“are we there yet?” This penetrating, deceptively simple question is emblazoned in white Times New Roman font on a large black segment of the gallery wall, covering it almost entirely. The writing is neither stenciled nor glued, but etched about half a centimeter into the plaster wall—precisely, patiently, and with great care given to the outlines of its normed characters. Still, stepping closer, one can see the small, tedious strokes from carving into the plaster by hand, creating a rift between the physical gesture and how an interposed machine-designed font gives precise and official form to theories, hopes, desires, prose, and bureaucratic disquisitions.
This wall forms part of California-born Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s installation at NOME in Berlin, which takes the form of a spatial collage juxtaposing disparate elements of her practice. Rasheed’s practice is greatly informed by her professional background as an educator, as well as her abiding interest in methodologies of knowledge formation and the history of science. Her copy prints of various forms and sizes cover the walls of the space, forming small islands of meaning that pose desperate or cautious questions and display slogans, pockets of poetry, or fragmented bits of knowledge gleaned from scientific texts. They are presented in frames, as inkjet prints, printed on photo paper or vinyl, or cut out from cheap office paper. Small scraps of paper, directly glued onto the wall, meander from one side of the room to the other, sometimes appearing on multiple carriers at once. The repetition of these lyrical suggestions in black and white possess a rhythmic quality that visually reverberates in the space.
A framed composition comprising white lettering and shapes on a matte black background proclaims “m e t h ods of estimating the odds to rise in the coming centuries.“ Three unconnected curved shapes trace and divide a circle into four fields in which a fragment from Calvin Warren’s essay “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope“ appears. The four segments are actually one continuous excerpt, but the lines are slightly skewed so it cannot be read as one. Words and letters go missing, swallowed up by the thick dividing line. Only one expression, typed in italics, crosses the dividing space—political apostasy.
The projection of Black futures, as the title of the work suggests, and their potential unsatisfiability as a whole, has a long tradition in Black intellectual history. One example might be Cedric Robinson’s insistence that although victory seems inevitable in Marxism, the same cannot be said of Black radicalism. He argues that “only when that radicalism is costumed or achieves an envelope in Black Christianity is there a certainty to it. Otherwise it is about a kind of resistance that does not promise triumph or victory at the end, only liberation.” Indeed, it is the notion of hope, which is central to humanity and its monotheistic religious practices, that was mobilized to install the unthinkable: a Black American president. Yet Rasheed sets the stage for her own microcosm of doubt by placing copies of Calvin Warren’s “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope” and “Afro Pessimism: An Introduction” by Frank B. Wilderson III, Saidiya Hartman, Steve Martinot, Jared Sexton, and Hortense J. Spillers on a table in front of a projection of YouTube clips that show different performances over the years of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” a song in the Black musical tradition that voices rage through its description of the unending fights for equality in a system established to oppress. Indeed, Rasheed’s installation spatially unfolds Warren’s “anti-grammar” of resistance to the liberal politics of hope as a resonant space that reproduces the very metaphysical violence that is the root of Black suffering.
Constructed around this notion, Rasheed’s show A Casual Mathematics proposes different poles of truths in a world where there are no longer any certainties, as suggested by walls teeming with quotations from mathematical equations, scientific formulas, or other supposedly objective ways to measure the world. These mathematical formulas are set in a relational conversation with poetry, and quotations from the Quran that evidence hope and belief placed side by side: testifying to Rasheed’s commitment to proposing open-ended models of unlearning and learning through non-hierarchical entries to knowledge formation and world-making.
Rasheed’s technique of destabilizing via fragmented text happens either through large fonts, or in almost microscopic moments, tucked into corners, easily overlooked. And just like concrete or visual poems questioned linear poetry, Rasheed similarly spreads her frames, copies, and tiny bits and pieces of text across the gallery space, creating multiple and endlessly variable entries to the presented material, exploring the materiality of language by employing it as concrete visual, literal, and phonetic raw cuts. Yet the complexity of her installations and their interconnected references demand understanding Rasheed’s practice beyond a visual objective, as her work extends beyond merely arranging harvested isolated texts into aesthetic mind map like compositions. That Rasheed provides photocopies of the complete texts in the exhibition indicates her wider practice of essay writing, lecture performance, publishing, and teaching among other forms of critical engagement. Her approach could therefore be described as a form of social practice, as it mobilizes a whole range of skill sets, beyond the realm of the visual, necessary to facilitate different modes of knowledge formation and sharing, questioning accepted narratives through intensive research.
Rasheed channels this impulse through typed characters as a generation of a zone of friction that is polyphonic and contrapuntal, both visually and conceptually. The mechanical, machine-created character versus handwriting, the anonymous versus the individual, sometimes juxtaposed on the same page, yet merged through Rasheed’s ongoing experiments in electrophotography. She uses different techniques of copy art like degeneration (the copying of copies to successively degrade the image) or copy motion image, which was used in the work do it slow. Slipping off the wall of the space onto the floor, do it slow was created by moving the original image on the copier plate during the scanning process. A long, narrow strip of inkjet-printed paper repeatedly proclaims “do it slow” in mirrored lettering. “do it slow” is a line that repeats throughout Nina Simone’s song that echoes throughout the gallery. By having the line also physically seep into the space Rasheed factors these interconnected parts into a Black radical reimagining of the limits of knowledge formation through the written text. On paper, fragmented on the walls, many chosen phrases have not lost any of their authority or poetry, but it is the music which brings it to life. Simone’s insistent, unapologetic and pressing accusation still grabs the visitor by the guts. We are not there yet, indeed we are still very far away, yet Kameelah Janan Rasheed unfolds this distance in a gloomy, hauntingly aesthetic and highly engaging intellectual exercise.