Uncluttering the Imaginary in Francis Upritchard’s “African” Sculptures by Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi
“One’s own form can hide a box’s belongings.” — Andre Bradley, Dark Archives
Earlier this year, Anton Kern Gallery housed the London-based, husband and wife duo of Martino Gamper and Francis Upritchard, and lets just say there was some good, there was some bad, and there was some ugly.
I will start with the good, let’s begin with Gamper. The Italian-born furniture maker boasts a practice that ranges from interior design to one-off commissions. His deft touch in décor definitely stood out. Furniture was littered about the expansive space—chairs and consoles, tables, rugs, ceramic bowls, pots, and lamps were all on view—that felt one with one another. For instance, the ocean blue velvet Ice Cream Chairs (2015)—salvaged and reupholstered from a now-defunct ice cream parlor in Italy—surrounded Black and White Table (2015), one of Gamper’s newly minted linoleum tables. Put plainly, and to his credit, it was hard to discern what was repurposed and what was only just designed. Much of this had to do with the Italian’s knack for resurrecting the derelict and unwanted. There’s a recognizable care to Gamper’s practice—a modus vivendi brimming with second chances—that shows up in his improvised ethos around design and décor. The lived-in feel was a comforting departure, offering viewers a place to sit, catch their breath, and, sadly, take in his wife’s off-putting sculptures.
Hailing from New Zealand, Upritchard—Gamper’s partner in crime—cut a more interesting figure. One aspect of her practice involves a healthy dose of scavenging for oddments, discarded knickknacks that the artist then renews. For instance, Jealous Saboteurs (2005; not shown at Anton Kern) is a series of salvaged hockey sticks complete with crocodile jaws as the head. This uncanny act can be likened to resuscitating energies in these once-valued, now-degenerate objects—a reinstating of their ritual potency. Another line of Upritcahrd’s work centers around sculptural installations, molding dinosaurs and figurines that hark back to long-gone eras—think knights and jesters from medieval mythology or dinosaurs from Jurassic periods—and recent pasts—beatniks, hippies, and other countercultures. These figurative sculptures are often modeled in polymer clay, papier-mâché, and the rubber-like balata, with their forms anything but immaculate. In a way, these figures are equally resuscitated—brought forward in time—much like the thrift store trifles.
In 2009, these wares took the artist to the 53rd Venice Biennale as a representative for New Zealand. On view at the Fondazione Claudio Buziol was Save Yourself, an installation where Upritchard assembled across the neo-Palladian villa a cadre of figurative sculptures—diminutive in size—and glass-blown lamps on three tables of varying height. Situated across the three rooms, each table spoke to a different human condition: a set of Dancers paraded about on one table, their revelry drawing from the ecstasy of the Glastonbury Festival in 1971 and Erasmus Grasser’s 15th-century wooden Moriskentänzer dancers; another band of six melancholic-looking figurines dubbed Long registered as introspective, prayerful; and Lonely captured an isolated figure facing a mirror but pointing away from it and nature—three stumps line the table—to some unknown left, an elsewhere. The other two tables housing Dancers and Long also engaged in a mirror exchange; all three tables are designed in accordance to the height and width of large antique mirrors within the respective rooms.
Now, there wasn’t any anamorphic trickery on hand, but there’s something to be said about these bereft-looking figures in dialogue with these mirrors—in them, we see these sculptural figures in more ways than one. Upritchard noted these ways, reflecting, while at Venice, that she works from a very intuitive realm, only thinking about what she’s made afterwards. Hence, although the Lonely figure before the mirror might be bound up in Lacanian notions of locating the true “I,” the humanization of nature, and the failings of the latter to bring out the former, the construal can go anywhere really. Read this way, the support structures to Upritchard’s sculptures are fluid, functional to one’s own devices. However, this slippery slope to the artist’s sculptures—and artistic practice in general—become problematic when dealing with racialized histories. Is the work ethnographic—or exploitative—in style? It is hard to call. In this indeterminate state, Upritchard runs the risk that ironies get exposed, projected out and mirrored back in garish and fantastical ways that have historically figured into the construction of raced beings.
