Vanessa van Obberghen

Galerie Susanna Kulli

Belgian artist Vanessa van Obberghen has been traveling to Dakar for several years. In her work, for the most part photographs and multi-media installations, she investigates transcultural exchange. A key to unpacking “Big Wig,” her tightly structured recent exhibition in Zurich, was provided by an untitled video projection, 2006–2007, showing a white man attempting to find his rhythm while surrounded by a group of people (both white and black) dancing; he never succeeds. The dance motif is reprised in three light boxes, BIG WIG (Zi KhR 1), BIG WIG (Zi KhR 2), and BIG WIG (Zi KhR 3) (all 2007), each of which contains several transparent, overlapping photographs showing the heads of black men, like stills marking the phases of a ritual dance. The act of looking through the various layers of the image, as well as the movement from one box to the next, draws the viewer into the rite performed by these figures even while remaining physically excluded.

Other photographs show people and interiors from African communities in Antwerp as well as in Dakar—images with and without figures. But in the void of the empty spaces, in the gaps amid the open constellation of the exhibition, we feel a sort of unifying power, an evocation of the presence of the “bigwig,” the religious and political boss with unlimited power to protect and monitor. Printed on stainless steel mirrors, these black-and-white images have a peculiar presence, one that lies somewhere between direct confrontation, dream, and trauma. BIG WIG (Citroën DS), 2007, a glimpse into the showroom of an automobile dealership with several cars lined up temptingly in a row, becomes an exploration of one of the everyday myths of Europe and the desires that can be projected onto it in the global South. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes devotes an essay to this very car, whose initials are a pun on the French word for “goddess”—déesse. According to Barthes, the car provokes an amorous desire to touch when it is put on display. The sense of touch, he writes, is the most powerfully “demystifying” of all the senses, whereas vision is the most “magical.” By creating a purely visual representation of a space where visitors are allowed to touch (unlike in a gallery), van Obberghen draws the demystifying and magical modes of perception into contentious dialogue.

The exhibition extended into the courtyard behind the gallery, where the city of Zurich—its specific mixture of small-town idyll and metropolis—formed the backdrop. A temporary wall featured a spray-painted mural based on graffiti van Obberghen had photographed in Dakar, overlaid with posters depicting various African bigwigs and tagged by a local graffiti writer from Zurich. Among the figures was Sheikh Amadou Bamba, who founded the city of Touba in Senegal toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the African continent was divided by European colonial powers.

In this constellation of images, van Obberghen manages to capture Dakar in a way that at once acknowledges the touristic perspective that turns the exotic into a backdrop for the viewer’s own projections and subverts such images in an attempt to express irreducible difference. Only the realization of what cannot be translated between cultures can make possible an encounter based on genuine mutual respect.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Susan Bernofksy.