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Mendi Lewis Obadike


appreciation for the labor of contemporary art

by Mendi Lewis Obadike

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Friday, September 28, 2001

SUTAPA BISWAS at Assembling the Eighties

I promise not to sweat England all hard forever, but I've been thinking about the work of two Black British artists recently, Sutapa Biswas and Zadie Smith. Smith will have to wait, because I thought I was going to get up on September 11, set up SWEAT, and write my thoughts on White Teeth, faith, and Islam in Western media. Of course, since September 11, I have much more to day about Islam in Western media. However, this thing has made me have to reconsider my thoughts on White Teeth. So I'll have to get to Zadie Smith later. For now, I'll talk about Sutapa Biswas.

[sidebar: I'm having difficulty, these days, figuring out what to call what happened on September 11. On the one hand, 'attack' seems most accurate. I don't want to uncritically feed into the bloodthirsty frenzy around me, however. Other words like 'situation' and 'unfortunate events', on the other hand, are euphemistic and seem to undercut the gravity of what happened. More direct words like 'crashes' also seem, somehow, inappropriate. If I talk about the 'crashes' of September 11, it sounds like I'm talking about accidents. What language can match what happened? But back to Biswas]

London-based artist Sutapa Biswas works in paint, photography, video, and installation. She has written art theory and curated several shows. Biswas' video work is sometimes shown in galleries and sometimes projected in public spaces. At her presentation at Assembling the Eighties (see my 9/26 entry), Biswas showed slides of painting by Johannes Vermeer and discussed his influence on her video work. I have always been a fan of Vermeer, so it was good to see more of his work and to think about how specific elements of his painting style, like lighting, could be translated into the process of an artist working in another medium.

I found two of Biswas' video pieces particularly interesting. One, "The Trials and Tribulations of Mickey Baker," was on display in Shades of Black, the show that accompanied Assembling the Eighties. Biswas showed the other, "Untitled" (1998), during her talk. In the latter piece, a middle-aged white woman in a strikingly blue shirt cries at a table. This piece was projected onto a glass window in a building where the actual skeleton of Jeremy Bentham is topped off with a wax head, given some sort of body, clothed, and placed on display sitting upright in a glass case. Biswas did not explain the significance of this act. (Begin to imagine the project I have just undertaken--trying to find his name and photograph so as to choose the correct dead European's parts on public display . . . Yes, there is more than one.)

In the first piece, Mickey Baker, a white British actor, stands naked in front of the open window of a house. This piece was (first?) shown in a show called "Krishna, the Divine Lover". Here, Biswas said she wanted to think about Krishna as a troubled individual. We are accustomed to thinking of Krishna as young and handsome and virile, Biswas said. But what about Krishna's troubles? What if he were old and portly? How would that enable us to think about Krishna?

This is pretty much all we heard, and Sutapa Biswas had already spoken much longer than she was to speak. Part of the reason for this is that panelists had been switched around and the men were given the chance to speak first. As Biswas was the very last person to speak, she would not have spoken but five minutes had she complied with her time limits. After the panel, most of the questions and comments were directed to Rasheed Araeen, Keith Piper, and Isaac Julien. Zineb Sedira, Ingrid Pollard, and Sutapa Biswas were not engaged much at all.

The men's presentations were intriguing, but I suspect there were other reasons for this breakdown of time (allotted and taken) and response. Maybe it was that the audience was biased against the women. My more generous reading is that the (mostly US American) audience was more familiar with the work of Keith Piper, Isaac Julien, and Rasheed Araeen. However, even if this is the case, it might be worth our time to ask why the men are discussed and engaged by US audiences (critics, etc.) and the women are not. We can almost do this without pointing fingers. Almost.

I was going to consider the other controversy in this question as well. Craft. One of the questions I'm planning to address in this forum is the question of women's art. In my own work I am wrestling with ideas about women's art and men's art (which sometimes appears as universal art. Or important art. Or real art.) Part of my struggle is that in my own work, I tend to do large, epic pieces or short pieces on extremely intimate topics. I'm heavily influenced by the work of people like Audre Lorde who writes through often uncharted grounds in the psyche. I think this work is extremely important.

On the other hand, I am most attracted these days to large projects of historical significance (on a macro level) and terse gritty writing. (I'm thinking, in particular, of Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination--an intense, sensitive, I dare say terrifyingly beautiful book of poems written in the voice of the imaginary black man Susan Smith created as the kidnapper of her children--and Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist--another book that gets at the insides but is written in a beautifully stark style. Both do something people try to claim for women's art by getting inside their subjects [and Whitehead's protagonist is a woman], but Eady's book is also an intervention in big H History. Whitehead's book is also an argument about black and female ways of knowing in white and male spaces. I don't want to claim that art that makes a claim about the larger culture in which it is made is male, but that is, perhaps, how men's art is read. When I told my (women artist) friends how much I loved The Intuitionist at least, they answered back: "Oh. That book about the elevator inspector. But isn't Colson Whitehead's writing so very male? Ah, but I digress. Back to Biswas.) One of the things Sutapa Biswas, Lubaina Himid, Shaheen Merali, and Michael Cadette offered during this conference was a challenge to the idea that what was most important in thinking about art was the artist's body.

