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Elastic Visions Curated by Faridah Folawiyo

27th February 2023 – 27th May 2024

Installation View

Featured Artists:
Kesewa Aboah
Kevin Claiborne
Larry W. Cook
Hugh Findletar
Enam Gbewonyo
Amina Kadous
Gifted Mold Archive
Daëna Ladéesse
Fadekemi Ogunsanya

In Cedric Kouame’s Ladies at Wedding #12, there is a purple haze around the image. A lady’s eye peeks out from behind the purple blur. She seems to be concentrating on something else, her mind far from the wedding she finds herself at. In another circumstance, this image might have been discarded. Most of the photograph is obscured by a textured mould, concealing the image. But it also acts in harmony with it. If a photograph captures a moment, the mould that grows on it tells of all the moments that have happened since. The growth becomes an embodiment of time and its expansiveness.

For Cedric Kouame, also known as Gifted Mold Archive, he was always fascinated by the archives he found in Côte d’Ivoire, as they tended to reflect the elements of the locale in which they were found. Abidjan is humid, and archives become living objects, affected by climate, time and context. Kouame would go to photography studios and ask them to share with him any images they might want to throw away. Because for many, what use is a photograph where the image is hidden?

But for an artist, the act of concealing can be an important act in the creation process. Elastic Visions speaks to the idea of stretching past limiting and static notions. It is an invitation to look at time and the act of seeing as a process that is flexible. So to look at the image not as one where a part is missing, but one that has taken on a whole new form with time. It means to look at the textures and shapes formed by the mould and the varying shades of purple, blue and white that cover the surface of the image.

Over the past few years in popular culture, specifically amongst people of colour, the phrase “representation matters” has been uttered time and time again. It is about people of colour seeing people that look like them in positions of power, in art, in movies, in advertisements. It’s about having examples that one can look to, and think “I can do this too.” In some ways, it’s also about comfort in familiarity.

This stretches to African art and the popularisation of the figure in recent years, where portraiture has acted as a site of familiarity and potentiality for Black audiences all over the world. The idea of representation, and the desire to see oneself in art is, and continues to be, extremely important for people of colour. It is a sign of life.

However, there is also substance in experiencing the full spectrum of art by Black and African practitioners, especially in ways that might not be so linear or familiar. To stretch past the supposed binaries of representation and abstraction, photography and painting, conceptual art and formalism, and enter a space of experimentation and freedom.

In 1978, when Orientalism by Edward Said was published, it was groundbreaking in terms of its excavation of the power dynamic between the so-called West and the so-called Orient. Up until the point of writing, the study of the Middle East, Saïd argued, had been produced by the West “politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment era”. That is to say, the field of study had been largely imagined by those in the West, to fit their own narratives of how the Oriental other should look. Essentially, he rejected the discourse that creates a dichotomy of them vs us, for its simplification, and for the “idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures.”

Saïd’s seminal text came after important anti-colonial work by theorists such as Aimé Cesaire and Frantz Fanon in Martinique. Although these thinkers were in radically different locales and different time periods, the European colonial experience transcended borders. So, the opportunity to present African and diaspora art in Dubai feels like an important project of decolonial self-determination, which allows Africans to detach themselves from the “them vs us” colonial binary, and think about the ways that influences can converge and contort. And the way art can serve as a conduit for expansiveness.

In “The Imaginary Orient”, art historian Linda Nochlin writes about how a central tenet of French Orientalist painting was the “absence of history.”

Time stands still in Gerome’s painting, as it does in all imagery qualified as ‘picturesque’. Gerome suggests that this Oriental world is a world without change, a world of timeless, atemporal customs and rituals, untouched by the historical processes that were ‘afflicting’ or ‘improving’ but, at any rate, drastically altering Western societies at the time.

Thomas McEvilley explores this further when reviewing MoMA’s controversial “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art show, by questioning why the ‘primitive’ works on display were shown without dates. He wondered why “the museum dates the Western works, but leaves the primitive works childlike and Edenic in their lack of history.”

