During this time of turmoil one might ask; how can art be important, how can paintings, drawings and sculptures be important when the world is burning? But of course, violence, injustices, poverty, pain and suffering have always been there. What we’re experiencing now is merely a more visible form of suffering. And even within all this suffering (which I want to stress is not new), beauty exists. In Toni Morrison’s words:
I think of beauty as an absolute necessity. I don’t think it’s a privilege or an indulgence… I think it’s almost like knowledge, which is to say, it’s what we were born for.
This sentiment is not in any way to diminish or reduce the fact that life is very difficult but it is also not an attempt to be defensive or be in the defence of.
As part of its online programme, Goodman Gallery is showing a series of drawings by artist ruby onyinyechi amanze, ‘the ones that stayed.’ The drawings are accompanied by a poem in two parts – part I [GOODBYE 2012-2020] and Part II [HELLO], as well as studio readings showcasing a collection of literature. ‘the ones that stayed’ alludes to what stays behind when the supplementary and supplemental is removed; audre the Leopard and ada the Alien are now simply audre and ada, simplicity further engulfs the work through the embrace of negative space – the work is more contained.I had a very difficult time thinking through and engaging with this work for a number of reasons, one of which was an impulse to want to explain and offer up meaning in relation to the work. This is to be expected in a time when we’re all attempting to desperately grasp on to anything that can provide comfort or at least some sense in a senseless world. In the end, engaging with the exhibition ‘the ones that stayed,’ became an exercise in restraint followed by surrender – opening myself up to what the drawings revealed (or chose not to reveal).
At the turn of the 1960s, the world was in chaos; the Vietnam war, Civil Rights protest, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Cuban Missile Crisis; and here on African soil the Sharpville Massacre and the sentencing of Robert Sobukwe. It was during this highly political time that Robert Morris uttered his resounding no in relation to his artmaking:
No to transcendence and spiritual values, heroic scale, anguished decisions, historicizing narrative, valuable artifact, intelligent structure, interesting visual experience.
Morris’s statement might seem counterintuitive in the context of the political climate however I’m particularly drawn to it because it radically opens up the potential of how art can affect us. Within ‘the ones that stayed’ there is no grand narrative, no spiritual value, no anguished decisions and no heroic scale.amanze has spoken at length about how she expects her drawings to speak for themselves. My reading of this sentiment is that when we try too hard to impose a narrative on these works, we miss the opportunity for art to do what it is really good at doing – to truly impact us; to shift something in our thinking and feeling. I’m interested in how amanze’s drawings can open up a possibility for us to bring our full selves to the work and what we might find when we allow our own sensibilities and thoughts about the world, shape our perception of the work. What happens when the work is simply what it is.
By refusing to read specific meaning into the drawings, I’m not trying to be reductive. I’m simply approaching the work with a sense of openness that removes the preoccupation with content, choosing rather to look at the form and my reaction to it – the blue of the water, the indeterminacy of the lines, the placement of the figures next to and in relation to each other, the abundant negative space.
In her famous essay published in 1966, Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag notes:
None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did.
What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation.
She says further:
The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.
By interpretation, Sontag is referring to the task of translation, where the person reading the work would, in fact, transcribe meaning to the elements contained within the work. Interpretation presupposes that the work does not speak for itself. That it cannot fully say all that it wants to say. Within that process of interpretation one inadvertently alters the meaning of the work.
I’m not advocating against interpretation broadly to all artworks and all artists, I’m advocating against interpretation in relation to amanze’s specific exhibition. In the ‘ones that stayed’ amanze offers us three focus areas in relation to the works. These focus areas function as guideposts for what is intended. They return the agency and presence towards the work. They dislodge notions of a grand narrative. They are elemental and anti-compositional. They inspire and provoke. And most importantly, they require that we bring our full and open selves to them.
Less is more.
Textured emptiness: an elevated attention to paper and surface. Expanding upon her affinity for paper and process, amanze continues to play with the question of how to make structural drawings, one element of which is giving weight to paper while maintaining its inherent properties. This body of work continues that research by layering multiple sheets of paper to create a single drawing, as well as coating the paper’s surface with a palette knife and a combination of mediums, acrylics and varnishes.
An edited cohort of characters. The world amanze creates is a complex spatial negotiation between the paper, surface and a newly edited cohort namely: ada, audre (formerly ada the Alien and audre the Leopard), Bird and the inanimate characters -Swimming Pool, Moped, Window and Other Architectural References. amanze considers the configurations they arrive at to be non-narrative, fueled instead by an interest in play, dance, magic and design. According to amanze, ‘for this show, i wanted to introduce all of the parts. in clean and direct ways. as in, here is a dancer. here is a pool. here is a swimmer. here are some bikes. there’s no story. there never really was. now the importance of the space – the geometry, the poetry – can really be seen. my drawings have been about space for a long time now, but it feels like now they can breathe and not be fogged up by suggestions of narrative. my process is about moving things around. sampling, building, chopping, inventing, mashing together…’
An unstructured response
amanze’s less is more is reminiscent of the old adage ‘ornament is crime’ where ornamentation can have an effect of taking away from the work, speaking to the notion that directness and coherence allows clarity in the work. This is further enhanced by what amanze refers to as textured emptiness where the paper used, as well as how it is used becomes part of the artwork. Paper is inextricably entwined in the process. In an interview via email, prior to exhibiting at ArtxLagos in 2019 amanze noted; ‘The thing that makes me excited to approach the paper is the charge it has… the potential of a void… entering a world that is actually not flat at all.’
For me, thinking about emptiness, potential and voids inspires a sense of slowness. A slowness in looking, a slowness in experiencing and a slowness in making meaning.