Last April, the Biennale Internationale de Casablanca initially planned in September 2020 announced that its fifth edition had to be rescheduled to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. At a time where social distancing has become a watchword globally, and an act of caring for one another, the outrageous killing of George Floyd – an African-American man – by a white police officer, for an alleged counterfeit 20-dollar bill, is but a reminder that even in the most critical times, to some individuals, black lives continue to matter less than others.
The sociopolitical realities of the black body are not experiences that can be paused when humanity’s health is at stake. Case in point, since the outbreak of the pandemic, there has been numerous reports on how, in the United States, the virus has taken its toll on America’s black communities. Each of them points towards the long-standing disparities inherited from the institutional racism upon which the country was built. Ada Pinkston and Irene Antonia Diane Reece are two artists from the Casablanca Biennale who tackle these issues head-on in their work.
Ada Pinkston is a multimedia artist, educator, and cultural organizer. She describes her practice as an exploration of “the intersection of imagined histories and sociopolitical realities on our bodies”. Born in New York in 1983, Pinkston moved to Baltimore in 2011 where she earned her MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2013. In 2014, after attending an inaugural lecture by Coco Fusco at The Contemporary, she and artist Hoesy Corona co-founded LabBodies, a performance art laboratory/collective.
Pinkston’s interest in performance lies in the fact that it is an art form that breaks the mould and conventions of traditional Western artistic practices. Performance, she says in an interview, ‘exists in a cannon that is not historically European and male’. ‘It is a practice that has a vernacular that is deeply social’ and ‘a strong history of subversion‘.
Social issues are at the heart of Pinkston’s art. In 2015, LabBodies performance event entitled ‘Borders, Boundaries and Barricades’ was shaped against the background of the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. A year later, Pinkston was part of Simone Leigh’s Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum, a project responding to the continued institutionalized violence against black lives. Her digital media assemblages include text-based videos such as Heaven is All Goodbyes Part 1 (2017) that speaks to racial politics in the United States. Her more recent LandMarked series creates space for unheard stories at official American landmarks and monuments, like the symbols of Confederate legacies which narratives need to be reappraised. Pinkston activates the empty spaces where those monuments once stood. For instance, in LandMarked Part 5, she invests the pedestal that formerly held the Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee Monument in Baltimore. Her performance is a homage to Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977), an African-American civil, voting, and women’s rights activist whose political engagement attracted attacks from white supremacists and police beating in the early 1960s.
Based between the United States and Europe, Irene Antonia Diane Reece is a remarkable figure among the new black creative voices. Born in Houston in 1993, Reece grew up in an environment that nurtured her interest in arts. After a B.F.A in Photography and Digital Media from the University of Houston (2018), she studied at the Paris College of Art where she recently received her M.F.A in Photography and Image-making. Her art combines photography, appropriated films, text, and found objects, to address issues revolving around “racial identity, African diaspora, social injustice, family histories, mental and community health issues”.
Billie-James (2016-18) that will be presented in Casablanca next year, is a visual composition inspired by Reece’s experience as a black Mexican woman. In this work, the artist presents her lineage through family portraits, she also includes iconographies and words calling out racial stereotypes while elevating Afrocentric features and advocating Black Pride. She does so in order to confront systematic oppression, and challenge the forms of racism that still exist in society today, both in the USA and around the world.
The title of this series refers to the famous James Baldwin – William F. Buckley Jr debate at the University of Cambridge in 1965 around the question: ‘Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?’. A historical encounter in which Baldwin compellingly articulated the black condition in terms that still resonate today.
Reece uses audio excerpts from this debate in American Dream (2018), a video experiment combining her own visual material with archival and social media footage or sound, to provide critical commentaries on topics ranging from black hair to police brutality. The piece concludes with the names of Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), Tanisha Anderson (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Freddie Gray (2015), Sandra Bland (2015), Chandra Weaver (2015), Bettie Jones (2015), Alton Sterling (2016), Philando Castile (2016), Joseph Mann (2016), Paul O’Neal (2016), Terence Crutcher (2016), Keith Lamont Scott (2016), Carnell Snell Jr. (2016), Charles Kinsey (2016), Jacqueline Craig and her children (2016), Dejuan Hall (2017), Nania Cain (2017), Demetrius Bryan Hollins (2017), Richard Hubbard III (2017), Johnnie Jermaine Rush (2017), 11 year old girl (2017), Stephon Clark (2018), Danny Ray Thomas (2018).
The names appear one after the other, white letters on black background, punctuated by the sound of a gunshot. This simple visual choice is not insignificant. It translates an awareness of the issues at stake when representing the black body in pain, brutalised, bruised, lifeless. It comes from the knowledge of how visceral these images feel to the black gaze that cannot in any way, shape, or form, be compared to none other. Because the black body feels, knows, and experiences a different social reality.
Today the world is angry and rightfully so. We all know this tragic event is not an isolated case. Although amplified in the United States, police brutality has been reported in many parts of the world. Especially under the pretence of lockdown enforcement.
In all those cases, the treatment of black and brown people is symptomatic of the ways in which our bodies are perceived. Both historically and today. The rhetoric hammered against the black or “foreign” body is not inconsequential. It has deep ramifications. Those words create mental images leading to the most despicable acts. Acts born out of the fact that our lives are viewed as less valuable than others.
Lately, the art world has been under the impression that, with the pandemic, the conversation has changed, that digital is the answer. To some extent, it is, of course. But I want to argue that, it is in these critical moments that physical presence is even more meaningful. Especially as a collective black body. I am talking about our right to be birdwatching without having the police called on us, our right to be jogging without being shot at, our right to be and feel safe in our interactions with those supposed to protect us, our right to a fair and equal treatment in all aspects of life: from health services, to education, housing, employment and even leisure, which includes culture. Arts and culture are not exempt from the responsibility to address and challenge the inequalities and racism that still exist within society and are often reflected in the arts.
To present the sociopolitical realities of the black body through the work of African American artists Ada Pinkston and Irene Antonia Diane Reece, in Casablanca or elsewhere, is about much more than artistic or curatorial discourse, it is about claiming space and asserting our physical presence in an age where we still have to fight for a safe existence.