At Galerie Kandlhofer Vienna, Austria
The sadness descends again
Sodden like a sheet of ice
Yet, somehow through the shawl
A smile, stubborn as a thumb
Pries its way to life
A cotyledon of light
Defies the night.
Olu Oguibe, The Sadness Descends Again
With the eponymous exhibition OLU OGUIBE, Galerie Kandlhofer hosts painter, sculptor, conceptual artist, poet, curator, scholar and art critic, Olu Oguibe, in his first major one person exhibition in Vienna, Austria.
The backbone of the exhibition OLU OGUIBE is a tripartite of monumental and commemorative works Oguibe has produced from the year 2000 onwards. Monumental not only because of their importance or aesthetic brilliance, their conspicuousness to posterity, but also monumental because with these works, Oguibe has crafted spaces, forms and ideas that in themselves serve as memorials of particular events, moments, histories or occurrences within world history. Such incisive moments and realities we cannot afford to overlook nor forget, and neither can we afford to wait for some institutions to raise ‘official’ monuments for their remembrance. While the works Oguibe has produced do not need to be monuments, they perform the core characteristics of mnemonic devices — that is the ability to make think of, to remind, to remember. Without wanting to delve into the current debate of the felling of confederate, colonial, racist and otherwise violent monuments around the world, it is worth worth taking some time to pose the question: what is remembered, by whom, for whom and from what vantage point? One might fairly say that one thing the monuments pulled down have in common is the fact that they were made to celebrate those who, in one way or the other, were perpetrators of despicable violences. The three works that make the foundation of this exhibition speak from the vantage point of the disenfranchised and of those who have had to suffer the burden of violent conditions. These works speak with the sensibilities and sensitivities of a history of those oppressed, without needed or wanting to be moralistic. Rather, in their forms and aesthetics, the works perform the crux or that which is embedded in the German term for memorial, Denkmal, which is to think (denken) and again, by, time after time (mal). In this way, they go a long way to serve as a memento, commemorare, to bring to remembrance.
In 2000, Oguibe presented the work Many Thousand Gone (101 Drawings in Ink on Paper) at Koldo Mitxelena Center in San Sebastián, The Basque and later at World Congress on Medicine and Health at the 2000 World Trade Exposition in Hanover, Germany. The work is a depiction of generic and anonymous 101 representations of African faces of varying genders, races and ages and irrespective of their sexual orientations who stand in for the millions of people who had/have been killed by AIDS since it was identified in 1981. Based on statistics from 2019, HIV, the virus spotted as the cause of AIDS in 1983, has costed the lives of 32,7 million people around the world, and there are currently 38 million HIV infected people still world wide.1 The African continent was the most affected by the ravages of AIDS, and till today Eastern and Southern Africa, followed by Western and Central Africa still top the infamous list of most affected areas. In a fierce and seminal address before the Art and Health Session, World Congress on Medicine and Health, Hanover World Exposition on July 27, 2000 in relation to his Many Thousand Gone installation, Oguibe expatiated on the magnitude of the AIDS pandemic in Africa:
“As we speak, experts estimate that 13 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have already died of AIDS. That is more than the entire populations of whole countries put together. Another 10 million are expected to die over the next five years. (…) On the average no family would be spared a death, no community let untouched, and no culture could claim to be whole again. It is no consolation to know that by the middle of this century, if this crisis is unchecked, sub-Saharan Africa would have lost more human beings and resources to the AIDS plague than it did in all of four centuries of slave trade, internal wars, and colonial domination. We are speaking, then, of an epic holocaust the like of which has not been seen before. We are looking at the valley of the dry bones.”
And then he posted some pertinent questions that seemed to not only of particular relevance to this exhibition in Vienna, but to the essence of art as a whole:
“One looks at the African predicament and wonders; how can we speak of art in the face of such calamity? How does one think of art in the face of survival itself? How does one make art among the dead and the dying?
