Faith Ringgold @ the Serpentine Gallery

‘I can’t get through the world without recognizing that race and sex influence
everything I do in my life.’ Faith Ringgold

Cycle through London’s diesel-polluted streets to the Serpentine Galleries for the launch of the second of two exhibitions showcasing the art of American woman artists. This one is a ground-breaking survey of the work of African-American woman artist Faith Ringgold.

Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart (2004) by Faith Ringgold © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Faith Ringgold’s biography

The press release includes a potted biography of the artist, thus:

Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem, New York in 1930 (so she is currently 88 years old).

Faith Ringgold is an artist, teacher, lecturer and author of numerous award-winning children’s books.

Faith Ringgold received her BS and MA degrees in visual art from City College of New York in 1955 and 1959.

A Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California in San Diego, Ringgold has received 23 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees.

Ringgold is the recipient of more than 80 awards and honours including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and recently the Medal of Honour for Fine Arts from the National Arts Club.

In 2017, Ringgold was elected a member into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.

Ringgold’s work has been shown internationally, most recently:

  • in the group exhibition Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London (2017)
  • We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 85, Brooklyn Museum (2017)
  • Post-Picasso Contemporary Reactions, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain (2014)
  • American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960’s, the Neuberger Museum, Purchase, New York (2011)

Ringgold’s work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums in the United States including:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • The Brooklyn Museum
  • The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • The National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Art

Politics

Ringgold’s art is drenched in politics, specifically American race politics, from the Civil Rights Movement through Black Power to Black Lives Matter. And in feminism, the women’s movement, from women’s liberation through to the #Metoo movement. Almost all her works have a subject, and that subject is political in intention, either publicly and polemically political, or more subtly personal, implicit in the stories of her extended families and their experiences as black people in America.

The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6) (1997) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As the press release puts it:

For more than five decades, Ringgold has consistently challenged perceptions of African American identity and gender inequality through the lenses of the feminist and the civil rights movements. As cultural assumptions and prejudices persist, her work retains its contemporary resonance.

Hence she has produced series of works with titles like ‘Slave Rape’ and the ‘Feminist series’, and ‘Black Light’, and works like ‘Woman Free Yourself’.

Protest and activism have remained integral to Ringgold’s practice since she co-founded the group the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973 along with her then 18 year-old daughter, Michele Wallace.

In her earliest works in the 1960s, the ‘American People’ series (1963-67), Ringgold took ‘the American dream’ as her subject to expose social inequalities.

By the 1970s, Ringgold, along with her daughter, was leading protests against the lack of diversity in the exhibitions programme at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Forty years later her work was included in an exhibition at the same museum, on the subject of protest.

Fifty years after her earliest work, she published in 2016 We Came to America, a children’s book that celebrates cultural diversity. From start to finish her art is concerned with the political implications of black life in America.

And as a white man viewing the exhibition, I have no doubt African Americans were horribly oppressed – through centuries of slavery, the inequities of the Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation in the Deep South which lasted well into my own lifetime – and that Ringgold’s work is testimony to the enduring hurt and trauma of the suffering of the black experience in America right up to the present day.

But… well… I feel I have watched so many documentaries, been to so many exhibitions, watched so many movies and TV shows and read so many books about the suffering of African Americans that, horrible and true though it all is… well…The subject is certainly not new.

And also, although her treatment of it is sometimes harsh and explicit, more often it is oblique, with a lot of emphasis on Ringgold’s own personal experiences and the stories of her extended family.

And also the nature of the art itself – the use of soft and even luxurious fabrics – tends to soften and mediate the impact of a lot of what she’s saying.

The art

What I’m struggling to define is that I found the subject matter of many of the works less interesting than the form and the variety of experiments in form and presentation which Ringgold has made throughout her career as an artist rather than as a political activist.

Rather than shaking my head at the atrocities of slavery and institutional violence against African Americans, I more often found myself nodding my head at the inventiveness and exuberance and optimism of much of her art.

Roughly speaking, the works came in four shapes or styles:

  1. Paintings
  2. Posters
  3. Tankas
  4. Quilts

These four can be divided into a simpler binary division – before and after the tankas.

1. Paintings

Her earliest works appear to be fairly traditional paintings, mostly of people, contemporary Americans, done in a naive, kind of cartoon Modernism. The earliest works here come from the ‘American People’ series, which mostly depict white bourgeois figures with more than a hint of irony or satire.

As such, some of them sort of reminded me of Weimar satire from the 1930s. The reduction of this woman’s neck and boobs to circles and tubes, and the deliberately garish unnatural colouring reminded me of 1930s Picasso.

American People #9: The American Dream (1964) Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There are about ten or so of these early paintings and their feel for design and layout, and their type of super-simplified, Henri Rousseau-style, naive figuration is extremely beguiling.

American People #15: Hide Little Children (1966) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

As the 60s progressed Ringgold created a series titled ‘Black Light’ which took the same kind of stylised human faces, but experimented with casting them in varying shades of black and brown. Literally investigating the changing effects of blackness and brownness in painted portraits.

2. Posters

By the later 1960s the social situation in America had become revolutionised, not least for African Americans, with the much more aggressive Black Power and Black Panther groups replacing the peaceful, early 60s, Christian activism of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Also, the Women’s Liberation movement was inaugurated and spread like wildfire through a generation of frustrated, intelligent women, impatient at being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, objectified and held back in every area of civil life.

Ringgold responded to this explosion of activism by creating banners and posters with stark textual messages, such as ‘Woman Free yourself’, ‘Woman Freedom Now’, ‘United States of Attica’ (a response to the uprising at Attica Prison in New York State where 2,000 prisoners seized hostages and held out for four days till the state police took back control in a pitched battle in which 43 people were killed [10 staff, 33 prisoners]).

The posters use cut-out paper to create vibrant text against jangling colours, as well as offset prints and silkscreen techniques. Text, colour, patterns and shapes.

Woman Free Angela (1971) by Faith Ringgold

Next to the posters are hung a series of images from the same period (1970-72) depicting the American flag – ‘The People’s Flag Show’ as well as ‘United States of America’ – a map on which has been written every instance of anti-black police brutality. Politics, black anger.

There’s one titled ‘Judson 3’ which refers to the following event:

In 1970, there was a Flag Show that took place at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park, for which Faith designed the poster. The show, after massive participation on the part of artists in New York, was closed by the Attorney General’s office. Faith, Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche were arrested and charged with Desecration of the Flag. As a consequence, they were dubbed the Judson 3. They were subsequently vindicated of all charges on appeal by lawyers who were assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was an important case for Freedom of Speech among artists.

So Ringgold herself was directly, personally, physically involved in the kinds of protests and events she celebrates.

The urgency of the commitment to political issues at the end of the 60s, which found expression in posters, placards, banners, mottos and logos, reminds me of the banners and posters being made at exactly the same time by the nun-turned-artist Corita Kent, who was recently the subject of an eye-opening exhibition at the House of Illustration at King’s Cross.

3. Tankas

So far so bold, brash and colourful. But her career takes a massive and decisive shoft with the discovery of fabrics. 

The story goes that Ringgold was on a visit to Europe and in a museum in Amsterdam looking at the venerable art of the Old Masters, when someone suggested she take a look at a nearby display of tankas.

tanka is a Tibetan hanging tapestry made of cotton or silk which contains or frames a painting of Buddhist deities, scenes, or a mandala. Tankas are generally portrait-shape and very, very big.

In a flash Ringgold realised this represented a liberation from the western white male tradition of the Oil Painting.

Here was something which broke with traditions of painting, of a discrete privileged image contained in and defined by a heavy gold frame and hung on a wall to be admired by millionaire owners.

Here was a way of presenting images within a much more populist, accessible, craft setting – and in a way which created a much more complicated interplay of fabrics and textures and mixed surfaces.

Almost immediately after the trip, in 1972-3, Ringgold made a series titled ‘Feminist series’ which explores this new medium. The oriental origin of the form appears to be reflected in:

  • the tall narrow format
  • the impressionistic treatment of trees and forests
  • and the use of text (as in the posters) but written vertically, in the Chinese style, completely against the western tradition

In the example below, note the way a) the main image is painted in acrylic but b) embedded in a fairly complex surround of fabrics c) the way it is designed to be hung and so has a loop of fabric at the top allowing a metal bar like a curtain rail to go through it and d) there are braided tassels hanging from each end of the curtain loop. (N.B. There is some text in the blue sky at the top of the painting, descending vertically as I mentioned, and conveying a feminist message – but too small to be legible in this reproduction.)

