‘Identity is an endless ever unfinished conversation’
– Stuart Hall
As I enter the first gallery of Frankfurt’s MMK, palm trees greet me and draw me into the exhibition. They evoke associations of tropical landscapes or maybe an attempt of warming up clean and uncomfortable offices. Presented in the white cube of the museum, however, they seem rather out of place. Marcel Broodthaers’s installation L'Entrée de l'exposition (Catalogue-Catalogus) (1974) – as the title indicates – marks the threshold between the museum as institution and the temporary exhibition, which I’m about to visit. The palm trees growing naturally in regions north and south of the equator differ from the symbolically charged palm trees which decorate the foyers of former colonial powers. Broodthaers’s installation is not only an introduction to the retrospective of the Antigua-born artist Frank Walter, but also draws attention to the continuities of colonialism. It gives food for thought to consider these implications especially in the space of a museum.
Frank Walter (Francis Archibald Wentworth Walter) was born in Liberta, Antigua, a Caribbean island in 1926. First colonized by the British Navy in 1632 before formally annexed as a British colony in 1667, Antigua’s history is one of oppression. It was not until 1981 that Antigua and Bardua achieved full independence. At the age of 22, Walter became the first person of colour to manage the Antiguan Sugar Syndicate, an important economic sector in Antigua, built on slavery and exploitation. In the 1950s Walter travelled to Europe to educate himself on modern agricultural techniques as well as researching his family tree, which lead him to ancestors in Germany. Alongside his work in the plantation industry and his political engagement (he founded the Antiguan and Barduan National Democratic Party in 1986 and ran for prime minister), he created an astonishing amount of art, which is at the heart of Walter’s retrospective at the MMK. In the exhibition, we see that Walter’s search for origin, identity and family history are themes that reoccur in his artistic practice. Poems and endless diary entries tell the story of countless racist attacks, which Walter had to suffer in his lifetime.
Walter’s works span from a variety of abstract and figurative paintings to wooden sculptures, toys, animal studies, (self-)portraits and many photographs and written documents. The variety in his practice is a testament to the artist’s ability to capture and reflect on his experiences and surroundings in an honest and accessible manner while also experimenting with motifs, themes, colours and materials available to him. The postmodern architecture of the MMK encourages a non-linear path through the exhibition. Sometimes I find myself in a corridor surrounded by wooden sculptures, then admiring landscape paintings the size of a small postcard and finally I am standing in a room full of photographs documenting Carnival festivities in Antigua and Bardua. Between these stops, Walter’s works are put into dialogue with pieces by other artists such as John Akomfrah, Khalik Allah, Kader Attia, Marcel Broodthaers, Julien Creuzet, Birgit Hein, Isaac Julien, Kapwani Kiwanga, Carolyn Lazard, Julia Phillips, Howardena Pindell and Rosemarie Trockel.
On the ground floor, the sound of jazz draws me to John Akomfrah’s three-channel video installation The Unfinished Conversation (2012). The piece is both a reference and tribute to the highly influential sociologist and co-founder of cultural studies Stuart Hall, who argues that identity is ‘an ever-unfinished conversation’. Blending archival images with videos and sound recordings, Akomfrah interweaves the biography of Hall with his theories regarding questions about culture, power and identity. The first scene shows a Caribbean landscape, referencing Hall’s birthplace Jamaica, before he moved to England. These serene, idyllic images of landscapes also reappear in Walter’s colourful paintings.
Despite the small format of many of Walter’s landscape paintings, they beautifully capture different lightning conditions, mostly depicting scenes set between dawn and night. One of the highlights, however, is Untitled (Self Portrait) (undated), in which Walter depicts himself as a figure seen from behind, who seems to be in a state of thoughtful contemplation. The melancholic atmosphere conveys a sort of longing for something that is either long gone or anticipated to be gone. It evokes 19th-century German romantic paintings by artists like Caspar David Friedrich; works which Walter might have seen on his travels through Germany.
For Walter, who identified himself as mixed race, the questions surrounding identity was constantly being challenged by himself and others. Identity here is in an unfinished state between a self-attributed identity and an identity ascribed to one by others. In a series of three similar portraits (Untitled, undated) the complexion of the portrayed is composed of patches in different shades from light to dark skin colours. In other works such as Self-Portrait (undated) Walter even depicts himself as white. This points to the complex relationship to his own identity and Blackness as someone who identifies as mixed race.
This also entails the denial of one’s experience based on race or ethnicity by white people or those not affected by racism or colourism. Howardena Pindell’s work Free, White and 21 (1980) gives an impression of instances where experiences of racism are denied by people who are (re)producing them in the first place. In a 12-minute video Pindell sits in front of the camera and describes experiences of racism and racialized violence. After each story, the camera cuts to Pindell with a blonde wig and white face paint, taking on the role of a white woman, and making remarks such as ‘you must be paranoid, these things never happened to me. But again I am free, white and 21’. This work also points out the complexity of the discrimination of Black women in particular, shedding a light on the intersections of race and gender and the multitude of experiencing they result in.
As I leave the exhibition the palm trees once again reminded me of the unfinished conversation(s) that Hall referred to, and I’m wondering if the museum can be one of the places where these conversations take place. This exhibition might be a start.
Frank Walter: A Retrospective
16 May – 1 November 2020
(the exhibition had to close earlier due to new COVID-19 measurements)
Frank Walter in dialogue with John Akomfrah. Khalik Allah, Kader Attia, Marcel Broodthaers, Julien Creuzet, Birgit Hein, Isaac Julien, Kapwani Kiwanga, Carolyn Lazard, Julia Phillips, Howardena Pindell and Rosemarie Trockel
Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst
60311 Frankfurt am Main