How does one go beyond the confines of iconography to produce a new visual language that complicates what it means to be and what it means to belong? This is one of the questions that persisted while I visited Dozie Kanu’s recent solo exhibition, Function, that was on view at Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, last winter.
In the Museum’s temporary gallery space, Studio 127— held up by warehouse steel beams—the unevenness of the gallery’s black concrete floors connect almost seamlessly with a few of Kanu’s sculptures that are equally fluid in locationality and simultaneously jagged and gleaming. In Function, the artist innovatively enmeshes symbolisms to produce a collection of new-fangled objects, familiar yet uniquely their own, that push the parameters of classification and sit in the thresholds; a space of liminality and ambiguity.
Welcoming a deep sense of contradiction and transience that “in-betweenness” invariably holds, Function comprises a collection of objects that grapple a multitude of tensions. This can be read through Kanu’s use of materiality in works featuring shiny aluminum and steel parts that at once transform into caustic, stony formations such as Chair [ix] (For Babies), 2019, and Chair [xi] (New Weave), 2019. Or Wouldn’t Believe, 2019, created from Catholic church panels sourced in antique shops in Portugal, as Makayla Bailey observes in the exhibition catalog. In this work, Kanu incites a transdisciplinary conversation, as Bailey points out, and unsettles any dividing line between practices such as painting and sculpture. One of three red panels mounted on the gallery wall, Wouldn’t Believe, from a distance, looks like a framed painting, but upon closer inspection, reveals a red velour backdrop and a silvery formation in the foreground constructed from staples. Kanu’s exhibition, therefore, encourages audiences to analyze these objects carefully; refusing a surfaced reading, and inviting gallery visitors to constantly re-consider what is on the gallery floor: are these artworks or are they pieces of furniture; are they sculptures or are they sketches?
Wrestling with not only form and functionality, and concepts of high and low art, Kanu’s objects problematize border lines to prompt inclusive notions of citizenship and push against “culture” as a static, singular notion to foreground the complexities of belonging.
In reading this collection of objects that articulate a sense of ambiguity, I am reminded of the writing of scholar Zimitri Erasmus, who advocates for thresholds in the face of systems that aim to order, control and “Other.” In Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa, Erasmus suggests:
“Thresholds are lines of relation which can enmesh people, facilitate their movement and widen their lives. Thresholds are more difficult to police. A threshold implies the very necessity mindfully to step in and out of places, in and out of worlds – both within and athwart borders – for purposes of survival and sanity. This movement produces new places, new worlds and new ways of seeing.” 1 Zimitri Erasmus, Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2017)
Drawing from Erasmus’s words, the liminal, therefore, becomes a site of exploration, not stasis; a space of entanglement; a scene for survival. Negotiating geographical lines and so-called cultural zones, tepee home (Pro Impact), 2016, for example, is a structure resembling a conical tent created from extendable magnets and miniature boxing gloves. The work possibly alludes to violent colonial histories of the US and its continuing implications on indigenous peoples of North America, as well as Houston car culture, slab, which Dozie further explores in Chair [iii], 2018, a steel and purple concrete structure rested on a shiny car rim. 2 In a talk, scholar Langston Wilkins describes slab as, “A street-based folk culture that has documented and affirmed and empowered working-class black Houstonians across several decades.” Slab features used American cars that are refurbished and embellished with rims called “swangas” and “multi-layered iridescent paint jobs known as candy paint”, says Wilkins. He adds, “The term slab, refer to the slabs of concrete that make up a street or a paved road” and, “Today it is expressed in acronym form as, slow, loud and banging”. In layering materials, histories and cultural signifiers, tepee home (Pro Impact) refuses to hold to any assumed cultural binaries that have appeared in dominant narratives as disparate or uninvolved as opposed to intricately muddled and complicated.
On the other hand, Chair [ix] (For Babies), 2019, broaches a unique visual language that illuminates concepts of liminality. Made from found material, such as a feeding chair, and green sheets of aluminum “stripped from a Nigerian trunk”, as Sami Hopkins writes in the catalog, Chair [ix] (For Babies), at once invokes a functional object and simultaneously a sculpture detailed and adorned with metal screws, fringed with blunt protrusions. With its rough and jagged black legs that cross over and flatten into green patterned sheets and a lined aluminum seat, Chair [ix] (For Babies) plays with notions of tradition: Is this a traditional chair? And what does “traditional” really mean? Or is this a sculpture?
As Hopkins points to the woven detail in Chair [ix] (For Babies) as a “gesture to African craft,” Chair [xi] (New Weave), 2019—through its use of woven hay that demonstrates basketry—also brings to the fore visual culture of Africa, therefore, widening Function’s transcultural, transcontinental, and transdisciplinary dialogue. In the age of border walls and widespread nationalist sentiments, where keeping out those who “do not belong” are dangerously prioritized over nuanced conversations and inclusive policies on citizenship, Function speaks to the necessity for thresholds and ways of belonging that defy homogeneity and conformity. Furthermore, as objects such as Chair [ix] (For Babies), and Chair [xi] (New Weave) evoke art of Africa, Function also surfaces exhibition histories predicated on differences and binaries.
