Wearing Words was written by Nishat Hossain in response to a recent three person exhibit at Grizzly Grizzly, Tongues, Ties, in which Hossain teases out and explores the relational underpinnings of the exhibit.
The opening shot of Brendan Fernandes’ Foe (2016) confronts us with a mouth straining to produce bizarre phonemes, then cuts to an entire face contorting itself around syllables that struggle to make their way through the body we encounter. Fernandes’ stands in front of a blackboard with residues of chalk, deposits of erased letters and sounds, flattening the background to point us to the body laboring to erase the accent resounding through its flesh.
We are asked to spectate as he has his tongue ripped out from the back of his throat. But here there are no rasping knives, blotches of blood, or warm, throbbing, dismembered tongues. This is not the kind of mutilation of the tongue that Coetzee details in his novel Foe (1986). It is the less gory counterpart to the mutilated tongue: the mutilated accent.
Fernandes enacts the following passage from “Foe:”
Is Friday an imbecile incapable of speech?” I asked. “Is that what you mean to tell me?” (For I repeat, I found Friday in all matters a dull fellow.) ‘Cruso motioned Friday nearer. “Open your mouth,” he told him, and opened his own. Friday opened his mouth. “Look,” said Cruso. I looked, but saw nothing in the dark save the glint of teeth white as ivory. “La-la-la,” said Cruso, and motioned to Friday to repeat. “Ha-ha-ha,” said Friday from the back of his throat. “He has no tongue,” said Cruso. Gripping Friday by the hair, he brought his face close to mine. “Do you see?” he said. “It is too dark, .. said I. “La-la-la, .. said Cruso. “Ha-ha-ha,” said Friday. I drew away, and Cruso released Friday’s hair. “He has no tongue,” he said. “That is why he does not speak. They cut out his tongue.
However, instead of miming a person with no tongue, Fernandes mimes a person with the wrong sort of tongue, a shameful accent. What is it that he gets right in getting it so wrong, in replacing a mute, literally tongueless colored body with instead a speaking yet, metaphorically tongueless one?
As a child I would often misspeak/mutilate my native tongues for fun. I would mimic the accents of American and Americanized folk whose tongues could not render meaningful the difference between the postalveolar stops ড [d̠] and ঢ [d̠ʱ] or between the unaspirated ব [b] and the aspirated ভ [bʱ]. I would do the reverse as well, I would mimic the tongues of my South Asian counterparts’ various accents. I could never succeed in the latter though. It always sounded wrong, so much more wrong. Acting out Americanized Bangla felt nauseating enough, but there was something doubly nauseating about acting out Bengali English. Fernandes’s video-work helped me appreciate the complexity of this nausea and its cause.
It is a nausea tinged by shame and disgust. The shame of not being afforded the dignity to adequately humanize oneself to others in language. That thick layer of otherness eats away at all you could ever speak; and so appears the abyss of linguistic and cultural incomprehension. Even with a tongue, you feel as though you do not have one, that you could never move it to speak in a way that would make you seem as vulnerably human as those who speak to you. It is the nausea all white folk and their careful tongues provoke in me, the nausea they tell me to feel at my puzzling face and its mismatched tongue, my false tongue.
His accent rings nauseatingly false, disturbing stereotypes of Indian-ness and Kenyan-ness, and forcing viewers to confront their shameful expectations. I could not decide which mortified me more: the spectacle of his prosthetic accent or Western enactments of authentic Indian-ness my mind conjured as I watched him fail to perform them. In acting out his native accents Fernandes thus unmakes them, parodying both the accents and the idea that one can claim title—as though it were a territory—either to one’s own tongue or to anyone else’s.
Like Fernandes, Liss LaFleur also unmakes something to assert agency over her identity. Like the 1914 feminist poem Aphorisms on Futurism by Mina Loy, whose unmaking she utilizes to unravel the performance between her and her mother, LaFleur uses the female body as a site of resistance. Rather than presenting Mina Loy’s advice to women as a set of tips molded from language, she instead presents their literalized homonymous counterparts—a set of acrylic fingernail tips molded for adhesion to the body. LaFleur thus locates Loy’s words on the body. Not on the body per se, but on prosthetic extensions of the body, treating her words as objects of play, to be toyed with the same way Fernandes toys with his native accents. Words to be examined cautiously with a pair of lorgnettes, words to be leisurely browsed through, carefully picked, and tried on for size. She makes visible how words act on our body—how the language we fashion in turn fashions us.
