The title of Serge Attukwei Clottey’s recent solo show – ‘Beyond Skin’ – at the newly opened Simchowitz Gallery in LA, is baffling. Whether it is smart or merely provocative is hard to tell, especially given the fact that today there is no greater currency in the contemporary art world other than black skin. Dealerships trade in black bodies, museums are being redefined to accommodate black narratives, every major collector requires one or more works by leading black artists.
In 2020-21 the Tate Modern showcased the photography of Zanele Muholi, while Tate Britain celebrated Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Amoako Boafo was the most sought-after artist last year. There are many other examples of the prominence of black artists in the Western orbit. If Muholi’s rise was a slow burn, Boafo’s was meteoric. But what we are indisputably dealing with is the hyper-visibility of black artists, and black portraiture in particular.
A case of reconciliation? A need to right a historical wrong, reboot the art canon, ensure diversity and inclusivity? Certainly. These are all matters of great importance at this historical moment, signalling a seismic shift in the art world, rather than a mere trend. For beneath the exploded view that is black portraiture lies an existential quest to rethink the Human. As Steve Bantu Biko prophetically declared in I write what I like, Africa would give the world a ‘human face’. Africa, and the African diaspora, is not the last frontier of the art world but its frontline. As such, it is a critical matter of concern, a way to rethink the obscenity of colonialism, which persists today.
In this regard, Clottey’s title, ‘Beyond Skin’, assumes a peculiar traction. Its trigger is not the absence of race, or the dubious fantasy of post-racialism, but the need, over and above the persistent fetishisation of race, to re-evaluate the Human. Like Biko’s, his is a liberating idea in a time of heated contestation. In the face of neo-colonialism and ascendant fascism worldwide, Clottey broaches the weakening belief in humanism. Religion too has proved a destructive dimension of racism, part and parcel of an imperial civilising mission. In her poem, Growing up Black & Christian, Koleka Putuma writes: ‘The gospel / is how whiteness breaks into our homes / and brings us to our knees’. One cannot ignore the absorptive and controlling power of religion or political ideology. Secular humanism too has its dangers. The contemporary art world is complicit in this regard. While just in its desire to incorporate cultural difference, deconstruct and reconstruct a Western art canon and acknowledge the critical place within it of the African diaspora, this move remains as cynical as it is proactive. If black portraiture is a sign of the times, its fetishisation in the Western world in particular remains troubling. There is no doubt that black portraiture, as the defining current trope of taste and value, is unassailably evident. That we finally need to recognise and see the lives of others is telling. Once the domain of the powerful, portraiture is now a democratic genre. If all faces are now fair game in the public domain, black faces have become iconic, a currency in and of itself. Does the black face constitute a genre? If so, is this an ethical venture? In objectifying the black face, black skin, black lives, are we not further subtracting its existence?
Taste is a thrilling and dangerous affair. The modern art world has trafficked in this thrill and danger for over a century. However, at no point in the Western world, until now, has it elected to privilege a racial other – the black body – as its defining obsession. An overblown case of atonement? Is it any wonder that the inflation of contemporary black portraiture occurs at the precise point when the West confronts the looting of African artworks and, now, their repatriation? The Benin bronzes are a case in point. Here justice meets a cynical pragmatism. Ever capable of absorbing contradiction, the West is doubtless brokering black portraiture to save face, not only to right a wrong. C.A. Bayly has marked out three phases in imperial modern European history, ‘the Iberian and Dutch conquests in the New World and Asia between 1520 and 1620’, territorial seizure in South and south-east Asia, America and Australia between 1760 and 1830, followed by ‘the Partition of Africa after 1878’, Russian control of central Asia, ‘and the battle for concessions in China’. The war continues to this day. One cannot consider the stratospheric rise of black portraiture in the West without recognising a prior oppressive and extractive imperial history.
While an individual artist’s skill is paramount, I remain troubled by the extent to which individual capacity is overridden by a new rule – the iconicity of blackness. While there is much to celebrate in the newfound presence of the black body in the narrative of Western art, one cannot ignore its belatedness, and wonder as to its significance. For centuries, Africa and the African diaspora have been an integral, if invisible, dimension of the Western world. On the optimistic front, Teju Cole, in his essay on Zanele Muholi, Portrait of a Lady, reflects on how we’ve become ‘newly aware of the power of portraiture in a gifted artist’s hands’. ‘Muholi doesn’t grant her sitters independence – they are independent – but she makes their independence visible’. Cole’s view is a healthy counter to the cynical brokerage in black bodies. It allows us to strip away the veil of prejudice and lovelessness which has made it impossible to see the humanity of others. If, more generally, there is one distinctive aspect of black portraiture, it is that, at its best, it allows for independence.
Serge Attukwei Clottey’s portraits in oil and duct tape on cork capture a comparable stridency. His figures are empowered, confident, wholly in place. No existential dread, no inherited culture of invisibility, consumes them. Unlike Muholi’s photographs, however, it is not the singularity of being alone that matters. Clottey is as fascinated by what, in the fashion world, is dubbed being ‘in the look’ – the projection of style. This is evident in the bold colour blocking and the deliberate play-off of the human and its cultural context – what makes us what we are. There is a lightness in Clottey’s paintings, a desire to fend off historical hurt. Perhaps it is this decision which accounts for the title of the show – ‘Beyond Skin’? Is Clottey punting Jean-Paul Sartre’s call for a ‘future universalism’, a position challenged by Frantz Fanon? How else can one account for a post-racial global vision and a belief in the particularities of place and community? If both the local and global, the singular and inclusive, must be kept in play it is perhaps because we are not dealing with a paradox but with an evolving story of ‘black consciousness’. ‘I am wholly what I am’, Fanon declared, ‘I do not have to look for the universal… My Negro consciousness does not hold itself out as a lack. It is. It is its own follower’. In this regard, Clottey would agree. However, unlike Fanon, Clottey’s take is post-reactive. He does not affirm being in relation to oppression, or the spectre of non-being and invisibility. Instead, the self-presence of his portraits is strident, wholly in the world – worldly – and, in this regard, utterly affirming.
As for the choice of surfaces, his portraits are painted on cork? They are part and parcel of a project, spanning twenty years, in which the artist, as performer and activist, has recycled Western material waste into art. The diced and stitched yellow plastic oil drums in their multitude is his greater signature, the root of a practice he has dubbed ‘Afrogallonism’, whereby a manipulated Western product is returned to a putative global centre as art. His monumental commission for Facebook, which began as a community project, is a case in point, as is his contribution to the Desert X Biennial. Clottey is equally interested in the migration of objects and people. While wholly committed to the idea of ‘community’, a word he repeats more than any other, he is as committed to Africa’s diasporic impact. ‘Objects migrate, change their value’, he says. So do people. Today we find the migration of the black body to the centre of the art world. While I remain sceptical as to the significance of this move, it cannot be glibly discounted. If it is unsurprising that the Simchowitz Gallery should place this move centre-stage, it is because it is part of a greater revisionist project. Within that project, however, one needs to be more discerning, more rigorous, in one’s understanding of its endgame. The black body is not a generic type, band-aid, nor a panacea.
Vitalism and innovation are the key at any moment in art history. In this moment, I am concerned with the continued exploitation of black life, and, as intensively, with its liberatory power. If Clottey has titled his solo show ‘Beyond Skin’, it is because he is as vexed by the commodification of black life. If his painted figures possess a vital ease, it is because he is not preoccupied with an existential threat. Moving forward, we must continue to weigh the ills and strengths of this highly ambivalent moment in art history, and the role of black portraiture therein.
‘Beyond Skin’ was on view at Simchowitz Gallery from the 17th of April until the 8th of May 2021.
Ashraf Jamal is a Cape Town-based academic, writer and cultural theorist. He is a Research Associate in the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, University of Johannesburg, and teaches in the Media Studies Programme at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town. He is the co-author of Art in South Africa: The Future Present and co-editor of Indian Ocean Studies: Social, Cultural, and Political Perspectives. Ashraf Jamal is also the author of Predicaments of culture in South Africa, Love themes for the wilderness, and the award-winning short fiction, The Shades. Jamal’s latest book is In the World: Essays on Contemporary South African Art, published in 2017 by Skira.