Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
06.04 – 27.05.2017
Fusing fine art, science fiction tropes, mythological archetypes, and industrial design, multidisciplinary artist Coby Kennedy’s sculptures and paintings imagine a post-apocalyptic future which presents a darkly satirical lens through which to view the past and present. His latest exhibition at Gallery MOMO, ‘SKIN OF THE THUG’, scrutinises the collusion between capital, racist media tropes and institutional and societal violence through hulking cyborg creatures called Thuggernauts.
ArtThrob sat down with Kennedy to pick his brain about this new body of work.
ArtThrob: You’ve just come off a residency in Johannesburg, can you tell us a bit more about your experiences there? Did living in Joburg feed into your new work?
Coby Kennedy: Yeah, it was really illuminating, the whole show was really inspired by my experiences up there. A lot of it comes from the narratives that always find their way into my work for the past few years: power, privilege and control. So I built on that because I started seeing so many similarities between where this narrative came from State-side and all of the different social aspects which are going on in South Africa.
Being out here made me realise how binary everything is in the States. In South Africa, everything is so complex and things are so magnified at the same time that it was really a kick in the head for me. Social aspects like gentrification and corporate involvement in social structures – they’re in there – but what really took over on this one was racial and class social interaction. So all of that was funneled through the Thuggernauts, they were just a lightning rod for all this stuff.
AT: Let’s pick up on the Thuggernauts as a framing device for these ideas. Are they something that you’ve been building up to for a while in your work?
CK: Yeah, Thuggernauts have been a part of my brain for so long that I can’t really say when they came into my studio practice because it’s almost like they’ve always been there. Pretty much all of my work that I do right now comes from my experience of being out of America for about a decade during the Bush years. I came back to a completely different country. One of the things I noticed was that when you watch Fox News, CNN or whatever, whenever they referred to young black males, they constantly used the word ‘thug’. And I was trying to figure out who they were talking about.
The rapper Common went to the White House and all over the news they were going ‘How dare they invite this thug!’ And I was just thinking ‘Man, Common is not a thug rapper. He dated Erykah Badu and knits his own hats!’ So that’s when I realised that the news and the media were creating myths. So I figured if they’re going to create the myth of a thug, I’m going to show them what a real mythical thug looks like.
So I created this six-armed pachydermic beast that roams the urban landscape dishing out genocide and self-defeating behaviours. Taking all these stereotypes and dumping them into this one physically-manifested object.
AT: Weaponry has been a pervasive theme in your work, and there are some pretty unconventional uses of Kevlar in this exhibition. What inspired you to use it as a material?
CK: I stopped painting oil on canvas because it seemed like the history of oil on canvas came with so much weight and so much baggage that it was pulling away from the themes that I was trying to get at. So I did away with the canvas and started doing oil on Kevlar instead so I could branch off into a different conversation.
I was in DC right around and after the prevalence of crack. That was when bulletproof vests started popping up around certain areas of the States. And suddenly your next door neighbour would just be wearing a bulletproof vest. It was the middle to the end of the 90s and I’ve always been fascinated by that kind of thing; that there’s this fabric that can stop a bullet and people I knew were wearing it. So that’s how the Kevlar found its way into my work. And then realising that I could resin it and make sculptures with it? I was all over it at that point!
AT: One of my favourite things about works like Taxidermied Head of the Thuggernaut is the way that you’ve layered a very dense look at the history of the ‘thug’ term and its political connections. You’ve got references to a ‘Project Superpredator’ and included the Hillary Clinton campaign logo in addition to corporations like Dow and Du Pont. On the flipside, you have all these references to toxic masculinity. It’s quite humorous and playful, but also a very complex palimpsest of all these different ideas that converge on the Thuggernaut.
CK: I know a lot of people aren’t into narrative, but I love it. So I just soak these things in narrative and leave hints at the backstory so that if people really want to dig their teeth into it, that’s there for them. And if you don’t, then you can enjoy having this massive orifice staring you down.
The Hillary logo is just part of a whole labelling scheme, but then you look into it and see all of the history behind it. All of these things bleed into these trees of opinion, perspective and viewpoints that I would love for people to get in, but I just like to provide an entry point. I contextualise it through artefacts.
So many of the black folks who are in prison right now for bullshit crimes are in there because of the Clintons. Just because Bill played saxophone on Arsenio Hall, he’s not some saint. These facades of what’s good and what’s bad, and how we limit stuff down to binary ideas. Everything about existence is a pantone fade. We want to just shove things into easily digestible boxes. I like to shake that idea up because it’s just not reality.AT: So much of your work is about creating an ‘authentic’ sense of history. Can you talk a little bit about what draws you to making faux historical artefacts?
CK: I am an avid addict of history and how it relates to the present. I’ve always felt like you can predict the future by cross-referencing the past with the present. Under the skin, humans are so basic; our actions and reactions. People have been doing the same things for the same reasons for so long.
If there’s a point that I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, it’s that what’s going on now has always been going on and drawing the similarities between the present and the past. That’s why in the narrative that I delve into, I like to compress time. People will look at a work like The Bastard Duke Of Doornfontein (ref. 01) and see an archaic gladiator. But if you take a closer look, you will see that all of the signifiers come from contemporary times and South Africa in particular with this show. Jan Smuts Avenue etc.
AT: Yes, you’ve snuck in quite a few direct South African references in these new works. You’ve got references to Afrikaner Thuggernauts, the old South African Defence Force emblem, things like nyaope.
