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