Feminist Series: We Meet the Monster #12 of 20 by Faith Ringgold (1972) Acrylic on canvas framed in cloth

A door had opened. From this point onwards, all of Ringgold’s work right up to the present day involves greater or lesser amounts of fabric.

A few years later (in 1974) she produced a series titled ‘Windows of the Wedding’, experiments with using the fabric surround of the tanka to frame purely abstract geometric shapes. In just a decade she’s come from the semi-Weimar satire on white people in America through to these multi-textured, abstract and fabric experiments. A hell of an odyssey.

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

The five examples of the series in the exhibition take up one wall and create a restful, if complicatedly decorative effect. But they appear to be quite unique in her oeuvre in being the only works on display here which do not depict the human face or figure. It was nice to sit and watch them for a while. Ringgold is known – perhaps over-known – for her black consciousness and feminist messages but I’m glad the curators showed that there is also this other, purely decorative side to her output.

In the final room we jump forward nearly 40 years to 2010, when she produced another series of tankas, each of these ones centring an iconic black figure, painted in a faux-naive style in the centre and surrounded with relevant text from a sermon or speech or text by the figure (too small to see in this photo).

Each portrait is embedded in a decorative arrangement of flowers, or just zoomorphic shapes, and this square it itself embedded in a luxurious velvet fabric which really makes you want to reach out and stroke them. As you can see each tanka is suspended from a green wooden rod at each end of which hangs a couple of golden tassels. Made me think of Muslim prayer mats or rugs… Certainly a tradition very different from Rembrandt in a gold frame.

From left to right, they are:

  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Martin Luther King Jnr Tanka #3 I Have A Dream (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Sojourner Truth Tanka #2 Ain’t I A Woman (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Harriet Tubman Tanka #1 Escape To Freedom (2010),

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

4. Quilts

And then there are the quilts. Melissa Blanchflower, the show’s curator, explained that Ringgold’s great, great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery, was made to sew quilts for plantation owners. On the slave plantations slave women were often set to sew and create quilts for the master’s family. It was collaborative work, many women working on the same quilt. The quilts might bear all kinds of images, from Christian imagery, through to fairy tales or folk stories, as well as improving mottos. The women might also sew in coded messages.

The skill was passed down the female line of the family to Ringgold’s mother, who was a fashion designer, so that Faith grew up with the sight and smell and touch and shape of all kinds of fabrics, and a feel for what goes with what, what compliments, and what jars and offsets – for the world of effects which can be created by pre-designed fabrics.

The difference between the tankas and the quilts is that the former are designed to be hung while the latter end up being hung but can also be laid flat. The real innovation is in the use of the apparently passive ‘feminine’ format of the quilt for all kinds of vivid, angry and emotive social messages.

Take the emotive series titled ‘Slave Rape’. In this photo you can see:

  • Slave Rape #1 of 3: Fear Will Make You Weak (1973)
  • Slave Rape #2 of 3: Run You Might Get Away (1973)
  • Slave Rape #3 of 3: Fight To Save Your Life (1973)

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

If you described the subject and the figure’s facial attitudes and postures in words, your auditor might expect them to be dark and harrowing but, as you can see, they are brightly coloured, and the figures done in Ringgold’s characteristic faux-naive style are almost (I hate to say it) pretty.

Only the titles bespeak the atrocities they commemorate. And, after I’d looked at the human figures, and enjoyed their interplay with the jungle foliage around them, my eye tended to forget the ostensible subject matter and wandered off to enjoy the fabrics – the use of variegated fabrics in the surrounds, materials which could easily be offcuts of curtains or sofa coverings, but which, sewn together in subtle asymmetries, provide a pleasing counterpoint to the central narrative figures.

In later quilts Ringgold revived the use of texts from her poster days to weave together her personal stories and writings with the history of African Americans. ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ from 1983 was her first ‘story quilt’, made up of alternating squares containing schoolgirl-style depictions of members of her family, and numbered squares of text, which tell the story of her early life.

Installation view of ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ by Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

There are half a dozen or so of these story quilts from the later 1980s and they combine a complex interplay of hand-written text with painted imagery, embedded in patchworks of fabric, to create a profound impact – a sophisticated, politically alert reworking of a time-honoured, and family tradition.

Works from the 1990s, such as the ‘American Collection’ series (with titles such as ‘We Came To America’ and ‘The Flag is Bleeding’ [the second image in this review, above] combine all the techniques she has mastered, to create images of greater violence and intensity. After the hope of the 1960s, life for many urban American blacks seems to have become steadily bleaker, more drug addicted and violent, and the experience of immigrants to America more fraught and dangerous.

And yet the same period saw the far more relaxed, vibrant and optimistic series ‘Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow’ (first image in this review).

Ringgold has reflected her times, and the rise and cultural spread of the two great social movements of black power and feminism over the past fifty years, but there is also – within her voice or brand or oeuvre – a surprising variety of tone and style.

Arriving back at the ‘American People’ series from the 1960s you are staggered at the journey she has been on, and by all the things she has seen and felt and expressed with such confidence and imagination. She did it her way. She did it with style. Inspiring.

Interview with Faith Ringgold

A conversation between Faith Ringgold and Serpentine Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist.

In fact, being a grand old lady of American art means there are scads of videos about Faith Ringgold and many illuminating interviews with her.


Related links

  • Faith Ringgold continues at the Serpentine Gallery until 20 October 2019

Books by Faith Ringgold

Shes quite a prolific author, too.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize acknowledges an international photographer for an outstanding body of work that has been exhibited or published in Europe in the previous twelve months. Projects are recognised for their major achievements and innovations in the field of photography and contemporary culture.

The DBPFP19 exhibition aims both to highlight and give platform to four very diverse artistic practices, which simultaneously display innovative, committed and engaged approaches to photography

Each year a long list is drawn up and then the panel of judges whittles it down to a list of four finalists. The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced at a special award ceremony held at The Photographers’ Gallery on 16 May 2019.

N.B.

Note two things:

  1. books Several of the projects originated as books and the book versions are on display in display cases and can be bought separately at the Photographers Gallery shop. For exhibition purposes the books are dismantled and various elements of them blown-up, printed and variously displayed on the gallery walls, but it’s worth bearing in mind the bookish origins of most of the projects.
  2. projects The prize is not narrowly about photography, it is much more broadly about ‘achievements in the field of contemporary culture’, a very wide and loose definition.

This year’s four short-listed artists are:

1. Laia Abril for the publication On Abortion (Dewi Lewis Publishing, November 2017)

2. Susan Meiselas for the exhibition Mediations (exhibited at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, 6 February–30 May 2018)

3. Arwed Messmer for the exhibition RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis (exhibited at ZEPHYR|Raum für Fotografie, Mannheim, 9 September – 5 November 2017)

4. Mark Ruwedel for the exhibition Artist and Society: Mark Ruwedel (16 February–16 December 2018 at Tate Modern, London)

1. On Abortion by Laia Abril

Laia Abril was born in Spain in 1986 (aet. 33).

Over five years Abril has compiled a multi-layered, visual history of abortion. Her display starts with a row of photos of early contraceptive  devices and abortion equipment, so that you slowly move past a series of images of gruesome-looking implements which have been used to perform abortions through the ages.

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

The next wall features photographic portraits Abril has made of women who tell their traumatic stories of being denied abortions in their native countries, or the risks they undertook to travel to another country to have one.

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Each of these start b&w portraits is accompanied by the subject’s story. This is Marta’s:

“On January 2, 2015, I travelled to Slovakia to have an abortion. [In Poland, abortion is illegal except in cases of sexual assault, serious foetal deformation, or threat to the mother’s life] I was too scared to take DIY abortion pills alone. What if something went wrong? So I decided to get a surgical abortion in a clinic abroad. I felt upset about borrowing money for the procedure, and lonely and frustrated because I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. The hardest part was facing my boyfriend, who opposes abortion. All the same, I felt stronger and more mature afterwards.”

The damage done to individuals by lack of access to legal, safe and free abortion services is indicated by this grid of nine women who all died because of botched abortions or because abortions were denied them by the state, even in cases of extreme medical emergency.

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

At the end of the final wall is an information panel which lists some of the attacks, arson and murders carried out by anti-abortion activists in America over the past few decades.

