Bouchra Khalili, Twenty-Two Hours, 2018, digital film, 4K video, color, sound, 45 minutes.

Bouchra Khalili, Twenty-Two Hours, 2018, digital film, 4K video, color, sound, 45 minutes.

Bouchra Khalili

In early March 1970, Jean Genet agreed to visit the United States to campaign for the Black Panther Party. Asked by the organizers if he could travel on short notice, the legendary writer said yes, all his possessions fit into a small suitcase. Genet left France the following day, sneaked into the US via Canada, and, starting in New York, launched into a dizzying two-month tour of American college campuses, accompanied by Black Panther Party members. He lectured American students and intellectuals on American racism and encouraged them to support the Black Panthers and their chairman, Bobby Seale, who was then on trial for murder. Although the crowds largely were drawn to Genet’s status as a cult figure, he never strayed from the issue he had come to address.

Bouchra Khalili’s video Twenty-Two Hours, 2018, tells the story of Genet’s work with the Panthers while also highlighting the act of storytelling as an alternative form of historiography. The narrative is delivered through Quiana and Vanessa, two young Black Americans who are filmed as they assemble photographs, film footage, historical documents, and so on—all relating to Genet’s journey. When they speak—to share historical facts or talk among themselves—their voices are toneless and flat, as if reading from a script. Yet they themselves are very much embodied in the work, whether we see them sitting in a dark room talking or in close-ups as they stare silently into the camera. The resulting dissonance echoes the disconnect between written history and the bodies that write, between printed sources and eyewitness testimony, the layering of which is a central aspect of Twenty-Two Hours. Doug Miranda, a former member of the party, is brought in as a witness to Genet’s tour and questioned about the specifics of his role as an ally to Black empowerment. The work presents the construction of history as a continual process for which each new generation needs to take responsibility.

The forty-five-minute film—which, needless to say, very much speaks to issues currently at the forefront of public consciousness—was screened at Fotogalleriet in Oslo this past August and September as part of a collaborative presentation of Khalili’s work with Oslo Kunstforening and art production company TrAP. While the sister show at Oslo Kunstforening concentrated on the artist’s 2015 mixed-media project Foreign Office and her video triptych “The Speeches Series,” 2012–13, Fotogalleriet rounded out its presentation of Twenty-Two Hours with a selection of newer works, including the 16-mm short The Typographer, 2019; the photo series “A Small Suitcase,” 2019, capturing the contents of Genet’s valise when he traveled to America and later Jordan; and the wall-newspaper and artist’s publication The Radical Ally, 2019, further documenting and discussing Genet’s 1970 trip through images, archival records, and so on.

What arises from Khalili’s layering of historical source material and personal voices is an unexpectedly inspirational tale of solidarity. Yet the works’ lack of cynicism is a function of their radical demands: What made Genet an ally was his willingness to give himself unconditionally to a cause and to risk his own personal safety for it. Less immediately successful was an attempt to link these histories to a Nordic context through The Archipelago: The Nordic Chapter, 2020, a stylized map of Norway’s international-solidarity institutions. The work was patterned after its more fully developed and ambitiously researched Algerian counterpart, one of the constitutive elements of Foreign Office. Without comparable depth, the Scandinavian version lacks much of it’s twin’s impact. The point, however, was taken: The historical traces of solidarity should not be forgotten but activated.