Still talking: a review of Lubaina Himid’s “Invisible strategies”

Modern Art Oxford, 21 January- 30 April 2017

Lubaina Himid’s solo exhibition at Modern Art Oxford brings her most contemporary projects to the public amongst a survey of work from the last thirty years. The new pieces, thematically placed, engage in the same issues of race, gender and cultural identity that have underscored the artist’s work since the 1980’s and appear no less pressing or relevant in their presentation today.

Most specifically Himid’s career has been engaged in the task of attaining visibility and acknowledgement for black women in the art world. A champion of the British Black Arts movement and a formative player in its second-wave generation of artists and curators, Himid was responsible for organizing such ground-breaking exhibitions as Thin Black Line (1986) and Black Woman Time Now (1983).

2017 perhaps marks a break-through moment in Himid’s more personal battle for recognition: Invisible strategies coincides with another Himid solo show at Spike Island, Bristol and the artist’s inclusion in the large group exhibition The place is here at Nottingham Contemporary which is a reassessment, and celebration, of how Black artists and thinkers have contributed to the British art scene over the past decades.

The first room of Invisible strategies is dominated by the monumental impact of Freedom and Change (1984) a re-invention of Picasso’s famous neoclassical image of Two women running on the beach (1922). Here two black women, clothed in colourful, mixed-media dresses, hands clasped together triumphantly, surge forward with an unstoppable force.  Bold and dynamic and bearing not only historical but mythic significance in their size and solidarity, these towering female figures set the political and exciting tone of the exhibition.

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On the neighbouring wall two large oil paintings The Exchange (2016) and The Lock (2016) denote the most recent developments in the artist’s representation of the black figure. These genre-scenes, or history paintings, depict simplified, geometric interiors populated by groups of bodies casually interacting and yet theatrically staged: frozen in posture and time. Wreathed in a peculiar and ambiguous symbolism, the meaning of these works is heightened by the knowledge that the series is named Le Rodeure after a nineteenth-century slave ship.

Beyond the room in either painting is a vision of the ocean lapping against the external wall. This high-level choppy water, engulfing the outside world, seems to pose a danger and a threat. Whilst the presence of the sea and the associated iconography of vessels and journey-making recurrent in Himid’s work no doubt makes reference to her own early-life experience of relocation from Zanzibar to England, it also resonates with a more collective and sinister memory: the Transatlantic slave trade. The artist confirms that the “narratives about/by people being taken forcibly from west-coast Africa to the coasts of America on trade ships to be later used as slaves” had a decided impact on her painting career and her formulation of an art-type closely related to black diaspora identity.

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Whilst the artist describes herself not as “a painter in the strictest sense” but rather “a political strategist who uses a visual language to encourage conversation, argument, change” the medium of paint remains central to her process, her weapon of choice. What is striking is the way that Himid has reclaimed the heroic expressiveness of paint and the grand-scale narrative figure for her own – snatched from the jaws of twentieth-century modernism which had positioned both as the product of male subjectivity. For Himid, in fact, paint had always belonged to women: “paint is ours, we have always used pigment and colour on surfaces. On the outside and inside of our homes and on our bodies, on fabric.”

The closeness of paint with feminine expression comes to the fore in the second, more intimate room of the exhibition. Here a recent range of works reveal the inspiration of the Kangas (the everyday cotton garments made and worn by women in East Africa) and which invoke its richness, texture, colour and pattern on paper. Some include the graphic texts of Swahili sayings or aphorisms devised by the Abolition and Civil Rights Movements. The Source of the tears has long run dry (2016) is powerful in its simplicity and energy, notably tinged by the emotions of anger and frustration. This is a frustration often voiced by Himid who states revenge as a natural response to cultural mourning. This revenge, however, is not borne of violence but through the act of insistence when it comes to black women making art: a refusal to fade away, the mantra: we are still here, we are still talking and we are still committed to change.

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Sharing the final room of the exhibition are two multi-piece projects undertaken by Himid in the last decade: Negative Positives (2007-ongoing) and Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service (2007). Negative Positives displays a collection of archived material from The Guardian, specifically pages that reveal images of black actors, politicians, athletes and celebrities which are accompanied by some form of negative editorial or news story text. The project traces their perceptibly routine connection as symptomatic of implicit racial prejudice in the British press and the (mis)use of black bodies as signifiers.

Himid responds by painting over sections of the newspaper- normally beginning on the periphery and encroaching inward- with vibrant, geometric patterns and symbolic African imagery, attempting to highlight and reframe the contents shown. Viewed by the artist as a kind of visual research and at the same time an intervention, the project is an “attempt to reclaim the portrait of the person and restore the balance” in a visual media culture which both visualizes and renders silent black individuals.

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Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service follows with an equally poignant attempt at reclamation.  This large selection of English willow-pattern bone china has been overpainted with portraits of slaves, market scenes, caricatures of wealthy white traders and other images which attempt to map Lancaster’s historical entanglement with the slave trade (it was the fourth largest slaving port in the country). This piece was originally intended to furnish the city’s historic Judges Lodgings museum as part of a series of projects marking the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (1807).

As a product of extended research, this piece is seen by Himid as “an intervention, a mapping and an excavation. It is a fragile monument to an invisible engine…” This is about the conscious exposure of colonial histories and the literal superimposition of those voices and those narratives that were lost or hidden as its consequence. It is, like Negative Positives, an invitation for the viewer to re-see and transform objects already circulating in the world, to give them new and self-critical meaning. Most importantly, I think, these pieces serve to fuel the fire that keeps dialogue and discussion about uncomfortable truths alive, truths that would be easier but unforgivable to let “go out”.

