schwarzescafé at Luma Westbau, in collaboration with Serpentine Galleries, presents the first institutional exhibition of works by Nigerian American artist Precious Okoyomon entitled A Drop of Sun Under The Earth. Curated by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen, the exhibition will take place in Heimo Zobernig’s schwarzescafé, its modernist interior sabotaged by the addition of four large flowering trees.
In The Historical Grammar of Visual Arts, Alois Riegl recounts that “the ancients believed the Corinthian capital was inspired by a basket of toys left on a girl’s tomb that had become overgrown with acanthus weed,” an anecdote that disarms much of western aesthetic thought through the understanding that just as architecture is a condition of the natural, all things are conditioned by the inevitable horizon of death and decay.
Okoyomon’s most significant installation to date restages the iconographic lynching trees of the American south. Hanging from each tree is a stuffed animal turned angel by the addition of taxidermied bird wings. Okoyomon avers a structural similarity between the Miltonian understanding of the angel as a creature without life and death, and the ontological suffering and material heft of blackness in America where the racialized person is made to live in a state of being always and already dead. The physical impossibility of hanging an angel, given their ability to defy gravity by flying, is contrasted with the futile life of constantly having to fly to stay alive.
For Okoyomon, black life is a mere mobilization of death. The angels are suspended on sloppily tied nooses, not unlike those used in bondage, recalling the perverse associations of pleasure with apparatuses of control, domination, and enslavement. White cotton and cottonwood seeds circulate through the gallery’s air conditioning and, in a choreographed continual and diasporic displacement, they cover the furnishings of the space and the works that constitute the exhibition. Perhaps most immediately noticeable is the alien sensuality of each particulate. Frenzied Sun follows Franz Fanon’s charge that one is “black, not because of a curse, but because [their] skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia…a drop of sun under the earth.” The lighting in the exhibition space is torqued by adding six black resin spheres to each of the preexisting hanging lamps, rendering them lanterns of no light.
The work alludes to the Lantern Laws, an 18th-century code that required black, mixed race, and indigenous people to carry lanterns if they were walking about New York City after sunset without the company of a white person. The Lantern Laws lay the foundation for modern surveillance while also disinterring a history of the criminalization and racialization of light, darkness, and the sun (which Okoyomon believes to be indisputably black). One is reminded that it is perhaps because the sun is so blindingly beautiful that it cannot be seen. In the exhibition’s final work, an animated single-channel video is projected through the forest depicting a clunkily cartooned black bear smoking a blunt in the woods, while a voice-over of the artist’s brother recounting the two times he narrowly avoided being shot by the American police wracks the space. The work is disturbing as each interaction begins with Okoyomon’s brother being, as she says, “at least slightly in the wrong,” thus addressing our racialized right to evil, and detailing how even though we have all been bad, we have not all been the same amount of bad. The persistent comedy of the work also demonstrates Okoyomon’s stubborn belief that we can short circuit power through irreverent hilarity.
Precious Okoyomon is an artist and writer living and working in New York. She attended Shimer College in Chicago. Her work was included in the 13th Baltic Triennial, and in a two-person exhibition with Hannah Black at Real Fine Arts, NY. Okoyomon has read at The Kitchen, New York, Artist’s Space, New York, and The Serpentine Galleries, London. Her work is included in the permanent collection of the Rubell Family Collection. Her first book of poetry, Ajebota (2016), was published by Bottlecap Press, and her second book But Did U Die? is forthcoming from Birds LLC. Text by Quinn Harrelson
Schwarzescafé at LUMA Westbau, Limmatstrasse 270; 8005 Zürich | Switzerland