IN SANDRA MUJINGA’S VIDEO Worldview (2021), a chilly pastoral scene plays for eight hours across three framed screens. Are we looking through a window? A portal? Mujinga shot the footage at the innermost part of the Norwegian fjords at Gudvangen (from the Old Norse for “a god’s place near the water”), an area in the west of the country where archaeologists have uncovered pagan Norse ritual sites. I never saw any creatures in Worldview, but Mujinga claims that little animals scamper about in the film and, occasionally, a sea monster shows a fin or two. Mujinga, who is influenced by Afrofuturism and speculative fiction, aims to depict a space where “gods, monsters and other beings with exaggerated humanoid bodies” are moving about in broad daylight, yet are also hidden from viewers. “The co-inhabitants of this world seem not to care about the watchers,” the press release accompanying the video’s recent presentation at Swiss Institute in New York states, “but nonetheless, they prefer not to risk too much visibility.” Visibility, here, might mean becoming vulnerable to predators who could capture, study, or ogle them without regard for their well-being. Here, time functions as a means of obfuscation. The video is so long that most viewers won’t see much of it. This is a way for her subjects to exist without the tyranny of a viewer.
In some ways, Mujinga’s video aptly exercises what the Martinican writer and poet Édouard Glissant (1928–2011) called “the right to opacity.” In his final collection of essays, Philosophie de la relation (2009), Glissant described a stance intended to preserve all the nuances of one’s humanity amid forces, often colonial or imperialist, that seek to capture and flatten one’s subjectivity for easy legibility or categorization. Seeds for the idea began germinating some forty years earlier, when, in the late 1940s, Glissant was formulating an alternative to negritude, an idea spearheaded by his teacher Aimé Césaire, who posited a Pan-African identity encompassing all people of African descent, including those in the diaspora. Glissant argued instead for creolization, which favored a more heterogeneous sense of culture. Though he acknowledged the importance of coalition building, he wanted to hold space for difference and nuance, as opposed to a universal sense of culture. Glissant believed adamantly in a fluid sense of identity rather than a static one.
In Manthia Diawara’s film Un monde en relation (One World in Relation, 2009), Glissant remarks that he claimed the right to opacity as early as 1969 at a congress at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “As far as I’m concerned, a person has the right to be opaque,” he says in the film. Underscoring opacity’s importance, he adds that “a racist is someone who refuses what he doesn’t understand. I can accept what I don’t understand.” Still, for Glissant, opacity is distinct from complete incomprehensibility. “Let opacity . . . not close down in obscurantism or apartheid,” he wrote in Treatise on the Whole-World (1997). “Let it be a celebration, not a terror.” Opacity refers to preserving the right to not be understood on the terms of an oppressor. But it isn’t only a means of resistance: it is also a way to preserve “that which cannot be reduced,” a form of honoring the complex and untranslatable aspects of another culture.
Glissant’s theories first came to the attention of many in the art world in 2002, when the late curator Okwui Enwezor used his notion of “créolisation” as an organizing principle for Documenta 11. Seeking to deconstruct geographic hierarchies within global contemporary art, Enwezor used Glissant’s theory to provide an organic alternative to the then dominant “margins vs. center” model. Since then, Glissant has remained a mainstay of curatorial and artistic inspiration. He’s been cited by artists and thinkers as diverse and varied as Thomas Hirschhorn, the Otolith Group, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Diawara, Mujinga, and many others. Artists have interpreted his theory of opacity, both explicitly and implicitly, in various aesthetic gestures of refusal, redaction, abstraction, and obfuscation.
AS ART INSTITUTIONS increasingly wield the language of diversity and inclusion in pursuit of art by marginalized voices, Glissant’s strategy has become only more necessary and relevant. Many artists are wary of the easy tokenism, exoticism, and voyeurism that often go hand-in-hand with institutional inclusivity efforts, and so are turning to opacity as a method for protecting their various subjects, or for resisting pressure to make work legible to some “universal” audience, thereby forgoing nuance.