Indeed, if anything is clear from the contemporary works that bring Invisible Strategies up to date with the world of today,  it is the message that our most vital conversations about identity, history and heritage are far from exhausted: there is still much to said and still much at stake in how these things continue to affect us in our day to day lives.

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© 2017, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.

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In the shadows of WWII: Civilian stories in Britain and Spain

The arrival of large-scale modern warfare at the turn of the 20th century, and the new levels of brutality that ensued, left artists wondering how to respond to the subject which had since the genesis of the “story-telling” historia genre been at the thematic heart of painting.

The terrifying and unprecedented nature of this new warfare required a complete break from traditional war images and the notion of the commemorative “battle-scene”, instead leaving artists to conceive of a new language of representation, one that reflected an increasingly visible anti-war agenda.

WWII artists focus on the severity and scale of the consequences of modern war which, for the first time, included the mass killing of civilians in their home cities via aerial bombings. Painting the reality of these civilian lives, so far from the frontline and yet still in the fire of the “collateral damage”, have helped artists to emphasis the vast scope and indiscriminate nature of the destruction that was caused.

British artist Clive Branson takes as his subject scenes of a desperate London during the Blitz, which, living in Battersea at the time, he witnessed first-hand. In his painting “Bombed Women & Searchlights” (1940) we see a haunting and surreal image which is confusing and unsettling visually. There are dramatically foreshortened and oversized objects in the foreground (a broken wooden chair, the red and white road barrier which almost pierces the picture plane, a cigarette box lying on its side) which disrupts any continuity or rational ordering of the composition.

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The backdrop to the scene is a sickly grey-green sky, split violently by the “X” of the two searchlight beams and filled by the monstrous forms of the barrage balloons – known at the time as “blimps” – which were used to protect the city from the Luftwaffe.  The blimps would tangle low flying aircrafts in the metal cables and nets which were suspended beneath as well as obscuring the pilots’ lines of vision, especially dive bombers, forcing them into higher airspace where anti-aircraft fire could dispose of them.

The broken cables hanging down here show that the German air force has already struck, and a temporal aspect is added: we are looking at the end of a sequence of events, the aftermath. However the danger does not seem to have passed completely, fire can be seen in the distance between the buildings and the red-white stripes of the road barrier also signals “danger ahead.” The two central women are presumably rescuing their possessions from a bombed out residence, but have they got somewhere safe to go?

In the painting, many different types of surface bear their own images like a collage. There is an over-sized poster on the wall, a named shop and factory front, graffiti scrawled across brickwork, a cigarette packet advertising itself. The  mixture of slogans: “Dig for Victory”, “Smile and say victory”, “Vote Joyce for Peace” relate to a number of opposing narratives which “draw attention to the tensions in British Society”[1]  at the time and also highlight the difficulties involved with deciphering truths within an overload of information, most of which is propaganda.

The confusion of surfaces, scales and contrasts leaves the viewer disoriented, looking in on a chaotic and claustrophobic dream-like vision. However there is also a faint message of hope and reassurance here. A woman in the middle-ground wields a broom, undeterred by events, ready to get stuck into the cleaning up effort. The closest figure, that looks directly at us, is gripped with resolve and empowered in her action: determinedly marching forward with her stone grey face, gritted teeth and broad shoulders straining forward. (This is perhaps a portrait of the artist’s wife, Noreen Branson).

The painting suggests the task of the women “back home” in London, maintaining order as best they could and keeping the flame of the  British spirit alive, is just as vital a duty as that of the soldiers, albeit a very different one.  In this way Branson has cleverly depicted not only the horror of the bombing aftermath, but in the same composition, the “bouncing back” of the British civilians, their tenacity, their jumping to action, even after catastrophe has hit.

Another British artist who featured scenes in London during the Blitz is Henry Moore, who in 1940 was appointed as an official War Artist. Moore had taken cover from an air raid in Belsize Park underground station and, deeply moved by the sights he had seen there of people sheltering together, made a series of monochrome drawings from memory, done with graphite, ink, wax and watercolour on paper.

In “Tube Shelter Perspective” (1941) we see a long dark tunnel, disappearing into the distance.  Just as in “Bombed Women & Searchlights” there is a resounding atmosphere of foreboding within the painting, the sense that danger is close by. This drawing takes a high perspective viewpoint, looking down upon two long rows of bodies which are lying horizontally on the floor. The tall walls loom over them, in one sense enclosing the people but also leaving a vast, cavernous space all around.

Tube Shelter Perspective 1941 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

As the drawing moves into the distance the contours of the bodies become increasingly blurred, melting into indeterminate lines and shadows, no longer individual figures, but one solid mass. Like a group of resting animals, livestock perhaps, there seems to be a sense of strength in numbers, in solidarity: human beings sharing in each others plight.

The materials Moore has chosen create a great depth and darkness, the shadows are impenetrable, reminding us that there is no natural light deep under the earth. White chalk is used on the wall and the floor but does not suggest light, rather glistening moisture and damp surfaces. Splashes of bright yellow suggest beams of artificial light, falling in, but it does not reach far down the tunnel.

The National Gallery Catalogue of 1941 summarises this drawing as “a terrifying vista of recumbent shapes, pale as all underground life tends to be pale; regimented as only fear can regiment; helpless yet tense, safe yet listening, uncouth, uprooted, waiting in the tunnel for the dawn to release them.” Whilst it is certainly a frightening image of a dark and damp place which seems barely fit for human inheritance, what is most significant is that the people are “safe”, they are surviving. Moore presents not only a dingy tunnel but a sanctuary, a hiding place, a moment of respite, which thus gives the painting a hopefulness. In a similar way to Branson then, this image is also about the stoic resistance of the British people, quietly doing what they must, adapting to their environment and making-do.