The project, in the words of the curators:

addresses the marginalised position of women in past and contemporary societies, whilst exposing the many social triggers, stigmas and taboos that still persist around abortion and female health.

Towards the end is this strikingly clear, bright image.

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

The story behind it is:

“In February 2015, a 19-year-old woman took abortion pills in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, then went to hospital with abdominal pain. After treatment, her doctor called the police, who handcuffed her to the bed and forced her to confess. In Brazil, abortion is illegal under most circumstances and doctors are known to break their confidentiality code in order to denounce women who try it. Patients accused of attempting abortion have been detained in hospitals for weeks and even months.”

My opinion

A close reading of the criteria and aims of the exhibition suggest there is a tension – or a spectrum – running between pure photography-as-art at one end and photography subordinated to ‘committed and engaged’ achievements in contemporary culture at the other.

Of the four projects, Abril’s seems to me the most obviously political, certainly the most ‘committed and engaged’ and, what’s more, on a highly emotive and often harrowing subject.

On that basis – if the judges give weight to the ‘committed and engaged’ criterion – I’d be surprised if Abril doesn’t win.

2. aka Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas

Meisalas was born in the USA in 1948 (aet. 71).

She is an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer who’s been working for five decades, whose subjects have included war, human rights and cultural conflicts such as the sex industry and the visual representation of women.

She takes an immersive approach, spending long periods of time with her subjects. In addition to photographs, she produces essays and artworks, audio and film installations.

Meiselas has been working on a long-term project titled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, offering a multi-layered history of the Kurds. It has not been a happy history. The Kurdish people are spread across an area which overlaps the four states of south-east Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and eastern Iran, what were once described to me as four of the most brutal regimes on earth.

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

It was seeing reports of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds in the late 1980s that inspired Meiselas to visit the area in the early 1990s. Here she began to document the atrocities committed by the Hussein regime, including mass executions, tortures and rape.

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Thus began a process which has continued for the past thirty years, with Meiselas continuing to work with Kurdish diasporic communities to document their experiences and gather visual evidence – documents, family photos, maps, mementos and personal stories – to give shape to a collective memory of Kurdistan.

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

The work itself consists of two walls of colour photographs showing destroyed villages, exhumed graves, and family members mourning the dead.

Another wall has been turned into an enormous map of the Middle East and Europe, into which pins have been driven at locations where Kurdish diasporas exist (London, Berlin) and from these pins hang photos, documents, brochures and pamphlets telling their stories, complete with photos of themselves, family members alive and dead and so on. A sort of archive of memories.

And, on the fourth wall there is a film installation which, on parallel screens, intersperses photos Meiselas has taken with historic photos and footage of people and places from the region, alongside personal testimony from Kurdish survivors as well as Meiselas herself.

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

My opinion

Between 1987 and 1991 I worked on Channel Four’s international affairs TV programme. I was the assistant producer in charge of stories from Asia, defined as all the countries from Japan to Israel and including the two most populous nations on earth, China and India.

But it was the Middle East which kept making the news and my stint coincided with the end of the Iran-Iraq War (20 August 1988) and the first Gulf War (2 Aug 1990 – 28 Feb 1991).

During this time I got to know quite a bit about the Kurds and their culture. In fact, on one occasion I was driven to a ‘safe house’ in West London to meet Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who was at that point on the run from Saddam Hussein’s assassins, for an interview and to persuade him to appear on British TV to put the case for Kurdish independence. He agreed so I was his minder and organiser for that appearance. Later, he went on to be elected the first post-Saddam President of Iraq, serving from 2006 to 2014.

I remember to this day producing the section of the show which covered Saddam’s gassing of the village of Halabja on March 16, 1988. At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack and an estimated further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness. What a bastard he was. That weekend I produced the part of the show where we interviewed a poison gas expert describing the effects on the body of the nerve agents Tabun and Sarin – the burning lungs, the seared skin, the agonising pain as you go blind – and then a regional expert explaining why Saddam launched the attack and what he hoped to gain (to terrorise the local Kurdish population into stopping their support for the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who had recently taken control of the region).

The full history of the Kurds is long and complicated. Just the story of the past thirty years, from the persecutions of Saddam, through the chaos of the Iraqi Civil War, and then the eruption of ISIS into Kurdish territory in 2014, right up to last week’s news that Kurdish forces played a key role in taking the final ISIS stronghold in Syria – is a tortuously complicated story which requires a lot of explaining.

