Art Deco typography is ubiquitous in Portuguese cities. In many ways, it seems that the commercial areas of Porto and Lisbon ceased to evolve aesthetically at the moment António de Oliveira Salazar became President in 1932. His corporatist authoritarian government ruled until 1968. I’m very interested in the “lusotropical” Portuguese colonial project as part of my southern African research. This semester I’m writing about Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass and her Humanae project, matching the skin tones of her numerous subjects with pantone chart colors. More on that text soon… in the meantime, enjoy this font of fonts.
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.
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.
There’s something special about faces on buildings. I don’t mean advertising billboards—even when painted on, billboards are too slick to have the same affect. Faces on buildings stare out at you like a totemic god, a tiny shrine writ large. I spotted this first face in the Greektown neighborhood of downtown Detroit. It’s wry and literary-looking.
This face, a portrait of Ann Frank, is more commanding. It’s visually stark in large blocks of black and white. For me the image is a representation of the holocaust, causing no emotion that the face of a cheerful little girl would usually stir. Her name is not written there, just the words, “Believe in People” on the top right. It’s a compelling portrait, especially at this size. This is painted behind the Yale School of Art in on Crown Street. I hope it stays up for a while. Was it someone’s final project?
A block away are a series of blank buildings, large facades with no windows or doors, no human scale. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to paint faces here? The side of this Walgreens pharma-superstore dropped in a sea of parking (with a strangely short parking structure next door) would be a perfect candidate. Perhaps something similar to Jaume Plensa’s portrait fountain in Chicago’s Millenium Park, with the faces of local New Haven residents. It would be like Felice Varini’sSquare with Four Circles on the garage downtown. Here’s my mock up for your review.
We are lucky if in the course of our everyday lives we come across images as inspiring as those of the work of Nelisiwe Xaba. While looking for journals about nomads in the periodicals room of the reference library, I came across Art South Africa magazine, which featured an article about Xaba, a dancer and performance artist in Soweto. I recently traveled to South Africa for the first time. Never in my life have I been more aware of my race than while walking the streets of Johannesburg, even more so than when, in Taiwan, I was the only white person in sight. (The most unnerving thing about Taiwan, and the rest of Asia, is not being able to read the signs.) South Africa is unique. It may surprise you to learn that it’s the most racially diverse nation on earth, with thriving Indian and Malay populations mixed among native Africans and whites. In that way it is not unlike Brazil. Yet while vacationing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2002, I was the least aware of my race as I’ve ever been, so profoundly comfortable did everyone seem together on the beach. (My Brazilian friend Flavia, who was also my guide, told me that in other parts of the city, however, it’s not the same.) In such moments—on the beach in Brail, on the street in Johannesburg or even Cape Town—the unspoken rules governing space and the separation between groups within one’s own culture (for me, the United States) are revealed for the obtuse, falsely constructed monsters that they are. I came home from South Africa sad at our lack of progress regarding integration and equality since Reconstruction. South Africa, of course, is on a whole other level. Xaba has something to say about it.
Q: You are very interested in the politics of the body.
XABA: Yes, of the female black body. The Black Consciousness movement existed because there was racism. So if I didn’t perform a lot in Europe, and only in Soweto, it wouldn’t be a question… If your work mainly gets seen in Europe it is important to acknowledge that consciously. Who is consuming what you are doing?
Art South Africa, December 2009, v8.2
The Black Consciousness movement began in the 1970’s, based on the writings of Steve Biko. (Denzel Washington played Biko in the movie Cry Freedom.) I bought a small compilation of Biko’s essays in Cape Town called, No Fear Expressed. (ISBN No: 0-9802591-2-6) The title is a phrase he used in an interview which encapsulates much of his message. The complete sentence is, “To understand me correctly you have to say that there were no fears expressed.” As someone for whom fear has often been an obstacle, Biko’s words spoke to me: “We must remove from our vocabulary completely the concept of fear.” “Is it this fear that erodes the soul of black people in South Africa…How can people be prepared to put up a resistance against their overall oppression if in their individual situations, they cannot insist on the observance of their manhood?” Biko was tortured and killed by the government for violating his house arrest. I have since thought of this great intellectual as one of my personal heros.
Biko and Xaba both politicize the body as a landscape of struggle. They remind us that it is important always to be aware of the nature of one’s own identity as consumed by others. The final image in the triptych above is a photograph taken in Regina Mundi church in Soweto. In the summer of 1976, police fired on unarmed, retreating students during protests in the townships. The bullet holes in the church’s ceiling remain as irrefutable evidence that the bullets themselves were not made of rubber, as the police later testified, but were decidedly lethal. The church balcony now displays a collection of photographs marking the events of that summer. You can see my reflection in the glass of this particular photo depicting one of the many horrors which occurred as the apartheid system fell apart. We cannot escape ourselves, and so must instead recognize our own identity as perceived by others. Xaba’s work reminds us to consider this key part of the creative process.
“Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity,” 1973. I Write What I Like, Frank Talk. “Fear — An Important Determinant in South African Politics.” 1971.
I have fallen in love with Bittertang. They are a duo of artist/architects who refer to their studio as “the farm.” Michael Loverich and Antonio Torres spoke last Tuesday night at Parsons, accepting The Architectural League Prize (one of six firms to win it this year), and introducing their bizarre work. They espouse a love for the hilarious and the pleasurable, and point to the Rococo as an underutilized source of inspiration. (They showed a photo very similar to the 1767 Fragonard painting above, “L’Essaim d’Amour,” or Swarm of Love, which they called a “baby omelet.”) Not only has poché returned in a big way, but folly and fancy breathe new life as well. “Architecture should be hilarious!” they declared, and I agree. After all, humor in the face of the chaos and horror of the world is a path to redemption. Like Tschumi’s follies in Parc de la Villette. The work of Bittertang is unsettling as well, for example all the “babies” they invented, but what disturbs me also intrigues me. Not unlike the work of Dinos and Jake Chapman. Take, for example, the succulent piñata pictured above, from The Architectural League Prize exhibition at Parsons, inspired by the story of Romulus and Remus. I wanted to steal it and take it home with me. Yum!