An Exploration of the Affect of Representational Responses to Environmental Injustices in the Niger River Delta

 

*note

this is still a draft!! but there’s some cool stuff here maybe

Introduction

My paper seeks to explore environmental injustices revolving around oil production in the Niger Delta and identify justice movements against these injustices. I begin by discussing dominant conceptions of the Niger Delta as a place rocked by corruption and environmental devastation, hoping to investigate the political affect that these descriptions have on audiences interested in mobilizing resistance against systems of oppression and ecological devastation in Nigeria. I then try to historicize current justice movements by bringing into discussion Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, exploring the question of, “How do current justice movements go against and along with Ken Saro-Wiwa’s vision for an environmental justice movement in the Niger Delta?” That question also begs the question of representation, and if all justice movements ought to be geared toward international consciousness raising. I argue that MEND, a movement that operates violently through disruption of oil production, ought not to be centered representationally because of the metaphor by which the West understands violence… rather, artists that use environmentally sustainable, situated rhetorics, such as Zina Saro-Wiwa, offer a holistic form of environmental education that engages the ‘body, mind and soul’ of the audience. This engagement allows viewers to reconceptualize their understanding of and relationship with the environment in constructive ways that might open up space in the political imagination for new forms of resistance against the corrupt Nigerian state and transnational oil companies’ irresponsible ecological practices. Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art arguably brings a utopic future into existence by embodying that resistance through performance.

 

The Niger Delta, An Oil Wasteland?

 

In his 2010 book, Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta, scholar Michael Watts states, “commodities define the modern history of the Niger Delta” (Watts 39). He sets the stage for his analysis of the effects of the oil industry on the region—its government, its people, its ecosystems—by painting a picture of the town of Oloibiri, the site where the first oil wellhead was drilled in 1956. He vividly characterizes the place as a “poster-child” for similar communities devastated by oil production, describing it as “a wretched, backwater […] rural slum home to barely 1,000 souls that might as well live in another century. No running water, no electricity, no roads, and no functioning primary school […]a bleak picture, a dark tale of neglect and unremitting misery […] a sort of fossil, rotting detritus cast off by the oil industry” (Watts 37). Clearly, Watts thinks the situation is dire. And, it seems that many locals agree: Watts quotes a resident of Oloibiri who describes their home as a “’useless cast-away snail shell after its meat has been extracted and eaten by the government and Shell Petroleum Development Company’” (Watts 37). The characterization of the Niger Delta as a hopeless, bleak wasteland drained of all its value by oil corporations has dominated international media and scholarly discourse for a while now. It is easy to become disempowered at the sheer magnitude of the devastation or lost in the sticky politics of oil, a resource that “anesthetizes thought, blurs vision, and corrupts […] kindles great emotion” (Watts 39). Unfortunately, the affective response of such a characterization typically does not inspire hope for change and a positive future, but rather a sense of melancholic despair, anguish, and inaction. The affect of oil needs to be explored, the way we understand and write about oil and its effects on the environment and how that affects social movements needs to be understood.  But, how did the situation get this bad? Hasn’t someone tried to do something about this?

Background of Environmental Justice Movements: Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP

There is a long history of resistance to oil production in the delta, but the most widely known movement that tried to tackle the environmental injustice of oil production in the region was spearheaded by writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and known as the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), most active from 1986 to 1995. Ken-Saro Wiwa and MOSOP both had a “commitment to democratic non-violence and […] condemnation of the ‘slick alliance’ of Big Government and Big Oil” (Watts 37). They used techniques such as disseminating writing as a way to raise international consciousness about the injustices they faced, as well as organizing non-violent protests and demonstrations to put internal pressure on the Nigerian government to put a stop to (or at least regulate) unjust oil production in Ogoniland. Ken Saro-Wiwa believed in the power of writing as a means of protest. In an interview, he stated “I’ve used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni people to confront their tormenters. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it… I think I have the moral victory” (Nixon 105). Through essays, newspaper articles, magazine columns, TV and radio shows, speeches, and direct action, he wanted to use discourse to “capitalize on […] international attention” and raise awareness of the ongoing “ethnocide by environmental means” happening to his people (Nixon 110). Peaceful demonstrations were met with violent responses backed by the government and corporate interests. For example, during a January 1993 peaceful protest, thousands of Ogoni were killed by the Nigerian military/police and dozens of villages were razed. Emails released from Chevron show that some oil corporations were guilty of conspiring with the Nigerian state, ordering around troops to quell uprisings against oil infrastructure. This “militarization of commerce” shows how sinister the oil-government alliance is (Nixon 107).

While Ken Saro-Wiwa initially ran into obstacles that made international consciousness raising difficult—Greenpeace ‘didn’t work in Africa’ and Amnesty International did not recognize ecological devastation as a humanitarian crisis—he eventually succeeded in gaining the support of The United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations by drawing parallels between numerous international struggles that had minority rights and environmental degradation at the heart of the issues. Throughout the late 1990s, he garnered more and more support from international environmentalist groups and was able to bring the Ogoni situation to the stage of global politics. The United Kingdom, the US, and EU all pressured Nelson Mandela to take the lead in opposing the Abacha regime’s corruption and negligence. South African diplomats took a quiet approach and attempted to dissuade Abacha’s hard-lined attitude, but Abacha responded by extrajudicially executing Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was put to death by hanging in November 1995.

There were both successes and failures within MOSOP, but the movement surely set the stage for the future of resistance against the oil industry. One major win was that the international outcry resulted in Shell removing themselves from Ogoniland. In court, the settlement reached was a $15.5 million payout to the Ogoni people—though, Shell has yet to apologize or admit any wrongdoing, and the settlement was framed in court as a “humanitarian gesture” (Nixon 126). That is despicable and overtly imperialist! Clearly, neither of these successes are sufficient reconciliations for injustices. Rob Nixon articulates some of these shortcomings:

“When MOSOP activists ejected Shell from Ogoniland in the 1990s, the company left without conducting any cleanup and continued to operate with environmental impunity in the wider, increasingly volatile delta area The costs of environmental reparation for the slow violence that has permeated the delta […] are incalculable: the WWF has put out a figure of 6 billion, but really there’s no telling” (Nixon 126).

The settlement was nowhere near enough to deal with the environmental damages wrought by corporate negligence. One cannot even come up with a dollar figure that would begin to repair it, let alone the psychological damage brought about by the trauma of witnessing the execution. Neither the government or oil corporations apologized or attempted to right their violence. No cleanup has occurred for Ogoniland, and the moratorium on oil production in their community only allowed companies like Shell to ramp up production in other parts of the delta…

In his book, Watts includes a hefty list of what would be needed to begin to address the situation. His proposals include,

“large-scale training programs and mass employment schemes, major infrastructure projects, and environmental rehabilitation […] resource control […] will need to address questions like corruption, the reform of the electoral commission, and transparency […] oil companies must radically re-think […] what passes as responsible business practice […] it will necessitate building new democratic institutions from below” (Watts 47).

His plan is a lot to chew on! Where to begin if the government is corrupt—its not like they’re going to reform themselves without pressure. Oil companies only care about profits. Business-as-usual politics is not working—legal institutions are resisting change and reformism is not going to cut it. What are some approaches contemporarily to put pressure on the government and oil corporations to do these things?

How has Ken Saro-Wiwa as a central figurehead of the movement against oil injustice helped and hindered further movements? How are current movements responding to his legacy?

 

 

After analyzing the statistics, Watts claims that Ken Saro-Wiwa’s worst fears were coming true. After the dissolution of MOSOP,

“conditions across the oilfields remained the same, only worse. Security forces still operated with impunity, the government failed to protect communities in oil producing areas while providing security to the oil industry, and the oil companies bore responsibility too […] MOSOP itself fell into disarray […] the non-violent struggle […] turn[ed] violent in the face of business-as-usual politics ” (Watts 37).

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Legacy

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s funeral

“speaks to the risks and quandaries that attend the martyr-focused cause, as a political figurehead’s pragmatic leadership enters the realm of mythic potency through the manner of his death. The immortal corpse […] can become a powerful political asset but also stand dauntingly in the path of those who wish to take the struggle forward in new ways, for new times” (Nixon 123).

