Reading through Ashraf Jamal’s collection of essays ‘In the World’, I had a revelation: Jamal is an optimist. A driving thread through his book is that if we just think hard enough about art, be critical and open and thoughtful, we can gather meaning to ourselves and have the courage to be in the world. Which he then attempts to do.
That I’d call this optimism, rather than say, the expected bare minimum, may reveal something of my feelings about current discourse. But I’d also suggest that his commitment to thinking, to writing and a free-flowing intellectualism needs to be lauded and acknowledged. Jamal seeks the value of artworks in the whole, in the synthesis of elements, cherrypicking like any critic, the works that suit his thesis. This approach jars with my own, which is to seek out the failures and flaws, cherrypicking like any critic, pry them open and then build sense from the ruins. Or I abandon ship. Jamal’s book is thick, and wide-ranging from Anton Kannemeyer to Tony Gum, and for better or worse, no ship is abandoned. The upside to this is critical attention on artists who often fall outside the normal circuit.
In the introduction, Jamal cites two extremes as his touchstones: Derrida’s open-endedness of language and Kierkegaard’s questions about the meaning of one’s presence in the world. (Jamal in a poetic turn, calls Derrida his corrective, and Kierkegaard his conscience). Between these two gloomy beacons, Jamal finds his optimism: a commitment to exploration without certainty or closure, and ‘to sustain an openness of mind and heart,’ along with a perverse – and charming – refusal to take things at face value or accept received ideas.
His essays feel at times open and liberating and full of wisdom and crackling ideas. At other times, I felt frustrated – that he leaves out the cynicism, that he misses the toxicity of the art world, that he sidesteps when artists themselves give things at face value and present received ideas. It feels too that some of the power structures and institutions that are dealing in the image economy, get a free pass in his free-interplay of ideas. Or is my coffee just half-empty?
Jamal keeps up the intensity, which can feel dense reading more than one essay in a session. But some stuck out for me. His take on Ed Young was suitably infuriating (don’t feed the troll), but it was particularly humorous that his two main sources were Matthew Partridge and the back of a toilet door.
In his essay on Zanele Muholi, his weary parade of Susan Sontag and Geoff Dyer, quickly gives way to an exploration of the radical ambiguity of Muholi’s ‘Somnyama Ngoyama.’ He explains her resistance to metaphorical shortcuts, forming a ‘new language of blackness’ free of its shackles and expectations. This wonderful hyperbole seemed to nail down the power of this series of works.
Jamal’s desire for open-endedness meets its match in Kemang Wa Lehulere, where he finds a resistance to easy narrative, an affinity for fragments and dissonance and a restless, ungovernable construction. Jamal pulls away from closure in this essay, pointing to associations and hinting at significance. He concludes by exploring the concrete aspects of Wa Lehulere’s production: sand, desks, tires. This strikes a note here, mostly for its absence elsewhere: for a book called ‘In the World’ there is surprisingly little attention paid to materiality.
Jamal has a tendency to jump around, introducing ideas that are linked often tangentially. At its worst, this tends to overplay associations which are links in language not necessarily in meaning. His introduction to Paul Edmunds is a case in point were we hop from rock aggregates in Hawaii, to Mary Shelley, to Steve Jobs, to Neill Blomkamp’s ‘Chappie,’ within a page and a half, getting more untethered as we go. At best, the connection between ideas is where insight is born, such as the spectacular leap between naked bike rides and the work of Georgina Gratrix, or his trail of purple in Mary Sibande’s. Early in the book, Jamal riffs on JM Coetzee’s idea of words as coins, suggesting that words are ‘starkly relative wagers on behalf of depth.’ Jamal often takes the long bet, which has risky pay-offs.
Jamal also spreads his bets, touching on an astonishing variety of theorists and writers as diverse as Robert Hughes and Teju Cole, or Charles Dickens and Toni Morrison. There’s a kind of restlessness here, but the breadth of reference breaks down barriers in a way that I feel is both liberating and necessary. If at times Jamal feels like a vacuum, bending concepts and writers to fit his purposes, it is worth it for a Michael Ondaatje quote in the middle of an essay on Sam Nhlengethwa.
Paging through the book again for this review, I keep picking up little corners of text that make a rush of sense, or that I find obtuse, or frustratingly oblique. Ultimately, even the flaws in this book prove to be exciting. Jamal’s optimistic openness, and his rejection (mostly) of being authoritative, means that his essays can become a productive place for thought and reflection, revealing fresh angles on both the artists and the way writing works.