Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 15, No. 4, 2016
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Robert J. Lewis
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reviewed by


Anthony Merino, renowned independent art critic, has published over 70 reviews. He is a ceramic artist and has lectured internationally on contemporary ceramics.

noun: syn•es•the•sia \?si-n?s-'the-zh(e-)?\

1: a concomitant sensation; especially : a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated
2: the condition marked by the experience of such sensations.
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Imagine every time you saw the number seven it was green or the number four was blue. You would have a cognitive condition called synesthesia. It is a very rare aberration -- but it is an aberration that proves a point. Humans like to believe that perception is a constant and objective. The reality is --that we are seriously flawed instruments when it comes to reading the worlds we occupy. A large bundle of loose electrical connections in our head suspended in a gelatinous material process every sensation we feel. What synesthesia proves -- every perception we have -- is defined as much by us as by the reality we are perceiving.

Think of how you experience reality as writing on a slate and every experience you have adds information to that slate. Very quickly you are forced to erase or just write over the experience. Not only do you very quickly get detailed ornate and dense information, but everything transcribed before begins to determine what is written over it. Now consider that about a third of the experiences you transcribe to this board are not real. The act of dreaming is manufacturing perception. This manufacturing is ungoverned by the laws of physics, time or gravity -- let alone manners and decency.

Moroccan born photographer, Lalla A. Essaydi lyrically illustrates this dynamic with Converging Territories, #20. The c-print depicts two naked women writing Arabic text in henna. One of the women is slightly larger and lighter than the other. This figure writes on the back of the smaller figure. The smaller figure writes on a hanging sheet of white cloth. Essaydi takes many of the ways in which people identify themselves and puts them in a blender. Each element of the two figures has its own signifier. Being naked suggests sexuality. The tone of the skin suggests race. The writing reflects some religion or spirituality. As these elements interact, they change each other. A prayer written on flesh means something different than a prayer written on cloth or paper. Essaydi constructs a metaphoric reference between our bodies and our experience. We all know that shape, size, color, gender and age of our bodies all affect we are perceived. Essaydi shows that all of these elements also shape our perceptions.

By articulating this interaction so well, Essaydi’s work serves as the master key for African Art Against the State, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts. An exhibition of twenty artists combined shows how difficult it is to cull experience from perception. What we experience and our identity get folded into each other to the point of being indistinguishable.

Essaydi’s work deals with personal identity. Some of the exhibition’s most fascinating pieces deal with public identity. African Art Against the State includes several anonymous works. These include Sande (Bondo) Society Mask, a carved wooden mask, Mende People, West Africa; 2 Ogboni Society Kneeling Figures, Male and Female, Yoruba People, Nigeria; and Power Figure (Buti) -- Teke People, Democratic Republic of the Congo. These pieces exemplify the dynamic Essaydi’s work illustrates. Instead of linking personal subconscious these works intergrate a collective unconscious in their pieces. Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the term to describe imagery that is understood by an entire species -- as if all of the blank slates in the world had images imprinted on them and were never totally blank. These works seem to support Jung’s proposition. While the specific iconography is unknown, the viewer can intuitively read the works.

Two artists directly reference this outsider aesthetic in their work; Beninese sculptor Romuald Hazoumè and Belgian-Beninese photographer Fabrice Monteiro. Hazoumè exhibits two ‘jerry’ plastic gasoline cans that are altered to look like masks, titled Before 1999 and After 1999. After is made from a can that seems burnt and partially melted. The artist uses the handle to represent the bridge of a nose and the pouring spout as a mouth. The connecting part of the handle can be read as a very dominant brow line. The brow furled and the mouth pierced as in a yell -- the work suggests an exaggerated aggression. By creating images that tap not only our pre-verbal but pre-iconographic mind, Hazoumè’s pieces operate as contemporary interpretations of the source material.

Fabrice Monteiro’s staged photographs operate more as an appropriation of his source material. Instead of creating masks, the photographer dresses models in elaborate outfits that mimic the same stylized aesthetic. He contributes three pieces from his Prophecy series: Untitled #1, Untitled #2 and Untitled # 6, all from 2014. In each he used the refuse of industrialized society to create fantastic and horrific creatures. The figure in Untitled #1 stands in a mound of midden that forms a skirt creating the illusion that the figure has three-meter long legs. While the work depicts what could be a dream, it is a very deliberate and conscious work.

Monteiro uses elements of the subconscious -- the distortion of reality afforded in dream space, to create a surreal image. Two of the exhibition’s artists use human sexuality in the same way Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers allude to vaginas. This parallels how people think through the conscious and subconscious. The exhibition includes two artists who invert how the audience thinks about visual double entendre. Artist Zanele Muholi and Yinka Shonibare use overt sexuality in their work. It is the obvious text, presenting a subtext that is decidedly political.

South African photographer Muholi’s Mini Mbatha, Durban, Glebelands, Jan. 2010 depicts a man dressed in a skirt and bracelets with a five multicolored combs acting as a headpiece. The piece belonged to the artist’s Beulahs (2006–2010) series, which documented gay and transgendered men. The portrayed man turns identity into a political statement. There is a deliberateness to this figure. Dressed as a warrior the person asserts control over their perception. This raises the act of sexual preference and gender identity to a political statement.

While Muholi’s portraits are intimate and specific, Yinka Shonibare’s uses sexuality anonymously in Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (Parasol), 2002, a sculpture showing two fornicating, headless mannequins. Shonibare dresses the figures in Georgian fashions made with faux African patterned cloth. The sexuality becomes the work’s overt content. The work depicts misappropriations. African textiles are rendered down to heavily patterned multi hue cloths with no meaning. The European clothes are completely antiquated and irrelevant to contemporary life.

Curator Michelle Apotsos intentionally includes a pun in the exhibition’s title. African Art Against the State leads its audience to assume the exhibition is dealing with government. Walking through the exhibition, it becomes clear it is subverting more than political institutions. These artists undermine states of consciousness and confidence. At it’s best African Art Against the State forces its audience to consider that what they think they know, may only be what they believe.

By Anthony Merino:
Code Replaces Creativity
Updating Walter Benjamin
Ego and Art
Nick Cave & Funk(adelic)
Foucault for Dummies



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Thank you very much for the insight. Even Benjamin can be wrong sometimes.








































































































Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
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