If British artists were effective in communicating the fear that civilians during WWII faced, and the drawn-out resilience they had to show in the face of uncertainty, Spanish artists perfectly captured the sudden, horrific violence that civilians were now also exposed to. Spain in fact, in the grips of a turbulent internal conflict between the Republicans and the Nationalists, can be seen as perhaps the most severe example in Europe for the brutality that non-combatants faced during the years of WWII.

“Black Aeroplanes” (1937) by Horacio Ferrer and the world-renown “Guernica” from the same year by Pablo Picasso both depict scenes from the Spanish Civil War which raged between 17 July 1936 and 1 April 1939; specifically the aerial bombings of civilian cities that were carried out by Fascist forces under the direction of General Francisco Franco.

In Ferrer’s painting, as in the two already discussed, none of the perpetrators of the conflict are present, the black aeroplanes that the title refers to are excluded, but the still-smoking landscape and the rubble all around leaves no doubt of the that has just occurred. Ferrer focuses on four women: three with their children of different ages, and an elderly lady who is bent over and clasps her hands together in despair. This cross-section of figures shows how the tragedies of war encompass all generations and none are left unaffected. Each of the women’s faces are contorted into extreme grief, fear or indignation.

DE01147_0The woman in the middle with a raised arm reveals her exposed breast, and this reinforces not only the powerful movement of her gesture but also her role as an “innocent” mother: a child-bearer and life-giver who should not be perpetrated by violence in this way. Her bare breast and clenching fist might also perhaps refer us back to the very famous female symbol of liberty in “Liberty Leading the People” (1830), a French painting by Eugene Delacroix from a century earlier. This commemorated the July Revolution in which the monarch Charles X was overthrown. Here the figure of Liberty, holding the tricolour, leads the people heroically onwards over the bodies of the fallen, in a painting of nationalistic pride and spirit.

In “Black Aeroplanes” this figure seems to replicate Liberty’s gesture linking this ordinary Spanish mother to the icon of struggle and sacrifice, but here we see Liberty in reverse – a parody of the empowerment seen in Delacroix’s painting. This woman is far from the bringer or wielder of political change, she is the opposite, crying out in anguish because of her powerlessness and the injustice of suffering through events far beyond her control.

Eugène_Delacroix_-_Le_28_Juillet._La_Liberté_guidant_le_peuple This larger than life-size figure, with her strong profile and muscular neck, is enhanced by the strong relief and realism of Ferrer’s painting technique, which renders the bodies with sculptural solidarity. Light is cleverly used, for example illuminating with photographic quality the face of the grieving elderly woman, every line and crease of her tragic expression is visible and thus heightening the emotional intensity of the image.

The small portion of a destroyed house in the background is symbolic of many. These aerial bombings that fascist forces under Franco’s orders had carried out on several Spanish cities in Republican areas, affecting thousands of civilians, were seen by many to represent ‘a benchmark atrocity for humankind,’[2] the exemplar of a new kind of warfare which was more senseless and criminal than any that had gone before. Anyone and everyone could become a target, unsuspecting woman, children and elderly people in their own homes.

Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso takes the same subject of an aerial bombing, specifically the complete ruination of the Basque country village of Guernica which took place on the 26th April 1937. It could be said that Picasso’s image marks the apex of all anti-war sentiments in 20th century painting.

The event of the bombing of Guernica quickly gained a wider political significance amongst the Spanish people; the utter destruction of a peaceful community became symbolic of Fascist brutality in a universal sense.[3]  The event particularly resonated within the Spanish consciousness because the town of Guernica embodied the heart of Basque culture, a historic place which represented ‘the very spirit of their ancient pride and freedom.[4]

guernica Picasso’s painting from the outset, therefore, was confronted by the huge task of doing justice to the magnitude and horror of this event. He chooses to communicate it, in the same way as Black Aeroplanes, by focusing solely on the innocent lives that were destroyed.

The paintings sheer scale (3.5 x7.8 m) and the very raw nature of the emotion it conveys becomes almost overwhelming. Its monochrome scheme of black, white and shades of grey obtains the immediacy and impact of newspaper images and seems to share the objective of photo-journalism and war reportage in documenting the truth and the facts of the event.

The painting features a number of characters: a bull, a horse, a cockerel, a mother and child, a dead soldier, and several other women, all of which are frozen in horror, mid-action, with tortuous often screaming expressions of grief. The figures are set within an interior, although this space is not easily recognizable and it has been flattened, distorted and terminated in many places, appearing more like an amalgamation of overlapping shapes and planes in a surreal, cubist vision. This is a type of painting which sees forms and spaces literally shattered apart, just like the place and the people it is trying to capture.

We can make out the setting by its few recognisable features; an arc lamp on the ceiling ‘which presides like an all-seeing eye, complete with bulb pupil’[5] and emits rays of light in sharp teeth, a small window in the top right hand corner and what seems to be an open door, through which a figure emerges holding another lamp.  This roughly implies the dimensions of the room and the shadow in which it is cast; a blackness which encloses the figures and engulfs them on all sides.

it is hard to tell where one body figure ends and another begins, which are dead and which are still alive. The bodies and limbs and splayed out, sometimes entirely disconnected. The animals have suffered the same terrible fate as the humans; the body of the horse in the centre of the canvas, its legs flailing wildly in different directions, seems to be pierced by a spear and shows a large diamond shape wound on its side. It opens its mouth to reveal a pointed conical tongue, as if emitting a piercing, primordial howl.

