Identity bluffs
Sara Blokland, Bruno Boudjelal, Mahmoud Khaled, Lucia Nimcova and Nii Obodai


The works assembled in ‘Identity bluffs’ examine the concept
of personal identity in manifold ways, thereby extending
the genre of the portrait to social and historical issues.
The artists’ explorations into the concept of identity
expose its underlying instability, which they dismantle by
means of idiosyncratic, mostly camera-based techniques.
Thus complex relationships between the subject and its
social world are brought into different perspectives. ‘Identity
bluffs’ takes place in the framework of Project ‘1975′,
which focuses on works by artists who address issues relevant
to their practice in a postcolonial, globalised world.
(…) At present in the Netherlands, the term identity is receiving
increased attention due to its mutability. Definitions of identity are malleable and therefore willingly abused by
populist political movements to create hardened fronts in
which groups of individuals are pitted against each other.
Populists tend to reduce peoples’ national or religious identities
to so-called pure, intrinsic qualities, thereby defaming
one group in order to make another group feel superior. In
this process, existing threats like terrorism are instrumentalised
and presented as ever-present in order to make a
constructive, democratic political process impossible.
The notion of contemporary art has also become a vehicle
for populist rhetoric. As the critic and art historian Sven
Lüttiken observes, in populist terms, « art is defined as
alien to ‘authentic’ culture, since it does not explicitly
express and affirm the values that embody the country ».
He also writes that »[i]n a reversal of Carl Andre’s dictum
that ‘art is what we do’ and ‘culture is what is done to us,’
the contemporary populist imagination regards art as what
is done to us while culture is what we do, or rather: what
we simply are »(www.e-flux.com/journal/view/206). As the
works in ‘Identity bluffs’ propose, it is actually life that is
done to us and art can be a way to react to that. They pay
thorough attention to detail, resulting in contemporary,
multilayered portraits that inspire multiple interpretations.
In contrast to the art practices of the 1990s which addressed
identity politics, the works presented in ‘Identity
bluffs’ do not promote paternalistic agendas directed towards
certain social groups. The works do not speak for all
blacks, all Arabs, all homosexuals, all Dutch, all feminists
and so on and so forth. Rather they are fragments out of
the biographies of personages who are more or less synonymous
with the artists themselves. Some artists approach
the subject with humour, while others take a more serious
or ironic stance, striking a precarious balance along the
border between the two. All of the works presented here
bring into view the complications of individual positions
within a globalised world, where lives are complexly interconnected through economic, political or familial ties.
They do not celebrate globalisation, but demonstrate what
it does to the lives of particular subjects.

Descriptions of the Works

> Sara Blokland, , 2004.
Installation with diverse photographs and videos
More than sixty images and six small monitors are attached
to the wall. The images were either shot by Blokland
or found in the municipal archive of Amsterdam and in
the private photo albums of three young Amsterdam-born
women with a familial relationship to the Dutch colonies.
Blokland’s photographs are taken with an archival distance
and depict Dutch urban interiors. They are combined with
archival photographic material, which shows stages of the
development of the Bijlmermeer, a district of Amsterdam
built in the 1960s. The images from the albums portray the
women as tourists, at moments in which they appropriated
the clichés of tourist sites and temporarily integrated them
in their identities.
Basically, Home focuses on the relationship between architecture
and individual histories. Within this framework,
Blokland deconstructs the myths of origin, uniqueness and
culture, while at the same time, she explores and reveals
the ways in which photography is used to construct these
myths. In Home, the artist connects photographic strategies
to migration and to the culture of « the others », thus
prompting the viewers to consider various possible interpretations
of Home. One of the monitors displays views of
seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Amsterdam interiors
with a weakness for the so-called exotic fashion that was
part of colonial culture. Just as the girls appropriated the
touristic clichés, the architects of these houses incorporate
Orientalist fantasies into peoples’ homes.