These ironies were hard to avoid and explain away at Anton Kern. For the show, Upritchard’s band of has-beens—now larger in scale, human-sized—were painted in monochrome hues or speckled with multicolored patterns like Gentleman Joker (2015), which stood on a blue metallic plinth. The largeness of these sculptures hid nothing: Some wore hand-dyed garbs, while others were partially nude. Smaller figurines and kitchen utensils sat randomly on chairs or splayed out on rugs; their haphazard arrangement puzzling yet pensive. All in all, it was a surreal cast of characters and curios that animated the already eccentric trappings from Gamper.
Yet, several things disturbed this showroom of sculpture and furniture. Key among them was Upritchard’s Bangle (2015), a sculptural figure that arrested attention due to its sheer audacity. Gamper’s furniture—in this case, table—served as a makeshift plinth for this nude, life-sized “African” statuette. (Upritchard has a thing for “the African.” At her solo show at The Hammer Museum, the sculptor unveiled Step Off, 2014, a troubling African figurine covered head-to-toe in black stockings.) Africa (and race) is similarly implied in Bangle through the analogous black stocking that veiled this figure from head-to-toe; an undertone of white fabric complicated the already cheaply blackened epidermis. Bangle typified Upritchard at her off-putting best, as the work—and the name, for that matter—further objectified the black body. The androgynous figure in Bangle lay on their side, their arms propping them up in a very Olympia-esque manner. Their elongated neck, extremities, and breasts were fitted with cheap, caricature-looking plastic bracelets. S/he appeared as though served up on a platter, regal in all their tackiness, ready to be consumed.
Upritchard tends to conflate the failings of past eras with the creative and opportunistic possibilities of a precarious now. Her bizarre game of cat-and-mouse with history departs from British novelist, Hilary Mantel and her flair for absurdly churning up truths into half-truths, parafictions that tease time and sincerity. Looking to Mantel, Upritchard seeks the same in form and concept: she works with her hands—as opposed to the security of casting—as a way to privilege imperfections; and historical details are readily defied, molding fact and fiction into purposeful frictions. This desire to focus on the palpable now while, as she put it, intentionally getting history wrong can yield formal quirks that intrigue, but also existential missteps that antagonize. Bangle was more of the latter; in not getting history right, “the African” figurine smacked of crassness, evidencing this agonizing robbery of time that often clouds black bodies.
Why this image of the African? Why the African? Why Bangle? Why not Awande? Or Bongani? And why aren’t the other figures naked? It all seemed simplistic and rote even if there was meant to be thread of subterfuge to it. That is, blackness is a bungled social construction that, radically speaking, is very much about an unconscious (white) self-hatred masked in a fictive humanism. But I don’t think Bangle or Upritchard was going there, to that postcolonial extreme.
So I went looking for context, a diegesis to this spot of bother over Bangle. Already put off, this annoyance reached fever pitch when I learned that Upritchard’s sculptural figures have been aligned to Fanon and his ideas on futurity. Yes, Frantz Fanon. Perhaps it was the fetching nature of Fanon’s prose or the wanton ways of Hammer senior curator, Anne Ellegood. It’s not entirely clear. For Upritchard’s exhibition at the Hammer, Ellegood penned an essay, referencing Fanon in the prologue. But to wax lyrical about Fanon in relation to Upritchard’s work doesn’t entirely coalesce with the revolutionary writer’s ideas in Black Skin, White Masks (1962). Ellegood writes:
Fanon proclaims that the future of which he speaks is not a distant place blissfully floating out of reach but rather is always situated in our immediate surroundings and, perhaps most importantly, is imminent … Whatever patina of otherworldliness her figures have acquired, they are distinctly grounded in our daily experiences, in our “existences,” to borrow Fanon’s term. In other words, Upritchard’s figures are mirrors held up, at times more opaque than reflective but nonetheless capable of revealing much about our past, our present, and even our future.
