LITERAL DEPTH: LAY OBSERVATIONS ABOUT STORIES AND IYAHLOGUES
Stories and Iyalogues: Visual Memories, History and Identity: Gomo George
September 24 – October 23, 1999
a response to the exhibition by Gerry Atwell
For a non-visual artist, the prospect of writing about visual arts is intimidating to say the least. After visiting Gomo George’s installation, Stories and Iyahlogues (Visual Memories, History and Identity) at Ace Art Gallery, however, I felt compelled to offer some personal impressions of his work. As a Black Canadian musician and writer, I have frequently written about race and identity, always with the hope of sharing perspectives, reducing obstacles and celebrating humanity.
I felt exhilarating pulses of comfort and recognition while visiting Gomo George’s installation. George manages to distill complex aspects of the modern African-Canadian experience (invisibility, identity, beauty and power) into compact visual messages. There is a depth to the sculptures that may elude a superficial perusal so it helps to examine Gomo George’s approach to the creative process, which, not surprisingly, involves African traditions.
In many African cultures, a flexible and complex social agreement about symbols, meanings and codes empowers the artist with a rich visual language to tell stories, effect commentary, spiritualize, jubilate or merely aggrandize. The viewer, usually an active participant in some kind of ceremony, completes the process by receiving, understanding and responding to the communication. The artwork is completed by this intra-dialogue between the artist and the audience, all within this transcendent language of agreed upon symbols, sounds and movements.
With Stories and Iyahlogues, George employs Africanized or Post-Diaspora appropriations of African art styles and processes. He consciously draws from African history and traditions while unapologetically incorporating the reality of his own Americanization, (Caribbean born and Canadian-ized in adulthood). Interestingly, it is during his use of Western, moreover pop-cultural allusions and materials, that George’s art is most traditionally African in process. African art embraces the honesty of things familiar as a starting point, a popular meeting place for discourse and the eventual pursuit of truths. The Western art world may be guilty of failing to recognize the distinction between the concepts of “familiar” and “popular”.
As such, George’s use of literal meanings and specific representational intent via symbols and codes may cause some viewers to question the sophistication or depth of the artworks. Here a paradox begins in that the viewer is at the mercy of her own ability or willingness to explore the work for meaning. Not that understanding all the inner meanings of the works is necessary to appreciate the collection. Gomo George’s sculptures and installations are visually compelling and provocative on their own. Walk through the installation first without the guide sheet to see what can be drawn from that string of giraffe-people, those bulbous tongues, the masks and the text. While George (like most artists) welcomes viewers to develop subjective relationships with his works, he seems to be waiting quietly for the more curious to beckon him to tell his stories. Eventually, even the most subjectively oriented viewer will be induced to guess at the meaning behind the etched text, dancing figures and those (almost too common) materials – cardboard, felt, avocado seeds and string.
Some works seem obvious. The visual directness of Taste with the tongues hanging out, for example, conjures well worn debates about the subjectivity of beauty in art and the Western (read-European) domination of it’s constructs. A quick chat with Gomo George reveals sly literal gags underscoring the depiction of the outstretched tongues. Upon coming to Canada, George noticed that the stuck out tongue has specific and distinct meanings in different cultures ranging from his native Dominican (a dismissal) to North American (taunting) to Aboriginal Manitobans (acknowledgment of humour).
There are obvious political undertones behind each of the sculptures but not such that the human experiences are compromised. In fact, the role of politics in this body of work seems to have been in the artist’s selection of which human experiences and truths to give a voice rather than in a desire to proselytize. A viewer’s familiarity (or lack thereof) with the specific political issues of race, and the African-Canadian identity may effect the texture of the messages being received but not their depth. For example, George’s installation entitled Tell My Horse, based on Haitian traditions, expresses how poor and oppressed people can gain empowerment from acknowledging the human frailties of their oppressors. Everyone, regardless of background, can appreciate the dignity and sophistication of the Haitian people who were able to develop such ingenious methods of coping with oppression and maintaining their own self-definition.
As one who has observed and written about race issues, I found Stories and Iyahlogues to be a fascinating lesson in the brilliance of concision. Gomo George manages to encapsulate politics, history, frustrations and even gallows humour into mild shock-pulses of humanity checks. There is a playfulness to the work that invites us to play along and a layering of detail and iconography that reminds us that there is depth in us all. We just have to be willing to see it.
Gerry Atwell is a musician and writer, born and raised in Winnipeg. As a keyboardist, he has performed with numerous bands and recording artists. In 1995, Gerry won the Prairie Waves II screen writing competition with his teleplay The Hands of Ida, which won a Blizzard award and was nominated for a Gemini award. His other writing credits include CBC Radio Drama: Soul Games, the stage play Soul in Ice, and the feature film script Barbara James (currently in post-production). His writing has been published in journals such as Border Crossings and Revue Noire (African Canadian Arts Revue). He is currently President of the Board of Directors of the St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre.