It’s rare when an exceptional artist connects with a burning zeitgeist. It happened a decade ago when Ai Weiwei emerged as a political tour de force in China by undermining his totalitarian regime with scathing rebukes via social media. Njideka Akunyili Crosby is also such an artist. But instead of raging against the machine like Mr. Weiwei, Ms. Crosby tells subtle, complicated stories about her homeland, herself and colonialism in a way that’s far less bombastic, yet just as powerful.
The 32-year-old Nigerian, who moved to Swarthmore, Pa., at age 16 after winning a green card lottery in her hometown of Enugu, is, like many around the world, part of the African diaspora. But the particulars of her story, a complex one that contradicts what we think we know about modern Africans, is what has truly moved her fans both in and outside of the art world.
She’s part of a growing Afropolitan contingency (a name sometimes used for Africans living around the globe) that is proving it has a much more nuanced view of African culture to offer us through their writing, music, and in Ms. Crosby’s case, painting.
Ms. Crosby’s artworks—luminous interiors teeming with eye-catching collage elements that offset delicately painted figures—while political, are very much about her day-to-day life. Her subjects include herself, family and friends caught in quiet moments like having afternoon tea, a prolonged hug or a slow dance. But imagery from Nigeria’s revolutionary history, portraits of brutal dictators and other remembrances from her homeland also stew within these constructed dramas, which evoke the lush quietude of the Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard’s century-old domesticities.
Speaking with Ms. Crosby on the phone from her Los Angeles, Calif., studio (she moved there a few years ago from the East Coast), I immediately sense the presence of a formidable person steeled with a palpable thirst for knowledge and experience.
After moving to the U.S., the artist spent a gap year studying for SATs and taking classes on American history and literature before returning to Nigeria to serve a year of National Service—a policy instituted after the Nigerian civil war to promote unity—far from her home in the southwestern part of Nigeria. After her tenure, she came back to earn a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College, followed by four years of academic post-bachelor training at the highly-regarded Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
For the average person, attaining this level of achievement while adjusting to life in a very different, far away country would be rightly seen as a tremendous accomplishment. But Ms. Crosby is not average.
In 2009, she was one of a handful of artists selected to attend the top-ranked fine arts graduate program in the nation: the Yale University School of Art’s Master’s program. The real work was now beginning.
“It was two years full of anxiety and self-doubt,” she said of her time at Yale, a common response to being under the microscope of the school’s distinguished faculty, visiting artists and fellow students. “But during the summer between my first and second year, something clicked for me.”
In her first year, Ms. Crosby’s studio practice saw a lot of experimentation, mostly grounded in drawing and painting the figure, along with a heavy dose of information about the sprawling world of Contemporary art, courtesy of her renowned teachers Catherine Murphy and Peter Halley. She also took full advantage of the course offerings, enrolling in classes in postcolonial history and diasporic studies in addition to art. It was a lot to take in, but during a summer off, it all “crystallized,” as she put it. And her maturation was immediately noticed.
Erin Cone’s paintings could have been pulled straight out of a high-end fashion magazine. Her work brings together realistic portraits of women and abstract elements to create an overall minimalist ambiance.
“I emphasize visual impact over narrative context,” Cone says, going on to add that she likes to focus on the “subtle orchestration” of her differing subjects within a design-based style. The result is a series of stylistic paintings that, on a surface level, look like a collection of simple portraits but, dig deeper, and they hold hidden meanings.
“I create a deliberate push-and-pull between near-photorealistic detail and my own vocabulary of visual glitches that challenge that very realism,” she says.
Erin Cone, a New-Mexico based artist, uses a variety of methods and techniques to create her finished pieces. She starts by sketching poses, distinct gestures, and details which are then fused together to provide inspiration for photographs of herself, but sometimes of models.
Then it is time to experiment. Though Cone uses certain inspiration for her subjects, the end result comes about in a spontaneous way – almost intuitively. “It’s more about the visual effect than the story content,” she says. “That’s why I concentrate on the subtle placement of the subjects within the frame.”
It takes some experimentation for Erin Cone to settle on the specific elements she’s happy with in a piece. “I intentionally create a tension between near photographic detail and my own vocabulary of visual disturbance,” she says.
