A provocative exhibition: Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: Liquid Intelligence

In a moment of political uncertainty for what concerns the migrant´s debate and the responsibility that Europe certainly has towards it, but with which it refuses to deal, WIELS decides to start the year with an important and necessary exhibition: Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: Liquid Intelligence.

The major contemporary art institution of Belgium demonstrates the will to fight the climate of hatred through an art show that allows visitors to confront the other and to face it, and WIELS' director chose the best moment for the event, which is a period in which terms such as "the other" or "the stranger" are being central in the European political discourse (but also elsewhere).

The exhibition shows a variety of artworks by the African American artist who had already collaborated with WIELS and now comes back with her two new video installations, which she realised together with the Dutch photographer and film artist Edgar Cleijne.

Ellen Gallagher, "DeLuxe", detail, 2004-2005

Throughout her entire artistic research, born Rhode Island artist explores the concept of identity, especially when it comes to the Afro- American community and to the racialized idea of it. What is surprising in her work is the variety of narratives she uses, ranging from poetic and playful vocabulary to mythical and historical depictions, but surprising are also the different forms and materials, which are merged and communicate with each other in her works.

Although in different ways and different approaches, all Gallagher´s artistic creation aims to communicate and represent the erasure of the identity, namely the Afro-American one, which is perpetuated by the mechanisms of the post-colonial society, in which the black people constantly swing between the persona they have to create in order to live in this society and condition of the (as prophesied by Ellison) "invisible man" they are otherwise condemned to.

Be it painting, video-art or sculpture, her works reflect upon the meaning of being black in North America, or (more broadly) in the so-called "Western society", and they all represent the dichotomy characterising the Afro-American community in a way which is poetic and visceral at the same time.


Ellen Gallagher, "DeLuxe", detail, 2004-2005

In the series called DeLuxe, for example, the artist takes commercials from old magazines (mostly from the years before the civil-rights era) and modifies them with different materials and techniques. The result are deformed bodies and faces, which become the monstrous incarnation of the non-acceptance of the self and the need of hiding behind a certain mask in order to fit in society. The series was made by the artist in 2005 and interestingly enough, in 2004 the lyrical memorial written by former U.S. president Barack Obama was published under the title "Dreams from my father : a story of race and inheritance". In the book, Obama looks back to his own youth and reflects on the culturally inherited norms, which freeze that natural and necessary fluidity of identity. Talking about his years at college, Obama says that all the black students "chose a costume, armour against uncertainty".

The necessity of "wearing a costume" and therefor of erasing one´s identity is very well presented in DeLux series, where the only way to achieve freedom or security seems to be buying a cream that makes the skin lighter or dying your hair blonder. The advertisements in fact play into the promise of being able to buy what we desire and the artist reveals this hidden message by exacerbating it and - in this way - making it visible.

Ellen Gallagher, "Negroes Battling in a Cave", from the series "Black Paintings", 2016

In another passage of Obama´s book, the author writes about the position of black students in predominantly white colleges and he says: "there seemed no reason to expect that whites would look at our private struggles as a mirror into their own souls". This idea of subverting the dynamics of distinction and separation between communities is sensibly explored by Ellen Gallagher in her Black Paintings series. In the latter, the artist obliges the beholder to look closer, in order to be able to distinguish what lays beneath the thick shiny black gum matter, which is on the surface of the canvas. These paintings become thus a medium for introspection and self-examination, both as an individual and a society.

The viewer standing in front of the huge painting will inevitably see his silhouette reflected on the shiny black surface of the painting, and will be absorbed by the overwhelming black colour, which is here charged of signifier and signified. Through her Black Paintings Gallagher succeeded at making people look into the deep abysses of those "invisible" identities, yet she leaves them impenetrable, thus creating a disturbing sense of confusion and an uncomfortable feeling of exclusion.  

Liquid intelligence is an exhibition, which wants to reclaim forgotten identities, as well as histories, legends, memories and remembrances, in a present context marked by the tensions linked to the liquidity of identities, which belongs to modern society.

Ellen Gallagher, "Eleganza", from the series "Black Paintings", 2016

Ellen Gallagher with Edgar Cleijne: Liquid Intelligence 02.02 – 28.04.2019

Curator: Dirk Snauwaert WIELS, Contemporary Art Centre Avenue Van Volxemlaan 354 1190 Brussels #ArtinBrussels #EllenGallagher #WIELS #exhibition #LiquidIntelligence #ContemporaryArt #Paintings Photo credits: Carmen Frigerio

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