Malick Sidibé: Regardez-moi (Look at me!)

 

With the generous assistance of Tim Fairfax, AC, the Gallery recently acquired a group of photographs by Malick Sidibé, taken soon after independence was declared in the north-west African country of Mali.

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Malick Sidibé, Mali 1935-2016 / Regardez-moi 1962, printed 2013 / Gelatin silver print / Purchased 2013 with funds from Tim Fairfax, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Malick Sidibé (1935 – 2016) is one of Mali’s most distinguished photographers. In 2003, he won the Hasselbad Award, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale in 2007, and in 2008, the International Contemporary Photography Award. The Gallery recently acquired a group of stunning black and-white photographs by the artist: Regardez-moi (Look at me!) 1962, Fans de James Brown (James Brown fans) 1965, Soirée marriage Drissa Balo (Drissa Balo wedding party) 1967, Les très bons amis en même tenue (Very good friends in the same outfit) 1972 and Jeune homme avec pattes d’éléphant, sacoche et montre (Young man with bell bottoms, bag and watch) 1977.

Sidibé opened Studio Malick in Bamako in the late 1950s. He was at the centre of cultural and social life of the city during the 1950s and 60s, capturing the excitement over the transition to independence in 1960. This is evident in his images, which offer a sense of intimacy with the subjects portrayed. He was the only reporter to cover the breadth of events that took place across the city, from birthday parties and public occasions to club nights. Sidibé describes his typical work day:

I would be in my studio until ten or eleven at night, because the nightlife didn’t start early. Then I’d go off to the clubs with my bike, until five in the morning! I could cover five places all at once, especially on Saturdays and during the holidays. Young people trusted me, they were with me, on my side. Garrincha [Youssouf Doumbia] and I were invited everywhere. People said if we were at a party, it gave it prestige. I would let people know I’d arrived by letting off my flash, people made way to let me in, and everyone was happy . . . I made the prints when I got back from the parties, sometimes even at six in the morning. I grouped them by club, then I numbered them and stuck them into cardboard folders. It was a whole lot of works, and very fiddly, but only I could do it . . . I would display the photos on Mondays or Tuesday in front of the studio. Everyone who’s been at those parties was there and they’d laugh when they saw the photos. It was a lively time.1

This was a time that saw major cultural change, with young people organising their own clubs at which they played the latest music from Europe, the United States and Cuba. This generation was linked to the ‘universal youth movement of the 1960s’, not only through their taste in music and fashion, but also in their politics.2

In the early days of Malian independence, Sidibé captured images of a generation that was looking for inspiration beyond their own country and continent, who were exploring their personal freedoms in the context of new postcolonial political freedom on a national level. The artist was sought out and entrusted to ‘represent them in the way that they wished to be seen’.3

Endnotes
1  Malick Sidibé, ‘Studio Malick’, Malick Sidibé, André Magnin (ed.), Scalo Gallerie, Zürich, 1998, pp.37–9.
2  Manthia Diawara, ‘1960s in Bamako: Malick Sidibé and James Brown’, Black Renaissance / Renaissance Noire, vol.4, 2002, pp.62–3.
3  ‘Malick Sidibé’, We Face Forward: Art from West Africa Today, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, 2012, p.90.

Highlight: Mika Rottenberg ‘Mary’s cherries’

 
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Mika Rottenberg, Argentia b.1976 / Mary’s cherries (stills) 2004 / Single-channel video installation / Purchased 2013. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / Images courtesy: The artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York /The presentation of this work in ‘Harvest’ is supported by Council on Australia Latin America Relations

Questions of labour and the exploitation of women’s bodies lie at the heart of Mika Rottenberg’s humorous video installations, one of which was recently purchased for the Gallery’s Collection.

Often in Mika Rottenberg’s video works, female characters with striking physical presences and in unusual environments, undertake a mundane, productive task that results in an unexpected output. When asked about her curious narratives, the artist explains that she is simply reworking the means and processes of production:

The driving force of capitalism is fiction. It thrives on a form of storytelling that inflates the importance and value of objects and it works like a kind of magic: ‘if you buy this, you can become this’.1

In the video element of Mary’s cherries 2004, three voluptuous women perform a series of physical actions in claustrophobic chambers on three successive floors. Two of the women rapidly pedal exercise bikes to power a UV light, which promotes the growth of red fingernails on the third woman (Mary). The nails grow to full length within seconds and each is carefully cut. The clipping then drops to another labourer, who pounds and manipulates it. Once it is softened, the fingernail is passed through a hole in the floor to the next labourer, who massages and sculpts it into a sticky maraschino cherry.

The audio track features the visceral sounds of fingernails being snipped, a squeezing and squelching as the fingernails are moulded into cherries, and the repetitive whir of the peddled exercise bikes. It is broken by the women yelling one another’s name as the fingernail-turned-maraschino cherry is passed along the factory line. Rottenberg’s camera follows the movement of the production, which is spliced with close-ups of the women’s excessive bodies and elements of their work environments. Everything seems overwrought, from the ‘licks’ of stucco on the walls of their claustrophobic rooms, to the fleshiness of their bodies on the exercise bikes, to their flimsy plywood workbenches. Rottenberg transforms the factory line from a mechanical space to a feast of flesh.