Similarly audible is the screaming woman beneath the window, her hands thrown in the air, surrounded by triangular shapes which suggest encroaching flames.  To the left, a ghostly face appears to float through the top of the door frame; her expression struck with horror at what she sees. Directly beneath another woman seems to stagger forward dragging her arms and legs, in the process of keeling over. The most tragic character of all is the mother on the far left side who, with head flung back and mouth open wide, screams over her dead infant child.

Both “Black Aeroplanes” and Picasso’s “Guernica” use the image of women and children in pain to render an emotionally charged, outraged image of ‘the fatherland ravished by the fascists’.[6] They operate as specific political statements against Franco and his army but also can be viewed as universal comments about the evils and senselessness of war; the suffering that mankind is capable of inflicting upon itself.

Whilst in Britain Branson and Moore also explored anti-war feelings in terms of representing the trials and hardships that civilians in London endured, they chose subjects, or moments, which were more detached. (Perhaps Britain had no cultural equivalent to the loss of Guernica for Spain). The British painters rather stress a gritty acceptance of events, and the feelings of anxiety and dread in both paintings are soothed only by the smallest flicker of hope which is found in the resilience of the human spirit.

All four artists coincide in the realization of the inconceivably destructive potential of modern warfare, the terrible things already accomplished, and what might be still to come.

 

[1] Tate Online, <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/branson-bombed-women-and-searchlights-t11789&gt;

[2] K Brunner, Picasso: Rewriting Picasso, London: Black dog publishing, 2004, p. 76.

[3] R Arnheim, The Genesis of a painting: Picasso’s Guernica, Los Angeles & London: Berkeley, 1962, p. 19.

[4] Arnheim, p.19.

[5] Brunner, p. 60.

[6] Arnheim, p. 18.

Image Credit

http://www.Tate.org

http://www.museoreinasofia.es

http://www.wikipedia.org

 

© 2016, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.

Frida Kahlo and the Gendered Body

Frida Kahlo has in recent decades become somewhat of a feminist icon, her life and work providing a focal point for conversations in feminist art criticism. Central to this interest in Kahlo is the open, frank and empowering way in which she has treated female sexuality and the female body in her paintings, at a time in the early 20th century when such treatment can be considered revolutionary.

Her representation of gender necessarily differentiates her from the contemporary Surrealist movement with which she has often been grouped. The surrealists closely linked eroticism with the transgressive and irrational type of behaviour which was at the heart of their creative process, and viewed the sexualized body as a route of access to this “heightened” mental state. Thus they treated female sexuality as a means to an end, in stark contrast to Kahlo for whom it comprised an essential part of her self-identity and self-expression.

Perhaps Kahlo’s most striking and positive representation of the gendered body is in the painting “Roots” (1943). This is a self-portrait like the vast majority of the artist’s work, in which Kahlo depicts herself as a monumentally large figure in a fiery orange dress, the sole occupant of an extensive, earthy landscape. Her face follows the motionless, expressionless model characteristic of her portraits, which conceals the externalization of emotion as if it were a mask and bestows Kahlo with a refined and solemn air of authority. There is no suggestion that she is trying to idealize her portrait, conform to conventional beauty standards, or appear more enticing to the viewer. Although she is reclining she is propped up on her elbow, remaining alert and assertive, confronting our gaze with her own.

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Kahlo is, unlike traditional reclining females that are nude, fully covered by her traditional dress in a way that deflects any sense of eroticism. Her sexuality is still apparent but in a different way; it is not related to the outward appearance of her body but originates internally and is coupled to the vitality of her spirit. As Whitney Chadwick has written this sexuality is “a life force, identified with creativity, more emotional and psychological than genital”.

The symbolism or motif of the roots that we see here in fact occurs recurrently in Kahlo’s paintings, and is a part of a wider vocabulary of symbolism the artist employs which refers us back to Mexican folk-art traditions and retablos type images. This symbol of roots does not always take its literal form as a green and leafy plant structure, as Hayden Herrera (the artist’s principal biographer) suggests, the idea of roots is also used metaphorically and is interchangeable with other kinds of connecting pathways or “life-lines” which represent psychological and spiritual bonds.

In “Family tree” (1936) for example, this bond is a red ribbon held by the infant Frida which splits into branches and connects her to the portraits of her parents and grandparents; a scarlet ribbon which shows the “bloodline” of her ancestry and ties her into her family roots. In “Henry Ford Hospital” (1932) red strings issue forth from Frida’s abdomen area as if they were multiple umbilical cords, binding her to symbolic objects (such as a snail, a foetus) which float about her body to signify the various painful experiences that have made up her life. In “Two Frida’s” (1939) there is a snaking artery that connects the hearts of the two self-portraits, one which is broken, exposed and bleeding and the other, still beating, provides its literal life-line. This suggests how – in the darkest of times – Frida drew strength from herself.

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In “Roots” this symbol of the life-line is bought to fruition. Kahlo is connected to the ground upon which she lies through the intersecting stems of plants, clumped in her chest cavity and wrapped around her legs, with large flat green leaves sprouting from them and culminating in a network of small red capillaries splaying outwards. It is as if blood were passing in and out of her body to the soil, making it an extension of the earth. In this way Kahlo has not only become a part of the natural cycles but is connected to the mythical powers of her native Mexican landscape. She becomes “rooted” within her ancestral homeland which provides not only a sense of belonging but the nourishment of her body, spirit and soul. As Lucy Lippard described, “Roots” illustrates Kahlo’s “longing for a connection with an anthropomorphised earth mother”.

