The violence of rapture before the beloved
Mysteries of Desire exhibition essay By Dr Marie-Anne Mancio
Adelaide Damoah’s ‘Mysteries of Desire’ began as one “chapter” in her ‘Radical Joy’ series which itself originated in lockdown out of a period of play and experimentation. Instead of delving into the traumatic histories of colonisation including those of family members, mostly matrilineal, from the colonial era (her ‘life’s work) she wanted to heal. To read the erotic fiction of Georges Bataille. To re-read Audre Lorde, particularly Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” which argues the erotic is about the deeply felt, a bridge that connects the spiritual to the political, not something that should be confined to the realm of sex alone. To dance in her studio and feast on pinks, yellows, oranges, deep purples, coppers, sparkly whites, ultramarine and cobalt blues. To write poetry to her object of desire.
Illicit desire. Obsessive desire. Love. French literature has produced some of the most compelling narratives: Madame Bovary, Manon Lescaut, Dangerous Liaisons, The Story of O, Bonjour Tristesse, the novels of Colette and the diaries of Anais Nin; Anne Serre’s The Governesses with its three predatory protagonists. For Bataille, sex is always transgressive. Yet female desire articulated by women is rarer in the canon of western art history. At the height of Paris’ activities as the centre of the avantgarde in Europe, (mostly male) artists experimented with modernity on the female nude: Manet shocking the bourgeoisie with the yellow-white body of his courtesan Olympia; Toulouse-Lautrec capturing same sex love in brothels; Degas creeping up on a woman crouched down in her bathtub; Picasso, Modigliani, Gauguin, an endless list. Though de Lempicka painted her lovers and Meret Oppenheim’s sculptures explored fetishism, even the erotic imagery of contemporary figurative painters like Lisa Yuskavage and Cecily Brown seems devoid of pleasure.
Drowning in the essence of you, 110 x 160 cm, Pigment and ink on paper, 2022
Damoah’s body is central to her practice. She has cited three key artists who influenced her: Yves Klein (French, 1928 –1962) David Hammons (American, b.1943) and Ana Mendieta (Cuban-American, 1948 –1985). Klein’s Anthropometries body prints were partly inspired by seeing how judo fighters left marks on their mats when they fell. Disliking the chance element of these marks, he staged an event in June 1958 at the Paris apartment of his publisher friend Robert Godet (who was also the President of the International Judo Federation and a contemporary art collector). Klein directed a naked model to paint her breasts, stomach, and thighs in his patented International Klein Blue and roll across paper laid out on the floor, press herself against paper on a wall. In an interview, Klein’s widow Rotraut said she felt ‘the body and the soul is one in a print’ and that Klein was responding to models wanting a less passive role in the creative process than was traditional. Damoah’s performance This Is Me, the Inconsistency of the Self (2017) was devised as a feminist response to Klein. She was autonomous, her own director and model. As importantly, she was using the whole of her body to make imprints, confronting the absence of the active black female body in Klein’s work and in the modernist canon.
African American artist David Hammons made life-sized body prints in the 1960s and 70s which reflected the imagery of the Black Arts Movement. He coated his skin, clothes, and hair in margarine then pressed or rolled against paper laid on top of illustration board usually set on the floor. He would then sift powdered pigments over the prints, spraying the work with fixative. Damoah has built on this process, experimenting with inks also and using shea butter derived from the kernels of the seed of the vitellaria paradoxa, the shea tree which grows in East and West tropical Africa. Not only is the latter a meaningful material in terms of referencing her Ghanaian heritage, it is also rich in nutrients, soothing and repairing skin, nourishing it with vitamins and antioxidants.
Ana Mendieta’s prints were ritualistic, often invoking her Cuban heritage. Her practice has been linked with the abject, the grotesque. For her 1982 Body Tracks, which references the Afro-Cuban religion Santería, Mendieta made imprints of her hands with animal blood and tempera on white paper to protest violence against women. In one early documented performance, Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints – Face), 1972, she pressed a sheet of glass to her face and naked body, deforming it to represent how Othered she felt.
The political aspect of both Hammons and Mendieta’s work chimed with Damoah whose practice tackles the history and legacy of colonialism, family stories, and her British Ghanaian identity. It is not just her own body that she references. She has used various image transfer and photographic processes to incorporate photographs of her ancestors in works like The Rebirth of Ama (2018), a 4m long piece composed of 8 panels of canvas stitched together, and in cyanotypes like Dreams of Overcoming. No.2. But making this kind of work creates its own burden. One is the impact it has on the body, not just the physical energy required to perform but the psychic toll of reviving historic traumas. Then there is what Kobena Mercer has called ‘the burden of representation’ whereby ‘the artistic discourse of hitherto marginalised subjects is circumscribed by the assumption that such artists speak as “representatives” of the communities from which they come – a role which not only creates a burden that is logically impossible for any one individual to bear, but which is also integral to the iron law of the stereotype that reinforces the view from the majority culture that every minority subject is, essentially, the same.’ Though written in the 1990s, Mercer’s text still resonates with Damoah and others. Artists Sonia Boyce (British Afro-Caribbean, b. 1962) and Simone Leigh (American, b. 1967) spoke of it recently, for instance, in relation to being the first black women selected to represent Britain and the U.S. respectively at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022.
