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‘Every generation rewrites the past in its own image’

27 February 2023

From the March 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

The word ‘art’ comes to us with one eyebrow raised as to its respectability. In the 12th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth described how Merlin used his ‘art’ to raise a stone circle – stuck too fast for human hands to shift – from a mountain in Ireland and transported it to Salisbury Plain. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest the words ‘art’ and ‘magic’ are interchangeable. ‘Art’ is an acquired skill, but it carries associations of conjury, duplicity, make-believe – of knowing more than is safe or respectable. To be ‘artless’ is to be innocent, charming, unaffected. To be ‘artful’ is to be cunning, wily, duplicitous, up to no good. Art, historically, is the stuff of skill, but also of deception. The artist is not to be trusted.

How then, might we consider art’s relationship to history? An artwork can show us the shifting face of beauty and other qualities prized in a given moment. We can learn the colours and materials favoured and what a particular time might have looked or felt (and perhaps even smelled) like. Paintings direct our attention to forgotten recipes. Costume history starts with the study of portraiture. ‘History painting’ is of course not always about history – in the sense of battles and revolutions – though when it is, it garnishes the victors’ walls. War artists bring us the ruins of conflict and life going on (or not) around it. Bundled up somewhere in this is propaganda – art made to glorify a cause, a war or a regime.

By convention, we receive that trickster, art, as a companion from the realm of fiction and white-bearded history as a lord in the territory of fact. This is an artful confection; history is shifting territory not solid ground. Every generation rewrites the past in its own image. Recent history, with its abundance of record, looms huge, its polyvocal narrative unruly. Art reworks this history, sometimes at the speed of social media or rolling news. We can feel this urgency in the pulsing edits of Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016) – in its interwoven footage of racist violence, celebration, praise, dance and music. It is present, too, in the choreography of Marta Popivoda’s video collage of massed state gymnastic displays and politic demonstrations, Yugoslavia: How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body (2013).

Both Jafa and Popivoda use archival footage, existing materials of the documentary record, to construct an alternative interpretation of received history. In two exhibitions this year, two very different artists go further, proposing the most troublesome aspect of art’s relationship to history – its artfulness – as a tool for exploring things unrecorded or at risk of erasure.

At Camden Art Centre, Mohammed Sami’s vast depopulated paintings grasp at the canvas, the paint scraped, abraded, sprayed and patchy, images shivering at the edge of disappearance. Stripes of blotchy pastel patterning resolve into a stack of bare mattresses; the title – Ten Siblings (2021) – hints at their one-time occupants. One depthless, claustrophobic canvas is filled with a rhythmic pattern of elongated grey forms – not, as it seems, a work of minimalist abstraction, but a sandbag barricade, damp and muddy at its base.

The Weeping Lines Mohammed Sami

The Weeping Lines (2022), Mohammed Sami. Courtesy the artist, Modern Art, London and Luhring Augustine, New York; © the artist

Born in Baghdad, Sami grew up in Iraq and lived through decades of conflict before coming to Europe as a refugee in 2007. His paintings relate to memory, but you will not find the Baghdad of front-page news here. There’s no spectacle, no well-framed horror, nothing easy to read. What he paints is not incident but response: the uncanny, tense and listless quality of life in wartime. Light in a home with the windows boarded up, or cloaked in perpetual sandstorm. The squalor of things and places once human life is removed from them. An imagination that sees monsters in the shadows, in which figures linger half seen and drying clothes evoke ghostly bodies.

Sami talks of how poets use symbolism and allusion to smuggle ideas and imagery past a censorious regime. His relationship to the visual realm is likewise sideways and suggestive. These are works scaled to the size of the walls of a parliament building or baronial mansion – an alternative kind of history painting, one rooted in personal memory, fleeting impressions and physical sensation.

Christopher Kulendran Thomas showed his complex multi-screen and installation work The Finesse (2022) at both the ICA, London and the KW Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin, over the winter. This summer it will be installed at the Kunsthalle Zürich. Kulendran Thomas is interested in how art and technology might be used to reimagine or reconstruct events that have been subject to historical erasure – in this case, the Tamil story of the 1983–2009 war to establish the independent state of Tamil Eelam in the north of Sri Lanka. Among other things, the five-screen film combines episodes of evident artifice – a deepfake of Kim Kardashian speaking earnestly about Armenia – with sections of what appears to be archive footage, of the kind used by Jafa and Popivoda. We watch a division of Tamil women training for combat. At various points we revisit an interview with an eloquent woman in combat fatigues who explains the role experimental architecture and the new World Wide Web will play in cementing Tamil identity.

Kulendran Thomas draws no clear distinction in the film between historic footage and contemporary reconstructions. He is making visible episodes that have been effectively erased and throwing doubt over the historic record. This is history, artfully told.

From the March 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.