Tattoo City – The First Three Chapters, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester

Text by Dr. Alexandros Papadopoulos

Is Art the new Religion? Can the writing of a novel develop into an exhibition? In what ways can Africa re-stage and re-frame the meanings of modernity?

Based on the writings of the Malawi born artist and novelist Samson Kambalu, Castlefield Gallery’s new exhibition Tattoo City: the First Three Chapters explores the boundaries between writing and displaying, art and religion, philosophy and vision. The whole project seems to reflect on the act of writing as a playful diplomacy between cinema, art and tradition. Taking the form of writing tableaux – as if they were graphic novels stamped on the wall – Kambalu’s new novel Tattoo City is placed against an assemblage of artistic vocabularies (Joseph Beuys, Lee Appelby, Jochem Hendricks, Sigrid Holmwood, Kevin Hunt, Rei Kakiuchi, San Keller, Sam Mukumba, David Newbatt, Hardeep Pandhal, Nicolas Pople, Poppy Whatmore). Intermingling African heritage with narratives of modernity, these works contribute towards an inter-textual and polysemic encyclopaedia of spiritual thought. The resulting panorama of mysticism and contemporaneity is largely inspired by Rudolf Steiner‘s ideas on freedom, interiority and humanness, the so called ‘athroposophy’. Evoking an amalgam of illusions, dreams and memories tattooed on the skin of the mind, Tatoo city underscores the dialogue between the cultural landscape of Africa and its western projections.

Joseph Beuys’ spiritual interpretation of materiality [Ja, ja, ja, ja, ja, nee, nee, nee, nee, nee] gives the tone to a vortex of artworks that tend to connect the symbolic imagery of the black continent with the ‘progressive’ vigour of the West: from Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s cinematic plan to direct a Greek tragedy in central Africa [Appunti per un’ Orestiade africana (“Notes for an African Oresteia”, 1969)] to black-white snapshots of Western doctors inspecting the ill bodies of black people, African experience becomes a map of hybridizations and bipolar contrasts. The local and the international, the rational and the irrational, the spiritual and the scientific create a flux of dynamic counter-positions and fusions. The novel’s central theme– the story of Waldorf, an African female rock star who turns to philanthropy– emblematizes this aesthetic and cultural chaos. The tension between the primitive and the progressive – the African and the Western – encapsulates Kambalu’s philosophy of ‘holyballism’. Inspired by Joseph Beuys’ ideas on art and spirituality, this is an attempt to recover the ‘holiness’ of objects, experiences and memories, beyond the dogmatic constrains of African or Protestant religious traditions. In this sense, the whole project can be read as a modern attempt to re-enchant and re-invent a post-colonial geography of mentalities, images and memories –or else, to create a playful religion out of art.

Tattoo City: the First Three Chapters is on display at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester until 27 January 2013.

Dr. Alexandros Papadopoulos is a cultural theorist and performance artist based in Manchester.

Published 03.12.2012 by Steve Pantazis in Reviews

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