Distant relatives / Relative distance

Michael Stevenson Cape Town

The most obvious link between the six artists included in this exhibition – Barthélémy Toguo, Senam Okudzeto, Odili Donald Odita, Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah, Julie Mehretu and Wangechi Mutu – is their complex historical relationship to Africa. Although only some were born on the African continent, all have at least one parent who is African by birth; and despite the fact that each has retained links to Africa, all now live in Europe, England or the US. In an effort to concretise this shared African heritage, the curators of Distant Relatives/Relative Distance quote Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, who describes young Africans working around the world as belonging “to no single geography”, but as feeling “at home in many”. According to her, artists like these are ‘citizens of the world’, or ‘Afropolitans’.This upbeat reading of the lives and aims of artists like these is supported by at least some of the works included in the current exhibition. The bold images and motifs populating the works of Ghanaian-born Owusu-Ankomah are an obvious case in point. Through richly layered references to Michelangelo, Afro-Brazilian marital arts, popular European art forms, and African textile traditions, among others, Owusu-Ankomah establishes a taut equilibrium between apparently incompatible worlds and realities.But here, as in the work of some of the other artists included on this show, there is also an unsettling feeling of social and spatial displacement. In Wangechi Mutu’s video performance piece, Cutting which was filmed on the US-Mexico border, the twilight backdrop transforms the landscape into a place that is at once nowhere and everywhere. Similarly, Okudzeto’s larger-than-life nudes are completely dislocated from any social or spatial ground, while in Mehretu’s Heavy Weather series, which she began two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the US gulf coast, abstract forms sweep chaotically across the surface of the prints.Like the latter series, many of the works included in Distant Relatives/Relative Distance are also charged with a raw energy suggestive of conflict, violence, or a struggle for survival. Toguo’s bodies are brutally dismembered; Mutu, in her video performance, uses a machete to hack relentlessly at a large piece of wood; and Mehretu evokes, not only the unexpected, indiscriminate trail of destruction wrought by natural forces like hurricanes but, equally importantly, the cynical neglect of Katrina’s helpless victims.Although clearly inspired by twentieth century European and North American traditions of abstraction, as Mehretu is quoted by the curators, her language of form is also semi-biographical: “[a] ‘thought experiment’ of my experience and a response to the social space I inhabit and challenge”. Both in her Heavy Weather prints and in the works of other artists included in this exhibition, the convergence of recent events with distant memories is used to develop a multilayered and multifaceted understanding of private and public histories.But however fascinating these convergences might be, it is important to note that the dialectics of past and present, of home and migration, that underlie much of the work included in the Distant Relatives/Relative Distance show is not peculiarly African. Throughout the contemporary world, social and physical displacement has become so commonplace that post-national sensibilities play an increasingly significant role in human experience. Put differently, the transnational movement of individuals and entire communities has shattered the once stable, unified sense of home and self that appears to have characterised life before the era of globalization. Repeatedly uprooted, or displaced, the relationships people once established to concrete notions of space and place have become increasingly tenuous.In a poetic evocation of this growing reality, Salman Rushdie wrote in Shame (1984) that “[w]e have come unstuck from more than land”, while James Clifford suggests that there is “no return for anyone to a native land – only fieldnotes for its reinvention”.[1] In keeping with this trend, Edward Said described, in his memoir, Out of Place (1999), how an immigrant’s attempts to rework different parts of his/her heritage involves an unavoidable dialogue between the positions of feeling simultaneously assimilated, separated and marginalised.Largely because of these transnational movements, not only of people but also of values and ideas, the need to develop new ways of negotiating social and spatial relations has become a matter of survival rather than choice. Drawing on his own complex experiences as a Jamaican in Britain, Stuart Hall coined the phrase “familiar strangers” to describe the increasingly common sense of never fully belonging wherever one goes. According to Hall, for most people it is simply no longer possible to reduce identity to a rediscovery of one’s roots. Instead, sustaining a sense of self requires both a remembering of the past and a reworking of the future. Elsewhere, Hall articulates this fluid, contextual understanding of identity by pointing out that the worlds we leave behind are far away enough to be experienced as a “sense of exile and loss”, but close enough for us to understand “the enigma of an always-postponed ‘arrival'”.[2]Viewed from this perspective, the artists included in the Distant Relatives/Relative Distance exhibition are interesting, not so much because they retain a tenuous link to Africa, but rather because they share with countless other people – from Asia to South America to the former USSR – an unresolved preoccupation with the physical, social and – above all – the psychological impact of permanent displacement. Notes1. J. Clifford, The Predicament of Culture. Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art. Harvard University Press, 1988, 173.2. S Hall, Culture, Identity and Diaspora. In J. Rutherford (ed.), Identity, Community, Culture, Difference. London, 1990: 222-237.