Charles Bernstein

Image & Text

 

Figuring Power

 

In the middle of one of the grand halls in Berlin’s awe-inspiring Bode Museum, there is a magnificent Yombe (Kongo) wood sculpture of a supernally self-possessed man.

At the Bode, the Yombe figure is totally surrounded by medieval European power figures, thought, by Christian people, to possess supernatural powers. In the installation, the African figure locks eyes with a European fetish object of a woman holding a baby, with a similar statue at its back. There is a Surrealist shock produced by the incongruity. For all the animating force of this 19th-century nkisi n’kondi (an object inhabited by Divinities), the surrounding Christian icons have effectively have contained it, as surely as if were put in chains. The wide-eyed sculpture, hands confidently on hips, is covered with metal nails, suggesting a kind of, let’s call it, impregnobility. The nkisi is identified with Mangaaka, a powerful force for jurisprudence and for maintaining social order (“Beyond Compare” catalog, p. 145). The metal pieces hammered into the surface of the object are marks of specific efforts toward community order and against wrongdoing. While the surrounding figures may ensnare the nkisi n’kondi, it holds its own ground.

While the Bode museum is ostensibly secular, the objects in its collection were made by deeply religious people and the museum collection consists of works as talismanic as the Yombe “power figure” suddenly trapped in their (and our) collective gaze. The mother and baby motif, for example, depicts the infant deity Jesus with his mother Mary, a virgin according the Christian mythology.

This intentionally unsettling juxtaposition is part of an ongoing show at the Bode entitled “Beyond Compare: Art from Africa,” which integrates some of the masterpieces from Berlin’s ethnographic museum into the museum’s collections. The show is curated by Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine, and Paola Ivanov in an effort to raise the issues confronted in this essay. (The Ethnologisches Museum will be closed for some years as it moves from Dahlem to the Humboldt Forum on Museum Island, near the Bode, bringing its African collection in closer proximity to, even if separate from, the other island museums.  At present, this show is the only place that some of the Ethnologisches’s stellar collection can be seen. Providing a temporary home for these works is one of the laudable impulses for the show.)

While the concept of juxtaposing African works from the Ethnographic museum with the Christian sculptures at the Bode is given the title “Beyond Compare,”  the show makes much of the comparison of individual works from cultures that had limited knowledge of one another. The presentation of the works makes explicit that the works from the Ethnological Museum are valued for their own aesthetic and cultural significance and that these works are as great, in their own right, as the works in the museum’s permanent collection. And for viewers this point is underscored by the experience of seeing the borrowed works, which may seem to outshine the Christian icons that are their new neighbors. Indeed, the African works can seem to be ‘in advance’ of the Western works in their complex play of abstraction as/and distorted figuration, fetish, color, and performance, a felt perception that is as much the product of Western teleological consciousness as the reverse assumption of Christian supremacy.

The exhibition suggests a subliminal universality among sets of paired works, encouraging us to see a commonness of form and iconography, a “likeness” that, despite any differences, suggests –– in this case provisional –– “shared attributes” as an “effect of proximity” and “shared residence,” to adapt Sara Ahmad’s phrases in “A Phenomenology of Whiteness” (Feminist Theory 8:2, 2007, pp.154-55). Some of the “fundamental” (p. 71) points of comparison include couples, mothers with children, human faces/heads/hair, wild animals, and power figures. Side-by-side comparisons of like-seeming objects can reveal difference as much as sameness; but, given the design, the latter is more on display in the exhibition, even if the catalog is at pains to acknowledge the former.  Despite the curators’ forceful cautions in the catalog, this “feel good” approach a human common allows the violent history of the acquisition of the works to be masked, subsuming (absorbing, assimilating) all in its Christian spiritual aspiration (or, in partially related secular terms, via the frame of wissenschaft). The always present, and plausibly deniable, myth of the exhibition is that, in this context, universality is a specifically Christian form of obliterating difference, at least for those in the Christian fold. And this is exactly what “Beyond Compare” does, rather than what it intends: the side-by-side comparisons bring foreign or alien works into the Christian fold; this is what is “beyond” the comparisons that comprise the show.

