Kameelah Janan Rasheed Kameelah Janan Rasheed, On Refusal (2016) Installation with variable Dimensions

Detail of Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s ‘On Refusal’ (2016) at A.I.R. Gallery (all images courtesy the artist and A.I.R. gallery) (click to enlarge)

“Direct Downward Cut at the Head; Overhand Knife Thrust”; “and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped”; “To them God has appeared as a Negro”; “syntactical slips and breaks” — these are a sample of the bits of text affixed to the walls in Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s On Refusal, one of three concurrent exhibitions at A.I.R. Gallery. As the phrases might suggest, On Refusal is a difficult show. The gallery space is starkly divided between the chromatic camps of black and white. This is a hint about the kind of world we are entering: it’s circumscribed by the Christian faith, whose system is essentially Manichaean, a dualistic cosmology of a fallen, evil world of matter doomed until a transcendent spiritual truth rescues it. But the system doesn’t work. The attempts Christianity has made to corral this artist’s feelings, thinking, and responses within the confines of a sin-and-redemption narrative are cracking and splintering all over the gallery walls.

Panorama view of On Refusal

Installation view, ‘Kameelah Janan Rasheed: On Refusal’ (2016) at A.I.R. Gallery

Everything here — each image, video clip, snippet of text stuck to the wall with T-pins — is piecemeal, fugitive, partially articulated, trying to come to the surface. The photos are often blurry, over- or underexposed, askew, interrupted by other overlaid objects. On Refusal gives us Rasheed inside of what the gallery’s press release calls an “affective space,” which is the simply the arena of emotion, attitude, and mood. Here, orbs that seem to represent the sun or moon are not great, glowing celestial bodies; they are dull, badly copied, half-remembered objects that now seem like ersatz versions of themselves. The shine of idealism is gone, and Rasheed wants us to see what’s left in its wake. Rather than attempt to tell us how agonized and distressed her relationship is to her family and their religious practice (theirs because it’s clearly not hers now, if it ever was), she shows us through a lyrical cascade of text, photographs, photocopied images, and video with sound. The exhibition illustrates the difference between felt experience and a crafted story relating that experience, between thick description and editorial. It comes together when considered as a whole, all the breaks accepted as the truth of the artist’s experience.

Often, when the subject of Christian faith (or faith in general) is discussed publicly in the US, the putative benefits of belief are fiercely defended: custodians say that it provides a moral compass, gives people a sense of community membership, encourages loyalty to a tradition that imparts direction and purpose, cultivates ancestral connection. Few, however, discuss Christianity’s love affair with the dialectic of punishment and redemption. Having grown up in a family with these beliefs, I remember the joy our congregation took (at both church and school) in reciting the agonies that Christ endured in supposedly dying for our sins. The Christian’s ecstatic identification with being whipped, beaten, and scorned is one side of the ledger, balanced on the other by the notion of ultimate transcendence and perfection — being “saved.” The faith offers both carrot and stick. Rasheed demonstrates this most effectively with her snippets of text. One can see the violence inherent in the system and the way it’s subtly celebrated. Yes, the belief promises healing, but only after you’ve been cut to the bone.

Cross image and text

Detail of Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s ‘On Refusal’ (2016) at A.I.R. Gallery

Where the blood ran

Detail of Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s ‘On Refusal’ (2016) at A.I.R. Gallery

It’s a tremendously powerful story, particularly when read through the historical lens of the African American experience. Then the tale takes on special significance, becoming a source of comfort and succor, a way to endure, a means to identify with Jesus Christ and have him, in turn, identify with the black person’s struggles — thus the references within the texts here to a “black God.” This narrative has been adopted by many people whose need for it vastly outweighs their suspicion that it is just another myth replacing the previous one. Yet — and this is one of the contradictions that comes through most clearly in Rasheed’s show — while the story is supposedly all-encompassing and a means for everyone’s “salvation,” the universalism of Christianity comes into conflict with that crucial modern idea of personal agency.

In the projected video, a street preacher calls out a black woman. He says that he heard her earlier and knows that “her mouth is wicked.” She doesn’t back down but instead argues with him, starting with a question — the question that always needs to be posed to religious systems: “Do you know me?” She then proceeds to curse him out. Rasheed shows that the totalizing discourse of Christianity is completely indifferent to individuality: We are all going to hell or we are all saved by the blood of Jesus. We are all stuck in this overdetermined dualism — even dying doesn’t set us free. The refusal of this work is the refusal to be enticed by that narrative, to be swallowed up by a mysticism doomed to repeat the cycle of sin-wash-rinse-repeat. Rasheed raises a very personal set of complexities but refuses anyone a means of escape. One text piece reads, “And I think the underlying question is “Where do we go from here.” That is precisely the question.