Alex Bocchetto: With Invisible City you narrated New York’s East Village and Alphabet City from a very personal point of view. Can you tell us your experience in shooting for the project back then?
Ken Schles: Even after all these years it still feels a little alien to me to hear Invisible City referred to as a “project.” I guess we can call it a project. I was responding to what I was seeing and feeling at the time—where I found myself. Invisible City was about confronting and overcoming fears: it was about being locked inside my apartment and feeling trapped, but also wanting to venture out. To go out into what seemed an overwhelming, arbitrary, inscrutable, dangerous world. I didn’t quite know how to proceed. I was unsure of myself. I had no money and few resources. But I recognized that what I experienced everyday when I walked the streets near my home wasn’t reflected in what I saw in mainstream media. I felt compelled to capture that mood, which for me was so tangible, so palpable. And obvious too: what I was experiencing was intimately connected to outcomes of recent history: the collapse of the inner city, postwar deindustrialization, economic stratification, cultural dislocation, race tensions, the drug wars, the rise of AIDS. My state of mind—what I saw and how I lived—was a direct result of social and economic machinations that had been grinding along for a long time. The degraded physical environment… it all weighed upon me.
Alex: So it didn’t start as a project but more as diary entries …and to set the record straight, to give a different narrative of New York. Now I feel I better understand the title Invisible City: the inner city authorities are not willing to show, but it also hints at private spaces and the city within the city, a sort of “Interzone.”
Ken: I walked in the safety of friends in a forbidding and wild place. With the camera I tried to organize what I found: give it a semblance of sense, a modicum of meaning—at least for myself.
For generations the Lower East Side was a churning cauldron of activity. Site of immigrants (my own family passed through there more than a century ago), it already had a long history of renewal and decay. This activity also involved a tenaciously prickly art avant-garde, which had flourished there in various forms for nearly a hundred years. I had been living in the East Village five years when I began this “project” of mine. Things had begun to change in my part of the slum. We found places to go amidst the rubble and the open drug markets. Art galleries, performance spaces and underground clubs would spontaneously appear next to drug drops and abandoned buildings. People gathered at art openings or listened to music or saw performances or hung out in the bars. I fell in with this activity. These places became islands of refuge amidst boarded up storefronts and bodegas and liquor stores with their overpriced limited offerings hidden behind two-inch thick bulletproof Plexiglas pass through windows. These venues provided both spectacle and community in otherwise bleak corridors. The people I hung out were my friends. We’d barter services and borrow on each other’s talents—lean on each other for support so we could continue making our art. In turn, we’d show in the local galleries or perform in bars and clubs. When I photographed it was in the comfort of people I was familiar with or in places I knew well. I’d find parties where I knew there’d be food to stretch things along. Photography was my tool to explore where my life had taken me—I used it to frame and dissect my time and place. I used the camera to put my observations into context.
Alex: You wrote once “those were the taxi drivers days” …riots, drugs and violence, even if these are not actually shown inside the frame. How did the general atmosphere and your lifestyle influence the work
Ken: Lifestyle is as an odd word, isn’t it? Sorry if I seem to pick up on specific words of yours like that. But it’s not an unreasonable question. Even back then it was thought that I was somehow making a choice about where I was and what I was doing. People would ask me why I choose the lifestyle I chose. Why didn’t I just go to live someplace easier, someplace safer? These choices only appear as choices if you have the luxury to approach them that way. Lifestyle has to do with notions of class and economic mobility—or moral disposition. Hearing the word reminds me of the time my slumlord landlord refused to negotiate with me. He said, “Who the hell do you think you are to have middle class aspirations.” I remember a cop saying to me after my apartment was broken into, “You seem like a smart white guy. What the fuck are you doing living in a shit-hole neighborhood like this?” Attitudes like that just pissed me off. I was who I was. I lived where I lived as best I knew how. This was my home. This was my neighborhood. These were my friends. There were no “lifestyle” choices here as far as I could see. My situation encompassed facts that I simply accepted. I felt bound up—trapped—in the reality I found myself in. Trapped by history, trapped by economics, trapped by my desire to make new work and live affordably… I was committed to trying to make things work in my life.