How has Ken Saro-Wiwa as a central figurehead of the movement against oil injustice helped and hindered further movements? How are current movements responding to his legacy? Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote in his journal that he knew his “writing would return to haunt his tormentors” (Nixon 104). Though he also asks in his essay The Coming War in the Delta,”Is anyone listening?” While MOSOP has dissolved, many people are still speaking out against the environmental injustice in the Niger Delta—I will discuss some of these artistic responses to the current humanitarian and ecological crises. Nixon focuses on the legacy picked up by Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. who is using writing and politics to continue to challenge government corruption and oil production. Watts focuses on violent struggles against oil production, the most pertinent of which is known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Groups have been pushed to violence because alternative methods of political change have been ignored or squashed with force. The current struggle against the oil industry in the Niger Delta takes many forms, but I would like to focus on MEND and Zina Saro-Wiwa’s responses to the legacy left by Ken Saro-Wiwa. I will juxtapose their different methods of engaging with oil corruption and environmental devastation and investigate how representations of violence offer and disclose different means of change.

MEND and the Spectacular

One response to the lack of accountability within state and corporate structures is violent action undertaken by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. MEND was organized in 2005. It’s happened on a December day, in which insurgents damaged the major Opobo pipeline and destroyed the Forcados offshore platform.  20% of oil output was compromised in a day, and within a year, 1/3 of output was staunched. Violent action continued: “between January 2006 and March 2007 over 200 oil-worker hostages were taken and 42 attacks were made on oil installations” (Watts 38). But by 2007, oil revenues had fallen by 40% and Shell alone had lost $10.6 billion  in revenue (Watts 38). By the figures, MEND is quite a successful movement in terms of disrupting oil profits and production. However, because MEND’s operations are steeped in what most would recognize as “violence,” their actions led to the oil companies becoming highly securitized. Furthermore, their acts of property damage arguably contribute to environmental degradation (when you destroy an oil pipeline or rig, it causes oil spills) and can only act to put more pressure on the state to curb corruption and fossil fuel production.

Because reformism and peaceful protest have not yielded the desired outcome, I think MEND’s actions are justified and effective tools of disruption that apply pressure for change while also mitigating oil production and therefore imposing upon the colonial, anti-black, ethnocentric, late capitalist structures that oil is lubricant of. However, questions regarding representations of their movement within the international consciousness are still fraught. There is still need for international pressure to be put on Shell and the Nigerian state, and for enough awareness to be garnered, the justice movements have to be represented somehow in discourse. Due to dominant Western cultural metaphors in which violence is generally conceptualized and articulated, representations of MEND’s violence could potentially do more harm than good in terms of extending legitimacy to MEND’s actions in the eyes of a Western audience unaware of the histories of colonialism, racism, ethnocentrism, and environmental deterioration that led up to the spectacular violence represented in photographs of MEND operations.

A recent exhibition that focused on MEND provides an example of how representations of their actions serve to delegitimize their movement rather than the other way around. In 2012, Juan Orrantia curated the exhibit “Last Rites Niger Delta: The Drama of Oil Production in Contemporary Photographs” in Munich, Germany–the goal was a ‘representational intervention’ in the way that violence is depicted in the Niger Delta (JWTC). The exhibit received some criticism. In an interview with the curator, the Johannesburg Workshop for Theory and Criticism asked Orrantia if he could represent the situation justly having never been to the Niger Delta. Orrantia responds, “Do we still believe in the first encounter narrative authority?” and argues that we are all implicated in the transnational politics of oil production so there is value in taking images captured from someone physically being there, and remixing them to create new messages. Orrantia dismisses academic critiques that aestheticization of others’ suffering is appropriative and desensitizing, and promotes the aesthetic qualities of the images as ways to encourage new imaginative, alternative ways of viewing the situation. “Images of futuristic aesthetic qualities […] of situations  almost unimaginable—like people drying fish and living amidst gas flames, where the colours create an almost alternate reality” (JWTC). However, his statements sort of avoided the meat of the questions, and were met with criticism because it does not properly contextualize the violence in the Delta that it depicts. “One cannot write about energy culture in the Nigerian context without engaging the spectacle of violence it elicits, both in the public mind and the sphere of creative imagination” (Aghoghovwia 238). It shows spectacularly violent imagery (armed men holding others hostage, etc.) but does not illustrate the environmental degradation and sociopolitical disenfranchisement that led to the violence occurring, which subtly misinforms viewers and might make them more sympathetic to oil corporations’ causes.

MEND’s operations ask us to investigate the way we understand what violence is.

  • How do we understand ‘violence?’
    • “one cannot write about energy culture in the Nigerian context without engaging the spectacle of violence it elicits, both in the public mind and the sphere of creative imagination” (Aghoghovwia 238)
    • — the way we understand what violence is, is tied to systems of cultural production that illustrate violence as a specific image or performance.
    • Dominant understandings of violence conceptualize it as something spectacular. MEND is understood as violent because they are hurting other people, holding them hostage at gunpoint, engaging in property destruction.
    • Slow violence is less recognized by the world at large. It took years for Ken Saro-Wiwa and MOSOP to convince international organizations that the slow violence of environmental degradation in the Delta was a form of violence.
    • “Butler understands representation as an ‘operative term within a political process that seeks to extend visibility and legitimacy’ 1990;1” 239
    • — complicated this notion: “claims to legitimacy seem to be at odds with the modality through which it is made visible” 239
    • It is important to contextualize the violence MEND engages in within a history of state and corporate violence done unto the environment and minority populations like the Ogoni – but many aesthetic representations do not contextualize MEND’s violence properly which functions to delegitimize the movement in the eyes of Western audiences who only see their violence and not the violence that led to their reaction

 

PHOTO

  • Released and widely circulated as MEND propaganda
  • This obsession with photos like these — leaves out discussions of violent histories of slow violence that led up to their staging and capturing — the public mind thinks of Niger Delta as dangerous place like this now
  • How does the news cover things like this?
    • “Edward Said notes, ‘determine the political reality’ of a phenomenon” 241
  • These images “contaminate the youths’ moral claims for justive as they are made visible through the instrumentality of representation”
  • The slow violence of environmental injustice is further elided by the spectacle that characterizes the protocols of representation by which it is protested and made visible. And this spectacle tends to become the violence in itself.” because there is another form of representational colonialism in which these discourses begin to overtake the reality of what is happening in the niger delta — even a colonization of the mind in which people in niger delta believe that this is their reality. A cognitive colonization through the medium of representation.

 

In this dissertation, Aghoghovwia investigates cultural representations of oil and violence in the Niger Delta. He begins his analysis by historicizing current movements in a post-Ken Saro-Wiwa setting. He comments on Michael Watts’ and Juan Orrantia’s hyperfocus on oil as a tool for understanding the Niger Delta, and how this narrow lens overlooks cultural and ecological on-goings that are still present in the region. I would like to focus on the introduction and his way of historicizing representations of current movements, and offer Zina Saro-Wiwa’s artistic production as an example of artistic ‘oil-encounter.’

 

Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. and Art

Nixon focuses on Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. as a figure that is continuing his fathers’ legacy. He responded to the execution of his father and the broader crisis in the delta by giving humanitarian talks around an international circuit as a means to re-focus attention on what was becoming a forgotten moment of history, or a situation resigned to despair and failure. Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr.’s efforts led the way to the 2009 settlement of $15.5 million dollars, but he recognized that settlement wasn’t enough—didn’t set a legal precedent because they settled. If legal avenues of change aren’t working, and violence works as a material tactic but is not able to be represented responsibly enough in the international arena to generate solidarity with the cause for environmental justice, it seems that new avenues of change need to be imagined and brought into existence.

Lately, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. has been exploring art as a tactic to provide a rallying point for organizing and directly put pressure on institutions to change their business-as-usual politics. In a 2016 interview with Platform London, Saro-Wiwa Jr. explains that after the court settlement he focused his efforts to “make a huge media splash through an international art exhibition […] it needed to waken memory and commemorate the murders. It needed to call people to fight on for justice. It needed to be able to move, emotionally and physically. It needed to challenge power—both Shell and the Nigerian government—and do it provocatively” (Jane). The art exhibition included a bus and was eventually shut down. But it proved Saro-Wiwa Jr.’s pint that “Art is direct, it challenges the authorities, the power structure. It doesn’t seek to have any nuance. It just says what it is. […] and people rally around the directness of it because it speaks to power. […] can we be nuanced in the face of this power structure?” (Jane). Writing, giving speeches to international agencies, and legal procedure are so wrapped up in reformism and incremental change that all of the revolutionary spirit of change needed to rid ourselves of our dependency on oil ends up sucked out of the process. The way institutions are structured is to provide order and maintain the power of the status quo—the affect they produce is disempowerment and despair, resignation to the status quo. Institutions are structured by oil. Art is one means of circumventing that and tapping into the raw emotional force behind trauma. Art is “not an ego trip, its serious, its politics, its economics, its everything. And art in that instance becomes so meaningful to both the artist and to the consumers of the art” (Platform London).

Zina Saro-Wiwa and Art

Zina Saro-Wiwa also believes in art as a means of evoking change in the world. In a 2016 interview with Artsy Magazine, she explains that art “can point the way to what’s actually there in the world, we can change our value systems, we can create new industries, or the basis for new industries […] that’s what art and artists can do. And that’s what I’m trying to do in Nigeria. Getting people to think about their environment differently” (Artsy). Her art moves beyond language and its endless search for nuance and accuracy, moves beyond the disempowering sublime of endless accumulation of knowledge, and reaches into the phenomenal world as an untapped site of revolutionary power. She points to the space art allows her to create and then access as a source of inspiration to pave the way toward the material changes scholars like Watts agree are necessary, like new sustainable markets, bottoms-up democratic movements, and radical philosophical and psychological reorientations in the way we understand and relate to the environment. She designates herself as a “culture-worker” and explains that,

“at the root of all of this work is the empowerment of individuals and a refusal of the tired, tragic narratives imposed upon the Niger Delta […] “I’m going to think about this place differently […] I’m going to value women’s work, I’m going to value our history […] I’m going to see the fact that there are Edens here. No one else is going to do that, only an artist will do that.” (Artsy).

 

Zina Saro Wiwa’s artistic practice is intertwined with the legacy left to her by her father. She points to her work Sarogua Mourning as a turning point for her: “I think that was when I first became an artist […] when I shaved my head and immersed myself and explored performance as a route to catharsis” (Artly).

Sarogua Mourning

Sarogua Mourning “explores the rituals surrounding mourning, the choreography of grief and the role of performance in catharsis” (ZSW Studio). The eleven minute video is immensely powerful to me. Zina stares at the camera, therefore into the eyes of the viewer. She does not speak. The video is silent. There is pain in her eyes. Her lips are parsed. She looks guarded, aloof, sometimes coy or playful. Then, she breaks the silence to say “I have to talk.” She talks about holding onto pain. How she holds onto pain, and takes it out on her relationships with men. She gets upset with a guy, goes for guys that she knows will hurt her because deep down she is looking for more pain to hold onto. She uses relationships as something to project the pain onto, and then when things don’t work out, a little catharsis happens and a bit of the pain is released. She does this because the other stuff is too hard, never-ending. You’ll get over the guys, but a family member dying? You might not ever get over that. For her, mourning is about letting go and releasing so you can find joy again. But it is hard when there are years of pain built up inside you. She diverts her eyes from the camera, repeats, “how to have joy…” and when she looks back at the camera, her guard is has fallen and the real emotions come out. She sobs, breathes deeply, clutches herself, sobs more. Then she laughs and smiles. She soothes herself and then she sobs more. She seems filled with the deepest of darkness, and the brightest of light. She prays. Perhaps she laughs at the absurdity of it all. She finds joy in suffering, tranquility in disturbance. She reminds us that the lows give us the highs and that they are all intertwined and mutually dependent.

The video reminds me that the first step toward healing, toward reparation, is processing and recognizing the hurt, the pain, the trauma, the unspeakable. In this video, she mourns her father. I think it points toward a much greater death and a much greater mourning. I think it paves the way toward understanding how to mourn entire ecosystems, entire cultures, the thousands killed by Shell and the Nigerian state, by colonialism… how to mourn the fact even though so many gave everything for MOSOP, it was not enough. And doing so through language and writing and speaking is not enough—one must overcome the body/mind dualism and holistically process the violence in order to move forward to overcome it.

I relate to the video. Writing about it is one step, but I want to make a performative response to the video in which I mourn my Papaw, Glen, who passed recently. He worked in Port Harcourt for Baker Hughes for ten years, 1980-1990. Maybe through the performance I can begin to mourn him and come to a better embodied understanding of all his actions. Understanding him might hold the key for me to understanding my role as an artist deeply invested in community building, social justice, and sustainability.

Chaos Magic vs Oil Curse?

There is an element of magic to the work. In the description of the video, Zina mentions, “I recorded this piece on Sunday 9th October 2011. My grandmother would have been in labour with my father 70 years ago at that exact moment. I didn’t realise that at the time of shooting. The 10th October 2011 would have been my father’s 70th Birthday” (ZSW Studio). This synchronicity reminds me of chaos magic. Chaos magick works like this: one notices a coincidence and extends belief (a form of intuitive knowing with your mind, body, and soul together) and weaponizes that belief as a way to empower yourself to manifest your desires, dreams, wishes, and hopes. Art is one form of expression that allows you to access internal energies and bring them into the phenomenal world through creation. Even if it is a placebo effect, placebo is often just as effective as medicine, as shown in many pharmaceutical studies.

One might dismiss the magic potential of art as naïve or wacko, but the inexplicable is quite common even in the realms of policy-making and sociology, particularly when it comes to the way oil structures our lives. “The ‘oil curse’ […] indicates the government corruption, rampant pollution, and underdevelopment associated with the exploitative multinational corporations that come to mine” (Lemanager 40). The oil curse is a problem frequently studied sociologically—people collect data, conduct surveys, craft models and run simulations on oil, trying to track markets and CO2 emissions… Environmental policies are constructed to combat the oil curse, but seemingly to no avail… Under late capitalism, consumers’ addiction to hydrocarbons defies all rationality. Policy-oriented solutions underpinned by good sociological and scientific data is clearly necessary to manage the worst of government corruption and environmental devastation—to ensure cleanup, essentially do all of Michael Watts’ recommendations… But while it is necessary, it might be insufficient. Maybe fighting oil’s sticky magic qualities needs to be done with more magic!!!

Karikpo Pipeline

While Sarogua Mourning breaks down distinctions between suffering and joy through performative mourning as a way to pave a path forward, Zina’s video Karikpo Pipeline breaks down similar binaries between ‘Eden’ and ‘Hell’ by showing beautiful pockets of the Niger Delta

“In Karikpo Pipeline, Saro-Wiwa transposes the dancers’ performances over signs of oil infrastructure in Ogoniland: exposed pipelines, an old wellhead with pollution-soaking sand surrounding it, roads where pipelines had previously lined the landscape, roads where the pipelines still exist but are buried, and a rusting, decommissioned flow station. Faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles to self-determination, Ogoni performers here assert dance, shoring up a political and social argument for art under Saro-Wiwa’s direction. Karikpo Pipeline gives visual and embodied form to human relationships with environment, teasing out the physical and emotional dynamics that frame cultural value systems for Ogoni land” (Saro-Wiwa, Vimeo description).

Karikpo Pipeline embodies Zina Saro-Wiwa’s words from the Artly interview—it is all about thinking about the environment differently, empowerment, and seeing Eden where others do not. “Imagining Eden within a devastated landscape acts as protest, the revision of a hegemonic narrative,” writes Stephanie Lemanager in her essay Eden if We Dare (40). She argues that while sociologists like Michael Watts’ work is important, to an extent it reminds consumers about what they already know—that consumption habits are actively ruining ecosystems and killing people and their cultures. Zina Saro-Wiwa does not need to reiterate this point in her work; while she has stated in interviews that she is very grateful for the work scholars and politicians do, she would rather speak of “’what oil can’t understand’ about the Ogoni […] ‘what we have’ that ‘they don’t know about’—meaning what is generative in the culture and cannot be easily stolen, securitized, or seen. Seeing is sensitivity and an aesthetic form of knowledge, a knowing that resonates in the body” (Lemanager 43). “ The words and acts of these indigenous culture makers betray the seemingly inevitable infrastructures of oil as historical, even provisional” by reinjecting joyous celebration (Lemanager 40).

Karikpo Pipeline explores dominant notions of energy as tied to the fossil fuel industry. Lemanager offers Zina’s work as a new conceptualization of power, “power as the ability to generate sociability. Sociability means being together for the sake of being alive together, and it implies playfulness, creative and open thinking” (Lemanager).

