, often repositioning it within the context of a picturesque tropical space. She describes her approach as a means of questioning the shifting spaces in which she appears to belong, from the female body in a postmodern space to a visibly white postcolonial creole identity.

For Otherness, an ongoing project that began in 2013, she collaborated with the octogenarian Guyanese-Jamaican actress, playwright and storyteller Jean Small. This body of work deconstructs the physicality of postcolonial bodies through videos that are presented as an installation that evokes a live performance, either directly in the space or re-presented as an interactive element in the space. As such, she conveys thoughts about identity and race in a very direct and compelling manner. In this two-screen projection the visual language of otherness is defined formally by clear, strong contrasts that emphasize the topics of identity and race that are addressed through her work. The visual details of her clean and precise formal approach have a strong representational function that gradually emerges in the slow, measured performance that plays out between Jean Small and Olivia McGilchrist.

Otherness is carefully set up in a manner that places viewers in an indefinable space in between, which thereby intensifies our experience of the work. The fluid and measured push and pull between the two women turns into a captivating performance that speaks beyond the personal implications of McGilchrist’s own role in the work. In this graceful and gentle meeting between two souls there is a sense of something unresolved that lingers in the space. As viewers, we are physically situated in a space of duality and opposites that inspires us to consider the significance of each and every glance and movement. Similar to complete strangers who eventually become friends, an initial sense of confusion, skepticism, and possibly even fear are subtly transformed to understanding, compassion, intimacy and playfulness. We focus on the hands and faces of each, both separately and as one, as the camera spans back and forth, up, down and around these two women. We play an active role becoming the ‘other’ suspended in an ever-shifting space of identity as we search to understand the specifics of each individual and their relation to one another.

Drawings are an important aspect of Oneika Russell’s work, which she often integrates into installation format. This is particularly evident in Notes to You, which I had the pleasure of seeing for the first time when it was installed at Devon House as part of the Jamaica Biennial, 2014. It’s difficult to imagine a more ideal site-specific setting for this work. Russell’s small works on paper heightened the air of nostalgia that already lingers in the air of this historical mansion. Walking into the furnished bedroom to discover small notecards with colorful drawings and notes felt like I was being let in on an intimate secret. The notecards were carefully placed around the room, not hanging on the walls, but tucked among the sheets of the canopy bed, dangling from the mosquito netting, and snuck between a perfume bottle and a silver brush on the commode. Within this particular setting, the drawings seemed caught in limbo between past and present, evoking strong associations to themes related to memory, loss and displacement.

The short hand-written texts on the inside of each notecard create an intriguing play between text and image that facilitates the search for underlying meaning. The notes range from highly dramatic; “You ran away like a wild animal” to melancholic; “you learned to keep your head down and your heart shut and your scope small”. One could easily get swept away in the romanticism of it all if it weren’t for the fact that these are more than delicate little drawings. Although there is beauty in every detail, there is something else looming in the shadows, which gives the work a necessary forcefulness and edge. These aren’t simply portraits of some lovelorn woman, or traces of something that may have transpired in this particular place. These drawings touch upon something that reaches beyond the specificity of a particular time and place.

Looking carefully at the portraits we see faces that tentatively peek through the foliage and flowers. We also see faces that are decorated and dotted to the extent that the most predominant facial features are the eyes. Saturated colors and geometric patterns cover many of the faces, transforming them into powerful masked individuals. These come across as proud, confident, and imposing. Alternately, the faces fade into a sea of grey and white and almost verge on abstraction. As such, these portraits balance a very fine line between visibility and invisibility.  However, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that these portraits depict different qualities in the same individual. Whether seen carefully peeking out from behind verdant leaves, or completely hidden behind a pale greenish-gray pattern these portraits are clearly about presence and absence, as well as the idea that ones identity is constantly shifting and shaped by many factors, including environment and experience, as well as cultural and natural surroundings. With this work we discover the unique confidence that seems to arise from the constant restructuring of one’s identity within the fluid and ever-changing context of synthesizing past and present, here and there, dream and reality.

Marlon James, not to be confused with the award-winning author by the same name, is a prominent Jamaican photographer who resides in Trinidad. He is committed to straight photography and creates striking images that command the viewer’s full and undivided attention. His experience as a fashion photographer contributes to an open-minded approach that is coupled with an unfailing ability to connect to his subjects. He has an unusual talent for finding beauty in the ordinary and mundane, and seems to enjoy challenging traditional notions of beauty and power. Even the artists, filmmakers and musicians that he photographs, who are celebrities in their own right, are chosen as his subjects not because they are stars but because they are people whom he knows well. First and foremost, he is interested in delving beneath the surface of his subjects and to have them unveil in front of the lens rather than to dress up and pose for the camera.

These portraits capture our attention with the power of a glamorous image of a supermodel, extending beyond the limits of traditional fashion photography and inspiring us to consider the realness and humanity of the subjects instead. Marlon James has a keen eye for rough, urban beauty, consistently conveyed in a photographic approach that strips his subjects bare. As it happens, several of the portraits in Jamaican Routes feature participating artists in the exhibition, an aspect that hints at the interconnectivity between the artists in the exhibition.

Marlon James’ portraits of Camille Chedda, Ebony G. Patterson and Storm Saulter convey an attitude and presence that is difficult to capture in a photograph without seeming staged and posed. The fact that James really knows his subjects somehow enables him to strip his compositions down to the absolute essentials. Yes, these artists are budding stars, but there is something more genuine and more interesting at play in these ‘bad-ass’ portraits. Ordinary person or superstar, friend or foe, unknown or famous, James’ photographs are all about substance. Equally impressive are his portraits of dancehall legend Yellowman and drummer Akiri Cooper. Contrasts between shadow and light add dramatic effect to portraits that convey real presence, which has nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with style. With the exception of Yellowman, who is all decked out in a three-piece suit and hat, it’s interesting that although the subjects are wearing little more than a tank top, at most, their inner style really shines through.  Gisele is possibly the most stunning example. She sits regally on a worn upholstered chair as if she were the queen of Jamaica, yet she is dressed in simple running shorts, a tank top and flip-flops. It’s impossible not to notice the scars on her arm, but this doesn’t detract from her beauty in any way because she possesses the kind of real beauty that comes from inner strength and dignity.   

It is important to keep in mind that the works featured in Jamaican Routes stem from completely different experiences and perspectives.  The photographs, installations, films, sound works, paintings and drawings included in the exhibition reflect both similarities and differences in cultural identity, visualized though various formal and conceptual approaches. Keeping an expansive notion of cultural identity in mind extends Jamaican Routes in as many directions as the roots and routes that inspired some of these works. If these artists are not easily pinpointed it’s because they are part of something that is fluid, changing, and rapidly expanding into the larger framework of international contemporary art practice. As such, Jamaican Routes moves back and forth, between cultures and time zones, shifting between past, present and future, revealing the individual stories and shared histories of a global narrative. Borrowing from U-Roy’s classic seventies dancehall hit ‘Wake the Town and Tell the People’, it’s time to wake the world and tell the people about these young contemporary artists who are coming your way.

Theo Eshetu in Conversation with Selene Wendt

Having worked with media art for over thirty years, Theo Eshetu is internationally recognized as a veteran in his field. His ongoing investigation of the manipulation of the language of television is inspired by anthropology, art history, scientific research, religious iconography, history, and personal experience, seamlessly brought together in multimedia works that reveal how electronic media shapes identity and perception. Eshetu’s work consistently stems from the combined sensibilities of filmmaker, photographer, documentarian, and sound artist. Theo Eshetu’s thoughts and reflections about art, photography, television, and video are revealed in a recent conversation with Selene Wendt for NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art.

[...]

Selene Wendt: Although a lot has changed within media art since you started out in the early eighties, the essential elements of your work have remained fairly constant through the years. Before we go into detail about the specifics of your work, please tell me a little bit about your ongoing commitment to video in particular.

Theo Eshetu: One of my very first projects was Till Death Us Do Part, 1982-1986. The title was a sort of declaration of faith, a marriage vow to using video, but it also referred to the idea of seeing video in the light of its relationship with other media. I was particularly interested in the idea of recreating the gestures and forms of ritual to explore the interrelations between video and other forms of expression such as photography, theater, cinema, documentary, and music. I think it’s generally true that when you want to discover something new and explore the unknown, you have to enter its ritual dimension. It’s through ritual that we can enter the mystery of the unknown.

SW: What did you discover in the process?

TE: I soon discovered that I was also exploring my own transnational identity and that images that at the time seemed instinctive and spontaneous were charged with biographical elements. Video, being the sum of influences from other forms of expression, reflected my own multicultural perceptions, while its capacity to influence other forms reflected my passion for making works in different fields, from museums to television and cinema, from the theater to the concert hall. More importantly, however, I was exploring ways to bring an African, as well as Afro American, sensitivity to a creative medium that was seen as a cutting-edge technological medium with which to express our distance from humanity. Marshall McLuhan defined video as a cool medium, and I was interested in regaining the "lost" humanity and exploring it as a hot medium.

SW: In other words, a multidisciplinary approach that simultaneously addresses issues of your multicultural upbringing. This is quite evident throughout your work, ranging from Blood is Not Fresh Water to Brave New World and Africanized, and also including Trip to Mount Zugualla and Return of Axum Obelisk.

TE: Naturally, my African origins are important and many of my works reflect this, but biography was not my prime concern. Initially I wanted to counterbalance what I perceived as a Eurocentric attitude in the arts and a tendency, especially with television broadcasters, to be nationalistic and to view Africa in a negative light or to exalt its exotic fascination. So actually my interest in incorporating an African sensitivity starts with an interest in video as a hybrid medium and a desire to express stories and ideas outside the mainstream. I was attracted to video because it was an unexplored medium, and one with which I could explore things that hadn't been done before in the arts—at least not with video. Using it to delve into the subconscious and the unknown was a way of attempting to understand it. Video was a tool in the hands of individuals, as opposed to television, which is a state run medium, and I thought that an individual approach, no matter how abstract, could be more truthful than the artificially constructed realities shown on television.

SW: You have developed and honed your approach in tact with the technological advancement and evolution of video as a medium. How has this affected your work?

TE: I have followed its development since the birth of the VHS and with every technological development there has been a conceptual shift. The ugliness of VHS brought about an exploration of its conceptual basis, and working with broadcasting media brought about a dialogue between high and low culture and highlighted a more subjective approach in contrast to the so called objective approach of television. The introduction of digital technology brought about reflections on the relationship between originals and copies and on the preservation of dying ideas. However I always find myself investigating the same questions with regard to the relationship between experience and its representation as an image.

SW: Well, in all fairness, while you have maintained an interest in investigating similar underlying issues, your work is definitely not the same as it was thirty years ago. Let’s start from the beginning. Is there an early work that has particular significance to your artistic development?

TE: My early twenty-monitor video-wall installation, Till Death Us Do Part, 1982-1986, in part inspired as a critique and fascination with the Nuba photographs of Leni Riefenstahl, was my first large-scale work. I had worked two years on that project and even collaborated with the inventor of the video-wall. Through reenactments of Rites of Passage I was simultaneously discovering what could be done with video that couldn’t be done with any other medium and exploring the idea of liberating the image out of the constricted box of the TV set.

SW: Blood is Not Fresh Water is among your most iconic works, and seems to signal an artistic breakthrough for you. In fact, much of the footage is re-appropriated in later work—for instance, the boys swimming in the river. At the time, how conscious were you that this would become a seminal work?

TE: After about ten years of making video art I shifted to exploring a visual language in which art and television could coexist. Trying to unite two opposites. I was initially disappointed because I felt it leaned too much toward television and also because I felt that the overwhelming experience I had by visiting Ethiopia and reconnecting with my grandfather did not really come across with the desired fluidity. I guess this also had to do with the tremendous success of the earlier work Travelling Light, 1992, in which the balance between artistic expression and biographical portrait were more sealed as a single experience.

The subject of Travelling Light was the cult figure Lindsay Kemp, who provided a unique opportunity for me to really experiment with the interdisciplinary qualities of video making. Kemp was the mentor of David Bowie, who helped shape the Ziggy Stardust persona. As mime, actor, and director he studied under Marcel Marceau and Kazuo Ohno, and his outlandish theater is an extraordinary cocktail of diverse styles and references. Not only was I a great admirer of his work, I saw in his multidisciplinary approach to theater a parallel to what I was trying to achieve with video. Ultimately, with Travelling Light I managed to demonstrate a complex network of ideas where theater, real life, and mythology could enter into a dialogue in a light-hearted yet visually stunning way.

SW: Sounds more like a successful ending than the beginning of a lifelong career.

TE: Unlike Travelling Light, when Blood is Not Fresh Water first came out it didn't get broadcast nor was it shown in art shows, but ended up being well received in many African film festivals, and I suddenly became known as a filmmaker rather than a video artist. It transcends traditional categories of film and documentary, which I thought was a good thing, and introduced the gender of the visual essay. 

SW: And what did you discover about your grandfather in the process?

TE: The truth is that I rediscovered my grandfather by making the film about him. I reconnected with him after many years and reconnected with my Ethiopian self. It was a remarkable experience to discover the aspects of my Ethiopian identity, which my European upbringing had erased. I appreciated the value of safeguarding one’s memory as a way of connecting with people and finding a position in the world. I think that was the biggest lesson learned both individually and as an artist.

SW: Although you were initially unhappy with the results, everything else suggests that it was an incredible experience.

TE: It was, but I felt the experience was greater than the video I made about it. In hindsight, however, I was wrong to undervalue the results of Blood is Not Fresh Water. Though very much a documentary, it did point to a new direction in video making, and though it was not as radical and visionary as Travelling Light, it is a more personal work and all the better for it.

SW: What changes occurred in your production method as a result of creating that work?

TE: Up to that point I had treated Africa as a metaphoric space, a place I valued for its inspirational and creative qualities, in some way challenging and playing with stereotypes, but nonetheless a powerful place of the imagination. The great thrill of making that film involved going to the continent and seeing the relationships between an imagined Africa and a real Africa. Going to Ethiopia physically and to the places of lost childhood memories, just at the time when those memories were fading. It was a way of recuperating those memories and juxtaposing them with the real, yet equally imaginary, images of Ethiopia generated by television.

