Over the past twenty years, I have seen thousands of exhibitions of political art. But they haven’t stopped a fascist party from becoming the second largest in Sweden and setting the agenda for political debate. Gang-related crime appears to be the major political issue for Swedes, despite figures showing that more people die in their workplace than in their neighbourhood gang. Yet, no one is pledging to quell employer violence. Similarly, 70 per cent of the population is against profits in the welfare sector, but the parties are doing nothing to appeal to that demographic. Have I ever seen an art exhibition that does?
This was what I was thinking about as I walk into Lund Konsthall’s Behold, We Are Here. The exhibition is curated by the artist Hanni Kamaly, “whose practice and research form the affective and theoretical basis of the exhibition.” On the first page of the catalogue, Director Åsa Nacking states that the presentation is about “showing how power structures, racism and nationalism have been established and how they still live on in today’s society.” She quotes Kamaly’s words about reflecting “on the position of the subject in contemporary society through a critical rereading of historical narratives” and explains that it is “a method to discover a process of social construction as it is reflected in the memories of individuals and then shared by others.” Business as usual, I think to myself.
I’m listing all these quotes because I have a sense that the educational material relates to the audience in the same way that the Swedish political establishment relates to the citizens. There are many reasons why the fascists are making headway. Surely, one is the fact that they speak to the voters as equals who have the right to be idiots, while the other parties speak from above, as if to the disenfranchised, who are not allowed to be anything but useful idiots.
Is it a stretch to think that political art doesn’t have an impact because art institutions tell us that we shouldn’t believe that we could possibly understand what it’s about? Institutional claims become inflated; the absolutely banal becomes remarkable; art is research, it has methods… No wonder political art is ineffective when we are told that it’s an arm’s-length away, and that it is best not to think that we could take part. I’m so sick and tired of it!
Anyone who reads the entirety of Kamaly’s seven-page curatorial statement, on the other hand, learns that the exhibition’s starting point is actually something else. When she was on her way home from an exhibition in Lund a few years ago – about “(in)humanity” – she ran into members of a white power organisation handing out fliers. It made her “question what potential the political really has in the arts, to question the very concept of ‘political art’. Is such a thing even possible?” Why isn’t that written on the wall? It describes a concrete and urgent problem, anyone can see that.
Kamaly’s solution seems to lie in focusing on the political subject, which is a welcome change from structures and agency. Structures are good for explaining connections, but not really an essential part of action; agency is for the professional carrying out a task, while the freedom that in different ways defines both politics and art is tied to a subject.
When Kamaly goes looking for the potential of political art, surprisingly enough, it doesn’t seem to be in the question “what is art?” Madubuko Diakité’s films made during the early 1970s in Lund are pure reportage and documentary, while Arkiv S’s work about a Moroccan tourist who was killed nearby in 1990 is a remake of a poster from that time. It consists of a photocopied newspaper article with a handwritten note about how we must respect each other.
Yet, in Ikram Abdulkadir’s photos, art starts creeping in. Her images look purely commercial, if it weren’t for the fact that the focus in them has sometimes ended up in surprising places. Like when she’s photographed her sisters on the shore of the Sound, but the sharpest part of the picture is a small wave crest, which means that a different image is suggested. If the subject is what’s important in this exhibition, then the subject in Abdulkadir’s work is not the person in the picture, but the one who is looking, who in the act of looking has glimpsed something in the background and is then able to initiate a new and unexpected act, one which “the task” did not prescribe. When the focus ends up on the wave, the situation itself becomes a subject that you can relate to, address, fight.
Two strange works by Susanna Jablonski seem to me to assert their status as art quite emphatically, so as not to be perceived as made by a craftsperson feeling the flow. They are like two really big piles of sand, but their long and narrow shapes suggest that they were formed with some sort of adhesive. Somehow, Jablonski has made them look light, which affects my receptivity significantly – I am prepared for unexpected things. Behind them are small ledges on which small objects have been placed. They look like weird knick-knacks, but are leftovers from a fire in 2016 that destroyed two warehouse buildings in northern Sweden that were once used by Nazi Germans. “Is this how the political subject comes into being,” I ask myself as I look at the amorphous things. The artist replies: “If the holocaust is in your DNA, it becomes part of how you exist in the world.”
In my eyes, the exhibition’s real engine is the most artistically dense work: Vincent Meessen’s captivating film Just a Movement (2020) about how the family of a murdered Senegalese activist relates to the matter fifty years later. Even though the film is two hours long, it works in an exhibition precisely because it isn’t reportage. Unlike journalism, art never begins and ends; it exists in every moment. I am absorbed by each moment of this film: I can feel the warmth of the colours, the movement of the light, the particular construction of space; I sit and listen to voices speaking to someone who understands and who wants to understand the person speaking as well. The social sphere is different from that of the public. I have merged with an unfamiliar world, to which I belong, and which is here also.
To my surprise, Meessen’s film makes me understand why Kamaly still seems to think that the question of art isn’t important. In a dialogue in the film, I learn that political art probably does exist because politics itself has a poetic aspect. It isn’t just about criticising politics and the past, but about understanding what “a new African identity” should be and how it can be realised in the social order. “The houses, the ones we live in, are prehistoric huts compared to the conception of human habitation we carry within us,” wrote the poet Edith Södergran (1892–1923). To create such conceptions in a political context would be the act of the political-artistic subjectivity. And it is only in order to give that conception weight and authority that the rereading of historical narratives matters. Why are castles and mansions preserved while even the nicest factory buildings are quickly demolished? Because all evidence that people have participated in the creation of profits must be cleared away in order for workers’ demands for economic justice to be more easily dismissed. That is the political implication of the exhibition’s question “whose stories are told?” Yet, the art context transforms it into a question of “rewriting history” for the sake of history writing.
At least for me, it wasn’t until I saw Meessen’s film that several of the works in the exhibition went from shruggable to affecting my very sense of what does and does not concern me in society. Even the strictly personal, such as Jablonski’s childhood memories in glass, struck a tone not only in the very time-space of my childhood, but also in my relationship to childhood today, in the present that we share. Even the art world’s fetishisation of materials, which I usually perceive as a version of the hipster chef’s fetishisation of ingredients, suddenly opened up to me. Perhaps the copper wire (“the first metal discovered by people”) in Rebeca Carapiá’s work can still put me in touch with both the “deepest layers of world history” as well as the exploited working class that brought it out of the mines? Perhaps. The exhibition wins in the long run. It’s just a shame that the wall text has turned it into a gated community.