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Review

Life and art in dark times: Teju Cole’s Black Paper

In May of 2020 I read Intimations, Zadie Smith’s book of micro-essays and vignettes. It was written both in response to the unfolding pandemic and in support of relief efforts—a way, by Smith’s own admission, for her to feel useful during a time of personal and societal dislocation.

Smith is one of my favourite essayists, at her best simultaneously rigorous and accessible. In other moments, her work can tend toward a contrarianism that feels forced, perhaps out of a desire to sidestep the crude essentialism that dogs ‘minority’ writers who evade neat categorisation. One such moment occurs in the essay ‘Something To Do’, in which she grapples with the utility of art and literature, and her own reasons for writing. It’s something to do, she concludes, essentially no different from any other way to pass the time.

It’s a delusional painter who finishes a canvas at two o’clock and expects radical societal transformation by four … The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art. As a consequence, art stands in a dubious relation to necessity—and to time itself.

This is not the book I am reviewing, but it’s where the seed was planted. The unease I felt at Smith’s  conclusion that art is no more necessary than banana bread lingered in a surprisingly disturbing way, like a mosquito in a bedroom at nighttime.

I didn’t need to read another book to know I disagreed with Smith’s assertion, which may well have been a deliberate overstatement intended as provocation. And sure, there are plenty of tired and banal platitudes about art that serve complacency (literature makes us more empathetic, etc.) But I perhaps needed to encounter a more capacious and generous account of what art is and what it can be, a kind of contemporary compass for an era labelled ‘unprecedented’ only because you can’t say ‘fucked up’ on the news.

It was a semi-subconscious search for this kind of writing that led me to Teju Cole’s Black Paper, a collection of twenty-five essays that grapple with both recent and historical dark moments in time via ‘a constellation of interrelated concerns’:

[C]onfrontation with unsettling art, elegies both public and private, the defense of writing in a time of political upheaval, the role of the color black in the visual arts, the use of shadow in photography, and the links between literature and activism.

Cole is a Nigerian-raised, US-based essayist, novelist, photographer and art historian who, like Smith, has carved out a reputation for his formidable skill. Perhaps best-known for his novel, Open City, he has also published another novel, a previous essay collection and several hybrid photo-essay collections, all to critical acclaim.

Black Paper began in part as a series of lectures. That it was not initially conceived of as a collection doesn’t diminish its sense of power—its contents are simultaneously musical, devastating and engaged in a complex dance of resistance.

*

In the section entitled After Carvaggio, Cole embarks on a journey across southern Italy and Malta for up-close encounters with the works of the late Renaissance artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Along the way, he brings himself into deliberate contact with the human and material cargo of Mediterranean refugee boats arriving in Italy, none of which reach their destination without trauma of one kind or another. What links Cole’s simultaneous undertakings are his reflections on suffering and vulnerability: just as he is brought to his knees by the stench of a newly docked refugee boat, he is rendered literally breathless by the sight of a Carvaggio painting, The Raising of Lazarus, rich with pathos. These two journeys eventually merge.

This section is made rich both by Cole’s background as an art historian and by his uncontainable enthusiasm for Carvaggio’s work. It is also brought to life by his identity as a Black African man in both a time and place fraught for Black and African people, where reportage of the refugee crisis often presupposes detachment and superiority. Cole is able to both see and be seen by his subjects in a way less marred by presumptions of difference. Synthesis and abstraction run through all of Cole’s work, and here once again they act as pathways to connection.

Yet After Carvaggio is literally, and perhaps also figuratively, the book’s thinnest section. While Cole skillfully conveys the power of centuries-old art to invoke deep feeling, the context in which Carvaggio painted barely features. Was his love of painting ordinary people and details—those of beggars, prostitutes, the homeless—muted and constricted by the power of the papacy and the political exigencies of the Catholic Counter-Reformation? In Cole’s account, Carvaggio’s instrumentalisation of his own art in the pursuit of a papal pardon is mentioned but not examined. That several of Carvaggio’s religious paintings were rejected by the Church on account of their unvarnished humanity is omitted entirely. Even suffering can be sanitised.