I based the film on the essay-like tradition of travel writing and updating the archetypal African tradition of a grandfather transmitting his culture to his grandson. I wished to reveal the rich cultural heritage of a country known to the general public as a place of war and famine.

SW: The video takes us on a journey to your grandfather’s house in Addis Ababa and to various places around Ethiopia. Among other details, we learn of his involvement with the Italian occupation, and his relationship with Haile Selassie. In fact, your grandfather played a very important role in Ethiopian history. How is this captured in the video, and what kind of stories unfold in the work?

TE: He had written numerous books based on the lives of emperors, earning him the title of Ethiopia’s leading historian. During the film we visit his birthplace in Ankober, see tombs of emperors he had written about, and embark on a journey to visit the site of the lost Arc of the Covenant, which takes us to the islands on Lake Tana, to the source of the Blue Nile. We visit the keeper of the Arc in the church of Mariam of Zion in Axum and learn of the legend of the Queen of Sheba, and Ethiopia's origin myth. We learn of how Menelik, the first son of King Solomon, and the Queen of Sheba brought the Arc to Ethiopia for protection. We witness the celebration of Timket, commemorating the baptism of Christ, and also visit Lalibela, with its twelve rock-hewn churches supposedly built by angels. This is where the symbolic tomb of Adam is said to be. Our journey proceeds to the south of Ethiopia, where we meet the tribal populations of the Hammar and the Murzi, and we also visit the site where anthropologists discovered Lucy, or Australopithecus afarensis, the earliest human remains. This is the personal, historical, mythical, and anthropological story that unfolds in Blood is Not Fresh Water. I never wanted to let the biographical element dominate; rather, I wanted to invite the viewers to take the journey with me to our communal ancestor.

SW: How did your grandfather respond to the work?

TE: Part of the challenge was that he didn’t even want to be in it. I spent a period of several months trying to convince him. During that time he told me the stories of Ethiopian history and his own life as ambassador in various European nations, as well as his complex involvement with Haile Selassie. But he did not want to be filmed talking of these things, treating me as the lost grandson who doesn't know. It was true that I really didn't know him at the outset, but of course I did get to know him, and his very wry sense of humor, in the process of making the video. I deliberately tricked him a few times, by filming while he was showing me some old photographs, or inviting him to go for a drive to his birthplace and grabbing a couple of fugitive interviews for the brief minutes he conceded after much insistence. It was a game and none of this struggle is visible in the video. When he finally saw the end result, he typically complained about the presence of other people in the film, saying that he thought it was supposed to be only about him.

There were two issues at play, I was a grandson bonding with his grandfather, but I was also a filmmaker who was trying to bond with his subject. The entire process involved walking the fine line between personal and universal.

SW: Not only did your grandfather play a very important role in Ethiopian history during Haile Selassie’s reign, he was also a prominent writer. Please tell me more about the importance of your grandfather in relation to shaping a certain understanding of Ethiopian history.

TE: As a writer he studied Ethiopian history through the writings of foreigners. He absorbed what the Italians, French, and English had written and how it was represented in the bible and other religious texts, and then proceeded to write a history of Ethiopia for Ethiopians, creating his own narrative liberated from a Eurocentric perception of Ethiopian history. In a sense I tried to imitate his approach by studying different ways to explore the theme of origins, from the religious, historical, and anthropological perspectives, and blending them into one single narrative. In the end, the video became a portrait of him in his own style.

SW: The fragmented compositional approach is also a compelling parallel to the trajectory of life itself, in which aspects of the past influence the present, while our experiences of the present can often change our understanding of the past.

TE: Yes, there is a constant interaction between present-day observation and memory. In many instances the images shot with a video camera represent the present-day journey and images shot on super-8 film represent the transition into a memory. The editing style reflects a kind of snapshot observation you get while traveling: you look at something for a fraction of a second and recognize that there is a longer story that lies beneath. These fragments are intentionally fleeting, and before you can focus on them, they disappear like memory itself.

SW: Having traveled to Ethiopia myself as a child, the work triggered a lot of interesting childhood memories for me too. It brought back the full impact of experiencing a religious procession in Lalibela—the colors, the sounds, the heat, the dust, the brocades, the crosses, and the umbrellas. The overall beauty and excitement of that wonderful experience was suddenly right there before me in full force, so I can only begin to imagine how the experience affected you.

It’s quite beautiful at the end where you quietly say, “This was the house I lived in as a child. This was my whole world.”

TE: That is obviously the climax of the film because throughout the film you don’t actually know what the real subject matter is. Only at the end with that statement about my childhood home does one realize that this video really is a personal journey. Up to that point it is never quite clear where these meanderings will lead.

SW: Although there is a hint in the previous segment when the Patriarch says, “You can never be a stranger in your motherland.”

TE: Yes, that is the turning point. The statement captures the whole idea of an outsider who was not a stranger after all because he belongs to the land. My position as both an outsider and an insider is integral to the work. Everyone I saw and every place I visited was part of a forgotten memory. 

SW: What can you say about the religious aspect that is prominent in this work, and in almost all your work?

TE: I think that stems from my earlier interest in rituals and symbols and a Jungian understanding of religious imagery as a communal archetype image, which also reflects a deeper, psychological aspect that binds people together. It’s this symbolic transversal aspect of belief systems that I find interesting.

SW: Throughout your work there is a strong dichotomy between fiction/dream/memory set against reality/history/documentary. Does this evolve naturally, or are you consciously interested in emphasizing this balance of opposing factors?

TE: This interest in balancing opposing factors is really crucial to my approach in tackling any subject matter. The balance between these two tendencies, however, has changed over time. Initially I was exclusively drawn to a constructed image as a way of transcending what I perceived as the photographically ugly quality of video. This drew me to a world of dreams and fantasy in order to explore the specific painterly qualities of the electronic image. As the image quality improved it became inevitable to renegotiate this dichotomy in different terms. But it's a dichotomy inherent to the character of the medium itself. Video is after all the medium that most closely imitates eyesight, in that it enables you to see things as they are happening. Yet, at the same time, just like eyesight, it can create illusions. The dichotomy between reality and its representation and the belief that all forms of representation are fictional, has led me to explore the imagination as a more truthful indicator of how we perceive the world.

SW: Brave New World is another key work that represents a slightly different approach to symbols that has more to do with installation than documentary. What do you see as the limitations and possibilities associated with each of these approaches?

TE: My interest in video making is to explore the different things it can do—to explore it as a language of television and as an art form. But I am also interested in the different spaces it can occupy, be it the cinema, the museum space, or peoples’ living rooms through the television set—three very different spaces that require different presentation formats. As an installation it’s more akin to sculpture and therefore more suited to the museum or gallery space. However this doesn't affect my thematic concerns, but it does greatly affect the forms they take.

SW: Whether you are working with documentary or installation, you always maintain your photographer’s eye. How do you perceive your own role as photographer?

TE: I began photographing at an early age, in fact when my grandfather first gave me a camera for my tenth birthday. In my teens I photographed my favorite musicians in concerts, from David Bowie to James Brown, from the Rolling Stones to Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley. Music was my first passion and I think it shows in my videos. Taking pictures at concerts was quite a challenging way to learn photography because of the difficult lighting conditions, the movements, the complication of shooting in a crowd, and the excitement of the events themselves. By the time I was an art student in London I had already been photographing for several years and began to question the relationship between the aesthetic pursuits of traditional photography and the anti-aesthetical approach of conceptual photography by artists.

When I started making videos, however, it was with the idea of reconciling these two tendencies and to unite the approach of traditional photographers with the conceptual approach of artists using photography. Of course the great difference between video and photography is the element of movement and time. Photography freezes time and video watches it flow.

SW: The relation between video and television is also integral to your overall visual language. Why is this particular aspect so important to you?

TE: Well, television is such an influential medium, affecting our understanding and knowledge of the world. I was interested in using this tool of mass communication as a tool for artistic expression, confronting the generally racist and sexist premises of television, its crass sensitivity. Nevertheless, I was attracted to the possibilities of transformation and the vast unexplored areas of video untouched by television. I began seeing video as a container for ethereal, ephemeral images, yet ones capable of greatly influencing our perceptions and our understanding of the world.

SW: Portraiture also figures fairly prominently into some of your works. Perhaps most strikingly in Trip to Mount Zugualla, in the portraits of various people, especially toward the beginning. How does this relate to your role as a photographer?

TE: These portraits are interesting in terms of the ethics of what can and cannot be photographed. The question of what is gained and lost when photographing a ritual and what is preserved of the original experience in the photograph. Also the question of how one’s presence as a photographer influences the outcome of the situation itself. In the video there is a little boy who says “no no” when I film the shaman, yet the shaman himself poses for the picture when he sees that I have a camera.

SW: Isn’t there an instance where they brought a girl in a trance over to you to be filmed?

TE: Yes. At a certain distance a young woman entered a trance. A conventional photographer might have gotten up to get a closer shot. I deliberately avoided that, wishing to keep a disenchanted gaze as it were. I tried not to be invasive, avoiding any gesture that felt unnatural with my surroundings. I try to be invisible, which of course is not possible. In this case she went into a trance about twenty meters away and when the participants saw that I was not moving toward her, they carried her toward me! In a sense that’s the very paradox of photography, how the photographer’s presence changes the reality of what is going on. How the mere presence of a photographer influences reality itself.

SW: Let’s return to Brave New World, a work that literally mirrors the world we live in, right down to the globe shape in the center of the installation. How did it evolve?

TE: I had been invited to participate in a large exhibition at Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Rome and didn’t have what I felt was an appropriate new work to show. So, I had to think of something new that could be made briefly within challenging limitations. I hit upon an idea while looking at a three-way mirror in the bathroom and noticed a circular effect when the mirrors were moved closer, so I decided to construct a box of mirrors that recreates this circular effect. Then I made a fairly rough non-linear montage with the many hours of super-8 footage that I had gathered during various travels, which gave it a dreamlike quality. The structure was placed behind an artificial wall and a gilded frame mounted around the opening. It looked like a painting on the wall showing a kaleidoscopic image when it was viewed from a distance, but as one moved closer there was an effect of a giant globe made from the reflections on the mirrors, and finally, when viewers stuck their heads inside the installation, they would see themselves reflected as the sole spectators of a giant world. The viewer as God! This is a work that addresses the interconnectivity of cultures.

SW: The kaleidoscopic effect is something you have also returned to in later work?

TE: It relates to treating the images as a physically malleable object, which can be cut and pasted and multiplied or dissected, as something immaterial. It’s a constant reminder that images are just representation, tricks for the eyes, but also pointing to something very real.

SW: The soundtrack rarely coincides with the images we see, for instance a Balinese dancer and jazz music. What is the significance of this?

TE: I'm not necessarily interested in just the image or the sound, but a third meaning that is born out of that combination. You might see an African mask and hear soul music, but it’s not really about the mask nor the soul music, but the idea that emerges out of the combination of the two.

SW: The interconnectedness between seemingly unconnected things?

TE: Yes, and a way of going beyond outward appearances. There is a certain type of experimentation in music that relates to a boundless space of sound. I try to evoke that through images. In Body and Soul there is a huge distance between the images and the sound, often showing images of people dancing to music that they are obviously not dancing to. I think that through this unexpected combination we “see” the soul or the spirit that animates the body. Sound is a very integral part of video and the harmonies and counterpoints with the images are very much a part of the magic.

SW: You thereby heighten our awareness of the underlying significance of the various images and open up to a questioning of and reflection of the balance between fiction and reality, or even a non-reality.

TE: And capturing non-reality is precisely what I aspire to. Or I should say capturing the imagination. It’s not that I'm not interested in reality; to the contrary, I'm interested in what the image disguises. 

SW: Africanized is another work that combines your various approaches into one complete work. You once said that the film signals a need to value the spirit of Africa in the context of globalization. Could you elaborate in more detail on the strategies you rely on to get this message across?

TE: A lot of the videos come about as the result of trying to solve a visual problem. Africanized came about because I had gathered a lot of footage in diverse places around the world and could not find a link between them. Eventually I noticed that there was something African that linked them. I decided to not worry too much about the interconnectedness and created a collage in the style of a William Burroughs cut-up. Each situation was not rich enough to stand on its own so I created a global vision out of the fragments. People typically say that the world is becoming Americanized, and I was interested in flipping the idea to hypothesize an Africanized world. It was kind of a joke but also quite serious in terms of the idea that the world could be a much better place if it were bit more Africanized.

SW: The work certainly conveys a sense that the spirit of Africa is everywhere. For me the segment from Brooklyn really stands out in particular, and interestingly enough it all plays out right near The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

TE: I presented the work a few years later at BAM, on the same day that I had filmed the original scene of the Dance Africa festival. People came to the cinema at BAM and could see in the video the events that were taking place outside and when they stepped back into the streets found themselves in the midst of what was shown in the film. Bringing distant places closer to home and turning the exotic into the familiar, the Other into the self, that is my interest in art.

SW: I would describe Africanized as a highly fragmented, non-narrative, visual story in the spirit of Pier Paolo Pasolini or Fellini.

TE: After years of living in Rome and being exposed to their work I have absorbed some of that influence. To go back to what you were saying about my use of religious imagery, I think that the essay-like films of Pasolini and the ironic biographical memoirs in the cinema of Fellini were quite formative. The same is true for painters and musicians that I admire. I soak it all up. 

SW: With Africanized the storyline shifts quite unexpectedly throughout the video; it all begins at an airport and continues towards the Balkans, to you doing a headstand by the harbor, to a conference in Ouagadougou, to an afternoon in Brooklyn. In the end you were rewarded for your decision to not worry so much about how it would develop, but I am still interested in hearing a little more about the process.

TE: Throughout the editing I kept asking myself what is the relationship between these images. Well, there isn’t any, but when I gave the video the title Africanized it all made sense. The title itself made everything click into place. The scene in the Balkans, which is possibly the odd sequence out, is actually quite meaningful because there was a group of Gnawa musicians and dancers that were invited to an official presentation that I was participating in. You see people in suits and ties in a very formal setting suddenly reacting wildly to the hypnotic music of the Gnawa musicians. They were literally Africanized and I tried to reconstruct this transformation through the very rapid editing of the images.

