Uncovering The Frozen Image
Catalogue text / Predicting The Past 2009
In 1993 Loulou Cherinet had her first group exhibition at an important site for contemporary cultural production in Jakarta, Indonesia: the Taman Ismail Marzuki Arts Center (T.I.M). The work presented at this show was created while Cherinet resided in the forested areas of Bali, Indonesia, and more than anything else it proved her talent as an artist that experimented with the actions of abstract expressionism. While living in the forest, Cherinet would take the earth as her gallery, stretching life size canvases amongst the trees whereby her brush strokes would mingle with the light and shadow of the jungle to create a painterly vocabulary that was at once a unique expression of the individual and yet primordial. The point of such an exercise was to tap into the vast expanse of the mind that she feared was relegated to oblivion given that we humans are said to use only 5% of our brain capacity. Loulou Cherinet wanted to shake herself and her brain out of the doldrums of daily existence and so she pushed herself into an art form that supposedly could take her into the realm of the otherwise inexpressible.
And yet, try as she did Cherinet eventually became sceptical of the forest opting instead to open up the sterility of the white walls of the gallery. Paradoxically, then, it was within the institutional setting of the art world that Cherinet discovered the looming sedimentation of the entirety of human visual culture, and it is within this rubble that she has found it possible to truly investigate the dichotomies that tend to govern our everyday lives - the dichotomy between silence and speech, male and female, fiction and reality, sexual desire and friendship - and in so doing Cherinet has been able to connect phenomenal experience to the ways in which it is captured in everyday language. What is more, Cherinet has also been able to expose the pregnant absences that accompany every speech act.
Two strategies are employed. On the one hand by examining language as a frozen image of reality Cherinet shows us the difference between memory and history. Language, then, is seen as the distillation of official cantations, while memory is that which explodes out of the body spontaneously: it is the return of the repressed. But unlike her earlier work, Cherinet now knows that you cannot force the reappearance of the repressed. Instead, she creates a genealogy of our inherited visual vocabulary so as to open up a space for the acknowledgement of the unsaid. In this case art is a rigorous practise that gives us an image of reality, the said and the unsaid, by destroying that which we take for granted. Cherinet's art as such belongs to that genre that Okwui Enwezor calls "post documentary" (Enwezor 2006, 25). Here art is a tool for probing, investigation and analyses. Moving away from what appears to be it begs the question of how it is possible for things to appear as they are.
And yet, if Cherinet's art was simply analytic it would be boring, in point of fact it would defeat its own stated purpose; this time reducing art to simply being illustrative of a larger idea or conceptual point. Thus, the second strategy employed by Loulou Cherinet is to let the physical experience of language seep out in the process of its deconstruction. This is not about simply clearing the way for the return of the repressed, instead, Cherinet lets the mimetic qualities of langauage - in the form of laughter and tears - exist within the overall formality of her art work.
In fact, the first time I viewed Loulou Cherinet's photographic series White Man Series (2001) I spontaneously broke into a hearty and good natured laugh. In this series we see a white man move through the streets of Awassa, Ethiopia. The photographs are banal, and have a semi-scientific quality, showing the white man living, drinking and eating with the natives. But as such the series seem to evoke the ethnographic photographs that have come to constitute the primary way through which we imagine Africa and its photographic history.
Now, as we all know the implied person who is behind the camera in the ethnographic photograph is the white man. But this white man is not simply an individual; he actually embodies the entire relation of power that allows for the ethnographic genre to exist in the first place. After all, African photography from its earliest inception is literally framed by the colonial apparatus and its need to capture the native. Thus, in the White Man Series it is with a sense of relief and bemusement that we witness this man become the subject of his own framing.
Okwui Enwezor has also drawn our attention to the way in which the ethnographic photograph always pictures its subject as prey that has been hunted and captured by the all knowing photographer, and yet what is missed by most post-colonial critiques of ethnography (from Said to Fabian) is that the natives have always questioned this attempt to frame them, even as they enjoyed the attention of the foreigners look. Thus what is also intoxicating about White Man Series is that we see the native staring back into the camera. But what we learn from the photo series is that this is not an act of reverse assertion, rather, the native simply asks the question, "why would anyone want to photograph people with whom there is mutual estrangement?" But in so posing the question, Cherinet's photos expose the hidden features of "the low intensity courtship" that lies behind the "photographic sport between hunter and game" (Enwezor 2006,14). More importantly it shows up the absurdity and impotence of the white masculinist gaze. After all, the natives were never really natives; rather they have always returned the quizzical gaze of the white man by pointing out that he is a very bad student, indeed.