I came away from this section feeling like Cole never really quite got to the heart of the thing: power. And, as Cole highlights later in the book, talking about suffering without reckoning with power can have a regressive effect. This omission results in an essay that falls just short of grasping its own crux, of skillfully connecting the Renaissance past to the refugee present. What connects biblical executions to sixteenth-century Italian art to the plight of refugees trying to reach safety? All three are political, all the way down.

*

The book’s second section, Elegies, is summarised by its title though not faithful to the implied conventions. The first, Room 406, is a lamentation of death and destruction in the Middle East, from the ancient city of Palmyra to present-day ISIS. Once the reader understands just what it is they are dealing with (Room 406 is the first of several pieces in the book to employ a stylistic fragmentation), it unfolds like a cumulative tragedy, layer upon layer of devastation piling up like sediment on buried ruins. Cole is palpably disturbed by the losses—as an art historian, his instinct is for preservation.

Perhaps at once the most interesting to read and the most difficult to parse is A Quartet for Edward Said, an unconventional tribute to the great writer and thinker. Exploring the concept of lateness and invoking Beethoven’s Op.132 as a kind of metaphor, the piece deploys its own unique, syncopated rhythm to invoke the sense of suspended resolution it describes. It zips from New York to Ramallah to Beirut to Berlin and back again, deliberately stopping short of a recognisable cohesion. Cole’s stylistic choices echo his question: How does one make an ending?

Two of the most elegant pieces in this section are also the rawest with grief. The first, ‘Mama’s Shroud’, is an exploration of his maternal grandmother’s life and legacy, exceptional but never in a grandiose way. Cole reflects on his grandmother’s faith and Muslim identity, and here the personal-as-political maxim is inverted to great effect, as Muslim becomes the signifier of a quiet, private, tolerant way of life.

The second essay, ‘Two Elegies’ is a fragmented, dreamlike tribute to two of Coles’s recently deceased mentors: globally renowned Nigerian curators and art critics Bisi Silva and Okwui Enwezor. Here, Cole’s love and heartbreak are at their most palpable: an awareness that this loss is not just a personal one, but a loss to the world. ‘The lament is an obituary that has forgotten its manners,’ he writes. ‘Where can I put it down?’

Cole’s interest in dreams and dream-states and lends a sense of liminality to the piece, as the real blends with the imagined, and the line between the two recedes. He will drift into a dream world and invite the reader to follow him, but will just as quickly cut to the heart of the thing, reminding us of where he is anchored. Though different in style and far more intimate than to Cole’s elegy to Said, what ties these two pieces together is the sense that all three thinkers have deeply shaped Cole’s own praxis, equal parts responsibility and subversion:

From B., the scintillating possibilities of the local, a local never less than global. Her refusals … From O., how to move in a room full of sharks. Man like a scalpel.

Here, Cole converses (perhaps unknowingly) with another Black artist, echoing Jay Z’s Izzo (show ’em how to move / in a room full of vultures). The industries may be different, but it seems the double-dealing is the same. Cole is not only at the top of his game, moving in a white world—he has a noisy conscience, and he knows just what is at stake.

*

The book’s third section, Shadows, is an unsettling read, a provocation coalescing around several interrelated themes including photography, the meaning of Blackness, and the ethics of visual documentation. There is the sense of the book beginning to build toward a crescendo, a depth and rigour of interrogation that evinces just how much the West has lost to its penchant for monoculture in journalism and art criticism.

Several of the essays explore the work of some of Cole’s favourite artists, photographers in particular: Lorna Simpson, Marie Cosindas, Santu Mofokeng. Cole’s admiring analysis of these artists’ work is a joy to read. It also points to the foundations for his own style, both in his writing and photographic work, which tend toward abstraction and elusion. It is clear that Cole is not only interested in what is seen, but also in what is unseen; the revolutionary potential of art unbound by the conventions of question and answer. There is a tenderness to Cole’s writing here, that of an outsider speaking across time to other outsiders.

Three essays in this section read almost as continuations of each other, examining the things we tell ourselves about the purpose of documentary photography, and of photography as documentation. In the last of these, he writes:

When we speak of ‘shooting’ with a camera, we acknowledge the kinship of photography and violence.