Primordial soup of emotions. Pigment and ink on paper. 110 x 160 cm
In the silence and stillness of lockdown, Damoah became aware how impacted she was by this burden and decided to use the enforced hiatus as an opportunity to nourish herself. As Lorde writes, ‘The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.’ Imprinting parts of her body, Damoah created densely layered works on paper. Some took months to complete, the paper left hanging to dry for twenty-four hours at a time between inkings. The result was ‘Radical Joy’ – a startling series, uplifting and unashamedly decorative with its explosion of bold hot pinks and cobalt blues amid golds and darks. Within it, separate bodies of works or “chapters” that could be read in any order. The ‘Mysteries of Desire’ chapter comprised just a few works at that point, their colours subtler than those of other chapters: shapes emerging from a mottled darkness.
Lockdowns ended. Travel resumed. Live exhibitions returned. ‘Radical Joy’ was shown at Sakhile & Me in Frankfurt in late 2021. When InFems – the Intersectional Feminist Art Collective Damoah co-founded – was commissioned by fashion house Carolina Herrera to create ‘Nightclubbing,’ a collection of unique NFTs for International Women’s Day 2022, Damoah returned to the concept of radical joy engaging in what she described as ‘an ultimate expression of self-worth.’ To make her Flesh of the Goddesses she covered herself in shimmering gold paint from head to toe and left traces of her body on a Prussian blue canvas spread across the floor. The symbolism of this dazzling display is universally accessible. Gold, as Damoah says, ‘is representative of deity and transcendent divine light in many cultures for millenia. It is fluid, malleable and untarnishable. Once believed to be the “tears of the sun” by the ancient Inca people and “flesh of the gods” by the ancient Egyptians, it has been used widely to represent value, sacred power, authority and prosperity and has dominated global economies for centuries.’ By invoking these meanings and drawing attention to her preciousness, Damoah transforms into the (unattainable) object of our desire in a ‘fearless and unapologetic display of passion, light and Radical Joy.’
If exploring female desire is risky for women artists because they fear the trap of objectification, it is arguably doubly fraught for artists of colour, given how the Othered black body has been misrepresented as oversexualised, deviant. Relaying her experience of 1960s America on Cuban TV, Ana Mendieta said, ‘since I look Latin, I was always “la putica,” the little whore, to them.’ This view was so embedded, Jill Fields suggests, that even wearing black lingerie was ‘racial masquerade akin to blackface…[it] allowed women, especially white women, to express, and their bodies to convey, the eroticism attributed to black women via a safely contained and removable black skin.’ But Damoah wanted to develop ‘Mysteries of Desire’ and where better than at Fondation H in Paris, a city that was once home to Bataille and to Laure, the artist model Manet described as a ‘très belle négresse 11 rue de Vintimille 3e’ who never got to represent her own desires, just act as witness to his.
Like their predecessors, Damoah’s sixteen new works are created from a minimum of five layers of body prints and Kremer pigments on Khadi Indian Atlas paper (100 % cotton rag 400 gsm). With each layer, the texture of this acid-free paper changes. It gathers weight, solidifies. Dressed only in underwear, Damoah incorporates the textured imprints left by the fabric into the work: a fold, a crease, a seam, a band of elastic: all proof her body was there. Often the resulting image is ambiguous. We could be looking at a breast or a hillock, at a ribcage or the splay of elongated fingers. The clarity of the imprint can be controlled. For instance, rather than always using the floor as a surface, she uses a table, too, so that the press of her body against the paper is more delicate, leaves a subtler mark. In one work, she attempts to be as symmetrical as possible, producing a mirror image as if she is now her own object of desire.
