The Menil and the Pulitzer expand dialogue around contemporary art, truth and love

Yinka Shonibare, MBE. Odile and Odette, 2005. High definition digital video, color, sound, 14 min 28 sec. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai.

The Menil Collection and The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts launched a dialogue last month in which six professionals respond to three questions sparked by the exhibition, The Progress of Love. You can read the first round of dialogue here: How are romantic relationships being redefined and visualized in the 21st century? and the second round here: Where does love live in Africa?

As the final installment of this project, we asked: How does a contemporary artwork tell the truth / a truth about love?

Ryan Dennis, Public Art Director at Project Row Houses: Reflecting on how a contemporary artwork tells a truth about love draws me to a work currently on view at the Menil Collection as part of The Progress of Love exhibition. According to exhibition curator Kristina Van Dyke, “Long Distance Lover” by Senam Okudzeto explores the role telecommunication systems play in making new types of relationships possible. The acrylic figures on British telecom bills represent the role Okudzeto’s cell phone plays in an expansive network of international relations, which is in turn a reflection of her transnational status and her reliance on technology in order to remain mobile yet connected.

While much attention can be placed on the telecom bills as a quantitative diagram that can record the location of incoming and outgoing phone calls and track the elapsed time of her calls to an individual, I am particularly interested in the physical actions of the figures. In Movement in Painting, art historian Carla Gottlieb speaks to the distinct quality of capturing movement in paintings. Movement “may hold in store the danger of collision or attack as well as the pleasure of an unsuspected sight, of a chance encounter,” which is present in “Long Distance Lover.” Okudzeto’s figures animate the physical displays of emotional and mental feelings that we as individuals, in and out of romantic relationships, use to express love. In the high of romantic relations, individuals love with gloves both on and off, constantly searching for that moment when the “dance” is mutual, not in its equality of roles, but as a dynamic exchange between leading and following. Such exchange is ultimately achieved in the balance of pursuit and retreat. The figures express intimate moments of entanglement while questioning where the fight lies. Are they fighting in love, fighting for love or fighting because they love to fight? These are the questions that one is confronted with when thinking about the pictorial imagery of the lovers, the artist’s subjectivity and memory, and more generally, our own approaches to the active role-playing of being in love.

This expansion and contraction of thought is what allows an artwork to negotiate both the (general) truth and a (specific) truth about love. It is important to recognize, especially within romantic relationships, that while my truth is not the same as yours, it is nevertheless predicated on the presence of the willing and yet obligatory dance partner.

Massa Lemu, Artist and recent Critical Studies Core Fellow at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Whether it uses common symbols or deeply personal metaphors, a contemporary artwork can tell the truth / a truth about love. Contemporary art directly engages reality through loaded imagery, signs, symbols, and materials culled, borrowed or appropriated from lived experiences. The appropriated element acts as mediation between artistic intention and reality. Nandipha Mntambo, whose work does not feature in the show, can be seen to deal with love, memory and loss important subjects in her works both at a personal and communal level in this way. Mntambo casts cowhides- a material that is replete with cultural meaning- over her body and that of her mother to create installations that reference a personal and shared history. Within this context Mntambo’s imagery can be seen to hold elements of a personal and social narrative with local and universal significance. The cowhide becomes the material link to her body, but also to a history, a reality and a truth. Due to the processes of molding, recasting, etc. the resultant artwork is therefore not just a representation but it is also a re-imagination and a re-translation of this reality. It is a creative refashioning of a reality. But beyond that, the artwork tells a truth by virtue of being a product of an individual’s experience of love, or loss. The same can be said about Senam Okudzeto’s “Long Distance Lover,” Yinka Shonibare’s “The Swing (After Fragonard),” Zanele Muholi’s photographs or any other artwork in The Progress of Love.

Solkem N’Gangbet, Former Program Director of Houston Museum of African American Culture, and museum consultant and independent curator: Can we Africans criticize the well-oiled NGO machine and unidirectional North —> South charity without being perceived as ungrateful good-for-nothings? After all, people in Western countries have sincere feelings of solidarity and they have faith that aid works.

Often, in the margin of my screen, Google urges me to Give Right Now! with intermittent flashes of terrifying images of the Starving Africans: this woman with empty breasts or this filthy-looking pot-bellied child in tears – with the compulsory flies all-over, will-die-in-the-next-5-minutes, if I don’t give $5. I am asked to focus on saving Africa from its misery now. Donate Now!

I am not told about the root causes of Africa’s underdevelopment and the agents who actually do the “underdeveloping”: the implications of colonial exploitation, slavery, the forcible appropriation of human and natural resources with modern trade “agreements” pitching poor and undeveloped producers into direct competition with Western industries that have benefited from years of investment and brutal oppression. In agriculture, farmers, who receive no government support, find their markets flooded by heavily subsidised agricultural products from the West, destroying their market and means of earning an income. There is also the dumping of Europe’s frozen chicken, exported at throw-away-prices, which becomes even more profitable when the European Union pays you a substantial export subsidy. And so Europe’s chickens reach African markets[1] at half the price of the cost price of local producers, which has ousted the local rooster[2]. And local producers go bankrupt.

“Africa Attractiveness” surveys, on the other hand, year after year, report on regions amongst the poorest in Africa, which paradoxically offer the “highest returns on foreign direct investments of any region in the world”. Africa is poor because its investors and its creditors are so immensely rich.

All we learn is that Africa is desperate and needs the charity of the West. Charity is derived from the Latin word caritas (love, affection). And those Westerners who practice charity certainly give with altruistic love. In the same way, aid workers, who, in their vast majority are truly selfless and honest, genuinely try to help vulnerable and marginalized people in developing countries. In so doing, they truly express love in action.

However, those of us aware of the agenda within the agenda, know that NGOs have always been, in the name of charity, the good conscience of the Western world.

Yet, as 19th century British author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley once declared “the truth is it is justice, not charity that is wanting in the world”.

In my Google flashing charities advertisements I am not told about the murky circuits of public development aid either.

Contemporary art can reveal what Google omits. Project such as Romuald Hazoumé’s installation for the Menil Progress of Love exhibition cheekily lifts the veil from some of the French financial mismanagement and underhanded dealings in Africa. Hazoumé does so while making art that encourages viewers to reconsider accepted ideas about love and its various manifestations: charity, self-love or love for one’s community.

In this multi-media installation, entitled NGO SBOP – Beninese Solidarity with Endangered Westerners, the artist wishes for his work to be interactive. There are two videos as well as reading materials in a cardboard structure, and visitors are encouraged to sit, which startlingly contradicts standard museum policy (“Don’t touch!”).

With his trademark used jerry cans, Hazoumé has devised two sets of furniture: a desk complete with chairs and, parallel to it, a sitting room, with table and whole jerry cans as make-shift stools. This sitting room, located in the long corridor of the east wing of the Menil, it seems, had intended to mimic a common sight in Africa: the informal back-alley “salon” where African (men – women are too busy working!) tend to argue endlessly.

An installation – albeit, of a very rare type: a sculpture that people are allowed to sit on, NGO SBOP – Beninese Solidarity with Endangered Westerners also includes an intriguing space. Framed by the two video screens, is what appears to be a small storage room lit with industrial-type lighting usually seen in films (where it would normally suggest some non-descript bureaucratic space or perhaps death row). In the western world, neon is far more likely to be associated with “tacky”: a sign advertising a cheap restaurant or, in its most highly evolved form in Houston, varicose veins surgery. In Africa, it is ubiquitous even in homes.