As poetic as this reads, it comes off jarring, like theory haphazardly thrown over praxis. Now consider that in light of what Ellegood later intuits regarding Step Off:
The first African figure in Upritchard’s growing ensemble, Step Off is a woman apparently ravaged and disfigured by circumstance, her expression both stoic and remorseful. Perhaps more than any of her sculptures to date, these figures urge us to ponder the precise aspects of their backgrounds and life experiences. Yet, as with all Upritchard’s work, despite the failures and hardships that have taken a toll on her characters, a shared humanity shines through, a hopefulness rooted in the possibility that self-reflection might result in the desire for connection … Alongside the dinosaurs, creatures whose extinction is their most notorious characteristic, figures like Step Off—whose seemingly decorative bands at the neck, knee, and ankle take on the suggestion of shackles—can be understood both as contemporary and as incarnations of centuries of human rights abuses.
I didn’t see it, sorry. Neither did I see the “decidedly contemporary” elements Ellegood highlighted in Upritchard’s figures. From ravaged to disfigured right down to human rights abuses, this was post-hoc reasoning tacked onto the black body in ways that flirted with poverty porn. Again, Upritchard never enters these sculptural renderings with much foresight. That isn’t to say intuitive meanderings are unfit spaces for artistic production. But it’s what happens afterwards. Was Step Off meant to be a wake-up call, a path to a shared humanity? I didn’t get that sense staring at Bangle or reading about Ellegood’s exposition on Step Off. What Ellegood touts in Step Off may very well be realities of and an end goal for the black body, but it read rehearsed, a convenient line that panders to Upritchard’s thorny practice without taking it to task, excavating her imaginary.
Is Fanon that entry, the window into the backgrounds and life experiences of Bangle or Step Off? In a fit of turmoil after a racist encounter, Fanon had connected his blackness to animals in Black Skin, White Masks. By drawing this parallel between Bangle and dinosaurs, Ellegood does well in speaking to this pained past that, for Fanon, explained why blackness was so maligned, forbidden from humanity. Black trans femme writer Che Gossett took up similar arguments in their essay, “Blackness, Animality, and the Unsovereign.” Pitting black radical thinkers alongside anti-black enlightenment writers, Gosset highlights how blackness was poor by virtue of its relation to animals who, according to Heidegger, were the “poor in the world.” As such, Africa and animals were one in the same, with Gosset writing, “Africa is symbolized as outside of history, logos and telos, and therefore as primitive, barbaric and bestial.” This visual topography of black bodies perched near roaming dinosaurs was there to see Anton Kern. On the one hand, it suggested Africa as the originary beings, the first to till the land and tame these Jurassic beasts. At the same time, the caricaturist nature of Bangle reduced this to mere fancy. Time was thwarted all right, but this display didn’t privilege the black body; Bangle was on par with the dinosaurs, a reiteration of the animalistic ways of blackness.
