With ‘Bouyancy’ Fadlabi presents a new series of paintings at Nile Sunset Annex, organized by Maxa Zoller. While their larger-than-life dimensions and vibrant colours offer a sensual experience, the work also tackles topical issues.
In an interview with Maxa Zoller, Fadlabi gives more insight into his practise:
Maxa Zoller: I wanted to begin with a concrete analysis of one of you paintings, The King and the Queen before going into more general issues about the politics of your art. You made this painting for your exhibition Local Heroes at the Kunstnewforbundet in Oslo last year. This show consisted of mostly large scale portraits which depict imaginary characters, your ‘local heroes’.
Fadlabi: The King and the Queen were the very last paintings I made in the series for the Local Heroes exhibition. I thought the figure on the left should be the queen. I wanted to make her dress look very beautiful, so I painted a flower pattern thinking about stars and galaxies. I thought this way, I could paint both, stars and flowers. The flower pattern I painted could be mistaken for a sky full of bright and faint shaky little stars. The painting is an attempt to communicate something that goes far back into history, somewhere better than now. All my local heroes are like The King and the Queen; they are amazing, infallible people, they are capable of doing heroic deeds.
Most of the time, I name my paintings after having painted them. I never make sketches, but I do spend long time thinking about what I am going to paint.
MZ: I would like to unravel the art historical nods of The King and the Queen a little bit. Could you tell me about the way in which you use abstraction, especially in the background. Are there any specific influences that we should know about if we were to understand your paintings better? Or in other, more concrete terms, where are the little squares in the background coming from? What about the little grass-green stripes at the bottom and at the right hand side of the painting (the King is placing his arms over them suggesting a space in front of them)? And the bright blue gestural mark behind the king’s head? Are these abstractions from an interior space (as the ‘window’ in the right corner suggests) or is the role they are playing a purely formal one?
F: The ‘likeness theory’, the theory that a painting is supposed to represent visual reality, is a modern phenomena; ancient Nubian paintings and Ethiopian church paintings, however, are not about capturing the likenesses of the sitter, rather they are about capturing a reality beyond that what the eye can see. That goes as well for the narrative; these paintings do not tell a clear story within a logical time line, a beginning, a middle and an end or a series of events. But that does not mean that they are not accurate records for an event. The best example I can give are the painted barbershop charts in African hairdresser salons. In these charts in the heads are distorted and drawn closer to a pumpkin than a human head. The customers pick a haircut and the barber cuts their hair exactly in this way. The King and the Queen is an attempt to imitate that. The squares you mentioned could be the pattern of the floor, although I don’t need to paint them on the floor. I don’t even need to paint a floor at all. And that goes with all the other details in the painting.
MZ: Your palette of striking colours ranging from bright yellow to the deepest black, the lack of perspectival depth and three-dimensional modulations in favour of a flatness in the foreground as well as the background (which is also facilitated through the use of acrylic paint) and the exclusive focus on the portrayal of two black subjects places the work art historically into the context of the work of some of the most important American civil rights painters of the 1960s and ‘70s such as Marie Johnson-Calloway, whose ‘naive’ painting style was a result of the political directness that was considered necessary at the time.
There are also references to a return to modernist questions in the work by non-black painters in the 1980s. And of course your ‘fauve’ palette connects the painting to the early modernist movements of the 1910s and 20s.
F: I like Marie Johnson-Calloway very much. She is definitely an idol, but I find my paintings closer to the American painter Kerry James Marshall. The way he paints touches me more. What I believe we are all doing (knowingly or not) is referring to a long tradition of painting. The flatness you commented on is much older than the Ethiopian church paintings I am often referring to in my work. You can also find it in the old Nubian paintings in the pyramids of Meroe. I don’t always intend to make my paintings flat, but when you think every little detail in he painting is equally important, you end up having everything the foreground. I find that playful and it is also more fun to look at. The spectator will have the freedom and the power to decide himself what is in the foreground and what in background. I claim to paint in my own way, my “African” own way, which is of course ridiculous claim to make. I studied at the National Academy of the Arts in Oslo and hence I practice it in a very Norwegian way. Even my methods of research are of course affected by my years of study in Oslo. When I studied painting in Sudan, my teachers were trained in Eastern Europe and in England. I learned of course through some sort of Sudanese filter, but I found the Sudanese painters as confused as I am right now. The so-called schools of painting in Sudan were merely small movements by groups of friends in the 1960s and ‘70s; they did not develop enough. That however did not stop a certain way of painting to evolve in Sudan. If you look at ten different Sudanese painters today, you will noticed something they all have in common, something that I cannot set my finger on.