Whilst the symbolism of roots in Kahlo’s iconography can largely be seen to denote positive, life-affirming connections either by joining living organisms to nourishing soil, or symbolically joining people together and uniting them with the memories and experiences which make up their past, at the same time roots can be read as having a negative connotation, suggesting entrapment and immobility. To Kahlo this must have had particular resonance, for after being involved in a streetcar accident in 1925 she was left bed-ridden for months and incurred severe life-long injuries to her spine, legs and abdomen, a consequence of which was that she could not bear the children she desperately wanted.

This might bring new meaning then to the painting “Roots”, in which Kahlo is lying, tied down, stoic and still, there is no sense of or potential for movement. Kahlo is rather bound to her specific experience of the world and unable to escape both in a physical and emotional sense from her lived reality. Despite this sense of suffering being apparent in all Kahlo’s work due to the trials of her personal life, and although much of this pain was gender specific (caesarean operations, miscarriages and haemorrhages), Kahlo’s femininity – linked as it is with the greater cycles of nature and the primordial, ancestral forces she feels inside her – seems to remain an ongoing source of strength rather than weakness; of will to endure rather than to surrender.

The empowered way Frida Kahlo has presented her body in “Roots” can be contrasted to a painting completed a year later by a male European surrealist artist, Paul Delvaux’s “Sleeping Venus” which also features a reclining female figure in a surreal landscape. Here Venus, the Roman goddess of love – who has throughout the ages appeared in art as the embodiment of eroticism and beauty – is employed as a recognizable focal point for the eye, a gravitational centre for the gaze. Calm, serene and undoubtedly beautiful she provides a moment of visual respite amongst the dark dream vision of obscure and agitated figures. (A landscape which responds to the feelings of anxiety implicit to the Belgian context in when it was painted – during the bombing of Brussels in 1944.)

Sleeping Venus 1944 by Paul Delvaux 1897-1994

Venus has been appropriated for the function she serves here. In contrast to Kahlo’s portrait, the face is not looking at us but is turned away, seen in profile. She is asleep, passively and unknowingly inviting us to look at her. The way her arm is raised above her head with her right hip angled towards us and by her positioning upon a formal, luxurious looking couch, the figure is rendered explicitly “on show”. The classical deity has therefore become vulnerable and exposed, submissive within the gendered power exchange of seeing and being seen.The tall figures looming over her, especially the skeleton figure of personified “death”, increase this feeling of Venus’ vulnerability and objectification.

So although Delvaux might intend to glorify beauty and womanhood by giving his surreal figure a classical treatment in the name of Venus, he also perpetuates a long tradition of sexualized and submissive feminine nudes in the history of art. Moreover, Venus conforms to the surrealist notion that the erotic female body was primarily a tool to facilitate irrational, instinctual mental states in the creative male mind. This directly juxtaposes Kahlo’s vision of a female sexuality which originates from within, from the natural order, and operates independently from both the male gaze and the surrealist agenda.

It is also interesting to compare the compositional structure of these two paintings. Delvaux invokes a sense of seclusion; although the couch is placed in an open-air courtyard, it is fenced in by the surrounding temple like buildings, the looming columns of their facades, and the black mountain peaks which tower ominously in the distance. This setting is reminiscent of the eerie atmosphere of De Chirico’s paintings and their sense of oppression and foreboding. Here again, Delvaux’s vision directly contrasts to Kahlo’s, whose figure, despite being bound by roots and perhaps immobile, occupies a landscape that extends to infinity under a clear blue sky.

Delvaux’s strange consciousness of the relationship between exposure and enclosure seems to have a gendered significance, Venus is “on show” to us and the figures encircling her, but also in a secretive, hidden courtyard which is fenced in on all sides and cast in a dark night which bears only a thin slither of a crescent moon. Kahlo meanwhile – even if not physically – can be seen as sexually and spiritually liberated in the open, panoramic and bright landscape of her motherland, the promise and hopefulness of which becomes incorporated into the artists vision of herself.

In summary, Frida Kahlo’s painting “Roots” conveys through the use of symbolism the potency of female sexuality and womanhood by connecting them to the cosmological forces of nature and its regenerative powers. As in all her paintings Kahlo expresses her identity in relation to her personal lived experiences, and despite the suffering that entailed, the Frida that is presented to us remains adamant and strong, filled with an unshakable spirit. Whilst in Delvaux’s “Sleeping Venus” the idea of female form is also given a universal and mythological significance, this is woven into the function of the sleeping nude as a sexualized and erotic vehicle for the male gaze which follows a long tradition of “Venus” models in painting. Placed within this role of Venus, Delvaux’s female is not a real woman in the real world, but an abstract, intangible and sexualized ideal. Consequently the painting makes no attempt to offer, as Kahlo does, any genuine account of the feminine identity or experience.

Kahlo’s representation of the gendered body is only one way that she is fundamentally set apart from the male-orientated Surrealist movement, and after all – as she said many times – how could she be a surrealist when it was the waking truths of her reality, not dreams, that she revealed in her painting.

 

© 2016, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.

Images

http://www.FridaKahlo.Org
http://www.Tate.Org

Sources

Chadwick, W. (1991) Women artists and the surrealist movement, London: Thames & Hudson.

Herrera, H. (1991) Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, New York: Harper Collins.