SW: The work really does provide a powerful counterpoint to the idea of the Americanization of Africa, to the extent that there are barely any visible references to the Americanization of Africa.

TE: Well, knowing an Americanized world is what the video plays against. Maybe the rap music is something Americanized, but even that is ultimately seen as an Africanization.

SW: Or more specifically a Jamaicanization, influenced as it was by the tradition of Jamaican sound systems and dancehall music, but that is a topic for another discussion, which I look forward to returning to some other time.

Naturally, I am particularly interested in the Trip to Mount Zugualla segment, which I featured in the group exhibition Equatorial Rhythms in 2007. At that time I had only seen Trip to Mount Zugualla as it’s own work. Yet, for quite some time you had not been working with video installation, and returned to investigating the possibilities associated with video installation with this work. How did that come about?

TE: It really came about through Okwui Enwezor’s suggestion to make a work for his Snap Judgments exhibition at the International Center of Photography. He had seen Africanized at BAM and suggested to focus on the Zugualla episode in the film. So I developed it into a three-screen installation with a series of photographic compositions.

SW: Your ongoing interest in rhythm and sound, and the musical component as integral to almost all your work is quite interesting. Particularly in Trip to Mount Zugualla there are chimes, Bach’s Passion of Saint Matthew, Ice Cube and the distorted sounds in the beginning, which is very interesting in terms of breaking from a very straight forward narrative in time. 

TE: The distorted slow motion sounds at the beginning are yet another way of playing with the element of time. The idea was to use so called imperfections and faults to capture the human experience. The camera looking is basically just a metaphor for my eye; rather than the idea of capturing a pretty picture or a specific reality, it reflects the act of seeing. There is almost a distracted, uninterested gaze on the events, but of course it is never totally uninterested.

SW: In The Myth of the Flaneur Walter Benjamin speaks about allowing your observation to just be an observation and realizing that there is vitality and strength in that disenchanted observation. The importance of this role as observer is brought to another level with Return of Axum Obelisk, where you weave a historically meaningful event into an evocative visual tapestry of universal relevance.

TE: This video installation about the return to Ethiopia of war loot taken by Mussolini during the second world war was intentionally conceived as a monumental installation to commemorate an event which itself was a major engineering feat. My interest in making Return of the Axum Obelisk began in 1996, while filming the biographical portrait of my grandfather, who was on the committee for its restitution at the time. The filming of the whole process, from its dismantling in Rome to its transport to Axum and the subsequent phases of its re-erection are the visual basis for the video installation.

There is a dazzling array of stimuli in which the real and the mythological are fused as one. Past and present are intertwined around this monument that for years has been the focal point of much heated debate and to this day still ignites animated discussions in the political and the cultural arenas. The monument itself is of historical interest, but we also realize that we are also watching history in the making.

SW: How does the compositional structure mirror the underlying messages in the work?

TE: I was interested in a traditional Ethiopian narrative painting, which tells the story of the Queen of Sheba and the founding of the Axumite Empire, and I was interested in transforming this painting into a video installation by using its visual structure to bring the narrative into the present day through this transformation.

SW: Please elaborate on how you translate the narrative of the painting into the language of video.

TE: In the painting, time and movement are expressed as a series of tableaux in which the narrative recounts a tale of the obelisk’s origin and the founding of the Axumite Empire. In the installation, time and movement are transformed into a non-linear narrative that shows how the obelisk was returned, in the present day, to its original site in Axum.

SW: At its most basic level, viewers are invited to reconsider a naïve artisan painting that can be found in most tourist shops in Ethiopia, as a highly complex work of electronic art. Visually the work is highly celebratory, yet conceptually there is a darker subtext that permeates the work. How do these aspects play against each other?

TE: The aesthetic qualities are but a surface to an intriguing interplay of signs and symbols, while the polemics surrounding the subject of cultural restitution and postcolonial responsibilities are kept at a safe distance. This not only allows for an individual reading of the events but also draws the viewer into a labyrinth of concrete and abstract ideas anchored to the factual representation of the actions taking place. The viewer is invited to enter a dreamlike state, where memory and remembrance have undefined contours.

SW: And once we enter into this dreamlike state, what kinds of issues and questions are addressed?

TE: The irony of focusing our whole attention on the re-erection of an evidently phallic monument is not casual. A careful observation of the patterns and designs on the fifteen-screen structure will reveal that the only time a single image is repeated on all fifteen screens is with the apparent insignificant image of a truck, its two large wheels strategically composed beneath the proudly erected obelisk. The religious ceremonies invite us to reflect on the ideas of forgiveness and repentance, sin and absolution. Irony and visual puns abound throughout the work; the stylish umbrellas of the Italians on the worksite echo the multicolored umbrellas of the Ethiopian clergy, the three chief engineers parading around the work site on camel-back deliberately allude to the Biblical Magi, while the image of a hand raising up to reveal the obelisk can be seen as a parody of a fascist salute.

SW: Overall, how does this work reflect your own personal vision and understanding of Africa?

TE: Ultimately, in treating a delicate subject such as the Axum Obelisk my aim was to place its significance within the greater framework of intercultural relations. Obviously, the return of war loot from Italy to Ethiopia is interesting on many levels, but there is a lot more at play that gives the work added depth. For instance, I am fascinated by how the monument itself has changed in significance over time. It was born as a phallic symbol of power and became a symbol of religious presence in Ethiopia. It then became a symbol of colonial aggression when it was brought to Rome, and subsequently a symbol of postcolonial aid to Africa, placed as it was in front of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Finally, its dismantling and return to Ethiopia becomes yet another symbol. Maybe this signals the end of a post-colony or the beginning of something else. Certainly the interrelations of cultures have been affected by a series of violent events and some wounds will never heal, but it’s also interesting to see the mundane aspect of the real-life interrelations that take place on the work site during this historic moment when the obelisk is being brought back to its rightful place—an event that was not widely covered by mainstream media.

Because Africa is often imagined through images, it is in art, photography, and video that powerful changes can take place and the realities, not covered by traditional media, can be exposed.

Everything seems to come full circle with this work.

SW: Speaking of things coming full circle, before we finish our conversation, please tell me about your newest work.

TE: My most recent work, Kiss the Moment, is the result of my artist residency in Berlin in the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Artists-in-Berlin Program, and stems from a desire to make something about my experience in Germany. The idea started in my studio, where there is a very large window overlooking a small park. It struck me that this view of the park actually looks like an artwork in the German Romantic tradition of a fascination with nature. I thought it might be interesting to imitate that view as a starting point for an installation about Berlin, taking the window as a structural starting point and creating a work for eighteen video screens.

SW: So it’s conceived as a large-scale video installation?

TE: Yes, the work imitates the window of the studio, but it also contains a collage of impromptu events, from parties to artistic performances and improvised Weimar-style burlesque dances that took place inside the studio, so it’s both a window and a mirror, not just of the actual view and events but expanded to include other situations shot in the city. Taking its cue from the 1927 film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, it uses improvisation and improvised music to create a portrait of the city.

SW: Is Kiss the Moment similar in approach to previous work or does it signal a shift?

TE: There is a subtle shift from the instinctual construction of diverse ideas, present in previous works, to just relying on pure improvisation as a form in itself. There is also a stronger reaction against the cold conceptual basis of an art about art, a distancing from relying on easily definable concepts. I'm not Africanizing Berlin—that wouldn't be possible—but showing its eternal qualities and aspiration to being a cultural meeting ground. Visually the installation is a return to the pure sensual pleasures of the early modernist painters, but obviously revisited. It's clearly the result of a relaxed year in a highly stimulating town and again uses history and memories as springboards. Aspects of the work, however, are somewhat similar to Roma, another portrait of a city, which I made a couple of years earlier. Roma opens with a quote from Jung, who famously said that he never wanted to visit Rome for fear of the effect the city would have on his consciousness. It's interesting to think that there can be something so powerful about a city that it can actually hurt or damage one’s perception. I do believe he was right, in that there are things inscribed in its memory that can have this effect, things maybe not visible to the naked eye. When we go to Rome we might see the traffic and the outward beauty, but we don’t see the terrifying contradictions, the blood, and the darkest aspects of human nature, glossed over by the splendor of a Bernini fountain.

SW: You are essentially Roman, having lived there for so long, and with Roma you capture images that most Romans would take for granted, many of the sites that tourists would typically visit.

TE: Yes, the monuments are charged with a history that the Romans are blind to. There is a wandering approach reminiscent of Fellini’s Roma, but the presentation on three screens and the field-recording composition made by Alvin Curran make it a film about the effect of the city on the perceptions of a foreign visitor. Again in this film I'm both an outsider and insider, having lived in Rome for thirty years. The fearful element is the natural coexistence of contradictions—between good and evil, poetic and vulgar, and so on. When they coexist so naturally it is also very terrifying, and that is what I tried to show. Kiss the Moment conveys some of these aspects. I often approach a subject as an outsider, someone not expert on a given subject, and try to enter its essence through a reconstruction of my impressions and subjective experiences. I make videos about subjects I know very little about, in order to learn and find out about them rather than pretending to teach anybody anything. This is evident throughout my approach, and can be seen in Ways to a Void on Tibetan Buddhism, shot in the Himalayas, or the series of video installations made on the Islamic island of Lamu, or even Travelling Light, where I knew very little about the dance and theater world I was portraying, and Blood is not Fresh Water for that matter, where I knew very little of Ethiopian history and close to nothing about my grandfather’s role as a historian, since I had lost contact with him years before making the film about him. I think this approach keeps things fresh.

SW: You are now working as an advisor for a documentary filmmaker who is filming a documentary about Rastafarianism. The dream of the Promised Land of Ethiopia is integral to Rastafarian belief. This seems a very fitting project for you to be involved in. What is your role in the creative process?

TE: It is a classic documentary and I am helping to find ways to visualize the idea of a dream of the Promised Land, in a way that cannot be captured through words or interviews. Capturing imagery that evokes the longings of the deeply felt Rastafarian sentiments.

Of course, the whole idea of an imagined heaven represented in the dream of returning to Ethiopia would not necessarily differ from existence in Jamaica. The dream doesn’t really exist outside of the imagination, so it’s interesting to explore the power of the imagination over reality. One could even go so far as saying that the imagination of the Ethiopian people is greater, more important, “more true” than the image in the media of the hunger, the starvation, and the war. The spirit of the people and what they believe about themselves and how they relate to the world, that spirit is what enables people to live and survive. These are the things that don’t normally get shown while focusing on the hardships of reality. My aim is not to ignore this reality but rather to contextualize it within the framework of people’s dignity.

SW: In conclusion, if we were to sum up your work so far, what began as a very personal inquiry into the communication mechanisms and aesthetic qualities of video, combined with a more personal outlook on the ideas of a transnational identity, has evolved into an investigation of the pressing issues that play out in today’s media-saturated world, in which national boundaries have lost their relevance. Your ongoing interest in the influence of communication technology, on our perception and the possibilities of a worldview made up of the interactions of diverse cultural inputs, has become an increasingly central question, albeit still a problematic one, in a postcolonial globalized world.

This interview originally appeard in NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, Duke University Press, Number 35 Fall / 2014

Reading Between the Maps

On the most visual and romantic level, maps have been a source of fascination for thousands of years. The exhibition Mind the Map features the work of ten international contemporary artists whose interest in maps and cartography translates beautifully to the language of visual art. Their approach to the concept of mapping shapes a vision that is highly aesthetic, while also firmly grounded in conceptual, social, and political interests. Although the topic of mapping in contemporary art has been widely investigated and analyzed in many exhibitions, what sets Mind the Map apart is a very specific historical link — 2014 marks the 200-year anniversary of the Norwegian constitution, and Norway’s union with Sweden.

Comprised of both real and imaginary maps that intersect and overlap on many different levels, the exhibition guides viewers on a journey that begins in the past and leads straight into the present. Mind the Map includes a few carefully selected maps from around the time of the signing of The Moss Convention, which was the peace treaty that formed the basis for the Norwegian constitution and the union between Sweden and Norway. These archival treasures complement a comprehensive presentation of contemporary art that is as visual as it is conceptual, political and poetic. The works featured in Mind the Map reveal issues related to power structures and geopolitics seen from the perspective of a world in constant change, while the historical component alludes to the importance of Moss to the outcome of Norwegian history. Expanding the parameters of the exhibition from the topic of a local site of national importance, the work of these international contemporary artists emphasizes the importance of an inclusive global perspective rather than an overly nationalistic one. 

[...]

Events that took place in and around Moss in 1814, including the battles and peace negotiations during that summer and the signing of The Moss Convention in particular, are subtly contextualized in this exhibition. As such, the maps in this exhibition chart an intricate course that leads from a quaint little seaside town that had tremendous historical importance to Norway, to the wider context of international contemporary art.

Considering the extent to which Norway’s identity has changed during the past 200 years, and particularly at a time in Norwegian history when immigration quotas and limitations are repeatedly discussed, reviewed, and debated, it seems appropriate to place emphasis on a global perspective as we celebrate the bicentennial of the Norwegian constitution. The works of Mona Hatoum, Bouchra Khalili, Joyce Kozloff, Miler Lagos, Kevin Simón Mancera, Julie Mehretu, Fabio Morais, Vik Muniz, Rosana Ricalde and Susan Stockwell provide valuable insight in regards to social, political and cultural issues that are as relevant to the national identity of Norway as to any other nation.

Viewers are invited to cross boundaries of time and place to discover a world where politics overlap with poetics. This is a place where maps function as symbols and metaphors, and where the complexities and subtle nuances become visible if we take the time to read between the maps. Issues of domination, power and control, including the topics of colonialism and imperialism, are strong underlying themes throughout the exhibition. Mind the Map traces a trajectory that leads from traditional mappae mundi to a contemporary world where Google Maps are available to anyone, anywhere, anytime — from Oslo to Ouagadougou. This technological development is in the process of making traditional maps functionally obsolete, yet also more valuable visually and historically speaking. Since ancient times, maps have been treasured as much for their information as for their design and decoration. Clearly, what separates an ordinary map from a spectacular map is the amount of ornamentation, color and detail. What sets maps in contemporary art apart, is a combination of these visual aspects, coupled with the depth of implied meanings.

