I went to the Athens Biennale yesterday.
I know, I know. This is my first time in Athens, and I should be talking about seeing, with my own eye, the Acropolis for the first time. A place I have dreamed of going since I was a child. But there are some things that visiting the Biennale did for me that no bucket list item could replace, so hear me out.
First off, and definitely not least of all, this will be the third year in a row I haven’t gone to Basel. In 2019, I was fresh from Japan, and, since I was gearing up to move to Johannesburg [for forever or something] I thought it wildly irresponsible to be spending the most expensive week there is in Miami not working.
But I made that decision in the before-time, when I had no doubt in my mind that I would be able to make my triumphant return to Miami for Art Week in 2020.
But while most people make resolutions somewhere around January 1st, I always make mine the first week in December, when, while surrounded by art and thousands of creatives, I find myself reinvigorated to hatch new ideas.
And I hadn’t realized exactly how desperate I was for new ideas.
Anyway, so it had been a while since I’ve been to a large-scale art exhibition of any kind, and there I was, in Albania a couple of months ago, wondering why one of my favorite curators was posting on Instagram from Greece.
Before I saw that I had no idea Athens even had their own Biennale, let alone one that would employ the expertise of a Ghanian-American curator.
And it’s hard to explain, guys. But walking in, and seeing work that reflected my own experiences back to me? It was fucking overwhelming. I knew the co-curators, I knew, intellectually, what it would be like. But. I didn’t anticipate how I would feel surrounded by work so Black and so queer. It was like coming upon an oasis after being tempted by mirages for years.
There were a lot of folks displayed that I already knew: Zanele Muholi, Tourmaline, Hank Willis Thomas, and a fucking spectacular garden installation courtesy of none other than Ebony G. Patterson.
I had no idea she was even exhibited here, and my breath caught in my throat when I walked in and saw her work hung larger than life on the garden walls.
But then there were all the people I had never heard of before.
Like Zohra Opoku, who makes these huge painting-collages that are, literally, stitched together. And I was so struck because they’re as much practice as they are work, and you can see that practice all over her pieces.
And I got so emotional because I used to have so many practices.
But you are currently reading the last one I have left. And even this frequently proves so difficult for me to keep up. Even now, writing this to you, I feel like I should be working.
Like, “job” working.
And when I saw her pieces it just suddenly clicked into place for me: how it’s already so difficult to just be Black under capitalism, how It is nothing shy of a miracle when some of us can find the peace to have the thoughts that turn into work like hers.
And maintaining a practice is even harder.
Because that means you need to find consistent peace. And I don’t even know if I remember what that feels like anymore.
For me, the best piece in the entire show was by Ndaye Kouagou; an installation called Where can I feel comfortable in this changing world? The only place where I feel comfortable is in a corner, so I brought my own. Will you feel comfortable in my corner?
The piece is, as you might have guessed, a corner. Like, he built a corner you can stand in.
But then, in a video, he presents a question: do you feel comfortable in my corner?
I’m a good person, he assures you. And I trusted him; his video convinced me that this corner would take it all away: the pandemic, my warped sense of safety and home, my complete inability to engage with people how I used to. Like in the before-time, when I was more vulnerable and willing.
He’s a good person, I was thinking. Certainly better than me, that’s clear. And he’s brought this corner all the way from Paris for you.
So I stepped inside the corner.
And I cried.
Because here’s the thing: I don’t know if I felt comfortable in the corner, and I don’t know if I felt uncomfortable in the corner.
Because for as risk-averse as I have become emotionally, the entire rest of my personhood is the exact opposite. I will push things to the very limit of my abilities frequently, to the point where I know that if one thing went wrong, then I would be risking my literal safety.
Discomfort has become comfortable, especially in the last couple of years out here in the wide world. The two, for me, have become so intertwined that I can’t seem to distinguish between them anymore.
And so that’s how I found myself in two corners: one, of Ndaye Kouagou’s design, and another that I had built for myself in my mind from where there are no clear paths out.
I wanted this life to become simple, I wanted to get to a place where I could spend months, years away from the States and feel satisfied. I wanted to fill my life with constant change and new experiences that would quell some of my unceasing curiosities.
And while I can still see exactly why that’s a place I wanted to get to, I never even considered that maybe this isn’t whom I want to be. And I hadn’t realized before stepping inside of that corner how irrevocable this version of me feels.
Training myself to tolerate discomfort, like the longing to return to normalcy by embracing things like spontenaity and messiness: these were the things I was supposed to gain in order to aid my practice.
But. I fear that the search for discomfort has become my practice, and it is not the one I had intended to cultivate.
And maybe most frightening, I’m way too fucking good at it.