Bodies Only Skin Deep

Sandra Mujinga’s Hoarse Globules at Young Artists’ Society in Oslo feeds on the dissonance between the post-digital fluid self and the fixed identities of representational politics.

Sandra Mujinga, Hoarse Globules, installation view. Photo: UKS.

Sandra Mujinga’s previous works have been self-aware products of internet culture: looped video clips shot on mobile cameras, sample-based electronic sound collages, references to memes and online avatars. In this realm of processed images and mutable identities it has been easy to overlook the fact that almost all of the people appearing in her videos are black women. In recent years, however, such issues of representation have become increasingly accentuated by Mujinga, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and grew up in Oslo. Skin is obviously important in a practice which focuses so extensively on surfaces, screens and interfaces. This is made clear in Mujinga’s exhibition Hoarse Globules at UKS (Unge Kunstneres Samfund / Young Artists’ Society).

Hoarse Globules is a densely packed exhibition, with no less than seventeen works and a wide range of overlapping thematic threads crammed into UKS’s modest exhibition space, requiring visitors to step carefully over and between the works lying around on the floor and hanging from the ceiling and walls. Yet despite this abundance, the exhibition does not feel overloaded or unfocused. Mujinga is well on her way to an international breakthrough, but more than anything Hoarse Globules feels like an artistic breakthrough, where the artist’s ideas and choice of material both appear more clearly articulated than before.

The exhibition at UKS, which also included a series of performances at Kunstnernes Hus during the opening weekend, is a continuation or, perhaps more accurately, an alternative version of the exhibition Calluses at Tranen in Hellerup outside Copenhagen earlier this spring. On that occasion she showed several of her ‘wearable sculptures’: metre-long costumes made out of thick, synthetic, dark brown canvas, with large hoods and sleeves that almost reached the floor. Similar shapes reappear at UKS, but in this case the three sculptures Touch-Face are sown out of thin, grey elastane. Where the sculptures at Tranen were solid and lifelike, the UKS versions are like empty, limp sheaths.

Sandra Mujinga, Re-Imagining Things I, installation with performance at Kunstnernes Hus. Photo: UKS / Jan Khür.

The women in Mujinga’s videos have often resembled blends of fashion models and digital avatars. The intricate clothes and the digital effects layered on top of their bodies and faces have suggested malleable and fluid identities. In Hoarse Globules, human figures are almost entirely absent. The body of the dancer depicted in the three transparent and gnarled plexiglass plates of Camouflage Waves are completely covered by a liquid-like digital filter, and only a few fragments of hands are visible in the smaller plexiglass sculptures on the floor, scattered among other sculptures that resemble octopus tentacles and crabs’ claws. Four of the latex and faux leather costumes (Shawl) used during Mujinga’s runway-like performance at the Vigeland Museum during last year’s Sculpture biennial lie limply on the floor, seemingly thrown off, abandoned and left behind. They have been turned inside out, revealing the insides of the costumes, a glossy, liquid reddish material consisting of tinted glycerine encased in transparent plastic. This lining evokes associations of flesh and entrails, as if the interior of the body were nothing but a lining for the skin.

The body has, then, been reduced to a shell, to surfaces. Synthetic skin-like materials have often acted as stand-ins for the body in recent contemporary art (one example being Pamela Rosenkrantz’s pool of beige-pink baby-scented liquid in the Swiss pavilion at the 2015 Venice biennial), but they are given an extra dimension in Mujinga’s works. To a black person, the body is the skin in the sense that it is the skin that makes the body vulnerable and invisible. The dialectic between being too visible, yet also made invisible is a key factor of black identity in a white majority society, as described by Ralph Ellison in the novel Invisible Man (1952), where the narrator is “invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. […] When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination”.

Mujinga’s works have not only become more sculptural, they also appear to be more offline than before. A folded-up dark screen (Shed) is suspended from the ceiling of UKS, claiming to be a reflecting device that protects the exhibition room against surveillance. Digital technologies are not just liberating; they are often encoded with systemic prejudices – one example is facial recognition software, which has turned out to have problems identifying black people, particularly women. As technologies of this kind become increasingly widespread, such shortcomings become a democratic problem, but in a world of increasing surveillance they also open up opportunities for evading control.

With Hoarse Globules, the relationship between visibility and invisibility have become a more prominently featured leitmotif in Mujinga’s art. The artists’ works have taken on broader and more complex political resonance, giving rise to an interesting fluctuation between identity politics, the fluid digital identities and the hybrid figures. The faux leather costumes may be reminiscent of human skin, but their animal-like trunks, tentacles and claws still make them defy categorisation. After all, Mujinga’s ambivalent adherence to a project of identity politics surely expresses a reluctance to be pigeonholed.

Sandra Mujinga, Re-Imagining Things III, installation and performance at Kunstnernes Hus. Photo: UKS / Jan Khür.