I think it was Francis Cape who set me on this path to figure out the work of art in an expansive political field. He said, simply, so convincingly I was shocked, “I make art to critique society.” Then, I thought, what can art do? I think specifically about my dealings with Nigerian politicization. “That other witchcraft called ‘politics’,” as Ali Jimale Ahmed is said to have called it, and as Uche Peter Umez suggests, is something my generation of Nigerian writers has “weaned” itself from. Of course I write as a person whose artistic medium is writing, but I also speak as one who collaborates with (mostly) visual artists and cultural operators. My Position, like Okwui Enweazor’s (in his remarks at “Curating the Curatorial”) is to avoid the “deep depoliticization” in which curators (replace this with writers, artists) take no responsibility. Simply: I want to take responsibility in the field of politics. And what kind of responsibility? It’s certainly not, for practical reasons, offering myself for an elective position. “Art teaches people how to see,” I heard Lucy Lippard say. It is finding a gesture and strategy with which to engage with society. I have to ensure that my work in public is not merely seen—it will have to “trigger emancipatory thinking” (Enwezor). The task of the work of literature and art, therefore, is to move towards the margin. “Unless art meets people where they live, it is not useful” (Lippard).
Stripped of its embattled content, where do you think this image was taken? I am merging two thoughts into something rambling and discursive—the silence of photography and Clifford Owens’ Photographs with an Audience. Yet they are powerfully linked. Clifford Owens describes his ongoing series Photographs with an Audience as the “construction of a photograph” with himself and/or the audience “through simple gestures.” In each iteration, Owens is both ringleader and provocateur. He invites his audience to respond to a question, and afterward he photographs them. Don’t you think it takes unimaginable charisma, confidence, swagger, energy to make someone undress for performance art? David Levi-Strauss has suggested1 that “If a photograph is ‘literally an emanation of the referent,’ then photography can conceivably be used to let things speak for themselves.” Look at the eyes of the man Clifford Owens is lifting up, and that of the men on the right and the left, and discover what this “referent” is. It’s not a pornographic referent that emanates. It’s the evidence of what Owens calls a “microcommunity.” A microcommunity that disembodies shame: we have to watch ourselves in ways that sidestep the physical.
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1. David Levi Strauss, “A Second Gaze” in Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography & Politics, (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2003) 122
“Thought Scores” are numbered on-the-go-ideas originating from ongoing research, readings, conversations, weblinks, controversies, etc. I am drawn to.