Last Friday was the opening of Constant Triumph, an exhibition by the artist collective IngridMwangiRobertHutter at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. The collective consists of Ingrid Mwangi, a woman of both Kenyan and German descent, and her husband Robert Hutter, a German native. Merging their identities as one artistic entity, their work explores notions of race, gender, and cultural heritage. The largest presentation of their work in the U.S. to date, Constant Triumph consists of 13 works, primarily video pieces that function both as the medium and as documentation of performance. The videos form several installations in the exhibition, creating environments in which to view each work.
This was the first exhibition I have seen at Spelman’s museum, and I came to it with anxiety, hoping that it would meet my expectations and fearing that it wouldn’t. I believe there is still room to talk about cultural identity in contemporary art in way that is not trite, formulaic, or reductive.
I am learning that addressing identity politics in the arts can be tricky in a place like Atlanta, where the discussion is often rooted in slavery and the Civil Rights movement. And I have noticed certain exasperation around the discussion of the black and white dichotomy, especially because Atlanta can no longer be divided solely among those lines. IngridMwangiRobertHutter do not operate within that American dichotomy, nor do they operate strictly within a European and African framework, but rather within an expanded framework otherness. Otherness incorporates cultural constructions of race and gender, as well as basic human need to define an other in order to define the boundaries of the self. By simultaneously performing and challenging their differences, the collective blurs the limits of self in order to expose the superficiality of difference.
The work of IngridMwangiRobertHutter is visceral, where they “utilize their body as canvases, and the blood as ink.” This applies literally to performances such as Consciousness of Wall (With Jimmy Ogonga) and Splayed, applies figuratively to their work that often utilizes hair, and highlights the centrality of their body in performance. In Consciousness of the Wall (With Jimmy Ogonga), tally marks are methodically etched into the back of a white man by a black man. The video is projected onto a corroded steel wall that is covered with imprints of the body and handprints.
At the opening, the collective performed a re-conceptualized version of Copper-Colored Gold that culminated in front of Consciousness of Wall. Ingrid Mwangi cut open the back of Robert Hutter’s shirt, and covered his back with delicate sheets of gold leaf. After judging that her task was complete, she pulled a needle and thread from Hutter’s pocket, and meticulously sewed his shirt back together. The act of repair, healing, and the attempt to give value by adding gold is juxtaposed to the violence and scarring of the tallies previously incised onto Hutter’s skin. The two works together can be amplified as a convoluted metaphor for race relations, but also function as distinct acts of intimacy between two people. As an ephemeral moment, the performance was documented, making the audience not only hyper-aware of the performance, but also hyper-aware of themselves.
The artists spent two weeks in an informal residency, where Spelman students in the art and women’s studies departments were able to learn about their practice and contribute to their work.
Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, director of the Spelman Museum of Fine Art, described the residency as an organic process that produced unexpected results and developed from the collective’s desire to “investigate, probe, and examine locations and the people that occupy them.”
During this time, the students created the body imprints that are featured on Consciousness of the Wall. For the artists, the residency created a new environment to shape this iteration of Copper-Colored Gold as well as documentation for a future project tentatively titled Be Immortalized. As a proponent of residency programs, I was excited to learn of Brownlee’s plans to organize a formal residency program in the future. Due to these students’ immersion with the collective’s practice, the discussion that unfolded at the opening was productive, enlightening, and challenging.
Anne Collins Smith, curator of collections, described the decisions involved in creating the exhibition, stating in an email, “We wanted to present works that would allow viewers to suspend belief, challenge preconceived notions about art, and further discourse about universal societal concerns.”
The double-bodied single artist of IngridMwangiRobertHutter is driven by the Freudian concept of melancholia, perpetually searching for and uncovering unknown wounds. Instead of being consumed by loss or mourning, however, they use the wounds as sites for growth and transcendence.
This is investigated in Constant Triumph, the work that gives the exhibition its name. The work depicts Mwangi’s sister who battled cancer. Mwangi describes this work as displaying layers of loss. Her sister, who was known for her beauty and her voice, gradually lost these attributes that once defined her. Even so she attempted to fight and overcome her illness, and the piece becomes about personal journeys. The work also expresses Mwangi’s loss of her sister, who died a week after the last video was taken of her.
Other works continue the use of performance to break the barrier between artists and the audience. Eastleigh Crossing and The Cage place IngridMwangiRobertHutter in environments in Kenya and South Africa, respectively, in which they are interrupting the public domain. The Cage is a performance involving Hutter that took place in a black neighborhood where white people do not go. Of course, this is not an unusual concept in cities across the U.S., but it takes on amplified significance in post-apartheid South Africa. The title refers to an abandoned lot enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The recording shows Hutter with bandages over his eye, walking along the chain link fence and exploring his surroundings. Attracting little attention at first, the crowd begins to grow when he removes his shirt, sits down, and begins to shave his head. The crowd comes into full formation when he begins to place his hair in little baggies and hook them to the fence. The only time we see him speak is to encourage onlookers to take his hair.
This is when the performance shifts into a participatory experience. With Hutter’s shirtless back pressed against the fence, the people in the audience are given pens and they begin one by one writing on Hutter’s back. With “killer” and a swastika first written on him, it begins as a powerful political image. The act in which black men and women inscribe meaning onto white male body becomes one of empowerment and agency, addressing everyday race relations in South Africa, as well as academic race theory. But as more and more people write on him, his body becomes a site of each writer’s personal expression. The swastika is joined by “love,” “life,” statements of hope, and even pop culture references like “get rich or die trying.”
The performance is transformed into an intimate exchange between the performer and the audience, where personal and social boundaries are blurred. As his back gets covered, people begin to reach to his chest. After he turns to expose his chest for more space, his chest is quickly covered, and people begin to write on his stomach. The experience transforms Hutter from a symbol of injustice and hatred into an intimate experience between strangers. Public art has become not only an aesthetic experience that disrupts the routine of daily life, but it also becomes a vehicle for agency and catharsis.
Just as the collective is pushed by literal and metaphorical risk, the exhibition’s overall vibe feels risky, experimental, and complex. The works in Constant Triumph communicate, merge, and ultimately illustrate a myriad of issues present in the collective’s work. The show reveals the artists’ growth by showing some of the earlier pieces that catapulted their career, but it also complicates their intent, as their later work fluctuates between personal and social issues.
The show offers a nuanced exploration of difference and reflects how historical and contemporary concepts of identity can be intertwined into an exciting art practice. Constant Triumph reveals the liminal space between personal and cultural identity, between Germany and Kenya, and highlights the artists’ understanding of how their bodies function within both societies.
The exhibition, Constant Triumph, continues at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art through May 14, 2011.
Kristin Juárez is a recent transplant from Los Angeles conducting a fellowship at the High Museum of Art. This column maps her exploration of Atlanta’s art scene as a newcomer. With one foot testing the water of local arts practice and the other firmly planted in a greater landscape of cultural production, Juárez uses both to gauge the potential of the visual arts to impact our lives. How can art provide meaningful, sustained discourse that will help us articulate, and be held accountable for, what is at stake in the world today?
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