I would argue, rather, that women are both the centre of the film and the mirrors upon which Antonioni reflects his dark perceptions and stark conclusions about the human condition. At a launch party for his latest novel, those who celebrate Giovanni’s newest book spend precious little time actually reading, opting instead to party all night, while simultaneously remaining oblivious to their own mortality.
As in most of his films, Antonioni’s wealthy protagonists in La notte live in a hell of their own making. So thoroughly alienated are they from one another (and from the environment) that they experience the rain from the sky (in the pool sequence) as a sublime rapture from above, giggling like schoolchildren, briefly lifted out of their stupor for a moment’s play with the actual elements.
The tragedy of Antonioni’s characters is not simply a matter of bored bourgeois ennui; these people are disconnected from the feminine, from the earth, and from life itself. Perhaps no critic got it more wrong than Pauline Kael in her infamous essay “The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties: La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad, La Dolce Vita,” in which Kael attacked the film, demanding less ambiguity:
La notte is supposed to be a study in the failure of communication, but what new perceptions of this problem do we get by watching people on the screen who can’t communicate if we are never given any insight into what they could have to say if they could talk to each other? (2)
On the contrary, Antonioni gives us nothing but insight into the various relationships, and thus I find her dismissal baffling. More recently, critic Christopher Sharrett takes a far more perceptive feminist eco-critical approach to key Antonioni films such as Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964) and L’eclisse (1961), noting of L’eclisse that “the failure of people to connect is rooted less in vague existential dread than in concrete social realities”. (3) For me, it is those specific social realities that are most vividly explored and exposed in La notte.
Death has the tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.—Donald Rumsfeld
I will try to clarify, in eight points, why it is important—today—to look at images of destroyed human bodies like those I have used and integrated in different works such as Superficial Engagement (2006), The Incommensurable Banner (2008), Ur-Collage (2008), Crystal of Resistance (2011), and Touching Reality (2012).
The images of destroyed human bodies are made by non-photographers. Most of them were taken by witnesses, passersby, soldiers, security or police officers, or rescuers and first-aid helpers. The provenance of the images is unclear and often unverifiable; there is a lack in our understanding of what the “source” is here. This unclear provenance and this unverifiability reflect today’s unclearness. This is what I am interested in. Often the provenance is not guaranteed—but what, in our world today can claim a guarantee, and how can “under guarantee” still make sense? These images are available on the Internet mostly to be downloaded; they have the status of witnessing and were put online by their authors for multiple and various reasons. Furthermore, the origin of these images is not signaled; sometimes it is confused, with an unclear, perhaps even manipulated or stolen address, as is true of many things on the Internet and social communication networks today. We confront this every day. The undefined provenance is one of the reasons why it is important to look at such images.
The images of destroyed human bodies are important in their redundancy. What is redundant is precisely that such an incommensurable amount of images of destroyed human bodies exists today. Redundancy is not repetition, the repetition of the same, because it is always another human body that is destroyed and appears as such redundantly. But it’s not about images—it’s about human bodies, about the human, of which the image is only a testimony. The images are redundant pictures because it is redundant, as such, that human beings are destroyed. Redundancy is important here. I want to take it as something important, and I want to see this redundancy as a form. We do not want to accept the redundancy of such images because we don’t want to accept the redundancy of cruelty toward the human being. This is why it is important to look at images of destroyed human bodies in their very redundancy.
Today, in the newspapers, magazines, and TV news, we very seldom see images of destroyed bodies because they are very rarely shown. These pictures are nonvisible and invisible: the presupposition is that they will hurt the viewer’s sensitivity or only satisfy voyeurism, and the pretext is to protect us from this threat. But the invisibility is not innocent. The invisibility is the strategy of supporting, or at least not discouraging, the war effort. It’s about making war acceptable and its effects commensurable, as was formulated, for example, by Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense (2001–2006): “Death has the tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.” But is there really another view to have of war than a depressing one? To look at images of destroyed human bodies is a way to engage against war and against its justification and propaganda. Since 9/11 this phenomena of invisibility has been reinforced in the West. Not to accept this invisibility as a given fact or as a “protection” is why it is important to look at such images.
