Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
23.05.2015 – 18.07.2015
On any other given day, the lumping of work by female artists –who happen to be black – into an exhibition thematically arranged around ‘narration’, could be read as an empowering practise. This time however, ‘Speaking Back’ at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town runs the risk of asserting overtones of primitivism and tokenism. The exhibition groups together the work of prominent female artists who are black or have a tenuous connection to some peripheral politic. Their works have been curated into an exhibition that privileges ‘narration’, which, as a point of focus, lends itself as an easy escape from the ideologically fraught possibilities that the works actually open up.
There are several grave dangers in approaching the subject of black woman subjectivity as an aesthetic project by appealing simply to a work’s ‘narrative’; especially when the work is also used to prove a one-dimensional thesis of ‘race/gender/culture’. This reductive approach is destined to miss the opportunity to throw these boxes out of the window and ultimately fails to present a wider scope of the shifting terrain of visual self-representations of ‘black’ ‘women’ offering postcolonial counter-evidence through artistic practice.
The evidence of the corporeal angst involved in being black or performing blackness within existing hierarchies – in order to subvert the dominant standard and subtly or overtly challenge the status quo – is the common thread that runs through the individual practises of the artists set together in this show. The titillating sound that fills the whole space is the voice and jazzy soundtrack from Mickalene Thomas’s Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman (2012) the video is about her mother, her muse, – a failed beauty queen. This sound incongruently bleeds into all of the other works such that it appears to become their soundtrack. Kara Walker’s Fall from Grace Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale (2011) sits strangely on a small screen, oddly placed on a plinth near the door. It is hit by the shadow cast from the suspended dildo and skull beads in Adejoke Tugbiyele’s Unpray the flesh (2013), so close to Walker’s depiction of a traumatic rape scene that it takes on a far more menacing form.
The works when placed in relation to each other, in a well-conceptualised grouping, ordinarily have the potential to reinforce each other. However, in this context, the actual intent of the work, while not diminished, cannot be positively reinforced by the other work in the group show. Instead it begins to appear that the works are caught up in a doubly objectifying self-exploitative rhetoric.
When placed in close proximity to Ellen Gallagher’s reclining Odalisque (2005) and the cunnilingual lesbian threads of Ghada Amer’s Dreaming of Felipe –RFGA (2012), the muttering, writhing, muddied body of Tracey Rose’s The Black Paintings: Dead White Man (2012), appears to stop writhing and begins, after a fashion, to gyrate. From the outpouring of lesbian guilt in Adejoke Tugbiyele’s AfroOdyssey V: Demons Contained (2014) to the writhing buttocks of Rose, and the suggestive open lips in Amer’s lesbians, the general violence that lies in each work becomes self-effacing and a double exploitation is implied through a corporeal ‘complicity’ in the rape and the evident abuse. It is here that the intended subversion reverses and visually reproduces/reinforces the system it set out to ‘speak back’ to and critique. The artists, for self-advancement through the work, inadvertently appear to be full participants in their own subjugation.
There is no doubt about the individual agency of the artists and their powerful artworks; the framing is where the cookie crumbles. ‘Speaking Back’ suggests a defensive position, the position where an ambivalent or confused self-esteem’s agency is tamed, setting up a dialectic where its narrative simply cannot speak of its own accord, and can only be the antithesis to the thesis. The ‘simple’ arrangement of the show according to ‘narrative’ curtails, in this case, the individual agency of the artworks on the exhibition and caps the extent of their political and social critique.
What saves this awkward framing – which narrowly avoids being tokenistic – from being a shallow spectacle is the quality of the work in the exhibition. Simply put: ‘narration’ as a theme here offers only a neutralising, simplistic context for what is actually a visionary set of counter-hegemonic practices, and to focus on ‘narration’ as an aesthetic device, is an utter disservice to the work of these highly commendable artists.