In light of Upritchard’s cheek towards time and history, Gosset points of division are telling and worth unpacking. Africa is outside of history. Animals are outside of history. Upritchard elects to operate outside of history. There is an onto-epistemological danger that comes with existence outside. Humanity is always already hard to locate outside—unless held in a rigorous and radical practice—while movement at the margin is equally imperceptible. Prompting further pause is the fact that these “African” figures are coming from Upritchard’s intuitive space. What is her imaginary around blackness? And why does this imaginary (and Ellegood’s) immediately go to the bruised and battered African? It is as if Upritchard is playing in the dark, a fearful and desired place where her whiteness only knows best. Play is a social abstraction, an act somewhat divorced from reality. In The Moving Body (2001), French actor and teacher, Jacques Lecoq stressed that play should come after re-play, which is a reviving of lived experiences. Reality is wedded to re-play, but not so much play. In play, one had to remain cognizant of reality or else the improvisational act of play can “overlook the other players and fail to act with them.” This idea of play/replay explicates the problematic workings of Upritchard’s intuitive forays into blackness. She improvises, complicates, corrals, dismisses, and implodes time to arrive at what she calls a futuristic blackness. Toying with the temporalities of history is good and well—I’m just curious as to Upritchard’s read of the past and the now, and her reality as it relates to black bodies. Upritchard had mentioned she grew up around hippies, with her work drawing heavily from that post-sixties experience. In a related point, Upritchard noted that personalities from this countercultural movement were “holy fools” so there is some bite to her. Indeed, the effusive togetherness of hippie tenets has a myopic tendency, often failing to see past its homogeneity and othering of cultures. A similar likeness crept into Bangle. It was dredging up colonial half-truths on blackness and Africa in ways that weren’t generative whatsoever.
We can read Fanon into Upritchard’s work, but if we truly take on Fanon’s critical stance on the racialization of blackness as animalization then Bangle takes on questionable resonance. From an aesthetic standpoint, it wasn’t a resonance that was decidedly contemporary because there wasn’t much on show that was truly animating vis-à-vis the show’s thesis on troubling what is authentic. Honestly, what was contemporary here? This critique is not to dismiss the existence of, say, the Ndebele people of South Africa—who Upritchard is likely drawing from in Bangle yet makes no direct reference to; these cultures remain as exotic and exclusive as “the African” signifier—but to affix one of her Mexican Hats (2015) to the seemingly transgendered Step Off or position Bangle à la Venus of Urbino, reclining, failed to register as this contemporary gesture of opacity (in the willful withholding sense). Instead, it read as tasteless mimicry. Fanon happened to write on mimicry; it nauseated him as a strategy of opposition. The abject workings of mimicry simply negated man, bringing on an “avalanche of murders” and rotting cadavers that sickened Fanon. I felt equally sickened at Anton Kern. And it wasn’t because I didn’t identify with Africa as a moniker—I call myself African—or see the value in subversion. Rather, I think the mimesis on show in Bangle was the type that folded neatly into predictable narratives, into the myth of enlightenment, when mimesis should be in opposition to these very things. What happens when mimesis becomes recognizable, another re-produced spectacle for the masses?
Step Off rests in the Pizzuti Collection; I’m not so sure where Bangle will end up. Again, the whole venture registered as theory not quite fitting with praxis. Let me explain. Fanon’s words work towards a nonracial future, radical in its making. Achieving this radicalism, as Ellegood notes, is very much about the present, reckoning with the day-to-day existences. In this moment, when black existences can be cut short on a paltry “I don’t know,” I’m left to wonder what Bangles does for the black body? And, to boot, black subjectivity? Where was the radical?
Shifting temporal references is not enough when the overwhelming receipt is one of hopelessness for black bodies (on sale). A close friend commented that the soft sculpture of Bangle evoked images of a beanbag—something to be sat on. Dasha Zhukova anyone? I left this exhibition bemused, not quite sure what to think past the anger. I had written some thoughts on Gamper’s work, but stopped there. Bangle felt too flippant, painfully so. Doubling back, perhaps it’s not that I didn’t see it—that is, Ellegood’s synthesis—but I didn’t want to see it in this commercialized context void of any other context. At least at the Hammer there was Ellegood’s debatable read, but a read nonetheless. Here, at Anton Kern, nothing felt denied. Not authenticity. Not cultural purity. Nothing. Empathy needed to surround this work, but of a critical vein where reason and one’s position is considered. But that was lacking, even on a post-hoc basis.
