Holding Space for Beauty and Blackness

Is Love a Synonym for Abolition? reviewed.
By Ashley Marshall
Holding Space for Beauty and Blackness

Isabel Okoro, (If you knew how we got here), 2020 Photo by Darren Rigo.

Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?
Artists: Isabel Okoro, Timothy Yanick Hunter
Curator: Liz Ikiriko
Supporting Scholar: Katherine McKittrick
Location: Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography, Toronto
September 10 – October 23, 2021

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From her phenomenal album Wary + Strange, the lyrics of Amythyst Kiah remain a presence guiding my understanding of how to be a contemporary abolitionist. Track nine, Sleeping Queen booms “I see humans as they are/Great beauty and great horror they are made of/Can we share anything when our heads, our hearts, our hands are empty.” The exhibition, “Is love a synonym for abolition?” is a title adopted from an essay by Saidiya Hartman. It is the work of Isabel Okoro and Timothy Yanick Hunter. Curated by Liz Ikiriko, this show poses necessary and timely questions, while holding space for the beauty, diversity, and complexity of Blackness.
Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?

Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?
w/featured print on newsprint, Timothy Yanick Hunter, June Tyson, Sun-Ra: A Joyful Noise, 2020. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?

Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition? Photo by Darren Rigo.

Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?

Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?
w/ inkjet print, Holding on to Hope, 2020 by Isabel Okoro. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?

Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?
w/featured photographs by Isabel Okoro. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Let’s start with the simple freedoms

Isabel Okoro, detail of Let’s start with the simple freedoms, black print on cotton voile, 2021.

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Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?
Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?
Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?
Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?
Let’s start with the simple freedoms
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Is Love a Synonym for Abolition? is an experience that reaches back into the corporeal displacement of Black bodies, while offering poetry steeped in the reality of contemporary tensions, and the magical realism of our biofictional futures. Academics who focus on the beautiful moments and revolutionary enclaves present in Black experiences create environments that support young artists. Specifically, the influence of Saidiya Hartman, a scholar of African American literature, informs how Black existence is a sublime afront to the pressures of identity theft. Through funding awarded by the Ontario Arts Council, the mentorship of Katherine McKittrick was commissioned for this exhibition, which combined music, visual art, place, technology, and diasporic literacy to create an experience of revolutionary being.
Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition? w/photographs (LtoR) Acknowledging the Past, 2020, A Confrontation of the Present, 2020, Imagining the Future (Friends in Eternity), 2021 by Isabel Okoro

Gallery view of Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?
w/photographs (LtoR) Acknowledging the Past, 2020, A Confrontation of the Present, 2020, Imagining the Future (Friends in Eternity), 2021 by Isabel Okoro. Photo by Darren Rigo.

The poetry of Isabel Okoro offers some guiding themes through which to interpret the tensions between freedom and struggle. Her poem Normatopia posits “normal as a right to be.” For diasporic bodies, Black identities, migrant stories and many more ontologies, “being” is a tenuous experience, often with the genealogy of our ancestors and their homes informing how we experience our own time and place. Is Love a Synonym for Abolition explores the telluric relationship(s) Black people have with land and history.
Timothy Yanick Hunter, Playing Field (Repetitions), Two Channel Video, Dual Rack Monitor,1:43min, 2021, video clips sourced from West Indies vs Australia, Third Test Match-The Adelaide Oval [1980]
Timothy Yanick Hunter, Playing Field (Repetitions), Two Channel Video, Dual Rack Monitor,1:43min, 2021, video clips sourced from West Indies vs Australia, Third Test Match-The Adelaide Oval [1980]. Photo by Darren Rigo.

The triptych on the far wall features three pieces, entitled Acknowledging the past, A confrontation of the present, and Imagining the future. Looking more closely at the triptych by Isabel Okoro, I realize the way Black people are holding each other – not intimately with fingers interlaced, but by the wrist, as if both, ornamental as a bracelet and gripping like a cuff. I ask curator, Liz Ikiriko, about this and she explains that Okoro’s intention is to “reflect a sense of care; a certain sense of intimacy but that there is struggle within that. That utopia is still messy.” I understand immediately and feel the responsibility of community. My gaze is pulled into focus, realizing the apples atop the Black heads as both targets and symbols of hospitality in institutions of Western education. The Black power presence that stands sturdily behind the seated “students” reminds me of my own thesis work as an undergrad, where I challenge the teaching that “privilege is an invisible backpack1White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. MacIntosh, Peggy. 2003. Peace and Freedom Magazine.” and instead position it as an unvisible weapon2Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, Gordon, Avery. 1996. University of Minnesota Press.. As Avery Gordon explains about the ever-presence of Black people, so present that there must be a mechanism to explain how we – and all of our contributions – are somehow overlooked: “hyper- visibility is a persistent alibi for the mechanisms that render one unvisible.”

