If Frantz Fanon were to write his 1952 book ‘Black Skin, White Mask’ today, a chance encounter with two contemporary works of art would probably result in a different title. Not only do Pink Devil by Heath Kane and Afro-Glitch by Kamile Ofoeme feature strikingly similar visuals – a candy pink mask – but, rather unsurprisingly, I came across them both in Peckham. Besides being the go-to place for one of London’s most dynamic art scenes, it’s also where Simon Whybray created his bubblegum staircase installation for Bold Tendencies.
I saw the first while browsing the Anti Art Fair in October, a remarkable first endeavour by Creative Debuts to show and demand greater diversity in the arts, and the latter when I returned to Peckham a couple of weeks ago to visit Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the South London Gallery. Given that previous alumni are some of my favourite artists – Damien Hirst, David Hockney and Grayson Perry – expectations ran high. I was not disappointed since Kamile’s work blew me away.
Though the narrator might be different, these two works tap into the same legacy of colonialism, historical negationism, social visibility and behavioural makeup.
Pink Devil belongs to Portrait of Heroes by Heath Kane, a series inspired by the old masters and their portraits of wealthy individuals.
These were often exercises in self-promotion, less about capturing the likeness of the sitters and more about furthering the image that the great and the good sought to convey about themselves Sir Thomas Lawrence’s slimmer, healthier and youthful version of King George IV at the National Portrait Gallery, depicted as a wind-swept hero in a field marshal’s uniform, has very little in common with the man often referred to as the Prince of Whales.
Heath Kane’s take on these historical portraits is rather befitting a world dominated by selfies and self-obsessed narcissists.
A formidable cartwheel ruff over a dark doublet might have given the sitter a proud and haughty pose in the sixteenth century, but it wouldn’t cut it nowadays. It is no longer enough to display symbols of status and wealth to set you apart from your peers
In the same vein as his series ‘Rich Enough to Be Batman’, the artist employs a luchador mask to embody this never-ending race for more.
For all its visual boldness, it is rather subtle. The Lucha Libre wrestling industry is pure make-believe, all smoke and mirrors. Much the same as Instagram or other social media. When I put on the mask, I’m transformed. The mask gives me fame. The mask is magical. When I remove the mask, I’m a normal human being’ – El Hijo del Santo, luchador.
The choice of an iconic mask such as the one of Blue Demon cannot be entirely coincidental either. In a year dominated by President Trump’s antics, I like to think it’s also a political statement, a nod to that Latin American culture – Mexican in particular – which has been constantly vilified in his twitter tirades.
A multi-disciplinary project encompassing print, film, photography, performance, textile design and gold casting led to Afro-Glitch, a short film by artist Kamile Ofoeme about the surveillance of black bodies. Whilst the film was screened in its entirety at different venues in the UK as part of the Selected VIII program, the South London Gallery is currently showing a still image taken from it.
The term glitch is a perfect fit for a work which aims to destabilise and undermine conventions rather than shun them altogether. The avant-garde techniques of fast pace editing and non-narrative form are subtly weaved together into a more common cinematic approach. The artist’s desire to poke, question, disarrange and disturb is central to the narrative and especially evident in the intrusive work of the camera.
Introduced to the complex reality of facial politics by the module ‘Aesthetics and Politics of the Face’ by Zach Blas at Goldsmiths University, Kamile explores the extension of prejudice against black people to new technology. Far from addressing the racial injustice in policing – black people are stopped and searched on average eight times more than white people, the inbuilt racial biases of facial recognition tools increasingly used in fighting crime are perpetuating the discrimination. Blackness is associated with wrongness.
Kamile Ofoeme tells me: “Balaclavas are interesting things. Jemima Wyman and Pussy Riot utilise the balaclava as a revolutionary tool, and on the other hand criminals use it to conceal their identity. This duality that the balaclava sits within (criminality/revolution) is important to AG (Afro-Glitch). The work is concerned with representation of black masculinity or black male identity. W.E.B Dubois and Frantz Fanon also spoke of dualities in their work, something that resonates with me deeply, especially being a black male in Britain. Sadly, black males are often disproportionally surveilled and represented as criminals, which is something that I feel quite uncomfortable about. The works of Simone Browne and Michelle Alexander cover this from a U.S perspective. Additionally, my Father, who is a criminologist, has written quite extensively on this topic which also largely informs my practice. So AG is partly about looking at the duality that exists in the balaclava as an object, and observing what happens when a black male simply wears a pink balaclava. In many ways the work could be considered as an experiment’. The gaze that is held by the performer in the film seeks to activate an oppositional gaze. This is a concept that I first read in the work of scholar and feminist bell hooks. The oppositional gaze aims to reverse the positioning and effects of the white colonial gaze, and can similarly be utilized by feminists as a way of gaining a sense of autonomy or agency. This is intended at creating power on a subject’s own terms by making an intervention into the realms of power dynamics. So I guess these are some of the elements that are at play in AG.
The first sight of the balaclava spoke to me of a breakdown of dialogue, but the more I watched Afro-Glitch, the more it morphed into a defence mechanism to preserve identity rather than hide it. When the camera lingers and obsessively returns to the only two parts exposed, the eyes and the mouth, it becomes clear that the threat is not the masked man, but the sinister nature of an invasive and inherently prejudiced surveillance.
The subtext of the pink fabric also raises questions about gender, masculinity and the artifice of racial sameness at the expense of individuality.
To some extent, we could say the same about the luchador mask of Pink Devil too.
| I wrote this piece for the Ace Club in January 2019 |