Redefining Lost Identities

‘Nothing to Lose IV (Bodies of Experience),’ created by artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode in the year 1989, and ‘Often Durham Employs…’ created by Jimmie Durham just one year earlier in 1988, serve as extremely important forms of documentation of racial expectations, stereotype, and identity in the modern world.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s piece employs photography, staging, and props to create an image of a naked man of African descent biting into leaves grasped in his left hand. No characteristic features of the man’s face are shown in the image - rather, the emphasis is on the ‘savage’ behavior of the individual is highlighted. Through his work, Fani-Kayode exploits the ideas of primitivism and savage actions referencing westerner’s acquired thinking patterns of non-westerners since colonial times. Fani-Kayode also promotes the idea and function of ‘The Stereotypical Grotesque’ in this piece, which means to play upon whatever extreme expectation and stereotype that one has of a group of people, and to form it as the centerpiece of the artwork. Fani-Kayode uses his platform as an artist to make a remark on the identity that has been formed of minorities by westerners, and the stereotypes that have remained for centuries.

Jimmie Durham’s work approaches a similar topic to that of Fani-Kayode’s, giving us insight to the struggles of an ethnically indigenous individual living in modern America. Durham’s piece is presented as a squirrel pelt attached to a piece of painted wood, situated under a plastic phone. He also uses text in his artwork, as the squirrel’s back reads: “The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers.” This piece, though made in the late ‘80s, makes a clear statement about the ever-strained relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous individuals. Durham poses the question: where is the place for people like him in this modern world? Modernism tends to exclude the historical value and presentation given through indigenous expression and artwork, and therefore treats these people as outcasts once again. This image, though initially quasi-surrealist, truly deals with issues of postcolonial ends.

Both Fani-Kayode and Durham’s artwork poses a very important question to those engaging in the modern and contemporary world of art. In an attempt to advance to heights and places never reached or confronted before, are we excluding negative parts of our history that must be addressed? Americans have a very bad track record for not fully addressing historical issues such as the long exploitative behavior towards Native American’s and those of African descent. We have also created many stereotypes of these groups of people, pathologizing values and actions that define and contribute to the identity of a people group. Those who have been so deeply wounded by these careless actions must be given the opportunity to claim their own identity in the modern world and the modern art world.

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