An Introduction to The Progress of Love at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
Yinka Shonibare, MBE.
Addio del Passato, 2011.
Digital video, color, sound, 16 min 52 sec.
Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai.
Yinka Shonibare, MBE. Addio del Passato, 2011. Digital video, color, sound, 16 min 52 sec. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York and Shanghai.

Tamara H. Schenkenberg
Assistant Curator for Special Projects,
The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts

The Progress of Love is a three-part, intercontinental project that proposes a new mode of collaboration between arts institutions. Organized by the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Missouri, and The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, the project links together three distinct curatorial visions that explore how we imagine love, experience love, and process its demise. At the Pulitzer, we have brought together works of art by four contemporary artists living in Africa, Europe, and the United States to offer a range of perspectives on the final stage of love’s narrative arc — its loss and aftermath.

The Pulitzer’s exhibition opens with two installations by the documentary filmmaker and video artist
Zina Saro-Wiwa, who came to prominence in the United States with her acclaimed 2008 documentary This Is My Africa. This project, which sought to shed light on the diversity, ingenuity, and richness of African cultures, marked her foray into art-making, a move that was further inspired by her discovery of the Nigerian film industry through street posters. In an essay she later authored on Nollywood — which, after Hollywood and Bollywood, is the world’s third-largest film industry — Saro-Wiwa described that first encounter:

[T]hese posters, the ones that made me stop and stare, told a story. Each one featured a collision of faces. Snapshots of actors, mid-performance, collaged together. Despairing wives clutched their heads, eyeballs upturned to the skies, imploring God for mercy. … These images often made me laugh but were impossible to dismiss or ignore. I knew nothing of their world but I imagined it to be one of outrage, betrayal, revenge, and comedy. A land of devious charlatans, saintly wives, suspect businessmen, scheming mistresses, embattled priests, and demonic African spirits. Sturm und Drang pantomime. Extreme soap.1

Saro-Wiwa channeled her fascination with Nollywood’s mass-produced and overwrought melodrama into Mourning Class: Nollywood (Fig. 1). The work features a series of short videos of some of Nigeria’s most celebrated actresses — including Kate Henshaw-Nuttall — whom Saro-Wiwa asked to cry on cue and end their performances of mourning with a smile. Despite the contrived nature of this exercise, the actresses injected their performances with raw emotion that is surprisingly poignant.

Saro-Wiwa’s installation of this work at the Pulitzer features scattered and overturned TVs
that play videos of the actresses mourning. Their direct and frank address to the viewer is amplified by the artist’s decision to present them in close-up. This sense of immediacy gives way to disintegration as Saro-Wiwa dissolves features of the actresses’ faces on various monitors. In exposing the tenuous relationship between the whole and the fragment, reality and fiction, Mourning Class nods to the artificiality inherent in Nollywood productions and inverts its trope of women as simultaneously powerless victims and also agents of pain. At the same time, the emotional volatility on display allows Saro-Wiwa to make visible the cathartic power of releasing pain in a way that points beyond the Nigerian film industry toward a universal human condition.

In Sarogua Mourning (Fig. 2), Saro-Wiwa pushes the theme of grief into a more personal direction by orchestrating another intimate encounter, this time between herself and the viewer. In this work, the source of mourning is autobiographical, rooted in the death of the artist’s father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and a human and environmental rights activist who was killed in 1995 for leading the campaign on behalf of the Ogoni people against the Nigerian military regime and Royal Dutch Shell. For sixteen years, Saro-Wiwa struggled to come to terms with the public loss of her father. The difficult process of expressing unresolved or repressed feelings of grief is given free rein in this work. Through convulsive episodes of crying and laughing, as well as the spoken word, Saro-Wiwa attempts to make sense of her sorrow. (“Letting go and releasing is really hard. And having nothing, especially if you are used to pain, is really hard.”) In this self-portrait of grief, Saro-Wiwa’s oscillation between numb restraint and vulnerable release lays bare her struggle to articulate her complex emotional response to her father’s death. The ritual of mourning as a means of absorbing and understanding the loss of a loved one, Saro-Wiwa seems to say, is messy and inconclusive.

A work in this exhibition by the French artist Sophie Calle also examines the process of coming to terms with the loss of a loved one — but here within a romantic context. Calle’s sprawling multimedia installation originated with an email break-up letter that she received from a boyfriend, who, in the closing line of his note, urged her, “Take care of yourself.” Calle followed his advice by inviting more than one hundred women to respond to this rejection letter from their distinct professional perspectives, thereby assisting her through her loss and offering catharsis.

