The question of authority–who has it and how it is implemented–has never been more widely debated. In her essay What is Authority? Hannah Arendt suggested that by the middle of the twentieth century, theconcept of authority had become negatively entangled with notions of obedience. According to Arendt, thisled to a confusion between the true meaning of the term and its identification with certain forms of violenceand power. She maintains that authority can provide a stabilising effect when it is grounded in respect forknowledge, experience and integrity in a person or institution. Importantly, Arendt distinguishes betweena positive authority, in which it is possible to retain our freedom, and a destructive authority that isimplemented through coercion by force. For this exhibition, three artists, Lili DUJOURIE, Everlyn NICODEMUS and Lerato SHADI, uniquely address this rhetorical question, and in doing so, broaden ourunderstanding of what it means to confront power.
Lili Dujourie's (b. 1941, Belgium) American Imperialism (1972/2020) is a critique of American Minimalism and the authority it exerted across European cultural institutions from the mid 1960s. Thissite-specific installation is composed of a large steel plate propped against a gallery wall that mimics thegeometric form, scale and weight of a minimalist sculpture. Both the front as well as the sides of the steelplate are painted pink with the area of the wall surrounding the sheet painted jet black, allowing for thespace behind it to remain blank. The severity of this intervention and its unapologetic intrusion into thespace in which it is presented symbolise the overbearing influence of artists such as Richard Serra, DonaldJudd and Carl Andre at the time of its making. In Dujourie's assessment, the seemingly endless exhibitionsand discussion of their work moved beyond art historical change to become an oppressive masculinist forcethat was suppressing a multitude of diverse artistic voices.
During the same period, and arguably in part due to the dominance of American sculpture, Dujourie was developing a pioneering and very personal video practice. Hommage à ... I–V (1972) is a series of five silent,grainy black-and-white videos in which Dujourie is candidly recorded in a bedroom by an automatedcamera set in a fixed position. In each Hommage, she uses her body on the bed and on the bedroom floorto slowly move between a number of strangely familiar poses. This new artistic medium provided Dujouriewith new possibilities, free from the heavily inscribed traditions of sculpture she was commenting upon inAmerican Imperialism. The videos with their soft rounded aperture –suggestive of a 'peephole'–introduce a sense of voyeurism and surveillance. Dujourie was acutely aware that representations of thefemale body had traditionally been conditioned by a heterosexual male gaze. By playing with and reflectingback art historical images of the reclining female nude, she could deconstruct and reclaim them from aconversation that had previously restricted female agency.
Everlyn NICODEMUS' (b. 1954, Tanzania) series of paintings 'Silent Strength' (1989-1990) address the triumph of the human spirit over suffering. Their distinct palette of black, amber, rust and vermillionsuggest a nighttime scene and the orange glow of sodium powered streetlights. They feature women, oftenin pairs, that are not ordinary in any sense of the word. Their bodies are drawn with a curvilinear economybereft of the regularities and proportions to which we are accustomed. They have no mouths, no eyes, noears, but we can ascertain they are human by the fingernails on their simply drawn hands or by the basiccircles that indicate their breasts. The fact that they do not have a substantive skeleton or muscle massenables them to merge with their backgrounds, moving back and forth between legibility and illegibility,seen and unseen.
Windows are another consistent feature of these works by Nicodemus and are represented as framed crosses. They disorientate rather than locate as they typically would in an architectural setting. In No. 23,the scale and placement of the windows suggest that its faceless figure is in some vast cavernous building,while in others such as No. 1, they allude to more private spaces, such as a bedroom. In another example_No. 33_, a body appears to float in the air high above two windowpanes and a tree-like form as if one mightexperience in a dream. In stark contrast No. 24 has a far more oppressive mood calling to mind the confinedspace of a prison cell. The 'Silent Strength' series is an expression of the anxieties of lived experience in oftenperilous and austere conditions. What is remarkable is that, however isolated in their environments,Nicodemus ensures that each subject maintains a certain strength, humility and forbearance.
Lerato SHADI's (b. 1979, South Africa) Batho ba me (2020) is a text-based artwork comprised of hand-drawn and neon elements displayed on a painted backdrop that engages with debates surrounding humanand civil rights. 'We the People' are the first three words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. As aphrase it is often used as shorthand to describe all citizens who make up the Union and the rights to whichthey are entitled. It is a slogan that transcends America as the principles laid out in this instrument ofgovernment have been replicated many times over by almost every major democratic country in the world.At its core is the aspiration that the government will always meet the needs of its people. However, thecoronavirus pandemic, wide-spread racism and generational poverty has exposed profound dysfunctionand inequality in the democratic project. With two neon elements, Shadi sharpens these words into aquestion targeted directly at the viewer: 'Are we the people?' For whom is the 'we' claimed here, and howis this 'we' defined? Accompanying Batho ba me will be a new series of wool on linen works that extendthe artist's decade-long investigation into crochet, knitting and needlework as everyday forms of politicalexpression.
On Hannah Arendt: What is Authority? takes its title from the third essay of Arendt's 1968 book Between Past and Future. It is the third in a 12-month programme dedicated to the writings of the German-born,American political philosopher Hannah Arendt.
Press release courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery.
Take a virtual step into the gallery's door with a tour of our current exhibition, featuring works by Lili DUJOURIE, Everlyn NICODEMUS and Lerato SHADI. Gallery director Niamh Coghlan introduces the third chapter of our year-long programme inspired by #HannahArendt's 1968 publication Between Past and Future, around which all the shows in...