In that 1 m2 space we learn, through French press clippings hung on the walls, that French lawyer Robert Bourgi, (alias “Mr. Chambertin” when he was doing his “deliveries” at the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the President of the French Republic) had for 25 years personally handed millions of francs (“Never less than 5 million”) from African leaders to Mr. Chirac when he was mayor of Paris and later President, along with Mr. Villepin, his right hand man.

In this Briefcase Republic of France, politicians have flowery nicknames (Mr. de Villepin, France’s former poet prime minister, for instance, was apparently called “Mamadou”) and Mr. Bourgi says that money, which he variously transported in briefcases, a sports bag, a poster and even a ceremonial African drum, was given to French politicians in exchange for diplomatic and military support in a set-up known as “Françafrique”. Which can also be read “France à fric” (fric is a slang word for “cash”) – a source of cash.

Except for the metal curtain — bottle cap garlands which I am told were personally knit by Hazoumé, while in Houston, when he last came to install his work– the neon light and clippings make for a pretty stern space. The impression is that of a space that is depressing with a humorous edge (the garlands are colourful and “sing” when one brushes against it), the same way the press articles are.

Mr. Bourgi claims that Jacques Chirac and his Dominique de Villepin received an estimated $20 million stuffed into briefcases over eight years. Ultimately, it’s not just that the West is apathetic or has no motivation to tackle the roots of Africa’s instability and destitution, it’s that the West reaps enormous benefit from it.

Reading the press articles pinned on the wall in Hazoumé’s installation, I am reminded of a text wrote by François-Xavier Verschave: “Over the course of four decades, hundreds of thousands of euros misappropriated from debt, aid, oil, cocoa… or drained through French importing monopolies, have financed French political-business networks (all of them offshoots of the main neo-Gaullist network), shareholders’ dividends, the secret services’ major operations and mercenary expeditions”.

Western powers have demonstrated no intention whatsoever of giving up sovereignty or of adopting new ways of engaging with the African continent. They vehemently refuse to renounce unfair competition and oppose all attempts to re-negotiate trade agreements that would afford Africa more commercial opportunities. Instead of preventing poverty to anticipate charity, Africa is kept in a de facto dependency – a far cry from charity as compassionate, altruistic love, which implies caring, mutual learning and growth.

In fact, Africans have influenced the course of human (global) innovation and modernity to a far greater extent than generally given credit for. Yet, African civilisations, their values and their solutions to human problems have for centuries, been labelled as inferior to ‘modern’ Western technology and societies, and discarded as primitive and unworthy.

Even though some historians went on to set out the often neglected, little known stories of great African civilizations of the pre-European period (the Songhai Empire or the political and military skills and exploits of the great Zulu leader Shaka Zulu or Cetewayo) or the countless black rebellions, the suppression and loss of this history has deeply affected the African psyche. What are the psychological scars of centuries of exploitation and how can they be measured, if at all?

In order to comment on the situation in his native Benin, Hazoumé has created an NGO whose mission is to assist Westerners affected by crisis and poverty.

This tongue-in-cheek endeavour is also forcing viewers to contemplate another unpleasant subject: the plethora of pointless or dubious NGOs created daily by Beninese. Indeed, one of the two videos in the artist’s installation consists of pictures of these gimmicky projects’ signboards sliding across the screen in a loop. I am tempted, of course, to describe them as “charités bidons” (with the French word “bidon” meaning both jerry can but also being a slang word for “bogus”).

The second video shows Beninese celebrities and staff members of the NGO SBOP – Beninese Solidarity with Endangered Westerners go to the streets, in Benin, and ask locals to give for Westerners in need.

To their astonishment, the locals learn that the West, despite its perceived riches, has millions who are living in 3rd World conditions (more than 46 million people, and 20 % of children, live in poverty in the US – in Houston, on the night of January 31, 2011, 8,538 individuals were homeless), yet without the “benefits” of 3rd World compassion.

Although, incredulous or downright outraged at the request, most finally agree to contribute and give money – out of a sense of love. In Africa, people recognize that their destinies are bound together and solidarity is a quintessential socio-economic safety net.

