The cultural practice of cannibalism—eating another human being or even eating oneself—has always been considered abhorrent; a deviation beyond acceptable cultural boundaries, but which has nonetheless influenced artists across the ages.
Sanguma warriors who live along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, believed that eating the flesh from the upper thigh of a strong enemy would give them power. Similar traditions appear across the tribes of South America, which progressively developed into the realm of ideas. Contemporary artist Ariel Hassan also seems to derive strength by consuming, metaphorically, the body and flesh of his own production. From his earlier works to an ever-widening pool of self-generated references, Hassan's power derives from the seemingly inexhaustible way his ideas manifest themselves—as paintings, sculptures, video and digital works or, in the case of this exhibition, drawings. The conceptual and constant self-devouring of his practice manifests not only new but unique forms into the world.
Saturn Devouring His Son (1819–1823) by Francisco Goya is the most reproduced and recognisable depictions of cannibalism. Comprising one of the artist’s so-called ‘Black Paintings’, this haunting image continues to fascinate wide audiences. Goya's art has been a touchstone for Hassan and a tangential starting point for this series, specifically his painting suite of the same name.
During the first part of the twentieth-century, there was a recurring obsession with cannibalism. As early as 1901 Alfred Jarry published in La Revue Blanche a short article entitled ‘Anthropophagia’ in which he criticised the intersection of anthropology and colonialism. In 1909 Remy de Gourmont in his essay ‘Apologie du cannibalisme’ ironically describes the physiological and dietary benefits of cannibalism. In 1920 two issues of a review entitled 'Cannibale' appeared and was embraced by Dadaist Tristan Tzara. Cannibalism has an aesthetic and symbolic link between European-based Dada and Surrealist movements and the lessor known Brazilian Anthropofagia movement, which rejected modernism as it had manifested at the time in Brazil.
The Anthropophagic Manifesto ('Manifesto Antropófago' in Portuguese) was published in 1928 by the Brazilian poet and polemicist Oswald de Andrade, a key figure in the cultural movement of Brazilian modernism and contributor to the publication Revista de Antropofagia. Echoes of this theory continue to reverberate throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. It is the concept of eating, or consuming, the culture of the coloniser. Digest and hybridise the idioms at the molecular level of your body, then make your art. This approach was silently modelled by Oscar Niemeyer in his architecture for the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1954.
‘Anthropophagia’ as an art term is associated with the 1960s Brazilian art movement Tropicália whose work, while culturally and politically rooted in Brazil, was also influenced by European and American artists. Its exponents argued that Brazil’s history of cannibalising other cultures was its greatest strength and had been the nation’s way of asserting independence over European cultural dominance. If Brazil’s history of cannibalising other cultures is considered its greatest strength, then Hassan’s strength stems from being himself de-rooted from any particular culture and from the self-cannibalisation of his own works to create endless and revelatory new works.
In 2020 and 2021, with a pandemic engulfing the world and temporarily without a studio, Hassan was virtually confined to a small room, acutely aware of the anxiety and darkness presented daily in the media. The psychological state of mind can have a profound bearing on an artist’s work. Denied external stimulus, Hassan embarked on a series of intensely introspective drawings. Whether the cannabilisation within these images is metaphorically closer to that of Saturn, acting upon the fear of loosing his kingdom to his son, or whether it exists as a social commentary derived from isolation and the survival mechanisms needed in this world, is not determined.
The antecedents of these drawings can be found not only in his most recent and homonymous series of paintings, but earlier in a cast aluminium sculpture from 2015 titled Skin, a torn form with craters and perforated sections; it stands precariously upright and looks like it would run away at any moment. A closer relationship can be found in a group of sculptural forms in resin that loosely resemble empty chrysalis or cocoons, hollow structures devoid of their original occupants. These large semi-transparent bodies without organs (French: corps sans organes) reference a concept used by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari:
when you will have made him a body without organs then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions and restored him to his true freedom.
Hassan’s Antropofagia paintings, an ongoing group of greatly detailed works produced since late 2015, are often very large and almost monochromatic. Derived from a single base hue and extended using neutral tones of black and white, they are highly structured and can be read in the same way you might analyse a Renaissance painting. At first glance, these images look like they are mechanically printed, images of an existing accidental action, digitally sourced or cannibalised from details of previous works, which have been manipulated and rendered laboriously with paint and brush as an analogue, slightly abstracted, Trompe-l’œil. It is important not to look for certitude or resolution—physical, overtly political or concrete—but accept the fluidity and existential paradox in the abstraction, which is in fact a façade for complex figurative structures.
Where the Antropofagia painting series is a macrocosm, these new tondo drawings are the microcosm that show the machinations of an uncertain form, digesting itself and regurgitating. They are both beautiful and repugnant simultaneously. Hassan lightly uses pencil and sensuous lines to indicate space, depth, substantiality, and even motion made visible. The images seduce, and then suddenly can be interpreted as pustular flesh that floats in a black void or universe, disengaged from the parent organism as if seen from the dark side of the moon, the far side, with its craters piled within other craters, jumbled on top of each other dissolving and collapsing into chaos.
The use of chiaroscuro in these drawings creates a dramatic awareness that accentuates the mysterious and sometimes menacing forms. This tenebrism sets up a violent contrast, where darkness expresses a psychological madness, and the lighter amoebic forms are trapped in an unstable quagmire. The circular format is reminiscent of a telescope, binocular or microscope all used to examine and focus in on something; the form draws you into the abyss, perhaps the regions of hell conceived of as a bottomless pit where the lava-like caldron bubbles for eternity.
When we stare into a fire we are often mesmerised by the endless images of beauty and menace we see within the flames. In these drawings, Hassan taps into this infinite variable without repetition, akin to a memetic approach that describes how an idea can propagate successfully, but doesn’t necessarily imply a concept is factual.
At this point in history when certitude alludes many of us, the intimacy of these drawings reminds us that life continues to evolve and we are both observers and participants, floating in space with little control over fundamental events. These drawings, much like black holes where images form or come to meet their end, explore an inner space of sorts and appear to invoke the division of the cells; the smallest fundamental particle, the Higgs Boson, arises as a ripple in the so-called Higgs field, which permeates the universe and gives particles their mass. According to the new study, these fluctuations made small pockets of space where the density of mass was so high it collapsed into a black hole. The intensity of the black graphite in the series brings to mind this minuscule immensity of unknown space collapsing into a further unknown space.
Whether painting, sculpture, installation, digital or drawing, Hassan applies multiple methodologies that may be regarded as disparate, but when pieced together, form a cohesive set of practices that provides a strong conceptual framework. The eighteenth century German Romantic poet Novalis said:
Every individual is the centre of a system of emanation
A statement eminently suited to Ariel Hassan the ‘cannibal’.