So I know a bit about Kurdish political history, I’ve met Kurdish political leaders and regional analysts, I’ve been following developments there for 30 years or so – but I felt ambivalent about this display. Gathering the stories of Kurdish survivors is clearly an important contribution to their oral history. Bringing the story of this brutally repressed people to a wider audience is obviously a very worthwhile cause.

And yet I felt ambivalent about the actual products which you see on display, the layout and content of the exhibition. Take the photos of men showing off the scars from beatings and tortures they received from Saddam’s forces – or of Middle Eastern women standing next to a mass grave of their menfolk. These are stock images of stock subjects.

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Obviously a project like this is well-intentioned and has involved a lot of people in numerous forms of collaboration, in telling their often harrowing stories of persecution or uplifting stories of survival.

But, in my experience, accounts like this run the risk of making the horrors of war and genocide in this region seem like inexplicable nightmares, unless and until you make the hard effort to understand the Realpolitik which lies behind them.

The twin drawback of lots of ‘political’ art is that, whatever its good intentions, it tends to rely heavily on images, and on the testimony of the kinds of people who are available to give testimony, who are keen to have their stories heard. Thus it is easy to take photos of weeping mothers and bleak-eyed family members around a mass grave – and it is easy to take extensive accounts of how this or that family survived the attack on their village, the gassing, the roundups for interrogation, made a long trek into the mountains or managed to flee the region altogether.

But the risk is that these sad images and sad stories have the tendency to create an over-simplified dichotomy between the good and the bad, dividing people into sheep and goats. On the one hand are the inexplicable evil bastards who rape and torture and murder and gas and exterminate (represented here by stock photos of defaced images / posters/ paintings of Saddam) – on the other, the weeping mothers and crying children and shell-shocked men standing beside mass graves which are only now being opened up to reveal their grim contents.

But people aren’t black and white, people are a complex mix and if 20th century history teaches us anything, it is that ordinary boring people can be bullied and persuaded to do, and accept, almost anything.

To be more specific, the Kurds themselves are divided into many factions. They have created numerous militias and fighting forces which have proved themselves very effective and with whom the West, in particular America, has allied itself over the past 20 years – but which are themselves no angels.

The area is riven by religious, ethnic, nationalistic, political and militia-based divisions which look set to destabilise it for the foreseeable future.

And, once you’ve gotten familiar with the subject, the stories you really want to hear are not the stories of the men, women and children who escaped to make new lives in Berlin and London, it is the thinking of the leaders, the generals and the politicians who created this mess. It’s in the minefield jungle of conflicting nationalistic and security aims that some kind of compromise and peace has to be thrashed out.

If you want to understand why this kind of thing happens, and are genuine about trying to prevent it happening again, then listening to lots of weeping women isn’t enough. You need to undertake a thorough study of the landscape, the geography and climate and natural resources of the area (because half the time it comes down to fighting over natural resources – water, oil, farmable land), and then of the long, bitter histories of the warring peoples who have lived there.

Only then do atrocities like this become at least comprehensible, and only as they become comprehensible and analysable, can you gather the evidence and arguments to try and stop them happening again. There’s no way to avoid inexplicable atrocity. But if the atrocity turns out to be explicable – if it can be seen as part of a way of government based on terror, as a way of controlling fierce ethnic divisions – then at least that’s a start to thinking about how the international community should deal with governments based on terror, and begins to provide suggestions on how to police ethnic divisions.

I liked the idea of the enormous map with the pamphlets hanging from it as a thing, as an object – but then I love maps of any kind.

The film projections included lots of evocative old photos of Kurdish peasants taken in the late 19th or early 20th century.

All of the photos are taken with great clarity and all-too-vividly capture the horrible traumatic experiences of the victims.

And partly because the room is darkened to allow us to see the projections, the whole thing has a powerful sensaround feel to it.

And maybe all of this, maybe even the mere existence of a people called the Kurds, will come as news to a lot of the gallery goers.

But for me, personally, I didn’t think this display explains to any visitor why the history of the Kurds has been so troubled, exactly what challenges they face, and the best ways forward to some kind of peaceful solution.

3. RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer

If women protesting against illiberal abortion laws, and the sorry plight of the Kurds are both likely to prompt sympathy – or righteous anger – from the enlightened gallery-goer, then this project by Arwed Messmer is much more problematic.

To state the facts:

The Red Army Faction (German: Rote Armee Fraktion), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang was a West German far-left militant organization founded in 1970. Key early figures included Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. The West German government as well as most Western media and literature considered the Red Army Faction to be a terrorist organization.

The Red Army Faction carried out a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades. Their activity peaked in late 1977, which led to a national crisis that became known as the “German Autumn”. The RAF has been held responsible for thirty-four deaths, including many secondary targets, such as chauffeurs and bodyguards, as well as many injuries throughout its almost thirty years of activity.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

Messmer’s display derives from a massive book, a copy of which is available to leaf through on a table in his exhibition room. According to the Photographers’ Gallery:

Messmer’s project repurposes images, documents and other source materials commonly used in police investigations and crime-scene reconstructions that he researched in German state and police archives. Messmer’s new and surprising ‘narrative’ examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history. The installation highlights the early period between 1967 to 1977, showcasing images from the student protests in 1968, police re-enactments and an extensive collection of investigative, forensic and documentary photographs ranging from the mundane to the surreal.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

In the German Autumn of 1977, I was 16 and punk rock was exploding across England. (It wasn’t the only thing that was exploding: here is a list of all the IRA attacks carried out in 1977 – long, isn’t it? If you didn’t live through that era you can’t imagine what it was like to turn on the evening news and read about a new terrorist attack in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or Europe every night.)

The Clash’s first single White Riot was released in March that year and it seemed a completely appropriate soundtrack to an era of street disorder, to the terrorist shootings, bombings and assassinations which were the routine background to our lives. Baader, Ensslin and other members of the group had been arrested and imprisoned as early as 1972 but this didn’t stop other members of the extended group carrying out terrorist acts throughout the 1970s.

On 17 October 1977, in what came to be called the ‘Death Night’, Ensslin, Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found hanged in their cells at Stammheim Prison. The press ran features about the gang and I pinned atmospheric black-and-white photos of these university-educated would-be revolutionaries up on my bedroom wall, along with all the other symbols of the political chaos of the time.

As to Messmer’s display, this is on four walls of one room. On wall is dominated by an enormous blow-up of a black and white photo of student protester Benno Ohnesorg lying dead having been shot by Germany police during a student demo in June 1967, one of the increasingly violent events which crystallised the belief among some students that they, too, needed to take up arms in order to overthrow the West German capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal state.

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Along the next wall are full-length mug shots of twenty or so student activists protesting at the state funeral of Reichstag President Paul Löbe in August 1967. They’re dressed in all kinds of comical outfits, some wearing make-up, so that it looks more like a parade of clowns and hippies than dangerous radicals. It was still the late ’60s. Hey, hey we’re the Monkees.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

Jump forward ten long years to the period just before the Death Night.

The most evocative or eerie or disturbing element in the display, while at the same time being strangely banal, is an entire wall of photos taken inside the cells of Meinhof and Baader at Stammheim Prison at the time of their deaths.

What struck me was how comfy the cells look, with toothbrushes and rolling tobacco lying about and the walls packed with shelves full of books. It looks a lot like my son’s room at university, only tidier.

I noticed books by the usual suspects lying around, works by Marx and Lenin, of course, and then by the supposedly ‘softer’ Western Marxists such as Gramsci, Lukacs and Walter Benjamin.

Freedom through armed, anti-imperialist struggle.

Compared to other prison cells I’ve read about, compared to the Nazi death camps or the barracks in Russian gulags, this looks like the lap of luxury: hot and cold running water, as many books as you want and even – to my amazement – record players (I noticed a copy of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in Meinhof’s cell).

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader - Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader – Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

My opinion

Does this installation offer a:

new and surprising ‘narrative’ [which] examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history?

As with the Meiselas, I felt the display gave you the opposite of history and the opposite of understanding. I appreciate the aesthetic unity of the project; I appreciate in particular the visual uniformity of style and subject matter of the prison cell photos. Having them cover two walls does create a real sense of claustrophobia (tempered, as I’ve mentioned, by envy at their cracking book collection).

