Hassan Musa @ Gallery of African Art

“The global market rationality pushed contemporary societies to a position where few people, (those who make what we eat, what we see, what we hear, what we read, etc.) control the destiny of the whole world. Thus, conspiracy theories are not just the sign of mutual mistrust between members of the contemporary society. They are rather a special kind of bond that holds contemporary society together: ‘I mistrust you, you mistrust me, we are even!’” – Hassan Musa

An American dollar bill – rectangular, green and a sign of prosperity – has been overrun by a group of chickens. The presence of the farmyard bird on top of the currency may seem comical, but the addition of the animal is a comment on the food that we eat to survive, and what we are prepared to pay for it. In The Chicken Conspiracy at Gallery of African Art in London, Hassan Musa (b. 1951, Sudan, works France) challenges both the structure of the global capitalist economy and how we act within it.

Le Complot des Poules, 2018 | The Chicken Conspiracy, 2018 | Mixed technics | 50 x 60cm
The Chicken Conspiracy, Hassan Musa, mixed technics, 2018, 50 x 60 cm. Image courtesy Gallery of African Art

But what is the Chicken Conspiracy? The theory, which belongs to Musa’s grandmother is explained on the gallery walls as follows:

“When nobody trusts nobody then everybody conspires against everybody. People are lost in a liberal world where they can no longer control their lives. They cannot trust what they eat. They cannot trust what they see. They cannot trust what they hear. They cannot trust what they read.” 

It seems we can’t trust anybody. On top of paintings of figures like Barack Obama (Nègre attaqué par un jaguar, 2018) and Hilary Clinton (La vacherit – the “dirty trick”, 2016), dozens upon dozens of tiny wild animals crawl over their faces, literally taking the phrase “walking all over you” to another level. It seems almost laughable that the former President of the United States of America has allowed these creatures to make his face their home. Surrounding his visage are the words ‘negre attaque un jaguar”, which roughly translates to black attacks a jaguar. It appears that the artist is accusing the politician of attacking an innocent animal, one that is native to South America, yet has been influenced over by someone that resides on a different continent, much like the American influence over the whole globe. That said, Musa explains: ‘Obama was not only an American president. He was a black president. Being black was partly an electoral advantage, but it was also a political handicap in a society that still defines people according to the colour of their skin.” By replacing the president’s name with the word negre , Musa places the politician and the animal on the same level, ultimately focusing on race – in the same way that animals are generalized and referred to by their species instead of as individuals.

In The Chicken Conspiracy, mixed technics, 2018 – the artwork from which the exhibition takes its title – Musa equates food with the economics of the artistic profession. “The real power today is in the market place”, explains Musa, “If you control the market place, you control the world.” The work symbolizes the struggles of the artists of Musa’s generation as the came to grips with the assimilation of Africa’s local and regional cultural diversities within a new genre of Western-imposed and market-driven global African art. The economically disadvantaged – which here includes artists – have been turned into chickens that are controlled by the standards of the global marketplace and quest for money.

Food takes over completely in The Multiplication of Cupcakes in Lampedusa Sea, woodcut and collage on wood, 2017, where the outline of a swimming fish has been drawn over a paper covered in cupcakes. Beneath it is another fish formed entirely of heavy black Arabic calligraphy. In the accompanying text, Musa explains: “All over the world, poor people are systematically classified as illegal by those who stole their territories”, commenting on the global refugee crisis. Above the fish “la multiplication des cupcakes et des poisons au large” has been repeatedly printed at the top of the image. In English this translates as the large multiplication of cupcakes and fish, it is almost as though the work has been made to formally recognize a word wide food crisis – it seems that through his work Musa is trying to do something about it, by multiplying his representations of fish and cake. The title also refers to Jesus’ miracle Feeding of the 5,000, where five loaves of bread= and two fish were made to feed 5,000 men, women and children.

L_art de guérir (avec Scheherazade), 2007 | The art of healing (with Scheherazade), 2007 | Ink on fabrics | 156 x 179cm
The Art of healing (with Scheherazade), Hassan Musa, ink on fabrics, 2007, 156 x 179 cm. Image courtesy Gallery of African Art

Besides letting us in on The Chicken Conspiracy, and shedding light on world hunger, Musa also takes us back in time to the Arabian Nights, with a focus on Scheherazade – its narrator – in particular. Unlike his political paintings, where those in power seem to have been overruled by animals, it is Scheherazade herself who overcame others. Through her stories she had a command over the violent control of her husband – the Sultan of Baghdad – who had previously slaughtered hundreds of women before she began telling her tales to him. Yet Musa explains that the majority of us have chosen to view the would-be ‘hero’ through rose-tinted glasses. “Scheherazade preferred to turn the page and protect her own family business”, he explains, “Modern readers of the Arabian Nights also keep turning the pages of this fantastic tale and pretend not to notice the victims who crowd the thousand and one stories.” In The Art of healing (with Scheherazade), ink on fabrics, 2007, a decapitated nude woman sits on top of a multi-coloured piece of fabric, beneath which are several hands covered in bandages, in reference to the many women who lost their lives because of the wrath of the Sultan of Baghdad.  

Dal Schehrazade,Ink on paper,101,5x67;5cm,2017
Dal Scheherazade, Hassan Musa, ink on paper, 2017, 104.5 x 71 cm. Image courtesy Gallery of African Art

Downstairs, The Arabian Nights merges together with the calligraphy introduced in The Multiplication of Cupcakes in Dal Scheherazade, ink on paper, 2017Unlike The Art of healing, the work – which was inspired by Rimskij-Korsakov’s orientalist 1888 symphony Scheherazade –depicts a calligraphic nude, voluptuous woman, whose expressive positioning – combined with the scared look on her face –lead the viewer to believe that perhaps she is in trouble. Unlike the safety she has brought herself through the tales in her stories, in Musa’s image, she has been exposed and left open to criticism. In 2014, Musa said:

“…an image, deep down, is like a bottle thrown into the sea. I write a message that I put into a bottle, that I throw to the sea. It may reach someone who cannot read my writing or someone who reads me but cannot understand a thing that I’m saying to people…the image, like a bottle at sea, progressively becomes a text, a message, and ultimately speech…”

Despite many viewers being unable to read the letters in Musa’s ink works, they can still read the energy and spirit of a work. Besides Dal Scheherazade, the lower gallery also displays a series of other calligraphic works on paper that mostly comprise wildlife studies and seascapes, and which date back to Musa’s formative years in Khartoum during the 1970s. Though the writing is Arabic, the text forms an image that can be read even if you don’t understand the language.

Throughout The Chicken Conspiracy Hassan Musa flips what we are led to believe about capitalism, our leaders and much-loved works of history. From chickens and cupcakes to Obama and the Arabian Nights, we are offered an alternative reading of society.

Hassan Musa: The Chicken Conspiracy: Paintings and Calligraphy is on display at Gallery of African Art, 45 Albemarle Street, London, W1S 4JL until 24 November 2018

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy recently curated Perpetual Movement as part of Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018 in London, which was featured in Vogue Arabia and The Art Newspaper.

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