Joyce Kozloff is widely recognized for her active role in starting The Pattern and Decoration Movement in the 1970s. This movement was highly relevant as a reaction to Minimalism and Conceptualism, and was inspired by 1960s liberation politics, particularly feminism, as well as by African, Middle Eastern and Asian art. Since the early 1990s, Kozloff has focused much of her work on cartography, and the use of maps has become integral to her visual language. She appropriates images of old maps into works on paper, paintings and installations that are truly decorative, while they also address notions of power and hegemony.
In 1999, during a residency in Rome, she created Targets, a large-scale globe-shaped installation that counts among her most important works.  Inside the installation are twenty-four sections of painted maps depicting places such as Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador and Iraq, where US bombs hit civilian populations between 1945 and 2000. Targets is a visually mesmerizing work that points a very direct and critical finger at American global hegemony. The beautifully colored and intricately patterned acrylic paintings featured on the inside of the installation, are directly inspired by details from the actual maps that pilots used to hit their targets.  A circular opening resembles the oculus at the top of the Pantheon, hinting at Kozloff’s lifelong interest in history and culture.  In contrast to the vibrant interior, the exterior is left unpainted, almost as if it were the backside of a painting.   
As Lucy R. Lippard writes in an essay about Joyce Kozloff’s work:  “Maps are often deceptive and easily manipulated; they have always been the tools of imperialism and colonization, as well as unconscious cultural mirrors”.  These ideas are crucial to an understanding of Kozloff’s approach to maps. Although the maps are visually interesting, Kozloff is equally interested in what they represent.  She makes use of a wide variety of maps throughout her work, including cosmological charts, antique maps, topographical maps, nautical charts, nineteenth century real estate maps and even school maps. Naturally, these have different meanings and purposes, aspects of which are commented on through the work. For instance, in her Social Studies series, she makes use of outdated French school maps.  It is interesting to consider that classroom maps that once were widely accepted as accurate accounts of the world, have often been far from truthful and realistic. Historically speaking, this is precisely how maps have been used and misused for the purposes of power, domination and hegemony. 
The interconnectivity, as well as the complete disjuncture between the maps in Kozloff’s work, is as fascinating as how these maps relate to a wider context. She explains that “Maps have become a versatile structure for my long-term passions: history, culture, decorative and popular arts. By overlapping systems of information, I intuitively make connections which emerge in a literal and conceptual collage”. 
This could also be said about Rosana Ricalde’s work, although in Ricalde’s case, text plays an equally significant role. Ricalde first began integrating maps into her visual language around 2006, and has created numerous works based on maps of cities, from Rio to Paris, as well as world maps. The streets in these maps are made of words extracted from various texts, ranging from Foucault to Calvino.
From a distance the words are almost invisible, and even up close the words are mere fragments of text, extracted from a logical context. As such, these works map out a deconstruction of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, challenging our understanding of visible reality, while literally forcing us to question what we think we see. The underlying meanings, and the direct link to Calvino in particular, is barely discernable from a distance. Beyond the understated beauty and obvious symbolism, there is a strong existential undercurrent that transforms these works into something far more poetic than an actual map. The inherent opposition between the intangible imaginary world of Calvino and the straightforward factual nature of a map, creates a fascinating play of opposites that says as much about the nature of the original text as it does about Ricalde’s ongoing fascination with books, language, text and words.
In the transition from language to visual form, Rosana Ricalde deconstructs the original text and removes the grammatical logic of the words to create a story that is clearly more visual than linguistic. Extracted from the original context, the words are stripped of meaning, and no longer serve a narrative function. And yet there is a story told in these works, even if it is not overtly narrative. This is the beauty of Ricalde’s maps; while they echo the words of Calvino, more importantly they capture the essence of his work while simultaneously unraveling and deconstructing the original narrative. The logical sequence of words, as they appear in Calvino’s narrative, is destroyed in favor of visual logic that speaks more about the underlying existential and philosophical messages of the book, rather than a documentation of the actual cities described by Marco Polo or the events that take place.  Rosana Ricalde’s particular interest in the travels of Marco Polo is also evident in other works. Mind the Map features Atlas Marco Polo, 2009, a work that includes passages of text that are cut out from the book The Travels of Marco Polo, the 13th-century travelogue written by Rustichello da Pisa from stories told by Marco Polo while they were in prison together.  Long ribbons of this text are carefully laid out over an open atlas, to create an intricate work that is a prime example of Ricalde’s ongoing interest in both books and maps.
Julie Mehretu is renowned for her large-scale paintings and drawings where architecture is deconstructed, fragmented, overlapped and reconstructed resulting in intricate maps that are more political than orientational. Throughout Mehretu’s work, architecture is used as a metaphor for other issues: colonialism, power structures, social relations, notions of inside and outside, the relation between the public and private realms, as well as the spatial definition of various social hierarchies. This includes processes of domination, oppression and disempowerment that are defined by architecture.
Beyond the immediate visual appeal of her intricate, architecturally inspired visual language, Mehretu’s work resonates on a highly theoretical level. A lecture given by Michel Foucault in 1967, “Of Other Spaces”, provides valuable insight in relation to the geopolitical underpinnings of Julie Mehretu’s work. In this famous lecture, Foucault argued against the traditional notion of linear time, asserting that concepts of time have been understood in various ways, under different historical circumstances.  His theory relates to an understanding of space and spaces over time. He spoke at length about two types of space — utopias and heterotopias. A utopia is understood as an unreal, imagined space (such as Italo Calvino’s fictive cities).  In contrast, a heterotopia is a real space that is simultaneously mythic and real (such as a sports stadium). It should be noted that Julie Mehretu doesn’t implement architectural language simply as a metaphor about space. She is specifically interested in space as it relates to power. Nonetheless, Foucault’s words are relevant to Julie Mehretu’s work:
“We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.” 
Julie Mehretu’s paintings and works on paper can be seen as imaginary maps that are carefully constructed from divergent, nonrelated elements that come together in a meaningful way. As such, the idea of map as metaphor is particularly relevant. Concepts of simultaneity and juxtaposition are central unifying factors that bring architecture, space, line, form, color and different notions of time together into paradoxical structures that are distanced and accessible, logical and chaotic, public and private. At the visual intersection between all these opposing factors, we can decipher endless possible meanings as quickly as they might disappear into a completely different trajectory on the exact same canvas.  An idea of where we might be headed on these imaginary maps, is not nearly as important as our experience of looking at the works and appreciating the intricate details that make Julie Mehretu’s work as meaningful as it is formally appealing.
Mona Hatoum shares Julie Mehretu’s gift for creating beautiful artworks that reveal endless layers of possible meanings.  Hatoum had her artistic breakthrough in the mid-1980s, when she created a series of live actions and video works involving direct physical confrontation with the audience, and often the use of her own body. Since the early 1990s her work has shifted towards large-scale installations and sculptures that balance a very fine line between conflicting emotions such as desire and revulsion, fear and fascination. Her works inspire viewers to consider issues that often play with notions of private versus public. Hatoum consistently addresses topics related to conflict, displacement and uncertainty through the use of familiar domestic objects that she transforms into threatening and sometimes dangerous sculptures. Everyday objects ranging from kitchen utensils to a baby´s cot, a rug or swings, are crafted into delicate, often painfully fragile objects of beauty, whose visual appeal is only exceeded by their deep conceptual, political and social meanings.
The two works featured in Mind the Map are perfect examples of Hatoum’s approach to objects and installations. The seats of Balançoires, 2010, are made of sandblasted glass plates with street maps of Beirut. The work weighs heavy with paradox; the quiet, poetic beauty of the glass seats is shattered by the threat of what would happen if the swings were ever to touch. Any associations to lighthearted child’s play are completely erased by the very direct political message. This work is exemplary of Hatoum’s ability to create works that attract and repel at the same time. Two beautifully crafted swings, constructed with glass seats and stainless steel chains hang delicately from the ceiling. However, the swings are reactive to almost any gentle movement in the space, and fundamentally unstable. Of particular interest are the actual maps that are carved and sand blasted onto the glass seats, featuring a map of East Beirut on one swing, and a map of West Beirut on the other. Since the two opposing sides of the city have, in the past, been caught up in a bloody sectarian conflict, the implication here is one of possible, impending disaster.
This is typical of Hatoum’s approach to visual art and her particular use of common objects to reveal various power mechanisms and social or political injustices. Baluchi (blue and orange), 2008, is another beautiful example of work that is as complex as it is to the point. The carpet looks as if in a state of disintegration as large patches of the weave appear to have been moth-eaten or somehow worn-out. On second glance one can see that the apparently random patches come together to form a recessed world map. The geographical outline of the continents creates a lasting impression that is ultimately left open for the viewer to interpret.

Throughout Mona Hatoum’s work what is implied or suggested is far more important than anything definitive. Hatoum describes it best in her own words in an interview with Janine Antoni for BOMB Magazine:
“I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response. In a very general sense, I want to create a situation where reality itself becomes a questionable point. Where one has to reassess their assumptions and their relationship to things around them. A kind of self-examination and an examination of the power structures that control us: Am I jailed or the jailer? The oppressed or the oppressor? Or both? I want the work to complicate these positions and offer an ambiguity and ambivalence rather than concrete and sure answers. An object from a distance might look like a carpet made out of lush velvet, but when you approach it you realize it’s made out of stainless steel pins which turns it into a threatening and cold object rather than an inviting one. It’s not what it promises to be. So it makes you question the solidity of the ground you walk on, which is also the basis on which your attitudes and beliefs lie. When my work shifted from the obviously political, rhetorical attitude into bringing political ideas to bear through the formal and the aesthetic, the work became more of an open system.” 

Issues of displacement and migration conveyed in Mona Hatoum’s work are also recurring themes for Bouchra Khalili. Khalili is recognized as an artist who works primarily with video, and has been working both in single channel and installation form for well over a decade. Her videos typically blur standard distinctions between cinema and visual art, documentary film and experimental work. She often conveys the intricacies related to the experience of migration in the transition from one place to another. Her artistic process involves documenting various places of migratory passage, through images that convey compelling narratives that speak of an ever-changing world map where the everyday lives of a steadily increasing number of individuals is defined by displacement, migration, exile and the plight for a better existence. She captures the human dimension of the places she visits with the life stories of individuals who, as a result of emigration, are literally changing the ethnic map of the world. The importance of empowerment, self-expression, and the power of speech are integral aspects of these works.

A recurring theme throughout her work is the notion of a passage or journey, often within the Mediterranean but also across the Atlantic. The places and settings that she chooses to film represent territorial, social, and political margins. The Mapping Journey Project, 2008-2011, a video installation comprised of eight single channels, is typical of her approach. With this work she conveys the complex individual stories that are part of the experience of migration and exile today. Each segment features an individual who conveys a clandestine journey that is ultimately an expression of resistance. These individuals are inventing roads that challenge geography as shaped by power, and redefining the maps that are drawn from the perspective of that power. Rather than conveying a straightforward account of their stories, in a typical documentary style, and instead of filming their faces directly, Khalili opts to let them narrate their stories while the camera focuses on other details that relate to their surroundings and experience. She highlights each vignette by filming the hands of her subjects as they sketch their journey on a map, creating a tremendously powerful metaphor for immigrants who are forced into an invisible existence.

Taking the idea of mapping one step further, Bouchra Khalili created The Constellations, 2011, a work inspired by celestial maps that also relate to geographical maps. The Constellations is the final chapter of The Mapping Journey Project, intended to reveal the poetic dimension of the whole project. The work is directly inspired by Michel Foucault’s essay Lives of Infamous Men that relates to the whole idea of singular lives that become poems through some strange twist of fate. The Constellations includes eight silkscreen prints that trace a migratory map that is transformed into a map of constellations. There is both haunting distance and timeless beauty in the transition from a geographical map to an imaginary celestial map, made up of cities that appear in the place of stars or planets. The work cleverly questions the relation between the earth and the universe, or as Khalili might describe it, between the sea and the sky.  In a recent interview with Dorothea Schoene for the Ibraaz website, Khalili describes the unique significance of this aspect of her work in her own words.

