Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
05.05.2016 – 18.06.2016
Thrown into the chaotic sci-fi-esque world of Florine Demosthene’s canvases, we encounter a
character who, in her floating journeys through dripping stratospheres, in her disturbed glares out
towards the viewer, and in her never-ending fall through debris and mess, seems to be occupied
thoroughly with an existential, and rather eerie journey. Explosions and tumbles frozen in time find
themselves set against gloomy, cloudy grey-pink skies in Demosthene’s ‘The Burst’ at Gallery
MOMO. The sense of the work as personal exploration is tangible in the space, as while this
enigmatic character reappears, exploring a process of becoming, unbecoming, breaking and flying
over landscapes traumatised by weathers of time, she never quite pulls the viewer into her own
Recalling a certain dystopia, ‘The Burst’ evokes the existential as a theme, playing with this idea in dialogue with the forms of representation used in the portrayal of the rawness of this very existence. The figure, who is in fact a characterisation of the artist herself, situates herself distantly from the viewer, contained by canvas walls in a world inaccessible and distant from this one. Her infinite fall feels far off, and this separation of experience from another’s seeming pain and crisis, echoes the dynamic of the art gallery itself, whose institution is formed around the economy of the dislocated white man’s gaze- a gaze historically unopposed to the suffering and objectification of women.
At times appropriating poses reminiscent of Renaissance-style nudes, Demosthene disrupts an expected context of elegant drapery and sensual lighting, re-situating her figures in a gloomy galaxy of their own. In Move in Love, a reclining woman, her nakedness in full view, leans back into a grey sky, her head elongated, stretched upward and devoid of facial features, and her arms oddly shortened. Demosthene’s ‘Renaissance’ nudes creepily and coldly refuse the gaze for which they were originally designed, at times meeting us with disdainful, deadened glares, daring us to look for one moment longer upon their liquid bodies. In so doing, her adamant alien-like ladies reclaim their own space, intimately exploring landscapes of washed-out old traumas, recalling a history whose wrath is particularly harshly administered upon the Black woman’s body.
So while we do not see a literal depicted reality of historically inflicted suffering, its implication is expressed in more fantastical and escapist terms, recalling an Afrofuture where real-world oppressive binary structures are replaced by a universe where the Black body might claim agency, and become more itself, even if this self is still forced to reflect upon its own loss. In Wounds, a grotesque large humanoid figure, without a head, and seemingly possessing four legs, floats heavy against a grey sky. The body is marked and scarred, and its pinkness feels strange, turning in on own softness and femininity, and reclaiming its colouration for re-purposing in this faraway
On occasion, Demosthene brings us back down to earth, her figures finding themselves stuck amongst debris and chaos, drowning, or trapped, or crawling. These pathetic and sad bodies desperately attempt to escape what the relationship with land has forced upon their own existence. More prominently in the Capture series, the artist deals with these themes of traumatised land, exploring her Haitian heritage, and the devastation and personal trauma brought about by the 2010 earthquake.
As a diasporic practitioner, Demosthene has worked in the USA, Haiti, South Africa, and Ghana, borrowing visually from these landscapes in depicting the historical human pain and suffering
evoked by the image of land itself. When challenged about her artistic relationship with Black spaces that are not her own during a panel discussion around the exhibition’s themes, Demosthene responded by articulating her presence as non-disruptive to these spaces, and her own appropriation of them as therefore justified. Bringing this conversation into the work, I think it perhaps becomes of essential importance to question who it is that owns ‘Black’ narratives, internationally, and locally, and whether, when we use an intersectional approach, Blackness, and Black woman-ness can in fact even be universalised in this manner. I think in this sense, what might be lacking in the work is a certain particularity of place, and sensitivity to the multiplicity of manners in which oppression has taken place historically, particularly in the global north versus the south.
Nevertheless, Demosthene’s mixed media paintings articulate eerie, dirty lands and atmospheric backdrops to sometimes grotesque, and at other times ethereal figures, that offer an interesting entry point into a dialogue around the potentiality and limitations of reading the black woman body in fine art spaces. Challenging the position of the viewer by re-situating them as powerless observers, while giving back agency to the figures, Demosthene’s highly self-referential body of work enters an important dialogue around the self-determination of black women in contemporary society.