Visual spectacle will always eclipse verbal extenuation.

While, the show does stage performances of power, it is too discrete to play them out in Brechtian fashion. Rather than the Battle of the Power Figures, foregrounding confrontation, we get the discrete and disarming charm of comparison. Christian universality is transcendent and transcultural and therefore beyond appropriation. Christianification, cloaked in the magical robe of humanism/wissenschaft, conjures unification and vanquishes antagonism. But the nkisi resists absorption, nail by nail: it is an avatar of social justice.

The museum curators are well aware of the provocative nature (and sometimes unintended consequences) of their comparisons and the very different histories of acquisition and fetish. They have created the installation as a valuable way to explore unresolved, and unresolvable, issues. The catalog offers a detailed discussion of the concept and the particulars of the show, including a necessary history of the way racist ideas of primitivism and nativism have long-framed African art, often as a way to extoll its soulful virtues, while denying the work much of the complex aesthetic agency that defines high art (a double-bind that remains toxic). The curators also note that medieval European art, such as that collected by the Bode, was denigrated as primitive –– from the dark ages –– as part of the invention of modernity (p. 12). The catalog’s preface (p. 6) pitches the comparisons this way:

The experimental juxtaposition of works from two continents reveals possible correlations on various levels, including historic contemporaneity, iconographic and technological similarities, and artistic strategies. Despite stylistic differences, striking similarities appear in the ways works of art function in both contexts. Power figures from the Congo were used to protect villages and communities, just as Gothic depictions of the Virgin of Mercy were. At the same time comparisons also expose contrasts, as with depictions of motherhood, which rely on different visual languages in Africa and Europe and convey different messages. [also posted on the web site]

Indeed, the curators directly confront the potential problems with their approach:

The act of comparing … is … not neutral, but charged with socially defined prejudices, conventions, and constructions of history. It also governed by the experiences of the individuals who draw the comparisons. Defining two things as similar or different is often related to power. The process of comparison is thus closely tied to questions of collection history, aesthetics, colonialism, and gender. [Ibid. See p. 11, which notes that comparisons are “shaped by preconceptions and prejudices.”]

Juxtaposition remains a powerful device in the museum display potentially elucidating every register on the scale of likeness to difference. Perhaps the most telling critique of the juxtaposition of African and European art was made by Thomas McEvilley in his essay on the Museum of Modern Art’s (William Rubin and Kurt Varnedoe’s) 1984 show, “Primitivism in Twentieth-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” In ““Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief: ‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth-Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art,” McEvilley excoriates MoMA for treating the African art as merely muses for the European modernist masters. The image above of the two mothers with children reverses the dynamic of the Primitivism show in scale and foregrounding.  I take up this issue, what I call the problem of “white abstraction,” in “Disfiguring Abstraction” in Pitch of Poetry (University of Chicago Press, 2016), in a response to MoMA’s 2012 “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925,” curated by Leah Dickerman, with Masha Chlenova. Rather than confront a difficult problem, the MoMA curators chose to ignore it, turning the tragedy of Alfred Barr’s defining and thrilling 1936 show “Cubism and Abstract Art” into the farce of this sanitized, even if entirely splendid, production. I recently mention this progression –– first time tragedy, second time farce –– to one of MoMA’s consultants for the show; he called my characterization “outlandish,” which surely it is meant to be.

