David Khang is a visual, performance, and biological artist, whose practice investigates embodied languages as vehicles of poetic and political relations. He holds a BSc and DDS from the University of Toronto (1991), BFA from Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design (2000), and MFA from UC Irvine (2004). He concurrently completed UCI’s Critical Theory Emphasis, for which he studied with Jacques Derrida, David Joselit, and Etienne Balibar. Khang has exhibited and performed in Tokyo, New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver, and Santiago (Chile). Khang is a 2006 recipient of the Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art Award (Brooklyn, NY), and 2010 artist-in-residence at the SymbioticA Centre for Excellence in Biological Arts (Perth, AUS). Khang divides his time between his art practice, part-time dentistry, and part-time teaching at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver.
March 21–May 2, 2015
In short, this is a story of fathers. A father of Ethiopia, a father of reggae and dub, fathers of the Rastafarian movement, a socialist father who bred a future fascist father who became the disgraced father of a nation. Fathers have so many accoutrements. History is unspooling at the ankles of sons. It is uncertain if any of this is worth repeating. To tell this story of fathers they will need to construct a new alphabet, they decide. This alphabet will be composed of symbols and gestures, people and sounds, bound together through ritual. The articulation of this alphabet requires them to ask how we can be released from history, and through what means. The answer is that we cannot. More must be uncovered, as it is apparent that the atrocities of colonialism cannot be healed through one story, one father, or one form. It is a frightening reality for the children of both victims and oppressors. Invernomuto are two sons who are not brothers raised in the Italian village of Vernasca.
The origins of the Negus project are biographical and historical, beginning with an event that took place during the Italian Fascist period. In 1936, a wounded soldier returns to Vernasca from Abyssinia (the former Empire of Ethiopia, as it was referred to in Europe). In celebration of his homecoming, the community organized a festive but ultimately disturbing ritual in which an effigy of the last Negus of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, was burned in the main piazza. The absence of photographic or film documentation meant this obscure event lived only in oral history, told to these two sons through first hand accounts by family members who attended the ceremony. Perhaps the most sinister aspect of this event was how it persisted in the local dialect—the term “Negus” had come to refer to an individual who was ridiculous, ostentatious, unkempt, and clumsy. Two sons who lived apart both grew up hearing this word, only learning of its actual provenance in adulthood.
As Selassie was considered a messianic figure for the Rastafarian movement—which formed in Jamaica after his coronation in 1930—the two sons determined that the appropriate spiritual guide for this story would be another father, the dub and reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry. Perry does not live in the past, riding streams of consciousness beyond the stretch of his ring-covered fingers. He is as devout to Rastafarianism as he is to mysterious cosmological forces, establishing a universe of sounds, symbols, and attitudes that operate according to his internal logic. A father who hears divine voices is someone who can invoke the ghost of Selassie, the two sons are certain. This will be a ritual to purify Vernasca from its sins. History is in their bones, but they can only remember so much. They need to disrupt the bass line of memory, actual over invented, one version on top of another, old rhythms over new ones. Decades later, through the bellows of this father, they witness the third world burning down in Vernasca.
Negus exhales and retracts, accruing new references in each presentation as it climbs further into the recesses of Italian colonialist history. Two prominent icons, the gloved Mickey Mouse hand and the signature star logo of Mercedes-Benz, are essential to the Negus lexicon, one representing the mobilization of popular culture and youth for propagandistic purposes, the latter a reminder of colonialism’s entanglement with capitalism. During the Fascist era, a crude and racist song about Mickey Mouse circulated throughout the country, depicting the character traveling to Abyssinia to murder “the Moors,” a derogatory term referring to medieval Muslims. The three-pointed star, intended to represent Mercedes-Benz’s domination of land, sea, and air, was rumoured to be initially associated with Selassie and later stolen by the car company. In repayment, Mercedes-Benz provided Ethiopia with free trucks and engines for public transportation, an act that robbed a country of the ownership of a cultural symbol while reminding them of their subjugated position through capital might.
Although these are reminders of our mistrust in history they also act as offerings of apology—efforts by two sons to acknowledge the transgressions of one father to another, through another. Light rises across the windows, over images of Ruatoria, New Zealand, the easternmost point in the world and the first place to be illuminated by sunlight. A dissident Rasta Maori community, described as a “terrorist sect” by a New Zealand journalist, resides in Ruatoria, awaiting the coming of the Messiah, Haile Selassie I. And so we also wait, with these two sons, for history to unspool, and for elephants and lions and men. Standing on the hills, watching the world, burn round and round.
1 “All Mickey Mouse films are founded on the motif of leaving home in order to learn what fear is.” Walter Benjamin, Mickey Mouse, 1931