The plushest, silkiest prison. 56 x 76 cm
Squeezing all slick and delicious around you. 56 x 76 cm
Lace and lingerie
As with other elements in the ‘Radical Joy’ series, serendipity played a role in her materials. Damoah found a length of French lace in her old studio and brought it with her when she moved, despite not knowing what she might use it for. From the sixteenth century, lace was a luxury item that became so associated with notions of conspicuous display – frothing at the elbows, spilling from collars – that sumptuary laws were brought in to govern its use. Whilst a contemporary viewer may associate lace with femininity, wealthy men wore it too, even smuggling it across borders. Whether fashioned from threads of silk, metallic gold or cotton, lace ‘has an oddly double-edged set of associations through from Victorian uprightness and indigenous handicrafts to sluttish ostentation’ which is why several contemporary women artists have incorporated it into their works. In revisiting her piece of found lace, Damoah was reminded of her own lacy lingerie and experimented by pressing different types of lace to the surface of her paper. Close up, hearts, flowers, points in luscious colours are just visible in some works. For contrasting texture, she also used a material from Ghana that resembles a fishing net. The association between fishing and flirting is an old one from Cupid with his rod to Seurat’s visual pun of pêcheur/pécheur (fisher/sinner) to today’s catfishers. But this material is used for exfoliating. Thus Damoah’s personal, intimate rituals – daily dressing/undressing, bathing – are embedded in the paper and stand in for her body; fabrics, greased with shea butter, act like skin.
Damoah often works through the night until 4 or 5 a.m. and it’s hard not to think of those other artist night owls: Lee Krasner banishing her grief in monochromes; Louise Bourgeois’ insomnia drawings; Joseph Cornell assembling his boxes as his family slept. The darkness outside throws her colours into even sharper relief: gold, cobalt blue, Prussian blue, hot pink, fluorescent violet, studio yellow, gold pigment, turquoise, light fluorescent lemon yellow…Works change depending on the light. The glow of fluorescence. She has honed her technique, learned that varnish behaves in certain ways: use a little of it and the ink will impregnate the pigment, use more and the ink will run off it, rivulets snaking down the paper. She can predict when yellowy under layers turn green as the surface is dyed with blue pigment. She knows how to control the pour of ink or what will happen if she intentionally omits setting spray from an area. How to attain a glittery sheen by mixing iridescent medium with ink. Where she has dropped shea butter onto pigment, there are white bursts like the flare of stars in a night sky. Hers is not only an additive process. She might remove ink too, wiping it away with a rag. Yet sometimes the materials surprise her. Before sunrise, So that I can know all sides of you resembles a landscape seen from the air where golden masses float in an ultramarine sea that is tinged purple. As Damoah rests, ink darkens, words disappear. By evening, it is as if a tide has rushed in, yesterday’s blue submerged in a much richer purple. Without displaying documentation of every such stage, these paintings’ former selves remain hidden, known only to the artist. Like secret passions.
The unique installation at Fondation H, Paris whereby the back of the paper will be visible for the first time, shows Damoah’s painterliness. Suspended from the ceiling, her works are visibly less textured at the back but colours seep through. With the exception of artworks deliberately painted on both sides (the wing panels of altar pieces, for instance, intended to be seen both open and closed, or a work on glass, and so on) the backs of two-dimensional works are typically hidden. This openness, which draws attention to the creative process, is tantamount to an act of transparency by the artist expressed in the title of her work
So that I can know all sides of you – a phrase that can be taken literally to refer to the artwork itself which can be hung either vertically or horizontally, potentially changing the viewer’s perception and to the unnamed object of her desire. For the viewer, there’s a performative element in this hang: we are invited to walk between and around works. The three-dimensional body that has left traces of itself on a two-dimensional surface is now re-implied. It feeds a common desire, post-lockdown, to re-encounter bodies – the height and heft and scent of them – in three dimensions; to hear voices in the context of other overlapping voices in public spaces; to touch. A sentiment expressed in Damoah’s work: Its shape looks, feels and tastes like all things beautiful and pleasurable.
Damoah has found herself experimenting with formats too. When I say your name it’s like magic lives in my mouth and A transcendental experience in relation to the shape of your name are triptychs which Damoah created by laying three sheets of paper next to one another on the floor and then not observing the discrete edges of each sheet whilst she enacted her body prints. The result is an overlap – one body part across two sheets. This effect can be interpreted as both the fragmentation of the body and a disruption of order – the body that refuses to stay within the boundaries of the paper, like a partner who encroaches on your side of the bed. But also a way of uniting the disparate parts, the loss of borders we experience between self and other during sex. Damoah’s decision that the triptych’s elements can be displayed in any configuration means these are works that can be read in multiple ways, the body never a closed system but one in flux; body parts legible or abstracted according to their juxtapositions.
There are also two tondi: I want to devour your lips and tongue and teeth to gently bite your chin and cheeks… and My sweet, tender, unforgettable, exquisitely torturous, uncontrollable addiction. The antique tondo format was popularised in fifteenth century Florence through commemorative birth trays (the desco da parte) Donatello reliefs, Della Robbia’s polychrome stucco roundels, Botticelli’s Madonnas and, later, innovative compositions by Michelangelo and Parmigianino. There was a fascination with mirrors, reflection and portraiture at the time which coincided with the artist’s change in status from craftsperson to individual. Referencing Lavinia Fontana’s 1579 self-portrait, also in tondo format, Catherine King reminds us that ‘the circle was regarded as the most perfect geometric structure in contemporary scientific and philosophical thought, as it described the path of the planets and the structure of the cosmos.’ More recently, there has been a renewed interest in the tondo from women artists seeking to explore a connection between circle, infinity, and female sexuality.