A crowd always comes with to watch, which highlights the importance of considering who the target audience of the artwork is. It might be appreciated in the international art world as a piece of eco-art, but to the people watching it being performed live it could be something else altogether. Perhaps a form of queer utopia? Or, becoming-being in which, by performing or embodying queer performances, or disrupting normative categories of a stable subject positioning and their relations to objects, one actively challenges and disrupts the status quo, in effect ushering in some positive change for the target audience. In his article, Rademeyer cites Munoz when they argue we can envision a ‘then and there’ through utopia, which is a ‘critique of the here and now’ (Mun ˜oz 2009, p. 99) that can go beyond our current grids of intelligibility. Essentially, art can

“carve out new configurations of queer time and space which can ‘open up new life narratives’ outside of heteronormative scripts […] this means imagining a future. […] queerness exists only in the future, as the here and now casts queers as nothing. Queerness is ‘the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain […] utopias are ‘imaginative territories that map themselves over the real’ (p. 38). Utopia, through fantasy and imagination, can critique and denaturalise our reality, and open up possibilities beyond what is real. Utopia presents a ‘fantasy of an alternative society’ that exists ‘nowhere,’ which is, Dolan argues, ‘the most formidable contestation of what is’ (Ricouer cited in Dolan 2005, pp. 89 90). For Mun ˜oz and Dolan, utopia is not a finished product, it is not totalising like the present, but is rather a ‘possible futures-in-process’ (McKenna cited in Dolan 2005, p. 149). Mun ˜oz’s notion of a future and utopia does not have to exclude Edelman’s radical negativity, since one can argue a queer utopia can only be created through the destruction of the current social order and its codes of intelligibility.” (Rademacher 274).

MEND’s actions (if understood through a lens of performance) are an example of Edelman’s radical negativity. It is only when their performance is viewed by a Western audience, becomes commodified, represented, captured on image, that the representation of the performance becomes delegitimized. I do wonder if when it comes to art, Edelman’s form of queer radical negativity is possible to embody constructively at all. Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work could be taken out of context and played in a board meeting of an oil company who could respond with something like, “See? The pollution isn’t that bad—these people are dancing!” Which could potentially be used to justify the status quo. But I think if a Western audience situated Zina Saro-Wiwa’s work in context of history and behind good critical race theory, post-colonial theory, queer theory, and ecocriticism it would offer an effective criticism of the status quo and formulation of a kind of alternative way of being in the world for her community. Her role as a curator and creative organizer illustrate the potential for artwork to offer radical representational revisions that also have affects on material reality through people encountering the work.

 

Boys’ Quarters as Aesthetic Environmental Education

Zina Saro-Wiwa’s curational project, Boys’ Quarters, also is related to the legacy of her father. Even in terms of its site, which is the old offices of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Port Harcourt.

“Boys’ Quarters Project Space exists to explore the relationship between self and environment in radical ways. We understand that environmentalism means more than simply dealing with oil pollution, plastic detritus or melting ice caps and are seeking to uncover invisible ecosytems, emotional landscapes and establish deeper intersectional ecological truths that reveal how we are truly embedded in this world. These four works of art presented in Black Box come together to help us navigate this complex terrain. The works exhibited straddle and connect local Niger Delta concerns with wider international ones and encourage the definition of environmentalism from the perspective of the global south. Curated by Zina Saro-Wiwa. * A Black Box is a space of unknowing. An entity or object that has no immediately apparent characteristics and therefore has only factors for consideration held within itself hidden from immediate observation. The observer is assumed ignorant in the first instance as the majority of available data is held in an inner situation away from facile investigations” (Saro-Wiwa).

 

Nnamdi argues that figures like Zina Saro-Wiwa, “whereas governments have failed at local and international levels, poets and artists have stood in the trench for the crusade of eco-ethics” (Nnamdi 74). While standard education efforts have been effective in informing the public to an extent—Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr.’s  international talks, Watts’ scholarship, and countless other efforts to raise consciousness about environmental crises globally—Zina Saro Wiwa’s rhetoric creates an environmentalist form of knowledge production that “is one sure way of maintaining environmental sustainability […] aesthetic appreciation can prove an effective tool in sensitizing the diverse stakeholders to environmental issues. By aesthetic education we mean ‘education that recognizes the interconnectedness of body, mind, emotions, and spirit.’ It is such an education that would facilitate people’s capacity for sensual perception […] aesthetic education and eco-ethics go hand in hand […] humanity will come to see itself as a part of nature. This will also influence the policy of government in the long run” (Nnamdi 75). Rather than merely acting as a form of accumulation of knowledge, her art creates a way of knowing that engages the mind and the emotional self, which functions to truly rethink the way viewers of her work relate to their environment—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is this kind of holistic reframing of nature that alters the perception of the viewer to be more open to encounter, to new forms of imagining what environmentalism is and can do. It is a form of environmental education that inspires action, rather than discourages it or leads to a form of despair or cynicism. Nnamdi argues that the communitarian aspect of environmental education is crucial. “One sure way for aesthetic education to flourish is to cultivate the ecological values presented to the people as communal icons by the artists of the community; this should drive the people to demand the fulfillment of the social contract between governments and the people” (Nnamdi 75). This is similar to Rob Nixon’s articulation of the writer-activist as a champion of new media who can render slow violence visible through metaphor and the creative imagination.

Conclusion

 

The Niger Delta is a region that can be understood many ways: politically as a hub of oil production and a nest of corruption; ecologically as a diverse biome full of estuaries, creeks, plants and animals; culturally and spiritually as home to hundreds of diverse cultures with their own practices, customs, food, and religions. Tons of scholarship exists that explores the injustices of oil production in the region, and justice movements against it. Much of this scholarship, while undoubtedly necessary and helpful to the cause, produces an affect (for some) of hopelessness and despair, because of the dizzying scale and complexity of transnational oil corporations and a corrupt post-colonial state… let alone the massive trauma and spectacular violence that has resulted, both slow in the form of ecological devastation and concurrent displacement, and in the form of spectacular violence (be it Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution, state violence against peaceful protest, or MEND’s current tactics to disrupt the oil state). Art can be a tool of resistance that is direct and offers people a rallying point against injustices of the state and oil corporations. Zina Saro-Wiwa’s situated artistic rhetorics thus operate as a tool of futurity. Through reconceptualizations of the environment, she is bringing into existence via performance a new utopic future in which bodies can be free and dance in the place they call home.

 

 

Annotated Bibliography

 

Aghoghovwia , Philip. “The Drama of Oil Production in the Niger Delta: An Obsession with the

Spectacular.” Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, JWTC, 12 July 2012, jhbwtc.blogspot.com/2012/07/drama-of-oil-production-in-niger-delta.html.

  • In this exhibition review, Aghoghovwia points out that the “Delta Remix” exhibition is problematic because it does not properly contextualize the violence in the Delta that it depicts. It shows spectacularly violent imagery (armed men holding others hostage, etc.) but does not illustrate the environmental degradation and sociopolitical disenfranchisement that led to the violence occurring, which subtly misinforms viewers and might make them more sympathetic to oil corporations’ causes, or delegitimize the struggle against them. It also invokes a romantic colonial myth of Africa as violent, filthy, and dangerous for foreigners. The review is legitimate because Aghoghovwia is a PHD candidate in eco-aesthetics. I would like to put this criticism in conversation with the interview of Juan Orrantia, the curator of the exhibition. I would like to use the author’s analysis to illustrate how Zina Saro Wiwa’s aesthetic strategy differs from Juan Orrantia.

Aghoghovwia , Philip. “Nigeria.” Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment. Szeman,

Imre, et al. Fordham University Press, 2017.

  • In this book chapter, Aghoghovwia analyzes two forms of representations of violence in the Delta: spectacular and slow violence. He characterizes representation as an operative term that extends or retracts legitimacy toward the thing depicted. Particularly, he analyzes the art exhibition “Last Rites: Niger Delta” and how they detract legitimacy from MEND’s actions by not situating their violence in the broader context of the slow violence of political disenfranchisement and ecological devastation that culminated in their act of insurrectionary violence. He argues forms of spectacular visual rhetoric become a form of ‘representational colonialism’ that becomes violent in and of itself in that it delegitimizes bottoms-up movements for justice. I would like to use this article to further criticize Juan Orrantia’s exhibition, put in in conversation with Aghoghovwia’s other review of the exhibit, and offer Zina Saro-Wiwa’s representational strategies as a viable alternative to ‘representational colonialism.’

Aghoghovwia, Philip Onoriode. “Ecocriticism and the Oil Encounter: Readings from the Niger Delta.”

Stellenbosch University, 2014.

  • In this dissertation, Aghoghovwia investigates cultural representations of oil and violence in the Niger Delta. He begins his analysis by historicizing current movements in a post-Ken Saro-Wiwa setting. He comments on Michael Watts’ and Juan Orrantia’s hyperfocus on oil as a tool for understanding the Niger Delta, and how this narrow lens overlooks cultural and ecological on-goings that are still present in the region. I would like to focus on the introduction and his way of historicizing representations of current movements, and offer Zina Saro-Wiwa’s artistic production as an example of artistic ‘oil-encounter’

Grant, David M. “Toward Sustainable Literacies.” Rhetorics, Literacies, and Narratives of Sustainability. Ed. Goggin, Peter N. Routledge, 2009.