Elastic Visions proposes that the de-colonial African experience is one that is not atemporal, but one where time is elastic. The archive takes centre stage in this exhibition, as a site where the fluidity of time is constantly felt. In the photographs of Amina Kadous, she explores the notion of personal and collective memory, through photographs of a changing Egypt. With selected work from two series, A crack in the Memory of my Memory and White gold, she thinks about the way in which her ancestors’ memories interact with her own. The images are a meditation on postmemory, an exercise in discovering one’s identity. The photographs on show focus on interior scenes, looking at the way external changes might be reflected in a household or, in White gold, a cotton factory.

Larry W. Cook takes on the role of cultural archivist as he creates works that are studies of club culture in the DMV in the United States. He collects polaroids that depict the height of this culture, of the “bling bling” aesthetic, and uses them as source material to create his mixed media canvases that often include posing figures enveloped in rhinestones in front of nostalgic, almost surreal backdrops that are now close to extinct. The works on display are titled Zanzibar and La Fontaine Bleau, both names of clubs that were popular at the time. Cook works with time, and understands the impact of manipulating it, of bringing the past to now, and of preserving endangered vernacular cultural markers. In Zanzibar, two blinged out silhouettes pose in front of a cherry-red backdrop that seems to depict the Pyramids of Giza. It catches the viewer off guard, forces them to ask, where are they? Zanzibar meets Washington DC meets Egypt.

A hallmark of the diaspora experience is a lack of fixedness. Lives are fluid, cultures mix and time collapses. This idea of movement appears in the paintings of Kesewa Aboah and Daëna Ladéesse. In Kesewa Aboah’s A Lightness 5, which is first a body print and then made further elaborate through painting, a figure floats in space. We can see what looks like a footprint towards the bottom of the painting, that almost seems to touch the ground, but it doesn’t. By abstracting the body in this way, and suspending it in what the artist calls a “beautiful, comforting” black pigment, there is a palpable lack of place. It could be anything, anywhere, anytime.

Daëna Ladéesse also fragments the female form in her painting, interchanging elements of figures with her sweeping, undular brushstrokes. The artist’s work is a reflection of her own cultures and experiences, an exploration of her upbringing in Guadeloupe and her current home in Bali. Her work is about movement, of people, of waves, of culture. Nothing stays still.

Enam Gbewonyo’s textile sculptures also meditate on the idea of weaving and interconnectedness. She began using tights in her work to think about the way in which “nude” and flesh-coloured hosiery excluded the black woman. Within her practice, she quite literally stretches and weaves tights, pushing them to their limits. Sometimes they rip, and when they do, similarly to Gifted Mold Archive, the viewer is urged to look at the new form that has been created, rather than what had been.

The artists on show operate through hybrid lenses. What does it mean to stretch past imagination and past conceptions? To be malleable and dynamic. And to be open to influence, wherever it comes from. Fadekemi Ogunsanya takes inspiration from multiple sources, including Mughal manuscript painting, Yoruba mythology and West African studio photography. She brings them together in her blue gouache paintings on paper, creating unique frames that emphasise the objecthood of the work.

Hugh Findletar’s Flowerheadz series, glass vessels cum sculptures blown in Murano, Italy demonstrates that to be elastic is to find ways to marry beauty, history and utility. Findletar first learned the glassblowing technique in Kenya, where he also came across traditional masks. The sculptures, which also act as busts and vases, chronicle people across generations, from Naomi Campbell to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Findletar meditates on the malleability of time, by combining the permanence of the sculptural form with the transient life of the flowers that are within them.

The exhibition aims to extend the idea of flexibility to the viewer, as a way to encourage movement, and thus, hopefully, freedom. Some artists’ choice to deny the audience context provokes a more flexible reading. Kevin Claiborne for instance, had previously made a version of the text-based WHO CAN CLAIM with a photographic background, rather than the abstracted version on show here. His decision to remove the environment, and to focus on the distortion and contortion of the letters here, was intentional, removing context and prompting the viewer to bring their own meaning to the statement “Who can claim blackness”. With this statement Claiborne also thinks about the elasticity of identity, using text as a medium to demonstrate the way something that often seems so fixed is actually ever–shifting.

Elastic Visions is a show of African artists pushing their artistic mediums to limits and beyond. It is also a recognition of the innovations and the forwardness of African and diaspora artists, in stark contrast to any colonial notions of backwardness. It is a demand of the art historical canon to also stretch, to expand and to acknowledge the dynamism of creation coming out of the African continent and its diaspora.
– Curatorial Essay written by Faridah Folawiyo