Culture, in our Western sense, is the pure product of importation (appropriation) and exportation, powered by exploitation. The “Beyond Compare” notes that African artists imported ideas from Western arts just as Western artists appropriated ideas from African art and, indeed, each made likenesses of their “others” (pp. 14, 24-26, and “Coincidence or Connection?,” pp. 201-202). Moreover, starting in 1483, Christians propagated their beliefs and iconography in Africa (“The Same, but Different,” pp. 212-213). There is no origin to this process just as the first, second, third, fourth, and n world were all essential to the development of the most radical (and inventive) art of the past century. Innocence, like origins, is something that dies with our great grandparents and for our great grandparents with theirs. By the time we enter the world it’s easier to define ourselves by what we’re not than what we are.

It’s not something intrinsic to art objects that vexes likeness.  Everything is made of elements found in the periodic chart. But history and context tell a different story, where the subaltern can never exactly match the hegemon.

It’s an even playing field except for the ones that own it.

“There should be no barrier between the object and the appreciation of viewing it” the curators write in the catalog (p. 8). But aesthetic experience is not a matter of overcoming barriers but of recognizing them. Idealism is just as much a mask as materialism. Unmasking is a ritual performance whose mask is the make of its mark.

When Ezra Pound placed a Chinese ideogram in one of his poems, he was asserting his, ultimately supremacist, desire to arrange “luminous particulars” from different culture into a grand synthesis or montage. This dystopian desire of some modernist art is, however, just one pole; parataxis can also come from a desire to break nativist and techno-rational assumptions. Museums are by nature places that recontextualize cultural artifacts. They can naturalize the arrangement by grouping works of one apparent kind into segregated spaces. The Metropolitan Museum of Art hangs its European painting in one place and its American collection in another.  In each room, art works from the same period are displayed together. An entirely separate part of the museum houses its magnificent “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas,” material that in the past has been presented at ethnographic or natural history museums, reflecting a past in which such materials were considered more artifact than art. Attempts to mix things up, such as the current Bode show, and the MoMA show critiqued by McEvilley, are relatively rare. Exemplary, in this respect, is “Moon Dancers: Yup’ik Masks and the Surrealists,” a spring 2018 show at Di Donna Gallery in New York that displayed magnificent Yup’ik masks along with the art of Surrealists artists who collected these specific works or ones that were very similar. The direct influence of the masks on some of the paintings was underscored but, unlike the MoMA critiqued by McEvilley, the Yup’ik art was primary while the other art was marked by, if not its derivativeness than, in comparison, by seeming minor, at least in this context.

The Bode Museum is to be highly commended for this challenging show. The safest path for museums as well as artists is to stay clear of potential controversy by means of segregating subjects, domains, and makers. The status quo gets the prizes (as did the MoMA abstraction show); attempts to confront the status quo are often subject to scorn by those whose desire more to be part of it than to question its prerogatives, whatever their activist claims. “Beyond Compare” acknowledges the primacy and aesthetic autonomy of both the European and African works on display. These works are incomparable, that is, unique –– nothing could be better.  Unlike MoMA “invention” of abstraction show, the Bode directly responds to McEvilley’s critique and, in the catalog, offers illuminating commentaries on the aesthetic innovations of the African art on display.

In a 2018 installation, the Met has exploited the frisson of incongruity by hanging high fashion Catholic mannequins in rooms that display “dark ages” Christian art and pre-Christian classical art. The spectacular exhibition, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” is très chic and titillating, but even with the superimposition of the Catholic costumes in a hall of antiquities does not produce much cultural dissonance. On the contrary, with the piped-in loop of triumphalist music, it makes the museum seem like the main floor of Saks Fifth Avenue.

Imagine the effect of reversing the power dynamics in “Beyond Compare” so that a circle of African wood carvings surround (or, in museum language, are “put in dialog with”) a Christian power figure. Accompanying music: Little Jimmy Scott’s cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Such a choice would be far too didactic for the Bode. Yet it would be a dialectical reversal of the fact that the African sculpture in the show were captured for Christianity and are now subdued and contained within the museum.  It would be an opportunity to acknowledge the racial imaginary that is the ideological foundation of this ethically perspicacious and welcome exhibition.