Mere pockets of aspiration: A review of ‘Potentially Yours, The Coming Community’
Lana Lopesi talks potentiality, post-truth and Trump in response to John Mutambu’s first curated show at Auckland’s Artspace.
I avoided it all day. That was until 6pm, when I joined the potential billions of people following it from across the world. The moment I realised Trump was president-elect was a moment of disbelief. The country that tells us Black Lives Matter and with whom we stand in solidarity at Standing Rock exposed itself in the most revealing way: through democracy. I learnt that these movements are not core values of the American population at large but mere pockets of aspiration.
The next day Potentially Yours, The Coming Community, a group exhibition curated by Artspace’s 2016 Curatorial Assistant Tendai John Mutambu opened in the Auckland gallery. The exhibition is made up of new and existing work from Newell Harry, Louise Menzies, Dan Nash, Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid Al Gharaballi, Mika Rottenberg, Sorawit Songsataya and Martine Syms. The bold combination of local, international, emerging and established artists is something rarely seen by such an emerging curator here in New Zealand.
In the weeks where we see post-truth politics reign, the exhibition is a physical reprieve from the Brexit-Trump coercion of public opinion.
In the weeks where we see post-truth politics reign, the exhibition is a physical reprieve from the Brexit-Trump coercion of public opinion. Unconsciously or not, Mutambu provided a timely response to the previous evening’s events, a space where art was not attempting to ‘change’ anything but rather reveal a set of potentials – that is, a set of latent powers.
The word ‘potential’ looks to the future and is usually steeped with ideas of optimism, production, labour and a sense of success-to-come. Notions like the potential of a person, the potential of an industry or ‘living up to your potential’ come to mind. However, for this exhibition, Mutambu “imagines the promise of alternative potential”, referencing Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s 1990 book The Coming Community. This is the not the potential to ‘succeed’ as defined by current systems, but the potential to ignore or question or otherwise resist those systems. This alternative potential for Mutambu is both “the potency of not-doing” and “the strategy of ‘potent impotence’ to occupy zones of indeterminacy; spaces located between refusal and acquiescence”.
Mutambu’s idea of ‘potential’ what I may see as the norm—non-white (and female), woke bodies owning white spaces despite centuries of trauma—don’t own these types of institutional spaces. They are still ‘coming communities’ with their presence seemingly novel, fetishised even. The question I am left with is: why, in 2016, are these pocket communities still in a state of potential?
What if, as audience members, we don’t walk away from the discomfort but sit with it? That is: I propose that we sit with the difficulties of another.
The notion of multiculturalism hides a discomfort in sitting with the acknowledgment that ‘diverse’ bodies are ‘coming’ rather than arrived. It tricks us into thinking we are doing more than we are, or that someone else is responsible and we can just walk away. What if, as audience members, we don’t walk away from the discomfort but sit with it? That is: I propose that we sit with the difficulties of another.
Walking into Potentially Yours, The Coming Community, you are greeted by two royal purple walls and four screens facing each other mounted on poles from floor to ceiling. This is Notes on Gesture, a four channel HD video work from African-American, Los Angeles-based artist Martine Syms. Across the four screens are snippets and rapid edits of a Black woman performing actions such hair swinging, hand gestures and phrases. The masterfully-edited repetitions abstract each action.
In 2016, art audiences are constantly faced with moving image work. Notes on Gesture reminds us how powerful film can be when an artist considers both the audience and the role of editing. The usual dichotomy of standing passively in front of a screen is gone. With your back to at least one screen at every angle, there is no one obvious place to stand. Even if you decide on the centre as the best vantage point, Syms forces your body to continually move and react to the rapid repetitions of gesture and sound.
New Zealand has a strange relationship with Black (African-American) bodies. We often infer relationships to brown bodies are the ‘Kiwi’ equivalent, as though brown and Black bodies are the same thing, as though brown and Black bodies are equated to the same trauma. As a country, we love to appropriate African-American culture as if it’s our own. We take the music, the language, the fashion (god, the braids!) sometimes we even take on the struggle. The internet as an archive and a tool of quick mass dissemination provides a country like Aotearoa access to African American culture at a rate we’ve never seen before.
But how often have we actually stopped to ask ourselves what is our relationship – and, more, our obsession – with Black bodies? Are we fetishising Black culture?
But how often have we actually stopped to ask ourselves what is our relationship – and, more, our obsession – with Black bodies? Are we fetishising Black culture? Mutambu confronts Artspace’s audience with this question. Syms’ selection of African-American gestures highlights them as radicalised cultural tropes. In the process she exposes us to our own appropriation of such gestures.
The work title, like the exhibition title, is also based on writing by Giorgio Agamben. Agamben’s 1992 essay ‘Notes on Gesture’ uses case studies to argue that society has lost its sense of gestures and that film is a way of restoring this. The double homage to the white male philosopher, while appropriate, is a humorous side-note, given such racially-charged content, and a clear example of the a white intellectual framework within which we see black and brown bodies.
Another explicit connection to Turtle Island is Auckland-based Thai artist Sorawit Songsataya’s Coyotes Running Opposite Ways. This installation is introduced through a film work, this time an animation. The film ends by looking to an animated sky through string games played with blue and pink fibres. The title of Songsataya’s installation is taken from a Navajo string figure. Navajo commonly consider the ma’ii or coyote as a trickster and an important part of creation history. It was the animal’s mischievous nature that was responsible for creating the ‘Milky Way’. (Interestingly Māori have their own string games referencing another trickster, Maui, called “Te Whai Wawaewae a Maui” or “Maui’s clever string game”.)
