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Issue 221

Power for Whom? On Hannah Arendt’s ‘What is Authority’

A group show at Richard Saltoun Gallery attempts to disentangle the 20th-century political philosopher's question, exploring perspectives from the individual to the state

BY Aurella Yussuf in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 24 MAY 21

‘On Hannah Arendt: What Is Authority?’ – the third in a series of exhibitions themed around the work of the 20th-century political philosopher – sees artists Lili Dujourie, Everlyn Nicodemus and Lerato Shadi toy with different perspectives of authority, as wielded from the individual to the state. Disentangling the term from its common association with totalitarian power, Arendt’s titular 1954 essay seeks instead to reclaim authority as ‘authentic and indisputable experiences common to all’ and ‘an obedience in which men retain their freedom’ – a definition more in line with individual agency.

everlyn nicodemus silent strength
Everlyn Nicodemus, Silent Strength no 33, 1990, oil on canvas, 70 × 80 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London

Dujourie offers just such agency in works that critique minimalism’s dogma of objectivity and its prevalence in the postwar canon. Like many in the 1960s and early ’70s, Dujourie forayed into video art, using her body to question the dynamics of theatricality. Her film Hommage à … I (1972) is screened on an old-fashioned television not unlike a CCTV monitor, its soft, silent footage making us lean in closely to see the artist rolling naked on two mattresses. While Dujourie’s ‘live’ sculptural presence may now appear stale to viewers familiar with 21st-century performative feminism, in its day it was considered subversive. American Imperialism (1972/2021) is more compelling: a two-metre steel sheet, painted pink, leans against the black-painted gallery wall. As you move around it, the sculpture adopts shifting geometric shapes. The intrigue is in the not-quite-hidden, unpainted portion of the wall.

lili dujourie hommage a 1972
Lili Dujourie, Hommage à ... I, 1972, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London

Shadi’s crimson, wall-hung textiles, Series #1–3 (2020), conjure movement with their knitted-wool patterns mounted on linen. The pieces are intriguing on an abstract level, but the optical illusion lacks the dynamism of her durational performances – currently untenable due to social-distancing – in which she interrupts the white cube by making visible the labour behind her work. Titled in Setswana, but written in English, Batho ba me (2020) comprises the words ‘we the people’ – taken from numerous constitutions around the world – painted in black on a red wall. By bookending the phrase with two neons – ‘are’ at the start; a question mark at the end – the South African artist asks us to consider, at a time when anti-Black violence is at the forefront of public discourse, who is really included in ‘we’.

lerato shadi series #3
Lerato Shadi, Series #3, 2020, virgin wool on raw linen, 73 × 88 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London

There is a darkness that accompanies the faceless figures and entangled bodies in Nicodemus’s series of paintings ‘Silent Strength’ (1989–90). The canvases are covered in black and brown oils, cracked in parts, and overlaid with the colours of glowing embers, at times in vivid impasto, at others in a wash. There is a tension in these paintings, an ambiguity between being trapped and being protected, with the orange-lit windows hinting at unknown cityscapes. Silent Strength no.33 and Silent Strength 38 (both 1990) are particularly striking for the scratched markings on the walls of these interior scenes, which evoke prisoners or otherwise housebound people marking time. Of all the works in the show, it is Nicodemus’s that have stayed with me.

everlyn nicodemus silent strength
Everlyn Nicodemus, Silent Strength no 1, 1989, oil on canvas, 80 × 80 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London

As complex as Arendt’s text is, its European philosophical focus is too narrow to encapsulate the vast range of human experience explored by these artists. Her argument falls particularly flat when she laments the ideological thinking of the Roman Empire without considering the lack of political rights for women in classical times, or in her reference to the freedom gained from the American revolution, which ignores the enslaved Black population. Words change, meanings change, societies evolve. Each of these artists presents their own unique understanding and authentic experience of power structures. Universal truth is, perhaps, redundant: multiplicity can offer us much richer insight into the world today.

'On Hannah Arendt: What Is Authority' is on view at Richard Saltoun Gallery until 6 June.

Main image: Lerato Shadi, Batho ba me, 2020, neon, paint, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Richard Saltoun Gallery, London

Aurella Yussuf is a London-based writer, curator and art historian. She a founding member of the interdisciplinary research collective Thick/er Black Lines.