We are here today to investigate the role of art in human health and well-being. But in a predicament where entire populations are under threat of annihilation, and with them the heritage and cultural memory of centuries, perhaps the imperative is not to find the role of art in health, but to look instead into the role of health in the survival of a people and its culture. Art is for the living, and in a land of the dead, how can there be art?”
As I cogitate on the depth of these questions, I am thinking of the great Congolese musician, Franco (François Luambo Luanzo Makiadi), who, at the ascendance of the AIDS crisis in 1987 composed one of his most acclaimed albums “Attention na SIDA.” As thousands of people fell from the HIV virus, the governments of most African countries were negligent, disseminating little to no information about protection or care as Congo drove into the heart of the storm that was the AIDS pandemic. Franco’s “Attention na SIDA” was a song to inform the world of the ravages of AIDS and the vulnerability of everyone in the face of this disease. He cautioned people to care for themselves and avoid spreading the disease, it urged people to review their sexual behaviours as much as he called on governments to assume their responsibilities to public health care. He cautioned pregnant women and young people who were the future of the nation, and cautioned them against promiscuity and drugs. As the song progressed, Franco’s voice became fiercer and firmer calling for the against the HIV virus, he called on medical doctors to be more courageous, to respect and use their positions in society for the betterment, as much as he called on foreign governments to invest in the fight against AIDS rather than send weapons to Africa. This was the legendary Franco’s response to Oguibe’s questions “how can we speak of art in the face of such calamity? How does one think of art in the face of survival itself? How does one make art among the dead and the dying?”… thirteen years before they were posed.
Thirty four years before Oguibe posed these pertinent questions, another poet, Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo must have been grabbling with the same questions when he wrote the poem "Elegy for Alto”:
(with drum accompaniment)
AND THE HORN may now paw the air howling goodbye…
For the Eagles are now in sight:
Shadows in the horizon-
THE ROBBERS are here in black sudden steps of showers, of
THE EAGLES have come again,
The eagles rain down on us-
POLITICIANS are back in giant hidden steps of howitzers, of
THE EAGLES descend on us,
Bayonets and cannons-
THE ROBBERS descend on us to strip us of our laughter, of our
THE EAGLES have chosen their game,
Taken our concubines-
POLITICIANS are here in this iron dance of mortars, of
Of our dissonant airs; through our curtained eyeballs,
through our shuttered sleep,
Onto our forgotten selves, onto our broken images;
beyond the barricades
Commandments and edicts, beyond the iron tables,
beyond the elephant's
Legendary patience, beyond his inviolable bronze
bust; beyond our crumbling towers-
BEYOND the iron path careering along the same beaten track-
THE GLIMPSE of a dream lies smouldering in a cave,
together with the mortally wounded birds.
Earth, unbind me; let me be the prodigal; let this be
the ram's ultimate prayer to the tether…
AN OLD STAR departs, leaves us here on the shore
Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;
The new star appears, foreshadows its going
Before a going and coming that goes on forever…
It is common knowledge that Okigbo, the poet, the librarian, the activist, the field-commissioner joined the Biafra military to fight against the oppressions of the Nigerian army, and was killed on the field in Nsukka in 1967 as few weeks after the onset of the war. This war - the Biafra war - a genocide by the Nigerian army against the Igbo, mostly, but also the Annang, Efik, Ejagham, Eket, Ibeno, Ibiobio and Ijaw, is at the core of Oguibe’s second piece in the tripartite: Biafra Time Capsule, 2017. This installation commissioned by and for documents 14’s Athen iteration, is a visual and sonic journey into, through, by one of the most mediatized and discoursed conflicts of the 20th century. Magazines, novels, history books, photographs, speeches and other props that tell of the unfathomable atrocities of the Biafra war guide the viewer through this peregrination into a not so long distant past that still echoes in the present. Being caught up in the Biafra Time Capsule is encountering the history of the war that lasted 1967 to 1970, which Oguibe experienced firsthand as a child. In this time capsule witnesses from within and without share their experiences from a plethora of vantage points of ethnic, economic and political, religious and cultural factors that fuelled the war and enabled a genocide as the world watched on as millions of Biafra children, men and women directly and indirectly implicated in the war were killed on the front, as passers-by or from starvation and illnesses. The Biafra Time Capsule is also a testimony of the impact of imagery, imagination and images in mass communication, in the arts as much as on the psyche of a people. It is impossible to erase the images of starving or malnourished Biafran children from our collective memories. The Biafra Time Capsule gives us a frame, an ‘encadrement’ might be a better notion, within which one can shell oneself while embarking on this journey of encountering such violent histories, or it might be the capsule within with the bitter pills of history are encapsulated for us to swallow — though with caution, but without losing its tenacity, at the end.