All of these artists addressed the way concerns about Black artists' culture(s) or politics, while important, often take up all of the discussions in which Black artists' works are mentioned. What about composition? What about creative contexts? What about Art History? We have a practice, I remember Shaheen Merali saying. When are we going to discuss that? (This last bit is my question, not Merali's, but I like to imagine my question as the unvoiced end to his statement.) Apparently, Biswas and/or other artists addressed the way cultural contexts and politics of the work took precedence over the craft of the work. (I'm not sure whether gender was mentioned in this discussion; I wasn't privy to all of it. Just note that I see a relationship between gender and the way the work is engaged. Much of the work by the women was engaging with big H History in the way men's art is seen to work [especially much of Ingrid Pollard's work], but the work wasn't engaged in this way. Maybe this, too, is about the fact that the men's older work preceded them in this US American context.) Many of the artists present lamented that if their work doesn't get attention from critics and artists who are Black or work on Black art, who is going to do that work? Will their work ever get that kind of attention?

As a response to the concern of the dominance of cultural/political considerations to the exclusion of creative considerations, Biswas was asked to present on the panel during the closing session. Once again, I was not privy to the discussion that preceded this event, so I'm not sure how this really went down. My sense, though, is that the organizers realized there was no one talking about the craft of the work in the wrap-up session and Sutapa Biswas was the sensible choice since she had made it clear that she had been slighted in the earlier session.

In this final panel, Biswas repeated the exact same presentation. She showed the exact same slides and, to the degree that one can detect such things from memory, said the exact same thing. There was this awkward moment of silence when her presentation was over. We had, of course, gone over again and Biswas was, again, the last speaker. (No one made the mistake this time of asking her to cut her presentation short, though.) Someone did ask her a question this time, Yong Min Soon. I can't remember exactly what the question was, but I remember it as a way of saying, graciously, if circuitously, "What is up with the fact that all your influences and subjects are white?" I could feel the collective exhale.

Yeah, are we going to talk about that? Are we going to talk about ending a Black arts conference with images of white people influenced by white people projected onto white people's two hundred year old preserved skeletons? Is this what Black art is about?

That last bit, the questions, is all me. I'm not going to pretend to know what was in everybody else's head. But for real, I'm still wondering what that was about for her. I had just been feeling the trouble with having Art Historians and cultural critics who don't want to deal with the craft, but ending on this note, with the aesthetics of unspoken whiteness, was a bit scandalous to me. Even so, I was struck by the beauty of the act. By the thought of being crazy enough to repeat what you had to say, word for word, if other people who were supposed to be dealing with your work wouldn't respond to what you had to say the first time. The length of her presentation, the repetition of the explanation of tiny details about her craft, eventually highlighted the insanity of us not dealing with her work. And so I had to appreciate what she had done this time. But this time, way over schedule and at the end of the conference, no one but Soon was brave enough to open that door. Why have you brought us here, Sutapa?

As I said, the question was circuitous. Oh, if I could only remember exactly what was said. However it was phrased, Biswas' response was that we mustn't forget where the untitled piece had been projected: onto the body of Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham, she repeated. (And she has the softest voice, so the emphasis was simply in the repetition, not in the tone.) We can't forget Jeremy Bentham. I didn't know the significance of Jeremy Bentham and still don't. (If you do, email me at And then another artist interjected and said, No, don't say any more. That was beautiful; that was perfect just as it was. (Or something to that effect.) It was good to see that support and to have people in the practice give Biswas that stamp of approval. I am still wondering, though, what her (exclusive?) use of white bodies in video art is about, especially with the piece "The Trials and Tribulations of Mickey Baker."

Because even if we go on the fact that the artist's craft needs to be addressed, there are some aesthetic concerns the work brings up. I don't claim to know a lot about Krishna, for example, but I know he is brown, or maybe it would be more accurate to say blue. If it means something to depict Krishna as fat rather than muscular, old rather than young, depressed rather than fortunate, might it not mean something to depict him as pink rather than blue?

I mean, is she commenting on the whiteness of the character? If so, why did she talk about every other part of her process in this talk? Why did she talk about going to an acting agency, looking for actors who were male (or female), middle aged, fat, whatever, and not say anything about looking for actors who were white? Did she specify race? If not, what did it mean that she didn't? Am I only asking this because she is Bengali? Maybe. Is that the point of her presenting in this way? Maybe so.

She certainly has me thinking about her work now.

More later on all of this,

PS. There isn't much on Sutapa Biswas' work on the web. A few reviews on shows she has curated or shows in which she's had work. However, you can see some of her work and there is a picture of her here.

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I am an intermedia artist and cultural critic based in New Haven, Connecticut.

I created SWEAT to give attention to art being made today. Sweat is the labor in art and sweat is appreciation for the work. SWEAT is a discussion of my engagement with the work I come across and of the artists' concerns if I know them. I will also address my own concerns about what I create in the context of other artists.

I am particularly concerned with the question of identity and how that is read onto the work of black and/or women artists. I have been asking myself what it means to want to be understood as making 'women's art' or 'black art'. To what extent do we have agency over how the idea of 'black art' or 'women's art' or 'black women's art' is read into our work?

That said, I am writing here about any art, any concept of or concerns related to art, that gives me pause or pleasure.

9/22: Assembling the Eighties

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