In the video, the donations are often triggered by recalling that Africa has, indeed, what the West lacks: namely, compassion. By being asked to give for the West, Africans are reminded that they actually have something to give. They can see themselves as donors instead of eternal recipients of charity. They are told about their worth instead of their suffering.

Hazoumé has a point. With the economic meltdown, hasn’t the western way of life proven that it doesn’t have all the answers to humanity’s problems and most importantly: hasn’t Africa given so much to the world already? Free work force, oil, gas, diamonds, gold, platinum, chromium, ferroalloy, coal…? Isn’t Africa able still to give immaterial gifts as well, such as compassion and ultimately love?

NGO SBOP – Beninese Solidarity with Endangered Westerners is a work that offers a wealth of theoretical and sensual cues as well as powerful political statements about self-worth and self-love.

Ultimately, Mr. Hazoumé’s installation exhorts Africans to embrace self-reliance. He gives a hint that the latter requires collaborative struggle in which all Africans are willing to examine the underlying causes of oppression and to engage in the practice of self-love and freedom, as well as accountability.

This artwork is about a multidimensional problem but it is also about solutions. Its strategy is to try to be much more open-ended and get out of being ideologically static.

Unless these conversations are taking place, all talk about poverty reduction remains empty talk.

[1] where, having been through so many frozen/defrosted stages, they are usually no longer fit for consumption.

[2] Cameroon is a good example to understand the disastrous effects of European dumping practices. In 1994 Cameroon imported about 60 tons of poultry. In 1996 the country joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and accepted to liberalised trade. By 2003 chicken imports had reached 22.153 tons. As a result 92% of the local producers went bankrupt, 10.000 people lost their employment and Cameroon spent 15 Million Euro hard currency to import what it had previously produced locally.

Temitayo Ogunbiyi, Artist in The Progress of Love: Contemporary art, goodness, I’m not sure art is guaranteed to tell anyone anything really. Maybe it can encourage seeking of the truth, the reconsideration of presumed truths, or trick the viewer into accepting the constructed truths on which the art itself is based. The Love Text Message Book series that I created for The Progress of Love certainly emerged from what could be considered two truths in forms of pamphlet literature, some of which emerged in Nigeria in the late 1930s and others being the love text messaging books that are popular in contemporary times. When evaluating both, the information from which I drew my conclusions emerged from the particular examples that I encountered and then the bias that drew me to selections of these publications and further to specific excerpts within their pages. Viewers will likely never come to know about the booklets and sections that didn’t make it through my selection process. And if I were to begin the process over again, I would likely make different selections, depending on my mood and the booklets I’d happen to pick up first that day. At times it seems that contemporary art is best when it embodies a slick departure from select truths. Inasmuch as this mode of expression has the capacity to unveil contents, which may have previously been unknown—for example with my booklets, the content was derived from preexisting references. The truth, whether we aspire to achieve it or not, will always be a far-fetched challenge as it can only be based on what an individual knows and has experienced. At any given point, it’s hard to know who is in control of the truth, whether the artist, the viewers, or the curatorial intermediaries.

Amy Powell, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston: Different artistic mediums have different expectations of access to truth. Photography, in particular, has always grappled with its presumed privilege to faithful and accurate representation. Zanele Muholi’s works in The Progress of Love, taken from two series titled Being and Miss D’vine (both from 2007), indicate some political stakes in the truth of photography. Muholi’s ongoing project is to make a visual map and archive of black lesbian and queer subjects in South Africa. To this end, her photographs demonstrate the fact of same-sex couplings by providing a kind of testimony and witness that queer exists, and how, in South Africa. At the same time, photography’s ability to document has important limits in Muholi’s work. Often through a single view of a couple’s embrace or their encounter with the camera, Muholi conceals and withholds more than she reveals. We are never allowed to believe that we know her subjects completely.

