Graduates mentioned: Sherida Kuffour, Gauthier Chambry, Angelo Custódio, Mavi Veloso, Juan Pablo Mejía
Celestial Services, the title of the presentation by the main department Design, sticks in my mind as these two words seem to contradict one another. The dreamy and divine meaning of “celestial” transcends the daily routine, while a “service” is something pragmatic, controlled and down-to-earth, which is there for human comfort.
As an atheist I do not believe in heaven in the religious sense, and find the use of the term somewhat pretentious. Or perhaps this is irony that I do not yet get? However, I choose to interpret it in a utopian sense, like a longing for a better world that is neither here nor there, but perhaps, or hopefully, in the making.
The title might imply that the exhibited work is bridging a gap between reality and utopia. That is a bold statement, but nevertheless it fascinates me because I believe one ongoing tendency within the arts is indeed the aim to be engaged. This focus on engagement can be found amongst various graduates of the main departments and temporary programmes at the Sandberg Instituut. In particular when artists criticise the here and now, the norm and the accepted, the institution and the local status quo, I tend to be drawn to their work in a critical manner. It remains important to ask: can we actually instigate changes through contemporary art?
For instance, Sherida Kuffour’s work Chasing Lizards… and Other Memories is about reconciling with memory, joy, love and nostalgia. Starting out as a graphic designer, she has expanded her practice with performances, videos and writings. Her beautifully designed book, at the core of her graduation project, contains a mixture of written memories and photographs originating from different periods of her life. Some of the stories are sweet and innocent, others are violent and confronting. Kuffours’ installation consists of several TV monitors showing performers walking around the same space I am standing in. The black performers dressed in white clothes explore the space, as if moving something around in order to adjust it but also trying to liberate themselves from something.
During an introductory talk about the exhibition, Annelys de Vet – director of the main department Design – explains that Sherida Kuffour has been an active participant in the institute’s recently established Black Students’ Union. With her involvement in this organisation and in her graduation projects, Kuffour stresses the complicated position of a black woman in a white-dominated world in general, and at the Sandberg Instituut as a predominantly white institution specifically. She has taken her responsibility a step further by playing up an active role in the setting up of a union, thereby blending her activities as a designer, conceptual artist, writer and activist. I sincerely hope the union will continue its activities and that Kuffour will pursue the disruption of embedded Eurocentric systems in her artistic practice, which moves back and forth between design and conceptual art.
On a different note, Gauthier Chambry’s installation 20h28 in the exhibition of the main department Studio for Immediate Spaces looks like traces of an outdoor festival that has just taken place, and was a lot of fun. Amongst other things, he has built a canopy tent out of wood and cloth. Underneath the tent stands a low table with speakers and green lights. In the middle of the installation is a big, round carpet that looks inviting to sit on and apparently has been the centre of workshops organised by Chambry.
As a starting point for his research, Chambry took the “salle polyvalente”. This a space provided by the municipal authorities of small French villages, where citizens can organise all kind of events like meetings, weddings and parties. With the workshops hosted in his installation, Chambry’s aim was to gain a better understanding of improvisation, to explore spontaneity as a way of learning. Using methods and forms of communication like music, dance and rap battles, through collective improvisation the workshops question what can be created and generated, and how that can affect behaviour. The installation’s do-it-yourself aesthetic contributes to this idea of letting the creative mind flow. Unfortunately, or for the benefit of focusing on the actual real-life gathering, the results are not documented.
Although this work is not necessarily sociopolitical in nature, I believe that in future projects Chambry could take up the challenge to expand his improvisation model beyond the framework of his studies at the Sandberg Instituut, to explore its creative and engaging potential. When organised in a public space, this model could be a fruitful and productive way of bringing together a variety of local communities, much as Kuffour unites with her work and activist activities. By all improvising and creating together in an intimate setting, the participants can come to a deeper understanding of one another. As is the case with 20h28, the result does not have to be materialised because comprehension is intangible.
In such a space, A Horse Riding a Tongue by temporary programme Master of Voice student Angelo Custódio could be a good first trigger to make a community speak of curbed feelings, desires and, in the words of the artist, monstrosities. Custódio’s subtle, sonic installation is an ocean-blue grid that has been disrupted and messed up. Besides the installation, the artist has also staged several performances to investigate the potential of the “leaking voice” through whispering. According to Custódio, we hold back certain wild characteristics as we move, behave and live according to a certain grid. In this line of thinking, whispering is a method to demonstrate wildness suppressed by moral behaviour. Whispering occupies a fragile, liminal territory between the unspoken and speaking up. Custódio’s whispered wildness is the spirit of the curbed, which welcomes deviance and monsters to destabilise normative identity flows. His performances and installation illustrate the soft power of art, by creating a model to make dormant characteristics intelligible. I imagine a future project combining Custódio’s and Chambry’s methods, where local communities are invited to 20h28 to slowly let their curbed wild spirit leak through, whispering, as the very first step in taking away shyness in order to make room for creative improvisation.
In the same exhibition, graduate Mavi Veloso shows us an approach to the tamed voice which contrasts with Custódio’s. Through her songs, videos and performances, Veloso explicitly speaks up. Her graduation work Truque Trrrah, Trans Opera is part of the larger project #iwannamakerevolution, a performance research study of transits, transition, placement, displacement and mutations. Veloso emphasises the importance of the voice when transitioning either from male to female or from female to male, as people often construct a gender-based identity by hearing the person’s voice. In her work, we also encounter another layer of complexity because she deals with personal experiences encountered while migrating from Brazil to Europe.
Veloso’s show element stresses a completely different method of letting wildness leak. For decades, queer people have felt safe to be their expressive selves in spaces such as a theatre, bar or club. Moreover, flamboyant performances and shows have played a pivotal role as a method for creating a community and personal empowerment. By rocking the stage in front of an audience, people often receive positive responses for presenting an identity that might be considered too odd in the perspective of daily life’s banality. With a theatrical, do-it-yourself aesthetic, Veloso criticises the white, middle-class, heteronormative and male-dominated system in Europe. She reminds us of a variety of aspects that comprise one’s identity, how this is dependent on other people’s perceptions and how changing sociopolitical contexts can require negotiation and adjustment regarding that identity.
Last but not least, Juan Pablo Mejía’s Salpicón shows mechanisms for creating a community at a national level. This intriguing video essay explores the abstract concept of a post-conflict status quo in his country of birth, Colombia. Mejía examines this concept by placing it in the intersecting perspective of the personal, the political and the theatrical. The essay weaves together fragments of movies, Netflix series and telenovelas, TV drama series that are increasingly popular. The graduate of the main department Design states that these shows, together with the national football team, are amongst the few processes that unite a divided country, and indeed consolidate the very idea of a Colombian nation. On the one hand Mejía shows us how the lengthy struggle against guerrilla movement FARC has been represented by the government, comparing this with the TV melodramas, whilst on the other he demonstrates how daily life is a direct source of inspiration for the telenovela. For example, the 2008 Colombian military “Operación Jaque”, aimed at solving a hostage crisis, was turned into a popular film within two years. Mejía’s conceptual video essay makes it clear how post-conflict politics in Colombia are based on a fiction-reality hybrid of emotional excess with the aim to unite, and how unstable, indefinable and unpredictable those politics actually are.
Of the graduates I have mentioned – Sherida Kuffour, Gauthier Chambry, Angelo Custódio, Mavi Veloso and Juan Pablo Mejía – the one who is actually instigating the most direct change is Kuffour, by blending her artistic and activist activities. The others give us a relevant peek inside their worlds to show the entanglement of fiction and reality, which are closer to one another than is often assumed. Chambry gives us a model with future potential for community engagement influenced by fiction’s creativity, received through improvisation. Custódio stresses the presence of expressive characteristics curbed by reigning norms. He hands us a strategy to let these gradually leak. With her grace, Veloso criticises these same norms from another position and confirms the importance of the theatrical. The video essay by Mejía visualises how elements of imagination underlie sociopolitical concepts and unification. All together, these artists and designers stress the fine line between what is considered a political and/or personal reality and what is improvised, staged and/or dramatised. By continuously moving between these realms, connecting and confronting them, they are shaking up structures, stories and norms in order to emphasise the liquidity of today’s society.
Léon Kruijswijk is a freelance curator, producer and editor with a specific interest in sociopolitical art. Through exhibitions, events and writings, he addresses such themes as identity, gender, sexuality and postcolonialism, as well as art and its institutions. He has worked, amongst others, for Galerie Ron Mandos, Framer Framed, NEVERNEVERLAND, Sociëteit SEXYLAND and De School Amsterdam.