Backstroke of the West: Reflecting on Demanding Memory

I was able to experience Backstroke of the West by Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I have been wanting to experience the exhibit since seeing this description:

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"Also on view are Spoils (2011), a project that saw the artist serve Iraqi date syrup and venison on Saddam Hussein’s very own china, and The invisible enemy should not exist (2007–ongoing), a lifelong project to fabricate at full scale every single item looted from the Iraqi National Museum."

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I am fascinated by the idea of fabricating what as lost, to scale. So you know what was lost then? Imagine that. About 2 or 3 month's ago I asked my mother to record a conversation with me. "I need to capture your story." She flat out refused. "I have no interest in that" and continued playing solitaire.

I wonder if it is the DNA of capitalism to preserve and catalog for no other reason than to prove its existence. Black people know all too well the horrors of a lost (pre)history. So I have to see these for myself, all the while wondering if my mother's inclination is the truer to my (pre)colonial self. What is our attachment to these relics of the past and how does Rakowitz's work interact with that attachment in light of the cultural genocide we know as the afterwords of their destruction.

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Rakowitz's work reclaims the dialogue and holds a place marker for the culture while still allowing it to move forward, to acknowledge the connection between the past and the present. I distinctly Iraqi present even if fingered by the west.

Michael Rakowitz is also responsible for Enemy Kitchen (2003–ongoing), a pop-up food truck that serves Iraqi dishes by the way.

 

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Blue Black: Moonlight, Mastry + Lightbending

I feel fairly confident a cultural revolution around body acceptance/love for Nigerian women, in general, won't come anytime soon. Nigeria isn't the only country with this issue, and it's not limited to groups of people with universally dark skin, we have all seen Asian women walking around with umbrellas on sunny summer days.

When I was growing up, I remember watching a news report about the lost boys of Sudan, then running into one working at O'hare. My mother pointed him out, but he didn't need an introduction, I had been staring at him long before she noticed him. He was a human giraffe covered in black panther skin. I couldn't decide if I liked how he looked. The white and red in his eyes made him look extraterrestrial, other-worldly. His skin consumed light; I could see it trying to escape, pooling and contouring at the rim of his skin. Otherworldly has never been a substitute for ugly in my mind, butI still wasn't sure what to make of him. That night I lay in bed wondering if I looked like him and why I couldn't decide if I liked it.

Looking back on the colorism that tints universal beauty standards and most African homes, I totally understand why I felt the way I did, but my initial characterization of dark skin itself has stuck with me. I spent years avoiding pictures because of the way my skin ate light. I spent the same amount of time in the grass watching how sunlight interacted with the tiny worlds I had created. Worlds where I was the light bending giraffe.

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The current Black Renaissance has resurfaced my childhood fascination with how dark skin bends light. Like every real Renaissance, art is at the center of revolution.

Lynette Yiadom Boakye discussed how she studied lights interaction with objects and how to capture that in her art. Cauleen Smith shared her quest to master capturing dark skin in film. At dinner a few weeks later, a friend brought up how Atlanta successfully captures dark skin. I had gone to the advanced screening of Moonlight with high expectations, not only for the plot but how dark skin would be represented, that is what stood out to me the most about the trainer.  I asked Tarell Alvin McCraney about the meaning of the movie title, but I already had my mind made up about its meaning. The same as when I first saw the Sudanese man. Moonlight has plenty of emotional to explore, but the bending and consumption of light can't be ignored.

The allusiveness of the capturing dark skin in art is my new fascination; it affirms the magnificence of melanin for me. I can be sure there is nothing grotesque about what it does to light.

Witnessing Mastry by Kerry James Marshall cemented that. He treats darkness as something worth studying and honestly portrays its depth, something fashion magazine spreads never provided me. In Mastery blackness in and of itself is explored not used as a means or contrast to whiteness like most fashion magazine layouts. I would say the same thing about Moonlight. In Mastry and Moonlight darkness does not erase complexity, it heightens it. Both works demand that you look deeper.

This piece I saw on Son of Baldwin's fb page but now can't find (boo) brought to my attention the potential for blackness without darkness as the norm in society; The article talked about the preference for blackness without dark skinned bodies. I tried to imagine aworld without walking light-bends, our bodies once again confined to museums and books of curiosities.

All Images from our visit to see Mastry at the Museum of Contemporary Art In Chicago