by Aarthi MohanAug 12, 2023
To see the works of artists from Francisco Goya to Francis Bacon throughout art history is to harness a grotesque aesthetic to unveil the darkest recesses of the human soul. Grotesque art, as a genre, serves as a unique channel for exploring and embracing hidden emotions. It thrives on distortion, exaggeration, and the uncanny, rendering visceral and often unsettling imagery. In doing so, grotesque art confronts the viewer with the uncomfortable, mirroring the ugly feelings within the human psyche. By engaging with the grotesque, both creators and audiences can navigate the labyrinthine terrain of their emotions, ultimately leading to a deeper understanding of the complexity and richness of the human condition. In this symbiotic relationship between ugly feelings and grotesque art, the repulsive becomes beautiful in its honesty, providing a cathartic and enlightening experience for all involved.
The art exhibition Ugly Feelings, a collaboration with Village Unhu at Collega, Copenhagen, and curated by Lotte Løvholm (Collega) and Georgina Maxim (Village Unhu), epitomises the same collaborative sensitivity to emotions. The display, featuring works by Epheas Maposa and Nanna Starck, challenges societal norms of beauty and decorum, allowing a raw examination of the human experience. Over the years, Collega, as a centre, has presented exhibitions developed through collaboration with international artists and curators. The practice of co-curation is underlined as an effort to oversee the collective process of exhibition-making. Here, the acts of loaning and caring are seen as an extension of nourishment for the art-loving community. When the exhibition is community-led, it speaks to the larger cause of peripheral ideas of inclusivity. Maxim, in an interview with STIR, expounds, "Collaboration is the key feature of this exhibition, the coming together of a force, a movement, or indeed a collection of ideas and moments. What one aims for in such a movement is the ripple effect, starting surely from the centre and gaining much force to reach the ends of the bordering lines—picking things up and dropping other things as it continues in this movement."
The title Ugly Feelings stems from Sianne Ngai’s 2005 book, a key text for the cultural field of affect theory. Ngai looks back to literature and contemporary culture to illustrate how negative emotions are a hurdle to healthy action. Central to the book is the notion that minority groups harbour ‘ugly feelings’. For instance, if envy is a shameful emotion, it emerges from systematic inequality. Talking about the idea of grotesque emotions being associated with minority groups further, Maxim explains, “Grotesque feelings are inevitable and possibly born out of a lack. One can possibly go from feeling absolutely fine one minute to feeling grotesque the next, all because of a lack (lack being a concept that I have decided to take). We can never give a concrete and further example of this sudden switch, but there are many aspects in life that can allude to such.”
The overpowering grotesque imagery in the exhibition comments on social structures and psychological states. Starck relooks at ancient art-historical concepts around the theme of ugliness in her drawings, reliefs, and sculptures to provoke emotional responses in viewers. Starck’s sculpture art and reliefs are inspired by the concept of abjection put forward by the philosopher Julia Kristeva in her seminal book Powers of Horror. The mutilated bodies, when juxtaposed with an array of everyday objects, including acrylic nails, cigarettes, tennis socks, and Crocs sandals, evoke a thumbing flow of ludicrous reactions. The materials of the bas-relief, such as foam, painted concrete, and wax, make it porous enough to create holes. The passage allows Starck to "poke the eye, pick at the wound, and stick her fingers in, trying to provoke ugly feelings," says the press release.
Inclined towards the political bearing of Zimbabwe’s political structures on her people, Maposa reimagines European and African painting traditions to create optically distorted scenarios. Maposa, a self-taught painter, joined Village Unhu in 2013, where his mentor was Misheck Masamvu. The surrealism and macabre visual appearance of the works evoke a liminal space between a dream and a nightmare, only to be complemented by a spectrum of colourful palettes. It is the essay by co-curator Georgina Maxim, Bewitching Hour Drawings, which draws comparisons between the after-effects of the civil conflict in Zimbabwe 1964-1979 and the ugly feelings. “We have become war veterans in how we hide feelings and emotions. We have come up with a dictionary to console ourselves, slang in its nature that has held back these ugly feelings of no change, no better future, and no reprieve,” notes Maxim.
Løvholm acutely draws attention to the fact that ugly feelings are taboo in many cultures. It inevitably highlights how the display of negative ambiguous emotions in the exhibition became cathartic for the curators, artists, and viewers alike. When asked about the final takeaway after watching the exhibition, Maxim succinctly quotes Mikki McGee, who says, “...everyone has ugly feelings. What matters is what one does with them.”
The exhibition Ugly Feelings ran at Collega, Copenhagen, until August 23, 2023.