In art as in Photoshop, there are degrees of opacity. Glissant did not see opacity as utter illegibility, and similarly, for artists like Mujinga it does not entail a flat-out refusal. Many aesthetic translations are in fact something like a display of one’s refusal, rather than an actual refusal. At its best, opacity is not about refusing to speak to some hegemonic audience entirely, and is rather about resisting the many pressures to over-accommodate viewers’ limited assumptions and biases. Of course, artists involved in the aesthetics of opacity aren’t magically immune from institutional tokenism and exoticism. The pursuit of opacity is rife with paradoxes and contradictions. Mujinga, Kapwani Kiwanga, Simon Liu, and American Artist offer instructive examples of how artists today are grappling with this quandary.
Mujinga, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is based in Oslo and Berlin, dramatizes the pursuit of opacity through the metaphors of light and color. The sunlight that bathes the landscape of Worldview at first appears pleasant and warm, but it also threatens to expose the vulnerable. In response, Mujinga’s creatures have adopted strategies to evade detection and survive, such as “nocturnality, mutability and camouflage,” as the press release states. Worldview is a metaphor, a “meta” artwork about representation. Yet it’s easy to miss opacity as the video’s primary subject—the work might easily pass as a screensaver or landscape painting. The piece bears subtle traces of refusal that are perhaps more likely recognized by those who feel more kinship with the creatures than their predators.
A similar display of refusal characterizes one of American Artist’s online performances, aptly titled A Refusal (2015–16). For the project, Artist, who is based in New York, replaced all the images on their Facebook and Instagram profiles with solid blue rectangles; they used HTML to place black bars over words and phrases, as in a redacted document. The blue color is what Artist calls “New Glory Blue,” alluding to the blue of the American flag (aka Old Glory) and also a color used for signaling “error” in Microsoft systems. It’s also known as the “Blue Screen of Death,” because it signals when a gaming system requires a complete reboot. In American Artist’s hands, the color signifies a refusal to showcase one’s personal data, a kind of digital opacity. Of course, this is distinct from simply deleting one’s social media accounts. This is one of the main paradoxes plaguing artists dealing with opacity: when do you draw attention to what you are refusing, and when do you simply refuse it?
REPRESENTATION CAN BE SURVEILLANCE. This is the idea that powered “Safe Passage,” Paris-based Canadian artist Kiwanga’s 2019 exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, which featured a number of veiled freestanding and wall sculptures that evoke both Minimalist forms and architectural blockages. These works were inspired by colonial-era “lantern laws,” including a 1713 New York City policy that required any non white person to carry a lit candle after dark to help authorities identify them and track their movements. These policies will also inform her solo exhibition opening next month at the New Museum in New York. The laws’ strategic, forced visibility allowed any person who appeared not to be white and without a lantern at night, slave or not, to be stopped and questioned. Kiwanga presents visibility here as a tool of control by the state.
Kiwanga contended with this history in the exhibition through a series of sculptures called “Glow” (2019). Glow #3 is a freestanding black trapezoid with a stripe of light running the sculpture’s height, and a small light like a beacon at the top. Standing human height, the sculptures look like works by John McCracken or Robert Morris; they’re light-emitting Minimalist totems. In the gallery, they have a solemn, stately presence that could stand in for Black bodies referenced in the historical law, or they could be sentinels, ensuring the safe passage of those bodies. Their minimal forms refuse to be read in one particular way; they take on new meaning via the context Kiwanga provides.
While one approach to opacity involves using culturally specific language that is largely indecipherable to a white/Western audience and refusing to translate it, Kiwanga instead hides specific histories within the language of Minimalism, thereby challenging the movement’s pretense to universality. The works borrow Minimalist strategies to make viewers become aware of their perceiving bodies—Jalousie (2018), for instance, resembles a room divider that incorporates two-way mirrors, such that looking through it also involves looking back at oneself—but locates this kind of voyeurism in a specific political and historical context (if you read the accompanying wall text). As with Mujinga’s Worldview, it’s entirely possible to miss this context altogether. Kiwanga refuses to display the historical information she’s referencing; willing to run the risk of having viewers miss the point entirely, she chooses to refer to it obliquely.