The essays draw on Sontag, photographs of refugee drownings and early colonial documentation in Nigeria to identify where power is located, and how those who are part of the machine are all too adept at lying to themselves about what it is they are trying to achieve. What does it mean, Cole asks, when. documentary photographers are congratulated on their depictions of death? Does a photograph of a tragedy, failing to convey the political machinations that led to the event, further obscure the true location of the crime? Is there something pathological about our need to capture everything, including that which does not wish to be captured?

Power is at the heart of Cole’s questioning. In these essays he is at his best: accessing his subject from a place of deep knowledge both lived and theoretical, unceasing in his enquiry, brutally honest but capable of nuance. Detail doesn’t give way under the weight of big questions—perhaps the most striking line of these essays contains the description of a deceased infant: ‘She wears red pants pulled up past the calves, tiny shoes, and we see the telltale bulge of a diaper.’ This sparing depiction, evoked in service of elevating rather than burying critical questions, reduced me to tears.

*

At some point in my development, I deeply internalised the idea that humility is virtuous, and for this reason I at times struggle with the lack of modesty I perceive in Cole’s work. One particular essay in Shadows was illuminating on this count. ‘The Blackness of the Panther’ is about many things, and in no particular order: Marvel’s Black Panther, literal black panthers, Cole’s cat, Blackness and race relations in the USA, reductionist perspectives on ‘Africa’. I found parts of this essay to be cathartic and funny, such as Cole’s acerbic take on the ongoing preoccupation with African monarchy evinced by the Black Panther film:

My antipathy to monarchies is intense, inflexible and probably irrational. The hereditary right to rule offends me almost personally … I rate it, as ideas go, somewhere between eugenics and phrenology.

It’s a sprawling, unruly, at times humorous essay that takes sharp corners and invites the reader to come along for the ride. A car metaphor is perhaps a good one, as this essay appears to be, at times, a vehicle for Cole’s vanity. Partway through the piece he attempts his own ‘rapid translation’ of Rilke’s Der Panther, which, given the plethora of existing available translations (and his point, which is that none are sufficient), seems to serve little other purpose than to demonstrate his own skill.

As in many of his other essays, Cole leaps from subject to subject, history to history in a way that seems designed to dizzy his readers. I can’t help but occasionally feel like Cole is like a friend who has shown up in an expensive sports car, taking us on a journey of razor-sharp turns and rapid gear changes when the ride might have been more enjoyable if we were able to simply cruise, even just for a few minutes, to take in the surroundings.

This is also, notably, an essay directly about Blackness and secondarily about racism, and it was that the reason for the apparent self-regard makes itself clear: for peoples who were once caged as zoo attractions, whose brains were measured for evidence of inferiority and who are denied seats at tables to this day, lack of modesty can be an exercise in sovereignty.

The essay reminds of a passage in Blind Spot, Cole’s book of photo-essays, in which a well-meaning woman at a conference mistakes him for a cleaner. His lack of reactivity evinces the frequency of these types of interactions. Blackness, in the subconscious (and often conscious) eyes of many, is still cause for condescension, assumption and worse. He writes:

Escape! I would rather be in the wild. I would rather be in a civilization of my own making, bizarre, contrary, as vain as that of the Whites, exterior to their logic. I’m always scoping the exits.

Then: vanity and occasional impenetrability as forms of resistance.

*

In Blind Spot, Cole recounts a conversation he had with an interviewer in Sao Paulo. She asks:

Isn’t all the work part of a single piece? … Aren’t all the photographs and texts, the fragments and experiments, even the things you say into a microphone, even the things you don’t say, aren’t they all installments toward a unified project? … I have always felt that Open City was one way you approached the problem. You’re still circling the problem now … obsessed … and approaching it in other ways.

She doesn’t tell him what the problem is, and if he knows, he doesn’t say. But it strikes me that the last two sections of the book, Coming to Our Senses and In A Dark Time, feel a lot like Cole circling that same problem, maybe more closely than ever before. Coming to Our Senses contains a series of essays exploring the human senses and their role, as the title suggests, in awakening. Cole compellingly frames the senses as essential to understanding and reinvigorating our ethical commitments. ‘These are the reasons’, he writes in an essay titled ‘Ethics’, that I travel, or read, or look at art:

[T]o find out, to feel, to tremble, to forestall any risk that the active might be rendered passive or useless.