Art historian Prita Meier explores histories of Western display tactics and knowledge production that have placed emphasis on geographical, cultural, ethnic, and racial-gendered categories in relation to African visual culture as a way to imagine an “Other” and further the Western imperialist project. In the essay “Authenticity and Its Modernist Discontents: The Colonial Encounter and African and Middle Eastern Art History,” Meier writes that visual schemas and scholarship created by North Atlantic peoples promoted a rubric of “ethnic and racial taxonomies”, while “[s]tylistic taxonomies became particularly dominant in the study of African visual culture, where ethnic styles aligned with the colonial map of African ‘tribes’.” 3 Prita Meier. “AUTHENTICITY AND ITS MODERNIST DISCONTENTS: THE COLONIAL ENCOUNTER AND AFRICAN AND MIDDLE EASTERN ART HISTORY.” The Arab Studies Journal 18, no. 1 (2010): 12-45. Accessed March 31, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/27934077.
As Meier points to Western exhibition practices fixated on groupings and which have pushed diverse and complex stories to the margins for imperialist gains, Kanu’s Function subverts such violently homogenizing systems and generates a new, experimental visual narrative that conveys a sense of complicated belonging as opposed to simplified “Othering.” 4 I am invoking John A.. Powell’s work around the concept of othering and belonging, which identifies systemic mechanisms of exclusion and identifies and advocates “for interventions that foster and promote belonging”.
Building on Meier’s observations, curator Bonaventure Ndikung argues how these histories of “Othering” continue to materialize in Western cultural spaces today through tactics such as “‘geographical specification-ing’.” Categorizing projects, according to Ndikung, are “common in Western institutions” and, he argues, are “vehicles through which such power gradients are defined, and through which binaries of norm and anomaly, or self and other, are defined.” In response to these practices, Ndikung proposes the notion of “dis-othering”, which he describes as a “refusal to accept … societal status quo,” and a strategy to “mean speaking up, pointing out, calling out inequities, as much as proposing alternative ways of being.” 5 Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Antonia Alampi and Francesco Tenaglia. “Geographies of Imagination” at SAVVY Contemporary: on processes and technologies of “dis-othering.” Roundtable Conversation. Mousse Magazine, http://moussemagazine.it/geographies-imagination-savvy-contemporary-processes-technologies-dis-othering/.
As Meier and Ndikung problematize histories and contemporary naming conventions rooted in practices that define, as a way to control and stifle the possibility of a nuanced existence, Kanu reiterates a rejection of locationality, and racial and cultural grouping that often befall individuals and movements outside of a white, Eurocentric specification. “I’m not interested in being a black artist. I’m not interested in being a Southern artist. I’m not interested in being a Nigerian artist,” Kanu asserts in a 2017 conversation with Joshua Aronson.
“On December 18th, 2018, I boarded a flight to Nigeria for the first time. I was born in Houston to Nigerian immigrant parents who never managed to find the time or funds to take our family back home. So I decided to go and see it for myself—to experience the culture I was raised in first-hand,” he says in an interview with Cultured Magazine speaking about the concept behind his debut solo exhibition ARS JUS PAX that took place at Woods Cathedral in Detroit last year. “In Nigeria, I observed many links to the way I was creating, including the complete and total utilization of available objects and resources. It was surprising to me, because I’d spent a lot of my childhood trying to suppress my Nigerian roots. Now I find myself in constant search of connection to this heritage.”
As Kanu expresses the tensions of occupying in-between spaces, communities, and borders, his words allude to Function as a project which continues a practice that sits in the intersection of multiple disciplines and lays bare the convolutedness of culture and belonging. In a show featuring objects that draw a radically new and unique visual vernacular, Function, therefore, proposes a counter-conventionalism to ruminate on the complexities of being and make necessary space for an indefinable ambiguity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stefanie Jason is a writer and Curatorial MA candidate at Wits University in Johannesburg
|Zimitri Erasmus, Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2017)
|In a talk, scholar Langston Wilkins describes slab as, “A street-based folk culture that has documented and affirmed and empowered working-class black Houstonians across several decades.” Slab features used American cars that are refurbished and embellished with rims called “swangas” and “multi-layered iridescent paint jobs known as candy paint”, says Wilkins. He adds, “The term slab, refer to the slabs of concrete that make up a street or a paved road” and, “Today it is expressed in acronym form as, slow, loud and banging”.
|Prita Meier. “AUTHENTICITY AND ITS MODERNIST DISCONTENTS: THE COLONIAL ENCOUNTER AND AFRICAN AND MIDDLE EASTERN ART HISTORY.” The Arab Studies Journal 18, no. 1 (2010): 12-45. Accessed March 31, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/27934077.
|I am invoking John A.. Powell’s work around the concept of othering and belonging, which identifies systemic mechanisms of exclusion and identifies and advocates “for interventions that foster and promote belonging”.
|Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Antonia Alampi and Francesco Tenaglia. “Geographies of Imagination” at SAVVY Contemporary: on processes and technologies of “dis-othering.” Roundtable Conversation. Mousse Magazine, http://moussemagazine.it/geographies-imagination-savvy-contemporary-processes-technologies-dis-othering/.