Kendell Geers / Flesh of the Spirit
Using figures, masks and mirrors, the South African artist confronts themes of identity and persona.
Carpenters Workshop Gallery, Paris
From 13th January, 2022
KENDELL GEERS GRAPPLES with cultural duality and identity in his new exhibition of masks bearing African and European influences at Carpenters Workshop Gallery in Paris.
Titled ‘Flesh of the Spirit’ – a play on the title of Robert Farris Thompson’s book Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy – it is held on the upper floors of the gallery. This marks the first time that these spaces have been used for an exhibition. Consequently, Geers’s show overlaps with that of Vincenzo De Cotiis’s furniture on the ground floor.
Geers is mainly presenting works that were in the exhibition ‘IncarNations’, which he conceived with the late collector Sindika Dokolo, at BOZAR in Brussels in 2019. This juxtaposed Geers’s sculptures – interpretations of African masks that integrate imprints of his own body – with works by around 20 contemporary artists, including William Kentridge and Wangechi Mutu.
For this new iteration, Geers’s masks are installed on plinths displayed across a mirrored podium. The podium’s centrepiece, meanwhile, is a sculpture of a female figure with broken chains hanging from amputated arms, bringing slavery to mind. Wallpaper recalling tribal patterns and typography of the De Stijl art movement subtly spells out the word ‘believe’ and is adorned with paintings made with delineations of masking tape.
The timing of the show, when mask-wearing has long become part of our daily lives, adds another layer of contextual meaning. “It’s now two years since Covid-19 came into the world … and two years that we’ve been living behind masks,” Geers says. “This show is about asking a philosophical and spiritual question about the need for masks and masking.”
The backstory, though, is deeply personal; it’s about Geers, who has been living in Brussels for two decades, inhabiting an “inter-zone” as a white South African. “My family has been living in Africa for 300 years,” says Geers, who grew up during apartheid. “As I’m white, some people don’t consider me to be African but I’m certainly not European. My work as an artist and curator is an excavation of that complex identity.”
Aiming to shift perception about the African masking tradition from a “primitive art history into something sophisticated and complicated”, Geers began making works based on masks in 2016. Some bear the imprint of the palm of his hands. One has a hand covering the mouth in allusion to some Africans being denied “the right to speak”. Another features an elongated nose recalling a Venetian mask.
The duality of identity is further conveyed through ‘Mutus Liber (Fetish)’ (2021), a sculpture covered in white gesso and black Indian ink which references the Congolese tradition of driving nails into figurative sculptures. The blending of cultures is seen, too, in an African female figure with hands and feet based on European sculpture.
Also on view are two design pieces. ‘Leviathan Stool’ (2014), made from a piece of wood with graphic lettering and piled-up bronze tyres, revisits a seat Geers made for his studio from motorbike tyres and broken wood. Meanwhile, the polished bronze ‘Barrel Stool’ (2014) is cast from a barrel of olive oil in a restaurant where Geers frequently has lunch in Brussels. Through changing materials and questioning the value of aesthetics, the vernacular items are transposed into the realm of luxury.
Geers made the stools in response to an invitation from Carpenters Workshop Gallery to make functional objects for a group exhibition. “I thought that I would monumentalise objects from my makeshift years and immortalise them so they would become permanent pieces of furniture,” Geers recounts.
Interdisciplinary fluidity is key to this exhibition, as is the exploration of scenography as a form of design.