Marking generous space for what the late Martinican intellectual Edouard Glissant called opacity – everyone deserves the right to be unknowable to another – is a creative sensibility for other works in the exhibition. From Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s Chéri (2007), which covers a wall with the Arabic lexicon for love, each word beautifully written in red lacquer on separate sheets of paper, to Kendell Geers’s series Ritual Slips (2010), which translates Ndebele women’s customs into abstracted English texts, to that breathtaking moment in Yinka Shonibare’s Odile and Odette (2005) when we realize that the film’s conceit of two ballerinas mirroring one another’s movements does not, in fact, exceed the mirror’s frame, sweeping one and the other away to so thoroughly confuse what we believe is real and what is reflected – the status of truth and what can be communicated through translation is complicated business.

In 1996 the artist Glenn Ligon recreated another work in the exhibition, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1991), which still hangs in his studio. “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) consists of two identical battery operated clocks, which are wound to the same time at the beginning of their life together in an exhibition. Inevitably, they fall out of sync over time. Writing in the summer 2007 issue of Artforum, Ligon describes how the work questions the division between ourselves and the world, claiming: “We go in looking for ‘me’ and instead find ‘we.’” These two different, yet related, kinds of knowledge production are to be found in The Progress of Love – how we negotiate cultural difference and share profound affinities.

Charlotte Walker-Said, Writing Fellow at Webster University in St. Louis: Contemporary artwork tells the truth about how love runs deep in the act of creating something sublime. Contemporary art represents a particular kind of emotional investment, as art in the contemporary world requires intellectual discipline that is rare and beautiful. The contemporary artist believes she can transmit an emotion in a creative piece the way that humans transmit emotions in sound and touch. The art of transmitting, translating, and transmuting the emotional and abstract into the physical and material is the act of love itself, and why contemporary artwork can so completely represent love and tell its unique truth. Love is a feeling that becomes a desire that manifests itself in labor, movement, pain, soreness, heat, light, production, renovation, and destruction. Art begins as a thought and similarly births color, shape, noise, texture, and atmosphere, which in turn fuels more emotions, exhilaration, and suffering. Sublime art requires an emotional rather than an economic investment, much like sublime love. In Zina Saro-Wiwa’s video installation, “Sarogua Mourning,” the emotion of distress and the desire to characterize its madness and depth is powerfully portrayed over the video screen to the artistic observer. A gaping mouth and tears are stark visual depictions of angst, and the piteous wailing—at once feminine, masculine, and animal—is a visual message of universality. The depiction of distress at the end of love lends a unique aspect to the African experience of love which is further represented in Saro-Wiwa’s “Eaten By The Heart (Part 1),” which demonstrates love at its inception—often with a kiss. Within the question, “How do Africans kiss?” the respondents are asked to imagine the “how” of kissing, as well as the “why” of why kissing is rare, secretive, shocking, tender, a learned art, a reluctant desire, or a minimal representation of the most powerful of emotions: love. As love often begins with a kiss, a universal, intimate gesture, its end or destruction is also signaled with universal intimate, corporeal gestures. Thus, in “Sarogua Mourning” and in “Eaten By The Heart (Part 1),” the viewer sees the “truth” of contemporary art in its depiction of a sublime universal human experience. In “Sarogua Mourning,” we see the lover alone, with heaving chest and sagging shoulders, doing a solitary dance of loss, and in “Eaten By The Heart (Part 1)” the lovers (or potential lovers) are upright, clear-eyed, at times in pairs, with alive imaginations depicted in their tilted necks and upturned mouths, anticipating coupling and response. Both of Sara-Wiwa’s pieces demonstrate the sublime in art through intense emotional investment which requires reciprocal investment from the viewer. Both are disciplined pieces, succinct and sharp, which cut to the heart of the beauty of emotion. In this way, the pieces are truthful in the way that only contemporary art can be truthful about love.