The face of Christ, multiplied tens of times, dead flowers, animal noises and bakery bags, all assembled like a well-layered, crispy croissant. Samuel Baah Kortey’s ‘CHRIS-SIS: The Experimental Joke’ at the 1822 Forum in Frankfurt is the artist’s solo debut in Germany and the first of a three-part series of exhibitions planned to continue in Ghana and probably Zambia later this year. The series is part of Kortey’s comprehensive research into the crisis Christian iconography has been going through since the propagation of mass production. Think of the multiplied use of the crucifix, which depicts one of the cruellest forms of capital punishment in pop culture, fashion and art. The pain has become a commodity, something that looks good on a T-shirt or a stage.
The exhibition, which opened on Good Friday, is imbued with symbolic meanings, alluding to various forms of violence, from the ones exercised in Christian re-enactments of holy events to those inflicted by European colonisers in Africa. The topic of crisis unfolds as a red thread in the exhibition, referring to different instances, such as a crisis of identity, religion or, more mundane, of art spaces. At times, this large number of references overwhelms the viewer in its complexity. However, as the artist reckons, one can always choose a specific point of interest and start delving into the artwork from that perspective.
Entering the exhibition space close to the historic centre of Frankfurt, one immediately senses the conceptual proximity to one of the city’s landmarks: the Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew, formerly used as the coronation church of the Holy Roman Empire. A sound installation, conceived to play only during the exhibition opening on the holiday commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus and his death on the Calvary, welcomes the visitor with solemn rings of bells. The familiar chimes are interlaced with disturbing sounds that give the impression of a dark medieval alley preparing for a celebration, or rather the way such a motif is usually represented in mainstream movies. The sound piece relates to the central artwork of the exhibition, a monumental trapezoidal installation made of coffee-stained bakery paper bags cast as portraits of Jesus. Inspired by the shape of the Cathedral’s dome, the installation creates a connection between the concept of the show and the physical space we find ourselves into: the historical centre, or zooming further in, the Fahrgasse. According to Max Pauer, the gallery manager, Fahrgasse itself is currently going through a crisis. What used to be once the heart of the city‘s commercial contemporary art scene has now transformed due to high rent costs into a hip area for bars and coffee shops, forcing numerous galleries to close. On the installation, the many flowers seemingly growing out of Jesus' heads are left to wither, creating a dramatic memento mori and forming a still life referencing Flemish paintings. With that, it is easy to make a connection to the so-called Dutch “Golden Age”, a period of great wealth earned mainly by forcing Indigenous people into slavery and exploiting their lands.
Criss-crossing places and centuries, the artworks on the walls remind us of the Benin Bronzes, a series of elaborately crafted decorative and ritualistic plaques made by skilled craftsmen in the 16th-17th centuries, containing scenes of animals, human figures and symbols of royalty. The Benin bronzes have a bloody history, having been stolen by British colonists from Benin City (modern-day Nigeria) in the late 19th century and taken to London and other European capitals, where they remain to this day. The Benin Bronzes represent contemporary symbols of the restitution of stolen goods debate that has been discussed in Western Europe for years, but also of a bloody colonial past that overshadows the present. The post-colonial critique gets intertwined with a deep questioning of Christian values, especially ones that put a high price on the role of pain and martyrdom, seen as something one should strive towards. Also, the visual norms imposed by Christian iconography, cemented throughout two millennia, are looked at by the artist with scepticism.
Composed of small plaques conjoined through wooden pieces, the wall installation seems to embrace the space, unifying it into a whole. The composition, at the intersection of the sacred and the profane, displays dozens of casts of Jesus’ face and bust, meticulously formed and painted by the artist. Using everyday materials that serve our constant need to consume, such as bakery wrappers and coffee beans, Kortey re-creates the analogy of bread as the body of Christ. The tormented faces of Christ that seem to flow in a muddy river suggest the central role pain and sacrifice play in Christianity. Harshly condemned, violence nonetheless has an ambiguous meaning: the Bible is full of episodes marked by cruelty, culminating with the brutal killing of Jesus Christ by nailing his wrists and feet on a wooden cross. According to the New Testament, Jesus sacrificed himself to pay the penalty for the sins of humanity. Seen as “the Lamb of God” (Agnus Dei) because he accepted to sacrifice himself and acted as an obedient lamb at his Father’s will, his sacrifice is commemorated every year by Christians worldwide, killing immense amounts of innocent lambs. Kortey, an animal rights activist, has spent time in slaughterhouses in Ghana, documenting and observing the excessive killings taking place around religious holidays, especially on Easter. How can these bloody mass killings and the blood spilt be reconciled with the preaching of peace?
A sacred object, which before was seen only on specific days and only in specially designated places, like the church, the crucifix has recently become a hyper-visible object, recreated out of cheap materials and exhibited in mundane places. The body of Christ is, thus, a body in crisis that has lost its initial aura through mass production. Kortey's reflection on this issue does not lack humorous gestures, such as comparing the holy body with a croissant, a beloved pastry avidly consumed daily by many Europeans. The body of Christ is commodified, becoming a mere pop cultural icon in our everyday lives, not unlike a sweet croissant.
‘CHRIS-SIS: THE EXPERIMENTAL JOKE’
Samuel Baah Kortey
19/4 – 7/5/2022 and 14/6 – 2/7/2022
60311, Frankfurt am Main