Nothing Wrong With Speaking Back

Nothing Wrong with Speaking Back – Thoughts on an Exhibition

While on any other given day the lumping of work by female artists, who happen to be black, into an exhibition thematically arranged around ‘narration’, could be read as an empowering practise. This time, as happenstance would have it, it also runs the risk of asserting overtones of primitivism and tokenism. The exhibition Speaking Back at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town groups together the work of prominent female artists who are black or have a tenuous connection to some peripheral politic. Their works have been curated into an exhibition that privileges ‘narration’, which, as a point of focus lends itself as an easy escape from the ideologically fraught possibilities that the work actually opens up.

There are several grave dangers in approaching the subject of black woman subjectivity simply as an aesthetic project by appealing simply to a work’s ‘narrative’. Especially when the work is used also to prove a one-dimensional thesis of ‘race/gender/culture’. This reductive approach is destined to miss the opportunity to throw these boxes out of the window and ultimately fails to present a wider scope of the shifting terrain of visual self/representations of ‘black’ ‘women’ offering postcolonial counter-evidence through artistic practice.

The evidence of the corporeal angst involved in being black or performing blackness within existing hierarchies, in order to subvert the dominant standard and subtly or overtly challenge the status quo, is the common thread that runs through the individual practises of the artists set together in this show. The titillating sound that fills the whole space is the voice and the jazzy soundtrack from Mickalene Thomas’s Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, 2012 the video is about, her muse, her mother, a failed beauty queen. This sound incongruently bleeds into all the other works such that appears to become the soundtrack to all the works. Kara Walkers Fall from Grace Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale, 2011 sits strangely on a small screen, oddly placed on a plinth near the door. It is hit by the shadow of Adejoke Tugbiyele’s Upray the flesh, 2013, the dildo and its skull heads from its suspended position, so close to Kara Walkers depiction of a traumatic rape scene, takes on a far more menacing form.

The works when placed in relation to each other, in a well-conceptualised grouping, ordinarily have the potential to reinforce each other. However, in this context, the actual intent of the work, while not diminished, cannot be positively reinforced by the other work in the group show. Instead it begins to appear that the works are caught up in a doubly objectifying self-exploitative rhetoric. The intended subversion reverses and visually reproduces/reinforces the system it set out to “speak back” to and critique; the artists, for self-advancement through the work, inadvertently appear to be full participants in their own subjugation.
There is no doubt about the individual agency of the artists and their powerful artworks; where the cookie crumbles, is in the framing. “Speaking Back” suggests a defensive position, the position where an ambivalent or confused self-esteem’s agency is tamed, setting up a dialectic where its narrative simply cannot speak of its own accord, and can only be the antithesis to the thesis. The ‘simple’ arrangement of the show according to “narrative” curtails in this case the individual agency of the artworks on the exhibition and caps the extent of their political and social critique.
What saves this awkward framing, which narrowly avoids being tokenistic, from being a shallow spectacle is the quality of the work in the exhibition. Simply put: ‘narration’ as a theme here offers only a neutralising, simplistic context for what is actually a visionary set of counter-hegemonic practices, and to focus on ‘narration’ as an aesthetic device, is an utter disservice to the work of these highly commendable artists.