If anything, Anton Kern looked like a modern-day Kunstkammer or, better yet, a die Brücke boudoir complete with the necessary accoutrements: primitive decorations and carvings littered about, check; black models in nude, check; surreal splendor to match, check. Much can be said about these decorative, avant-garde ruptures that dot European art and exhibition histories and their affinity to Africa. For die Brücke founder—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner—an argument has been made that his use of primitive modes of expression not only upheld European myths around black sexuality and black bodies, but also equally troubled these problematic representations. I get it. And I can vaguely see it. But when it doesn’t push thinking—when the living sculptures of black cabaret dancers, Sam and Milli, cease to exist if not for a sentence or two and a few images—then what are they really troubling? The same can be said of Gamper and Upritchard. It’s not enough to just visually depict the black body; history is never forgiving to blackness. Neither is the now. Seeing black “African” bodies hoisted on well-dressed tables à la carte style did not question cultural purity. To the naked eye, strolling in off of West 20th Street, it was another black body—ravaged, disfigured, shackled—that had a offhand visibility, the kind that rendered one un-visible to most whites. Harvey Young’s formulations on “compulsory visibility”—in many ways an extension of Ralph Ellison’s “high visibility”—speak to this indifferent streak around the publicness of black bodies. Young writes in Embodying Black Experience:
The black body, whether on the auction block, the American plantation, hanged from a lightpole as part of a lynching ritual, attacked by police dogs within the Civil Rights era, or staged as a ‘criminal body’ by contemporary law enforcement and judicial systems, is a body that has been forced into the public spotlight and given a compulsory visibility.
The stillness of this regime of visibility—its inability to shake time, structures—is what is particularly haunting. Inherent in the regime is the apparitions of the past still clinging to the present. Was Upritchard aware of that gnawing stillness? And if so, what was she doing that was different, that hadn’t already troubled it in far more rigorous ways? Even the intuitive realm of the dreamer comes with intent, “not to be molested by the world,” as James Baldwin put it in Another Country. Simply getting away from this stillness has perplexed the likes of Baldwin, himself forced into a self-imposed exile in Europe. What sent him fleeing, seeking to be a mystery since he couldn't be free, could be boiled down to this compulsory visibility. Hilton Als’ pithy observation on race in America contextualizes this flight from the public microscope:
The subject of blackness has taken a strange and unsatisfying journey through American thought: first, because blackness has almost always had to explain itself to a largely white audience in order to be heard, and, second, because it has generally been assumed to have only one story to tell—a story of oppression that plays on liberal guilt.
Where do we go from this unspeakable monolith where the primitive reigns and narrates (for some)? Thankfully, Baldwin’s posture and prose comforted the exhausted soul; the writer’s movement a constant heckler of hegemony. (Even though he was “everybody’s Jimmy,” there was a critical tone to Baldwin’s empathic diction that weighed not only his position—several times over—but that of others as well.) Not one to collapse in crisis, Baldwin fled Paris in 1951, on the move again. He found himself in a chalet tucked away in the alabaster Alps of Loèche-les-Bains. There, Baldwin penned “Stranger in the Village,” an essay with a two-way mirror timbre that complicated this dark, primitive place we so often look askance from.
For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modem world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in away that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York's Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory—but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.