  • In this book chapter, Grant contends that the way language is used to represent (or ‘recreate’) nature affects the efficacy of environmental education movements, and that we ought to move away from rhetorics that bifurcate nature or use it as a metaphor, and toward more sustainable literacies. Or, we should at least use a combination of all three that recognize how language is situated in complex, dynamic social and bodily systems. He posits examples of ‘somatic’ rhetoric—which recognizes the intertextual continuity between physical and discursive worlds. Rather than writing ‘about’ nature, we should write ‘with and in’ the environment, and think about the relationship between our language and the environment, and how they mutually alter one another. The chapter is reliable because it strings together a many notable rhetorical scholars. I would like to apply Grant’s understanding of rhetoric to Zina Saro-Wiwa’s visual discourse, analyzing the way her art is situated in the environment it was created for/in. Somatic rhetoric also offers an interesting framework to analyze the way films like Karikpo Pipeline engage the body, mind, and community. I would like to synthesize this article with the Nnamdi one about aesthetic environmental education, because I think they are complimentary and both serve to help situate Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art in the context of sustainable environmental engagement.

 

Kashi, Ed, and Michael Watts. Curse of the Black Gold 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. PowerHouse,

  • This article historicizes oil extraction in the Niger Delta and also offers a summary of events that have taken place after the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the relative dissolution of MOSOP, the non-violent protest movement. It describes and evaluates contemporary violent struggles against oil extraction (MEND) and how these tactics go against Saro-Wiwa’s vision for a protest against the corporations. Watts describes the Delta as summed up by commodities such as oil, and does great analysis on the corruption it causes. I would like to put this article in conversation with Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art that points out that certain narratives of the region cannot be accounted for through commodity analysis–local mythologies, masquerades, food, etc. I would also like to put Watts’ article in conversation with spectacular representations of violence such as those used in the Niger Delta Remix exhibition that was criticized for its aestheticization-of-suffering.

 

Kedmey, Karen. “Zina Saro-Wiwa on How Artists Can Change the Way People Think.” Artsy, 28 Sept.

2016, www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-zina-saro-wiwa-will-make-people-think-differently-about-nigeria.

  • This interview articulates some of Zina Saro-Wiwa’s views on why art is significant in the world. She argues that art allows people to think about the environment differently, and that performance can act as a form of healthy catharsis. She aims to empower individuals and uproot dominant notions of the Niger Delta as a tragic wasteland. She views herself as a ‘culture-worker’ and aims to value the land differently by savoring the “Edens” that are still present in the Delta. While not an academic article, I think this is a good source because it includes many direct quotes from Zina herself. I would like situate Zina Saro-Wiwa’s views on art within broader critical debates happening within the field of eco-aesthetics and affect studies, and argue that her optimistic, hopeful orientation toward the future is necessary to inspire people to make change in the world—especially when juxtaposed with Watts’ and Orrantia’s spectacular, sublime representations that might lead to disempowerment and despair.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Penguin Books, 2015.

  • In this book chapter, Klein discusses ways to approach resistance against fossil fuel industries, while also building alternatives to fossil fuels. She points out that the Global South’s industrialization will have a major impact on the climate of the world, and steps need to be taken to address climate debts owed to the Global South by the Global North in order to ensure a more ecologically sustainable development pathway for post-colonial countries’ economies. She analyzes how fossil fuels like coal have historically supercharged colonialism and capitalism, which in turn contribute massively to global climate change which disproportionately affects post-colonial countries as well. She argues that we need to reformulate the way we think about historical legacy and reparations in order to extend help toward those our ancestors have wronged, because effects are still being felt today. I would like to connect this to my grandfathers’ complicity in the Nigerian oil industry in order to understand how I am situated historically in the environmental injustices going on in the Niger Delta.

Lemanager, Stephanie., “Eden If We Dare.” Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know We Taught Them How to

            Dance? Blaffer Art Museum, 2016.

  • This article argues that Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art and aesthetic strategies provide counter-narratives to dominant notions that depict the Niger Delta as a despoiled wasteland beyond repair. By subtly including oil infrastructure imagery in her videos, but not centering them and rather focusing on traditions like masquerade and dance, Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art circumvents rhetoric that might invoke a feeling of despair and hopelessness in viewers, rather than a sense of hope and agency necessary to mobilize resistance. I would like to take this notion further by analyzing it through a lens of utopian performance, and argue that by performing these utopic visions, she is bringing her counter-narrative into existence and giving the power back to the people.

 

Nixon, Rob. “Pipe Dreams.” Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.  Harvard University

Press, 2013.

Nixon, Rob. “Epilogue.” Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press,

2013.

  • I would like to draw from the last section of the epilogue that discusses future strategies for representing the scale of slow forms of environmental degradation and social violence. I will utilize Nixon’s idea that new media is replacing writing in general as a form of activism that adequately captures the scales and intricacies of environmental problems. He also points out that representation is only part of a wider battle that will fall upon the shoulders of coalitions of activists–human rights campaigners, scientists, local movements, etc. This relates to my paper because I think Zina Saro-Wiwa is an example of an artist-activist that uses new media to create new representations of the Niger Delta by circumventing dominant environmental narratives of the region as a spoiled wasteland beyond recovery. I think she also is sewing seeds for a wider movement using spaces like “Boys’ Quarters” which occupy her father’s old office space in Port Harcourt.

 

Nnamdi, Basil Sunday, et al. “Environmental Challenges and Eco-Aesthetics in Nigerias Niger Delta.”

Third Text, vol. 27, no. 1, 2013, pp. 65–75., doi:10.1080/09528822.2013.753194.

  • In this journal article, Nnamdi et al. discuss aesthetic components of environmental justice movements in the Niger Delta. They argue aesthetics are important to empower communities to overcome the repressive state apparatus that disempowers them. They argue for an overhaul of environmental rhetorics that empower people rather than disempower them; and posit artists and poets as crusaders for eco-ethics that fill in gaps of responsibility where the state and corporations fall through. They argue in favor of an aesthetic environmental education that recognizes the interrelation of mind, body, emotions and spirit; through embodied, sensually engaging education, participants can reframe their relationship toward the environment, recognize humanity as part of nature, and put pressure on the Nigerian government and oil corporations to rethink and overhaul their unsustainable practices. The article is reliable because it is peer reviewed academic scholarship. I would like to situate Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art and curation as a form of aesthetic environmental education, and use it as a stepping-stone to discuss the Rademacher article as a conclusion.

Powell, Amy L., “Food Is Ready.” Zina Saro-Wiwa: Did You Know We Taught Them How to Dance?

            Blaffer Art Museum, 2016.

  • In this book chapter, Powell argues that Zina Saro-Wiwa’s art offers reimaginings of engrained conceptions of environment(alsims), self, and production of knowledge. She argues that Zina is paying careful attention to the ineffable — that which cannot be explained by oil, that which escapes easy representation: folklore, food, pop aesthetics, masquerade, spirituality. She discusses Zina’s use of imagination and play as an alternative form of ‘energy’ that is a possible escape from the cultural system built by and reliant upon oil. She discusses how Zina’s curatorial work is an example of ‘social sculpture’ that utilizes art as a form of coalition building and mobilization against injustice. I would like to provide counter-interpretations to Orrantia’s exhibition and Watts’ claims that Niger Delta is summed up by oil, and use this article as a warrant to the affective claims I make that Zina’s work is oriented toward a hopeful future.

Rademeyer, Philip. “Embracing Dis-Ease: Imagining Queer African Performance.” South African Theatre

            Journal, vol. 26, no. 3, 2012, pp. 270–279., doi:10.1080/10137548.2013.800673.

 

Saro-Wiwa, Zina. “Boys Quarters Manifesto.” (http://www.boysquartersprojectspace.com/author/boysquarters/)

Saro-Wiwa, Zina. “Karikpo Pipeline.” Vimeo. (https://vimeo.com/137054897)

Saro-Wiwa, Zina. “Sarogua Mourning.” Vimeo. (https://vimeo.com/36981837)

“Delta Remix.” JWTC, Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, 10 July 2012,

jhbwtc.blogspot.com/2012/07/delta-remix.html.

