Angela Davis Lives

The Nitja Centre for Contemporary Art’s decision to centre its exhibition on one of the icons of the Black Lives Matter movement is a move that requires commitment.

Arne Ekeland, Untitled, ca. 1970-71. Photo: Istvan Virag.

Are we there yet? The question is repeated three times in a row in white capitals on a black banner above the entrance to the large gallery inside the brand-new Nitja Centre for Contemporary Art – previously known as Akershus Kunstsenter and housed in an old wooden house a stone’s throw away in Lillestrøm. The impatient repetition that makes up Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s text-based work Are We There Yet? (and other questions of proximity, destination, and relative comfort) (2017), may be reminiscent of nagging toddlers who are tired of walking, but from an adult perspective it can be related to burning questions about a future we long for or fear. Now that the coronavirus pandemic rules our lives, the big question really is when we can say that it’s over – that we’re there, at the point where we can all breathe freely and be close to each other again. When I got to visit Nitja’s first exhibition last month, all alone and wearing a face mask, the art centre was still hoping to be able to admit visitors in April. As it turned out, the exhibition had to close without ever having opened to the public, to make way for the next exhibition on the programme, which will hopefully open in May. The grand opening to celebrate the new building has long since been postponed until some point after summer.

But the group show Above Us Only Sky! which inaugurates the new building, is not about the pandemic. Taking its title from John Lennon’s utopian classic ‘Imagine’ from 1971, it is rather an exhibition that explores the question of art’s ability to work politically and socially – or, as the press release issued by Nitja says, it is an exhibition that “reflects on change, resistance, and movement.” However, it is impossible not to take into account the fact that this exhibition was never realised as a publicly accessible and physical experience, having been launched at a time when art’s agency and opportunities for impacting anything are greatly reduced (given that art experiences in galleries and museums are defined as non-essential, something we must do without for the time being). In recent weeks, Nitja has done what it can to present the exhibition digitally, publishing interviews, texts, and documentation on its website and maintaining a hyperactive presence on social media. But as long as it has only been possible to admit a few professional visitors to the building, the exhibition’s full potential is inevitably lost.

The situation puts the role of critic in a special light – I now feel rather like I’m part of a rescue corps acting on behalf of the general public. Whether I like it or not, the function of criticism now becomes partly about reaffirming the exhibition’s existence. Only a handful of people will remember it as a physical experience, but to the extent that it is discussed, described, documented, and disseminated, it can still have a certain impact. While it could be argued that art critics always co-create the exhibitions they write about – at least, the way it appears in the public consciousness and collective memory – and although it is quite common to read about art experiences you do not have the opportunity to seek out yourself, it remains a rather special situation when the primary experience has not been accessible to general art audiences at all.

Adelita Husni-Bey, The Council – Founder’s Room: Third plenary session on the future of The Institution, 2018. C-print, 150 x 300 cm.

The exhibition’s political leanings are suggested by an approximately fifty-year-old triptych by the painter Arne Ekeland (1908–94). The three paintings are almost psychedelic, with undulating Surrealist imagery and bold intense use of colour in which shades of yellow and purple predominate; these colours also dominate several of Ekeland’s paintings from the 1970s, including the ones he exhibited when representing Norway at the Venice Biennale in 1972. Crowds were a recurring motif in Ekeland’s art, as is also the case here: in a partially abstracted urban landscape, some people are seemingly trapped in a vast machinery while others struggle to break free. More unusually for Ekeland, one face stands out as clearly identifiable. In the middle picture we find an unmistakable young Angela Davis, her head highlighted by a metallic halo. The monumental triptych can be understood as a modernist revolutionary altarpiece, with Davis as the leading light in a struggle that Ekeland, a communist, was preoccupied with throughout his life.

Ekeland’s work connects the exhibition to a historical continuum of struggles for civil rights and international political commitment. Now 77 years old, the activist and academic Angela Davis remains important to revolutionary movements in the United States, having become one of the role models and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. As Davis puts it, freedom is a constant struggle, and the fact that Ekeland’s portrait of her remains so relevant half a century after it was painted speaks volumes about the validity of that statement. But what is the significance of Nitja’s decision to have its opening exhibition revolve around one of the iconic figures of the American civil rights movement? The decision could easily be dismissed as trendy, but it also signals commitment insofar as the opening exhibition can be interpreted as indicating the future direction of the institution.

Lea Cetera, Artist Interview, 2018. Video still.

Ekeland’s painting is the only work in the exhibition to adopt such a clear-cut political stance. Even so, the more explicitly political works include a staged photograph by Adelita Husni-Bey that hints at the potential inherent in a new generation taking over. As in Ekeland’s work, The Council – Founder’s Room: Third plenary session on the future of The Institution (2018) refers to the Christian tradition. It shows thirteen young people placed at a long table in a manner strongly reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495–98); taking centre stage – enacting the role of Jesus, if we may stretch the analogy that far – is a black-clad young man with an Afro, leaning forward and looking down as if deliberating on some course of action. Five figures around the table raise their hands, suggesting that the assembly is putting something to a vote.