So “how can we speak of art in the face of such calamity? How does one think of art in the face of survival itself? How does one make art among the dead and the dying?”… In 2020, these questions no longer seem to be questions of some past, or questions related to some specific geographical space like the African continent. The chickens seems to have come home to roost, as the whole world has been gripped by the cold hands of death with the COVID 19 pandemic. In not even one year, the world has seen 649.8 thousand deaths from or related to COVID 19, 16.28 million confirmed infections and 9.9 million recoveries from COVID 19 2, with the USA topping the list of deaths worldwide with an estimate of 149 thousand deaths and counting. So what can artists do in the face of such calamity? Like with other iconic and monumental works, Oguibe’s work New York, April 2020, 2020 embarks on and tackles the crisis we all find ourselves in. The images of endless queues of military vans carrying corpses in Italy, images of mass graves in the central park, images of soldiers in their military outfits patrolling the streets around the world ensuring people stay at home, the images of deserted streets taken over by rodents and other shy animals, just as much as the images of oversaturated hospitals or makeshift clinics in football stadium all over the world cannot leave us indifferent. The images and the soundbites of the pandemic can be actually so overwhelming that one can’t see the forest for the trees. When I expressed a slight concern in an email to the artists about the rush by some artists to try to tackle difficult sociopolitical issues while they still unfold and without the distance afforded to see what is at stake, he replied: “With the pandemic, the experience is ongoing as you rightly point out, and the flurry of images and the noise of media coverage are part of that ongoing experience. Still, not all aspects of the experience are actually shared. The idea of mass graves in New York City in 2020 is too surreal and distant to register in most people’s minds. Leave it for a couple of years, and it becomes intellectualised as a subject of study, and even more distant when presented as art. It becomes aesthetic.”
But the sensibilities and sagacity of a great artist allows for him/her to find the appropriate distance from which to look at the forest to be able to comprehend the sheer magnitude, and utter depth of the darkness of that forest. It is this aptitude that allowed for Oguibe to do another of his monumental pieces for documents 14 in Kassel, 2017, an obelisk Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument (Monument for strangers and refugees, 2017). This piece that not only was an epitome of the global state of refugeeness, but also the most controversial, fundamental and discussed art piece for documenta 14 that placed a mirror in the face of a predominantly Christian society, or one that claimed to live by and is structured by the virtues of Christian values, a biblical quote “I was a stranger and you took me in,” in Arabic, English, German and Turkish. And this in the middle of what was derogatory called a “refugee crisis.” Despite being in the middle of a whirlwind, the artist could afford himself the appropriate distance of not only bearing witness, but also commemorating and paying respect to those who had been forced to leave their homes in search of breathable air. It is no doubt that the obelisk was met with so much indignation from the extreme right wing of society, but highly celebrated and revered by all others who found dignity in humanity. This quest into the crux of the ‘state of refugeeness’ — psychologically, politically, socially, economically, artistically — still drives Oguibe as he explores onwards themes of migration, flight, hospitality and refuge, this time producing text based works that acknowledge personalities and institutions like Domenico Lucano (Mimmo), Carola Rackete, Jugend Rettet, and others that have gone out of their comfortable and privileged ways to help humans — refugees — who have been stranded and are in dire need.