Garber, E. ‘Frida Kahlo: A comparison of feminist and non-feminist voices’ Art Education, Vol. 45, no. 2, (1992), retrieved 27 October 2012, JSTOR database

Friis, R. ‘The fury and the mire of human veins: Frida Kahlo & Rosario Castellanos’, Hispania, vol. 87, no. 1 (2004), retrieved 27 October 2012, JSTOR database

Damien Hirst: commodity and the readymade

“The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”, which is the extravagant title that Hirst gave to his shark in a tank of formaldehyde, has become one of the artist’s most notorious statements. Alongside other high-profile pieces such as Tracey Emin’s bed, the shark has become emblematic of the 90’s BritArt movement and its ethos.

The initial shock factor of the artwork, especially when seen in its original context at the 1992 Saatchi exhibition of Young British Artists, might have made it seem like a radical and exciting, if controversial, novelty. Conceptually however, as is usually the case, it was not without precedent. In employing a prefabricated object (in this case a shark) Hirst emerges at the tail-end of the readymade tradition in 20th century avant-garde art.

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Since Duchamp’s urinal first provoked outrage when he attempted to exhibit it in 1917, artists have been exploring the potential of the readymade object as a critical tool, pushing the boundaries of what we call “art”. We can think back to Minimalists such as Carl Andre with his piles of bricks stacked on gallery floors, to Pop Art in the 60’s with Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and rows of soup tins, even to Jeff Koon’s balloon animals and displays of household objects in the 80’s. For many decades artists have been asking the same question: what separates art objects from other objects in the world?

Hirst upholds the tradition of the readymade, but with one noticeable change. Where previously artists had used ordinary, commonplace, often industrially produced objects, Hirst uses the opposite – extraordinary objects, such as the shark. By substituting the likes of a cardboard box for the frightening, visceral melodrama of a 13ft long tiger shark in a glass tank, suspended as if it were still swimming, still alive and dangerous, Hirst has brought a new dimension to the avant-garde device of the readymade. That is to say, he has transformed it into a spectacle.

This is hardly surprising. For the YBA’s, who can be thought of as the first superstars of the art world, spectacle was everything. It was intrinsic to their image and concept. “Sensation” was the title of their 1997 group exhibition because this is what they caused; in the press and in the media, in the dusty citadels of arts institutions, in the casual-gallery-goer public who loved to hate them.

The spectacle is especially important to Hirst, it is the common denominator in all of his work. This spectacle is not something derived solely from the objects he chooses – although as we have seen with the shark, this is always part of it – but is generated from the aura of media celebrity which belongs to the artist himself, his artistic status which he has made into a brand.

Backed by advertising guru Saatchi, the YBA’s became experts at selling their art as a projection of themselves; a luxury commodity with a price-tag to match. It is this clever commodification process which makes Emin’s bed, not much more exciting than the one you woke up in this morning, worth £2.2 million. It is what makes Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull (which the artist himself played no part in making) dare to ask a price of £50 million.

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The much inflated value of these readymades, of what are essentially still just objects (albeit in the case of the jewelled skull, valuable ones) is symptomatic of what Marx described as the fetishization of commodity. Marx warned of losing the real value of human labour as a by-product of the estranged economic relations we experience within a capitalist consumer society. It is tempting to use Hirst’s skull to illustrate his point.

In regards to the shark, however, the spectacle is not quite as shallow or straight-forward. One of the elements that makes it an alluring and desirable object (or product) is the strange title Hirst has given it. A title which perhaps becomes the shark’s most evocative aspect. It is beautiful and poetic in its clumsiness: “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living”.

The phrase is simple and chimes with the infallible truth, revealing in a second the folly that underscores the human condition: that we are born to die and can never come to terms with that fact. For me the title transforms the creature, no longer a fear-inspiring monster it becomes sad and forlorn. Isolated and remote and trapped there in death till the end of time (or at least until it rots away and has to be replaced, as in 2006, but the sentiment stands).

The theatrical cruelty of the object is no longer the shark as an agent of death, but that of death itself, of the promise of death. And as we look at the shark in this new light it becomes almost heart wrenching to behold, engendering that feeling of pathos which Hirst will later perfect with another of his formaldehyde projects: a cow and its calf in separate tanks and severed in half entitled “Mother and Child (Divided).”

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In these “Momento Mori” works we realize we are not just looking at animals in tanks but at ourselves, at our own mortality. The artist has shamelessly and brilliantly brought the nihilistic glamour and tragedy of death – as a timeless, universal and sublime truth – into his spectacle. In Hirst, it seems, anything and everything can become part of the commodity.

To Hirst’s staunchest critics he is merely a savvy player of the contemporary art game with no real or authentic talents to speak of. It is certainly true that he is a far cry from that romantic artist prototype – the inspired, misunderstood genius labouring his whole life for little reward – he is rather a businessman and an entrepreneur. But maybe we should stop to wonder if this is not just a natural consequence of our times, a reflection of the increasingly materialistic world artists must negotiate, a world which beckons its own kind of artistic genius. In this context that question which has hung around since the dawn of modernity, that question of “what is art”, has become even more problematic.

Whilst no one has held back on their criticism of Hirst over the last decades (he has been variously named a con-artist, a fraud, and just simply bad) this has done nothing but help bolster his exposure and consequentially add to spectacle of his personality and his art, cementing works like “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” into the history books of the future.

 

© 2014, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.

Memory in postmodern architecture: A study of the Jewish Museum, Berlin

Since the Cold War period there has been a surge of interest in memory discourse and increasingly anxious debate regarding the suitability of long-established and outdated commemorative methods. Traditional types of war memorial have not only proven ineffective (for example in preventing the recurrence of war in Europe after WWI) but can also be seen to have played a role in manipulating collective memory and endorsing militaristic rhetoric of colonialism, dominance and power – the same ideologies which drove fascism and other totalitarian regimes to commit atrocities during the 20th century.