“Many of my videos also refer to the sea as metaphor and metonymy, of a passing space, a space that has no landmarks, a liquid labyrinth dedicated to drift and ultimately a metaphor of exile. But there is also this political dimension to the sea, which is more obvious to certain parts of the globe - it is also a cemetery containing the bodies of those who tried to cross it illegally: in the Strait of Gibraltar, off the Sicilian coast for example, also off Malta, off Greece on the borders with Turkey and in the Atlantic on the borders between the Caribbean and the United States. This also relates to what I attempt with The Constellations. I aimed to produce an ambiguous space that refers both to the sea and the sky, blurring the limits between them, as well as blurring the limit between borders: literally erasing them, by translating the drawings of clandestine journeys into constellations of stars.” 
A more direct use of actual maps, in this case found in atlases, is seen in Fabio Morais’ work. While Morais frequently works with maps, he is perhaps most widely recognized for his transformation of books into sculptures and installations. His ongoing fascination with books as objects, translates beautifully into an installation that relates to maps in their book form — the atlas. Anyone with the slightest interest in maps or cartography, born long enough before the internet era to truly appreciate the value of a beautifully detailed atlas, should enjoy his transformation of atlases into installations and objects that change the world map completely, essentially erasing all major landmasses in favor of oceans and seas.
Encontro de Mares (Meeting of the Seas), 2006, consists of a pile of atlases that are opened to pages where there is more water than land, which creates a fascinating image of the world made up of varying shades of blue and green. An island appears in the center of the installation, comprised of dictionaries in approximately 20 different languages: Portuguese, Indigenous Yanomami, Spanish, French, Italian, English, German, Greek, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Hungarian, Dutch, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hebrew, Arabic and Yoruba. This is a beautiful metaphor that relates to the importance of text and language for communication and understanding between cultures. This island of dictionaries/language/knowledge situated in an endless sea, reads almost like a Borgesian tale, and captures the imagination in regards to an imaginary place that is defined by multiple languages rather than just one or a few.                
Oferenda à Iemanjá para um Feliz Ano Novo (Offering to Iemanjá for a Happy New Year), 2007, creates a powerful counterpoint to Encontro de Mares. This work is composed of one small atlas, and as with Encontro de Mares, the continents and islands are carefully cut out to reveal nothing but water. In the Yorubá tradition, Iemanjá is known as the mother of fish. Interestingly, in the transition to Brazil, she became known as the goddess of the sea. Brazilians typically celebrate the New Year by offering flowers, drinks and other gifts to this goddess. Morais’ formal approach to this work is highly reminiscent of his other book-based sculptures and installations. Throughout his work, Fabio Morais investigates the deconstruction of language, and plays with the mapping of text and image to construct a visual vocabulary that relates to memory, language and identity. Frequently using writers, poets and critics as the basis of his works, Morais appropriates text, language and image and uses it as a place of negotiation between artist and spectator. For Migracão (Migration), 2006, Morais transformed books into small sculptures, carving out impressions of butterflies from each of the books. Meaningful text disappears in favor of a strong visual image. The powerful and immediately recognizable shape and form of the butterflies, turns these books into small treasures, similar to how he transformed an ordinary atlas into a beautiful offering for the goddess Iemanjá.
Taking a step away from the use of existing maps brings us to the work of Vik Muniz. What appears to be a fairly straightforward image of a world map, turns out to be a photograph of a massive world map constructed out of garbage. The story behind the triptych WWW, 2008, (From the series Pictures of Junk) and the intricacies behind the creation of this particular map, are what make this work so powerful. Unlike many of the other participating artists in this exhibition, Vik Muniz doesn’t typically work with maps or cartography.
Vik Muniz is known for his use of photography to create images out of non-traditional materials — ranging from chocolate and peanut butter to dirt, toys and garbage. For the Pictures of Junk series, Muniz made use of all kinds of garbage, ranging from crushed soda cans to discarded clothing, old tires and outdated computers, to create captivating images inspired by master paintings. Working on the outskirts of Rio, in a space the size of a basketball court, Muniz collaborated with art students from the favela on this project. Each photograph took a month and a half to create, and began with a basic outline of an image that he sketched on the floor in advance. Working with a laser pointer from a scaffold situated high above the floor, Muniz then directed his crew in placing various bits of garbage onto the floor to create the desired image.  Finally, he captured the image from this vantage point using a large-format camera.
When it comes to appropriating from art history and adding something significant to the equation that is of social and societal relevance, Vik Muniz really stands out. Ultimately his stunning iconographical re-interpretations help unveil what is rotten beneath the surface of our society. When he chose to re-create and photograph masterpieces from art history with the use of garbage as his paintbrush, he not only moved some of the most notable icons of art history into the present, he also moved people’s lives in the process.
The Pictures of Junk series stands out within contemporary art practice, particularly in terms of Muniz’s long-term collaboration with the residents of Jardim Gramacho, Rio de Janeiro’s and Latin America’s largest garbage dump. As conveyed in the award-winning documentary film, Waste Land, (2010) these large-scale arrangements of garbage feature portraits of the catadores who live and work to collect and sell recyclable and scrap materials. With the help of the catadores, who were paid for scavenging, selecting, and organizing the refuse material, Muniz created images of Old Master paintings using buckets, fridges, clothes, plastic bottles, toilet seats, wheels and rusted chains and other junk to make versions of well-known works such as Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son; Caravaggio, Narcissus; David, The Death of Marat; Millet, The Sower; Picasso, Woman Ironing, and Guercino, Atlas. It could be said that although WWW, 2008 is perhaps not quite as romantic as the other works inspired by master paintings, it bears a tremendously powerful message regarding human consumption and waste; the continued and increasing accumulation of waste will eventually change the outline of the world map forever.
Susan Stockwell, an artist who works with maps and other metaphors, also addresses environmental concerns through her work. Africa, 2012, is a perfect example. Comprised of PC motherboards, this work makes specific reference to the 'digital maps' laid out on these technological panels, and the physical shape of the continent that has made the construction of these motherboards possible. It is fairly common knowledge that many of the rare and essential materials used to create computers and mobile phones, are mined in Africa. In the worst instances, the labor conditions for the workers involved in this process are an infringement on human rights, which is especially shocking considering the level of technology that these individuals make possible.

In using discarded maps and other materials to create beautifully crafted objects, sculptures and installations, Susan Stockwell’s works invariably convey the importance of recycling and ecology. Her 2013 installation Sail Away at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, is a perfect example of her unique talent for transforming detritus such as maps, paper money and tickets into visual art with deep political and social implications. This is also the case with Imperial Quilt, 2005, which is comprised of maps of the world collected from old atlases that are hand stitched into a traditional patchwork quilt. This particular map is sewn together with a strong political thread; featuring the Middle East at the center and a swatch of America woven into every continent.
Also featured in Mind the Map is Highland Dress, 2010. This work is part of a series of life-size dresses constructed from antiquated maps and currency that relate specifically to aspects of British history. This particular dress is composed of ordinance survey maps of the Scottish Highlands, addressing the issue of English colonization and occupation of Scotland over 300 years. This is particularly relevant at the moment, with talk of Scottish independence. As is often the case with Stockwell’s work, no detail is left to chance, and the use of military maps to create an ornate woman’s dress is no exception. Susan Stockwell can be described as a sculptor who makes subtly political work about materials and their inherent content and histories, with injustice and inequality as overarching themes. In her appropriation of maps and atlases, the geographic boundaries defined on maps are blurred in favor of conveying strong political, social, ecological and feminist issues.
Miler Lagos’ video Lat 65.31 N Long 114.13 W, 2011, relates to a very specific point on the world map. His works are typically inspired by observations of nature, as well as an exploration of various phenomena that affect the balance of nature. During an artistic residency in Canada in 2011, Miler Lagos investigated the experiences of early Arctic explorers who contributed to the study and knowledge of natural resources in this remote region of the world. Inspired by this research, he created Lat 65.31 N Long 114.13 W in the same geographical place where nineteenth century expeditions took place to find the English explorer Sir John Franklin.
According to Lagos: “Lat 65.31 N Long 114.13 W involves an inquiry about the place of the gaze towards nature itself, an expansion of the outreach of the visual experience that turns landscape into a sublime spectacle”.  What makes this work so interesting is the idea of geography and landscape not in general terms, but as they relate to a specific coordinate on a map, as well as the implied relation between reality and representation. 
Attention is shifted from mapping in the most literal sense, to focus instead on a very specific geographical point on a map. The exact coordinates indicate the location where the film was shot, while many of the sequences bring to mind the most contemporary of all maps — satellite maps. The contrast between an antiquated paper map and an exact digital image of almost any location on the earth, is interesting in itself. The work reveals the extent to which our perception of maps as definitive, truthful documents has changed through the years.  Our understanding of this work is ultimately affected by our familiarity with satellite maps, but what really captures our attention over time is the quiet beauty of the work. Just as the traditional maps seen throughout this exhibition aren’t simply maps, this video is far more than a complication of images that you might find on Google Maps. Additional layers of meaning, various notions of time and place, a strong link between past and present and a sense of what this very specific geographical point on the map represents, all make this work resonate on both a visual and theoretical level.
With a map of Latin America as the starting point, Kevin Simón Mancera’s project La Felicidad (Happiness), 2012, charts a pilgrimage to seven different towns called Felicidad. This particular work evokes the underlying sense of romanticism and hope tied to almost any journey, especially when traveling to unknown places. Mancera’s project involved a very unusual road trip. He traveled to places that are of little interest aside from the fact that they all bear the same name. With sketchbooks and a camera he was prepared to document his discoveries, as if he were a nineteenth century explorer, and the results are truly captivating. His painstakingly detailed and often humorous drawings bring life and humanity to these out-of-the-way places on the map.  The project features seven sketchbooks filled with drawings and comments about his travels, while a photograph of each of the seven places hangs on the wall.
La Felicidad involves an extremely subtle reference to mapping. This work captures the open and fluid nature of an exhibition that enables us to move in and out of time, through completely different geographic regions, from the historical to the contemporary, from medium to medium, without ever losing the realization that we are navigating uncharted terrain. We are met with an approach to contemporary art, which defies all definitive boundaries, definitions or strict interpretations. With these maps as our guide, our individual journeys can lead in any direction. It is in the choices and observations we make along the way that we can make sense of these disparate and diverging maps and world views. This will hopefully inspire us to think beyond the boundaries of our own national borders, to consider just how strikingly similar these different maps and world views really are. It turns out that what appears to be completely disconnected is in fact completely interconnected, as if we were transported directly into an imaginary map created by Jorge Luis Borges.

A Discussion About the Certainty of Being Uncertain

Having followed Ulf Nilsen’s work closely for twenty years, it is fascinating to see how his paintings have developed into an ongoing visual narrative. Although his visual language is immediately recognizable, the subtle stylistic variations have kept his work fresh and interesting. Clever references to earlier works and the insistence on revisiting certain topics and themes from new perspectives reveals an inner world that is enriched by references to philosophy, literature, history, and personal experience. Each new exhibition provides an opportunity to delve deeper into Ulf Nilsen’s visual language. The story that unfolds is closely related to his life journey, where the continually shifting balance between fantasy and reality is coupled with enigmatic and sometimes surreal elements. His paintings, drawings, found objects and texts are all part of a unique visual language that speaks intimately of an individual’s role in the universe.

Paradox is emphasized through opposing factors that create both balance and tension: construction and deconstruction, inside and outside, image and reflection, front and back, fiction and reality are expressed through paintings and works on paper that are coupled with texts and found objects. The stylistic and conceptual changes that took root in the exhibition Inside Out have blossomed into a body of work that is as rooted in his early work as it is full of surprises.  Once again we are invited to experience everything that lies in front of, behind, and in between his paintings literally and metaphorically speaking. As with Inside Out, by exposing the backside of his creative process, and revealing the parts that contribute to the whole, Ulf Nilsen leads us into a highly intricate and nuanced visual world.

On the occasion of Ulf Nilsen’s solo exhibition at Haugar Art Museum we sought to unveil what looms beneath the surface of his beautifully enigmatic works in a conversation about his artwork and his various sources of inspiration.

 

[...]

S. As an artist who has been greatly inspired by literature and poetry, I would like to begin with a quote from Rainer-Maria Rilke that brings to mind so many aspects of your work. “How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”  The sense of hope and magical transformation that sets the tone for this poem is also quite evident in your work. Can you describe the significance of hope and longing throughout your work? 

U. I find hope through my work method, when I let the chaos overcome me. I work through the chaos by painting, the results of which are seen in the final painting. Transforming what is ugly, bad and destructive into something beautiful is the ultimate source of inspiration for my paintings. I find consolation and meaning in that process.

S. Your paintings are definitely not limited to your own personal experience. You capture the bigger picture of humanity. Is this what makes you so fearless about revisiting topics from different perspectives and reworking certain paintings over and over?   

U. As Picasso famously said: First you do what you know then you can create. You can’t build your life on an earlier experiment; one has to constantly reevaluate in order to move on.

S. Of course, when you reevaluate your work it doesn’t simply involve moving on to a new style or approach, you actually return to perfectly executed existing works and paint over them to create new works.  That’s not something that too many artists have the courage to do. It’s one thing to move on, to question previous approaches, but you literally create new works from old works, and thereby revisit old themes from completely new perspectives.

U. I become afraid of myself when I don’t see anything but what I saw before. I challenge myself in this way. It is important for me to own my forms, my thoughts. Art is the only place where I can be completely free, and to rework existing paintings is an important part of the creative process for me.

S. Aftermath is a truly monumental work that brings together many of the elements of your earlier work, while also signaling a slightly new direction for you. What are your feelings about this particular work?

U. It was a long and difficult process for me to find consolation in that painting. When I look at it now as a finished work I see the delicate balance between restlessness and clam that I was searching for. Aftermath became a painting that somehow consoles the viewer, the silence one is left with after a destructive event

S. In addition to the sheer formal beauty of your compositions, one of the things that I am most fascinated by in your paintings is their encyclopedic quality. The references in your paintings relate to everything including philosophy, history, mythology, archeology, literature, poetry, art history, architecture, and even music. In this respect, although your paintings also relate to personal experience, they are accessible and relevant for everyone.    

U. I guess you could say that it’s the backbone of everything I do, being inspired by something greater than myself.

S. Opus Incertum is another key work that I would like to hear more about. From what I understand, the work is directly inspired by the building style of the ancient Romans. What is the deeper significance of this? 

U.  Opus Incertum is a term for a specific non-geometric masonry work that the Romans were known for. The image in this painting illustrates just that: a road or foundation that has been built with stones of different sizes and shapes. The absence of regularity is something I relate to since my painting compositions evolve as I work. In this particular work, a wooden structure is in the process of being built upon the stone foundation. It is a work in progress, with no plan of which direction it will take. I like working in a state of uncertainty.

S. Italo Calvino’s seminal book Invisible Cities continues to be an important source of inspiration for you. As far back as 2003 I wrote about his influence on your work in the catalogue text for Sentimento del Tempo. As with Calvino’s Invisible Cities, there are strong recurring elements throughout your work that ultimately add up to various descriptions of the same topic – accounts of a life journey. How would you say this has changed along the way? Clearly your perspectives have changed, and how would you say this has affected your visual language?

U. I find a certain similarity between Calvino’s writing and my paintings. In the book Invisible Cities there is no end or beginning, only fragments that are somehow tied together through memories and dreams from the past and present. His ability to open up the text while simultaneously keeping it mysterious and closed really fascinates what I would call my visual voice. It can almost be compared to how the Cubists see the world. Calvino’s playfulness and wonder will always be an important source of inspiration for me, particularly in his ability to capture notions of reality that you want to see but that are only figments of the imagination.

S. Your fictive urban landscapes immediately bring to mind the landscapes described by Marco Polo in Invisible Cities, where the distinction between fantasy and reality is completely blurred. Please tell me more about your lifelong interest in that particular book.

