Who We Are ("Crazy Nigger")
By .kojo Adumatta (@aaimba.aaimba)
By .kojo Adumatta (@aaimba.aaimba)
I am allowing myself to be a beginner again, so yes, my knowledge about artists and their achievements are quite limited – especially, African American artists. Adam Pendelton, I personally never heard of him, never seen any work by him and never would have suspected his works to be shown at the Gallery Weekend 2019 in Berlin. The Pendleton exhibition at Galerie Max Hetzler is one of my highlights during the Gallery Weekend in context of the African Diaspora.
From the moment I entered the Gallery, I was surprised! I never expected an exhibition with an African Diaspora, or in this case African-American context during the weekend – either because there are so few of them in Berlin, or maybe my research level is just weak.
The exhibition is titled "Who We Are", and I immediately felt a connection to Pendleton's works. The displayed masks on his black and white canvases were a clear signal that this must be an artist with a relationship or roots to the African continent. Furthermore, the gallery space had papered one wall at the entrance in a way that people could or maybe should think of a graffiti artist. You could easily guess that his works are inspired and influenced by Hip-Hop culture. Most canvases were like a mural painting with a clear and straightforward message written on, "Crazy Nigger" was one of them. It was hard to read and swallow this word. What the f*** is he thinking? Why this statement? Where is the empowerment that black people seem to seek nowadays? Has he lost his mind? Questions over questions appeared in me. I got emotional as I often do when I see or hear that word. Even though I paradoxically use it in my active vocabulary sometimes when I am around my mates. Pendleton and I never met before, so I took it as an offence against black people. Later, after reading the press release text, I found out that he sprayed or painted it referring to a song by Julius Eastman (1940–1970) an African American composer in the field of Minimal Music, Wikipedia told me. After calming down, I felt the absence of a critical approach to being black in black communities, counting myself in of course.
The exhibition also shows two video portraits of Ishmael Houston-Jones, dancer and choreographer, and Yvonne Rainer, dancer, choreographer/performance artist and filmmaker. Ishmail is giving us insides of his past life. He is talking about his childhood memories, parents, the desire and passion for professional dance, and his homosexuality. While watching art films, I always catch myself drifting away and thinking of totally different things like: "What food should I get later. What appointments do I have this week? What do I need to prepare for them? Or I think about the game against XY last weekend." Who does not, right?! After a short while, I often manage to catch myself and focus on what's displayed. Now back to the film about Ishmael. His story made me think about black society in general. Who are we? Who is he (Ismael)? Why do we have to know him? What can we learn from his life, and why does the artist portrayed him? Thinking about all these questions, I caught myself thinking about my life and aspirations. About my adolescence. My travel from a village back in Ghana to Berlin, where I live and work. Is my story worth spreading, will it spark interest, capture an audience or inspire others? Where am I headed? Even though I know my path, where and what I desire to be, I still ask myself these questions. Though they seem already answered, they always pop up occasionally.
Besides me being busy with myself, this film about Ismael is, furthermore, touching on various social issues. Ismael talks about him being the last of his family tree. He does not have any siblings, nor does he have a partner in life. I cannot tell if he is lonely – I guess or hope not – but the film implies it. I never did – still do not – understand why loneliness plays such a significant role in a society full of people, and since I am not a sociologist, I will not be able to give you a specific explanation, if there is one.
Further on, Ismael is holding a monologue where he is using words that might or surely are inappropriate for me to iterate on this platform. He is talking about his sexual interaction with another man. Talking about homosexuality is always a delicate thing for me. I am heterosexual and frequently catch myself trying to avoid talking about this topic; reason being that I do not walk in their shoes. I am trying to live my life consciously in the philosophy of stoicism. Therefore, I do not hold any right to judge anybody's actions or emotional preferences. All I can say is that we as black people need to be critical with ourselves and allow these kinds of conversations within our communities. For only then we will be able to reach our very own stepping stones.
The second film with Yvonne Rainer is dealing with modern-day racial issues in the United States. Yvonne is in conversation with a young black man in a typical American Diner, I would say. She recalls a performance she did in the past and is reading a text about the brutal choking of Eric Garner, the circumstances, the inequality, the burden black people are dealing with in the USA. I never experienced any of these issues (the brutal killings and police harassment) African-Americans have to deal with here in Germany. Since American culture had and still has a significant impact on my life – especially Hip–Hop and American films – I sincerely feel a deep connection toward any peaceful movement that is fighting to change these miserable conditions.
In conclusion, "Who We Are" is a fascinating and challenging exhibition if you put your mind to it and let it sink into your rational thinking. Otherwise, it is hard to see the message behind the aesthetic look of Pendleton's canvases. You have to create your very own interpretation. But always remember, the deciding message of any artwork lies in the hand of the artist. No one can ever give you a clue of what was going through their mind while doing the artwork. The gallery divided the exhibition into two locations. I chose to provide you with my view of the one in Goethestr. 2/3. Leaving the exhibition in Bleibtreustr. 45 for you to make up your mind. Go and have a look for yourself and feel what the artworks and the atmosphere arouse in you. Have fun!
Adam Pendleton – "Who We Are" Venue: Galerie Max Hetzler / Berlin, Goethestraße 2/3, 25 April – 29 June 2019 / Berlin, Bleibtreustraße 45, 25 April – 29 June 2019