Kings County Exhibition Catalogue : At Home in Brooklyn, by Teju Cole
On their way to the moon in late 1972, the crew of the Apollo 17 space shuttle took a photograph of the earth. This was the famous ‘blue marble’ shot. It was the first time we saw our planet in its entirety: a serene blue circle against the blackness of space. Here, in one picture, was the totality of human experience.
The four artists in the exhibition Kings County grew up after 1972, in a world that, globalized for centuries, had now seen itself as a contained whole. These artists share with each other one particular crossing point: each of them is an instance of what happens when Africa meets Brooklyn. Africa is physically enormous, and Brooklyn, by comparison, tiny. But the energy flows between the two are substantial. This is worth thinking about, not only because it gives a picture of the world right now, but because the works of Wangechi Mutu, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Meleko Mokgosi suggest a special potency in this particular crossing point.
Why Brooklyn? I’ve heard a rumour – it can be hard to verify these things, but this one rings true – that in France some people describe fashionable situations, clothes or cuisine, as ‘très Brooklyn’. The borough has become a place on the desire-map, corresponding to certain narrow notions and pinned to perhaps just one meaning, just as San Francisco has a meaning, and Las Vegas has a meaning, and Greenwich Village used to have a meaning. This ‘Brooklyn’ is code for young, fashion-forward, hipster. The idea is perhaps grounded in some reality. But this code is also limited to a tiny section of the actual borough of Brooklyn. Maybe the idea became popular because there was a need for such a place after the young and creative were priced out of Chelsea and the East Village. In any case, it’s important to remember that there are bigger, more important and longer-lasting Brooklyns: immigrant Brooklyn, working-class Brooklyn, non-English-speaking Brooklyn, historic preservation Brooklyn, Jewish Brooklyn, Arabic Brooklyn, black Brooklyn. These Brooklyns cover a vast geographical territory, yet they have significant overlap with each other.
Brooklyn is my home. It is where I pay rent, it is where my books are, as well as many of my friends. But it is also, significantly, the place in the world where I feel the least like a stranger. When I’m in Brooklyn, at least in certain parts of it, I feel that no one can walk up to me and demand to know what I’m doing there. Anywhere else in the world, even in Lagos where I grew up, I’m not so sure. This is interesting, since I own no property in Brooklyn and have no ancestors buried there. But I do have a metaphysical confidence in the place. This confidence is no less real for being all in my head. Sunset Park, where I live (and which Meleko Mokgosi has cited as an inspiration), is a particular Brooklyn: industrial, Chinese and Hispanic. But when I stand at the corner of Fulton Street and South Portland Avenue in Fort Greene, I experience a different sensation. Standing at that intersection, behind me is the Greenlight Bookshop. Across the street is the Ethiopian place where I dine with friends. On the opposite corner are the French brunch place and the Cuban bar. To my right is the imposing mural of the Notorious B.I.G., a local boy made good. Around and about are small businesses as well as multinational ones, and the houses where people live, and their dozens of languages.
The people on the street are white, black, and everything in between. Close by is the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts. These signifiers all map onto something of personal value for me. I may protest the overbearing onslaught of capitalism inside this space, and yet it is probably the one place in the entire world where I look utterly normal, whether I’m clean-shaven and in a suit, or bearded and in a warm-up jacket. It is where, I feel, no one could accost or challenge me about being a foreigner. Possibly this sense could also be true in parts of Manhattan, or in London, or Los Angeles, or Lagos. In my experience, it feels most complete on that street corner in Brooklyn.
I detect a shared sense of at-homeness in the works of Mutu, Akunyili Crosby, Sepuya and Mokgosi. They are visionary artists because they remind us that the imaginary places they conjure in their work are part of the real world. One of the key background facts of these artists is the complicated forms of paperwork that allow them to be resident in the United States and to have links to the African continent. This ever-present but rarely declared bureaucratic hum is the core of the artistic postcolony. No coherent contemporary history of African art is possibly without an account of its international participants. And this internationalism is very much dependent on who has which papers to allow them to stay where.
Wangechi Mutu has, since the mid-1990s, been dismantling optical notions of purity or singularity. In her work, hybridity is the rule. Her collages are literal meeting points: of the organic and the technological, the historical and the futuristic, and the stereotypical and the re-definitional. In common with the other artists in this show, she makes work of great sensual impact, images that far exceed their thematic concerns.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya works primarily as a photographer, but his are photographs that consistently ask questions of photography’s procedures. Using the studio portrait as his starting point, he explores the continuities between friendship and artistic labour. He also makes space where, until quite recently, only a battle was possible: he grounds his work in gay life and homosexuality. Sepuya, who has a Ugandan as well as American background, is a hyphenated being. But what startles about his work is its ease, clarity, gentleness and candour, especially in his nudes which give new power to that jaded theme.
No less candid are the large-scale paintings Njideka Akunyili Crosby has been making for a few years now. Like Sepuya, she founds her work in exploring personal – and largely autobiographical – intimacies. And like him, there is a freshness to her vision that is the polar opposite of the exhibitionistic or the sordid. Akunyili Crosby’s interest in foregrounding private moments – between her husband and herself, or in the adumbrated self-portraits she’s been doing of late – is counterpoised with (but not in contradiction to) her interest in using family pictures, media images and ‘African’ patterns as the background to her images.
Scale is also a key consideration in any reading of Meleko Mokgosi’s work. Bringing contemporary urgency to the vexations of history painting, he gives us new ways to think about 19th and 20th century southern African politics. As with the other artists under consideration here, Mokgosi has technical ability in abundance (and in his case, an especially exhilarating deployment of white space); and like them, he pins that facility to a vision of narrating in colour. He also evinces an interest in text: of its resonances, of its correctibility. ‘Never again,’ as John Berger has written, ‘will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.’
Is ‘Brooklyn’, the Brooklyn of these artists, the Brooklyn of my at-homeness, a movement or a moment? What’s coming next is the usual pressure of capital, and the way ungoverned capital deforms spaces and interactions. Brooklyn is a moment that moves, and the energy will inevitably shift elsewhere. In ten years, the more interesting story could be the Bronx, or Newark, or some distant town far from New York. But that’s the way of the world. No matter what happens next, this present moment will also have happened. More importantly, there will emerge other spaces for the artistic energies of this alternative postcolony.
I want to return to the image of the ‘blue marble’. Just one continent is visible from the angle at which that photograph was taken in 1982. It was as though the earth presented itself with an indexical representation of all it contained. The planet puts its best face forward for its first formal portrait, and one continent happens to be visible in its entirety: Africa.