With all that is going on in the world right now, you might be forgiven for thinking that the language of our times is based on conflict, hostility and anger. But there are different ways. Both in London and in Houston, two artists are trying to translate a political message by way of a much gentler approach.
Houston’s Inman Gallery is showing works by Jamal Cyrus, born in Houston in 1973, that are aesthetically pleasing, yet at the same time loaded with meaning and purpose. The work BPPGG consists of an iconic black leather jacket such as the ones worn by members of the American civil rights movement Black Panther, framed by a transparent light blue veil. The veil seems to illuminate the jacket like an icon for Black militancy. At the same time, it is an everyday, contemporary fashion item. On closer look, Cyrus has strewn tiny pouches onto the jacket, referencing the folk culture where such pockets protect the people wearing them from harm, both actual and spiritual.
On the opposite wall is a wooden frame with shelves housing various records, Cyrus’ Pride Record Findings. Cyrus designed these fictional records, inserting, in his own words, “Black militancy into funk music”. One title reads Baby, My Death shall be Beautiful and Noisy till the Last Swing, another one The Vision of African Mystics. For Cyrus, this is 'sound that plays out in your imagination'. At the same time, at a more universal level, this work is about how music unites, not divides people.
Is a commercial gallery, with its exclusive audience, the best art platform to raise political issues? When the political side of the art remains within the sphere of the gallery, isn't the artist merely preaching to the converted? Cyrus is the first to acknowledge this dilemma, and is navigating a constantly shifting balance between art gallery activity and a more socially engaged art practice. Cyrus is part of the artist collective Otabenga Jones and Associates, who have as their goal to preserve and promote Black culture and the principles of the Black radical tradition. A recent project at Houston’s Project Row Houses featured a temporary outdoor radio station broadcasting live jazz sounds from the back of a pink 1959 Cadillac.
The second artist, William Kentridge, is not exactly the type for such a hands-on platform, that directly engages local communities. In his 60s, South-African born Kentridge is modest, gentle and only came to occupy his prominent position in the art world later in life. With his intellectual and highly developed artistic mind it comes as no surprise that for Kentridge, politics has always seemed ambiguous and contradictory. He confronts issues such as South-African apartheid, colonialism, Chinese censorship under Mao, but always in his role as an artist, and placed in the context of the cultural stage.
Starting as a skilled draughtsman, over the years Kentridge developed an artistic practice that incorporates collages on newspapers, animated puppetry, film, dance and music. He still draws, directs and edits, but also relies on a large team of collaborators such as the South-African based Handspring Puppet Company, who are behind the famous horses in the play War Horse. In his own words, “If I do have a talent that is a talent for choosing the right collaborators”. Modest indeed!
The current show at the Whitechapel, Thick Time, shows a tight group of works around the themes of performance and installation, and they all relate to time in some way. In The Refusal of Time (2012) we see a procession of people hoovering between a parade and an exodus – an image we see often in Kentridge’s work - surrounded by different (old) instruments like a clock and a metronome, with a ‘breathing machine’ in the centre giving rhythmic palpitations. Kentridge describes it as "a meditation on time and fate".
This is a very focused exhibition, so what the show at the Whitechapel does not fully reflect is that Kentridge is staging more and more artworks outside the gallery. Alban Berg’s 1930s opera Lulu is currently showing at the English National Opera with stage designs by Kentridge (book it today if you can – it ends 19th November!) Earlier this year, his work Triumphs and Laments was projected in Rome onto a large 550m screen against the stone wall of the river Tevere, featuring a procession of mythological figures from the city’s rich past. At the opening, a theatrical event was staged with a shadow play and music composed by Philip Miller, performed by over forty live musicians.
Compared to these multi-sensory events, the show at The Whitechapel is somewhat drier, relying quite heavily on intellectual and medium-specific references around the theme of performance. These artworks require a certain level of commitment and understanding of all the historical references (such as Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist 1938 story The Nose or, Trotsky’s revolutionary Soviet theatre). A piece that is noticeably missing from this show, is Kentridge’s More Sweetly Play the Dance of 2015. The work was shown in various places internationally (amongst others: The Eye Museum in Amsterdam). It was also part of a show at Marian Goodman Gallery in London and New York this and last year, so hopefully it will re-emerge in one of the large museums or public collections sometime soon. The work captures our current world in an incredibly moving way.
A large procession, like that seen in other works, is presented with highly skilled animation techniques and rich detail. It is moving slowly across five large cinema screens that are staged to entirely surround the spectator. As before, Kentridge has used actors, puppetry, still and animated drawings and music to create an original and very memorable setting, one that is hard to describe in words. We see dancers, a processional band, swinging skeletons and figures looking like war victims carrying poles with fluid drips behind them. The main tones are black and white, but here and there a subtle but imposing touch of red, green or blue shows up in the flags or the dress of a ballerina.
The work is rich, complex and unusual, yet it captures you, as if all mankind is played out right before our eyes (and ears). The procession is a beautiful metaphor for the human condition: melancholic submission moves hand in hand with joyous celebration. We are reminded of the many millions of people that are currently displaced, but at the same time we can feel humanity’s ability to lift each other up, and to move forward, always forward. Music, the art form that can express emotions so well, binds the long chain of people and objects together: a beautiful anthem that starts slow, but steadily gains momentum; at times it is heart-breaking, but more often uplifting and full of hope.
Like Jamal Cyrus, William Kentridge celebrates Black culture, albeit in a different context (South Africa for Kentridge, and America for Cyrus). Music appears in both their works, as a strong binding force. But both artists also show a deep regard for the constant struggles and failures in Black history. Cyrus, a young artist, is more explicit and directly involved in activism through art outside the gallery space. Kentridge’s art is subtle and complex: he deals mainly with the ambiguity surrounding heavy political issues. His processions are metaphors for all of humanity, and possess a universality that can touch us all, irrespective of our cultural or political background.
If this is not an antidote to divisiveness and surrender, then what is? To combine the political with the poetic, to find enchantment in a disenchanted world, is one of the greatest skills that an artist can possess. Go and judge for yourself. We need more kindness in this world.
Whitechapel Gallery, London, William Kentridge: Thick Time, until 15 January 2017
English National Opera, London, Lulu, until 19 November 2016
Inman Gallery, Houston, Jamal Cyrus: STANDARDZENBLUZ, until 30 December 2016
To see and hear Otabenga Jones and Associates' Pink Cadillac radio project in Houston, OJBKFM, go to http://projectrowhouses.org/ojbkfm-third-coast