WAHALA: On Representation, Authenticity, Expectations and Other Inflated Concepts

‘Good’ representation is often a reaction against the white stereotypical representation. Rather, the debate should be about transforming the image, questioning the images that subvert, posing alternatives and recognising that it is not an issue of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

bell hooks, Black looks: race and representation. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992. p.4

There seems to be a common consensus in contemporary culture concerning the propensity to explore practices of representation of places, times, and people, including their gender, race, abilities or disabilities. Even more so when it comes to the kinship of all aspects of representation to the notion of authenticity. These concepts are considered to be over-interrogated, over-discoursed and washed-up. But is this position justified if cultural production, presentation and discourses are still framed by expectations, and national or geographic representations? What is this consensus worth when political and economic debates still circulate around gender and race quotas?

Issues of representation, authenticity, adequacy and accuracy still linger in the air, but with various huddles of deliberation. On the one hand, the debate deals with what the political philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as an “extraordinary inarticulacy regarding the notion of authenticity, as its friends cannot speak of it and its opponents slight it,” i.e. a standstill. On the other hand, there is a school of those preoccupied for the issues of who represents whom, how and why, i.e. the issues of “us” and “them,” as termed by bell hooks. This said, one cannot help but think that this status quo reflects the problems inherent to the concepts of representation and authenticity, such that dealing with these concepts, no matter from what angle–be it the viewpoint of the proponent or the opponent, the perspective of the perpetrator or the victim, or even the position of the referee–one is fishing in troubled waters. It is exactly at this juncture that the exhibition project Wahala comes in.

The exhibition project is a bid to fish consciously and pro-actively in these troubled waters: to investigate presentation and representation in artistic production using art as a tool, and get a grip on the parasitic power mechanisms that feed on these concepts. In sync with bell hooks’ suggestion of shifting the discourse from the sphere of “othering” and victimisation, Wahala will provide space for experimentation on how the troubles related with representation and various ideological and material images, which might be associated to or used authentically or unauthentically to frame representations, could be questioned, challenged, transformed, cleansed or even ridiculed… with or without proposing an alternative.

Essentially, this project also focuses on the power relations that are intimately linked to the practices of representation. Sometimes the power structures of representation appear most obvious when those who are in or have power become the object of power. An example worth mentioning is Michael Taussig's book Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (1993), which thematizes the representations of European colonizers in Cuna cultural practices, for instance in form of figurines used for healing rituals. The colonizers were quick to remark that those figurines were inexact depictions of Europeans, and criticize missing or incorrect details. Another striking example is the Hauka sect movement, in which the participants of rituals mimiced British Colonial administrators and, affected by the process, fell under the power of the spirits… Ditto, this representation was received with vehement resistance from the colonial governments.

Wahala goes beyond the ubiquitousness of representation and authenticity in everyday practices (from marketing exotic holidays and fitting women or blacks into certain positions to the portrayal of crime, piousness, poverty or richness according to particular racial geographical or gender dictums), in academia and in the cultural sector…where artists, scholars or curators still have to deal with representations or find themselves explicitly or implicitly accused of inauthenticity on the basis of their background, race, gender or sexual orientation. Along these lines, the exhibition project aims to explore the ways in which artists and their works can transgress boundaries of authenticity, identify themselves in order to challenge the notions of representation and power relations inscribed in a social context that brings them about, and… force a twist in the tail.

Similar to Aristotle’s ambivalent idea of catastrophe, the change of fortune that happens at the end of a drama and allows for a catharsis of mind and emotion, Wahala can also stand for the metamorphosis of a problematic into a positive situation. Artistic vision often works in a catastrophic way, like a wahala, acting as a virus, insinuating in the social body and changing the “horizon of meaning” of a certain social context.

It is against the backdrop of these reflections that the exhibition project will examine the strategies of renegotiating stereotypes of representation, and inter alia impart a carnivalesque and satirical overtone to these notions. It will be a trial to make sense and find a vocabulary to articulate and elucidate in a hermeneutic way these troubled waters–the Wahala, which essentially accompanies or is an aftermath of representation and authenticity.