Artists and architects are now therefore faced with the challenge of conveying memory through new channels, no longer creating memorials which propagate glory, heroism and prestige but ones which are principally non-triumphalist, apologetic and conscious of their own meta-language and its political connotations. Good examples of such memorials are Maya Lin’s “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (1982) in Washington or Peter Eisenman’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” (2003-4) in Berlin. These are not so much monuments as they are counter-monuments; subverting the normal enactment of memory and its rituals.

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The same question of how to articulate memory has arisen in architecture; although here memory must be assimilated into a language which is primarily functional and serves a structural purpose. This is the case with the Jewish Museum, which resides adjacent to the Old Kollegienhaus in southern Berlin. Its function is to display both permanent and temporary exhibitions educating its visitors on the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish people and their historic presence in Europe, however equally the design of the building serves as a visual metaphor for the trauma inflicted by WWII and the Holocaust on the Jewish community. Thus the museum not only houses memory through its exhibits and artifacts, but becomes itself a symbol of national remembrance and self-understanding.

When the building was proposed in 1988 by the Berlin government it presented a number of challenges in terms of its conceptual specifications. Even the basics had to be carefully considered: was the new building to be attached or separated from the already standing Berlin museum within the Kollegienhaus, if they were joined together might it denote an unwarranted sense of reconciliation, and would keeping them apart perpetuate damaging notions of racial segregation? Furthermore how can a museum go about providing a material presence, a “home” for the Jews within a city and a nation from which they have been so violently displaced, which is essentially marred by their absence.

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Daniel Libeskind won the commission for the building and his design (finally completed in 1999 and opened two years later) was the embodiment of this theoretical dilemma. It is representative of a Deconstructivist style architecture characterized by fragmentation and unpredictability which breaks from conventional forms and planning methods, in an attempt, perhaps, to express the inexpressible. The building is 15000 square metres arranged in a dramatic zig-zag shape which has been said to be reminiscent of an abstracted Star of David.

The plan is composed of two parts, the architect states, “one is a straight line, but broken into many fragments, the other is a tortuous line, but continuing indefinitely.” The first line, also referred to as the Axis of Continuity, cuts through the second, which is the serpentine body of the building itself. At the intersection where these lines cross “voids” rising vertically from the ground to the roof about 20 metres tall, cut through the building. The presence of the voids (one of which is filled at its base with Menashe Kadishman’s “Fallen leaves” sculptural installation – 10,000 coarse iron faces representing Jewish lives lost) disrupts any sense of continuity within the structure. This cavity running through the Jewish Museum has become symbolic for the Holocaust itself, a visible, shadowy rift in the nation’s history. In formal terms it becomes the silent eye of reflection at the heart of the maelstrom building.

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The museums exterior takes on a fortress like appearance, sharp and angular; its windows penetrate the walls randomly at different orientations. A thin layer of zinc coats the facade, which will oxidize and turn colour as it weathers and gives the building the look of an industrial factory-like edifice which radically departs from its surroundings and the customary stone-clad buildings of Berlin. When viewed from above it leaves an open grey wound on the landscape.

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To get into the museum you must enter through the main Berlin Museum’s Baroque wing and travel through an underground tunnel, descending into a cold dark space which invokes a sense of anxiety. Then the visitor is met with a crossroads of tunnels, the Three Axis which underwrite the museum’s purpose. The first as already mentioned is the Axis of Continuity, which represents the path to the present day and to uncertain times ahead, this line runs from the Kollegienhaus entrance and leads up a long stairway (with looming concrete supports overhead) into the exhibition spaces. The exhibition rooms and galleries are sometimes closed off or exhibit-less, pierced by intersecting walls or voids, again emphasising the irrational fragmentation and splintering of spaces.

The second Axis Of Emigration connects the Museum to the outside Garden of Exile, via a corridor which is uneven and grows progressively narrower. The Garden itself is a land sculpture which is elevated at a 12 degree gradient and filled with rows of forty-nine close together concrete columns which the visitor must try to negotiate through, olive branches sprout from the top representing peace and hope, but from the ground these seem remote. It acts as a memorial for all the Jews forced out of Germany and into exile; a stagnant and sorrowful place which speaks of the sort of uneasy purgatory a refugee faces. The final underground Axis is that of The Holocaust which leads to a dead end; through a heavy door is the Holocaust Tower, which is a 24 m tall empty concrete silo lit only by a narrow split in its roof and forms a foreboding, dark, claustrophobic chamber which remains cool and damp all year round.

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These three underground tunnels leading in different directions act to put the emphasis on each individual visitor’s experience, asking them to make their own choices and tread their own path. Like other postmodern monuments, such as the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” or the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” the memory here is not prescribed or otherwise mediated, but rather enacted through the spectator and through their personal interactions with the space and its meanings.

The Jewish Museum seems to me to signify the anxiety which is deeply embedded in the modern human condition regarding how we should preserve, retain and convey sensitive memories. Anxieties which are in this case crystallized by the fact that Germany’s void is one that is self-inflicted, and that the memory of the Holocaust carries not only pain but guilt and responsibility. Libeskind’s building can provide no resolution to this crisis – only offer a reminder of how difficult it is to manifest the past not only conceptually, but, in the wake of revisionist and post-structural theory, also practically; after appraising traditional commemorative forms what are we left with to effectively communicate memory today?