In another recent email exchange for the exhibition OLU OGUIBE, the artist wrote that his exhibition is about “the precariousness of existence and the ever-presence of cataclysmic or colossal, life-changing crises: be it war, pandemics, or other upheavals that always have the potential to turn our collective of personal worlds upside down, including displacement and inevitable flight from home. In looking at the challenges of our existence in the permanent shadow of colossal, these works also remind us of human resilience and fortitude, and the need always to rise to our better selves in order to help both us and others cope. (…) The works themselves are traces, diaries, archives, quiet comments snatched from carefully gathered fragments of history and experience that are not only pertinent to this moment but resonant across time. The different circumstances themselves remind us of how insignificant we often are in the face of cataclysmic crises like a pandemic or civil strife, and yet how critically important we are in facing up to such crises and containing them.”
Another thread that ties most of the works presented in this exhibition would be the notion of ruination in Oguibe’s work. Not the ruin itself or the debris, but an engagement and reflection on the project, the acts, the processes of ruination. In thinking about Oguibe’s body of work from the 1980s until today, one is lured into reading works like the Biafra Time Capsule (2017), Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument (2017), Ashes (2002) on the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the world trade centre, Many Thousand Gone (2000) Oklahoma (1995) a memorial for the children who died in the Oklahoma bombing, to name but a few, through the prism of ruination. In “Imperial debris: Reflections on ruins and ruination,” Ann Laura Stoler discusses ruinations as a processes that “bring ruin upon.” As she writes “By definition, ruination is an ambiguous term, being an act of ruining, a condition of being ruined, and a cause of it. Ruination is an act perpetrated, a condition to which one is subject, and a cause of loss. These three senses may overlap in effect, but they are not the same. Each has its own temporality. Each identifies different durations and moments of exposure to a range of violences and degradations that may be immediate or delayed, subcutaneous or visible, prolonged or instant, diffuse or direct. By the dictionary again, ruination is a process that brings about ‘severe impairment, as of one’s health, fortune, honor, or hopes.’ Conceptually, ruination may condense those impairments or sunder them apart.”3
To think of Prof. Dr. Olu Oguibe’s art works in this context is to deliberate on the vulnerabilities of our being, of the sandy grounds on which human relations are built, on the uncertainties we are constantly confronted with in this world we have crafted for more worse than better since the birth of the capitalist and colonial enterprises, it is to think of the decrepitude of health and social systems in countries with the most sophisticated economies in the world in which the scissors between the rich and the poor is unacceptably wide. To cogitate on Oguibe’s work in relation to ruination is to accept the atomity of the human experience in the largess and colossality of planetary being, it is to reflect on deeply corrupt systems that enable unhinged sociopolitical, health, economic structures carved and conditioned by precarity that have enabled forced migration and flight, wars and illnesses across the globe. Thinking of ruination in his work is thus to embrace humility in the face of such moments of magnitudinous adversities and their prolongations in the history of human presence on earth. It is to think of art not just as a form of expression or witness or comfort or alleviation, but essentially as the straw to clutch on while drowning. Art as the “cotyledon of light that defies the night.” To think of ruination is also to think of rehabilitation, recuperation and reparation in times when Things Fall Apart.
If you are afraid of your reflection
do not come my way
at times I am a mirror
If I am a receptacle
you will see your life
and the particles of your death
collected in me
There is no serenity here
past the slow rattle of our quick decay
lying in ambush around the street corners
Mirror or receptacle where no dreams
come to roost in the night, I travel
from where we have been to
where we might have been
Keorapetse Kgositsile, excerpt from Things Fall Apart (after and for Chinua Achebe) in This Way I Salute You
Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Curator
3 Stoler, Ann. (2008). Imperial debris: Reflections on ruins and ruination. Cultural Anthropology. 23. 191-219. 10.1525/can.2008.23.2.191.