> Bruno Boudjelal, , 1993-2003.
Single screen video installation (23’12 », loop, sound)
Photographs of Algeria, the North African country that
gained independence from France in 1962 after eight years
of a brutal and unforgiving war, form the basis of the slide
show Disquiet Days. Driven by the desire to get to know his
father’s home country, Boudjelal first went to Algeria at the
age of 32, equipped with a camera. At that time, Algeria
was at war again, this time because of conflicts between
the government and some militant Islamic groups. Boudjelal’s
images show a country marked by rundown facades,
broken windows and other signs of destruction. The early
pictures of the Disquiet Days series have an air of tension
about them, as if taken by a curious scout who was not
exactly sure whether what he was doing was in accordance
with the rules.
Then, as if to demonstrate the development of the artist’s
relationship with the country and its population, cheerful
moments of dances and socialising are also put into perspective.
These snapshots, however, are not lasting, since
Boudjelal also directs attention to such places as Bentalha,
a village where 400 people were slaughtered on the night
of 23 September 1997. Boudjelal’s work is special due
to the views it provides of a country that receives little
attention in Europe. Every now and then Algeria appears in
the news, as it did recently because of the violent protests
against rising food prices. Whereas these media images
almost always contain violence, Boudjelal’s work does not
depict any direct violence whatsoever.

> Mahmoud Khaled, , 2008.
Single screen video installation (15’50 », loop, sound)
The work creates a portrait of Özgen, an oriental dancer
from Turkey who lives and works in London. Özgen presents
himself to an invisible interviewer and answers questions
about his work, which in common parlance is known as
belly dance. However, with the interviewer’s questions having
been cut out, the viewer does not know how much s/he
has been manipulating the situation. Placed against a
glossy background, the dancer responds to the questions
rather playfully, although a more serious undertone emerges
when it comes to the professionalism of oriental dance.
This Show is My Business is one element of Khaled’s
research into the impact of the Internet on the formation
of personal identity. One day, during a residency period
in London, when attempting to google his own name,
Khaled came across the oriental dancer Khaled Mahmoud,
a popular London-based performer. This encounter inspired
the interview with Özgen, whose answers provide insight
into the life of an oriental dancer in a Western society. The
answers given by Özgen in This is My Business focus on
gender, professional and ethnic issues, which are central
to Khaled’s artistic practice. In this sense, the professional
life of the oriental dancer mirrors that of the visual artist.

> Lucia Nimcova, , 2011.
Installation with various materials
When Lucia Nimcova went to Kenya for the first time in
February 2010, she reconfigured her image of Africa.
African Thunderstorm is about experiencing life in Kenya
as foreigner, more specifically, as a white foreigner. As
Nimcova explains, skin colour had never been relevant to
her sense of personal identity. But in Kenya, she suddenly
experienced how the colour of skin can be considerably
significant, though it is not exactly clear from the start
what it signifies. For instance, she was seen as one of the
Westerners who colonised Africa, although as an Eastern
European, neither she nor even the country where she was
born had much to do with that.
The work consists of several elements such as a book
that includes an interview with a friend of Nimcova’s who
worked in Kenya for an NGO. Photographs taken by the
artist decorate the wall, depicting young Kenyans staging
themselves the way they would like to be seen. African
Thunderstorm also comprises stamps which Nimcova has
had produced in Kenya. Similar stamps are sold along the
roadside there; they are popular amongst the mainly illiterate
population. Nimcova wants the viewer of her work in
SMBA to make a stamped poem. She invites the visitors to
take a copy of the booklet, stamp a poem on it and take it
with them in order to read the interview on occasion.

> Francis Nii Obodai Provençal (Nii Obodai), <1966>, 2009.
Series of photographs
About forty photographs of various dimensions are hung on
the walls according to the idiosyncratic order determined
by the artist. The black and white photos are framed in
Ghanaian wood. The point of departure for this visual poem is the artist’s memories of conversations with his
father, who was a close associate of Kwame Nkrumah.
When in 1957 Ghana became the first African country to
gain independence from the colonial regime, Nkrumah was
appointed as president. His term of office, however, lasted
only until 1966, when he was overthrown in a coup during
an official visit to China. British and/or American secret
agencies were certainly involved in this change of government,
though it has never officially been admitted.
Looking at the work, one occasionally encounters a
black star, which frequently adorns the flags of various
African nations and symbolises the ideal of freedom. In the
photographs of Nii Obodai, however, the black star has lost
the utopian connotations it had in the 1950/60s. Independence
has not brought what its initiators had in mind;
instead, years of military dictatorship followed Nkrumah’s
short period of governance. In the 1966 series, Nii Obodai
seeks to evoke the memory of the utopian potential,
which inspired Nkrumah and his circle of friends, in order to
motivate a new generation to believe in the nation state’s
capabilities. However, as the photographs of the contemporary
condition of the black star convey, time has left its marks.

Kerstin Winking, curator of’Identity bluffs’.

Photo: © Nii Obodai
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