Catalogue text for "Unlearning / Interpretations", HAiK w/ Toril Johannessen and Jacob Riddle, Rod Bianco gallery, Oslo, Aug-Sept 2016:

(anthropological fragments)

Charlotte Bik Bandlien

A leitmotif for West African ethnography is economics, as the region have been involved in a plethora of market logics due to its far-reaching trade throughout the centuries. Set against this backdrop we are fashionably late to the party – an ongoing history of complex patterns and interweavings of art and commerce, of cultural inspiration, exchange and cross-pollination.

Wax prints – our point of departure – are widely recognized as West African. Delving into their history, however, compels a reconfiguration of our notion of authenticity, as they are indeed a product of Javanese, Indian, Chinese, Arab and European elements – reminding us that the original perhaps never existed, and what we call traditional is merely what people forgot when came into being.

The re-evaluation of tradition we have been witnessing the past decade, as the pendulum shifted away from logo-mania, evoked an old-school mass modus operandi of historical reenactments of artisan crafts with unbearable pathos and sentimentality – inattentive to the ideological undertones ascribed in this regressive nostalgia. Artforum’s recent edition points to the paradoxical in this consumer trend, and claims that identity is back:

“Today, in our endlessly pluralist and globalized world, we are supposedly post-identity; post-race, post-gender, even post-human. But at the same time, the most identitarian of politics is being mobilized, both by advanced culture – which has seemingly rediscovered cultural difference, both its aesthetic possibility and its market value – and by the extreme ideologies or fundamentalisms of the most reactionary forces (…)”

While we await ‘peak authenticity’ reaching critical mass, HAiKw/ directs our attention towards the essential source of value – people. The introduction of industrially produced Dutch wax prints in the West African market in the 19th century was a success primarily thanks to an adaptation via what we recognize as marketing strategies: People gave the prints meaning via storytelling.

Cloth has customarily been an apparatus for sending finely tuned social messages, in West Africa as elsewhere, an instrumental example in identifying universal aspects of consumption as being eminently social, relational, and active, rather than private, atomic, or passive. But the market is where the magic happens, as exchange is not a by-product of the mutual valuation of objects – but its source.

Integrating perception psychology with textile history, Toril Johannessen’s prints are in themselves a means to reflection on how cultural identity is created, as optical illusions have been instrumental in studies of cultural variation. HAiKw/ pursues a self-proclaimed quasi-anthropological approach in their work, in this case by transferring the process of value creation to the HAiKw/ market.

Rather than immersing themselves in research on the social and cultural construction of meaning that encapsulates wax prints in situ, Johannessen’s prints have been subjected to interpretations by a non-randomized selection of friends and acquaintances in various locations – the selection of respondents a result of serendipity, of connections and moments that collectively form a new cultural biography of the fabrics in question.

Meeting these western scientific testing tools decontextualized in patterns opened up for personal interpretations, rather than conjuring what the scientists intended. What do you see? Can you describe it? How does it make you feel? What does it say? Does it bear a meaning? What would you use it for? Can you give it a name? Abstractions of responses to these questions constitute the sculptural part of the exhibition.

HAiKw/ has thus invented new symbols, similar to the Ghanaian Adinkra symbols originally created by the Asante – a tradition invented around the early 19th century. Kwame Anthony Appiah, philosophy professor at NYU, describes them in In My Father’s House as one of the means in a pre-literate society for “supporting the transmission of a complex and nuanced body of practice and belief”.

These sculpture-symbols, or symbol-sculptures, or better yet, reified symbols, re-actualizes the need of such support in a time of wordily abundance. This semiotic inflation has made us yearn for phenomenological and occult experiences. In size, the sculptures resemble the Akuaba, the Ghanaian fertility doll. Do they have an agency of their own too? Do we know what these objects want with us, what they are capable of?

In developing his theory of commodity fetishism, Marx applied a term that in fact originated on the coast of West Africa. The term fetish, however, remains specific to an exotifying misconception emerging from the encounters colonial Europeans had with African commercial material culture – the opposite of the destiny of wax prints so to speak. But what about the destiny of the works of HAiKw/?

What we have at hand here are flickering objects. With a double object-oriented ontology, we are exposed to both meta-marketing and mere marketing. Converging art and everyday life through 1:1 scale projects, the post-artistic practice of HAiKw/ resembles the integrated societies anthropologists study, in which central aspects of the human condition are inseparable – prompting us to question our own cultural configuration.

Bringing the market into the white cube in its most rudimentary sense exceeds acknowledging the affinity between the arts of branding and curating, deployed in equal measures across the department store and the gallery, and encompasses processes in which cultural meaning is created, negotiated and consumed. As the curators of this years’ Berlin Biennale proclaimed: “Let’s give a body to the problems of the present where they occur so as to make them a matter of agency – not spectatorship”.

In marketing terms, this project constitutes a complex chain of production, with several stakeholders responsible for cumulative layers of added value – and subsequently expecting return-of-investment. The pivotal link in the chain being the consumers, us, as the essential meaning and value will be determined by the unpredictable human algorithm – by encounters yet to play out.