  • In this interview, Juan Orrantia is questioned about the exhibition he curated, “Last Rites: Niger Delta.” The interview asks questions like, “Can you create an accurate, truthful, responsible representation of a place you’ve never been?” as well as if it is appropriate to represent the violence and suffering of another place, or if it risks some kind of aestheticization of suffering. Orrantia is confident in his artistic production and argues that the exhibit transcends and rethinks geographical and temporal boundaries regarding oil production. Questions of ownership of the representations also are explored in the interview. I’d like to draw parallels between the “Last Rites” exhibition and Michael Watts’ scholarship, as well as synthesize this interview with Aghoghovwia’s critiques of the art exhibition.

 

 

?, Jane. “‘Art Is Direct, It Challenges the Authorities, the Power Structure’ Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr, 1968 –

2016.” Platform London, 29 Nov. 2016, platformlondon.org/2016/11/29/art-is-direct-it-challenges-the-authorities-the-power-structure-ken-saro-wiwa-jr-1968-2016/.

 

 

 

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Neo-Dada and Anti-Art in Japan During the 1960s

 

The twentieth century saw the formation of new avant-garde artistic movements in Japan by artists and art groups who were largely inspired by (and exchange with) concurrent European art movements. These radical, experimental art groups challenged the status quo, both politically and artistically. Tracing back to the 1920s with the Dada art group Mavo, new experimental art movements built on one another to become more and more radical. By the 1960s these groups and movements were pushing the boundaries of art and social engagement as we know it. The 1960s can be characterized by two movements in the Japanese avant-garde art scene: Neo-Dada and Anti-Art. Both can be framed as reactions to the sociopolitical climate of Japan in the 1950s and 60s. Neo-Dada is characterized by radical deviation from conventional art standards, with high levels of importance placed on the body as an expressive tool; Anti-Art attempted to re-conceptualize the definition of art, aiming for a “descent to the mundane” 1 in which the line between art and non-art was blurred or destroyed altogether. Artists Takamatsu Jiro, Nakanishi Natsuyuki, and Akasegawa Genpei were three Japanese artists whose works exemplify the Neo-Dada and Anti-Art movements of Tokyo in the 1960s. Their performances or ‘happenings’ as the group Hi Red Center, and Akasegawa Genpei’s “1000-Yen Note Incident” provide excellent examples of events that lay out the intentions behind these movements, as well as the methods employed by artists to bring the ideas to life.

The Neo-Dada and Anti-Art movements of the 1960s are widely viewed as responses to historical events. In the fallout of World War II, Japan entered “a period of shock, tragedy, and a struggle for survival […] by 1951, the goals of the Occupation had been achieved: Japan’s military machine had been dismantled, her war-torn economy revived, and a democratic form of government established” 2. The United States still desired to station troops in Japan as a front against the USSR during the Cold War, so the US-Japan Security Treaty was signed. All of the anxiety and animosity of the period generated leftist sentiments in the form of communist, anti-militarist, and anti-imperialist movements, which gained popular traction. One common goal of these leftist movements was to stop the re-ratification of the US-Japan Security Alliance in 1960. Leftists rejected its furthering of US militarism and imperialism; their sentiments taking the form of protests and demonstrations that culminated in a massive riot between demonstrators and police in front of the Diet Building on June 15, 1960. Regardless of public opposition to ratification, the treaty was indeed re-signed. The failure of these leftist movements to achieve their goal contributed to “a collapse of faith in liberal humanism and communism to penetrate the authoritarian and conservative structures of Japanese society” 3 and forms of artistic expression that “dismissed political ideology altogether and celebrated anarchistic revel” 4.

A great example of this artistic response is the avant-garde art group Hi Red Center founded by artists Akasegawa Genpei, Takamatsu Jiro, and Nakanishi Natsuyuki. The group emerged from the art scene at the Yomiuri Independent Exhibition, a place with “optimistic disregard for any cultural authority whatsoever” that embraced “the euphoria of apathy” 5. Many Yomiuri artists “advocated making junk art and violent demonstrations to protest the conventional practice of art. In a messy and anarchistic riot, they experimented with forms of art and performance that parodied and critiqued the social establishment” 6. What set Hi Red Center apart was the artists’ shared interests in “objet as the focus of events that would go beyond the walls of the museum or gallery as well as their informed leftist concern for the inequities of modern Japan” 7 . A work that exemplifies these traits of Hi Red Center is The Yamanote Line Event, a ‘happening’ performed on October 18, 1962. Nakanishi, with his face painted white, crouched on a train station platform and emphatically licked an egg made of clear polymer resin filled with everyday objects such as “wristwatches, bits of rope, sunglasses, bottlecaps, and human hair” 8 . Takematsu stood behind Nakanishi, nonchalantly reading a newspaper with holes burnt in it while holding one of his own objects, a long rope attached to everyday objects. Akasegawa acted as the photographer while Nakanishi boarded the train, hung his egg on the strap hanging from the ceiling meant to be a handhold, and shined a flashlight upon onlooker’s faces to observe their reactions.

What was the point of such an absurd performance, and how does it illustrate a collapse of faith in leftist political movements to dismantle conservativism in Japan? First, Hi Red Center was interested in how space influenced viewers’ interpretations of art. They aimed to “destroy the hierarchical status of art by bringing it into the ‘space of daily activities’” 9 .They had suspicions about the constraints of traditional art exhibition spaces: “what is offered to the public, at which venue, by whom, under what circumstances, resulting in what reception?” 10 . They believed art exhibitions and the institutions that promoted them were constraining, which would be counterproductive for a group trying to engage in anarchistic revel. Furthermore, they were concerned that art spaces could be inaccessible or alienating to much of the public—which would be elitist, and would make art complicit in the “mechanical banality and covert authoritarianism underlying Japan’s mass capitalist society” 11 , and the very social establishment the artists were attempting to critique. The decision to perform in a public space is a clear attempt to disrupt the banality of everyday life that tells citizens to conform to social roles that benefit the state—like, be productive for the economy, which is what most businesspeople on the Yamanote Line were likely thinking about before they saw the event. Second, Anti-Art shows that the context of a designated art space constrains the meaning of something displayed within that space as ‘art,’ which goes against the goal of blurring the lines between art and everyday life. If Nakanishi had licked an egg object at an art exhibition, it would immediately be recognized and consumed as art; though, when he did it on the train platform, the act truly bewildered onlookers, who were merely living their day-to-day lives. Onlookers outside of the exhibition space were able to consume the objects, performance, and artist in new, unpredictable ways. Taro Okamoto said, “utter nonsense might have more power to change social reality than seriousness”12. If riots and demonstrations against the militaristic and imperialist Anpo treaty failed, then perhaps politics had to be engaged with “not only on the social and spatial strata, but also on the subjective level of the individual and the body itself”13 via public performance art that purposefully embodies non-normative, non-productive practices.

Perhaps the clash between the goals of Anti-Art and institutional power is even more evident in the 1000 Yen Note Incident, that occurred when police impounded Akasegawa Genpei’s artworks that utilized copies of 1000 yen note bills such as “Morphology of Revenge,” and charged the artist with counterfeiting. The artist cited money as “most familiar yet forgotten object”14 and by making sculptures out of copies of money, Akasegawa “stripped the authority of the object […] the premise of the money system makes us believe the original money is far more real and valuable than the simulated model,”15 even though the materials themselves were virtually the same. The trial began in 1966, and Akasegawa and other artists turned the courtroom into an exhibition space, where they gave lectures on contemporary art movements and displayed their absurd objets. Akasegawa’s defense was that his work was a model, and not a counterfeit, and the two differed due to intention. He therefore defended his work as art, which reified the boundary between art and non-art, thus not adhering to the premise of Anti-Art. Though he did achieve his goal of garnering an increased audience size, for the event was a sensation in Japan and is now heavily recorded both in art and social history. This brings us to “the riddle of the avant-garde: the eventual institutionalization of even the most radically iconoclastic, vanguard practices within public culture […] the avant-garde, will sooner or later, be separated from the sphere of life and preserved in the realm of art in a historicized, academicized, or otherwise institutionalized form”16.

In conclusion, artworks like “Morphology of Revenge” and The Yamanote Line Event illustrate how social reality can be engaged with and transformed via art; however, they also demonstrate the limit of art to challenge dominant modes of social reality promoted by institutions like the state. Neo-Dada artists can celebrate anarchistic revel and absurdity in their groups and spaces, they are not separate from the sociopolitical environment around them; Anti-Art practitioners can try to eliminate the boundary between art and the rest of life, but when confronted with legal forces, the two categories might have to be upheld as separate. These two artistic movements were two of many developments in the 20th Century avant-garde, and like prior artistic movements like Mavo, Neo-Dada and Anti-Art ran their course before transforming into new movements that continued to challenge the artistic and social status quo.

