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Issue 240

Ima-Abasi Okon Takes on the German Legal System

At Kunstverein in Hamburg, the artist uses the format of the contract for a series of sculptural provocations

BY Maximiliane Leuschner in Exhibition Reviews | 03 NOV 23

Care and confrontation collide in the works of Ima-Abasi Okon. For her institutional debut in Germany, at Kunstverein in Hamburg, the London- and Amsterdam-based artist considers the building’s former purpose as the city’s market hall – a place for exchange of goods and ideas – to make visible the power play present within the German legal system. Her proposition is two-fold: an exhibition on the ground floor, ‘S.t.a.n.d.a.r.d. P.r.a.c.t.i.c.e.’, explores the licence agreements of photographic reproductions, while another exhibition on the first floor, ‘Avg Pace …’, features a new commission that looks at the (often arbitrary) ways in which legal authorization is granted or denied.

Central to ‘S.t.a.n.d.a.r.d. P.r.a.c.t.i.c.e.’, made in collaboration with curator Taylor Le Melle, is the newest iteration of Okon’s series ‘Mahalia’ (2014–ongoing). In four, mahogany-coloured OSB panels arranged in a cross-like configuration, it showcases photographic reproductions of conceptual performances, sculptures and installations by artists Appau Jnr Boakye-Yiadom, Anthea Hamilton, Dominique White and Riet Wijnen, as well as a reprint of a catalogue essay on Stanley Brouwn. The respective licence agreements in paper form have been attached to the frames, making us privy to the legal structures that govern what we see in institutional exhibitions beyond artistic and curatorial decision-making. Okon’s interest in contracts not only influences the exhibition display, but also the circulation of press imagery: at time of writing, only one image is authorized for reproduction, which, unusually, publications must first purchase via a licensing agreement.

Ima-Abasi Okon, ‘Avg Pace: S %~E~L%~A%~ H%~s%~peri£meno£pau£sal~P%~S%~A %~L ~M%~’S km —(t!h!a!t-yes-t!!hhat incumbent experiential plane to reorganise a c,a,p,a,c,i,t,y of never having enough— Not as a whole but as aprecise h!e!a!p of digni-fide agility)’, exhibition view, Kunstverein in Hamburg. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstverein in Hamburg

Upstairs, three morphine-coated, wrought-iron balconies have been installed along the room’s vast window (i–iii The figure of the spirit and the notion of the company sksksk skrt skrrt, 2023). Each features four monitors playing sequences of swaying palm fronds against a setting sun, as well as an insulin-coated shearling jacket, with several Garmin Forerunner watches attached to its sleeves, which are intended to measure biometric data and productivity. According to the exhibition materials, watches have also been given to members of the London-based, POC-owned artists’ co-operative not/nowhere (Aprecise peaking and tapering dignity tool; A hip-flexor fullness R.O.M. corp through succession, 2023).

In the centre of the room stands a diverse group of sculptures with long, concrete poem-like titles (all 2023). Among them, two hand-built Leslie speakers emit a soothing, 12-minute R’n’B sample that has been calibrated with imagery of moving palms. The visuals riff on both Tita Giese’s palm-tree installation outside the Kunstverein (Four Islands in Hamburg – Plants over the Tunnel, 2000), as well as the colonial proliferation of palm trees across the US. Placed inside the speakers, a kombucha ‘mother’ culture naturally absorbs the sound vibrations and the gallery’s stale air while fermenting. Alongside, Anticipated – yet unexpected … (2022) comprises a preserved oxtail stew – containing traces of the holistic herbs ashwagandha, lion’s mane and tuls – on a cane swivel chair. The empty certificate placeholder on the wall seems to suggest that German authorities are yet to authorize the stew for public consumption possibly due to the potential abortion-inducing qualities of ashwagandha.

In pairing these seemingly disparate items, Okon laments the absurdity of legal decision-making and questions whether governing bodies always have their citizens’ best interests at heart. How can sheepskin jackets – which perpetuate animal exploitation and cruelty – be deemed acceptable while cruelty-free, medicinal herbs in a hearty and nourishing stew are regarded as a threat to society? Here, Okon calls for a review of these legal procedures in the hope of a more inclusive future – especially for communities dealing with racism and sexism – where forms of care relay accountability.

Ima-Abasi Okon’s ‘S.t.a.n.d.a.r.d. P.r.a.c.t.i.c.e.’ and ‘Avg Pace: S %~E ~L%~A%~ H%~s%~peri£meno£pau£sal~P%~S%~A %~L ~M%~’S km —(t!h!a!t-yes- t!!hhat incumbent experiential plane to reorganise a c,a,p,a,c,i,t,y of never having enough— Not as a whole but as aprecise h!e!a!p of digni-fide agility)’ are on view at Kunstverein in Hamburg until 7 January 2024

Maximiliane Leuschner is an art historian and writer based in London.