The tendency to “iconism” still exists, even today. “Iconism” is the habit of “selecting,” “choosing,” or “finding” the image that “stands out,” the image that is “the important one,” the image that “says more,” the image that “counts more” than the others. In other words, the tendency to iconism is the tendency to “highlight”; it’s the old, classical procedure of favoring and imposing, in an authoritarian way, a hierarchy. This is not a declaration of importance about something or somebody, but a declaration of importance directed at others. The goal is to establish a common importance, a common weight, a common measure. But iconism and highlighting also have the effect of avoiding the existence of differences, of the non-iconic and of the non-highlighted. In the field of war and conflict images, this leads to choosing the “acceptable” for others. It’s the “acceptable” image that stands for another image, for all other images, for something else, and perhaps even for a non-image. This image or icon has to be, of course, the correct, the good, the right, the allowed, the chosen—the consensual image. This is the manipulation. One example is the image, much discussed (even by art historians), of the “Situation Room” in Washington during the killing of Bin Laden by the Navy Seals in 2011. I refuse to accept this image as an icon; I refuse its iconism, and I refuse the fact that this image—and all other “icons”—stands for something other than itself. To fight iconism is the reason why looking at images of destroyed bodies is important.
Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. At a dinner party earlier this year, I was in conversation with someone who asked me to define photography. I suggested that it is about retention: not only the ability to make an image directly out of the interaction between light and the tangible world but also the possibility of saving that image. A shadow thrown onto a wall is not photography. But if the wall is photosensitive and the shadow remains after the body has moved on, that is photography. Human creativity, since the beginning of art, has found ways to double the visible world. What photography did was to give the world a way to double its own appearance: the photograph results directly from what is, from the light that travels from a body through an aperture onto a surface.
But when the photograph outlives the body 00 when people die, scenes change, trees grow or are chopped down — it becomes a memorial. And when the thing photographed is a work of art or architecture that has been destroyed, this effect is amplified even further. A painting, sculpture, or temple, as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory. Such a photograph is shadowed by its vanished ancestor.
A small but wondrous Alma Thomas retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem put me in mind of a desert plant that spends all year as an innocent cactus and then, in the middle of the night, blooms. Thomas, who died in 1978, at the age of eighty-six, was a junior-high-school art teacher in Washington, D.C., whose own paintings were modernist and sophisticated but of no special note until she retired from teaching, in 1960, and took up color-intensive abstraction. Her best acrylics and watercolors of loosely gridded, wristy daubs are among the most satisfying feats (and my personal favorites) of the Washington Color School, a group that included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and others associated with the prescriptive aesthetics of the critic Clement Greenberg: painting shorn of imagery, the illusion of depth, and rhetorical gesture. Wielding brushes, Thomas eschewed the group’s signal technique of working strictly with stains of liquid paint on raw canvas, proving it inessential to an ordered glory of plangent hues. She seemed to absorb in a gulp the mode’s ideas—rational means, hedonistic appeals—and to add, with no loss of formal integrity, a heterodox lyricism inspired by nature. The boldly experimental work of her last years suggests the alacrity of a young master, but it harvested the resources of a lifetime.
Thomas, who was African-American, was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891. Her father was a businessman, her mother a dressmaker. She had three younger sisters. In 1907, the family moved to Washington and took a house in a prosperous neighborhood, in which she lived for the rest of her life. She concentrated on math in high school, and dreamed of becoming an architect. Unsurprisingly, given the time’s odds against her race and her sex, in 1914 she found herself teaching kindergarten. In 1921, she enrolled at Howard University as a home-economics student, but gravitated to the art department, newly founded by the black Impressionist painter James V. Herring, and became the school’s first graduate in fine arts. Later, she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College and studied painting at American University, where she encountered Greenberg’s doctrines.
Though she initially hung back from a studio career, Thomas was active in Washington’s cultural circles, including a “little Paris salon” of black artists, in the late nineteen-forties, which was organized by the educator and artist Lois Mailou Jones. Thomas’s modern-art influences included Vassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse, especially after she saw a show of his paper cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1961. Recognition came slowly but steadily. When she became the first black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum, in 1972, she told the Times, “One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there.” She added, “Look at me now.”
