Not Quite Human

Hanni Kamaly´s work about racial violence invites debate about cultural appropriation, but ultimately opens onto more complex questions of collective remembrance.

Hanni Kamaly, Freddie Gray (2016) & Shabba (2017). Foto: Petter Dahlström Persson.

The large metal sculpture SHABBA (2017) is the fulcrum of Malmö-based Hanni Kamaly’s exhibition, ITS ALL REAL YEAH COME THROUGH at Skånes konstförening. It´s a spare exhibition comprising a video essay and six sculptural works that use structural integrity as a spatial metaphor for resistance to the structural violence directed toward ethnic minorities and people of color. Extending into the corners of the room SHABBA rises up adjacent to the ventilation system, its crudely welded limbs held together by a black hoodie of the type that, since the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, has become a widespread symbol against racial violence. At once imposing and precarious, Kamaly’s sculpture confronts the viewer with a sense of unease: one must pass through it in order to enter the secondary gallery.

None of the other works in the show assert themselves in quite the same way. Despite their monumental scale, metal sculptures like FREDDIE GRAY (2016) and CRUTCHER (2017) seem arrested or inert. Their skeletal forms recall junked animatronics – abject and not quite human (but not quite monstrous either). By contrast, BAIDOO (2017), a work bearing the last name of a Ghanaian woman assaulted by a police officer near Trondheim in 1999, is small and insect-like, barely registering as a figure.

Hanni Kamaly, BAIDOO, 2017. Photo: Petter Dahlström Persson.

Just so, Kamaly’s newer sculptures, which are more materially impoverished and at the same time more formal, tend to verge on the tragic. This holds for DURRAH and JAMAL (both 2017), which are named for a Palestinian father and son killed by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip in 2000; a video taken of their deaths became the subject of a prolonged controversy in which doubt was cast on the veracity of the tape, claims that it was staged, and so on.

Media events such as this frame the sculptures, as the video HEAD, HAND, EYE (2017) makes clear. In this film-essay composed of found footage the artist narrates, Adam Curtis style, a museological history of decapitation, dismemberment and collection of human body parts. Recent clips of Confederate monuments being toppled in the American South are spliced together with the 2016 dashcam video in which Terrence Crutcher (aforementioned) is killed by Tulsa police; also among the plethora of materials are excerpts from Islamic State beheadings, a Virtual Tour of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, Disney’s Aladdin (1992), and so on.  

Hanni Kamaly, Durrah, 2017. Photo: Petter Dahlström Persson.

As a whole, ITS ALL REAL YEAH COME THROUGH is an attempt to reckon with present-day legacies of colonialism, particularly at the levels of ethnic conflict and institutional racism. However, in addressing the structural character of these legacies from a global/media perspective, the show tends to veer into abstraction, conflating specific histories and forms of struggle across a wide range of contexts. In this respect, it invites the kind of debate around cultural appropriation that in recent months has erupted around the work of artists such as Sam Durant, Jimmie Durham and Dana Schutz.

Just as debatable is the gesture of naming the sculptures after victims of violence. By witholding the individuals’ full names Kamaly risks denying them their particularity, in effect reducing them to generic signifiers for ethnic identities and racialized subject-positions. The exhibition text provides no further information, undermining the solidarity that this gesture might have otherwise represented.

But to belabor such ethical and moral points would be to overlook what is most generative in the exhibition. Because it’s precisely in these difficulties that Kamaly’s work opens onto more complex questions. That is, how might a collectively experienced trauma be figured and borne witness? Writing on the ‘unspeakable’ horrors of the Shoah, Giorgio Agamben reflects that language “in order to bear witness must give way to a non-language in order to show the impossibility of bearing witness.” Kamaly’s sculptures do not testify to what they have seen. But in their mute and twisted forms they begin to figure the challenges of such a task, and what might indeed “come through.” 

Hanni Kamaly, Head Hand Eye, 2017. Photo: Petter Dahlström Persson.