U. Life itself is all about facts and limitations, which is why I am not interested in paintings that provide solid answers. In Calvino’s text I find visual freedom, comparable to being in a state of trance. When I read his text I am free to see the world from a completely liberating perspective.

All in all, there is a sense of order in the chaos that reflects the individual’s role in the universe. Each painting posits a new question, while there is a distinct sense of moving towards a definitive answer. Of course, as Italo Calvino has famously questioned, “The day I understand all symbols, will I finally succeed in being master of my domain?” Although the symbols seem to make more and more sense, there really is no definitive answer.

S. And yet with each new juxtaposition of various elements, new layers of meaning emerge.

With the exhibition Inside Out you introduced various objects that served to emphasize particularly important details within your paintings. While you had played with these kinds of ideas previously, it wasn’t until Inside Out that you really tested the full potential of combining objects with your paintings, and literally turned everything inside out. It’s surprising to see how the juxtapositions of various objects can change the entire context of the work. Important aspects of dramatic compositions are paraphrased in the careful and precise placement of found objects. What can you say about the process of combining objects with your paintings?

U. Actually, it all began with Sentimento del Tempo at Henie Onstad Art Centre. That’s when I began working with objects that I constructed into installations and also with texts.  

S. There was a text that extended the entire length of an exhibition wall and you placed a large installation of church bells in the middle of the room. Yet, there is a difference between that and what you are doing today. Now you are creating something more contained. Rather than paintings that are accompanied by objects and text, you integrate your paintings into many small installations. You create a dialogue between paintings, texts, and objects that speaks of an ongoing search for existential answers. 

U. Yes, dialogue is an important word. In preparing for the exhibition Opus incertum at Haugar I finished the paintings well in advance. That gave me the opportunity to give more thought to the objects I had chosen.  The need to create installations has become increasingly important with each new exhibition. There is something magical about it, a means of expanding the horizon, opening up other worlds. It almost feels like something cosmic that refers to the greater universe.

S. With Inside Out it seems that the further you pushed the installations, the more fascinating the results.   

U. That was a fantastic feeling! Naturally, I am always bound to the canvas and painting. It is my real challenge, but I have allowed myself to be more free and playful. In fact, I have tons of stuff in the basement that I dream about constructing into installations. In a way, the quietness of a painting is transformed to a visual dialogue with the very simple addition of various objects. I guess you could say that I conduct experiments in the form of dialogues.

S. This process of adopting what is cast aside, things that were created with a specific purpose that have subsequently been thrown away, and giving them a new purpose that pertains to the bigger picture of life is really quite touching.

U. The way I see it, the objects somehow lose their identity and gain an almost comical significance that relates to the universe. Although there is a certain level of craziness to it all, it isn’t just nonsense.

S. Well, obviously there is a real connection between the objects and the paintings that becomes an integral part of the overall visual vocabulary. I have seen this in your work time and time again. Whether you integrate a mirror or sand or a constructed table or a ruler or a tattered piece of cloth, there is never a question as to why on earth you placed a particular object in relation to a particular painting.  

U. The way a painting is painted is really important, but if it is too intellectual, too overthought, too technically proficient, it’s not quite as powerful. It becomes static. There is a level of naiveté that is important to my paintings, and that is something that relates to an inner need or drive, not only the formal aspects of a painting. Perhaps this is why I find it so liberating to work with objects.

S. You really have managed to liberate yourself from your own paintings. You recently told me that you now feel a need to make an installation without any paintings, which is really quite interesting because that will probably lead to new discoveries that will then become the source of inspiration for new paintings. As you say, it’s about finding the way into the paintings, to then find the way out.   

U. As I mentioned to you when we were installing Inside Out, maybe I will paint an installation in the end. Yet, I can only work with installations when I have conquered painting. The installations emphasize a reference that might otherwise go unnoticed. That kind of freedom only comes after I am fully satisfied with the paintings, and the same holds true for text. The texts come afterwards, almost like a subtext.

S. So, I guess you know you can stop painting when words and texts begin entering into your mind and into the visual vocabulary, and when you start becoming intrigued with objects. 

U. To understand the inside one has to explain the outside, or was it the reverse? Either way, this is reflected in the texts and objects that accompany my paintings. 

S. So without creating paintings first, which give you the sense of confidence and security to play with text and words, how will you create a room filled only with installations?

U. I am not sure. I just know that at some point I want to create an installation that doesn’t relate to my paintings.     

S.  It also seems important that through the objects, visual elements are brought into the viewer’s physical space, thereby making the works more immediately accessible. 

U. This kind of balance and tension really fascinates me, whether it’s between image and text, paintings and objects, or words and objects. In The Storytellers I placed an axe in the table, and inscribed the word “silenzio” on the side. There is both pain and playfulness conveyed in the combination of this gesture and word. When I play with objects and words I can express something before thinking it through formally. There is an aspect of uncertainty in not knowing what will happen that evokes the certainty of being uncertain.

S. This certainty of being uncertain is also reflected in your tendency to rework previously existing works. Falling House is a perfect example. Why did you feel the need to tweak this work, and in what way do the slight changes transform the work?

U. It’s difficult to explain, but I felt an urgency to fine-tune it. I had to find a new voice in that particular painting. I wanted to capture the feeling that a painting represents more than what meets the eye.  We see objects, but they change as we look at them, and it is my job to create order out of this chaos. By creating and recreating works I am literally processing the ideas that are constantly running through my mind from new and different perspectives. 

S. What did you change specifically?

U. I opened the painting and let the light in, which ultimately brought it back to life.

S. So reworking a painting is an integral part of a search for answers even though one never finds a definitive answer.

U. Whatever it is that I do through my art, it has to be bigger than me. The visual result must be so powerful that it makes me feel small. Finding a voice and letting it grow expansively is a vital part of my creativity. The more I allow myself to add a physical dimension to the paintings, with the addition of found objects, I am also discovering that there is more plasticity, a proximity to humanity that really resonates on so many levels for me.

S. At times it seems that you bear the weight of the entire universe on your shoulders, yet there is always a subtle hint of humor that works as a ray of light in the darkness.

U. I guess you could say it’s all about relief. In the painting Echo of the Walls and the triptych Voices from Behind the objects come closer to something intimate and tactile. One could almost say that the objects contain relief, and I think that is what my work is all about – finding a way to let go of the pain.

S. And through your paintings you transform the questions in your mind into a comprehensive visual narrative?

U. Yes, that’s exactly what I do.

S. The recurring theme of various perceptions of reality, the sense that things that are on the verge of disappearing at the exact same moment as they appear also brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges, and The Circular Ruins in particular. “One’s perception of reality could be an elaborate illusion”. What are your thoughts about this?

U. For me there is no distinction between reality and illusion. I understand that this is wrong, but that’s how I want it. I don’t want to be rational because I build my art on intuition.

S. Everyday elements ground your paintings in reality and also ensure that the paintings don’t become too illusionistic. We see this in Aftermath for instance, where a graffiti-like image of a woman who resembles Aung San Suu Kyi gives the work contemporaneity, and also in Studio Visitor, where a small landscape painting hangs on the wall. These kinds of logical, everyday details somehow make the paintings less surreal and more credible.

U. For me it is important to have a root in reality when I dive into the imaginary world of painting. In Aftermath I painted the woman as a huge guardian hovering over the scene. In Studio Visitor the small painting represents a world outside my studio. It is from a photograph that I have on my studio wall and shows the dramatic volcanic eruption on Sumatra in 2013.

S. Throughout your career you have been inspired by the possibilities that lie in the balance between text and image. Particularly after The Storytellers I have also come to think of you as a storyteller. I tend to think of you as a visual poet as well. You use objects and words meticulously and sparingly to express a powerful thought or sentiment, in the same way that a poet uses words. The balance between image and text throughout your work extends beyond an interest in playing with words. For instance, the painting Aftermath is coupled with a text by Titus Lucretius Carus. Can you tell me more about this source of inspiration?

U. The words that appear on the left side of the painting are from Titus Lucretius Carus’ epic philosophical poem “De rerum natura”, about the nature of things. That poem has followed me since 1983, when I used it in a series of charcoal drawings about the war in Beirut. With Aftermath I rediscovered the power of that poem in terms of being an interpretation of the world, and notions of catastrophe, doubt and hope.

Words are incredibly important to me. When I was a child I stammered. I was afraid of words. Words were my enemy, so I drew instead. I enjoy painting more than writing, but I really enjoy the possibilities of playing with a sentence or a few carefully chosen words. I find pleasure in finding words that belong to the work.

S. So in a way, words function in the same way as the found objects, adding an additional level of meaning, or means of emphasis. Almost like punctuation. 

U. Interestingly, the more I use words the more I dare to do with the visual language as well. 

S. Which in turn affects the viewer’s understanding of your work. By adding carefully selected words, sentences or poems, the viewer gains access to additional layers of meaning. With the combination between text and image everything falls magically into place.   

U. I want to create something that really means something to others. I tend to think big, and often reflect on existential issues. Maybe this comes from being alone in my thoughts day in and day out. I seek to bring something else into my visual vocabulary. One really has to bring other voices into the dialogue, and for me this often means being inspired by authors, poets, and great thinkers. 

S. With the written word you help the viewer to better understand the universal relevance of your work. The same holds true for the objects that you find and carefully place in relation to your paintings. You described it to me once as “going into the painting to then find your way out again”.

U. The paintings and objects represent two identities that compliment one another. 

S. Above all, what do you strive to express through your artwork?

U. I seek to create something that is alive in the sense that it evokes a feeling of an inner restlessness. There is a heartbeat in what I do. As an artist I spend a lot of time in the studio alone with my own thoughts, but what I do does not only relate to myself, it relates to the individual’s place in the universe. At least that’s my hope.

S. In conclusion, is there anything else that you would like to say that might sum up your work as an artist?

U. If I were to explain what my work is all about I would say that it’s simply about a need to create. What happens between various elements is really fascinating to me.  Do dream and reality really meet or is it simply a thought that cannot be explained?  Art doesn’t always have to be understood, but it should evoke something primal, natural, overpowering. Seriousness and humor, playfulness are all part of the equation.  I can’t continue to do this for the rest of my life unless there is a higher meaning connected to painting pictures. It has to be larger than life, universal, and timeless.

S. For me that is precisely what keeps your work as relevant and interesting today.

Sewing into Life

Interacting with the world around her is precisely what Kimsooja does throughout her work. Since the early eighties, she has relied on the power of the needle, literally and metaphorically, as a means of expressing the direct interaction between art and life. This is the golden thread that binds her work together. Although educated as a painter, both in Seoul and in Paris, Kimsooja quickly discovered the unique possibilities associated with the use of needle and fabric as opposed to brush and canvas. She first discovered fabric as a powerful artistic medium, as a young girl, while sewing a bedcover with her mother. The act of stitching through the surface with a needle made her mind wander; philosophy, artistic process, and history all seemed to converge with the fabric.

When she first began sewing, Kimsooja wanted to overcome the limited surface of painting by reaching to the other side. She was drawn to the idea of getting in and beyond the membrane of cloth with a needle, and subsequently realized the significance of sewing as a process of wrapping fabric with threads. Kimsooja was intrigued by the continuous and mesmerizing back and forth action involved in sewing, and its inherent creative or mending purpose. From the outset, the process of sewing allowed her to identify herself with the object being sewn, which simultaneously represented an extension of the self. With needle and thread in hand, the mind can wander while the hand goes through the motions of a precise and monotonous craft. Quite simply, Kimsooja had discovered the possibility of sewing meaning into life.

 

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From the start, the cultural relevance of traditional Korean cloths has been an integral aspect of Kimsooja’s work. The fabrics implemented throughout her work function as powerful traces of the countless personal stories that, when purposefully brought together, speak of the ultimate interconnectedness of all humanity. Her fascination with the formal structure of fabric and the implications of the needle and thread moving through its surface translate to a silent conversation with the fabric, one that also involves an investigation of issues related to craft and traditional women’s roles. Kimsooja’s earliest works involved collage-like techniques that were, for the most part, more formal than conceptual. These delicate, sewn works hinted at important aspects that would unfold in later work.  For example, a plain beige t-shirt decorated with roughly sewn patches of red, yellow and green fragments of clothing comprises a study in color, form and composition, and an underlying meaning is woven into the loose threads and rough unfinished edges. While patchwork, quilting, needlework and stitching are implemented in textile works that speak of pain, loss and vulnerability, sewing itself is simply a means of expression, not the end goal. Through the years, Kimsooja’s approach to sewing has become increasingly conceptual; the complete absence of thread or fabric in some works is as important as the bright textiles featured in other works. The power of sewing as metaphor, and the symbolism associated with a sewing needle in particular, relate to universal issues of identity and existentialism that tie all of Kimsooja’s work neatly together. 

Kimsooja’s Deductive Object series from the early nineties is also highly indicative of later developments in her work, particularly in terms of the possibilities associated with conveying life stories through common objects.  For this series, Kimsooja made use of culturally specific everyday items, such as kites, reels, shovels, forks, or window frames that she wrapped with swatches of Korean bedcovers and clothes, in works that pushed formal and conceptual boundaries. These ‘already-mades’  are strongly linked to issues of domesticity and women’s labor, and are rich with social, cultural and aesthetic implications. In her work with found objects, and bedcovers in particular, Kimsooja stresses that she is most interested in the fact that the cloth or objects are ‘pre-used’ rather than ‘pre-made’. The history of the cloth as connected to its owner is underlined, rather than the significance of the anonymous person who may have sewn the bedcover in the first place. The soul, aura and memory of the objects and fabrics she uses are of utmost importance, both spiritually and conceptually. 