It is always there, and so becomes a sonder, unable to be fully seen. As I look to the multiple images presented by Isabel Okoro, I focus on the dark skinned figure holding a defiant “Black power” fist in several of the frames. Because of their repeating portrayal, it would be easy to skip past their significance to focus on what new information this next image is portraying. But I know better. They are always there to render permanent that they have always been here and will be present in the next image as well; a haunting, a promise, and a comfort.

I begin to think about questions that occupy me as an abolitionist today, including if Black people can ever have a relationship to Nature and Land that is truly free. Questions about food sovereignty on Indigenous land, ecocide, and the post-humanist dreams of technocrats propel me into thoughts about our futurity. I realize that Okoro’s photographs are taken in Scarborough and Lagos. They amplify her similar occupation with how Black people might materially re-connect to the lands that nurture us. Liz offers her understanding of the term “landscape” being “a colonial construct,” when thinking about Black people being in Nature as a:

“continual impossible possibility to extract ourselves from a form of capitalist patriarchal system that has been dominating our lives for so long, and that the practice, the act of continually proposing what it looks like for us to embody natural spaces and for these propositions to continue to ask ‘can we be natural,’ ‘can you see us as natural, ‘can we see ourselves as natural,’ ‘can we connect to these places,’ and I know that that’s something that’s important to Isabel and it’s important to me in terms of thinking about the fact that there are no places that I think of as being uninhabitable or disconnected from Black people.”

I think of my own phenomenological practice, the art I create from my experiences in urban spaces, and fall back in love with McKittrick’s edict that “As a way to emphasize that the lesson is not to make and therefore stabilize space, but instead to continually theorize place as relation, and recognize that the work of theorizing is in itself how Black geographies are lived and expressed. This is for me what Black cities make possible: urban worlds unhinged from the coloniality of place, and comprised of secrets, and narratives, and stories, and songs that are sites of learning.”3"Dr. Katherine McKittrick’s: Living Just Enough for the City/ Volume VI/ Black Methodology." 2019.

The way Isabel double and triple exposes her photographs, confronting her audience with the presence of diaspora, and showing Black people in nature grounds the question, is freedom ever simple, to which Liz coolly replies “Yeah, I don’t think it’s easy, but I think it’s simple.”

Congregational Assembly

Timothy Yanick Hunter, Congregational Assembly, Single Channel Video, 4:07min, 2020, Video clips sourced from: Claire Prieto, Older, Stronger, Wiser [1989], Claire Prieto and Roger McTair, Different Timbres [1980], Cira Robinson and Marie Astrid Mence, Brown Ballet Shoes Made for the First Time, BBC News [2018], interview with Victoria Gray Adams conducted for Eyes on the Prize [1985]. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Congregational Assembly

Timothy Yanick Hunter, Congregational Assembly, Single Channel Video, 4:07min, 2020, Video clips sourced from: Claire Prieto, Older, Stronger, Wiser [1989], Claire Prieto and Roger McTair, Different Timbres [1980], Cira Robinson and Marie Astrid Mence, Brown Ballet Shoes Made for the First Time, BBC News [2018], interview with Victoria Gray Adams conducted for Eyes on the Prize [1985]. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Ballet Shoes

Photo by Darren Rigo.

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Congregational Assembly
Congregational Assembly
Ballet Shoes
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On the other side of the room is a visual collage by Timothy Yanick Hunter, titled Congregational Assembly. It is a single-channel video projected onto a screen that has been mounted onto a limestone rise. Liz explains “the ways that Tim thinks through screens as kind of radical.” Timothy Yanick Hunter is making a monument of the film and its subjects, monumentalizing faith, and community. From the single-channel cricket game I am pulled toward this, Tim’s second video, which is accompanied by a musical rhythm track that the artist has composed. The video starts with scenes of church, choir, congregation, and preacher. What I connected to most was the scene of the Black girl child painting her ballet pointe shoes the hue of her own skin tone. Next, we read the closed captioning on the video as the narrator explains the workings of a steel pan orchestra – not a band, nor a group, but the elevated language of an “orchestra.” The speaker posits that the tenor pan has the same job as the first violin as it carries the highest voice and explains that “tenor” is a misnomer; it should really be called a “soprano pan.” Again, the spectres of colonialism are ever-present, but so too is our rebellion to such being, seeing, hearing, and movement of our bodies. With visuals of the steel pan orchestra, explanation of the delicate sounds, and the momentum of the Black ballerina, the bass drops, and I am on my feet. It is a tactile, embodied experience of mood being manipulated by sound. It is yet another curvature of Black liberation: from our relationships to nature to our remixing of technology and body, to the play of rhythm and representation.
Research/Resource workspace w/exhibition publication Black Dots and B-Sides

Research/Resource workspace w/exhibition publication Black Dots and B-Sides, 2021. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Research/Resource workspace w/Lillian Allen’s Revolutionary Tea Party tape on boom box.

Research/Resource workspace w/Lillian Allen’s Revolutionary Tea Party tape on boom box. Photo by Darren Rigo.

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Research/Resource workspace w/exhibition publication Black Dots and B-Sides
Research/Resource workspace w/Lillian Allen’s Revolutionary Tea Party tape on boom box.
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As patrons enter or exit Gallery 44, they pass the table which contains a heavy boombox below a light and a mounted iPad. To the right are printed essays of the thinkers who inspired all of the collaborators of in the exhibition. Among the literature is a catalogue for the exhibition, Black Dots and B-Sides. It quotes Katherine McKittrick’s essay, commissioned for the exhibition:

“it’s often very delineated where the bad ‘part of town’ or ‘over the tracks’ is, there’s all sorts of very problematic spatializations that intentionally contain Black people…the enclosures are an attempt to dehumanize us. There’s a very clear sense of what geography is that’s imposed. And then there’s this other thing that’s happening, through, say, Isabel’s journeys and Tim’s inter-textual ties, that will offset those spaces that intended to define and silence Black people. The thing about those spaces of enclosure is that that’s where Black people are, right? So that’s the other thing, there’s a narrative that produces these spaces as Black spaces and as presumably negative Black spaces. And then Black people within those spaces completely subvert what they mean and explode them. If you look at prison art, for example, like the kind of work Nicole Fleetwood attends to in her work, we are given a totally different geography. These people are thinking about freedom in ways that have never even crossed my mind and they’re doing it through art.”

The singularity of the Black woman with a raised, defiant, Black Power fist encompasses the gallery space. There is a presence of possibility: the legacies of those who existed before us, and therefore gave us permission to exist, degrees more freely than generations ago. The lyrics of an Apollo Flowerchild ballad float in my mind: “And all I need is to get out of my funk/You broke me down, I build myself back up, again/Feeling more vulnerable than I have ever been/Find something that you love and hold it within/Your bloody hands (Bloody Hands, Apollo Flowerchild). I feel broken down, seen, projected back to me, in community, and heard. I feel the responsibility of community, and through my vulnerability, I feel my energy renewed as a child in the revolution for Black liberation.

Days later, I get this message from Liz, and my power is fortified once more:

“I perceive our work as artists, curators, siblings, mothers and workers does not take away from the work that defines abolitionists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore or Mariame Kaba4Author of We Do This ‘Til We Free Us. 2021. Haymarket do, it is to say that our work and care as Black friends, family and lovers contributes to abolitionist thought and practice. The processes and actions that support Black love and freedom are inherently abolitionist in nature. The exhibition's focus has been on supporting a nurturing way of encouraging the creative and collaborative practices of young Black artists in order to fortify and make real movements in the direction of hope, love and freedom.”

Although our hands have been washed in blood, they are made strong.

References

  1. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. MacIntosh, Peggy. 2003. Peace and Freedom Magazine.
  2. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, Gordon, Avery. 1996. University of Minnesota Press.
  3. "Dr. Katherine McKittrick's: Living Just Enough for the City/ Volume VI/ Black Methodology." 2019.
Ashley Marshall
Ashley Marshall, M.A. English, B.A. Hons. English/Cultural Studies and Critical Theory. Her research critiques how power, economics, and politics influence social change, while advocating for imagination and creativity as alternatives to neoliberal market logics.
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