Gathering from its title, In Context / This Past Was Waiting for Me is a show about history. History, as a narrative, is indivisible from ideas of power and consequences of power. How stories are told, why they are told, and who tells them reveals more about structures of domination than anything resembling the bona fide truth. Indeed, the perpetuation of colonialism and white supremacy depends on controlling the narrative against which people understand themselves and their pasts. Curators Liza Essers and Emma Laurence claim that the artists in this show – the majority of them women of colour, hailing from America, Guatemala, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Kenya and the Pacific Islands – create work which seeks ‘to unfurl suppressed stories.’
Specifically, many of the artists in this show engage with the commodification and control of feminised, racialised bodies. In Egyptian artist Ghada Amer’s You Are a Lady, a nude woman is trapped in the throes of sexual performativity, held together by Amer’s impressive needlework, which iterates and reiterates, ‘You are a Lady, it is written all over you, but the West does not forgive any woman-unless she’s got a man.’ Both Lisa Brice and Wangechi Mutu feature female forms marked at once by their nakedness and by a strange composure in the face of violation. The figure in Brice’s Parting at Dusk lets her shirt hang under her breasts, begrudgingly revealing herself for the viewer, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Mutu’s nude gazes coolly behind a bruised shoulder as her body is pecked at by birds. I respect these artists’ conviction. Paying homage to violence both historical and present is a task as difficult as it is necessary.
Naama Tsabar’s sound installation pieces relieve some of the tensions of engaging with traumatic legacies. Large felt sheets peel from the gallery walls, suspended tentatively by a single guitar string. The work is hooked up to amplifier, and the viewer who accepts the invitation to touch is rewarded with an interactive sonic experience that spreads through the gallery. Their tactility inspires an experience that is, as Tsabar puts it, ‘sensual and accessible, proposing intimacy,’ but not eroticised.
What impresses me most about This Past Was Waiting for Me, and perhaps more appropriate for its title, was how historical assumptions – like, the reductive portrayal of women of colour throughout Western art history – are re-contextualised. I am fascinated to see how artists create their own contexts for the work they make, the varying degrees to which different practitioners aim to control how their works are interpreted. On one side of the spectrum, you have Kara Walker’s An Audience / Rhapsody, a 30 minute-long video archiving audience interactions with her sculpture, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. An Audience / Rhapsody suggests, at least to me, that the content of one’s work can be conceptually solid, but only the audience can control its context, its interpretable possibilities. The sculpture uses caricature to call into question the sexualisation of black woman in America’s history of slavery, labour, and white supremacy. But the video, shot by Walker, shows how, in public space, the monolithic structure becomes surprisingly vulnerable to imperviousness and cruelty. It was harrowing to see tourists taking lusty selfies with the sphinx’s nipples and vulva, a recreation of the very racist, consumptive behaviour the work critiqued. The video suggests that no artwork can determine whether an audience will be challenged, or humbled, or changed.
On the other end, you have Carrie Mae Weems, an artist who guides rather than sets loose the audience’s perceptions. In Blue Notes (Claudia Lennear #1), a blurred portrait of the singer is further eclipsed by coloured blocks. This concealment seems antithetical to Walker’s hypervisibility. To leave an image unseen is to refuse a viewer projections, expectations, desires. Then again, given that Claudia Lennear was betrayed by the industry to which she devoted most of her life, both Walker and Weems touch on the indispensible and yet invisibilised labour of black women across time. In The Tate Modern, 2006-Present, the photo’s context – The Tate Modern and the industries it upholds, London and all its inherited colonial wealth – seem to collapse and orbit around one still, silent figure. For a moment – but then, immortalised and reproduced in photography – Carrie Mae Weems, as subject and object, performer and director, becomes the centre of a universe which would have otherwise threatened to consign her to its margins. It’s hard to project one’s own desires and assumptions onto a Weems piece; she controls the context.
In Context is not so much about ‘unfurling suppressed stories’ but about revising them. I was struck by Grada Kilomba’s retelling of Oedipus Rex in Illusions Vol. II. A story we’ve heard a hundred times – Oedipus’s fated misfortunes – and a space we take for granted – the white infinity of the gallery wall – are interrupted by Kilomba’s elegant presence and fresh vision. That which is presents itself as neutral thus collapses. As Kilomba describes, historical context ‘twists onto itself to exposed structures of oppression, interrupting the cube and its sense of universalism.’ When lended new voice, the narratives we think we know are held up to the light, and revealed to be infinitely more tangled, muddled, and cavernous than we could have ever imagined.
It reminds me of the poem by Lucille Clifton that inspired the show’s subtitle:
i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.
For Kilomba, and for many of these artists, History is something that can be named and renamed. History is nourished rather than regurgitated, and in that way, it is given new life.