LaFleur’s conversation with her mother wryly demonstrates for us what such a wearing of words might look. Both Lafleur and Fernandes wear instructions on their hands and tongues to show us how language can be employed to control the body, through socially-constructed directions, scripts, scores, and narratives that try to pose as naturally-occurring. But, in doing so they also demonstrate how these all can be subverted through error and reenactment. The instruction thus unravels a performance we could have never anticipated, the directions we are given lead us to a place unintended—the score is thus altered, the script rewritten, the narrative ruptured.
Adrienne Gaither’s collages also playfully examine the structuring of identity. Playing cards lay face-down underneath photographs and layers of colors, shapes, and symbols—suits and numbers hidden away. There is a hand, but we will never know it. In refusing to show us the ranks and suits, Gaither rejects them—you are not given a winning hand, but must form it yourself. Gaither thus collages her own false hand. A strange hand indeed. A plurality of mathematical signs and symbols float on some of her prints, pointing to the calculative practices that reproduce and structure taste, class, and difference under a culture of capitalist rationalism. Cut-out portraits of her family members take their reign under a new non-hierarchy of repurposed objects, shapes, colors, signs, and symbols—an altered vision of her family’s fate emerges, where they rule the systems that purported to rule them.
We are most likely to act when the narratives supporting our current course of action break down. When a narrative is ruptured, we are spurred to act differently. Culture thus shapes action, and making becomes ethical doing. Fernandes, LaFleur, and Gaither all work to cause ruptures to spur cultural shifts. Hand, nails, and tongue labor to undo the ties that bind them, playing on, mutilating, and fabricating them, refusing to be formed by the fates constructed for them. Their mischief-making with words has thus taught me that my childhood pastime of slipping into and out of tongues was in fact a small act of resistance I could not have then yet known.
Nishat Hossain, 2016
Nishat Hossain is a BA candidate at Haverford College majoring in Visual Studies. Her experimental films have been exhibited nationally and internationally. She was selected as a finalist in the 2016 Artblog + St. Claire New Art Writing Challenge for her essay Crumpling Skins.
Brendan Fernandes is a Canadian artist of Kenyan and Indian descent. He completed the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art (2007) and earned his MFA (2005) from The University of Western Ontario and his BFA (2002) from York University in Canada. He has exhibited internationally and nationally including exhibitions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Art and Design New York, Art in General, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, The National Gallery of Canada, The Art Gallery of Hamilton, Brooklyn Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Mass MoCA, The Andy Warhol Museum, the Art Gallery of York University, Deutsche Guggenheim, Bergen Kunsthall, Stedelijk Museum, Sculpture Centre, Manif d’Art: The Quebec City Biennial, The Third Guangzhou Triennial and the Western New York Biennial through The Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Fernandes has been awarded many highly regarded residencies around the world and he is currently artist in residence and faculty at Northwestern University in the Department of Art Theory and Practice.
Adrienne Gaither is a visual artist living and working in Washington, DC. Her work focuses on identity and black imagination, utilizing geometric abstraction, color theory, archival photos and collected objects. She has exhibited at Strathmore in Bethesda, MD, The National African American Museum and Cultural Museum, Wilberforce, OH, PRIZM Art Fair at Miami Art Basel, and MoCADA (Museum of Contemporary African Disaporan Arts) in Brooklyn, NY.
Liss LaFleur is a performance artist and media maker currently based in Texas. Incorporating feminism, body art, and archives, she produces objects as extensions of her own body to queer inherited roles tied to female ideologies. A pupil to the late documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark, she received her MFA in Media Art as a Digital Fellow at Emerson College in 2014, and received a BFA in Photography and a BA in Art History with honors from the University of North Texas. In 2013 she was a researcher exploring transmedia activism in LGBT + Queer grassroots initiatives as part of a Ford Foundation funded initiative called OUT FOR CHANGE at the MIT Media Lab, and she is the Founder of the New England Graduate Media Symposium. LaFleur currently has multiple research projects in progress on the topic of mediated performance, feminism and fabrication, and new media art. She is currently an Assistant Professor of New Media Art at the University of North Texas where she is Program Coordinator and teaches courses in media and performance.