28.10 - 29.05.2022
The function of food – and broadly, ingestion – in paintings like Porch Resolution (2021), Exciting Recipes (2015), Laplandish Dream (2014), from Johannes Phokela’s ‘Only Sun in The Sky Knows How I Feel (A Lucid Dream)’ alerts us, in the first instance, to the tension between abundance and scarcity. But if we push this further, which is to say “radicalize further,”1I borrow this phrase from Jared Sexton in his 2011 lecture, People-of-Color-Blindness, in which he provides a critique of Saidiya Hartman’s notion of the “afterlife” of slavery. I am interested in this intervention as a mode of inquiry into concepts with which we might not necessarily disagree, but believe must be pushed to their limits. Available here. we could say, in the second instance, that it makes a case about insatiable libidinal appetites in conditions of structural antagonism and ethics writ large. What does it mean to have or not have? To embody the capacity to devour everything, including capacity?2I am using capacity to denote a subject position’s ontological status, what Frank Wilderson III defines as “powers subjects have or lack [spatially and temporally], the constituent elements of subjects’ structural position with which they are imbued or lack prior to the subjects’ performance.” To accumulate and dispose life-freedoms. Or, to put it more crudely, to be while others live in conditions of absolute and generalised dereliction.3This relation between ethics and freedom is explored by Frank Wilderson III in his Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (2010) in which he argues that “one cannot embody capacity and be, simultaneously, ethical. Where there are Slaves it is unethical to be free” (49). We might say then, for the purposes of our study, those who have in abundance (life and food) are “structurally unethical” (21) in relation to those who do not have (both life and food).
The thorny task of narrating and interrogating the Native/Savage/Slave-Settler/Human/Master relation, a (non)relation of “naked force,”4Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 3. dramatises our experience of the first set of paintings. It is my attempt here to briefly locate this drama as a function of our knowledge of the violence that made and sustains the World.
South Pacific Seascapes (2015) is the first painting one sees upon entering the section. The painting depicts a Black man armed with a thick club aiming at a helpless White man; an open book to his left reads, “Mama, the nigger’s going to eat me up.”5Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 86. What dramatises the blow is not simply how it transform(s/ed) the figures into irreconcilably antagonistic entities – the settler/Master and savage/Slave – but the fact that the blow was returned ten-fold over centuries of subjection, terror and captivity. For this to work, which is to say for this reading to be possible (beyond shock value), one’s psyche must channel what we might call, borrowing from Hortense Spillers, “cultural seeing”:6Spillers is useful here in thinking about seeing in relation to techniques of terror and racialisation: “These undercipherable markings [through the violence of whipping] on the captive body render a kind of hieroglyphics of the flesh whose sever disjuncture come to be hidden to the cultural seeing by skin color.” Hortense Spillers, White, Black, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, 207. how we see (images of) Black people, through what Fanon sums up as “thousand details [of culture], anecdotes, stories… legends.”7Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 84. Quite simply, racial imagos8For a definition of ‘imago,’ see Jean Laplanche and J.·B. Pontalis, The language of psychoanalysis (London: Karnac Books, 1988), 211. about Black people.
A 2003 article by British journalist Stefanie Marsh, titled “Eating people isn’t always wrong”, reads like a colonial apologist piece that hits two birds with one stone: we got it all bad, and we been bad, all of us. (Marsh’s text, which labours to situate European terror within a long tradition of ‘human’ violence, provides a brief sketch or genealogy or “tales of cannibalism,” or simply, people eating people for whatever reason/s throughout history, from the Aztecs to Mao’s China.) Phokela provides us then with this unflinching and complicated critique of Euro-modern terror, a terror that does not necessarily invent anti-blackness but instead dramatically extends it. What rests on the horizon of the painting suggests subtly (i) the force of Enlightenment as it encounters the Dark continent it was fated to discover, and (ii) something akin to “the dawning of Blackness” as a structural position. I am tempted to read this force – the flame fuming on a structure floating in the depth of the sea – as indicative of an ongoing extractive mode of production.
This particular mode of production is produced by another ocean of violence enacted on the bodies of Blacks and the lands they inhabit. These expandable bodies of “indisputable savages,” as per Robinson Crusoe’s narration,9I am thinking of the film by Rod Hardy and George T. Miller, Robinson Crusoe, 1997. are then put into innumerable uses for unfettered White/Settler/Master enjoyment and insatiable “wild fantasies” of accumulation (of property, including bodies). This violence of accumulation (paired with the fungibility of Black bodies) returns as unpayable debt,10I borrow this phrase from Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Unpayable Debt: Reading Scenes of Value against the Arrow of Time, 2017. Available here. a debt that an overindulgent Oom Claus, in Laplandish Dream (2014), is not obliged to pay back.
The function of the Black woman in this painting (and Black women in this show in general) must be read as an extension of a concern perspicuously articulated by Tiffany King:
Black women function as tropes of spatial expansion, spatial limits and chaos. Black female bodies are material bodies that can either facilitate settler colonial expansion or impede the settler spatial order.
Phokela, at the end of the day, wants us to look longer, to look at terror in the face, as it appears in the face of this Black man clad in a white blazer (Tender Loving Care, 2006), overburden by the pleasures of the White/Human family/community/civil society from which he is simultaneously barred. We must look at his eyes that look at us as we look at him, his blocked perspective, a dead perspective that necessitates White murderous tutelage. Phokela says there is a relation between this wanton destruction of the body, this Black desolation, and the blow.