What happens within us in relation to what we see, or read, and how we extend that outward: a figurative as well as a literal coming-to-our-senses. This may be what Cole circles subconsciously and relentlessly: the power of the epiphany, in the non-clichéd sense of the word, to return us to ourselves and our responsibilities.

In In A Dark Time, Cole reminds readers of the stakes of our present day by staring directly at the darkness. Much of Black Paper was written during Trump’s surreal and despotic presidential term, and this context animates its last section. The essay titled ‘Resist, Refuse’ is among the book’s most powerful, and exposes the contemporary watering down of ‘resistance’ through an exploration of the profound work carried out by resistance movements in Nazi-occupied Europe. In the context of neofascism’s troubling rise, Cole proposes a reclamation of the word resistance, a resistance of refusals:

Refuse to play, refuse decorum, refuse accusation, refuse distraction, which is tolerance of death-dealing by another name. And when told you can’t refuse, refuse that too.

I’m not sure I’ve felt as awake in my entire life, to responsibility or resistance or the insidious rot of weaponised distraction, as when reading those words.

It was in the book’s final essay, ‘On Carrying and Being Carried’, that contained somewhat of an answer to the vague sense of a question with which I had approached the book: some wisdom I hope might sustain me at midnight after an hour of doomscrolling and questioning the point of it all—writing, reading, making, fighting—the hour at which abstract ideals sag under the weight of terror and abjection. I run the risk of turning it into a cliche, so I’ll let you read it for yourself.

*

Dizzying, sometimes excessive, frequently difficult to follow or decipher: this isn’t a book for everyone. But it wouldn’t make sense to attempt to judge a book by conventional standards when it has set out precisely to evade convention. By what standards, then, might I evaluate it? In an interview following the release of his photo-essay collection Golden Apple of the Sun, Cole asks of himself:

Some of the old ways don’t necessarily serve us so well. I don’t want my whole existence to be a raised fist against injustice … How do I write in such a way that it can bear a repeated reading? How does it locate sources of pain beyond what’s simply obvious?

This in turn reminds me of another quote I continue to return to, from Nigerian writer Bayo Akomolafe:

Activism is increasingly instrumental. It’s performing a form of power that is tied to the logic and algorithm of the status quo, which makes activism, even in its search for justice, a creature of the status quo. Which makes hope and justice, as ironic as that sounds, creatures of the things we’re trying to leave behind.

I return to it because I feel it to be true, across activism and even literature: work that strains to make this point, that point, within the prescribed confines of the dominant paradigm, and in the process, loses much of the transformative power it presumably hopes to possess. As Adrienne Rich wrote, ‘turning in the ashes of the same burnt-out rhetoric, the same gestures, all imagination spent.’ In certain contexts this kind of work is necessary (we don’t always get to choose the terms), but it is also necessarily limited.

Recalling Zadie Smith’s assertion at the beginning of this review, we can offer a counterpoint: perhaps reactivity, and utilitarian notions of necessity, stand in incomplete relation to a rich and inventive revolution.

This might be the origin of Cole’s interest in dreams and dream-states: to evade that which constricts and oppresses, we need to evade our conscious selves. Maybe the necessity and revolutionary potential of art is not, Smith suggests, its capacity (or lack thereof) to achieve political change by 4pm, but instead, as Cole describes, its ability to reveal us to ourselves. Epiphany. As he writes in ‘On Lorna Simpson’:

In your own sleeping bed, images persist and words are hard to come by. You are immersed in dream hues and nighted color. This is the art we need now: rich, allusive, tongue-tied, and un-answerable.

Cole not only celebrates the forebearers of this kind of work but shows a way forward and encodes it on every page. Laying bare the false dichotomy underpinning objections to the presence of politics in art, Cole’s work points to the truth that political needn’t be synonymous with dogma or laboured didacticism. By this metric, Black Paper is far more than just a raised fist. And it deserves repeated reading.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Kelly Bartholomeusz is a writer and community development worker living on Wurundjeri land. She was a recent participant in West Writers, and she is a 2022-23 recipient of Signal Boost, a Wheeler Centre initiative for emerging audio producers. You can read more about her work at kellybartholomeusz.com.

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