 

Footnotes

 

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei and

Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 147.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 150.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 156.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 151.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007: 27.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 142.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

  1. Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 159.

 

  1. Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007: 27.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 147.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 150.

  1. Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei

and Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 162.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Chong, Doryun. “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Art Anti-Art Non-Art:

Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950-1970. Los Angeles: Getty

Research Institute, 2007.

 

Munroe, Alexandra. “Morphology of Revenge: The Yomiuri Independant Artists and Social

Protest Tendencies in the 1960s.” Japanese Art After 1945, 149-187.

 

Tomii, Reiko. “State v. (Anti-)Art: Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident by Akasegawa Genpei and

Company.” Positions: east asia cultures critique 10, no. 1 (2002): 141-72.

 

some queer shit

here’s a link to a manuscript i made called some queer shit. it’s mostly about queer anarchism and queer ecology.

here’s my statement about it:

I think my manuscript “Some Queer Shit” best reflects my creativity because it is the most interdisciplinary work I have to offer. It’s an assemblage of poetry, critical and philosophical musings, personal accounts, and visual art. Most of the content was produced by me, and I did all the work compiling it, but it also contains work from my sister and closest friends and, as well as cooperative work done with colleagues originally produced for other spaces and events like the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop. I’ll try to provide a concise list of everyone who contributed to the project and would love to share recognition for the award if it comes to that! Beyond that though, I think the work questions dominant notions of authorhood and originality, and subverts the trope of artist as an individual genius that exists outside of encounter with others and social and political systems.

Furthermore, I think the work’s tactility – which is why I am submitting it in person – is important because it makes the work more personal and intimate when read by an audience. I love the manuscript as an object, a sculpture, and ways it can interact with readers beyond merely being read. I like how it looks when it sits on a table, I’ve been reading about the material sublime and a potential resurgence of ‘the real’ through the corporeal and so maybe you can see how queerness and ecology and anarchism manifest in my life personally (as a pansexual polyamorous gender-nonconforming lil thang) by touching the things that I have touched and getting glitter and chalk on your fingers and messing with the iPhone cord I bound some of the book with. It’s super fun, and I learned a lot while making it, so it blurs lines between academic and creative, process and content, form and content, public and private spaces, and the line between work and play, which is all critical to moving towards a more queer-friendly conceptualization of nature that embraces difference as a point of unity—which is important because nature is sort of a stand-in for our broader ontological orientation toward others, a la the ‘human nature’ debate. But really I just think it’s cool and funny so I hope you like it too!

People who contributed:

Hobby Lobby, sadly

Reid Beer, my old roommate who let me use his printer

Sarah Ngoh, it was for her class

Melody Peacock Barnett, my grandma who gave me the calendar I cut up

National Geographic

A bunch of professors at the Queer Ecology Summit 2015

Flora Riley, who gave me many art supplies

Whoever wrote the anonymous anti-copyright zine “Queer Anarchism”

Olivia Bashaw, my sis

Jenny Saville

Kazimir Malevich

Mona Hatoum

Antonin Artaud

Gustave Courbet

Dakota Santiago

Daniel Aramouni

Emma Brase

Evan Hager

Isabelle Diller

Ashley Flinn

Shay Burmeister

Cutbu

Creator of many anon memes

Egon Schiele

Hot Pockets

Tomie Futakuchi

FT Marinetti

Annie Spence

Cherokee Hayden

Alex Brase

Lauren Fischer

Alexander Rodchinko

Crocs

Hank Willis

 

And here’s some other releases about my work!

https://news.ku.edu/2017/05/18/spencer-museum-announces-2017-brosseau-creativity-award-recipients

https://spencerart.ku.edu/brosseau-awards

Cut Off Your Head and Arms: An Analysis of Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s Analysis of Théodore Géricault’s Paintings of Severed Heads and Limbs

 

 

Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, in her essay “Gericault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold,” (1992) argues that the intention behind Théodore Géricault’s artworks which depict disembodied heads and limbs was to critique early 19th-century policies surrounding capital punishment. Through analysis of Théodore Géricault’s Guillotined Heads (1818-1819) and his Severed Limbs (1818-1819), Athanassoglou-Kallmyer advocates for an interpretation of the works that considers the context and content of the images, as well as the intent behind the painter. Her reading is more warranted than traditional art historical interpretations of the works, which viewed the set of images as studies for Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818). Athanassoglou-Kallmyer does, however, make a few illogical leaps when it comes to making assertions about the intentions of Gericault himself—the art historian reaches unjustified conclusions with reference to the artist’s preparatory work, and also makes essentializing claims about Gericault’s political affiliations and the way they manifest in his art. Overall, however, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer presents a convincing, insightful argument that allows for a more wholesome reading of the works as well as an understanding of their significance in the greater scheme of art history.

In her essay, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer supports her thesis by highlighting three key areas surrounding the artworks which traditional art historians have neglected to explore. More specifically, she discusses the preparations Gericault made in order to produce the works, the political affiliations of the artist, and the greater sociopolitical context of early 19th-century France. Examination of Gericault’s process is critical to the way Athanassoglou-Kallmyer counters the traditional art-historical interpretation of Gericault’s severed heads and limbs, readings of the works as studies. Analysis of the artist’s process is a compelling argument in its ability to dismiss the reductionist interpretation of the paintings as mere studies—once she dispels that idea, it opens up room for her own thoughts which become difficult to dispute. However, one must remember that it is difficult to ever truly know the intent of any artist, especially one that has been dead for two hundred years. Much of Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s analysis revolves around small methodological details that she ascribes heavy meaning to. For example, she points to the fact that a live model was used for the female figure in Guillotined Heads. To Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, that detail is enough to warrant her argument that the paintings represent more than ghastly still-lifes, and instead the psychological horror of decapitation. The author writes, “Trivial as it may sound, this detail is nevertheless significant. For it demonstrates a particular intent on the part of the artist, and, conversely, a particular theme in the painting” (603). While small decisions made by the artist might seem unimportant at first, the artistic is critical because each preliminary decision Gericault made when preparing for the final artwork is reflected in the theme of the artwork. Since Gericault did not leave a written declaration of the intent behind his works, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer resorts to analyzing the record of his artistic process. Every action has an intention, so in order to fully understand the artwork’s theme, analysis has to begin before the final painting was even completed.

Her second point of pontification revolves around the political affiliations of Gericault. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer follows his travels to Rome and London, locations where the artist witnessed and recorded public executions. These anecdotes set up the artist’s alleged political interest in and opposition to capital punishment, which Athanassoglou-Kallmyer uses as evidence for the paintings’ contents. The art historian argues, “Calling forth the social and cultural dimensions of Gericault’s works, therefore, seems not only inevitable but also necessary for a fuller understanding of their meaning and of the strategies by which they convey it” (603).  Artistic process does not exist in a vacuum—personal political opinion might very well influence Gericault’s hand while painting. Regardless, it is an essentializing claim to state that, just because the artist attended public executions and produced artwork based off of them in past travel journals, the same message is contained in the paintings Guillotined Heads and Severed Limbs.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer strengthens her claims about Gericault’s personal political stance by bringing in a wider consideration of the political and cultural climates within the artist’s environment, early 19th-Century France. Visits to public executions abroad may have not influenced Gericault’s work greatly, but something that would have were larger political institutions and cultural norms that operated around the artist, out of his realm of personal control. At the time, the penal code of the monarchy that ruled over post-revolution France mandated the death penalty as punishment to a litany of crimes—offenses from petty theft to political dissent, debt dodging to murder. The Reign of Terror created the macabre mythos of the guillotine, and that mythos outlived the reign. The guillotine remained a symbol of political terror—do not disobey, or heads will roll. Executions were public spectacles, and popular culture (backed up by popular science) at the time hypothesized that victims of the machine remained conscious for whole minutes post-decapitation. Post-revolution social anxiety, amplified by fear of the ruling ultra-royalist regime, culminated in an aesthetic style known as Horrorschool. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer writes, “Mingling echoes from contemporary social horrors—murders, suicides, rapes, or incests—with touches of the fantastic and the supernatural—ghosts, vampires, and devils—noir themes reaches a paroxysmic height in novels and popular entertainment prior to 1830” (610). The superstition, dread, and fascination with the guillotine is a paragon of the wider cultural aesthetic which celebrated malevolent themes both fantastical and all-to-real. Wider cultural phenomena coupled with social anxiety (if not direct political opposition) toward the contemporary ruling power, easily could have influenced Gericault to the extent that they manifested in his artworks.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer isolates textual and visual evidence to support the three overarching arguments she makes in her article. The historian backs her claim that the artist did not intend the paintings as studies by asserting that there were preliminary sketches done for the paintings of heads and limbs themselves, which suggests that the images are finished products. Furthermore, there are formal affinities within the paintings that show that Gericault was constructing the compositions very carefully, as if they were their own works. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s visual analysis on Severed Limbs showcases the fineness of the composition.