Each of the characters in Mary’s cherries are in charge of their own means of production. The characters are played by real-life erotic female wrestlers, and the artist was particularly interested in the way this profession can provide a path to liberation:

. . . in their day jobs they rent out their bodies and talents, but they are very much in charge, it seems. They have personal websites; they don’t have pimps, they have their own savyiness [sic]. Their own bodies 100 percent.2

Rottenberg juxtaposes the depersonalised production line with the individuality of the workers, whose grotesquely sensual bodies are incorporated into the production of commodities. Their names — Mary, Rose, and Barbara — appear on their generic pink and blue uniforms. A self‑confessed voyeur, Rottenberg is interested in collaborating with exhibitionists in her works; by hiring people who seek an audience, she subverts the traditional power of the viewer’s gaze.3

Rather than developing storyboards before shooting her videos, Rottenberg’s works are developed through building a set. This material-driven approach is reflected in Mary’s cherries in the way elements of the video are made manifest in the installation itself, within which the video is housed on a CRT monitor. The walls of the installation are covered with stucco and its base is embellished with a brown hounds’-tooth carpet.

Mary’s cherries takes many common, overlooked and mundane elements of contemporary production and turns them into a seemingly bizarre narrative, presented in a fantastical environment. However, as Mika Rottenberg points out, she is not seeking to create something bizarre; she is simply pointing out how bizarre reality is.4

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Endnotes
1  The artist, quoted in Ann Demeester, ‘Simply Fantastic (Realism): Mika Rottenberg Responds to FAQS and FPPS’, in Mika Rottenberg, Gregory R. Miller & Co. and De Appel Arts Centre in association with M-Museum Leuven, New York, 2011, p.16.
2  The artist, quoted in Judith Hudson, ‘Mika Rottenberg in conversation with Judith Hudson’, BOMB, vol.113, 2010, p.27.
3  Robert Enright and Meeka Walsh, ‘Fetishizing the visual’, Border Crossings, vol.30, no.1, <http://gateway.library.qut.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?dir ect=true&db=vth&AN=59589672&site=ehost-live>, viewed July 2013.
4  The artist, quoted in Demeester.

Highlight: Yael Bartana ‘The Missing Negatives’

 
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Yael Bartana, Israel b.1970 | 2.The Missing Negatives of the Sonnenfeld Collection 2008 | Black and white photograph on paper, ed.1/5 + 2 AP | Purchased 2013. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © the artist

The Gallery recently acquired this subtle yet powerful work by Yael Bartana, whose statements on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians have come to characterise her practice.

Yael Bartana uses photography and video to explore Jewish identity. Born in Afular, Israel, in 1970, to whom she describes as very Zionist parents,(1) Bartana characterises herself as an ‘artist from Israel’ rather than an ‘Israeli artist’, as a way of questioning the manner in which nationality defines identity.(2) Her work Summer Camp 2007 was included in the film program Promised Lands, presented by the Gallery’s Australian Cinématheque as part of ‘The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (2009–10). Bartana also represented Poland at the 2011 Venice Biennale with the highly acclaimed film trilogy And Europe Will Be Stunned 2007–11.

Jewish–German photographers Leni and Herbert Sonnenfeld (1907–2004 and 1906–72 respectively) created some of the defining images of Jewish people of the twentieth century. During their long careers they documented the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s, the establishment of the state of Israel, and Jewish immigration to the United States. In 2005, the Beit Hatfutsot (Museum of Jewish People) in Tel Aviv acquired the Sonnenfelds’ photographic archive. This collection includes images of their visit to Palestine, and others from a German training camp for young Jewish pioneers. It is these images that Bartana references in her series ‘The Missing Negatives of the Sonnenfeld Collection’, of which numbers two, twelve and seventeen have been recently acquired for the Collection.

For this body of work, Bartana used both Israeli and Palestinian models to reimagine images from the archive. The models pose with richly metaphorical fruits — pomegranates, oranges, and grapes — or hold tools, seemingly poised for action in a bare landscape. The different origins and identities of the models is not at first apparent; what strikes the viewer is a sense that these optimistic youths are working to build and nourish their future together. Such subtle and yet powerful statements on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians have come to characterise Bartana’s work.

Many of the compositions in the series also reference Russian socialist realism. As artist and curator Noah Simblist points out, many of the first ‘Jewish immigrants to Palestine were secular young European and Russian idealists’, and who hoped to overcome the bookish stereotype of the Semite with strong men and women who worked the land. This was compounded by the romanticised socialist vision, in which the individual shaped themselves and the nation through their labour on the land.(3) This idealism resonates in the Australian context: Works in the Gallery’s Collection, such as Godfrey Rivers’s Woolshed, New South Wales from 1890, explore a similar colonial romanticisation of physical labour and ‘living off the land’. In ‘The Missing Negatives of the Sonnenfeld Collection’ series, Bartana draws on imagery that has contributed to defining the state of Israel in order to poetically question the historical and colonial construction of national identity.

