Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
15.06.2016 – 30.07.2016
“At school we studied nearly everything in English, except for Arabic, which we learned in Arabic. History, Geography, Geometry… Bible studies, Torah, we studied them all in English “
-Monayer in Dor Guez’s Sabir
‘Xenoglossia’ refers to the supernatural phenomenon of an individual spontaneously speaking or writing in a language previously unknown to them. The etymology of the term can be broken down into foreign/strange (xeno) tongue/language (glossa). ‘Paradoxal Stranger’ as a unit, or a curatorial gesture, is a xenogloss – holding, speaking, reading, and writing many voices and languages foreign to the gallery space.
The opening quote comes from Dor Guez’s Sabir, in which his grandmother Samira Monayer, born in pre-1948 Jaffa, narrates her personal and family history against a backdrop of war and upheaval. She relays a story of displacement – political, physical, cultural and linguistic – of being a fugitive in the land she was born. Her voice floats easily over a video of an idyllic beach, disembodied and pitted against the steadily setting sun. It shifts from Arabic to Hebrew and back, speaking of friends and family scattered across the globe – a story in which the socio-political entities of English, Arabic, and Hebrew seep into and out of minds, mouths and land. Guez channels his grandmother’s voice to conjure an unreachable time and place – to track and record a history fading from memory.
Monayer’s even, pensive monologue is now and then tempered by the louder, more assertive voices coming from Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Composition in the room next door. In this video, Newsome conducts a defiant chorus of LGBTQIA+, gender variant people of colour, who speak in spliced refrains from the vernacular of contemporary African American women – a vernacular which has also been adopted and adapted by queer communities the world over. Words as simple as ‘what’ are sampled and amplified by these linguistic innovations and gain extra layers of social and cultural significance with each hip pop and eye roll.
Newsome’s work looks at how queer tongues can make language strange – how they can accent words to create parallel meanings and forms of communication. The performers are throwing shade – are vocalising derision and contempt and arch-eyebrowed, salty disbelief. Shade Composition showcases a co-option and fragmentation of the English language, where the performers imbue it with their own power, using it to bite back against hierarchies of ‘proper’ elocution and concord. In doing so, the system that this language supports – one inextricably bound up with histories of oppression and colonialism – can be disrupted or invalidated.
In Dots & Dashes Maurice Mbikayi moves within the chaos of digital text, keys dislodged from their keyboards, showering down on him, bouncing off his body, now wordless, silent and scattered. Again, this work represents a disjunction between the speaker and the text. It creates a disruption in the logical flow of language, of typing, and of format. The layout of a keyboard is designed for flow, efficiency, and movement – but whose efficient movement does QWERTY assist? Mbikayi moves defensively as the keys clatter down, his face hidden under a gas mask, arms raised and bound with bandages. His figure is futuristic, dystopic . The sound is sparse – only the keys cascading like rain on a tin roof, and silence. The falling letters miss his mouth – obstructed by the mask, they can never enter it.
The motif of the mask carries over into the next room, where Andrew Thomas Huang’s performers in Interstice jerk and ripple under full-face helmets and sheaths of fabric, soft voices chanting in the background. The video is a chimera of mystical influences – from Chinese Lion Dancing, meant to ward off demons, to the inclusion of Greek Orthodox incense, to references to Oscar Wilde’s Salome (Huang, 2016). In an exclusive interview with The Creators Project, Huang talks about ways of trying to connect to his Chinese heritage – to a past which feels lost, foreign or alien to him, having grown up third generation in New York.
This is another instance of xenoglossia – the ancestral Chinese cultural practices enacted in Interstice speak through Huang’s work in whispers and chants – barely audible and just out of reach. These voices (Huang’s uncle and friend) murmur excerpts from the Tao Te Ching as well as lyrics from a Chinese pop song. The work is hypnotic and explicitly ritualistic – luxuriant and otherworldly – the dancers moving their bodies in ways which seem physically impossible beneath undulating red and gold fabric. In his interview, Huang also acknowledges the orientalising properties of the images – the veiled dance playing into romantic notions of the “far East”. Interstice explores an amalgamated, multi-cultural, conflicted identity, again moving through cross-sections of power, culture and representation.
These videos looping, bleeding into each other, overlaying sounds – not interrupting or rupturing but adding accents and lilts – make ‘Paradoxal Stranger’ a compelling hybrid of languages and modes of expression. The show exists in a half space between knowledge and speech, trying to do the work of making sense of the gap between them, holding far more than can be known or spoken.