Ashes to Ashes

(This is the first bit of the paper I wrote for my methods class last fall)

The Second Life of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Afrofuturist Critique

African artists born to a post-independence continent,[1] 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.”[2] 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,[3] 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.

Yet the delicious humor of Spaceship Icarus 13, a glorious and impossible fantasy that recalls the hubris of the mythical Greek Icarus and riffs on the Apollo 13 mission, softens the work into a readily palpable confection easily consumed by foreign audiences. Just as Henda’s project gives renewed life to Neto’s monument by reappointing it as a spaceship, Spaceship Icarus 13 has itself a second life as a representative of the larger Afrofuturist movement in Africa as it tours the global biennale circuit. This paper will trace the critical reception of Spaceship Icarus 13 as it has made its way around the world, discuss Henda’s role in presenting the diasporically-originating mode of Afrofuturism returned to the African continent, and explore the work’s potential vis à vis Angolan culture. If the narratives that build nations are based upon the control and containment of time, then the utopian time of Afrofuturist art breaks that to pieces, thus presenting a path towards cultural reinvention. Alongside the easy sci-fi iconography of Spaceship Icarus 13, Henda’s larger project may be in fact oneiric rather than futurist, encouraging Angolans to dream again their future and past. The melancholy entombed within the extravagance of Spaceship Icarus 13, its travel a paradox of hope in a very poor nation forced to “make everything new,”[4] is a continuing critique of both Angolan history and the surface reading of the work by its global audience.

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[1] See figure 1. African national independence across the continent is concentrated in a 15-year time period. By 1966, all but six African nations had declared independence from colonial rule (not including Ethiopia and Liberia, which have never been formally colonized).

[2] Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, Contemporary African Art Since 1980. (Bologna: Damiani, 2009): 15.

[3] The term “totalitarian kitsch” originates with author Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but is used here in an aesthetic rather than socio-political context.

[4] Kiluanji Kia Henda, “Part 4: Kiluanji Kia Henda.” Lecture, After Post-Colonialism: Transnationalism or Essentialism? from Tate Modern, May 8, 2010.  http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/after-post-colonialism-transnationalism-or-essentialism-video-recordings#open265005, accessed October, 2013.

The value of hope

blank canvas

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?

Color lovers

There’s a website called “colourlovers.com,” but it’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.
colorsquare-purple

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 above approximates that arranged palette.
yellowbook

colorsquare-yellow

Other palettes compose themselves. I snuck the photo above on the subway: navy + yellow book + red nails + canvas, and painted the swatches above.

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.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with the palettes. For now they’re just reminders of pretty things.

colorsquare-pink

Zuhandenheit

glass palette

Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time, describes the property of zuhandenheit, or being ready-to-hand. It’s a concept central to his worldview, a concept I believe to be his most important contribution to Western philosophy. Heidegger uses the term zuhandenheit to describe a useful, working tool, one that is plainly ready-to-hand and can be used without  having to consciously consider its presence. Consider, for instance, that you can walk without thinking about your feet. Now the foot is not a “tool” per se, but it is something utilized without thinking about it consciously. The foot only becomes present when it does not function, when it is broken or injured in some way.

Heidegger’s examples of tools that are ready-to-hand include ”the hammer, the plane, and the needle.” Now it’s true there’s a learning curve associated with any particular tool; a needle can prick you, a plane can slice you, a hammer can damage your thumb if you are unfamiliar with its proper use. However, once the tool is mastered, it is readily and repeatedly available as a medium for accomplishing tasks. It and you function perfectly together such that you can focus solely on the task and ignore the tool. The tool becomes an extension of your body.

The notion of zuhandenheit is important because it had not yet been considered in philosophy before Heidegger. Up to then, philosophy described the world as filled with people and things. People have senses through which they perceived things and their properties. A hammer, in this configuration, is a hunk of shaped metal at the end of a wooden handle. Clearly, this ignores the hammer’s status as a tool—its function, its utility, its reason for being; everything that makes a hammer a hammer. Heidegger’s phenomenology contrasts the tool’s being ready-to-hand, zuhandenheit, with vorhandenheit, being present-at-hand, or just there. A leaf is just there, a rock is just there, a broken hammer is just there until you fix it. (If you pick up the rock and use it to pound corn into flour, then of course it becomes a tool.)

These distinctions came to mind recently during an oil painting class I’m enrolled in at the Hartford Art School taught by the former dean of the school, Power Boothe. Professor Boothe is a well regarded artist and it’s probably better that I don’t closely follow the art world because I might be too star-struck to be in his class. He’s a set designer as well, which is very exciting, theatrical design being the charismatic cousin to architecture’s austere façade of controlled composition. As a teacher, Power is very approachable and remains engaged with each student in the class, often exclaiming that someone’s work reminds him of such-and-such master painter from the 19th or 20th century. On these occasions he repairs to his office and returns with the appropriate monograph, handing it to the oil-paint-and-linseed-spattered student, her brush in hand.

With my “brush in hand” I’ve experienced a painful lesson in zuhandenheit. Oils are difficult to assimilate. I painted quite frequently as a child, but always with acrylics. They’re cheap and water soluble, so I’m sure their particular procurement was a conscious choice on my parents’ part. “Real painting,” to me, was always achieved with oils; that’s how all the paintings in the museums were made. (I recall fixating on a Bonnard at the Met but the memory might be fabricated.) I attempted an oil painting on glass when I was a senior in high school; it was awful. I managed to mix the paint, but I had no idea that I should use linseed oil and turpentine as thinner. I was so used to the nature of acrylics—how they dried, how they mixed—that I just couldn’t get a feel for this thick, pasty medium. I was too impatient or too inexperienced to wait for the paint to dry, and I didn’t know about the technique of glazing, using oils like watercolors, all water and very little tint. I kept lathering the paint on like plaster, eventually giving up… the final work looked like melted wax. It was a portrait of a boy I’d met. I’m glad he never saw it.

The first two painting assignments Power gave the class were apples, one black-and-white and one color. The black-and-white one went along pretty well. I didn’t have to worry about mixing because the whole composition was shades of grey. The color painting, however, was a disaster. I couldn’t mix the tones I wanted; everything kept blending together into a mushy brown; and the white/yellow underlay I foolishly added was far too overpowering. (The white in oil paint is nuclear strength.) I ended up slapping on paint with a palette knife to cover my mistakes… it was pretty terrible. I bought another canvas and tried again, this time with the glazing technique my husband recommended and was much happier with the results. I’ve since attempted to paint the stairwell in Louis I. Kahn’s British Art Center, (hard; I can’t let go of the notion that straight, almost axonometric lines should look a certain way,) and a self-portrait (easier; probably because the softer shapes still convince when only approximated).

Is the paint brush a tool, ready-at-hand? For me, not yet. But soon.