Undoing Identities: Brendan Fernandes’ Haraka Haraka

Undoing Identities: Brendan Fernandes’ Haraka Haraka
Montréal arts interculturales
4 February – March 6, 2010
review by Jen Kennedy

The centerpiece of Brendan Fernandes’ exhibition Haraka Haraka is Nyumba ata Choma, a makeshift hunting village composed of six camouflage sniper tents, each housing a small television screen that plays a looped video of a Yule log superimposed on an archival news still from the torching of three million dollars worth of illegal ivory seized by the Kenyan government in 1989. The impermanent architecture of the dwellings, with televisions haunted by hearths at their center, immediately evokes a sense of the unheimlich, at once familiar and strange, that is here linked to the often-repressive force of official history represented by the burning ivory — a spectacle that then-president Daniel arap Moi hired a Hollywood pyrotechnician to stage in front of the global media. By referencing a skillfully designed, now largely forgotten, effort to remake Kenya’s international image, Fernandes questions the contingent and manipulated foundations on which cultural and national identities are staked.

Translated as “The House will Burn,” Nyumba ata Choma draws a connection between the function of the concepts of “home” and “homeland” in fixing identity and identification to a defined place. While the former is material and the latter discursive, both are equally embroiled in a violent cycle of destruction and reconstruction in the service of globalization. The initially calming, crackling sounds of the semi-hidden fires turn menacing in combination with the image of ivory and the politics of violence — the brutal poaching, the failed government, the spectacle of waste — that underlie them. Indeed, the viewer’s experience of Nyumba ata Choma is all the more unsettled when, walking between the tents, she is confronted by the fact that this is not a village but a war zone. The tents are not homes but shelters for killers who could emerge at any moment and wipe us out of Fernandes’ fictive scenario built on contradictions.

The bookends of the exhibition, video works Foe and Aya Mama, look at immigration and tourism respectively. In Foe, an experimental rendering of what a subversive or composite model of communication might look like, Fernandes is aided by an off-screen language instructor as he reads from J.M. Coetzee’s postcolonial reimagining of Robinson Crusoe in the accents of his heterodox cultural backgrounds. The passage selected by Fernandes is a conversation between three castaways in which Cruso (the master) explains to Susan Bartman (the visitor) that his slave Friday has been mutilated and cannot speak. The relationships that underwrite this text, the struggle between self and other, master and slave, and activity and passivity, are all inflected by the uneven distribution of language itself. Friday’s apparent loss — his inability to speak, his severed tongue — is echoed by Fernandes’s own autobiography and his attempt to relearn the accents that haunt his past. By focusing on the teaching process, however, Fernandes reveals that he is not interested in whether he can authentically reproduce or “regain” each accent. Rather it is the suspended act of learning, fluctuating between speech that we hear as discourse and speech that is understood as noise that is of interest here. Oscillating between diverse cultural accents, Fernandes evokes the innovative and urgent means of communication, such as Creole languages or pidgin, that emerge in moments of cultural contact when “official” languages fail.

Presentation, representation and self-representation, commingle in Foe, foregrounding the slippage between history and fiction and between biography and pseudo-biography in the conquest of communication and language. Rather than imagining a material space, like Cruso’s island, where the socio-cultural frames that structure these relationships can be revised and reinvested, Fernandes engages at the level of the discursive, asking us to consider the innumerable ways in which our received modes of communication and representation delineate the conflicts and crises we are confronted with in the global world. He asks how, in other words, we might invent an imaginative, transcultural and hybrid space of communication outside the oppressive dominance of institutionally or nationally sanctioned models based on consensus and exclusion, by investing in the potentiality of contradictions and disidentification instead.

In Aya Mama, the third and final work in Haraka Haraka, tourist footage of Masai men performing a ritual is juxtaposed with video from a New York fashion show. If the contrast between these images appears crude, it is this crudeness that lets Aya Mama escape the by now well-worn dichotomy of “traditional” or “primitive” cultures, on the one hand, and “progressive” or “civilized” cultures, on the other. Instead, Fernandes looks at this footage from the perspective of tourism, the exchange of consumers or the inverse of immigration, the exchange of producers, invoked in Foe. Both of the rituals we see performed in Aya Mama have been designed to sell. The fashion show and the Masai warrior’s recital are products of an intricate system of global trade — a system in which art and representation are increasingly recruited to reproduce hegemonic power relations. The glimpses we catch of “western” watches and street clothes under the Masai’s traditional garb affirm this fact.

Aya Mama explores the extent to which cultural identities have become commercial goods in the service of the spectacle-commodity economy. Through the uneasy relationship between the video and the voice-over, which recounts a passage from his personal history, Fernandes investigates the slippage between identity as it is related to subjectivity, and identity as it is circumscribed by the highly constructed system of representations that underwrite global power relations.

Like its title, taken from the Swahili proverb “hurry hurry has no blessing,” all of the works in Haraka Haraka question the roles played by contradiction, paradox, and dissonance in re-imagining ways of doing, saying, and being-in-common in the global world. Despite often appearing innocuous, these modes of communication and representation — language, media, art, markers of national identity, etc. — are embroiled in the complex system of power relations that underwrite almost all political conflicts today. At stake in Fernandes’ work is how we use art to imagine alternatives.

Jen Kennedy is a SSHRC doctoral fellow at Binghamton University and part of an ongoing artistic collaboration with New York-based artist Liz Linden that explores the heterogeneous field of contemporary feminism. She recently completed the Whitney Independent Study Program.

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