Monday, September 19, 2016

'Uninvited' by Kenyetta A.C. Hinckle

By Biko Agozino

On Sunday, 09/19/16, I heard an artist, Kenyetta Hinckle, open her exhibition on Virginia Tech campus with a talk about her reworking of colonial photographs of topless African women in sexualized poses. She gave them suggestive titles like 'Vendetta', 'Reprisal', 'Witness', 'The Sower' and called the entire series, ‘Uninvited’. These titles remind us of the fact dramatized by Fanon in critique of Freud when he suggested that some women invite rape by fantasizing about it whereas rape is by definition, uninvited or non-consensual, just as there is no such thing as colonization by invitation, despite assumptions that we asked for it. She wondered why people called her little African but scratcher as a child.

Kenyetta Hinckle also exhibited paintings of Tituba, the African Caribbean woman who was accused of being responsible for inducting Salem Massachusetts girls into witchcraft. For some reason, her work was displayed along the ‘Corridor Gallery’ and people kept streaming past during her engaging talk, making it look like a street arts performance.

Her work reminded me of attempts to justify the unjustifiable records of the postcolonial genocidal state. Interestingly, she said that when she was in Nigeria as a visiting professor at the University of Lagos, some of her colleagues told her that the topless photographs came from a time before 'civilization'. I told her how apt that was given that Sigmund Freud saw civilization as a violent exercise in the repression of the instinct for love and death, pleasure and pain. She spoke again to my Africana Philosophy of Nonviolence class on 09/19/2016

When I shared the story of her initial talk on Facebook, an art historian and visual artist challenged my Freudian interpretation as follows: ‘You know, of course, that the Nigerians she spoke to had something entirely different in mind. I hope you also pointed out that they are wrong, and they cannot be wrong and right all at once. As an aside, Biko, have you noticed how the vast majority of younger Nigerians who graduate from Nigerian universities have little grasp of grammar in any language?’ I responded as follows:

‘They are obviously wrong as Cheikh Anta Diop proved long ago with Civilization or Barbarism, with Precolonial Black Africa, and with The African Origin of Civilization. But at the unconscious level, they are also right as Freud would argue. The artist understood that they were suggesting barbarism and she said that she was shocked because as an African American woman, she could be seen in the role of neo-Tarzanism given her effort to cover up the innocence or Dadaism of the women with her African fractal patterns of drawings that looked like thin veils. She also reported that on her trips across Europe, white men were frequently flashing their genitals at her under the assumption that she must be a sex worker and when she complained to her white male professor, he asked what she was wearing as if it was her fault. She said that she was appalled to hear in Nigeria that the police routinely shoot non-violent protesters to death but she was told to hush it because that was the order of things under neocolonialism.

‘Regarding the murder of the English language by Nigerian graduates, I will agree with Martin Luther King Jr. that they can serve even if their grammar is ungrammatical. So like Fela Kuti, Naija musicians, and Chief Zeburudaya, let the creative ones go on adding value with the ginger in the swagger of their grammar. The artist noticed the peculiar grammar of our broken English because everyone kept telling her, 'welcome back', when it was only her first visit. Freud also argued that the repressed keeps returning to futilely challenge the patriarchal authority with infantile dreams of killing the father to marry the mother, trying to repress his own instinct to love and death, and seeking to exploit nature. Fanon said that such Oedipal neurosis was not known in the Caribbean, perhaps because female-headed families were more common, but also maybe because the instinct for imperialism is peculiarly European. Thanks for your usual provocation. You should offer VT an exhibition.’

Then, one of my former students from Trinidad and Tobago and now a Lecturer commented as follows: ‘Oh my how I wish I was at VT right now’. I replied as follows: ‘Thanks, I will report on the discussions for the benefit of your … class. But note that Chief LeRoy Clarke and Shawn Peters, among others, have been offering similar 'pain things' (paintings) about the Caribbean crisis of control-freak societies. I hope that your class is watching them and not only the TV.’

Another Facebook friend also commented saying: ‘Interesting perspectives on "civilization" - I was unaware of Freud's comments on the subject. It reminds me of the day, when I was teaching at Ascension High School in Eleme, Nigeria, that one of my students asked about "civilized" countries, making it clear he felt that European countries were civilized and African ones, including Nigeria, of course, were not. I was not terribly surprised by his comments, but disturbed by them, nonetheless. The other students, (5th formers, I believe they were) obviously agreed with him. I began my rebuttal by pointing out the horrors inflicted on others by such Europeans as Hitler and Stalin, people from two of the countries this student thought were civilized. I said that Nigeria was indeed "civilized," that it contained some of the finest (and civilized - in the most positive use of that word) people in the world, and that we have to be careful not to denigrate countries due to a perceived lack of "civilization" nor feel inferior to countries that had no superiority over any African nation.’

