On a research trip through Switzerland, Khanya Mashabela delved into the works of the two artists exhibiting at Kunsthalle Basel.
In June, I was one of six African women curators on a ten-day research trip through Switzerland, via Pro Helvetia and artlink’s Travel Network Grant program. We visited museums, private art foundations, fairs, independent project spaces, and artists’ studios in Basel, Lausanne, Geneva, Bern, and Zürich. My aim during the trip was to better understand how private and public art spaces in Switzerland use their resources and infrastructure to address the needs of their communities. Our group was made up of women with deep insights into the arts ecologies of Nigeria, Uganda, Togo, Benin, Kenya, and Ethiopia, and so the trip was also an opportunity to discuss the advantages and challenges of art worlds throughout the continent.
When we speak about identity politics and body politics in art, there is a persistent focus on figurative, realistic portrayals of the body. This is largely inspired by the abundant inheritance of Black portraiture from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The genre began as a statement of both postmodernity and the Black Consciousness Movement, with subjects conveying self-possession and glamor. Glamor here is an act of resistance, borne from the desire to see one’s self, and the people that look like one’s self, in a better light than that allowed by the vast majority of visual art, literature, and news media. Fashion and style are integral to the ways in which we locate our identities and our bodies within the cultural landscape, but they also act as armor – a line of defence between the vulnerable, fleshy parts of ourselves and prying eyes. When I entered Kunsthalle Basel, I did not realize that I had been craving this vulnerability – nor did I expect to find it during the chaotic flashiness of Art Basel week.
Take a breath. Hold it in. Exhale. Do it again. Again. And again. Suddenly, your body’s most basic act, which you probably rarely think about – although each of us typically performs it twenty-two thousand times per day – becomes conscious, evident, even pressing. We live – or die – through breath.These are the opening lines of Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s text for her Kunsthalle Basel exhibition, titled the poetics of beauty will inevitably resort to the most base pleadings and other wiles in order to secure its release. This title and the exhibition’s opening room, filled with artworks reminiscent of tortuous exercise machines, suggested physical exertion. At the exhibition’s center was an air compression machine which, after long intervals of silence, released a long, labored breath. Despite the absence of bodies, the works felt bodily. Each implied movement, or the stifling of movement. Steel frames and chains (made matte black with paint and shoe polish), from the series A MERCY, suggested rigidity and weight. The hanging leather belts of the THRASHER series begged to be pulled taut.
The following rooms were smaller and more personal. We were confronted with the artist’s body. The first video, titled DIRE / RETENUE, was shown on a CRT television screen, giving it the feeling of surveillance footage. McClodden stands in a room with the camera centered on her torso, inflating and deflating with each heavy breath. She binds her body in buckled leather straps, connecting the video to the installation that preceded it. The action feels like a medical routine used to hold her body together. As she unbinds her body, her heavy breathing feels like a symptom of her desperation to be untrapped. All around the television screen were canvases painted with strokes of shoe polish and bound with jute rope tied into shibari-style knots. The act of binding has layers: binding to change the form of one’s body, binding as a medical practice, binding to play with and subvert the power dynamics associated with heteronormative sex.
The second video was in the final room. Our sense of surveillance was amplified: watching it, we were peering into the artist’s bedroom as she sprawls on her back with a CPAP machine aiding her breathing. I was struck by how vulnerable she appeared, but also by the memory of the air compressor seen in the first room. The work and its title, APNEA, resolved itself here. Both the artist and the artwork became a cross of machine and human, a reminder that we are all more machine-like in the contemporary context. Machines have become appendages to our minds and to our bodies. In the framework that McClodden created, this evolution felt positive in comparison to the dystopian horror-scapes visible throughout culture that are inspired by human reliance on machines. Though the exhibition felt sterile or emotionally cold at first, the final room came with a sense of calm.
P. Staff’s exhibition In Ekstase, at the same institution, began with the acrid yellow glow of Afferent Nerves. The work felt expected, largely because it was dotted with museumgoers using the installation as a real-world Instagram filter. But this impression swiftly changed. The next room was dark and filled with a series of backlit etchings on glass panels, titled HHS-687. The panels show iterations of a medical contract growing and retracting via the various scales of redactive blackout boxes. The contract is a consent form for medical sterilization. Some of the panels highlight the rights of the patient and the conditions under which they can consent, while others detail the obligations of medical professionals to provide transparent and humane care. In many contexts, medical sterilization is not associated with consent or bodily autonomy. Only in 2017 did the European Court of Human Rights rule that requiring sterilization for people to legally change their gender is a violation of human rights. Forced sterilization is associated with the South African apartheid government’s cruel attempts at population control, but even after apartheid medical professionals in South Africa and Kenya have sterilized HIV-positive Black women without their consent. P. Staff’s blackout poetry-style treatment of the consent contract asks us to reconsider how our relationships with our bodies are mediated – and often undermined – by the changing landscape of western medicine.
In the exhibition’s last and largest room was a video installation titled La Nuit Américaine. The title is drawn from the technique of making an analog film scene shot by day look like night using particular lenses and filters. The video work shows this façade to be unconvincing. The sun is a blue orb creeping into the corners of scenes, the shadows are too deep, people’s movements feel distinctly diurnal. The camera movements were dizzying, everything had a blue tinge, lights flashed on walls of the room. The video installation tasted like a rolling panic attack. Images layered with the phantoms of the images which had already passed, but were burned into viewers’ retinas. It ends with a crescendo of blinding light. Technique is used in La Nuit Américain to simulate the experience of dissociating.
What was most striking about both McClodden’s and P. Staff’s exhibitions was the space they created for vulnerability. One of the biggest crimes of marginalization in its many forms (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism) is the theft of marginalized people’s ability to be vulnerable. The predominance of beautiful subjects in the African context is not due to a lack of creativity; we are not always strong, excellent, and beautiful like the subjects of much of contemporary figurative painting. I found it meaningful that the works in the two exhibitions were newly commissioned by Kunsthalle Basel. Returning to South Africa, some desires have crystallized. I hope for an environment that feels more emotionally and physically safe. I also hope for an arts ecology which is healthy enough to accommodate that level of vulnerability beyond the market, along with the unusual materials and ambivalent aesthetic choices McClodden and P. Staff used to express it.
Khanya Mashabela is an art administrator, art historian, critic, lecturer, and poet with a BA (Honours) in Art History from the Michaelis School of Fine Art. She currently lives and works in Cape Town.
This text was produced with support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, the Swiss Arts Council.