But the installation as a whole doesn’t, I think, begin to convey the mad craziness of the times and the power and persuasiveness of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, student slogans which rang on in universities across the western world and continued to inspire the plane hijackings, the kidnapping and assassination of bankers and industrialists, or just the random acts of violence which dominated the decade.

The most illuminating thing I’ve read about the terrorist movements which raged through the 1970s are the relevant chapters of The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010). It’s a popular and non-scholarly book, but it’s impact lies in the interviews with ex-members of the terrorist groups in Italy, France and Germany who, to a man, feel nothing but shame and regret for the harm, damage and deaths they caused. The chapter in it about the Red Army Faction (pp.111-121) will tell you more about their motivation, their activities, and the regrets of the former members than anything in this display.

4. Artist and Society by Mark Ruwedel

Ruwedel was born in 1954 in America (thus two of the four entrants are Americans). His is the most straightforward display. After the bewilderingly complex moral, social and political issues raised by the multimedia installations, it’s quite a relief to come to a display in a photography exhibition which consists simply of… photographs.

Classic black and white photos of American landscapes and the American scene.

“Typical American House“, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

‘Typical American House’, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

The four walls of this room display beautifully composed, nicely framed, richly evocative black and white photos of a) abandoned houses in the desert b) the relics of military testing in the desert c) distinctively American houses lining Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and d) rivers running through ravines.

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Reading the wall labels you discover these images are indeed collected into sets which have names:

  • Dusk a series showing empty houses and shacks in the bleak empty desert under the twilight sky
  • Pictures from Hell awe-inspiring landscapes which generations of settlers evocatively named Helltown, Devils Gardens, Hells Hollow or Devils Land
  • We All Loved Ruscha his homage to the artist Ed Ruscha, which recreates shots included in Ruscha’s 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip
  • Crater which depicts nuclear test sites in Nevada

I like going on long walks in the country, and I’ve been a fan of land artists like Richard Long from the moment I learned about them in the 1980s, and I am a big fan of the J.G. Ballard aesthetic of how Western civilisation is already living amidst its own ruins – so I warmed most of all to Ruwedel’s shots of eerily deserted bomb test sites.

Ruined old shacks in the desert I’ve seen loads of times; picturesque photos of canyons you can see in tourist promos for America’s national parks etc… but the strange metal and concrete shapes built by military forces for reasons long forgotten and long since abandoned… they do it for me every time.

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Not to be outdone by the bookish competition, Ruwedel is also interested in the craft of photographic printing and the photograph-as-object, and this is demonstrated by a number of his hand-made artist’s books which are on show in a glass display case. Stylish.

My opinion

If the prize were awarded solely of the basis of photography – on a photographer’s skill in choosing great visual subjects, on the quality of composition, the framing, and the creation of atmosphere, I think Ruwedel would win the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize hands down.

But it isn’t. A ‘committed and engaged approach’ is a key criterion for winning the prize, and seen from a political-cultural perspective Ruwedel is the weakest entrant.

The Messmer project is, in my opinion, the next weakest in that the images he has dug up from the archives are certainly intriguing and often striking (the mugshots of 1967 protesters dressed as clowns and freaks) but you had to know a bit about the subject matter first for it to really make sense.

The Susan Meiselas I have already discussed at length, and I suppose is worthy, thorough, deeply engaged, but – in my opinion – flawed.

Which leaves Laia Abril as the likely winner, for several reasons. One is the universal applicability of her subject – the politics of sexual reproduction, the issue of control of women’s bodies, by definition affects at least half the world’s population.

But it’s not just about the emotive subject matter, and her evident commitment to it. It’s also about her skill as a photographer. The emotion Abril gets into the gaunt, haunted portraits of her abortion-traumatised women makes a lasting impact that grows in the memory. Just that one photo of handcuffs attached to a metal bedstead is hard to forget, both as a story, and because it is such a skillful visual composition.

Altogether, regarded as a socio-political art project, I think Abril’s one really does show the fullest, most rounded breadth and depth – ranging from photos of the horrible implements used in back street abortions, to the stark images of women affected by repressive legislation here and now.

If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that Abril will win the prize on 16 May.

Curator

Curated by Anna Dannemann from The Photographers’ Gallery.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

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