The Museum attempts to address that question, in offering a refreshing glimpse at the potential of architecture which, once all the conventional paradigms of monumentality, symmetry and order have been overcome, reveals itself as a forcefully expressive and self-critical memorial site capable of holding a mirror up to the complexity of history rather than simply telling it.

 

© 2014, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.

Exhibition review: Saatchi’s “Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America”

“Pangaea” refers us back some two hundred million years, when the young planet was home to a vast super-continent in which Africa and South America fit snugly together like two jigsaw pieces. It is this vision of a united prehistoric utopia  – of transcendent global connections – which has inspired the latest exhibition at the Saatchi gallery, London.

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Of course these continents are now separated by nearly 3000 km of Atlantic ocean and any link between the two contemporary cultures is no more established because this was once not the case. Yet in seeking to draw some underlying parallels curator Gabriela Salgada makes an important point about the increasingly globalized and ubiquitous nature of the art world and its audiences; an art world which no longer concedes to national or even continental boundaries.

The exhibition consists of 15 artists, some already well known and others not so, who are diverse and exciting in their approaches but linked throughout by recurring themes and often returning as in the following examples, to questions of civil war, migration, colonial pasts, political unrest and socioeconomic inequality.

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The exhibition’s initial showstopper is Rafael Gomezbarros’ Casa Tomada“, a giant ant installation comprising of 440 insects each half a meter long, which swarm and cluster upon the gallery walls in the first room. The spectator, suddenly dwarfed by the experience, might be initially alarmed, delighted, even amused by the sight. Yet on closer inspection the ants are not what they seem; their bodies are made from casts of human skulls bound together with bandages, their splayed legs wiry and skeletal, the combination of materials used (fiberglass with coal and resin) give them a rusty, decaying yet tough and resilient appearance.

Gomezbarros in fact employs the ant as a metaphor for the migrant worker.  Ordinarily the ant is viewed as a pest but can also be understood in terms of its strength and tenacity as a species (they are able to carry many times their own body weight and labour in order to support large and complex colonies). Here as they swarm together, perhaps fleeing from danger in their erratic clusters, they represent the plight of millions of people who have been displaced from their homes, and specifically the refugees from Gomezbarros’ native Colombia, which has suffered from more than half a century of civil war. The artist’s work draws our attention back to the suffering of asylum-seekers which goes largely ignored by the international community and by bringing these homeless, nameless individuals back into the public eye Gomezbarros attempts to make the invisible visible and give those that are silent a voice.

 

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Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou’s “Demoiselles de Porto-Novo” series of photographs are similarly loaded with meaning. His images of bare chested women, wearing traditional ceremonial masks and residing in the  doorways and corridors of colonial-style 19th century African mansions, attempt to reverse our expectations of the gaze and the Eurocentric understanding of seeing and being seen.

As unashamedly naked and confrontational as the prostitute in Manet’s “Olympia“, and as potentially treacherous as those in Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, the women in these photographs are beautiful, elusive, alluring yet dangerous and disconcerting. They subvert notions of not only sexual, but racial ownership, and deconstruct the power relations embedded within a history of colonialism and slavery in the West African Republic of Benin.

 

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Ibrahim Mahama’s “Untitled” installation consumes a vast space with dirty, torn, sewn together coal sacks (commonly known in Ghana as Juke sacks). Like the ants, the size of this work has an almost debilitating effect, looming upwards one imagines being trapped in an oppressive, gloomy cave. The material looks like it could be leather, or skin; a gigantic flayed carcass. The sheer quantity and weight of the sacks and the compilation of so many, meticulously sewn, reminds us of hard and grueling labor – the blood, sweat and tears – which remains in many parts of the world the beating heart of the economy.

These Juke sacks, the staple of African market places, are imported by Ghana Cocoa Board but then reused for charcoal and to transport other commodities. Each bears various scrawled markings which tells the story of if its movements within the trade system and thus each becomes a material document for the chain of supply and demand amongst the people of Ghana.

 

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Aboudia’s vast acrylic and mixed-media paintings, 7 of which are on show at “Pangaea“, give contemporary political violence a historic and monumental scale. This piece “Djoly du Mogoba” responds to the 2011 electoral disaster in the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, when the presidential incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after loosing the elections, and wide-spread violence ensued. The artist was forced to take refuge in an underground studio at the time.

In this giant, frieze-like image, white faced soldiers stand in a row like ghoulish automatons equipped with large weapons. It is hard to tell but they might be children- the child soldiers who also fought and died in the Second Ivorian Civil War. They are interspersed by red faces with grimacing orange teeth, perhaps some kind of devil creature, or death masks, waiting ominously in the shadows for fate to take its turn. Aboudia’s painterly technique is cartoonish and child-like  but with none of the corresponding naivety. His brush marks are angry, red drips down the top part of the canvas like blood.

As with Gomezbarros we get the sense in this art work of the anguish and the indignation of those who watch their home nations get torn apart by civil war. However like the giant ants, Aboudia’s figures are also resilient, defiant, insistent on life even in the face of death. It is this which gives depth to Aboudia’s painting and in fact to all the artworks in this exhibition; through whatever hardship and adversity people are facing across the globe, the hopeful and tenacious human spirit remains.

Overall the exhibition succeeds in presenting artists that, despite the variety of their work, are surprisingly in-sync and create a fascinating and dynamic dialogue with each other. Needless to say that has nothing to do with the mythical unison of a prehistoric super-continent, but rather down to a thoughtful and vibrant selection of contemporary, international artists for whom geography now poses no limits.

Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America” is showing at the Saatchi gallery until the 2nd November 2014.

 

© 2014, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.