And I responded, saying: ‘Thanks for sharing your critical thinking with your Nigerian students. Dr. Assata Zerai also reported that when she was a visiting professor at the University of Ife, undergraduate students kept telling her that we were wicked sinners until the missionaries came to save us. Freud presented his unusual hypotheses in Civilization and its Discontents and also in Moses and Monotheism. But the hypotheses run through his body of work. He believes that the Id is the wild one bent on gratifying all pleasure instincts. But soon the Ego emerges through socialization to check the selfishness of the Id by teaching the little motherfucker that the mother was not accessible to his Eros. Frustrated, the brothers leave home to found their own families where they repress their own sons while still battling with their despotic father with the childish dream of liberation in the form of patricide. Finally the Superego comes in to regulate the instinct for pleasure by imposing the work ethic that makes people sweat for their living when they would rather avoid all work and simply enjoy erotic pleasure (with the exception of the privileged few such as artists and intellectuals who may truly enjoy their work). The trick is to let people believe that by working, they are simply battling with nature and conquering it in order to exploit it.

Thus civilization is an endless exercise in repression of natural instincts of Eros and Nirvana. Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization) subjected Freud to a detailed critique in which he demonstrated that this idea that repression equals civilization runs through Western Philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel before Nietzsche dissented with his queer sense of morality as immorality. Marx, Lenin, Mao, Du Bois, Diop, Nkrumah, Fanon, Rodney, Cabral, Toyo, Achebe, Davis, hooks, Amadiume, Nzegwu, Collins, Ekwe-Ekwe, and Hall are my model critics of Freud because they revealed that what was mistaken as Eros was mainly the profit motive of greedy capitalists who would not hesitate to kill their fathers or sons to maximize profits. Freud speculated that some of my model critics did not really end repression but actually founded repressive regimes that they brazenly called the dictatorship of the proletariat in their efforts to refuse the 'reality principle' that civilization progresses through repression. Marcuse disagreed with this speculation by Freud and insisted that a non-repressive civilization is possible when we allow our imagination to roam free in the arts and sciences without being bogged down by the 'performance principle' that is prone to aggression in the psychology of Freud. I have critiqued Freud elsewhere on his view that Africans, Aboriginal Australians and Maoris were extremely neurotic for their stringent maintenance of incest taboos compared to Europeans who had no qualms about marrying their first cousins. Today, science has proved that those 'natives' that Freud called barbaric in this context knew what they were doing because inbreeding weakens the genetic pool.

During her presentation to my class, Kenyetta introduced the land of Kentifica which she discovered and mapped as the intersection of globalized Africana homeland and Diaspora with its own handmade musical instruments (as is the norm in Africa), with food shared publicly as performance (common in Africa), with colorful hair designs and textiles covered in African fractal patterns (also common in Africa). She said that she resented being called Oyibo (European) in Nigeria and retorted to her seamstress that she spoke the way she did because some of our people sold others into slavery. I intervened to remind the class that one of the books we were reading for the Introduction to African Studies class was How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney. That book proved that it was not really a slave trade but a class war in which a few African chiefs collaborated with their European class allies to wage war and capture Africans to be enslaved. The rest of our ancestors fought hard to prevent our beloved from being captured and enslaved and the struggle continued through the middle passage to the plantations. We are all survivors meeting one another against the odds.

About the artist…

Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle is an interdisciplinary visual artist, writer and performer. Her practice fluctuates between collaborations and participatory projects with alternative gallery spaces within various communities to projects that are intimate and based upon her private experiences in relationship to historical events and contexts. A term that has become a mantra for her practice is the "Historical Present," as she examines the residue of history and how it affects our contemporary world perspective. Hinkle received her MFA in Art & Critical Studies Creative Writing from CalArts and BFA in Painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Her work and experimental writing has been exhibited and performed Fore at The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY, Project Row Houses in Houston, TX, The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, CA and The Museum of Art at The University of New Hampshire. Hinkle was the youngest artist to participate in the multi-generational biennial Made in LA 2012. Hinkle’s work has been reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Artforum, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Hinkle was listed on The Huffington Post’s Black Artists: 30 Contemporary Art Makers Under 40 You Should Know. She is also the recipient of several fellowships and grants including: The Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Award, The Cultural Center for Innovation’s Investing in Artists Grant, Social Practice in Art (SPart-LA), and The Jacob K. Javits Full Fellowship for Graduate Study. Hinkle is a recent alumna of the US Fulbright Program in which she conducted research at the University of Lagos in Lagos, Nigeria.


Dr. Austin S Jane/Zhao shuyan said...

Insightful academic point, justice for all!

Odozi Obodo said...

Thanks Dr. Austin

Alex Ugwuja said...

Wonderful and insightful piece. I am rather worried that the bulk of what African researchers do today, especially, in the humanities and social sciences is nothing other than a wholesale refutal of what others say about us. This tendency appears somewhat unmatched with what we have said about ourselves.

Odozi Obodo said...

Thanks Alex, you are right that we have so much things to say right now but I am convinced that the work of refutation is also crucial. We need more original thoughts in all fields and we also need more robust critiques of the falsehoods that have been spread about us and about others. The chicken that refuses to attend the communal meeting of the animal kingdom because it had urgent matters of the belly to attend to risks being unanimously offered as the sacrificial being to appease the insatiable human predators.