Distance grants room for gaze. We see it in the incipit beginnings where primitive is turned on its head. Yet, in the next breath, it is absorbed into the canon, safe from scorn, much like Kirchner. Even the jumbling of time—from Rembrandt to the cathedral at Chartres, back to Baldwin’s presence in Loèche-les-Bains and the kids who call him Neger!—could not trouble the centrality of whiteness to modernity. Whiteness easily escapes primitive stares; those are christened for the African figures, conquered and converted. For Baldwin, time hadn’t healed these colonial wounds, hadn’t troubled this stature of power refused to the blackened other. On the contrary, time simply sped forward, hurtling towards progress, futures, and a public forgetting of blackness. Baldwin had mulled over this public forgetting in his essay, “Many Thousand Gone” (1955), writing:
This sense of how Negroes live and how they have so long endured is hidden from us in part by the very speed of the Negro’s public progress, a progress so heavy with complexity…that he dare not pause to conjecture on the darkness which lies behind him…”
Africa was that pause, the darkness looming large wherever one stood. Baldwin had jump cut to that darkness for good reason: it was to resist the metamorphosis—absent of any rigor—which America so desperately sought among black bodies. The ire of Baldwin in “Many Thousands Gone” was the one-dimensionality of Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). Bigger was a myth, a stereotypical one that was unsympathetic and remotely real. His portrayal was on par to Bangle, a fragment of the white imaginary that saw “the African” as naked, hapless, and hopeful. Similarly, blackness in the American psyche was to exist a certain way, as an apéritif to the “notorious national taste.” Feeding this taste was this rhetoric of progress that was equal parts public and paradoxical, a compulsory visibility that cast a kaleidoscope of light and dark on blackness. Loved one moment, Lazarus the next. That was the black body, bipolar in its receipt. In a way, that distance—of history, of time, of Africa—that Baldwin pans to in “Stranger in the Village”: it illumed what is often hidden when time is sped up hastily without moments of pause.
Hence, when Upritchard’s sculptures seek to thwart time, I wonder how that works together with Fanon’s insistence to restore time? That Fanon is not a “prisoner of history” finds currency in Upritchard’s project; in their Anton Kern showing, the husband and wife duo set out to play with ideas of origin and derivation. To this end, Upritchard’s work pointedly warps time. Yet the aesthetic she attaches to this dislocation of history is at best topsy-turvy and at worst far from timely. Thwarting time comes with a danger of glossing over the colonial afterlife of blackness that Fanon tirelessly tried to escape till his death. It was a blackness that was dependent. Reconciling this dependency within a “utopian rhetoric of post-sixties counterculture, high modernist futurism” proves damning when we glimpse Bangle and Step Off—the two figures were fabulating with no criticality on how time operates for blackness. Gaps widened, but in ways that weren’t productive. By contrast, Darieck Scott in “Fanon’s Muscles: (Black) Power Revisited” clues us into Fanon’s generative resolve to restore time.
What the figure of time loses in the colonial context is its status as regulative principle in the narrative of social being and the critique of domination; [in Fanon] it…functions…as an ‘ought,’ an eviscerated organ of the social body that demands to be resurrected.
If we read between the lines, Bigger or Bangle was never really a social being—the two simply played out the fears and desires of an imaginary. Disciplining this desire through mimicry can be menacing. However, due to the persistence of the colonial discourse in post-colonial times, mimicry can easily become an articulation of a partial reality. In those instances, metonyms of presence—stereotypical identities ranging from “bangle” to “the African”—can seed themselves in the unthought, an aspect of reality that disavows thought: intuition. Homi Bhahba noted in “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” that this articulation of the unthought dances between desire and reality, arriving at a denial of differences in the Other yet perpetuating said differences through stereotypes, statements, and myths. Mimicry that welcomes this contradictory space of unthought troubles this future reality Upritchard wished to sculpt in Bangle. Because even with motives of critiquing time—a power and value system of the dominant, hegemonic culture—there is an attendant social death and desire that clings close to Bangle, reinforcing the imperial antecedents of visuality as a cultural construct.
Bangle and Step Off clung to Africa, that primitive past Baldwin—and Fanon, in all honesty—could not shake. No matter how hard Fanon fought the excesses of history or how adept Baldwin illumined the idiosyncrasies of primitivism, the falsehoods and follies of European humanism circled back, choosing the black body irrespective of will. Addressing Fanon, Hortense Spillers sums up this dialectic of choice to a tee.
While it is likely true that one can, on occasion, choose the narratives that he [Fanon] will call his own, it is also undeniable that certain other narratives will choose him, whether he will or not. The question, then, is how to interarticulate the varied temporalities that arrive on the space of ‘now.’
