Fresh to def: The Black Cool and the Continual passages of time and faint thresholds of memory, in Gideon Appah’s Forgotten, Nudes, Landscapes (Part 3)
an afrovisualism essay by Justin Smith
Gideon Appah taps into Afro-esotericism, relating from mystical to internal planes of time and space.
Instances of Afro-esotericism exist through artists like Awol Erizku, with his photographic vanitas still life of the same name, Origin of Afro-Esotericism (2018-2020). Erizku describes this as an encyclopedic index, using one’s history, self, and identity as a central point to create something new.
Through Afrovisualism, my curatorial interpretation considers Afro-Esotericism and the Black esoteric continuum as “a conceptual framework examining supernatural and spiritual occurrences in the African Diaspora.”
Gideon’s work presents an array of Afrosurreal and Afro-esoteric symbolism that makes for a continuum of imagination—like in Purple Lake—that returns to the liminal space where this world takes place. In the exhibition, horses are the only real-life animal with mystical attributes, whereas the minotaur is a fantastical figure. Generally horses are a positive symbol. Brown horses refer to energetic control; and while black horses can refer to death and the processional ceremony, they can also represent the process of moving on. The horses appear in their own scenes, in black and brown color palettes that suggest their connection to otherworldly realms.
The continual fragmentation of the body is ever-present in Appah’s vanitas drawings: Smoking Hand, Hand and a Fruit, Fruits and Hands, and Skull and Fruits (all 2021). The smoking motif returns, noting a significant passage of time of isolated scenes: a disembodied hand holding a cigarette, fruits with fingers fused together, and an assortment with a skull and fruits.
Left to right: Smoking Hand (2021); Hand and a Fruit (2021); Fruits and Hands (2021); Skull and Fruits (2021) .Exhibition view Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, Markel Center, Gallery 2, Gideon Appah: Forgotten, Nudes, Landscapes, (Feb 19, 2022 – Jun 19, 2022). Photo: David Hale.
The physical, everyday happenings after the blaring nightlife festivities, are paired next to quiet, lonely nights. What remains in the quiet is a different kind of expressiveness of the Black Quiet, as Kevin Quashie describes, “one which characterizes a person’s desires, ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities, and fears.”
In the exhibition, a lingering night time represents the apprehensive stillness of time passing, with darker contemplative scenes, like in Girl With Double Dagger and A Woman Drowned in Water. Both are displays of deathly moments being observed—one hinting at death and one more overt. The acrylic paint creates distortion and obscurity.
Left to right: Image 1: Girl With Double Dagger (2020-21); A Woman Drowned in Water (2021). Image 2: Purple Lake (2019). Exhibition view Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, Markel Center, Gallery 2, Gideon Appah: Forgotten, Nudes, Landscapes, (Feb 19, 2022 – Jun 19, 2022). Photo: David Hale.
Kevin Quashie further explores ideas of the Black Quiet through a deeper reading of Elizabeth Alexander’s The Black Interior, stating that: “A concept of interiority, so that it may support representations of blackness that are irreverent, messy, and complicated”.
In what Elizabeth Alexander calls “the Black Interior”: “black life and creativity behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination. A metaphysical space beyond the black public everyday toward power and wild imagination that black people ourselves know we possess but need to be reminded of and know.”
Gideon presents a spectrum of imagery that relays an interior view on the subtleties of Black life, between the nightclub, the home, and the in-between.
Left to right: Installation view of Arthur Jafa,Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016) courtesy of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York / Rome.; Awol Erizku,Origin of Afro-Esotericism (2018-2020)
Arthur Jafa in a conversation with Tina Campt on his film Dreams Are Colder Than Death (2013), makes mention of Hortense Spillers reference to the “differing of body and flesh is that flesh ‘gives empathy.’” Gideon’s paintings suggest an empathic observation of the transient nature of human life. Furthering this notion, Arthur Jafa presents a series of rhetorical questions to process juxtapositions of beauty, death, and horror in bound up with public and interiority of blackness:
“How do you situate it so that people actually see it, this phenomena, as opposed to just having it pass in front of them? How do you have people actually see it? And simultaneously, how do you induce people to apprehend both the beauty and the of horror these circumstances? There’s something profound (and magical) to be said about the ability, the capacity to see beauty anywhere and everywhere.
I think it’s a capacity black people have developed – we are radically not affirmed, so we’ve actually learned not just how to imbue moments with joy but to see beauty in places where beauty, in any normative sense, doesn’t necessarily exist.”
— “Love is the Message, The Plan is Death,” Arthur Jafa and Tina M. Campt, e-flux journal, issue #81, April 2017
Gideon’s works in these varying scenes are widely expressive and quietly surrealist across a continuum of Afro-esotericism and afrosurrealism, a phenomenological paradox into the seen and unseen.
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