Kimsooja subsequently widened the context of her Deductive Object series by placing emphasis on how the objects relate to the surrounding space. In 1993, she had an important exhibition at PS1 in New York, and one particular installation really stood out. As is so often the case with Kimsooja, ‘complex simplicity’ is precisely what makes the work so powerful. Imagine a white washed brick wall, scattered with small holes, the kind of exhibition wall that most artists and curators would want to smooth out or cover up. Kimsooja engaged directly with this wall, in a beautiful introduction to the idea of sewing as intervention.  Hiding in the cracks of the wall, and nestled between the threads of the work, are some very important clues about the direction that Kimsooja’s work was taking – sewing into life. The colorful scraps of fabric scattered around the wall play with the concept of sewing, as each hole in the wall relates to the eye of a needle metaphorically threaded with tiny pieces of cloth. While the overall pattern echoes a textile work in progress, the true essence of the work lies in the space in between, in the connection between the invisible threads that join humanity together. By placing emphasis on metaphor rather than material, Kimsooja reveals the bare threads of her ongoing investigation of existential issues while simultaneously embracing and challenging the possibilities connected with textiles and the practice of sewing.

In the early nineties, Kimsooja started making bottari, and the underlying conceptual issues that bring art and life together became even more evident. This raised her work to an entirely new level. Kimsooja gained international recognition for these colorful fabric bundles made from traditional Korean cloths, used to wrap and carry one’s possessions. Although bottari can be made using any kind of fabric, Kimsooja intentionally uses abandoned Korean bedcovers made for newlyweds that she subsequently wraps around used clothing. As such, her use of bottari involves a fascinating double entendre. The bottari function as art objects that relate directly to the Korean tradition of wrapping ones possessions, conveying the idea of being on the move, while also functioning as real bottari that contain something of personal value. A perfect balance between pure form and function, they are beautifully situated on the boundary between art and life. Kimsooja’s interest in bottari also signaled a logical transition from a painterly interest in surface planes to the use of fabric as sculptural mass. This gradually led to a more abstract realm, where sewing is implied within the context of various spaces and environments. So, although she had started out with a traditional needle, Kimsooja freed herself from being bound by the needle by purposefully, yet almost imperceptibly, deconstructing the process of sewing, to the extent that the connection to a needle, thread or fabric eventually becomes barely discernable. Ultimately, all that is left in relation to real sewing are conceptual traces of the needle, or the metaphor of a needle as a tool of empowerment and liberation.

With or without a needle and thread, Kimsooja relays captivating stories through art that relates to life as it relates to the concept of sewing. Sewing as an artistic process, sewing as a quiet contemplative activity, sewing as a conversation with the surface of fabric, sewing as a formal investigation, sewing as a meditative process, sewing as it relates to traditional women’s roles, sewing as craft, sewing as intervention, sewing as wrapping, and sewing as a connective act, are all part of the complex fabric of Kimsooja’s singular artistic approach. Reflections about life and art are spun from a seemingly endless thread that weaves in and out of time and space, where past, present and future are melded into one.

Around the same time that Kimsooja realized that she could use bottari to effectively express the notion of the totality of art and life, Suzi Gablik was investigating similar themes in her research about connective aesthetics. What Gablik would describe as participative, empathetic and relational modalities of engagement are the defining factors of Kimsooja’s approach to art. Gablik’s theory of connective aesthetics, as outlined in her book The Reenchantment of Art, reads almost as an ode to Kimsooja’s artistic practice. If art should somehow help us to understand our place in the world, if art should work beyond its immediate role as an object and truly relate to our own existence, Kimsooja certainly provides the kind of approach that Gablik was interested in. Mindfulness, consciousness, compassion, and empathy are words that consistently appear in Gablik’s writing, and these words also come to mind in relation to Kimsooja’s practice. Gablik’s search for an enveloping relational vision that would embrace a feminine approach is definitely found in Kimsooja’s work. As Gablik writes, “The sense of everything being in opposition rather than in relation is the essence of the old point of view, whereas the world view that is now emerging demands that we enter into a union with what we perceive, so that we can see with the eyes of compassion.”  Twenty years later, Kimsooja’s art is as compassionate and relevant as ever.

In retrospect, we can see the visible and invisible traces of an artistic practice that has been consistently defined by a very conscious and determined use of the same materials or approach, set within different contexts where new layers of meaning emerge with each new project. The intricate pattern of Kimsooja’s work is created from a needle that keeps pointing towards concepts that are as fluid as they are static, simultaneously material and immaterial, visible and invisible, simple and complex. Louise Bourgeois once said that fibers, whether spun by spiders or created on a spinning wheel, have deep significance, and that threads weave important memories and emotional connections for us all. This truly captures the essence of Kimsooja’s fascination with the stories that are permanently imbedded in the fabrics that have provided an ongoing source of artistic and even spiritual inspiration for Kimsooja.  

Through the years, Kimsooja’s bottari have appeared in many different contexts around the world, almost magical in the way they fit into almost any gallery space or natural environment. Like seasoned world travelers, Kimsooja’s bottari are constantly on the move; whether in a museum space or a forest, appearing in multitudes, or all alone, they have been arranged in a meticulously arranged row, or strewn about in a more chaotic manner, they have remained completely still, or moved 2727 kilometers on a truck. With each new setting, added depth and meaning unfolds.

In beautiful contrast to the bottari, Kimsooja is equally renowned for her textile installations where the bedcovers are unwrapped, unfolded, laid out, or carefully hung in gorgeous labyrinths of shiny, vibrant fabric. The vividly colored textile work A Laundry Woman, 2000, is a perfect example of this approach. On entering the installation, the viewer is completely surrounded by textiles and is invited to walk through an intricate web of color where pattern and meaning converge. Kimsooja has often compared sewing and walking as similar activities, and describes how this first came about, “In 1994, I started connecting my body as a symbol of a needle with a piece called Sewing into Walking where I was performing in nature. On the ground, I put bed covers, and I would then walk around to collect these fabrics one by one. So this walking process, the collecting and gathering of all these things is about the meaning of the needle which my body is serving.”  To walk through A Laundry Woman is to understand the inherent communicative power of textiles, and the underlying meanings are seemingly endless. With each step, as with each stitch, the viewer is one step closer to understanding the metaphysical aspect of work. In this case, the viewer plays the metaphorical role of the needle, winding in and out, betwixt and between these gorgeous fabrics that have a story to tell. The specific choice of decorative Korean bedcovers as intimate possessions that tell life stories of pain, loss, love, and desire is, of course, as significant as ever. These fabrics, colored by cultural and personal histories, are narratives that are literally left hanging for the viewer to unravel as they delicately float between the worlds of art and craft.

In Kimsooja’s work, each project is inextricably bound to the thread of the next project. From project to project, the conceptual thread is picked up and re-sewn into a complex and interwoven vision of reality.  A perfect example of this is seen in the similarities and differences between A Laundry Woman and A Mirror Woman, 2002. These works appear to be quite similar, both formally and conceptually, and they both relate to a wide range of existential issues; yet the simple addition of mirrors that cover the walls is all it takes to set these works dramatically apart. The mirrors contribute to a heightened sense of infinite space, thereby shifting the focus from the immediate reality of the viewer’s experience to an endless space that can be understood as relating more to the universe than the individual. Similar to separate threads in an intricate piece of fabric, even if they don’t touch each other, they are still bound to the same fabric, and every single thread plays an equally important role in contributing to the overall effect. These works are cut from the same cloth, and stand as powerful symbols for the place of each individual in the universe. The message is abundantly clear; without a needle there would be no fabric, without each individual, no fabric of society. 

As we follow the needle to its most abstract form, the significance of sewing as metaphor becomes abundantly clear. A needle is easily understood as an extension of the body, and nowhere is this more evident than in the two-screen video installation A Needle Woman, 2000 where the needle moves in a completely theoretical direction. In one projection Kimsooja stands motionless within various urban environments; in the other she lies immobile on a rock. The two projections create a compelling dialogue of opposites typical of her work in general. In the bustling city streets of Tokyo, Shanghai or Delhi, her role is non-changing; she stands alone, straight as a needle. She sews herself into the fabric of society, disappearing periodically just as a needle would. In the accompanying projection she lies upon a colossal rock in natural surroundings. In contrast to the fast paced city scenes, the only changing elements are the drifting clouds against a clear blue sky, and subtle nuances of light. Clearly, Kimsooja is a metaphor for the needle—she connects two parts and in the end disappears. Her role, or the role of her body, is to interact with the fabric of society and to direct our focus; then she disappears, just as a needle does after it’s job is done.

In A Needle Woman the body is understood as a needle within the fabric of life. Kimsooja elaborates on this important aspect; ”The mobility of my body comes to represent the immobility of it, locating it in different geographies and socio-cultural contexts. Immobility can only be revealed by mobility, and vice versa. Constant interaction between the mobility of people on the street and the immobility of my body in-situ are activated during the course of the performance depending on the context of the society, the people, nature of the city and that of the streets…I pose ontological questions by juxtaposing my body and outer world in ‘relational condition’ to space/body and time/consciousness.”  This captures the essence of Kimsooja’s overall approach, which ultimately relates to the idea of the singularity of the individual as part of an endless multiplicity. Looking at the world through Kimsooja’s eyes, we find ourselves looking at the universe through the eye of a needle. As Kimsooja ‘sews into life’ she simultaneously unravels the thread that is the entire conceptual basis for her work. Imbedded in the visible and invisible seams of her work we see how the traces of migration, war and cultural conflict necessarily affect ones identity and perception of reality—conveyed by an artist who is fully aware of the power of connective aesthetics. Her vision of the totality of art and life is beautifully conveyed through the symbolic power of the needle to mend, heal and connect. She uses a needle to guide us towards awareness and understanding in an approach to art that is intricately spun around the literal and conceptual practice of sewing.

Kimsooja’s most recent work, the ongoing film project, Thread Routes, is spun from the same conceptual thread as the rest of her work. Thread Routes traces different sewing and fabric practices from around the world; ranging from lace making in France to weaving in Peru. Chapter 1, Peru is a beautiful introduction to what is slowly unfolding into one of her most ambitious works.  In keeping with the notion of sewing into life, the thread is picked up and extended to include weaving, knitting, tying, spooling, and unraveling. Thread Routes is the natural result of a lifelong process that began with sewing, that gradually evolved to the use of her own body as a metaphor for sewing, now translated as weaving into life, where every single thread has metaphorical significance.

The film begins with a sweeping panoramic view of the Peruvian Andes.  We are invited on a visual journey of color, light and pattern. Striking similarities are revealed between the breathtaking natural surroundings and the daily activity of weaving tapestries. An elderly woman stands alone in an amphitheatre, spinning yarn onto a spool in a rhythmic motion that is paradoxically as mundane as it is captivating. The quiet, meditative aspect of working with threads that sets the tone for the film, compliments previous references to the metaphor of sewing throughout Kimsooja’s work. Weaving as an integral part of life, both literally and metaphorically speaking, is beautifully visualized in this work.

Natural geometric patterns in the slope of a mountainside, or the linear rhythm of a crop field, echo the woven patterns of the finished tapestries. Life unfolds not only in the natural surroundings, but also in each and every thread. A close-up of raw wool before it has been colored or spun, offsets a single thread of yarn as it is in the process of being woven. From natural unwoven yarn to intricate tapestries, the film conveys a gradual and seemingly never-ending cyclical process. The texture and form of unwoven yarn brings to mind the moss-laden tree featured in one of the scenes. Similarly, the reflections and play of color and light on slowly flowing water is as visually captivating as the tapestries that are woven from and within these natural surroundings. Throughout the film, Kimsooja directs our attention to the importance of the daily activity of weaving as it relates to nature, to life, to existence. In one scene, women and men dance around a maypole in a celebration ceremony. Much like Kimsooja has used her body as a metaphor for a needle these women and men appear as spools, interconnected and united as one – weaving into life.

This essay is featured in the Hatje Cantz monograph published on the occasion of Kimsooja's solo exhibition at Vancouver Art Gallery, and can be ordered on Amazon. 

The Individual Stories and Shared Histories of a Global Narrative

This essay was written for the 18th edition of Videobrasil.

The intricate relationship between individual stories and shared histories reveals what might be described as a global narrative. A shared attempt to break free from injustice and poverty, the quest for a better existence, and an ongoing search for the meaning of life is conveyed in life stories that make the foreign seem familiar. The collective experience of humanity creates a powerful thread between works that address an individual’s place in society within the wider context of an ever-changing world, as seen within different cultures, at different times in history, and from different perspectives.

From straightforward narratives of daily life, to magical journeys through time and place, the interconnectivity of seemingly disconnected situations and stories shapes a meaningful narrative that is simultaneously fragmented, overlapped, intertwined, highly accessible and completely invisible. This narrative exists both within and outside of time and space, highly reminiscent of what Michel Foucault described as being in the epoch of simultaneity, of juxtaposition, of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We find ourselves in a moment in time when “our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein” .

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Distinctions of power and class hierarchy are intrinsic to the network of humanity, and Gabriel Mascaro’s film Doméstica, 2012 reveals how notions of intimacy affect these power structures. Conventional boundaries of intimacy are blurred and confused, while the complexities of a tenuous balance of power are unveiled and questioned. Each vignette conveys the life story of a housemaid, as filmed and interviewed by the teenage children of their employers. A full range of situations plays out as the details of their lives weave a complex story about life, love, tragedy, and happiness.  There is a tentative familiarity between the housemaids and the teenagers that challenges the distinction between employer and employee, raising the rather uncomfortable question of whether there is true power in intimacy or if intimacy is nothing but an illusion of power.  Scenes of housemaids crying about love, heartbreaking descriptions of how they have been physically and emotionally abused, glimpses into their daily duties, and a few scenes that reveal inappropriately intimate behavior, as well as moments of laughter and happiness are shaped into a story of interconnected fates and life stories. 

An interest in the plight of those who are forced to live away from their family signals a distinct trend within contemporary art, as also conveyed in Sherman Ong’s ongoing project Motherland. Motherland relates features confessional portraits of various migrants to Singapore who all wrestle with a sense of rootlessness and disorientation. In the spirit of Edward Said, the topic of exile inspires innovative narrative forms that are solidly anchored in a specific type of storytelling that relates to stories of dislocation and loss.