“The severed limbs look healthy and fleshy, and indisputably lifelike. Piled on top of one another, they gruesomely parody an erotic entwining, male legs tenderly enfolded by female arms, to which Gericault […]adds a bloodstained rag to suggest a woman’s camisole strap sensuously slipping down her bare shoulder. […] Morbid reality and morbid fantasy merge. Black terror and black humor rub shoulders ambivalently.”

So much thought went into the paintings as individual artworks that surely Gericault intended them as more than simple studies. The art historian also uses convincing textual analysis of Georges Clement’s biographical discourse on Gericault, which noted that in Severed Heads he had hired a live model to represent the female head. Clement was one of the earliest biographers to write about Gericault. Inclusion of such an early source lends ethos to the scholar’s argument that Gericault was portraying more than gory still-life paintings, and that the subject of the works was psychological terror.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer evidences her claims about Gericault’s personal political affiliation with similarly convincing visual evidence, but is sparingly lacking in textual evidence—she cites no direct personal claims made by Gericault at all. Her visual analysis of Gericault’s Execution in Rome (1822) reveals similarities between the image and the severed heads and limbs, not only in regards to the visual language he uses but also to the content of anti-capital punishment. She notices:

“The executioner is planted frontally in the very center of the scene holding the victim’s head out to an invisible crowd. Foreshadowing the severed heads of the paintings, the decapitated head reappears by itself floating against the neutral ground of the right margin, its eyes staring wide open, its feature distorted with what seems to be unspeakable terror and pain” (605)

Stylistic parallels are notable, with the floating, terrorized head in Execution in Rome perhaps representing some pre-formulation of the cranium in Severed Heads. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer also connects Execution in Rome to the common practice of projecting criticism of the state (especially one’s own country) into the classical past to mitigate animosity and avoid social backlash. While the art historian effectively utilizes the evidence she presents, a direct statement from Gericault could have functioned more aptly.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s analysis respecting dominant sociopolitical practices in early 19th-century France is braced by a compare and contrast between Gericault’s Severed Heads and Villeneuve’s Ecce Custine (1793), a political engraving created during the Reign of Terror.  The images display two disparate representations of political beheadings. Gericault’s paintings humanize the subject and evoke empathy from viewers. He starkly presents two anonymous heads that could have been belonged anyone before they were violently hacked off. Villeneuve, on the other hand, depicts a hand clenching in victory a severed head by the hair, with emphasis placed on nationalistic text that frames the image. The decapitated head has closed eyes and appears peaceful.  Villeneuve’s engraving belonged to a series of propagandistic images that celebrated the defeat of “Enemies of the Revolution” (610), so one can deduct that Villeneuve made purposeful artistic decisions to focus his viewers in on the political significance of the beheading, rather than the element of personal tragedy at play. In direct contrast, Gericault in Severed Heads makes choices that render his heads in a somber, humanizing fashion. The heads of the man and woman rest on a white sheet as if the two are relaxing in bed together. The head of the woman is turned toward the man, and the man’s head is turned toward viewers. It almost gazes at viewers (though not quite directly) with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression that communicates the pain of death and the emptiness thereafter. The iconography of the images are obviously similar, and while the content of the works may appear to differ greatly upon first thought, both are expressing political messages. Villeneuve explicitly expresses a theme by identifying the beheaded as a political opponent, a roadblock to progress. Gericault’s message is more contrived—he leaves the subjects anonymous while overtly humanizing their severed heads to remind viewers that the subjects were once ordinary French people who, perhaps due to a small criminal slip-up, had their livelihood robbed away through state-sanctioned terrorism.

Visually, Gericault’s Severed Heads would fit in quite readily into the dominant artistic style of early 19th-Century France—if Horrorschool meant fascination with spookiness and social depravity was in vogue, then Gericault’s guillotined heads can be thought of as products of a wider aesthetic movement. To illustrate the prevalence of Horrorschool, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer draws from a wide body of cultural artifacts.

“From cheap horror novels, which Janin’s L’Ane mort parodied even as it capitalized on their devices, to sinister melodramas by Guilbert de Pixerecourt […] performed to packed theaters at the Boulevard du Temple (appropriately nicknamed Le Boulevard de Crime); and from the ‘horror chambers’ of wax museums, such as Madame Tussaud’s […] with its display of the blood-dripping wax heads of the revolutionary guillotine to crudely illustrated canards recounting grisly faits divers of bourgeois life, horror was in fashion and people unashamedly delighted in it” (611).

By citing such a wide variety of sources, the art historian illustrates how horror permeated French society during the early 19th-Century. Gericault could not have left his studio at the time without experiencing anxiety and morbidity. The man lived under rule of a newly-formed reactionary government known for its abuse of capital punishment as a means for maintaining order. Even if Gericault did not himself experience the risk of execution by guillotine for opposing governmental policy he had friends who did—undeniably, he had stakes in the matter. In fact, even if Gericault attempted to remove himself from politics altogether, he would inevitably run into some form the indirectly political Horrorschool cultural aesthetic that arose as a reaction to the social anxiety generated by the political climate.  After all, as Athanassoglou-Kallmyer explains, “…the morbid genre […] portrayed with unrelenting accuracy the dismal urban realities of industrial Paris and conveyed the helplessness of the individual in the grip of an implacable social mechanism” (600). Manifestation of Horrorschool within Gericault’s paintings are evident—Severed Heads naturalistically depicts a horrific event brought onto the subjects by immovable structures operating above their reach. The supernatural subjects of the painting become the living dead, visually due to their humanization and contextually due to the widespread superstition that victims hold onto consciousness after decapitation.

When reading Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s interpretation of Gericault’s paintings, one must keep in mind any ideological commitments the author had when constructing her essay. By grounding most of her analysis with socio-historical contextual analysis, the art historian allows for insightful interpretations of Gericault’s Severed Heads and Severed Limbs—so much was going on during the early 19th Century that could have influenced Gericault! Athanassoglou-Kallmyer’s consideration of Gericault’s process, political affiliations, and sociopolitical environment, combined with astute visual analysis, demolishes the traditional art historical interpretation of the paintings as studies. The grisly paintings take on expanded meaning, becoming more than shocking still-lifes. A social-historical lens limits bias since the author is constrained by historical data—had the author adopted some ideological lens, such as feminism or Marxism, the article would have been more subjective and therefore easier to critique. Regardless, essentializing claims are made concerning the identity of Gericault, and perhaps the author overestimates the amount of sway that Gericault’s society had over the artist, who was a known practitioner of the avant-garde.

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer analyzes the artistic process behind Gericault’s Severed Heads, the artist’s personal political beliefs, and larger 19th-Century French sociopolitical and artistic trends to engage with the artwork. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer argues that the subjects of the paintings are not the heads and limbs themselves, but rather the psychological horror of decapitation and autopsy, a reflection of the greater post-Revolutionary social anxieties that plagued France at the turn of the 19th century. While the art historian makes a convincing argument, her claims are not without problems. For example, she claims political significance of anti-capital punishment for the severed heads, and uses evidence from Gericault’s trips to England and Rome to back up the claim, since he witnessed and recorded executions there. Nonetheless, no direct quotes or evidence from the artist appears in the entire essay, and it is very difficult to know the intent of an artist without direct quotes from the artist himself. Furthermore, some of the visual analysis that Athanassoglou-Kallmyer uses is shaky. For example, she mentions that, by hiring a live model to portray one of the severed heads, that Gericault is attempting to conjure human emotions that resemble the fear of being decapitated. The writer’s visual analysis that backs the claim up points to bloody gashes on the neck of a figure in an entirely different painting—her analysis would have been more poignant had she done visual analysis on the specific painting she was bringing up contextual information for. Overall, Athanassoglou-Kallmyer usage of a social-historical lens provides an intuitive interpretation of artworks otherwise glossed over by art history.

 

 

Works Cited

Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina. “Gericault’s Severed Heads and Limbs: The Politics and Aesthetics of the Scaffold,” The Art Bulletin 74, no. 4 (December 1992): 599-618