Time is something lived, multiple, and simultaneous. And, in that perplexity, time can easily get flattened out for navigable intents and purposes. In the case of Fanon, the past was treated as an aporetic relation to the now. However, Spillers captures these undulations. What she teases apart, and what Ellegood reads into Upritchard’s work, is what one could call an aesthetic of radical humanism, one where “human beings are neither ends nor means.” It was difficult to arrive at that through Bangle, which felt very much like a ruse. Call it commodity fetish, if you will. Nothing spoke or screamed to the now. Instead, there was a figuring of stasis—inactivity amid warring fantasies—around the black body that mirrored what Fanon saw as the “motionless, Manicheistic world, a world of statues.” This inverted violence unfolded in Anton Kern: patrons walked about, doing the dreaming, while costume jewelry ganged the life and limbs of Bangle. S/he stayed in her institutional non-place. Seen this way, although the montage texture of Bangle troubled temporalities, the simultaneous experience was at odds with expectations of a radical politics of the human.
Borrowing from Spivak’s musings in Marginality in the Teaching Machine, it’s important to consider the following: From what space was Bangle speaking, really? What space was the representative member of the audience placing her? What did the audience expect to hear, there? Since s/he had no voice, Bangle wasn’t entirely explaining their selfhood à la Als, but the formal story, of course, read rather prosaic—ravaged and disfigured were Ellegood’s words.
Without knowing Upritchard’s relation to Fanon, it’s safe to say that a radical humanism would not be the first takeaway, let alone the second or third upon stepping into Anton Kern. Primitive. Native. Static. Statues. Mimicry. Commodity. These all echoed in the space. And at a time where black and brown bodies are dropping at an alarming rate, be it at the hands of police or a person of similar semblance, blackness cannot be paraded in a half-hearted manner, especially if Fanon and futurity is the context in which one is working from and towards.
All things considered, there needs to be a decided shift away from the figurative or, more precisely, the figurative done lazy. Rigor and empathy were decidedly lacking here, making Fanon all the more hard to find. And although Upritchard doesn’t directly align her work with activism or anti-black racism, introducing Fanon or narratives of servitude at once positions her within those discourses and related practice. There is little in-between with Fanon as with blackness. At the same time, the black body is not a simpleton—complexity defines our very existence. So when it is depicted with a laissez-faire regard, miming this, that, and the third, these sculptures don’t push visuality around (black) existence one bit. Instead, blackness remains front and center, but not tended to—and cared for—in a way, as Huey Copeland intones, that considers “blackness—in all of its sensuous and imperceptible folding—[as] that phantom site whose traces everywhere mark the construction of the material world and provide a different horizon from which to take our bearings.” Thwarting time forgets that blackness is everywhere, a material stuck point that never fully gets fleshed out. Figuring out these raced refractions calls for a restorative gesture, one that mends the stolen moments that were robbed from black bodies.
Baldwin ended “Many Thousands Gone” with a prescient thought that exhumes the limitations in and around Bangle, writing:
The privacy or obscurity of Negro life makes that life capable, in our imaginations, of producing anything at all, and thus the idea of Bigger’s monstrosity can be presented without fear of contradiction, since no American has the knowledge or authority to contest it and no Negro has the voice.