I want to devour your lips and tongue and teeth to gently bite your chin and cheeks. 2022. Pigment and ink on paper. 110 cm diameter
There are parallels between Lorde’s radical joy and écriture féminine or “women’s writing” first articulated by French writer Hélène Cixous in her 1975 essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Cixous describes it as writing that deploys lacunae and other disruptions in the text in the fluid, diverse, unconscious language that begins with the mother in the stage before her child learns to speak and thus to use male-centred speech – that is, speech that privileges the rational and linear over chaos and experimentation. Arguing that patriarchy is threatened by female desire and so seeks to repress it, Cixous encourages women to write, to embrace jouissance. For her, the latter is a psychic and bodily pleasure that is diffuse, abundant, limitless, and so forth, and the source of her creativity. ‘Women must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently from their own bodies . . .’
Cixous’s dualism is problematic for some feminists but her claim that women write ‘in white ink’ (a reference to their mother’s milk) is a useful reminder to reconnect creativity with bodily experience, particularly given the art history canon’s historical emphasis on male creativity and ‘genius.’ In ‘Mysteries of Desire,’ Damoah’s text recalls écriture féminine because it does not behave in a linear way. It refuses to reveal itself entirely. Words abstract into blobs, like letters that have been redacted. Text is shadowy. Maybe an occasional word is legible, isolated from its context, inviting the viewer to guess at what is hidden beneath the layers of pigment, to excavate it and bring it to the surface. Desire here at its most mysterious, perhaps: le non-dit(“the unspoken”). Much like the use of lace, this strategy of simultaneously screening and revealing is tantalising. A narrator slips between identities, refuses to be pinned down. Damoah reclaims the femme fatale so beloved of writers and artists of the fin de siècle (I want to devour your lips and tongue and teeth/to gently bite your chin and cheeks); she is both assertive (Let me climb inside you/And taste your flesh/Let me be one with you) and vulnerable (Flood of feelings that threatened to drown me). Even where the text makes tracks in the colour, literally leading the eye around a circuitous route that emphasises the contours of a body part, it does not arrive at a narrative conclusion, evoking instead the nature of female desire.
Nor was this palimpsestic text conceived in a linear way. Damoah explored the practice of automatic writing which has also been called “spirit writing” and has links to the mediums of the nineteenth century, ‘a predominantly female labor force,’ as Sandra Huber notes, ‘[which] began channeling spirits and producing scripts that were either entirely authorless or profoundly collaborative.’ Titling her works is the last part of Damoah’s process and she draws on lines from her poetry. Her When I say your name it’s like magic lives in my mouth recalls the power of the medium as ventriloquist who is able to conjure absent loved ones and ‘puts into question the role of the author, divisions between automaticity and creativity, and the porosity of the (writing) body.’
In the twentieth century, the Surrealist poets revived automatic writing and used poetry to explore obsessive desire or l’amour fou. Damoah appears to reference the latter in the titles of at least two works: The edge of madness and My sweet, tender, unforgettable, exquisitely torturous, uncontrollable addiction. Even the names of her pigments – the famous French Sennelier yellow and a flame red – conjure visions of burning fires, a commonly used metaphor for passion. When Freud claimed, ‘The sexual life of adult women is a “dark continent” he was evoking colonial explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s description of Africa. Comparing women’s sexuality to territory that must be colonised and subjugated, Freud implied it is not just unknown but possibly unknowable. Yet when we read women Surrealists like Dora Maar and Joyce Mansour, it’s clear they were articulating a poetics of female desire just as overtly as their male peers. In 1955, Mansour wrote a poem called “I want to sleep with you” in which she imagines being ‘hammered by your tongue.’ Damoah’s two smallest works in ‘Mysteries of Desire’ – The plushest, silkiest prison and Squeezing all slick and delicious around you are equally frank in their allusion to the vagina. (Elsewhere in Paris, perhaps the most famous vulva in art history, Courbet’s L’Origine du monde of 1866 skulks behind a wall.) Of course, Damoah’s two smallest works also act as a microcosm for ‘Mysteries of Desire,’ recalling the paradox of an all-consuming desire – acknowledging how we oscillate between feeling trapped by our need and vulnerability yet loath to escape the luxury of pleasure. Luring us in. Making us cry out with joy. Not letting us leave.