MZ: It sound like you have have created your own, individual art history, your own canon.
F: Absolutely. I would also include the ethnographic drawings by Europeans in the 17th Century and the cassette covers from the 1980s and ‘90s in Sudan.
MZ: You take a lot of inspiration from history. Can you say a bit more about the importance of history in your thinking and painting?
F: I once read that in the in the late 4th Century Alexandria was in turmoil. The persecutions of pagans by newly arrived Christian Romans had reached a new level. Libraries were closed and pagan rituals became forbidden under punishment of death. In 391 Emperor Theodosius ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Patriarch Theophilus complied with his request. One theory, among many others, has it that the great Library of Alexandria and the Serapeum were destroyed at this time. Many people left Alexandria, the capital of civilisation back then.They wondered into the desert where they lived in caves. Apparently many of them turned towards mysticism. People needed something else. They thought the heaviness that they were feeling was not due to political circumstances, but because their souls were trapped inside sinful dirty bodies. Mysticism was away to purify their souls. I feel that nowadays we live in similar circumstances. I find it more comforting to go back in time or to long for the future rather than living in this present moment. I am trying to find this thread that connects me to the thousands of souls in the undocumented history of Africans.
MZ: Earlier you said that your exhibition Local Heroes was about fictional characters – ‘local heroes’ that never made it into the history books. If you allow me I would like to ask you a bit of a provocative question. Are you not running the risk of romanticising ‘Africa’ if you paint Africans’ heroic deeds in this way? Could these paintings be read as a symptom of your diasporic life in Oslo, in which you cannot but resort of fantasies about Africa, in the way that many Afro-American members of the civil rights movement did (I always refer to the closing scene of Spielberg’s ‘The colour purple’, in which the freed Afro-American ex-slave returns from the motherland)? Or, on the other hand, is this your way of ‘balancing the books’, a way to represent the African as a hero rather than the villain (or slave, to speak with Spielberg) à la Hollywood.
F: I have to agree with both your hypotheses and reject them at the same time. Of course living in Europe will get into you. I remember that I used to look at every exhibition invitation with some kind of doubt. I used to ask myself if I was invited just because I am black. I mean, in a country that brands itself as an image of ‘goodness’ per se, you might think that way. However, I don’t really see a problem in romanticising my ‘local heroes’. Sometimes I actually want to do exactly that. How boring would the portraits be if they were actually real! Some magic around them is needed, some mystery. This a part of building up the figure of any hero or celebrity. But this has nothing to do with the fact that they were Africans. It is very important to get rid of all the labels the world has put on if you want the world to see you for who you are. Although I deal with African history when it comes to painting technicalities, I do not think so much about it when it comes to the subject matter. I want to be able to talk about everything, everywhere. The idea of heroes who never made it into the history books does not belong to geography.
MZ: We first met in Oslo in 2007 when I was giving a workshop about experimental film. In our tutorial I remember you showed me a small drawing of an airplane you had made. You said that you remember those military planes flying over Khartum from your childhood. This drawing, more conceptual than your other work, was part of your search for your own artistic voice. What happened to this drawing? How did you finally ‘find your voice’?
F: I know exactly which drawing you are referring to. I am actually smiling while I am writing this now because you remembered that drawing after all these years. I really liked that drawing. I titled it “Metal Bird”. It was a very simple drawing of an airplane with a skeleton drawn into it, like one in those anatomy drawings you have hanging in your class room in elementary school. It had arrows pointing at its different parts and words written to explain what each part was.
At that time I was very confused about Western contemporary art. I found it very difficult to understand how my fellow students dealt with different topics and how they approached art making in general. I think the first revelation I had was when I decided to think about art the way I think about Arabic poetry. I remember reading The Modernism Manifesto (1980) by Syrian poet Adonis. This really helped me in my thinking. But I think what really made me see things in a completely new way was watching Bassam El- Baroni’s lecture about the difference between contemporary and modern art in Egypt at CalArts on you tube.
I think what makes your voice yours is actually less complicated than what you hoped for it to be. Right now, I think it is harder to fake your voice than to find it.