An act of faith healing

Detail of Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s ‘On Refusal’ (2016) at A.I.R. Gallery, showing an act of faith healing on video

Kameelah Janan Rasheed: On Refusal continues at A.I.R. Gallery (155 Plymouth Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through May 22.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

14 replies on “A Black American Artist Explores Her Refusal of Christianity”

  1. Now, lets see A Black American Artist Explores Her Refusal of Islam. That would be infinitely more interesting.

  2. So many baseless, confused, and wrongheaded assertions in so few words. And speaking of words, this author consistently uses the “dialectic” incorrectly. (Buy this guy a dictionary.)

    1. Dear BW,

      Perhaps you and I do not consult the same source material. What dictionary would you suggest I get? And would the dictionary you suggest include under the entry for “dialectic” the explanation that aside from being a synonym for rational debate, or a method of reasoning, a reference to a relationship between opposing forces that inform and shape each other, or the tension produced by this relation?

      Thank you for your generosity in commenting and being willing to offer specific and insightful correctives.

      1. Your mess made of “dialectic” is in referring to one when it’s not there, much as terrible writers insert “deconstruction” when all that’s called for is a word such as analyze, nothing related to French theory. But since you never go into how or why this or that is a dialectic, such as the artist patron “dialectic” in another review, it just hangs there as meretricious language masking ordinary thought. You could just as well say a ham sandwich is Hegelian if you never show how. So, yeah, you’re using “dialectic” incorrectly.

        Don’t mistake me for a religious person when I clean up this business on Christianity as you suggested I do. But not one black civil rights leader, living or dead, would recognize your version of Christianity. The “African-American lens” on Christianity is historically one of liberation; even Black Lives Matter organized at local churches before it became just an excuse for people to act like assholes. Or take the Bowery Mission, the still-operating homeless shelter that the New Museum will one day price out to create more space for shit art. Its “universalism” is in helping anybody who needs it, not some nonsense “in conflict” with “personal agency” (whatever you meant by that). But to be more concrete, Christianity is not “Manichean” as you claimed, given that Manicheanism had been considered a pagan heresy since the third century. (This is explained in your own link – WTF.) St Augustine, in Africa, converted from Manicheanism to Christianity, for example, even after Christianity was the state religion of Ethiopia (where Christianity has existed since the first century, back when it was considered a Jewish cult).

        …”And I think the underlying question is “Where do we go from here.” That is precisely the question.”

        How about a library. Or back to Rasheed’s press release where she gives no indication at all that she has rejected Christianity. Art writing is mostly bullshit, but you don’t have to make it complete bullshit.

        1. Dear BW,

          What can one do before the sheer gale force of your intellect but abase oneself? Thank you for what you’ve said. Like most of the brilliant thinkers I know, you are kind and generous in your critique and willing to take the time to parse someone’s argument before dismissing it. Clearly I should be more careful about my reliance on French theory–though to be fair, most of the scholars I know refer to that discourse as continental theory, since it contains many other thinkers, such as Hegel who is German (and a bunch of other Germans some regard as pretty important, Heidegger, etc).

          I only wish that James Baldwin had had the benefit of your insight before he wrote “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” then he wouldn’t have bothered, having been shown that his premise (and lived experience) of violence supported and enabled by Christian faith was wrong. It would have saved him a lot of trouble. I do love how you use leaders within the Civil Rights movement as the arbiters of how Christian ideology impacts black life (as opposed to religious scholars)–a bold intellectual move indeed. Bravo. And your reading of history is perspicacious indeed which gave me much needed context for my discussion of a basically oppositional (I dare not use the term “dialectical” here, having been shown the error of my ways on that) cosmology that develops after Christianity but I thought of as informed by it.

          Clearly I am mistaken about Kameelah Rasheed, though in all the images I’ve seen of her she is always wearing a Hijab and in the gallery there are a host of cards that declare she has changed her name. I take it that you have seen the show since you have such a rigorous response to my analysis of it. Did you enjoy it?

          I am grateful indeed that you recognize that most of art writing is “bullshit.” I say that frequently, though I use different words for the predicate nominative. We both seem to think its a conversation worth engaging in.