Tucked behind his film, and separated from it by a felt wall, is Songsataya’s hut (for lack of a better word), the kind of place a coyote would sleep. Made of thick twigs and ceramic branch-like forms tied together, the hut contains textiles made from felt. The structure sits on a raised floor made of pallets and is lit with yellow-tinted lights. There are undeniable similarities to Joseph Beuys’ iconic 1974 work I Like America and America likes Me. In this work, the German artist was stretchered from the international airport into the gallery space covered by a layer of felt. He then spent three days in the space with a wild coyote. At the end of his performance he was again stretchered and transported back to airport, never having stepped foot on American soil. Both Beuys and Songsataya use the ma’ii to establish commonalities with Turtle Island, shifting the priority away from America’s dominant culture/s.
After two highly-charged political works, the incoherent ‘weird fiction’ of Auckland-based, Pākehā artist Dan Nash’s Plant them In, kill of thinking provides a rhythmic escape. Alongside Nash’s narrative works are steel sculptures coated in resin. The box and chasm-like sculptures act as references to both escapism and captivity. Nash is not looking at a potential coming community but rather at a potential to escape.
This sentiment of escapism is shared by both Newell Harry – a Sydney-based, Cape Coloured (South African) and French Mauritian artist – and New York-based Argentinian artist Mika Rottenberg. Harry’s Untitled (Black Sabbath and Other Anecdotes) reclaims expected potentials of time. A single black-and-white photograph is accompanied by a small passage of text which starts with ‘Aelan Taem/ Island Time’ and goes on to share an anecdote about “Jack”, who decided to stay home from work to spend a day with his kids.
The phrase “island time” has a humorous element, much like Syms’ gestures and braid flicking. And, like those gestures, it is a commonly-used phrase here in Aotearoa, specifically in reference to Pacific communities. I can’t tell where exactly this work is made. But for many islands (on this side of the world anyway) the idea of “industry” as we know it comes from introduced notions of the plantation and the exploitation of resources. So what the racialised connotations of phrases like island time or ‘aelen taem’ actually expose are Western systemic capitalist expectations of countries with non-capitalist tendencies, on countries whose idea of time is not entangled with productivity.
Where Harry’s narrative of Jack highlights leaving “work” as productivity, Mika Rottenberg’s video work Time and a Half highlights the un-productivity or the faux-productivity that comes with paid employment; the potential of un-productivity.
Where Harry’s narrative of Jack highlights leaving “work” as productivity, Mika Rottenberg’s video work Time and a Half highlights the un-productivity or the faux-productivity that comes with paid employment; the potential of un-productivity. The film starts with close-up pans of faux greenery and beach scenes. As manicured nails with palm tree decals tap a bench, we soon realise we’re not on a beach but in a takeaway store. An actress stands at the counter. Wind from a fan sweeps through her hair, blowing plastic plates across her face as she smiles. We wait for any signs of business, for the potential of productivity to occur. It never does.
New York-based Kuwaiti artists Fatima al Qadiri and Khalid Al Gharaballi’s collaborative film Mendeel Um A7mad (NxIxSxM) stages Chai Dhaha, a “ritual of pre-noon tea amongst middle-aged Kuwaiti women”. Four women sit across from each other in an ostentatious ball room as they are waited on. The characters each typify various middle-aged Kuwaiti stereotypes. In complete contrast to the previous works, this female-only activity foregrounds privileged rituals of un-productivity as a meaningful use of time, while the women serving in the background highlight the difference in class narratives around productivity. We are confronted with the distinction of who did and did not benefit from Kuwaiti’s oil boom.
The gendered space of the film is complicated by the roles of these women being played by a cast of young men. This references a time in Kuwaiti film where women were prohibited from acting. The use of males to re-enact a female ritual brings into question ideas of accuracy and control of representation.
Focusing further on gender is a selection of work from the series Time to think like a mountain by Auckland-based Pākehā artist Louise Menzies. While Syms creates a contemporary archive of gestures, Louise curates from a traditional, physical archive: the Alternative Press Collection at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Centre at the University of Connecticut. Menzies reprints items of interest on handmade paper. The fibrous tactility of the work presents a welcome sense of formalism alongside Nash’s sculptures.
From the selection of work on display in Artspace, it seems as though the material the artist focused on is feminist journals and periodicals dated between the 1970s and early 1980s. As you’d expect, the ideas of journals such as Womanspirit and RAT no longer seem new. If anything, Menzies’ reprinting and presentation of the archival material reiterates how this slightly tired feminist narrative has yet to improve gender divides. Just this week I was asked to contribute to a new feminist online platform starting in December. What does that tell you? Little’s changed. If women are still considered a ‘coming community’ then we’re screwed.
Mutambu has divorced notions of potential (and identity) from an uplifting positive political agenda, where they are so commonly placed by New Zealand’s curatorium.
Mutambu’s curation is incredibly considered, bringing together over-arching themes of the Other and the archive. Mutambu has divorced notions of potential (and identity) from an uplifting positive political agenda, where they are so commonly placed by New Zealand’s curatorium. Instead, he presents racialised aesthetics within a wider web of complex political ecologies, a web wider than the reductive premise of ‘feel-good’ identity politics.
Potentially Yours, The Coming Community articulates the realities of living in an unjust society while also envisioning potential futures or a potential present. I commend Mutambu as an emerging curator for presenting such an international contingent of artists and tackling such ambitious politics in his first exhibition.
Potentially Yours, The Coming Community is at
10 November – 22 December 2016
Exhibition photographer: Sam Hartnett
All photographs courtesy of the artist and Artspace
 Post-truth was announced as the 2016 Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year as is defined as: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
 John Mutambu, Potentially Yours, The Coming Community room sheet, 2016.
 Turtle Island is a general First Nations term used to refer to North America (Canada and America) which is derived from indigenous creation stories from the North American region.
 John Mutambu, Potentially Yours, The Coming Community room sheet, 2016.