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It’s the end of the spring semester and I am working to finish my final papers. There are three of them. I’ve completed one, concerning Frantz Fanon’s 1961 text The Wretched of the Earth, and am about to begin the next. It seems all I do is eat, sleep, and write—and on Sundays I watch Game of Thrones. Nothing can keep me from Game of Thrones.
I was struck by a line in an article I read for my Harvard class, “Modern Speech and Other Kinds of Testimony,” by historian Megan Vaughan. The class, Themes in Modern African History, is taught by the formidable Caroline Elkins, who is generous with her time despite her demanding schedule, for which I am very grateful. The article is about the slippery nature of historical consciousness, and the ways in which the historian can unwittingly manipulate her subjects’ “identity.” Vaughan is interested in the missing pre-history of the Creole community in Mauritius, of which she writes:
“Creole intellectuals make the very valid point that their history begins on the island—their origins lie in métissage, in creolité itself, and not in a mythic origin moment which came before.” 1
This sentence resonates with my own struggle to decipher and iterate my own historical identity. Like many Americans, I like to delve into the various family histories of past generations, which extend to many different ethnic and geographical origins. Yet despite the “truth” of this mixing, it is always assumed I have a European origin, and further it is assumed that I will myself have chosen a preferred ethnicity with which to identify. In the quote above, there is freedom: forget the past; you’re an American, with all the mixing that implies.
The Second Life of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Afrofuturist Critique
(This is the first bit of a paper I wrote for my methods class in fall, 2013)
African artists born to a post-independence continent, curiously placed in the temporal limbo engendered by their new nations’ violently dynamic notions of future and past, are socially empowered as image-makers to realign, reshape, and rename the world. The African artist’s process is an enactment of his nation’s negotiation with modernity; the artist is an “historical agent capable of representing the modern condition in which he is working.” Using methods similar to Dadaist bricolage, Afrofuturism seizes upon this chronological purgatory as a site for uncanny cultural remixes. Science fiction narratives offer a compelling populist opening to such rewritten cultural autobiographies.
In Spaceship Icarus 13 (2008), Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda (born 1979, Luanda) harnesses Afrofuturist memes to present a vision of the future based on a reimagined past, channeling an unlikely combination of satire and utopianism, irony and hope. Spaceship Icarus 13—an architectural model, a story, and a series of eight photographs—”documents” the creation of Africa’s first space base and humanity’s first mission to the sun. Henda’s spaceship is a reappropriated item of totalitarian kitsch, a late 1970s era Soviet-designed mausoleum for Agostinho Neto, Angola’s Marxist-leaning first president. Within this mausoleum-cum-spaceship, enhanced in Henda’s narrative by icons of American consumerism and Angolan devastation—Budweiser and diamonds—the artist sends Neto’s ashes up to burn. The violence of this second destruction, from ashes to ashes, is both piercing and poignant. It encapsulates Henda’s artistic critique of Angola’s long civil war, its lost human potential, and its current political and economic climate.Read More
We had a conversation in Power Boothe‘s theory class about whether or not art has value. Someone asked, does a blank canvas have value? The art students though that it did not. It’s just wood, they said, scraps of cloth. Everyone agreed that there was work put in to cut the wood and weave the cloth and construct the canvas—it costs money to buy a prepared canvas—but it had no functional value, no use value, and so was worthless. (Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction defines use value versus cult value in passing, as does Adolph Loos’s tyrannical essay, Ornament and Crime.) I disagreed. The blank canvas has incredible value in its potential—to be art. What’s more, the blank canvas is the hope of art, a gesture towards the power and transcendence of human creativity. It’s the emotional bell weather of our society. Here is the potential for beauty, for greatness, it says, for novelty, for personal expression—despite all odds. Despite the crushing weight of the world and our own doubts, here is the chance to escape, into art. What could be more valuable?
There’s a website called “colourlovers.com” that’s a bit disappointing; just a bunch of palettes. Of course, palettes can be very useful. Color is a big part of my awareness—the color of things around me, of the sky, of people’s clothes—it’s part of how I see and organize the world.
At my mother’s house in New York I was struck by the quality of light one morning. I took some photos of a pair of pink leather slippers my cousin brought back from Morocco, contrasted against my red nail polish and a purple skirt. The watercolor on the left approximates that arranged palette.
Other palettes compose themselves. I snuck the photo below on the subway: navy + yellow book + red nails + canvas, and painted the swatches above. The palette above is a version of this color set.
A newsstand caught my eye because of an article called “Ariel Pink” featured on one cover—almost my name—and I liked the mix of pink and peach and brown in the photo of a guy in a black dress. That’s the palette above on the right.
I’m not sure what I’ll do with these palettes… for now they’re just reminders of pretty things.