by Sukanya DebMay 05, 2022
The colour of the ‘midnight’ sky borders between black and blue. It is a hybrid. The history gives us several accounts of the steps, hard enough to be taken, towards the realisation of amelioration of global disparities. The recurrent incidents of racial violence raise a sceptical atmosphere around the world already fractured by the notions of them and us. The binaries carved too deeply refrain to be cemented in a quantified time, it continues to be a work in progress. One of the attempts made in a similar vein are the works by Sandra Mujinga, Norwegian artist and musician who lives and works in Oslo and Berlin, which were displayed in the exhibition Midnight at Vleeshal Center for Contemporary Art, The Netherlands.
An artist, activist, DJ, musician and writer, Mujinga’s works straddle across media and art forms, which makes her both a participant and an observer to the ever-evolving world. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the cycle of night and day, the artist creates the world waiting to be embraced, which requires the retinal adaptation to light by the viewers. The four sculptures - hollow figures made of fabric - stand two-and-a-half-metres tall in one of the two spaces created with a futuristic wall structure that Mujinga conceived for the exhibition. These large and dark grey faceless sculptures with elongated arms and oversized feet are named Libwá (Nine,), Mókó (One), Nkáma (Hundred) and Zómi (Ten). The sculptures in the room filled with green light, have the fabric to the ground that gives an impression of the elephantine trunk or even octopuses’ tentacles. To add, the red plastic hangs from the seams - as if flesh sprouts from the body of the sculptures. The green light and black sculptures create an ambience of science fantasy to underline the importance of the survival strategies, performed by the animals or humans, which remains crucial to Mujinga’s practice.
The difficulty with which optical potential of the colour black is achieved had made it hard for the artists to deploy it frequently in their art practice. Mujinga harbours on this as an asset and the elements of science fiction to translate her conceptual thoughts into a visual representation. The colour black in the exhibition, at once compelled me to retrace, even if briefly, its political engagement with the age of enlightenment. The ‘other’ lacked the rationale to complete the whole; it was a mass of fantasy that needed to be rescued by the better minds before it falls into the abyss. To give visual language to this world of illusion, the colours black and white were evoked in the colonial history. The exhibition is a reminder of the expedition to comprehend the invisibility of the dark world, lest the cloud of amnesia cast a shadow on the memories of the past.
Interestingly, the location of the Vleeshal Center for Contemporary Art, in the city of Middelburg, further sets the context of the exhibition. It was one of the Netherlands’ two major slave ports of the late 18th century. Between 1732 and 1807, the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie removed more than 30,000 people from the African continent by force to be sold into slavery in the West Indies. The slave trade, along with sugar and coffee produced on plantations, laid the building blocks of the economy and wealth in the Netherlands.
For Mujinga, the gallery is not a static space but she catapults it into a dynamic place that contributes to the large meaning of works. As an artist who is familiar with the nuances of the online and physical world, the images on social media as well as data collected as an activist are the agencies to form identities. An extension of the same is the green shade of room that resembles the green screen known from video production. Against the green backdrop, the images run to blur the distinction to a point that two are interchangeable. The green light of the exhibition is a manifestation of the space that enables change: from nothing to anything and even everything.
The second section of the exhibition has a figure with undefined human features hovering in mid-air in a darkened space created in Vleeshal. The work named after Mujinga’s mother, Flo, is a projection facilitated by the large-scale hologram screen. The figure is one of Mujinga’s regular collaborators, the actor and DJ Adrian Blount who is dressed in one of the artist’s wearable sculptures. Serving as both an artwork and a costume, the wearable sculpture gives an illusion of superhuman forms. The soundtrack composed by Mujinga with digitally processed strings, integral to the work, accompanies the installation. The work is inspired by the artist’s interest in the life of Marie Crooks, a former Jamaican-American bodybuilder, who was better known in the 1990s by the stage name Midnight. The work built on the personal history of the artist uses new media technologies to bridge the gap between past and present to open a possibility of imagination in the future.
Working against the tide of forgetting, Mujinga accepts that the past – personal and political – as a point of departure to call on a new order of things to survive in the future.