Thomas said that she was moved to paint abstractions after studying the shapes of a holly tree in her garden, and that she based her color harmonies on her flower beds—or on the way she imagined them looking from the air. Space exploration fascinated her. A painting of a disk in reds, oranges, and yellows is titled “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset” (1970)—a whimsy that seems meant to deflect any hint of mysticism. Thomas was not sentimental. Nor, after painting some semi-abstract, resonant oil sketches of the 1963 March on Washington, was she political. She said, in 1970, “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” She did so with panache in such works as “Wind, Sunshine, and Flowers” (1968), which deploys touches of hot, warm, and drenchingly cool colors in vertical columns. Intervals of white canvas align here and there to form horizontally curving fissures: wind evoked with droll economy.
Instructive to this discussion is Judith Butler’s analysis of the failure to indict the officers responsible for the beating of Rodney King (Butler 1993). Video footage showed King on the ground, being beaten with batons by police officers and dragged on his abdomen. In the trial, the footage was presented by attorneys representing the police officers as evidence that the police acted in self-defence. Butler questions how “this video can be used as evidence that the body being beaten was itself the source of danger?” (15).
Racism, Butler answers, “pervades white perception” such that the visual field is not neutral and independent of wider racist prejudices. The black male body is perceived as dangerous even when it is seen attacked. The Rodney King trial showed that there is no recourse to visual evidence — that even the most shocking footage will not provide indisputable proof of police brutality. As Butler states, visual evidence “is still and always calls to be read, that is already a reading, and that in order to establish the injury on the basis of the visible evidence, an aggressive reading of the evidence is necessary” (18).
The point which underlies Butler’s analysis is that the video is not literally an emanation from past reality. The mechanical objectivity of the camera is a myth. Rather, as John Berger put it, “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe”. The objects we see in videos and photographs acquire meaning through our experiences and knowledge of the world. Turning again to Butler, our way of seeing is determined, at least in part, by ideologies of race which act to define who is a recognizable subject and, thus, whose vulnerability matters. In the racial schema within which the video of King’s beating is viewed, King himself is seen as an agent of violence.
The inability of visual evidence to effectively counter arguments made by law enforcement personnel has a long history. In 1940, the first FBI investigation into a torture case in the American South took place (Niedermeier 2013: 91-111). 16-year-old African American Quinter South had been tortured in the headquarters of the Atlanta Police Department. The trial of the police officer responsible had returned a not guilty verdict despite a wealth of evidence. As part of the investigation, the FBI took photographs of Quinter South showing the burns on his body. Despite validating the testimony of the victim, devalued in the racial hierarchy of courtroom witnesses, the case in which the federal evidence was presented resulted in a mistrial. The all-white jury had been unable to reach a verdict. Even the bureaucratic objectivity of the FBI could not overcome the effect of a visual field saturated by race.
If the value of visual evidence cannot be located simply in its ability to “speak truth to power”, then perhaps it is to be found in its capacity to move others to do so. Susan Sontag in On Photography argued that photographs could not, on their own, create a political or moral position but could only reinforce a particular stance based on the viewer’s existing political consciousness. “Images transfix” suggests Sontag, “images anesthetize” (20).
Contra Sontag, the increased availability of footage of African Americans killed at the hands of police has coincided with the most sustained period of antiracist protest in the US in decades. Rather than being “anaesthetized” by images, many have been mobilized to political action. Protestor Tef Poe describes the moment he saw a photograph posted on Instagram of the stepfather of Michael Brown; within hours of seeing the image, he was in Ferguson. Activist Ashley Yates said at a rally in October 2014 that “[i]f you can see a dead black boy lie in the street for four and a half hours and that doesn’t make you angry, then you lack humanity” (emphasis added).
Sontag may have argued that those who took to the streets after seeing footage of police brutality already had the requisite political consciousness. Perhaps what is absent from Sontag’s analysis, however, is attention to the content and form of the visual evidence and its means of distribution. The visual evidence that has played a role in galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement is remarkable in its semblance to “normal” American life and its widespread and de-centralized mode of distribution. Unlike the photos from Abu Ghraib, for example, which sensationalized the “spectacle-like aspect of torture” (Viterbo 2014: 285), these images of African Americans being killed are in very familiar settings; a parked car (Philando Castile), a NYC sidewalk (Eric Garner) or a public park (Walter Scott). The shaky camera-phone quality and occasional narration from the person filming also render the footage more relatable.