Within the context of the history of contemporary art, The White Man Series seems to also reference Yinka Shonibare series Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998). In these photographs Shonibare recreates a succession of European early bourgeois interiors (salons, bedrooms, etc), but oddly he photographs himself as the centre of the action in each room. The purpose behind Shonibare's performance is twofold: on the one hand, the viewer is reminded that Africans and Europeans have always comingled and co-constituted each other. On the other hand there is a kind of ironic self assertion, where the whole world is seen as a stage and where everyone is involved in a process of self-stylized performance. The point here is to send out a cautionary tale about the reality of the document, be it photography or the written word: seeing is not believing. Nevertheless, for all of this clever play on reality Shonibare's irony has a kind of depressing aspect to it in so much as it merely serves to remind people of Africa's obvious presence in world history. After all, in the end his photographic series never really questions European interiority as a stand in for universal culture. On other hand what Cherinet's White Man Series is able to achieve is a kind of wry historicising of photography's entire frame of reference as it relates to Africa.
And yet, something else remains in the White Man Series besides the disclosure of the photographic meaning of Africa with all of its attendant masculinist violence. Indeed, if we look closely at the photos, what we observe is the way bodies mix and mingle together in the process of eating, drinking and playing. Within the photo series we also witness the white man beginning to inhabit the space of the other; despite himself he must learn to live with that which is other. Bodies touch and collide and it is in this space of physical vulnerability that a new basis for human solidarity begins to be perceptible.
The White Man Series prepares us well for Cherinet's continued meditation on the dynamics of racial relations in the full length video White Women (2002). Here we see eight African men gathered around a dinner table, half empty glasses of wine appear scattered around the table, alluding to the end of what must have been a sumptuous meal. The men are all dressed in striped sailor's shirts implying that they are travellers. Behind the men stands a woman with an apron on, she says nothing, but she appears to have prepared the meal the men have recently consumed. The room is dark, only the men and the dinner table are truly illuminated. A camera circles the dinner table, and this is the perspective in which we view the men. As the camera rotates around the table, one realizes that each of these men are offering a confessional about their relations with white women. What also becomes clear is that the men are all migrants to the North, and each has played with the dynamics of racialized sexuality to get to the place where he is today.
Similar to the White Man Series, White Women straddles the line between documentary and fiction. Each of these men seem to be telling us a true story about their lives and at the same time the viewer is aware that the entire scene, including the dinner setting has been orchestrated by the director of the film, Loulou Cherinet. And, yet, if the scene has been arranged it is only so that each actor is better placed to play himself. In fact, the dinner table recreated by Loulou Cherinet recalls that other famous dinner setting that we all know from Art history: Da Vinci's, Last Supper. Similarly, the austerity of the setting and the lack of props forces you to take up the intensity of the human drama unfolding before your eyes. As well, echoed here is that hierarchy always involves a complicated performance. However, in Cherinet's video the father and saviour is a white woman who is barely visible to the camera but who in the end is the master of the puppet show: she can give all of these African men access to visas, housing, education, stability and even a modicum of love. Thus, even though these men confess to their saviour, and in the process tell us stories of masculine sexual conquest, what we actually bear witness to is the gradual dispossession of the self. Indeed what their stories tell us are not tales of sexual victory, but how relations of power are reinscribed in the black man's body despite his personal best efforts. Thus, if, in White Man Series, the human touch still has the ability to suggest an alternative to racialized and gendered violence, in White Women, the escape to such innocence seems near impossible. In fact, each time the camera rotates around this group of African men, and a new story gets told, one gets the feeling that for the contemporary migrant night will last forever: he is destined to forever tell his story, and yet never again find a home.
It is strange that the video and photographic work of Loulou Cherinet is always highly gendered. For instance one rarely sees men and women occupying the same space, although their presence for each other is palpable, often suggesting hidden lines of violence and intimacy. In fact, secular contemporary Ethiopian art is dominated by images of Ethiopian women. But strangely the Ethiopian woman pictured is always reduced to a type; and this seems to be true of work produced by professionally trained artists as well as work produced according to the desires of the tourist market. Thus, the typical woman pictured tends to be shapely but modest; as well we rarely see a full frontal image of her face. Instead, we often see her in profile, turning away from the painter; head bowed and often also veiled. More specifically, this woman always seems to be carrying some kind of burden, either literally carrying water or firewood, but more often she seems to be carrying the burden of our national, material poverty in her heart.
