Raél Jero Salley on Commemorating and Celebrating Black experience
In our continuing series on artists in the diaspora who promote Black identity and pride through their work, we present artist, cultural theorist, and art historian Raél Jero Salley. Other artists presented in this series include Portuguese painter and designer Mario Henrique, Canadian artist Tim Okamura, African-American painter Dean Mitchell, British artist T. S. Abe, and photographer Tawny Chatmon.
Salley holds degrees from Rhode Island School of Design (BFA), the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (MFA), and the University of Chicago (PhD). His research interests include modern and contemporary art and visual culture, with a focus on Blackness and the African diaspora. Currently, he holds the position of senior lecturer in painting and visual and art history at the University of Cape Town. He has lectured at major institutions, including the University of Chicago, Columbia College, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
His practice is grounded in the history and tradition of painting, but with subjects who are addressed in non-linear ways. Often, Salley’s paintings appear out of context: they resemble photographs, film stills, or commemorative portraits, but they lack definitive names, periods, or narratives. The result is a constellation of images that engage the viewer’s imagination. Generally, Salley’s work examines how we look at things and expect them to be meaningful, while generating questions and expanding dialogue. In this interview, he discusses his reasons for projecting South Africa’s complex history in his work.
Alongside an active studio practice, you are a well-respected art historian, curator, and cultural theorist, and currently hold concurrent positions as a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town and visiting professor at the University of California. In what ways do these disciplines complement each other?
I guess these activities may be separated out, but I see it differently. Making, displaying, and describing are closely related practices. My engagements with them developed over time. I started out making pictures, and as I did, I learned about how complex and special the visual world is. During my training, I got fascinated by the power of images and pictures, especially how they have the ability to make us think all sorts of wild and wonderful things. So, in addition to making pictures, I became a student of histories of art. I discovered I enjoyed sharing what I learned with both makers and people interested in the history of visual worlds.
I am currently chair of art history, theory, and criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I am also visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and research associate at Stellenbosch University (prior to this, I was at the University of Cape Town).
The seminal exhibition Promise (2013) “drew from past and present events in South Africa’s visual archive.” It held at the Iziko Museums of South Africa and aimed to “commemorate and celebrate Black experience while provoking dialogue about the spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional aspects of South Africa.” At what point in your career did you realise the significance of positively projecting South Africa’s recent history, as well as Black identity? Was this decision informed by personal experiences?
This is a complex question. Maybe I’ll offer a story in response. I remember my first year in school as a child. While the teacher wasn’t looking, a couple of kids did something and had an accident—they broke the rules, something spilled, and they made a mess. I saw the event happen. When the result was discovered, they each told the teacher a different story about what happened. I think it was the first time I learned the difference between an event and its narrative history—the difference between what actually happened and how we describe what happened. I think we all understand this on some level, but it can get very complicated and make a real difference to people’s lived experience in the world. There are relatively few histories that describe events from viewpoints shaped by the diverse lived experiences of Black people.
How successful was the exhibition as a site in aiding Black South Africans to heal by re- imagining or erasing memories of negative historical events, majorly apartheid?
I don’t think I can answer this question. What I will say is that my intent is never to erase or challenge memories, but rather to imagine there is more space for dealing with the past in and for the present moment.
Today, what exists in South Africa is largely an imaginary landscape aimed at maintaining the economic structures of apartheid fused with foundational inequalities stemming from “governance structures that are inept, historically unsuccessful, and disaffected.” How are contemporary South African artists defining themselves and engaging these post-apartheid realities?
I’m not sure who said this or what the context of this quote is. There are many commentators who have described structural inequities that are both economic and political. South Africa’s constitution is one of the world’s most progressive, but it is undeniable that people continue to suffer in ways that are all too familiar. I think critical, contemporary artworks engage these social realities in many different ways, and some of them imagine living otherwise.
How would you react to criticism that your art largely documents South Africa’s recent history but does little to realise a radical new future characterised by socio-economic progress?
I’m not sure what exactly will realise such a radical new future, but I appreciate such criticism. One of the most vibrant debates in and about art and its related fields is about what an artist or their artwork should or should not be doing.
What is your view on the role of museums in correcting social imbalances and inequalities like exploitation, oppression, marginalisation, cultural imperialism, and violence, considering the brutal acquisition and continued display in Western museums of precious artefacts from Africa, like the Benin bronzes—far removed from their social and historical contexts—amidst calls for their repatriation?
Museums maintain various and complex roles in society, and each seems to operate based on the agenda set by the people who run them. I think museums have the potential to serve their audiences by fully engaging in the ongoing work of responding wisely to the historical legacies with which we all live.
In marked contrast to the series of paintings exhibited at Promise, those produced for On Avalokitesvara (2014) draw links to earlier experiments in abstraction begun circa 2006, make reference to a Mahayana bodhisattva, and display an attention to the formal elements of colour while questioning conventions of representation. What is the connecting thread between these separate bodies of work?
Yes, the groups of paintings appear different in terms of their form. This is mainly because of the conceptual starting points—one group developed from specific interest in a set of materials that includes documents and photographs from an historical archive; the other pictures come from an interest in unspecific ways of looking or listening. I think both are communicating about events, but in different ways.
Does this reference to Buddhism betray your religious inclinations? If so, what should we expect to see in future work?
This question makes me smile. I do not call myself a Buddhist. But I am inclined to meditate on the best ways of living in our present moment.
Oliver Enwonwu is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka magazine, Director, Omenka Gallery and Chief Executive, Revilo. He holds a first degree in Biochemistry, advanced diploma in Exploration Geophysics (distinction), Post Graduate Diplomas in Applied Geophysics and Visual Art (distinction) and a Masters in Art History, all from the University of Lagos. He is the founder, Executive Director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. He also sits on the board of several organizations including the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria and the Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria. Enwonwu is also president of both the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Alliance of Nigerian Art Galleries.
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