COMMUNITY COMMUNITY COMMUNITY
As we live our lives more and more within the digital, Sandra Mujinga wants to see what happens to subjectivity within this kind of structure. Interview by Lisa Bernhoft-Sjødin.
Lisa Bernhoft-Sjødin What are you working on right now?
Sandra Mujinga My main focus this year is shadows, both expressly and metaphorically.
LBS Shadows, how?
SM Shadows as the opposite of light and as the effect of not being the source of light.
LBS In your work you’ve examined what it is to be a digital subject. Is probing shadows a part of this?
SM My work has always dealt with shadows because of the use of projectors. The viewer’s shadow can distort or enhance my work; the key is to contain either approach. What prompted me to venture further was when I read Zach Blas essay Queer Darkness (2016) from the publication Fear Eats the Soul edited by Omar Kholeif and Sarah Perks. He questions the power of hypervisibility in relation to queer issues and how light is a prerequisite to being visible. Around the same time, the American painter Kerry James Marshall’s works started popping up in my feed. His works really resonated with me and had an immediate connection to my own thoughts about identity politics and representation. The subjects de- picted in the paintings all have a similar skin tone, a flat black skin tone, a way of exploring blackness in itself. Is there power in being in the shadow or not visible at all in a world lit up only by voices?
LBS It might be a whole new way of thinking about subjectivity: a darkened exterior might hide a lit interior.
SM Exactly. It’s interesting to see what can come out of obscuring what’s initially on display. How we control and own our visibility has, again, always been part of my works. Throwing Voice (2016) engages with that kind of subjectivity. The avatar is a live model, whose appearance is obscured while editing. It highlights her outer visuality, her pure physicality. The audio – YouTube tutorials on contouring by young black women – is trying to give substance to this now digital object. Even though we can’t see the women, they’re still constructing their visual selves. And reading Zach Blas has motivated me to explore with darkness what we expect to be spotlighted. The internet is a stage that I frequently take advantage of. It’s enabling us to create whatever self we desire, but it’s a vulnerable freedom. There are no “safe spaces”, because we’re constantly under surveillance. However, it’s also creating another kind of freedom. Social media is not one of my favourite things but without them, I wouldn’t have met so many fantastic people online. I’m not a fan of Facebook, but I look at it as a tool to meet and keep in touch with people I identify with. It’s simultaneously a shitty place and a magical one.
LBS So you, as a solipsist, have taken a few steps back in favour of community?
SM Yes and no. How we react to and engage with people online is getting more and more generic. It’s become somewhat scripted. You know what to post on, say, Instagram to get loads of likes and favour- able comments. Even when posting stuff that’s of a more political nature, both the poster and the viewer follow a script that’s “right”: the right references, the right article or meme or people. Call it oversaturated artivism.
SM Art as activism.
LBS Really? Like the Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner joining “the movement” only to save the day by offering the riot police officer a Pepsi?
SM Hah! Oversaturated artivism.
LBS I loved a lot of the memes that came in the aftermath of that. One of the good things in regards to the expansiveness of the internet is how it can function as a corrective to big hegemonic corporations and institutions such as Pepsi. Invisible outsider groups can become visible and powerful.
SM I think, though, that the corrective has always been there, but before, you could just turn a deaf ear to the weird boy in the schoolyard preaching about the evils of Coca Cola. Now, it’s all of a sudden in your feed. One viral hashtag, and everybody’s talking about it. It’s the magic of the internet.
LBS Sure. I wanted to ask you about the Whitney Biennale and the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), which portrays Emmett Till’s open casket. It prompted an uproar from the African-American art community, and the artist Hannah Black wrote an open letter to the institution on the issue, asking them to remove the painting. Several artists had signed the letter, including you. Why was this an important stand for you to take?
SM Being a young black artist one hopes that an influential institution like the Whitney would have the sensibility to involve minorities instead of ignoring them. Signing her letter was a way to voice my frustration over this, and traverse the generic and mainstream reactions you saw online responding to the letter. What surprised me was the outcry from the other side: that this was book-burning and censorship, claiming the right to free speech. The problem with that is the presumption that Hannah Black shouldn’t be granted free speech. Free speech is so many things, and one has to accept being called out and discuss things, not hide behind ‘free speech’.
LBS Definitely. I also saw the letter as a way of choosing one’s own narrative. As young black and brown people, we’re surrounded by narratives told about us. The letter was the most public objection to this since Black Lives Matter came about.
SM There has to be a vital representation to influence change. It’s absolutely pivotal to let the Other speak for themselves. I’ve been obsessed with the black British filmmaker Cecile Emeke’s Strolling series, an internet series where she walks and talks with young POC, about their experiences of adversity and struggle. This kind of thing creates a language on diversity, on racism, that quite frankly we lack in Europe. I think we’re going to see more and more people sharing their experiences of prejudice, to show that we don’t accept the current narrative. And it’s in the internet com- munity I see that change happening. There’s a great- er sense of pride. Starting out as an artist, I needed to define my own internal dialogue as a way to form agency, to not be solely a token or the diversity act of the art community.
LBS Your work is populated entirely by POC. The women in Throwing Voice are black, both the voiceovers and the avatar, and in your installation pieces the models are of African decent. It’s such a relief for African-Norwegians like my self. But it doesn’t feel like “political art”: the theme is universal, but the subjects level our societal hierarchy.
SM Art doesn’t have to be explicitly political. My using only models of African descent is not, as you pointed out, a political charge. I’m creating what I wish to see. I’m not performing for any kind of white fragility. My work is for the future. It’s what happens before the art is created that’s interesting: people from all parts of society coming together and just talking. That’s the only way to create political change. Societal hierarchy is manifested by who is visible. The internet is making it much easier to be in the light. However, to be visible is a very vulnerable state. So is it possible to be visible but in the shadows? What kind of state is that? You can’t see the work being done, but only the outcome of the work.
LBS What you say reminds me of art historian Adrienne Edwards’ term “blackness in abstraction”, which she coined in relation to the paintings of Adam Pendleton, a young black American artist who, among other things, paints only with one colour – black – adding texture with the paint instead of lighter nuances.
SM Forcing one to look for nuances on an assumed flat surface: that’s similar to what I’m doing with shadows and darkness. One of my most recent works is elaborate textile pieces that I’m tentatively calling “wearable sculptures”, worn by the same models in all my future works throughout the year, showing them in different kinds of light and shadow, adding texture and nuances to them. I still make a point of being active outside the exhibition space, outside of the art context, engaging with other communities, doing whatever is needed of me, whether that is washing the dishes or helping out with other tasks. What I mean is, it’s so easy to think that just because we’re artists we’re exempt from prejudice. It might be that we just don’t know that our responses are scripted care. Maybe it’s because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Maybe we don’t have the tools or language to discuss prejudice with nuance. Either way, it’s essential to get out of the studio and be part of the community, to gather and just talk. That’s where the magic happens.
This conversation is based on an earlier interview that took place in 2016 in relation to Mujinga’s exhibition Real Friends at Oslo Kunstforening. It can be found here.