Curatorial Statement: Liminal Identities in the Global South

Clive Kellner

Liminal Identities in the Global South

(3 August 2021 – 26 February 2022)

Liminal Identities in the Global South formed part of JCAF’s first research theme: Female Identities in the Global South. The second of three exhibitions in this theme explored hybridity and resistance in the artistic practices of seminal women artists from Latin America, alongside artists from the MENA region, the African diaspora and South Africa. The exhibition considered heterogeneous forms of expression across art, architecture and music, from the 1960s to the present. The artists and architects included: Jane Alexander, Lina Bo Bardi, Lygia Clark, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, Kapwani Kiwanga, Ana Mendieta, Lygia Pape, Berni Searle and Sumaya Vally/Counterspace.

Given the impact of Covid-19, the pandemic body was a second curatorial thread running through the exhibition. The pandemic had many of us in a state of limbo or liminality, so that we were caught between a pre-Covid-19 world and one in which we imagined a better future. Liminality can be understood as a rite of passage akin to being in an intermediate state or phase. The disruption caused by Covid could be understood as an “event” that signified a rupture in the normal run of things. Our normal daily reality was challenged to the degree that an ontological shift occurred, affecting how we perceived the world we engage in.

The exhibition was divided into five areas: Prelude, Requiem, Movements I, II and III, each conceptualised according to a musical tempo, either moderate, fast or slow, denoting a time-based experience of the exhibition.

Prelude

Andante (moderate) | A time of becoming

The exhibition began with a Prelude, an archive that included the concept of “anthropophagia” (cultural ‘cannibalism’ or assimilation) developed by Oswald de Andrade in his Manifesto Antropófago (1928), and embodied in the painting Abaporu (1928) by the painter Tarsila do Amaral. In the 1970s, architect Lina Bo Bardi developed a quintessential Brazilian architectural language derived from indigenous vernacular expression. These concepts resonate with contemporary South African society, which is engaged in asserting itself against Western postcolonial cultural domination through various decolonising movements.

Requiem

Lacrimoso (tearfully) | The event of the pandemic

Within the liminal state brought about by Covid-19, the exhibition reflected on previous pandemics such as the Black Death (bubonic plague) (1346–53) and the Spanish Flu (1918–20). The Covid-19 pandemic could be understood as an “event” – a rupture in the normal run of things. According to philosopher Slavoj Žižek, an event can refer to, “a devastating natural disaster or to the latest celebrity scandal, the triumph of the people or a brutal political change, an intense experience of a work of art or an intimate decision”.1

Movement I

Allegro (lively) | The present time

The pandemic body was alluded to in the masks that appeared in the works. We live in a time of masks. They serve several purposes, from protecting people from Covid-19 to concealing the identities of protestors in the streets of Hong Kong or Paris. In the past, they have been associated with groups such as the Islamic extremist fighters of Daesh (ISIS), with police in riot gear all over the world, and with the prisoners of Abu Ghraib. In early cinema, villains often wore masks. The ubiquity of the mask in our time is at once ominous and comforting. Masks filter the air we breathe, helping to prevent infection and possibly death. Breathing is a basic bodily function, yet it is through breathing that we can be infected with air-borne viruses like Covid-19.

Movement II

Lento (slow) | The temporal nature of things

Our lives are temporary. They pass away, leaving memories and traces. This section of the exhibition explored the precarious nature of life through images of the female body in the landscape, rituals performed by women, and bouquets of flowers that decay over time. The passage of time, which encompasses death, ritual and trace, points in turn to liminality. Flowers, often used in ceremonial events such as funerals, symbolise a movement from one social or religious state to another. Several works suggest physical death, the leaving of an old state and entry into a new one.

Movement III

Grazioso (gracefully) + crescendo | Eternal time

During afflictions and disasters such as the Covid-19 pandemic, we discover our “radical vulnerability” and the need for grace. As Achille Mbembe points out, “Such is for many, the terror triggered by confinement: having to finally answer for one’s own life; to one’s own name.”2

Mbembe’s statement suggests that there is someone to answer to, that there is an explicit self and an implicit other. As Ruud Welten explains, “The face is not a mediation of the other. Neither is it a ‘persona’, a ‘mask’, nor a ‘picture’: the face is what Levinas calls transcendence.”3

In this section eternity was represented by the colour gold and by luminescence and reflection. What was implied here was that human actions have eternal consequences, and that the political and the poetic are inextricably connected.

SCENOGRAPHY

Envisaged as a pilgrimage or labyrinth, the LIGS exhibition consisted of a physical, temporal journey and an inward, reflective and transformative peregrination. Incorporating archival and non-art materials in dialogue with late-modernist and contemporary artworks and architecture, the exhibition began with the natural world and moved toward the transcendent.

Traditionally the curator is perceived as an author who conceives of the exhibition and tells its story by configuring the narrative. For the LIGS exhibition, the curator was more akin to a conductor and the exhibition analogous to a symphony in which there are different movements, tempos and harmonies. In this way, each chapter of the exhibition became a movement, with a specific tempo. Musical terms were used to describe each section of the exhibition in poetic phrases: this had the effect of amplifying the emotional register of each section, through each tempo. One section might have suggested a subdued feeling whilst another perhaps embodied an epiphanic experience. Lina Bo Bardi’s articulation of time is relevant here: “Linear time is a western invention; time is not linear, it is a marvellous entanglement where, at any moment, points can be chosen and solutions invented, without beginning and end.”4 Seen in this way, time is not an objective measurement, but rather functions subjectively as a progression of various tempos throughout the exhibition, each with their own pace or rhythm. The hoped-for result was a harmony and balance between the various aspects of the exhibition (images, objects, lighting, colour, spatial elements).

Biography

Clive Kellner is the Executive Director of the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF). He was Chief Curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG, 2004–2009), coordinator of the second Johannesburg Biennale (1997), co-founder of the pan African platform Camouflage and Editor in Chief of Coartnews (1999–2002). His curated exhibitions include Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2022); Liminal Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2021); Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South (JCAF, 2020); Yinka Shonibare (Camouflage, 2001); and Videobrasil: Mostra Africana De Arte Contemporanea (2000). He also organised Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent (JAG, 2007).


References

  1. Žižek, S. (2014). Event. London: Penguin, p. 1.
  2. Mbembe, A. (2020). “The Universal Right to Breathe”, in Critical Inquiry. http://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-universalright-to-breathe/. Accessed 18 January 2021.
  3. See discussion on Levinas’s idea of the human subject in relation to trauma and violence in Welten, R. (2020). “In the Beginning was Violence: Emmanuel Levinas on Religion and Violence”, in Continental Philosophy Review. Issue 53, pp. 355–70. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11007-020-09491-z. Accessed 18 January 2021.
  4. Quoted in Blager, N. (2020). Lina Bo Bardi: Together. Treviso: Arper SpA, p. 18.

How to cite this article:
Clive Kellner (2024), "Curatorial Statement: Liminal Identities in the Global South" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/curatorial-statement-ligs/. Accessed 24 April 2024.