GESTURE : BODY MOVEMENTS IN POLITICAL DISCOURSES
2020 - 2023
Installation: Cotton, alpaca and acrylic tufting, jacquard weaving, wooden supports. Cathode-ray TV and flat-screen TV with videos.
A man who possesses a language therefore possesses the world expressed and implied by that language. What we arrive at becomes clear: mastery of language confers remarkable power.
By language, I mean words, sounds, voice, intonation, gestures, sighs, silences and posture. I'm interested in the great leaders of the Afrodescendant and African communities and how they communicate with a majority when they're in a "minority" position.
Text by Joséphine Denis (29 octobre 2020)
Michaëlle Sergile brings James Baldwin and his profound insight to the forefront in Gestures: Body Movements in Political Discourse, an installation of three interventions exhibiting an exchange between Baldwin and Paul Weiss, originally seen on the Dick Cavett Show in 1968.
We are first greeted by Baldwin's voice, which fills the spaces in between the installation pieces, leaving little room for detachment; we are confined to his perspective, without feeling restricted. Sergile's interventions bear witness to the exponential potentiality of Baldwin's assertions, carefully sidestepping the unproductive romanticism that often leadens the stories of those who first stirred the civil rights movement. In bringing our attention to the physicality of speech, Sergile gives form to the resistance inherent to the expressions of Black bodies. Marveling with what Baldwin's body holds and emanates, she creates a portrait of the orator in action.
Throughout this exercise in (re)phrasing, Baldwin remains captivating in the interview excerpt that makes up one of two video works. Sergile has chosen to add a black screen that disrupts the footage of the other speakers. This display-colloquially referred to as the black screen of death signaling a total system failure-is a searing commentary on Weiss' and Cavett's refusal to index the depravity of the national environment in which they thrived. Our focus is zeroed in on Baldwin-his eyes, his eyebrows, the creases in his forehead, his sighs, his elevated chin, all swiftly casting off provocation and denial before he even utters a word.
His words have become scripture; he grew into himself by fostering his positionality, firmly rooted in his convictions. Now, those of us who receive him as an ancestor can refuse to engage in debates he has already settled. His speech acts are an inheritance.
Hanging high on a wall in front of the video work, in this narrow exhibition space, is a portrait of Baldwin, his face and arms heavy with exaltation/exasperation. To create this portrait, printed on cloth with a tufted extension of his upper body, Sergile uses this punchwork textile technique with its dense layers of materiality giving a hinting form to Baldwin's impenetrable force. The heavy, tight weaving of dense wool is an inside-out look at the pulsating obligation to divulge ruminations on Black people's lived experiences.
The jolting sound of the tufting tool has been woven into the second video work alongside a compilation of still images of Baldwin's hand gestures in rapid sequence. That velocity and the noise of the machine impart the urgency and vehemence with which Baldwin transmits the horrifying characteristics of racial dynamics under American empire. Measured and steady, Sergile's arrangement salutes the adept orator, while the drone of the tufting gun speaks to the puncturing violence Baldwin contends with. This installation is a kinesthetic experience through which the artist troubles the affective nuances of omission & emphasis.
James Baldwin defines the role of the artist as "exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see." Sergile shares the intimacy with which she is moved by Baldwin to revisit, hone in, channel, and render with unrelenting love and detailed perspective.
Born in Haiti, raised between Port-au-Prince New York, and currently residing in Tiohtià:ke /Montreal, Josephine Denis is a curator and writer whose practice centers BIPOC communities in the creation and narration of our own spaces. She advocates for Black diasporic art, critical interactions, and institutional transformations through which artists and publics can co-create affective networks of radical socio-political change.
A graduate from McGill University with a BA in Art History, Josephine is currently Head of Public Programs and Outreach at SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. Her writing appears in the catalogue Relations: Diaspora and Painting (Phi Center) and in the upcoming issue of The Brooklyn Rail. Josephine's writing was also included in Raoul Peck's 2014 documentary, Fatal Assistance. In the Fall of 2020, Josephine curated a group show entitled "This Is What Compels Me To Compel Them" (Le livart) participated in a writing residency at Ada x, in the context of Deanna Bowen's first Quebec-based exhibition, Harlem Nocturne.
Her previous work placements include Serpentine Galleries (London, UK), Faurschou Foundation (Beijing, China), and Lehmann Maupin, (New York, US). Josephine's work is embedded in communal dialogue and is made possible by the guidance of her kin.
The artist would like to thank gallery owner Pierre-François Ouellette for the exhibition opportunity, as well as artist and teacher Chih-Chien Wang, the Maison des arts de Laval and curator Joséphine Denis for her text on the exhibition.
© Installation view of the exhibition Gesture: Body movements in political discourses at the Maison des arts de Laval, photo credits by Guy L'heureux.