These images of women are surprising. One tends not to meet them on the street, in the countryside, nor even in the homes of relatives, or our visual history, and yet today they persist. For whence do these passive victims come? For me, part of the explanation must lie in the way Ethiopian contemporary art has become a venue for internationalizing an image of modern Ethiopia: it seems both our professional and popular artists have tapped into the archive of renaissance European art in order to recreate an image of Mother Ethiopia as having always been universal. Mother Ethiopia is therefore post-byzantium (this is especially true given that the byzantine style tends to influence most of the church art we see even today). But, if the byzantine style shrouds its human images in a cloud of mysticism and as such presents them as some-what neutered, contemporary secular images of mother Ethiopia are highly gendered, even as she is rendered with a modest and quiet dignity. But as such modern Ethiopian artists seem to have accepted a basic conceit of art history that fine physical features, virtue, and family can be collapsed into a single representation that can stand in for the universal mother.
In contrast to this recurring trope, Loulou Cherinet's artwork attempts to examine the construction of gender as a balancing act between men and woman, local and international forces. Moreover she has tried to show us that if we abstract one of these variables from the other we end up with stereotypical stories that do not take us very far in understanding our own condition. But, in turn she has also managed to teach us that the subject's story never belongs to him or her alone: what we face on the outside turns out to be just as important as what we are on the inside. Cherinet has thus found it necessary to question the archive of European visual history so as to better understand her Ethiopian and European background. But in so doing she also hopes to teach us how to question what we take to be reality. In this sense it turns out that Loulou Cherinet is also the quintessential documentarist.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in her later work Allegory of the Cock (2006) Cherinet continues her quest to interrogate the distinction between reflective thought and immediate perception, this time taking Plato's Allegory of the Cave as her source of inspiration. Now, if one recalls their school day lessons from Plato's Republic, one will recall that Plato's allegory instructs us that most of humanity remains a prisoner to appearances because they take the shadows on the wall of the cave to be reality rather than investigating the source of the forms that make the shadows possible. But as such, for Plato, most of humanity remains blind, unable to turn their heads towards the light of truth. But what is interesting here, is that they are blind because they rely too much on their sense of sight. After all, for Plato truth is the invisible forms of existence, not its visible content. The overall point of Plato's allegory is therefore to teach what is necessary for true thought to occur.
Cherinet's Allegory of the Cock is her own experimental investigation into what makes reflective thought possible. In particular, she is interested in exploring the avenues through which the visual arts can provoke thought. Thus, in the video presentation of Allegory of the Cock, we see a group of men in a drinking house in Addis Ababa telling a kind of vernacular version of Plato's story. In this story a blind man who has gone through his entire life in darkness is suddenly but only momentarily able to see. Upon seeing the light he asks what is before him and is told that a cock stands in front of him. The following day, the blind man, who once again is moving through the world in darkness attends his best friend's wedding. At the wedding the groom uses vivid language to describe his bride to the attending crowd. Upon hearing the description, the blind man wonders aloud: "does she look like a cock?"
In the video presentation of Allegory of the Cock, we see a man retell this story to another man who has gathered in the drinking house. In turn this man tells what he has heard of the story to yet another man. Throughout the video we see the story passing from one man to another. But what is remarkable about the video is that each time the story is told it turns out to have a slightly different complexion. What is also interesting is the way each story teller takes on the allegory as his own, recounting it with the passion and dignity of a people who come from a tradition where narrative still matters. And yet, as the video progresses what we actually hear is the breakdown of narrative and communication. Again, what remains is language itself: that is, the sheer effort to communicate with all of its mimetic qualities. But as such the viewer of Cherinet's video begins to focus on the physical bearing and gesture of each story teller. Ultimately, what one observes in their weary faces is a struggle to share as well as narrate one's humanity. But what is also suggested is that Plato may have overstated the use of his forms. Rather, Cherinet's universalism lies in "the intention underlying each language as a whole-an intention, however which no single language can attain by itself but which is realized only by the totality of their intentions supplementing each other: pure Language" (Benjamin in Agamben, 1992: 52). What, then is truly historical is the intention that underlies language, but what is historical cannot speak except through that which will fade and die (geographically specific language). For Cherinet, at the heart of all human experience, then, is a call, not a responsibility, nor an obligation to bear witness to the intention underlying all language. Such a call provokes a politics of visual culture that is attentive to the disjunction at the bottom of language (the difference between pure language and language as such). But since it is pure language that authorizes geographically specific language and all of its attendant politics, politics must in turn always be attentive to the silences which give it possibility (Agamben 2001). Such attentiveness, however, would require one to be human (engage politics and history) rather than to disavow one's very possibility in a series of stutters or purely aesthetic manoeuvres.