A bourgeoning interest among contemporary artists the consequences of dislocation is also exemplified in the work of Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, who frequently investigates the implications of permanency versus migration. Her work is carefully woven together from the beautiful, yet often ragged, threads of daily life. Personal experience, history, religion, politics and cultural identity are all part of the intricate weave. In 53+1=54+1=55 Letter of the Year, created for the 55th Venice Biennale, the raw beauty of what plays out naturally on the streets is set against the documentary style of the personal stories, dreams, hopes and memories that are conveyed in the video vignettes. This work suggests that the existential predicament of feeling trapped is not strictly limited to those who have been left behind, it also extends to those who have left their family’s and or homeland behind, as powerfully conveyed in both Mascaro and Ong’s works.

Moving back in time to the seventies, Claudia Joskowicz’s Sympathy for the Devil, 2011 tells the story of the daily encounter between a Polish/Jewish refugee who arrived in Bolivia during WWII and his upstairs neighbor, the former Nazi Klaus Barbie, evoking a strong sense of the complicated politics of dislocation. Her approach encourages us to reflect upon the specificity of ones personal experience within a wider historical context. Joskowicz describes the work as a reflection on space and its influence on the human social dimension, yet again bringing to mind Foucault. The long-term effect of history and its implications on what plays out in the present, and the constant ebb and flow between the two is made quite evident.  

Returning again to a contemporary context Virginia de Medeiros’ work Sergio and Simone, 2010 conveys the story of a transvestite who, as a result of a crack overdose, found God, returned home to her family, gave up on being a transvestite and reverted to become Sergio. The two personas are played against each other in an extraordinary life story and compelling visual narrative. The impact of Virginia de Medeiros’ work lies in her ability to capture a sense of familiarity in the foreign from an almost anthropological standpoint.

Again and again, scenes from everyday life reveal stories of human interconnectivity, as also seen in Caetano Dias’ film Rabeca, 2012. Caetano evokes an almost painterly vision of rural Brazil in a narrative that is expressed through images and music, bringing to mind Eder Santos’ work Janaúba, 2012. The slow, almost painful beauty of both Rabeca and Janaúba read as a haunting journey through the hostile backlands of Minas Gerais, where existential questions linger in the dust, reminiscent of Joao Guimarães Rosa’s famous book The Devil to Pay in the Backlands.

Santos creates vibrant, poetic works that merge personal experience, cultural observation and technical proficiency as a means of expressing themes that are specifically Brazilian yet also globally relevant. With a gift for evoking the rhythms and textures of memory and history, he understands the power of moving images to tell stories that deserve to be told and retold. Janaúba is inspired as much by poetry and literature as it is by basic “life stories”, quite similar to works by fellow Brazilian artists Cao Guimarães, Pablo Lobato and Guilherme Vaz, to name only a few.  These artists share a unique ability to transform the stories of life into visual narratives that ultimately emphasize the interconnectivity of humanity.

Walter Benjamin wrote that, “All great storytellers have in common the freedom with which they move up and down the rungs of their experience as on a ladder”. These artists move back and forth, up and down, between here and there, constantly navigating the landscapes of their mind that are as rooted in the local as the universal. Influenced by memory, shaped by history, and driven by dreams, these artists translate the stories of life into a rich visual language that has no geographical boundaries.

The Art of Storytelling

The story begins on the pages of the literary treasures that turn libraries into places of magic and wonder. Inspired by the powerful narratives that unfold in award-winning books, the artists featured in The Storytellers translate the stories of legendary authors into magnificent works of art.

This exhibition was initially inspired by a personal interest in Latin American literature and its distinct tradition of storytelling. Authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz and Reinaldo Arenas have all had a tremendous influence on the development of literature and poetry both in their home countries and internationally. Neruda’s poems, Borges’ labyrinths and Marquez’s magical realism, is the stuff that bibliophile dreams are made of. Through the years, their stories and poems have provided a valuable source of inspiration not only for other authors, but also for artists. More than ever before, the impact of literature is also seen within the realm of international contemporary art. While the inspirational seed for this exhibition was planted in Latin America, it has grown and blossomed far beyond its roots, reaching across geographical, linguistic, and creative borders. The result is an exhibition that features contemporary artists from around the world whose work is also inspired by authors such as James Joyce, William Blake, Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino and Arthur Rimbaud.

 

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Neruda’s poems, Borges’ labyrinths and Marquez’s magical realism, is the stuff that bibliophile dreams are made of. Through the years, their stories and poems have provided a valuable source of inspiration not only for other authors, but also for artists.

The exhibition title is directly inspired by Mario Vargas Llosa’s book The Storyteller, a captivating story with an intricate narrative that juxtaposes the voice of the narrator with chapters relating to Peruvian Indian mythology. The Storyteller contains all the elements of a classic, award-winning novel: an underlying personal struggle and a search for meaning and truth found along the path of a life-changing journey of discovery. The story hints at many of the underlying themes in this exhibition, and also captures the unique and powerful storytelling qualities of many of the artists featured in this exhibition.  Just as Mario Vargas Llosa guides us into a mythic and magical world with his poetic tale of a storyteller, the artists included in this exhibition are visual storytellers who capture our imagination with their interpretations of some of the greatest stories ever written.

The Storyteller is also the title of a celebrated essay by Walter Benjamin, written specifically about the work of Nikolai Leskov. Benjamin’s reflections on the qualities and power of true storytellers are highly relevant within the general context of literary theory, and also within the specific context of this exhibition. Although Benjamin feared the end of the art of traditional storytelling, his words are nonetheless insightful. He writes,  “Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”  Benjamin had a very valid point in terms of oral storytelling, but clearly the art of storytelling in the written form will never die out, and visual storytelling is blossoming like never before.  Benjamin describes the inherent qualities of storytelling, placing emphasis on the roles of both the storyteller and the listener. Within the context of this particular exhibition, the parallel is easily extended to the roles of artist and viewer.

“storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost when there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is becoming unravelled at all its ends after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship”.  

The installations, sculptures, photographs, films, paintings and drawings featured in The Storytellers are not literal interpretations, nor are they illustrative, but they are all deeply inspired in some way by literature and/or poetry. As with any story, the narratives are intricate and intertwined, sometimes overlapping, move in and out of time and place, are rich with metaphor and symbolism, and are conveyed with unequivocal power and conviction. Some of the underlying narratives evolve from personal journeys, others are more analytical or theoretical in approach, but all the works tell stories that are as personal as they are universal. The golden thread that ties these works together is typically spun from pre-existing literary narratives, found in timeless, epic stories that are uniquely transformed into new stories in their own right. The cross between text and image, poetry and poetic subject matter brings all the work together into a large-scale exhibition that can be read and enjoyed on a variety of different levels. Reading between the lines of these works, we are invited to discover what shapes this exhibition into visual storytelling at its best. 

These artists are storytellers in their own right, with a unique ability to convey narratives through visual art that is paradoxically as indebted to words, text and language as it is detached from the words, text and language that inspired them in the first place.  While the play between text and image is certainly nothing new, these works reveal a very specific and unique link to literature.  The essence of this exhibition lies in the references to specific literary narratives as well as the individual narratives that are also inspired by literature and books. Real books, imaginary books, replicas of books, book collections, pages from books, passages from books, pictures of books, installations of books, and sculptures carved from books might all seem part of an imaginary Borgesian universe. As featured within The Storytellers, these books are visual translations that tell or re-tell captivating stories that ultimately trace a path from Jorge Luis Borges to James Joyce, from Brazil to Norway, from the 19th century to the 21st century and back again, expressed in art that speaks even louder than words.

The expression of pictorial narratives or storytelling without words began thousands of years ago with the first cave paintings, and has grown increasingly intricate and sophisticated throughout history. From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux until today, images have been used in the place of words to convey easily understandable historical and religious narratives.  The beliefs, ambitions and achievements of Egyptian pharaohs were beautifully expressed in the mural paintings of the pyramids and temples of Egypt, that when unveiled told the story of a long line of Egyptian kings and rulers. Similarly, the Medieval and Renaissance frescoes that decorate churches throughout Europe are classic examples of visual storytelling at its best, relaying stories from the bible to all.  

Within contemporary art, while personal narratives are interesting in their own right, it is particularly fascinating to see what happens when artists create work based on the already existing narratives of award-winning authors and poets. The stories that unfold range from short to long, and are quite possibly already familiar to the viewer. This is precisely what links these particular artists together, as presented in works where the narratives are typically more important than actual words or texts. As seen in this exhibition, these artists tell a wide variety of stories through visual means that extend far beyond written language. Ultimately, their works transcend the borders of geography, language and discipline, and collectively convey universal stories of life.

Jacques Rancière speaks quite convincingly about the role of the artist as storyteller, describing an emancipated community as one made up of storytellers and translators.

Artists, just as researchers, build the stage where the manifestation and the effect of their competences become dubious as they frame the story of a new adventure in a new idiom. The effect of the idiom cannot be anticipated. It calls for spectators who are active as interpreters, who try to invent their own translation in order to appropriate the story for themselves and make their own story out of it. An emancipated community is in fact a community of storytellers and translators. I am aware that all this may sound as: words, mere words. But I would not hear this as an insult.

Each of the artists in The Storytellers builds a stage where they not only frame the story of a new adventure in a new idiom, they re-frame, re-stage, and re-create stories that have already been told. As viewers we take on the role of spectator, and are inspired to play an active role as interpreters. There is no escaping the immediacy of these works, and the more time we take to read between the lines, embracing our roles as interpreters, the richer the stories become.  As we enter Alfredo Jaar’s Marx Lounge, we are encouraged to take time to read the books that are laid out before us. Inside Ernesto Neto’s Circleprototemple, we are intended to beat the drum. As we walk through Monika Bravo’s Landscape of Belief, we are completely surrounded by and transported into a Calvino-inspired environment.

This is an excerpt from essay. Please contact The Global Art Project if you are interested in reading more or would like to purchase the book. 

Painting Out Loud

Payne’s Gray was the pivotal work that helped rewrite the story about Magne F, turning him into a full-fledged multidisciplinary artist who was finally ready to bring all his creative talents together. Words dominated his visual language, providing a completely new point of departure for viewers to investigate his work. Different sources of inspiration were seen to flow in one creative direction, as he embraced his multiple roles as musician, poet and artist. He had finally managed to shake the “musician-turned-artist” label, proving once and for all that he no longer had to choose either/or but could actually embrace both.

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Letters, words and texts dominated Payne’s Gray, cleverly echoing the lyrics from his solo album Past Perfect Future Tense.  He had stopped running from his own musical past, with the realization that he no longer had to keep his art and his music completely separate and compartmentalized. He had connected and plugged in all the cables, and the results were both seen and heard. The direct connection to his own music, something that he had previously felt the need to distance himself from, was precisely what gave his visual art more depth and substance than ever before.  While many artists struggle to “kill their darlings”, Magne F had discovered the unique possibilities associated with doing the opposite.

Everything about Payne’s Gray was complex and multi-layered. By limiting himself to the sole use of one color, he fought against the intrinsic constraints related to the use of only one color, turning gray into an entire spectrum of colors, as if making color photographs out of black and white film. With Payne’s Gray Magne F’s poetry is to the lyrics and the music what his texts are to the images and compositions. He proved that he could navigate the minefield of interdisciplinary rebelliousness, and came up with answers to questions most people probably hadn’t even considered, and then posed them anew, just to keep things fun and interesting.

Equal parts visual artist, wordsmith, conflicted poet, sarcastic rebel and rocker, Magne F captures our attention with just the right balance between form and content. He provides an antidote to the underlying seriousness of his work with a good dose of humor and irreverence that makes the work even more complex and engaging. He reserves the ultimate reward for those who take the time to delve beneath the surface. We are forced to decipher all the messy scribbled words in order to discover that the words and texts are true poems and lyrics in their own right. He shapes words into visual markings that provide compositional tension and contrast while also providing substance and content both to his the artwork and to his music. 

To further emphasize the creative synergy between his music and his art, he celebrated the Payne’s Gray exhibition project with a series of musical performances that would set the stage for later projects. The performances were as surprisingly offbeat as they were smart and provocative. He revealed a more complex, less polished version of the rock star that almost everyone thought they already knew. The loud, unedited version of his artistic persona was unapologetically projected onto the walls and hidden in the music.

Magne F scratched on his guitar, sang songs that spoke of angels and demons, and teased the audience with the playful silliness of simple cutouts that danced in the light of an outdated overhead projector. At times it was hard to tell if he was still a rock star who was putting himself on an even higher pedestal, or if he was an accomplished visual artist who could finally afford to tear down everything that he had worked so hard to build up. Building ruins was the perfect title for the monographs that related to the songs from the album past perfect future tense—building ruins indeed. Simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-effacing, the performances were both more and less than concerts, and both better and worse than anything he had done before. His brave, sincere, flawed and brilliant performances were really happenings in the broadest sense of the term.  Magne F had cleverly taken on yet another starring role, as a performance artist in his own right.

The quirky details and strange inconsistencies that came together in those performances evolved as much from chance as from careful planning. He shared both pleasure and pain with apparently no concern for wanting to be taken seriously, which is possibly what gave him more credibility than ever before.  Traces from the Payne’s Gray project keep emerging in later work as he continues to paraphrase himself by using fragments from his own writings, poems, or lyrics in his visual vocabulary. He seamlessly combines text and image, pattern and color into his signature artistic style. With his own self-confidence as a solid protective shield, he seemingly has no problem building himself up only to tear himself down again, and he keeps it interesting by never being too predictable.

Through the years, Magne F has become his own revisionist who tells and retells the stories that are familiar enough to recognize, but different enough to catch us off guard. He couples ridiculous, fleeting thoughts with seriously good poetry, simultaneously pulling us in by bearing his soul as a romantic poet and pushing us away with a mocking rebelliousness. Poems that once became lyrics, or texts that somehow became poems continue to be an important part of Magne F’s work as a visual artist. Interestingly, as important as they are, the words are always threatened by the possibility of becoming nothing more than a dangling participle, an incongruous entity that really makes no sense. A single word stolen from a poem suddenly stands alone in all its transparent vulnerability. New relationships between words and letters disappear as quickly as they appear not only in new monotypes but also in large-scale paintings, prints, ceramics, and even on restaurant walls.