Visceral Reactions Are Dangerous: a Reflection on “NOire” Exhibition

I am about as ill-equipped as one can imagine to talk about the issues raised by Keyona Gallucci’s end-of-term project for the first half of the second-year SASAH course (ARTHUM2200E, taught by Research Fellow Mary Helen McMurran), an exhibition at the Satellite Gallery entitled “NOire.” The title needs no explanation. I am bound to get this horribly wrong. I am also mindful of the fact that, as Director of SASAH, I should not be pointing out the work of one student above others. That is not my intention, so let me start by saying that I see this exhibition as exemplary of all the work SASAH students are undertaking in this course and all SASAH courses: a creative intervention into, an imaginative disruption of the world as we know it, or think we know it. Had I the time, I would devote a blog to every one of your efforts as part of SASAH and, more broadly, as citizens of the world. Before I finish as Director, let me make the promise that I will do so in some fashion.

I am writing on this particular occasion because I’ve had a visceral reaction to the show that, as a white gay male of some privilege, leaves me wondering what I really know about race, the key topic though not the only theme, of Key’s show. And I say this as someone teaching in my Thursday morning class, for the umpteemth time, on Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, one of the most searing accounts of race – the disfiguring and terrifying effects of racism – as one can imagine.

Galucci’s show is a multi-media and multi-modal event. There is her artist’s statement, which makes clear and lays bare her stance as a young woman of colour studying, living, working in London, Ontario, Canada – any one of those three place names signifying any number of stereotypes of white/male/protestant/heterosexual/capitalist/middle-class entitlement, which, like all stereotypes, always carry some taint of truth. How Galucci gives these stereotypes breathing room at the same time that she critiques their inevitably stultifying, prescriptive, and often violent effects, is thus a powerful accomplishment.

One first encounters the video, blocked in by the gallery’s two movable walls, as if wedged between two white monoliths. But I’ll leave that to the last. Past the video to the left one sees a wall of black heroes – personal, cultural, political – who have left a lasting mark on the artist’s psyche. These small, black and white images are all the more powerful for the cumulative effect of their individually unassuming representative presence. Past this is a painted rendering of the black female body as both powerful presence and invisible absence, the site of both disfiguring cultural appropriation and the resistance to such material, and materially malevolent, deformities. As an audience member queried the artist, which she recounted with some irony, what is really the ample booty of the black woman’s ass, filled with the joyful images of women’s faces, is reminiscent of the shape of Africa itself. Such a hilarious and necessary re-writing of all those colonialist representations of the African topography one couldn’t have imagined. What might Joseph Conrad think?

Turn ninety degrees and one sees a partly de-natured mask on a pedestal – the mask of privilege? of racist ignorance? of its hateful, violent effects? Turn another ninety degrees and one encounters a series of canvasses in which the artist at once plays with racist stereotypes and re-visions them as archetypal possibilities. These are sometimes written in the language of pure abstraction, even to risk re-abstracting the black woman’s body all over again, but with the further risk of re-creation itself, which is one of our most potent hopes for the future. Another ninety-degree turn exemplifies this risk in the artist’s at once blunt and purely imaginative representation of who she can be, might be, and most importantly, who she is.

One might see this as the keynote and key point of Galucci’s exhibition. But: let’s get back to that video. Shot outside the entrance to Somerville House, home to Lucy’s, facing the entrance to Stevenson-Lawson Hall, which houses, among other things, our University’s central administrative offices, the video depicts the artist lying face down on the pavement, as if dead, besides a pool of water, like blood, on a rather bleak, nondescript Western day. One is quickly aware that there’s a camera poised to capture the shot, a fact that partially forgives the blank pilgrimage of unsuspecting people walking, riding, skateboarding past the scene of the crime. What’s the matter with walking past, because it’s just staged, right? Our socially mediated lives are nothing if not a series of serially staged events, all captured for the sake of the image and the momentary evanescence it deploys to capture our imagination, until the next cool thing comes along.

But wait. What about those who walk or ride or glide past and see a dead, or at the very least distressed, body, but say, “Oh well. It’s not my pain”? After all, this is the middle of the Western campus. Ever since – at least ever since – we saw that naked Vietnamese girl flee toward the camera, victim of a napalm attack, we’ve become increasingly immune to the image’s power to capture humanity at its most visceral moments – on the verge between life and death. And since then it’s become sometimes increasingly difficult to parse the difference. What if we can no longer tell the difference? Baudrillard would tell us the difference might no longer matter. I’m not sure that’s what he really means.

Why am I writing this? I am repeatedly moved by SASAH students’ ability increasingly to parse the various intersectionalities – an attention to the complexities of race, gender, class, sexuality, identity, socio-economic status that I was sure I understood in some sophisticated way. I am only beginning to see – and I have a lot of education behind me – that I have only barely begun. And for that push toward my own future education, I have all of you to thank.

I do know one thing with absolute certainty (can one say such things after November 8, 2016?): something like Key Galucci’s show exhibits to me, with unquestionable force, that we are all capable of hearing the other speak, and of risking saying often stupid things about the other, if that ignorance is met with tolerance, compassion, and grace. As I say: that may very well be my white, gay, male privilege talking, and it likely is. So forgive my ignorance or not. But in the meantime, my hat is off, once again, to all that you are all capable of accomplishing on behalf of all of our futures.

Here’s to all of us listening, seeing, recording, expressing, feeling, thinking, comprehending, and above all understanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *