Mellon Public Curatorial Expression

Between Nothingness and Infinity
Curated by Lauren Siegel (Africana Studies), Sarah Then Bergh (Africana Studies), Marie Lambert (Comparative Literature), Romain Pasquer (Romance Studies, LGBT Studies)

  • Sep 29-Dec 17, 2022
    Tue-Sun 10a-5p
    Johnson Museum Wing Gallery

  • Sep 29, Sep 30, Oct 1, 2022
    Johnson Museum Wing Gallery

Between Nothingness and Infinity asks: What are the consequences of living on the brink? What new affects appear within this accidental present of living in uncertain times, one which embodies unease and nervousness? The Martinican psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, offers a starting point through which to think about the contention currently facing our times—that of futurities, uncertain—as we inhabit a present that no longer promises a future. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon decries, “Not responsible for my acts, at the crossroads between Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.” The urgent and yet impossible task of enacting himself as a subject serves as the exhibit’s theoretical touchstone for its insight into the human condition and its ability to unsettle assumptions about the cultural “origins” of things, insisting instead on a relational, itinerant view of aesthetics. Between Nothingness and Infinity parses the artistic forces of resistance, where the stubborn promise of infinite possibilities can only belong to the future, no matter how uncertain.

In doing so, Between Nothingness and Infinity interrogates how to figure the future in our present day. How to find a voice for subjectivities in which the past is marked by a void and for whom the future only portrays their absence? The poet Suzanne Césaire asks how the game of hide and seek opens a gap in the repetitive cycle of silencing. The game, the childhood game, comes to open an instability, an unpredictability, it asks the individual to play as if, to open a space of potentiality. Moreover, playing around the concept of sight, it is the very hiddenness of subjectivities that should be brought forward. Rejecting the binary between seeing/not-seeing, Between Nothingness and Infinity offers to play around the notion of hiddenness, the opacity of the other, in the Glissantian register. The game, and its adjacent iterations, emphasizes the future as a site one occupies without disengaging from the potentiality of uncertainty.

Suzanne Césaire’s discourse theoretically sustains our curatorial project through her engagement with the notion of collapse. As Césaire writes in The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-1945), “Everything cracks, everything collapses in the ripping sounds of great manifestations.” This curatorial project offers to think of the collapse as a site of artistic production, as well as the opening up of a medium of transmission. Through performance, photography, sculptures and videos, the artists included in our project suggest a reconsideration of what may come from the void–or the collapse–of the world and therefore encourages an interrogation of race relations as it impacts the future of the local, international, and global.

Oupa Sibeko (South Africa, b. 1992) is an interdisciplinary performance artist whose work moves between performance installation, photography, film and community-based activism. Oupa’s playful, often humorous, and at times satirical approach deals with the matter and politics of the body as a contested site of labor, and as an object that assimilates the spirit of the moment and adapts to its environment. Enabling opportunities for affective and relational encounters using ritualistic performance and play, he seeks to critically engage approaches to the body, particularly the black male body, the history of representation and the ways in which certain subjectivities have been (and are) figured, (black) pain, (black) spectacle, (black) negation, and the ethical implications of reimagining and re-enacting pain. Sibeko was shortlisted for the top 17 in the Henrike Grohs Art award 2020, awarded a Mail & Guardian top 200 and David Koloane award in 2019, and a Richard Haines all-rounded performer award by Wits University Humanities Faculty 2015. He has taken part in group and solo shows in Namibia at the National Art Gallery of Namibia, Wits TPO Gallery, Wits Art Museum, Room Gallery, Melville Art Project, Greatmore Studios in Cape Town, The Freezer Hostel and Theatre in Iceland and Art Room in Parkhurst. As an independent artist, Sibeko teaches and volunteers in schools and universities around Johannesburg, South Africa.

Black is Blue (2019-ongoing) is concerned with the widespread practice of using seawater for healing and spiritual purposes. Deriving from Nguni and other traditions, this practice is linked to the “people of water,” usually water-based diviners, for whom the sea is a realm of ancestors, a site for spiritual cleansing and grounding; the sea holds potential to heal and its curative powers live in the water. While in the past such practices occurred at the coast, with urbanization and industrialization, the practice has been adapted and now one can purchase bottles of sea water inland. The main purpose of this project is to describe and artistically explore beliefs and practices involving bottled seawater for spiritual, health and healing purposes.

Black is Blue is an invitation for people of all ages to be immersed in a sensory exploration in a durational performance with Sibeko lying on two deck-chairs facing down with four fish hooks attached to his back in a blue-lit room, with a floor covered in sea salt. The work inspires people to embrace the myth of an inland sea as a way to rethink the urban space, who belongs in it and how they occupy it. Through a comical yet thought-provoking video of a man fishing from a puddle on the streets of Johannesburg, Black is Blue calls on humanity to return to the sea to repair wounds and for spiritual grounding.

Gustavo Nazareno (Brazil, b. 1994) was raised in Minas Gerais, Brazil, and is now living and practicing in São Paulo. Self-taught, the opportunity to work as an artist appeared in 2018 during his move to São Paulo. His family practices Umbanda and his aunt brought him to her ‘terreiro’, the place where ceremonies are done in Brazil, and was ordered by the ‘Pai de Santo’ (the spiritual father), to make seven pictures of the male Orixás (deities). In a prayerful meditative state Gustavo creates the imagery of Exú (Eshu – Yoruba: also spelled, Eshu, Èṣù, and Echú). Rendered as a poetic and lyrical dance, depicting both the light and the shadow of humanity. Exú is the god of multiplicity, constantly shifting between man, woman, child, non binary androgyny, and animal forms. Gustavo presents Exú as a divine being wearing haute couture clothing, highlighting both the sacred and the profane elements within life’s experiences. With imagery that looks like high fashion photography, but is hand drawn with the artist’s finger tips applying charcoal dust to paper or oil on canvas, in a dark studio lit by only candle light, Gustavo creates a sumptuous visual narrative in black and white that leaves space for those who view the work to enter with their own form of humanity.

Nazareno plans to create a fable of Exú in relation to the deity’s influence on nature and the world. The stories told around Exú fit into the Biennial’s theme–futurities, uncertain–insofar as it is Exú whose abode is at the crossroads of spiritual and human realms, maintaining the delicate balance between destruction and rebirth, joy and sorrow. The first painting is titled The Cultivation of Ideas, and the second is titled Exú.

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