I initially found it surprising that all accounts on Upritchard’s engagement with cultural others have failed to bat an eyelid. Was I missing something? All of Upritchard’s reviews are glowing and surface level, the language around the works flitting between contradictions—“recycling and death, unsettling and funny” wrote one—or simply resting on “ambiguous.” This ambiguity surfaced in the critique of Step Off, with the latter review failing to comment on “the African” subtext in the figure’s form. But that is the draw; for many, Upritchard’s work unsettles owing to its imperfect, grotesque aesthetic that attracts and repulses, an amplification and repression somewhat akin to abjection. What often results from this draw is a valorization of Upritchard’s working procedure and aesthetic—how the visual and sensory trouble time—without a critique of the discursive exchange that spills forth from this form. Maybe part of the artist’s aesthetic impact is this unease. Yet beyond these formal qualities, it seems few have really interrogated the second- or third-order values—this emotional ire upon receipt and, perhaps, in conception—percolating in her carelessly calculated artifice. Humor didn’t entirely produce Dark Figure (2016; not shown at Anton Kern) and the scene at her recent exhibition, Dark Resters at Ivan Anthony. The scavenging got scarier, the imaginary more cluttered. During Upritchard’s residency at Camden Art Centre in 2004, British sci-fi writer, Hari Kunzru did go digging, rummaging through Upritchard’s attic, doing some of that heavy lifting, and contesting the contradictions, like the artist’s daring use of Maori cultural motifs as pakeha or white New Zealander. More of this is needed, this questioning beyond form. Hopefully, what I’ve done here is a start.
1 Francis Upritchard, “Venice Biennale: Francis Upritchard,” Tate Blog, July 2, 2009, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/venice-biennale-francis-upritchard.
2 In his memoir, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates had posited this idea of “the defining feature of being drafted into the black race is the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments.” This sentiment alongside Upritchard’s blurring of history casts a questionable context over Bangle as a radical gesture in temporally mapping identity.
3 Anne Ellegood, “Francis Upritchard’s Figurative Sculptures,” The Hammer Museum at UCLA, February 24, 2015, https://hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/2014/hammer-projects-francis-upritchard.
5 “My body was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, re-colored, clad in mourning in that white winter day. The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad…” Frantz Franon, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 1986), 113.
6 Jacques Lecoq, Jean-Gabriel Carasso and Jean-Claude Lallias, The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre, trans. David Bradby (New York: Routledge, 2002), 30.
7 See Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2009), 35-37.
8 Fanon had likened mimicry to an almost psychosomatic symptom of colonialism, a nauseating byproduct that kept black bodies in continued servitude to European aesthetics and achievements. It is interesting how Fanon viewed psychosomatic pathology as an instance where “an organism responds to, in other words adapts itself to, conflict it is faced with, the disorder being at the same time a symptom and a cure.” Mimicry behaves in that dialectical way, appeasing yet abdicating the self, depending on whether one is in the camp of Fanon or Homi Bhabha. The latter viewed mimicry as an effective and elusive strategy owing, in part, to its menacing resemblance to authority. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963), 289, 310-311.
9 “I am not arguing, however, that through his work Kirchner was somehow able to escape a prevalent system of Eurocentric values through which both black people and nude women came to symbolize some fantasy of free ‘primitive’ expression. His liberal sexuality also reinforced Western myths. I am suggesting rather that when this primitivism was combined with a visible concern with the technical and art-historical problems of representation, he could on occasion produce works which upset contemporary artistic expectations, and which cannot be read easily in terms of crude nature/culture opposition.” Charles Harrison, Francis Frascina and Gillian Perry, “Primitivism and the ‘Modern,’” in Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 77.
10 Harvey Young, Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 12.
11 This is a reference to Rita Dove’s poem, “Canary” where she writes: “If you can’t be free, be a mystery.” These words offer up a note on the art of self-containment.
12 Hilton Als, “A Pryor Love,” in White Girls (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2014), 228.
13 James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone”
14 Darieck Scott, “Fanon’s Muscles: (Black) Power Revisited,” in Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination, 40.
15 Hortense J. Spillers, Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 36.
16 Anthony Bogues, Empire of Liberty: Power, Desire, and Freedom (Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth University Press, 2010), 118.
17 Frantz Fanon, “Concerning Violence,” in The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963), 50.
18 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Marginality in the Teaching Machine,” in Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 2009), 59.
19 Huey Copeland, “Tending-toward-Blackness,” OCTOBER 156 (2016): 144.