In Take Care of Yourself — presented at the Pulitzer in its first institutional showing in the United States — we see an array of these responses. A proofreader corrects the letter’s errors (Fig. 3); a judge issues a decree; a rifle shooter has fired holes through each appearance of the word “love” in a printed version of the email (Fig. 5). In a particularly humorous twist, Calle also presented the letter to Brenda, a parrot, who, after shredding it to pieces, “parroted” a line from the text: “I have never lied to you” (Fig. 4). These deadpan interpretations — along with Calle’s portraits of the respondents, the transcriptions of the letter into barcode, braille, and shorthand, and films of actresses and performers acting out the letter (Fig. 6)— comprise this complex examination of the loss of love. Calle presents them on a grand scale to make visible the elaborate social networks that we turn to and depend on to dissect and analyze emotional turmoil that marks the end of a relationship.

With the work of British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, MBE,2  we move beyond autobiography to explore more deeply the historical and social dimensions that underpin our notions of love. Shonibare’s works in The Progress of Love are a continuation of ideas he first explored in the public sculpture Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, installed in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2010. In Shonibare’s words, this piece was meant “to reflect specifically on the relationship between the birth of the British Empire and Britain’s present-day multicultural context.”3  Shonibare continued the postcolonial examination of Britain’s greatest naval hero, Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, in Fake Death Pictures, a photographic series that re-imagines Nelson’s demise through death scenes from the history of painting. In The Death of Chatterton—Henry Wallis (Fig. 7), Shonibare casts Nelson as Thomas Chatterton, the young poet of the early Romantic era, whose suicide by arsenic was represented on canvas by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis in 1856.

Shonibare’s re-writing of Nelson’s history is also the subject of Addio del Passato (Fig. 8), a film that pivots around the eponymous aria from the last act of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata (The Fallen Woman). In Shonibare’s version, the fallen woman is Frances Nisbet, the wife of Nelson, who became estranged from her husband after his affair with another woman. Shonibare re-envisions Frances as a black opera singer wearing a 17th-century white wig, roaming through an opulent manor, and expressing the pain of her loss. The film expounds the source of her grief with intercuts of her husband’s romantic dalliances, as well as various depictions of his passing from the Fake Death Pictures series. Shonibare presents the film in a loop that retraces Frances’ progress through the manor, but from different points of view. This sense of repetition that seems somewhat familiar, yet somewhat dislocated is at the core of Shonibare’s efforts. In staging a collision of various disjointed yet related fragments, Shonibare sheds light on the incoherent, layered, and blurred historical references from our shared collective vocabulary (opera, poetry, heroic narratives, national mythmaking, gendered tropes) that we inherit and rely on to express and process love and its loss.

At the Pulitzer, The Progress of Love closes with an interactive installation by the American-Jamaican-Nigerian artist Temitayo Ogunbiyi, which consists of a vending machine that dispenses limited-edition books. Ogunbiyi’s work takes as its starting point two Nigerian publishing phenomena: the Onitsha Market pamphlets from the mid-1900s that focused on themes of love and romance; and their successor, the inexpensive and hastily produced text message booklets that have attained mainstream popularity in Lagos since 2000. The latter publications offer samples of text messages that can be sent as expressions of love to mark different events in the pursuit, attainment, or loss of love. They feature ready-made messages composed in an abbreviated form that deliver trite wisdom, such as, “For me to forget u is hard and for you to forget me is up to u. 4get me not, 4get me never. You may 4get dis txt, but not the sender,” and “Immature love says, I love u becos i need u. Mature love says, I need u becos I love u. U ARE MINE 4EVER.”

Ogunbiyi — who moved to Lagos last year — responded to this popular form of literature by creating a set of ten publications, Lovely Love Text Message Books (Figs. 9-10). Printed in limited editions, Ogunbiyi’s books pose questions about the contemporary means through which we profess love. In an increasingly wired world, how does technology — in this case, cellular technology — help and hinder our expressions of love? Ogunbiyi extends her inquiry by choosing to dispense her books through a vending machine, thus prompting viewers as the new recipients and potential senders of text messages to reflect on the mechanism and systems that reshape their personal notions of love. In doing so, Ogunbiyi expands upon issues raised by Saro-Wiwa, Calle, and Shonibare. Together, these four artists reveal the tension between universal and cultural aspects of love and provoke consideration of the complex and tangled phenomena — historical, technological, and economic — that mediate our own expressions and experiences of love.

 

1 Zina Saro-Wiwa, “No Going Back,” in Nollywood, ed. Pieter Hugo (Munich: Prestel, 2009), 17.

2 MBE stands for the Member of the Order of the British Empire, the honorific title the artist was awarded in 2005.

3 “Nelson’s ship in a bottle unveiled on Fourth Plinth,” accessed October 29, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/7758830/Nelsons-ship-in-a-bottle-unveiled-on-Fourth-Plinth.html