Visual Art

In Family: Visions of a Shared Humanity at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, video artists explore the racial politics of colonial diasporas. By Lauren Carroll Harris.

Family: Visions of a Shared Humanity

A video still from Western Union: Small Boats (The Leopard).
Credit: Courtesy Isaac Julien and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

I’m looking at a granite viaduct that arches grandly across a wide, flat river. I’m on a boat, close to the water’s surface, and in front of me is a lush arrangement of tropical fruit and an ambivalent West African man in 16th-century period dress. This is the Tamar Valley, but not the one in Australia. Its namesake in England is the site of Plymouth Naval Base and dockyard, and in 1620, Pilgrims set forth from here to the New World.

In this half-hour video work, Tropikos (2016), John Akomfrah (Ghana/Britain) reimagines the moment before the colonial diaspora was created violently in the 1500s. It’s the linchpin of Family: Visions of a Shared Humanity, a big international video show of major North American and British artists, guest-curated by Franklin Sirmans of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). Rather hazily themed around the “interconnectedness of global humanity at a moment of division”, the exhibition marks the first collaboration between PAMM and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Akomfrah reworks imperial maritime history through a subversive costume drama, making no efforts to conceal Plymouth’s contemporary naval status: modern warships sail as the West African protagonist watches on. The anachronism makes for rich ground. The slave trade was abolished, but Western domination remained. At the same time, the work’s chronology is provocative in its AGNSW setting, as it predates Australia’s own colonial time line. Akomfrah’s work is always like this: at its most interesting, it shows the fertile collisions between cinema and the conventional gallery space, history and its anticolonial revision.

Moving image has become one of the main ways that artists are making sense of diasporic politics today. Since Tropikos was made, one public square in Plymouth, christened for an early slave trader, has been renamed, another colonial-era statue has been controversially retained and a new monument to slavery victims has been erected.

The next work, by Isaac Julien (Britain), also ventures into the past to reshape the present. The palazzos of Palermo have often been backdrops for stories of Sicily’s royal dynasties and nobility, most famously in Luchino Visconti’s 1963 epic The Leopard. In Western Union: Small Boats (The Leopard) (2007), Julien glides the focus to the new diasporas created by modern migration from colonially impoverished Africa to Europe, as Black dancers dramatically occupy the palazzos. Time fractures through reverse-motion video play, rippling upside-down images and backwards choreography.

It’s not clear whether Family is a reaction to George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter movement, the racist management of the pandemic or to the past 500 years of forced movement of Black peoples. The events of 2020 almost guarantee that Family will be read as a statement about activism and race today. The work of Akomfrah – an internationalist and a time traveller always looking for signs of empire to disrupt – bristles with a sensitivity to the historical forces that reduce people to imperial debris under racialised capitalism. Finally, perhaps, the art world is catching up. After the first two works by Akomfrah and Julien, the exhibition narrows in on the contemporary American experience of Blackness, centuries after colonisation began. African diasporas? Or race and Blackness in America in the past century? What is this show about?

British artist–filmmaker Steve McQueen weighs in with a claustrophobic endurance test. End Credits (2012-ongoing) is a resolutely anti-cinematic reproduction of the declassified FBI files concerning American activist and artist Paul Robeson (1898-1976). In rolling thousands of heavily redacted documents – many of which are perversely signed “Very truly yours, John Edgar Hoover” – into 12 compressed minutes, the work suggests a life surveilled, assessed and persecuted – the gruel of a Black activist’s existence.

With Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death (2016), Arthur Jafa (America) re-edits the present with a collage of footage found on the internet and news wires. A torrent of images of Black life rolls to “Ultralight Beam” by problematic pariah Kanye West. Amandla Stenberg, the young actor synonymous with Gen Z’s online protest culture, asks, “What would America look like if we loved Black people as much as white culture?” Jafa’s specific perspective remains somewhat mysterious; among the slivers of uplift and honour, the clips cycle back to despair.

Family’s musical motifs continue with Theaster Gates’ Breathing (2010), Canadian Stan Douglas’ Luanda-Kinshasa (2013) and Carrie Mae Weems’ May Days Long Forgotten (2002). Breathing is a slight work of metaphor that blends the artist’s childhood tradition of gospel choirs in the Baptist church with his later interest in Zen Buddhism, to speak to the ongoing processes of cultural diffusion that allow for collectivity and transcendence. Gospel and Buddhist chants harmonise, notes and voices merge and faces merge into oneness. On loan from PAMM, Luanda-Kinshasa is a fictional live recording of a 1970s jazz, funk and Afro-beat group at the height of Black power. And yet this moment of exchange could have occurred. Could it again? May Days Long Forgotten stands as a small, lyrical work mourning the stolen innocence of Black girlhood; a single trumpet plays wistfully as Black girls dance around a maypole, the symbolism marking both feminism and workers’ rights.

A revelation arrives with Garrett Bradley’s America (2019), an enigmatic video installation projected across four white flags. Retro vignettes of the days before the civil rights movement fall in shadow images across the wall, with splices of the joys of Black community life in Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913), the oldest surviving all-Black feature film. With an abundance of water images – an ongoing motif across this exhibition – America speaks beautifully to passage and cleansing, rebirth and reflection. Meanwhile, Kahlil Joseph’s BLKNWS® – originally intended as a work of fugitive broadcasting on American television as a Black CNN – feels somewhat nullified in the gallery space, with the AGNSW’s plans for offsite installations in Western Sydney made impossible by the pandemic.

Although the show claims a global perspective on diasporic politics, it holds an American-centric perspective, absent a legible story of the writing and rewriting of racial histories. No works think of, for example, the African diasporas in Australia, nor do we see an artist such as Aotearoa’s Lisa Reihana, who is also constantly reconstructing the colonial past.

Driving home, I passed a stone drinking fountain not far from the gallery. Emblazoned with the words “For God, King and Country”, it commemorates the Great War. In the context of a colonial occupation of a landmass on which most Anglo people do not see themselves as part of a diaspora, what does it mean to stage an exhibition about the African diasporas in Europe and America? Something is missing from the Family exhibition.

On the other side of the city, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, artist Richard Bell has a pithy rebuke to the prevailing Australian attitude, in which only some non-Indigenous peoples are considered diasporic: a canvas with a map of Europe screams the words, “You come from here.”

Family: Visions of a Shared Humanity is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until February 13, 2022.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2021 as "Remixed histories".

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Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and curator.