CK: In some ways, coming here is almost like looking at a time capsule of places where America has been in the past. Apartheid ended a couple of decades ago and in a very modern, sudden way. But it’s very interesting to see the social strata that you’re building right now – especially the ways in which the youth are redefining what it means to be South African – and the remnants of oppressive systems and the symbols that live on.
So I wanted to sprinkle in some Afrikaans and these references to gang culture out here with the 28s. Sprinkle in these references that are touchpoints for American social disorder and racism (I’m talking about the Sambo faces) and mix them all together so they’re all in the same narrative and the separation between here and there becomes cloudier; and more towards the actual powers that are at play within the narrative.
AT: At the risk of possibly demystifying some of that underlying story, could you delve into this fictional historical event that these remnants allegedly stem from; what you refer to as ‘The Great Negro Wars’?
CK: I created this narrative where there’s a civil war that is based on this divisive aggression that is talked about in public much less than binary black vs. white colonialist conversations. The Thuggernauts comes into this because nobody knows who made them, but whoever made them was of the idea that to destroy a community you have to do it from the inside out. You see the remnants of the power and oppression of the other side through the Thuggernauts and their shells. So much of the narrative and the character descriptions come strictly through these artefacts. Like all of these could be dug out of the ground and we would be piecing together history.
We’re learning new things all of the time about cultures that were around only a few hundred years ago. I love that kind of fogginess of history, and that’s one of the things which I’ve tried to embody in this too. Not giving the whole story, just giving little bits so that people can look at the same thing but come away with completely different ideas of what the narrative actually is and what the reality actually is. If people can draw connections between this narrative that I’ve created and the contemporary world that we live in, then that’s a plus. It’s all just a reflection of where we are right now. Just pushed heavily to the absurd so that it makes the truths ring even clearer.
AT: That’s where sci-fi tropes are so effective. That opening scene of the first Robocop movie comes to mind, where they have the news broadcast about the apartheid government dropping neutron bombs on a township.
CK: Those Robocop news scenes from part 1 and 2 defined my life as a kid! For me, those two movies were the point where reality and fiction ceased to be separate. All of those over the top satirical broadcasts pointed to real contemporary events, and they just hypothesised what could happen in a few years if this kept going the way they were. I dove back into my love for cinema with this show and how I’ve always seen that as a more effective form of communication than anything else.
AT: There’s that great essay by Mark Fisher that talks about the idea of ‘sci-fi capital’. One of the examples is that what was intended as a satirical layer of Kubrick’s 2001 in 1968 (the omnipresence of corporate branding on everything) has been lost because that’s now our reality. It was supposed to be a horrific dystopian thing.
CK: Exactly, it just reads as normal now. That’s why branding is such an effective tool of subversion in my work, you can convey so much with just a label. Blade Runner was like that too. They filled it with logos and saturated it with this and that, but now oversized neon commercialism is just commonplace. When you look at most of the planet these days, it’s getting exponentially more absurd, and this reflects that to some degree. It was really in the post-Bush era where the common decency of reality took a back seat to pure unbridled ‘zero-fucks-given-ness’. When Rumsfeld and Cheney decided that they were going to do whatever they wanted on a global scale, all bets were off.
AT: Talking about a post-Bush era, I suppose what’s ironic about having these constructed weapon artefacts hanging on the walls is that they actually exist in some form. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was premised on a hunt for Weapons of Mass Destruction, which of course never turned up.
CK: So the Weapons of Mass Destruction never turned up, but everywhere I go I seem to experience Weapons of Personal Destruction which nobody else seems to see. Even during my time in Joburg, one of the biggest shocks for me was just the abundance of violence I ran into. I saw somebody almost certainly get murdered. There were just muggings and robberies in front of me constantly and this overarching cycle of commonplace violence. So I would ask people, ‘how do you deal with this?’ and a lot of them wouldn’t understand what I was saying. They asked where I was going to experience all of this stuff.
From being hunted in Cairo to being chased out of ghettos by drug dealers in Paris to being caught in Yakuza car chases in Japan, I’ve been lucky enough to see sides of society that evidently a lot of people don’t see. Cross-referencing that with everything that we see in daily life, it really gives me an interesting perspective on modern times. I’m still trying to work out what it is, but it’s a huge influence on everything that I do. It’s really interesting when people start letting down those polite everyday façades that so many of us put up.
AT: It’s almost as if, as much as we’re in post-truth or whatever, it’s also post-façade in a sense. As much as general human shittiness is more ubiquitous, one could argue that it’s at least a more honest world perhaps. Which is completely depressing and heart-breaking of course.
CK: It is, but I hate lies so much. I think it’s from my mom. The only time she ever got mad with me was when I lied to her as a kid. So I personally love this era that we’re in for the fact that the truths are coming out. When people feel that they can be openly racist, sexist, and homophobic, they’re just saying what they actually think.
People in the States get mad at me for saying this, but I wanted Trump to win because it brings out the truth (and all of these shitty neo-Nazi people out of the woodwork). A lot of people thought that there was no way that this could happen and needed to be woken up from their apathy. Not just in politics, but in the whole of American social structure. In conjunction with all the nationalist stuff going on like Brexit, European nationalism, and all these very self-centred, non-communal viewpoints, it shows us that the world we live in isn’t this touchy feely post-90s Kumbaya moment that we all thought we’d be embracing by now. We’re realising that’s not the real world. The real world is the one that’s been chasing me around the globe for the last 12 years.
SKIN OF THE THUG runs until 27 May at Gallery MOMO, Cape Town. A rather snazzy virtual incarnation of the exhibition can be seen here.