Hamishi Farah, Ostentatio Vulnerum, 2021, oil on linen, 43 1⁄4 × 34 1⁄2".

Hamishi Farah, Ostentatio Vulnerum, 2021, oil on linen, 43 1⁄4 × 34 1⁄2".

Hamishi Farah

In late July 1609, Sea Venture, an English ship transporting colonists to the New World on her maiden voyage, was steered into a coral reef in the aftermath of a tempest, just days away from her destination of Jamestown, Virginia. Somehow, all 150 passengers survived, inadvertently settling Bermuda as they waded to shore. Among them was a dog, the ship’s mascot, which, according to the press release for this exhibition, later became a symbol of collective resistance against the Virginia Company (a corporate entity seeking to establish settlements on the coast of North America) and thus, too, an emblem of the settlers’ preference for life on the uninhabited archipelago over that in Jamestown, where only chaos, disease, and starvation awaited them.

Directly by the entryway to Hamishi Farah’s debut institutional solo exhibition, “Dog Heaven 2: How Sweet the Wound of Jesus Tastes,” was Dog Heaven, 2015, a shallow fountain sculpture, bearing a canine head and tail and set atop a wooden table, which spouts a modest stream of local tap and so-called international waters. First shown at Mon Chéri, Brussels, six years earlier—in a presentation to which this exhibition functions as a sequel—the work serves as an homage to the unnamed hound and is accompanied by three wall-mounted legal documents: application papers for the animal’s importation into Bermuda, retroactively filed.

Farah’s ongoing scrutiny of racialism was pursued here through an eschatological allegory for the repercussions of forced moral subjecthood. The artist identifies the perverse contemporary fascination with imagery of suffering by positioning various depictions of the Passion, all made with reference to classical to early-modern devotional paintings and sculptures of Christ, in close proximity to portraits of human and nonhuman subjects facing uncertain fates, including, often enough, martyrdom. On an otherwise empty wall, Crucifix, 2021, containing a spectral outline of Christ’s languid corpse, was hung beside Farah’s notorious yet tender Representation of Arlo, a 2018 portrait of artist Dana Schutz’s son made in response to Schutz’s Open Casket, 2016, depicting the corpse of murdered fourteen-year-old African American Emmett Till. In Ostentatio Vulnerum, 2021, which Farah confessed to finishing only after the show had opened, sneaking into the Kunsthalle at night to add layers of pigment, Christ appears tortured and dolorous, his pallid skin flaking off to reveal patches of red flesh—a miserable, stark image when viewed opposite Black Lena Dunham, 2020, which references a paparazzi image of the eponymous white American actress but is painted so that she appears as if originally photographed in full blackface, smiling coyly.

Farah extended their ongoing concerns with refusal and scrutiny here. In Ghost Descending a Staircase, 2021, a monochromatic work of citrine-colored acrylic and pumice on linen, a disembodied aura descends a heavenly staircase; in Spider Under Glass, 2021, a brown arachnid is crudely imprisoned in an upturned glass. Above the latter whirled Spinning Around, 2021, a wooden crucifix purchased through a Swiss classified-ad website and attached to the rotating mechanism of a ceiling fan. Keenly aware that the charm of humor lies not just in being funny, but in its suggestion of the absurd, Farah used playfully cynical representational proxies to move toward the Afropessimistic logic that Christ, too, was Black. How else could his subjects so gleefully reinvoke his lynching in order to stoke their faith?

In spite of Farah’s derision, “Dog Heaven 2” served as a crucial meeting point for Black art workers in and around Switzerland. Eager to nurture a local discourse on the limitations of representation, curator Mohamed Almusibli commissioned two addenda to the exhibition: Window Seat, 2021, an audiovisual installation by Alfatih and Soraya Lutangu Bonaventure in response to Farah’s paintings, and an informal workshop, Critique & Care, initiated and organized by artist and curator Deborah Joyce Holman, at which Black art workers could exchange concerns, advice, and feedback among peers.

Farah offers a critique, through refusal, of the libidinal obsession with Blackness. By neglecting to paint a “real” Black subject, Farah narrowly avoids the humiliation of representation. Instead, they set their terms of engagement through a play of substitutions.