“And that project is something I consider obscene: the attempt to make the narrative of defeat into an opportunity for celebration, the desire to look at the ravages and the brutality of the last few centuries, but to still find a way to feel good about ourselves.”
– Saidiya V. Hartman, to Frank B. Wilderson, 2003.[i]
Dada Khanyisa’s ‘Good Feelings’ is the place where painstaking technical work meets improvised social theatrics, where seductive palettes frame both intoxicated decisions and calculated Instagram moves, and where highly designed interiors very nearly avert our gaze from the sinister stories they background.
The project’s objects, made primarily from wood and acrylic paint, are mostly figurative, sculpted depictions, showing characters involved in numerous intimacies and exchanges, in the artist’s signature 3D-extreme-comic style.
The sheer amount of personal, painful, and also nice drama looping through Khanyisa’s body of work is offset precisely by its paradoxically resolved, highly-stylised, and aesthetically, kinda irresistible, form. This constant relation, between the image content (moments of spontaneity and interpersonal chaos) and its form (very meditated, and pedantically constructed) is framed by the unlikely, seemingly monolithic innocence of the title ‘Good Feelings’.
I draw this written phrase out, because I believe that the alleged optimism of any such straightforward gesture, should be read as necessarily strategic, a ploy, similar perhaps, to a choice naming of denial as hope, or terror as democracy – a ploy, that perhaps, in the context of the gallery, is a play of some kind, too. And so in the free association that is automatic on encountering the many characters and high energy value of ‘Good Feelings’, I would not be so shocked to chance upon some less good, some bad, feelings, too. The words here work, as hard as the work works.
In An Underrated Form of Intimacy, the most expansive of Khanyisa’s scenes included in the show, we are witness to a many-tiered narrative that underwrites the politics of the club’s VIP section. If I could remember and relay the complicated, intensely detailed story that Dada told about the multiple simultaneous interactions playing out overtly and covertly in the work, I would. However, having the origin information does little to unfix our eyes, with each scene offering to give us more, and to hold us for longer than a contained explanation of events could hope to.
Here, a cold dark blue and purple-lit dance floor, with silhouettes of a moving crowd, gives framed background to the main scene, made warm in contrast, by the deep browns of skin, and warm too, by curvy sculpted bodies, intoxication we can almost feel, and the glistening sweat defining the cuts of the muscled belly of the guy on the far left. It feels loud – the relentless club bass almost so palpable as to send me home directly – and it is ambiguous too, with six people collected around the VIP step, all vicariously connected through a series of interactions, communicated in touch, in embrace, in bottles, and through any number of facial expressions and body-based signaling. What I do remember from Dada’s story though, and what I think this title asks us to reflect on, is the militant tenderness and commitment to fun that we see playing out between Black queers and Black women, especially in, and despite spaces presenting as much danger as the club. This solidarity-intimacy, often only thought in the regularity of the tragic, where we collect around one another’s various lost dealings with patriarchy, is the same rooted empathy that pays the price to sneakily drag a friend up the VIP step, and doubtfully encourage another to “try it, lol”, to try Tinder, if only for the simple truth of knowing that we’ll be around later to hold down the debrief and retelling.
And so this is how it plays out, where I, the viewer, do not ‘activate’ discourse, but rather, eavesdrop, or happen upon it, a spy amongst scenes that are already in motion, playing out the climactic phrase endlessly, and providing fertile ground for memory work and speculative conversation. A scene from a small series of home interiors, Traces of Companionship shows an empty bed, body-marked by two. Mourning the loss of the sharing made possible in love, through reference to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s famous billboard, this bedroom of fresh sadness is decorated by aesthetic decisions from better times. A playfully erotic picture of a muscled, beanie-clad, greek-style, but Khanyisa’d statue, backgrounded by colourful shapes and forms, is hung on the wall behind the bed. The good feelings persist sometimes, through and amongst the sad ones.
But not always – goodness is invoked more often as a misdirection strategy, a discreet packaging for sustained, reproducing, violence. The scene Dada describes as the originary image of the show is in two pieces, and details an interaction between three figures, on the right, who yell, pointing fingers, at a separately constructed arrogant fool on the left, whose ambiguous t-shirt caption, alone, deserves much exploration (“my pronoun is “we””). With Khanyisa’s characters’ existence so immediate, and out of frame, we are drawn into the physical availability of the story, and in turn, the story is drawn into, and made part of, the gallery space in which it speaks. On seeing What a Prick, at obvious odds with the femme figures in Group Chats, I’m thrown immediately back – and likely forward – into what feels like too many evenings, spent yelling or crying or pointing at men in bars, instead of at police stations. While perhaps invoking alternative conclusions for some, to me, the tangible dimensionality of these pointed fingers and raised voices, having it out in innocent Joburg suburbia, surfaces a familiar, historical, and nauseating reminder of rotten secrets of violence we share quietly, and often keep, either toward collective preservation, or, as a result of in-built institutional un-hearing. Suffering is equally lost in the silence of white walls, and the noise of good feelings.
Are You Okay?
“O grand joh?”, a now twenty-year-old enquiry from Yizo Yizo’s Javas, makes significant comeback, written in a dreamy cursive that floats before stormy clouds in perfect aesthetic mimicry of the dated motivational poster form. This one is framed in wood and forms the weathery backdrop to, surely, the saddest character of Khanyisa’s show, who sits, forlorn, at a restaurant booth, stylin’ gold chain and beige durag doing little to offset deep despair.
In a muted palette, the moment of downward gaze loops, Javas’s question made perpetual and pointed, and ‘Good Feelings’ brought home, as we wonder at the sinister nature of our own resilience, keeping us in attendance, online, and hustling, even, for VIP.
[i] Hartman, SV., Wilderson, FB., 2003, THE POSITION OF THE UNTHOUGHT: an interview with Saidiya V. Hartman, conducted by Frank B. Wilderson, III, Qui Parle 13(2): 183-201