MZ: You are of the generation who witnessed a radical change in the way in which African art is perceived in the West thanks to curators such as the Nigerian Okwui Enwezor and your country man Salah Hassan as well as African artists like Beninese sculptor George Adéagbo, but also South African ‘enfant terrible’ Kendell Geers and Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. You are off the ‘Africa Remix’ and ‘Documenta11’ generation, a generation that sought to change (or correct) the way Africa has been represented since the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Paris Centre Pompidou in 1989. Can you tell us a little bit about the way in which you managed to cut a path through this jungle of exhibitions, curatorial concepts and artistic shifts in the last decade or two?
F: For me personally, the most important moment during the period you just described was the exhibition Unpacking Europe curated by Salah Hassan and Iftikhar Dadi in 2001/02. I have to emphasise that the importance of that moment was very personal, because the efforts of putting this kind of thinking out there had begun long before this exhibition – but this was my moment of revelation. What I liked about Unpacking Europe was how it managed to interrogate the historical and the contemporary meanings of Europe; something I had thought about a lot. Also how Salah and Iftikhar examined the construction of ‘Europeanness’, how in a way they revealed to me the contradictions between homogenising official narratives and everyday realities of urban life, where heterogeneity and hybridity have long been the living norms. Unpacking Europe was one of the biggest motivations for the direction of how I think about my art practice today.
But of course I had to think a lot about Norway since I am based there and that was very challenging. It is like being in a forest among its trees. You can see everything really well; the moss, the texture of the stones and their colours. You know how everything smells, you know the sounds and the names of every little thing. But if you have to describe the place, you need to lift yourself above it and look at everything from a higher vantage point. I think my project European Attraction Limited which I made with my friend Lars Cuzner signifies that lift for me. I don’t remember managing to think and produce a work that was site and time specific to Norway before that. The research process was very long, it took five years. Our project was aimed at tracing the evolution of racism in Norway by reenacting Kongolandsbyen, The Congo Village from 1914, a human zoo that was a part of the Centennial celebration of the Norwegian 1814 constitution.
The project went through many phases, some we controlled, others we intentionally let go of. 16 months before our exhibition was to open, we organised a conference about collective memory loss, public imaginations, different views on modernities, national branding, spectatorship and repercussions of misrepresentations. After that project, I was more confident about the kind of paintings I wanted to make. Saying this reminds me of what I said earlier: “Although I deal with African history when it comes to painting technicalities, I don’t think so much about it when it comes to the subject matter.” We are in a point of history where our identities and our fight for equality should not be trapped in geography, race, gender and systems of believes. Right now, while I am writing this and later on when you are reading it, someone is being subjected to some unjust act by another human being. This is bad enough, but we are so used to this that it does not really matter until it happens to us personally. Luckily, we have art, imagine if all we did was witnessing all this without having art to respond with.
MZ: Your human zoo created a bit of a scandal in Norway. Although in the end you actually did not ‘exhibit’ Africans but populated the zoo with all kinds of volunteers you were accused of reproducing a form of direct, shameless racism that we thought to have left behind in our modern world a long time ago. For me, however, your project was a way of exploring new methodologies of criticism. This project chimes with a form of critique that has been discussed at length in the last years: accelerationism. In a way, the Kongo Village intensified the notion of ‘othering’ to such a degree that the position of the spectator, the visitor of the zoo, had to be radically re-negociated. Not only did you position yourself, the artist, on the ‘wrong’ side’ in terms of what you are supposed to do (condemn and critique wrong doings), but you also pulled the rug under the viewer’s feet, ethically speaking. This approach which could be seen as a form of neo-DADA, is of course not an easy position for either, the artist nor the audience.
In your paintings you seem to work in a very different way. Your points of interest, methodologies and aesthetics are different. Your current exhibition at Nile Sunset Annex Buoyancy presents a body of work that signifies a new direction in your work, which I am very excited about. Can you say a little bit about the concept of Buoyancy?
F: I decided to make this exhibition about the Sudanese society It is site specific in the sense that it is about those Sudanese who are trapped in a limbo between Sudan and the promise of the global North. The title Buoyancy has a double meaning: we associate something really positive with the term and at the same time it refers to the buoyancy life jackets. I remember the term from my studies of nautical navigation in Khartum. For me the pictures of the floating bodies of the so-called ‘boat people’ is like a last act of resistance: these bodies are not sinking, they are still floating to the surface.