SIMON LIU CAREFULLY NAVIGATES the power dynamics that accompany displaying aspects of one particular culture to a global audience. The artist-filmmaker, born in Hong Kong and based in New York, circulates work in a global or multicultural setting, where the audience often comprises Western-trained art appreciators—this is especially true of those running arts institutions worldwide, even those who hail from non-Western regions. This has the effect of making many artists unwitting “ambassadors” for their culture, a kind of middlemen who are asked to be transparent. Liu is decidedly an ambivalent ambassador. Like the creatures in Mujinga’s Worldview, the subject of Liu’s six-channel film Devil’s Peak (2021) is hidden. Shown at the Shed in New York in a cacophonous installation, the video depicts things like an empty bus station, a pigeon above a crowded city square, neon lights reflected on mannequin faces, and time lapses of public transit, all rapidly cut between more abstract shots of car and nightclub lights. The soundtrack switches between mumbling, unintelligible speech, diegetic sound, and bits of songs in both English and Cantonese. The effect is disorienting and poetic.
Liu’s films feel productively hard to define; apparently, they’re about a place, and documenting the feeling of a place, but they could just as easily be about texture and color, about a feeling of dread. Liu acknowledges there is no neutral or universal subject or maker or place, and at the same time refuses to translate specific references for “everyone” to understand. In Devil’s Peak, the flicker of a film camera imbues mundane images of mannequins, public transport in Hong Kong, and shots of the artist’s 500-year-old ancestral village with a stuttering, colorful quality. The overall effect is one of lulling disorientation, as if you’re transfixed inside a club, somehow immersed in the feeling of an entire city. Time seems to be passing rapidly, or standing still. Images transition associatively––from a streetlamp to a burning fire in an ancestral shrine to a tree near a temple. With some works that use opacity as a strategy, artists reveal somewhere—wall texts, interviews—that they are in fact being opaque, often designating at least some of what they are encoding or concealing. Other works, like Liu’s Devil’s Peak, relish the poetry of idiosyncrasy. And what is vague in one context might be crystal clear in another—Liu’s films might have a different resonance in his native Hong Kong.
Signal 8 (2019) seeks to convey the psychogeographic feel of Hong Kong before it erupted in protest by combining banal shots of markets, subways, and busy streets with ominous music and interludes of fireworks and curtained windows. The project was filmed before the 2019 extradition bill that instigated the demonstrations, then edited as the situation unfolded, so the footage has a searching quality, as if seeking to uncover the protests’ psychic seeds germinating in the lights and surfaces of the city. The film never depicts the rallies directly, preferring instead to convey the situation through the moods of what immediately preceded them.
Signal 8 has little recourse to cohesion, moving intuitively from clip to clip through visual, sonic, and personal connections. Liu’s soundtrack does a lot to convey a sense of dread, drawn from a mixture of mumbled words, song lyrics, blips, and scratches. Other times, the sound seems to be an interception of a radio transmission. The footage almost always feels furtive, as if captured in secret, the artist observing and surveilling people in the city, though without putting them on extended display. At about 8 minutes, the video spins rapidly, looking up at the city as a chorus sings a song, and we hear the voice of an English newscaster speaking about the emerging protests. Segments of the film are quasi-abstract: all you see are textures, light, and color, all nevertheless clearly recorded in the real world. Liu seems to want to show the unrest in Hong Kong while protecting those involved. This is a story we need to see, but his technique implies that there is potential violence in visibility, that representation sometimes goes hand in hand with surveillance. “A lot of political art throughout time has, by necessity, had to take on coded qualities. You would have to scramble your message, make an anagram for someone else to figure out,” Liu says in an interview in Hyperallergic.
Opaque artistic practices, despite their current upsurge, are extremely difficult to sustain. As queer performance studies scholar Joshua Chambers-Letson put it in his 2018 book, After the Party, “the production of minoritarian thought is a project set up to fail in majoritarian institutions.” Strategies of opacity—metaphorical allegories, performances of refusal, strategic withholding of information, and culturally specific references—in some way all attempt to create shadow spaces within more mainstream ones, speaking to specific audiences and remaining inaccessible to others. Yet there is always the paradoxical hope that feeling excluded will prompt viewers not only to empathize with those who have been marginalized but also to learn and care more about their cultures, or at least come to terms with the limits of their knowledge and the impossibility of universality. Recognizing that there is a code is the first step to solving it.
This article appears in the May 2022 issue, pp. 62–67.