Sound is the first thing you hear upon encountering Soufiane Ababri’s ‘Here is a strange and bitter crop’ showing at London’s Space Gallery, and later to move to Glassbox Gallery in Paris. The ambiguous roar of a crowd invites us into an installation composed of drawings, sound, sculpture and performance that explores masculinity and vulnerability in its most intimate forms, the prism of sexuality – but it would be a dis-service to the subtlety of Ababri’s work to limit the interpretation to that.
The exhibition consists of an installation that integrates two large mural drawings “Here is a strange and Bitter Crop”, and six smaller pieces of drawn work “Bed Works/Beautiful Fruit”; as he explains in a video accompanying the show, Ababri’s chosen materials and practice which he describes as a rejection of artistic conventions that have served as tools of oppression, are crayons and drawing paper. With these tools, Ababri creates work that echoes with a multitude of artistic references but possess an originality that is bracing, challenging and raw in its exploration of the sexualised, male and homosexual black body. It is both beautiful and disturbing work. The main mural that dominates the centre of the space and enclosed in a cage that is both a football field and performance site, is a reference to Justin Fashanu – who serves as a sort of presiding spirit over the show; Ababri draws inferences to the struggle of other groups, in particular, other groups with which he identifies, brown-skinned men, as well as – and the commonality of the football ground which metaphorically was a stage of execution for Fashanu, and has been a literal stage for execution in Afghanistan. This work hauntingly draws out this connection between the social space, and the murderous possibility of the crowd; the suggestion of the intersectionality of suffering between different minorities is one that Ababri seems to delicately rather than overtly evoke with its focus on black, queer bodies. The smaller pieces in the exhibition draw on a global artistic iconography, influenced explicitly by pornographic videos – this is probably one of the most challenging aspects of this work – are these men fucking or is this love? It echoes a confusion that perhaps exists for marginalised bodies that in mainstream contexts rarely see themselves represented in intimate, loving or sexual ways. It’s not clear whether these men are loving or fucking. The work certainly draws on a global tradition of representing the erotic, most readily calling to mind the images of the Kama Sutra, and in the images of the men’s bodies, the hyper-sexualised physicality of Tom of Finland. Yet, it is emphatically the pain of the black body that Ababri mines for this work; a fact underscored by the title of the show, which is taken from the last line of “Strange Fruit”, sung by Billie Holiday to make the lynching of black men socially visible. The men are represented in various sexual positions against a background that seems almost bucolic until as Ababri explains, one realises that they represent cotton fields. It underscores the fact that black gay sex is also commodified as labour in the same way that Justin Fashanu was commodified in football and feared being devalued because of his sexuality. There is something in his work that he is saying about the fact that the dominant representation of black same-sex intimacy is of African-American men; exploited or co-opted in the service of commercial interests, yet also serving as a viscerally powerful representation of visibility.
There is a sense in which Ababri’s stated intention of intersectionality doesn’t entirely come together in his work – and the show itself borders on the exploitation of the black body – afterall, what is represented here is the black body as a signifier for global pain – and as such the black body as ultimate victim. Ababri’s gaze does not seem, at least to this reviewer, to be one of identifying with the struggles of these subjects, rather they seem both vulnerable and consumable – whether Ababri is reflecting a reality of the broader queer consumption of black gay masculinity as of low value and disposable or working from this position is an open question – one that echoes the broader perspective in which sexually performative bodies are hypervisible yet silent and disposable. It’s doubtful that Ababri intends this potentially exploitative vein and his foregrounding of Justin Fashanu suggests a recognition of the power of visibility and naming – but the nuanced inter-weaving of painful experiences in the (Justin Fashanu piece) does not really occur in the portraiture. These focus on the black body, with one piece representing other ethnicities but this seems out of step and tokenistic. That said, Ababri’s work in other contexts does not only focus on the black body, as the accompanying video commentary to the show makes clear. It is perhaps that is an omission in the curation of this show, though it allows a powerful focus on its themes, it robs us of a wider view of Ababri’s oeuvre. Still, who benefits from this exhibition of black pain is a question that is always pertinent to ask. More pleasingly, Ababri’s artistic methods produce a bracing liveliness of colour and form that is joyous – and he’s also not shy of naming his influences, citing Bruce Nauman as an influence on the first and last work in the show. This stylised drawing of a man scheduled to be hung who escapes his noose – and, as Ababri explains, begins to dance, is suggestively disordered and sharp-edged, as if the body itself is a weapon against itself; in it Ababri seems to say that it is possible to escape the noose of social oppression, but the body and person remains disordered by the cost and pain of visibility – a pain that Ababri joins a long line of cultural producers in harvesting.
Dele Meiji Fatunla is British Nigerian writer based in London. His non-fiction and fiction has appeared in a variety of publications including Chimurenga, Okay Africa and Open Road Review.