          Please don’t forget to suggest that dictionary for me, that magical tome that contains words that sum up concepts such as co-dependent oppositional antagonists or forces relying on each other and enabling each other, in a non-meretricious way! I wouldn’t want to use the term “dialectic” again. You are as brilliant an analyst as you are a gentle interlocutor. I feel I have grown by our interaction. Please do also suggest a good library where I can find the things you read.

          Best wishes,
          Seph Rodney, PhD.

          1. You aren’t doing anything with French theory. You allude to it by reference to “signifiers” in other articles. Here “dialectic” alludes to a strain of Continental philosophy, which encompasses the former but is not its equivalent.

            Nothing I wrote contradicts James Baldwin’s ideas. His are just different from most black civil rights leaders, lots of whom are scholars BTW. King studied existentialism. Cornell West was the first black to get a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton. There are some morons in the pack, like Sharpton, who started calling himself a reverend before hitting puberty. But the basic picture of liberation is all the same, with black slaves identifying with Hebrews in Egypt and still happy to clap their hands. Good for those people.

            Who knows what you’re talking about with some post-Christian cosmology. Do you? Anything “oppositional” about that is that a godless universe is indifferent to your wellbeing and all that’s left is tribalist politics and culture wars that Hyperallergic turns a dime at the expense of any genuine interest in art. I’m not religious. That’s just the world we live in. But none of you writers know shit about art. You use art as a platform, war by other means, to shove down people’s throats whatever it is you think about the world. That’s why all the writing here sucks (with the exception of what I read from the weekend people). It’s all news bits on stupid shit, publicity writing on shitty art made by any minority person who can fog a mirror, and off the cuff smear campaigns on whichever white person did something you didn’t like that day. The only requisites for writing here is it can’t be neutral, researched, and thought through.

            I blew up that article on the Getty internship program only because the writer was dumping her pathology on another person (who was indeed an illiterate redneck but that’s beside the point) and knew she could get away with it. It’s fundamentally unfair and I’d say immoral for a writer to use their platform that way. The Voon girl is a racist, but wouldn’t consider herself that because she can’t share in the offense of what she pens. If there is anything good about what you write it’s, despite being so predictable with a political agenda that you will promote the most horrifically bad art at the drop of a hat and erode your credibility as a serious thinker, is that you have good intentions.

          2. Dear BW,

            You are such a kind and lovely human being, I just refuse to believe you are not a religious person. You clearly have some kind of divinity coursing through you, a spirit that blossoms eloquently from your mouth especially when you discuss aesthetic production. It is indeed a pleasure to exchange these bon mots with you and I hope you do continue to deepen and enliven the public debate around art issues as you have been doing here. Look at what you have already accomplished with what you’ve written so far! You’ve made everyone here sit up and take notice and rethink our the fundamental notions with which we approach our work and thought. I’ve said it before, but I won’t tire of saying it: your analysis is top-shelf brilliance. Don’t ever change.

            I’m still eagerly awaiting your recommendations for that magical dictionary and the library where I can catch up on the kinds of resources on which you rely to reach these pinnacles of creative critical elucidation. (hugs)

            S. Rodney, PhD.

          3. “Divinity” coursing comes through having more than a passing grasp of thinking people’s history. You can’t understand the program of Continental philosophy unless you understand its intents in reckoning with God’s death. So it shouldn’t surprise that today’s most important philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, atheist to the core, is more theologically literate than Christians are. Thierry de Duve is too, atheist, theologically brilliant, and way overqualified to be teaching at that shit school Hunter College but, whatever, he wants to live in NYC and not starve.

            There is no magical dictionary; there’s just discretion. You should use a thesaurus to find simpler words if that’s what it takes. Right now your “signifiers” outshine the “signified” and that’s bad writing. Read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.

            Give your buddy Voon a book on journalistic ethics too, any book, because her bibliography is composed of such bottom-feeding shit and vengeful brattiness she’ll never get hired in publishing again. The neurotic hate she has for white Christian people – something she’s turned into a self-assigned genre – has blighted her own byline, not for its politics, but for its complete lack of integrity and civil respect, what more serious publications will expect of a writer. Stirring Facebook likes is one thing. Having a career future is another. Note: the LA Times picked up the Getty story after I lit her article on fire and smoked out a member of the internship program who the paper interviewed. That article, in that better publication, was balanced while still issuing an opinion. That’s not a coincidence on quality. If you writers want better jobs after this one you have to get your shit together, grow up, and stop maligning people like schoolyard bullies. Takeaway: This publication can make bank off you dumb f*cks writing culture war trash, but you have to think about your own careers.

            No more pro tips.

            (Time to ban me now,

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