Endnotes
1. Nicola Trezzi, ‘Re: Diaspora: Yael Bartana, Elad Lassry, Ohad Meromi and Daniel Silver in Correspondence’, Flash Art, vol.42, October 2009, p.68.
2. Joshua Mack, ‘I didn’t want to make a documentary’, Art Review, vol.20, March 2008, p.66.
3. Noah Simblist, ‘Revolutionary tourism: Land, labor, and loss in Yael Bartana’s Summer Camp’, Art Papers, vol.32, no.6, November and December 2008, p.34.

Imagining Possible Futures

 
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The Otolith Group | Otolith I (still) 2003 | Image courtesy and copyright: the artists

I have never quite been able to give myself over to science fiction. Life on present day earth with all its eccentric characters and bizarre events is challenging enough; I don’t have space in my day to think about what life is like in galaxies far, far away, hundreds of years from now. With the recent events in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil, however, I have become more and more interested in what it means to imagine a different future — and one that is radically unlike the present. This has led me to ideas in line with those that inform science fiction, and particularly, the work of The Otolith Group.

The Otolith Group was established in 2002 by Anjalika Sagar and Kowdo Eshun. Their work spans filmmaking, publishing, programming, and curating. The Otolith Group’s essay-films draw on archival material, from images of Valentina Tereshkova — who in 1973 was the first woman in space — to footage of the global protests against the impending invasion of Iraq in 2003. This archival material is woven together with new footage to create essay documentaries that reverberate between fiction and reality. The group describes the ‘Otolith Trilogy’ 2003-09 as science fiction of the present. This is a reference to the work of JG Ballard, who argued that science fiction should create myths about the near future, rather than the far-off future. Though mixing ideas of the future with truths and fictions of the past and present, The Otolith Group create works of science fiction that acutely comment on the current state of the world.

The reason I am drawn to the work of The Otolith Group is the way that they alter our understanding of what informs our past, present and future. And through changing our relationship to the present, we in turn change our future.

Works by The Otolith Group are screening at the Australian Cinémathèque, GOMA in July.

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The Otolith Group | Otolith I (still) 2003 | Image courtesy and copyright: the artists
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The Otolith Group | Otolith III (still) 2009 | Image courtesy and copyright: the artists

Luke Roberts on Sculpture

 
Luke Roberts, Australia b.1952 | Wunderkammer/Kunstkamera (detail) 1994 | Found objects with artist’s labels | Purchased 1995. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Luke Roberts’s Wunderkammer/Kunstkamera (detail) 1994 is an all-encompassing work, it includes found objects, homemade dolls, mementos, remade and modified objects, as well as featuring selected historical works from the Gallery’s Collection. Each object is labelled by the artist, with some labels factual and others taking more creative leaps, and they are presented in a museum display, the installation creating a museum within a museum. The work plays on the way that labelling can present agendas rather than facts and the way that museum displays can ‘mummify’ objects. It calls for the return of wonder into the museum context, which was such a feature of the cabinet of curiosities but has slowly disappeared with the progressive standardisation of museums and galleries.

Luke Roberts recently spoke with Peter McKay (Curator, Contemporary Australian Art) about Wunderkammer/Kunstkamera (detail) 1994, currently on display in Sculpture is Everything. The exhibition catalogue is available for purchase from the QAGOMA Store and online.

Ellie Buttrose is Assistant Curator, Contemporary International Art and Peter McKay is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art at QAGOMA.

Gordon Hookey on Sculpture

 
Gordon Hookey, Australia b.1961 | King hit (for Queen and Country) 1999 | Synthetic polymer paint and oil on leather punching bag and gloves with steel swivel and rope noose | Bag: 96 x 34cm (diam.); gloves: 29 x 16 x 12cm (each); rope noose: 250cm | Purchased 2000. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Gordon Hookey’s King hit (for Queen and Country) 1999 is a provocative work that intimates action. The work consists of a boxing bag painted with porcine depictions of John Howard, Pauline Hanson and David Oldfield who hold their boxing gloves raised at the viewer ready for a fight. Below the bag is set of boxing gloves with the Australian Indigenous flag painted on to them. As Julie Ewington points out in her essay in the ‘Sculpture is Everything’ exhibition catalogue:

If one is Aboriginal, the implied invitation might be irresistible — a licensed expression of grievance — but if one is not, the proposition is radically challenging: where does one stand?

King hit (for Queen and Country) both references a very specific moment in Australia’s history and has a broader resonance. Peter McKay (Curator, Contemporary Australian Art) recently spoke with the Gordon Hookey about climate in which it was made and the power of making political objects.

Gordon Hookey was also interviewed for the Sculpture is Everything exhibition catalogue which is available for purchase from the QAGOMA Store and online

Ellie Buttrose is Assistant Curator, Contemporary International Art and Peter McKay is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art at QAGOMA.