They are not gathered for a meal – in fact, they are representatives of the MoMA Teens Digital Advisory Board taking part in a workshop with Husni-Bey, exploring possible responses to a fictitious apocalyptic environmental disaster where MoMA had to be transformed into a refuge for New Yorkers. On the website, Nitja also links to the project The Council Reformed (2020), in which the same young people share their thoughts on the pandemic and direct harsh criticism at MoMA for not adequately responding to the Black Lives Matter movement. Much of their criticism coincides with the demands made by ongoing Strike MoMA campaign, which wants the museum taken out of the hands of billionaires and passed on to artists and workers.

Henrique Oliveira, Chest of Drawers (2013), Clock (2015), and Couch (2015). Photo: Istvan Virag.

Lea Cetera’s Artist Interview (2018) also takes a critical view of the art institution, but the work revolves mostly around the various expectations surrounding the artist’s role, especially preoccupations with artists’ identities and ethnic backgrounds. The video appears as a subversion of a typical artist interview, which is of course intended to familiarise the public with the artist behind the work. Cetera interviews herself, but is disguised behind a hood and mask. The image is blurred around her eyes; her voice is distorted, giving it a mechanical timbre, and she presents herself as A-T769385720 B, as if she were a robot. The wryly ironic distance is obvious, and on some occasions it becomes downright comical, such as when she opposes being defined on the basis of notions of race at one point, and then immediately goes on to give the anonymous interviewer an astrological personality analysis. Like the other video works in the exhibition, Artist Interview can be viewed online. Paradoxically, Nitja has also done an ordinary video interview with the artist.

Henrique Oliveira’s sculptures, Chest of Drawers (2013), Clock (2015), and Couch (2015), give the impression that an attempt to keep something hidden has gone horribly wrong. Out of some old furniture – a chest of drawers, a grandfather clock, a sofa – sprout monstrous organic shapes with brutally deforming force. Out of the chest of drawers grows something that looks like twisted tree roots, while the sofa, stood upright on one end, becomes a shapeless blob of wood and metal. It is impossible not to read the sculptures as metaphors for an emotionally charged truth that forces itself forward, but I also perceive them as rendering the human interior uninhabitable, a kind of revenge of nature and the elements over humanity.

Hanan Benammar, Gå og spis faren din, 2021, detail. Photo: Istvan Virag.

A more explicit message can be found in a text work by Hanan Benammar, best known as one of the creators of the play Ways of Seeing. The work Gå og spis faren din (Go eat your father, 2021) consists of thirty-three linocuts of coarse insults printed on fragile paper and mounted on the wall in a grid. Many of these expletives relate to genitalia, gender, and sexual transgression. The effect is both comical, embarrassing, and a bit triggering – or even poetic, depending on how you look at it. The texts are the result of a collective effort: Benammar invited people with different native languages to contribute the worst swear words they know, and then got others to translate these expressions into various Norwegian dialects. With this internationalisation of swearing, one might say that the work gives the middle finger to all the exhausting discussions about what immigration can lead to, both in a negative and positive sense.

Steinar Haga Kristensen’s The Spread of Dilletantism #4 (2013), in which two almost identical people sit on their hands while poking out their tongues, presents a more restrained protest – a kind of unarticulated resistance that is both childish and defiant. From a distance, the towering picture hanging from the ceiling looks like a painting, but as I move in closer I see that it is a vinyl carpet. The texture evokes slightly unpleasant associations of a type of synthetic interior textile with which I have had little contact since growing up. André Tehrani’s geometric colour field painting in shades of blue, purple, pink, and light green also conjures vague childhood memories from the 1980s. The work HEX #83603C > #2EBF91 (2020), based on digital colour gradients and Persian mosaic patterns, enters into a conversation with Ekeland’s purples, but also with the exhibition title’s invocation of the sky above us. Next to it hangs Stock Gradient (Magic) (2021), a modified picture frame painted in the same colours; it acts as a kind of anti-painting marking out absence as potential, an opening for something else.

André Tehrani, HEX #83603C > #2EBF91 (2020) and Stock Gradient (Magic) (2021). Photo: Istvan Virag.

Designed by Haugen / Zohar Architects (HZA), the art centre has received quite a bit of positive response, and there is no doubt that it is comes across as an improvement, not least in terms of universal accessibility. When the venue is eventually allowed to open its doors, everything will be full of life, with a café and activity room on the ground floor, and upstairs a spacious balcony as well as a small separate room for lectures and film screenings. Slightly disappointing is that only one of the building’s spaces is set aside for exhibitions. Admittedly, it is a large gallery spanning approximately 200 square meters of floor space. But the possibilities for public display could have been even better, given that an entirely new building was erected. Having said that, size does not necessarily matter in terms of the venue’s eventual impact – both for the locals of Lillestrøm and for the art community in the Oslo area. The question of how the new premises will be used is far more important.

A dense programme for the first two years is outlined on Nitja’s website. Although the setting is new, the art centre’s staff remains largely the same, and the programme looks like a fairly seamless continuation of the profile of the former Akershus Kunstsenter. Under Director Rikke Komissar, the art centre has come across as open and genuinely committed, as well as willing to focus on younger and less established artists (both local and international) whose work is often presented in quite playful thematic group shows. It is striking, however, to note that only the planned group exhibitions will ensure diversity among the artists to be featured from now on until the end of 2022. Even though Angela Davis now has to cede the space to others, we should assume that Nitja was serious about letting her reign as a goddess of liberty in the opening exhibition, and that it will eventually offer up a more representative selection of artists in its solo shows, too.

Above Us Only Sky! installation view. Photo: Istvan Virag.