But, what then of love? Is it the case that in claiming something as your own you are merely excising from perspective all other intentions, all else that exists? And, is formalism simply the fetishizing of this very same narrowed perspective? But, as such, is love, like property taking an act of alienation that is always accompanied by violence? Or, is the fetish object a product of creation that crystallizes in one object the relation between form and content? Perhaps, through the fetish we can at least anticipate tracing the origin of desire? In any case, these are the questions Cherinetıs body of work seems to rouse. And, as we map out the shape of desire and love in her latest piece, Spotted Women (2008), the ambivalence of seeing and looking continues to goad us into unexpected territory.
Spotted Women is probably Cherinet's most sensuous work to date. It consists of a double projection, where on one side we observe a group of Japanese men gazing at a Japanese woman, and on the other channel we see a group of Ethiopian men painting an Ethiopian woman model who has posed for them. The projection is silent, no one says anything, and the physical movements of the protagonists are barely perceptible, and yet there is an intensity of action, proving again that gesture and silence are as powerful as the spoken word.
On the Japanese side of the projection, the video starts with the image of the face of a sleeping woman. The camera lingers, capturing every wisp of hair and movement of breath. Eventually, the camera pans towards a man whose only action appears to be that he is staring at something. Although it is not immediately clear, the viewer gets the sense that he is gazing at the sleeping woman. Again the camera lingers on his face, we see that his lips quiver slightly and in his eyes there is an expression of both shame and utter focus. Later, the camera expands its frame and we then notice that this pulsating man is part of a group of men who share the same look of concentration. Soon after, then, we understand that even though each man gazes at the woman individually, their mode of perception is part of a collective act that reduces the woman to a series of fractions in relation to her totality. For these men the womanıs body becomes a bent knee, a wisp of hair, the heaving of her lungs; suggesting both the eroticism and violence behind the metonymic powers of looking.
In the closing shot of this channel, one of the men eventually turns away from the woman and faces the camera. While turning, he wipes his brow and it is in this gesture that one begins to understand that what is being conveyed to us is the labour involved in gazing. After all, embedded in the focus of the gaze is a kind of conjuring of all of one's training on how to look. A single gaze concentrates the inherited style of viewing into an icon for its era, and it is in this sense that you are calling upon the ancestors whenever you stare at something. What is being explored in Spotted Women are the ways in which the passivity of the eyes becomes a medium of expression that is at once individual and communal.
The wiping of the brow is also a gesture that is repeated by the Ethiopian men pictured in the right channel of the projection. But in this narrative the camera lingers on the brush strokes of the painters who are collectively rendering an image of their model on one canvas. In their belaboured concentration to paint the model before them we also see the same desire that pervades the group of Japanese men. Nonetheless, in the gestures of the paintbrushes we also see hesitation and conflict: questions such as how should I render her, and what is the role of the imagination in representation seem to be flying off the paintbrush. Thus, in the juxtaposition of the right and left channel, what is being suggested is that the eyes are as active a medium as the brush stokes creating the painting.
In both channels the act of looking at women is contrasted by the way Cherinet's camera captures the nervous movements of the men watching: the way they swallow and blink, and the manner through which they twist their neck to better position themselves for a view. But, in watching the instigation of a series of reactions in these men what then becomes clear is that in the act of looking you also become an object of that which is gazed upon: to look means you receive and thus suffer the actions of that object.
Spotted Women is an art work where we learn to focus our attention on the ways in which other people gaze. But in this accumulation of looking at how others look a self-reflexive journey is also initiated in the viewer. If, I realize myself though my senses, it is because I must take objects as my own. At the same time, if it is possible for me to take these objects as my own it is because I must become their object. To be human is to objective: to suffer the actions of others. If feminism has insisted on calling for more subjectivity in order to eradicate masculinist violence, Cherinet shows that what we need is to narrate together our stories of suffering and objectivity. If the fetish object is the frozen image of suffering humanity (our collective activity), it is also the site of human longing for reconciliation with itself and its objects. After all, "suffering humanely conceived is an enjoyment of self for [hu]man" (Marx 1992, 351). Love (being with others) is immanent to what we do but it is only by looking at the fetish object squarely in the face that love can recognize its very own content. Cherinet's artwork, I want to suggest takes us some distance in this act of looking for the sake of love.
Elleni Centime Zeleke
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