Sound marks the first encounter at Soufiane Ababri’s exhibition Here is a strange and bitter crop showing at London’s Space Gallery until 24th November, in a partnership with Glassbox Gallery in Paris. The ambiguous roar of a crowd invites us into an installation of drawings, sound, sculpture and performance that explores masculinity and vulnerability through its most intimate lens, the prism of sexuality – though it would be a disservice to the subtlety of Ababri’s work to suggest that a singular focus means a failure to grapple with the multi-layered complexity of his topic.
The exhibition consists of an installation that integrates two large mural drawings Here is a strange and Bitter Crop, and six smaller pieces of drawn work “Bed Works/Beautiful Fruit”; as the artist explains in a video accompanying the show, Ababri chose his materials and practice as a means of rejecting artistic conventions that have served as tools of oppression, opting for crayons and drawing paper. With these tools, Ababri creates work that echoes with a multitude of artistic references but maintains an originality that is bracing, challenging and raw in its exploration of the sexualised, male and homosexual, Black body. It is both beautiful and disturbing work. The main mural that dominates the centre of the space, enclosed in a cage that is both a football field and stage, is a reference to footballer Justin Fashanu – who acts as a sort of presiding spirit over the show. Ababri draws inferences from Fashanu’s spirit to describe the struggle of other groups, in particular, other groups of men of colour with which he personally identifies – and the commonality of the football ground which metaphorically acted as both stage and executioner’s scaffold for Fashanu, as it has literally been in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. This work hauntingly draws out this connection between the social space, and the murderous possibility of the crowd. This suggestion of the intersectionality of suffering and threat to queer, brown bodies all over the world from a whipped up majority is subtly and effectively evoked in this work. The smaller pieces in the exhibition draw on a global artistic iconography, influenced explicitly by pornographic videos – one of the most challenging aspects of this work. Are these men fucking or is this love? It evokes the confusion that exists for marginalised bodies that, in mainstream contexts, are rarely represented in intimate, loving or emotional ways. As in many hardcore pornographic representations, it is deliberately unclear whether these men are engaged in loving acts or mechanistically fucking, acting out a romantic fantasy version of the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its name, or performing emotionless acts of athleticism at the demand of a disembodied audience.
The work also draws on globally diverse traditions of representing the erotic, most readily calling to mind images of the Indian Kama Sutra, as well as the European, hyper-sexualised physicality of Tom of Finland. Yet, it is emphatically the pain of the Black body that Ababri mines for this work; a fact underscored by the title of the show; the haunting final lyric of Strange Fruit, made famous by Billie Holiday, and subsequently revived by Nina Simone, and then sampled by Kanye, as protest and comment on the violence visited upon the perceived-as-disposable bodies of Black men.
The men in Ababri’s visual images are represented in various sexual positions against a background that seems almost bucolic, until Ababri reveals that they represent the cotton fields of Black enslavement. It underscores the idea that ‘gay-for-pay’ hardcore porn performance is also commodified as labour in the same way that Justin Fashanu, England’s first £1million footballer, was a valuable commodity who, on public revelation of his sexuality, was so quickly discarded by ‘loyal’ football fans, tabloid journalists seeking to sell newspapers, fair-weather ‘friends’ making false accusations to secure out-of-court settlements, and family more concerned with respectability and their own careers than the complexity of Justin’s humanity. Ababri seeks to comment on the fact that dominant representations of same-sex intimacy are of African-American men; exploited or co-opted in the service of commercial interests, yet also serving as a viscerally powerful representation of visibility.
There is a sense in which Ababri’s stated intention of intersectionality doesn’t entirely come together in his work – and the show itself borders on the exploitation of the Black body – after all, what is represented here is the Black body as a signifier for global pain – and as such the Black body as ultimate victim. Ababri’s gaze does not seem, at least to this reviewer, to be one of identifying with the struggles of these subjects, rather they seem both vulnerable and consumable. Whether Ababri is challenging the reality of the broader queer consumption of Black gay masculinity as of low value and disposable, or adding his voice in confirmation of this position is an open question – this work echoes the broader perspective in which sexually performative Black bodies are hyper-visible yet silent and disposable. It is unclear whether Ababri intends this potentially exploitative vein to his work; his foregrounding of Justin Fashanu suggests a recognition of the power of visibility and naming – but the nuanced inter-weaving of painful experiences in Here is a strange and Bitter Crop does not really occur in Bed Works/Beautiful Fruit. These focus on the Black body, with only one piece representing a different ethnicity, in a way that seems out of step and tokenistic.
Ababri’s work in other contexts does not focus solely on the Black body, as the accompanying video commentary to the show makes clear. It is perhaps an omission in the curation of this show, that while it allows a powerful focus on its themes, it robs us of a wider view of Ababri’s oeuvre. Still, who benefits from this exhibition of Black pain is a question that is always pertinent to ask. More pleasingly, Ababri’s artistic methods produce a bracing liveliness of colour and form that is joyous – and he’s also not shy of naming his influences, citing Bruce Nauman as an influence on the first and last work in the show. This stylised drawing of a man scheduled to be hung who escapes his noose – and, as Ababri explains, begins to dance, is suggestively disordered and sharp-edged, as if the body itself is a weapon against itself. In this piece, Ababri seems to say that it is possible to escape the noose of social oppression, but in the show taken as a whole, body and person remain disordered by the cost and pain of visibility – a pain that Ababri risks joining a long line of cultural producers in harvesting.