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Tears, text, breakup email illuminate lost love at The Pulitzer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 14, 2012 - A great deal of energy is spent shutting down sorrow -- in ourselves and others. No one wants to break into tears in front of the boss or sob uncontrollably on the Metrolink, and we’re uncomfortable when others do.

But British-Nigerian video artist Zina Saro-Wiwa encourages crying. Her contribution to the Pulitzer Foundation’s Nov. 16-April 20 exhibit, “The Progress of Love,” is two videos, one in which five actresses cry on cue, the other in which she’s weeping for her murdered father.

Three shows, one each in St. Louis, Houston and Lagos, Nigeria, make up “The Progress of Love,” the debut exhibit of Pulitzer executive director Kristina Van Dyke. The Menil Collection in Houston examines the desire for love; the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos looks at love in the present tense; and The Pulitzer focuses on love lost. A shared website ties the exhibits together.

Van Dyke, who has an expertise in African art and came to St. Louis last year from The Menil, has worked on the exhibitions for five years with the director of the Lagos institution. She explained that “The Progress of Love” explores a set of fundamentally human questions.

“What in love is universal or timeless? What is cultural or historical? Do we all feel love in the same way, as human beings?” Van Dyke asked.

Pent-up tears for a tragic death

Saro-Wiwa was 19 when her father, Nigerian writer and environmental/human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed by hanging in 1995 after being found guilty by a military regime on trumped-up charges of incitement in a clash with big oil companies.

His iconic status made grieving especially difficult for Saro-Wiwa, director of the HBO documentary “This Is My Africa.” “It was as if I didn’t own him; he was a public figure,” Saro-Wiwa said. “I spent the first decade after his death not realizing I needed to mourn him.”Later, when watching a documentary about Nigeria’s dramatic Nollywood film genre, Saro-Wiwa had an emotional epiphany.

“The director asked this actress to cry, and she cried. Something kind of ruptured inside me,” Saro-Wiwa said.

Saro-Wiwa asked female actors in Nigeria, England and New York to cry on camera for her video called “Mourning Class: Nollywood.” In the Pulitzer installation, the video will show simultaneously on 16 television screens, with the full-face scene appearing on the center TV, surrounded by smaller screens focused on the actors’ eyes, mouths and other close-ups.

Creating the video of herself was in many ways a much more daunting task. “Sarogua Mourning” was successful only after Saro-Wiwa stopped intellectualizing her father’s death and meditated on the camera lens, steadied by a friend. In our meeting at the Pulitzer, we watched it together: the screen at first filled with her silent staring until her halting words tied her father’s death to failed romance.

“I’m looking for pain, so I look for these guys who are in pain and who cause me pain,” she divulged to the camera.

Following this revelation, the video version of Saro-Wiwa’s bare shoulders shook, her lower lip quivered and her tears fell. She wiped her face, dissolved into laughter, then quickly melted into sobs again. The cycle continued with her nose running and her holding her newly shaved head in her hands.

“It was a very difficult piece to perform,” Saro-Wiwa said.

It’s not terribly easy to watch, either. Many of Saro-Wiwa’s friends who saw its South African debut cried; some had to turn away.

It’s important to Saro-Wiwa that people understand she’s actually a funny, happy person, qualities she demonstrated in our encounter. When asked if someone will direct Pulitzer patrons to the tucked-away area where “Sarogua Mourning” is installed, Saro-Wiwa replied with a bit of self-conscious humor.

“I secretly hope not,” she laughed.

Breakup email elevated to an art

When French artist Sophie Calle received a breakup email from a boyfriend several years ago, she was particularly struck by his parting words: “Take care of yourself.”

Calle’s way of taking care of herself was to immediately request responses to the email from 107 sources, mostly women but also a parrot and two puppets. The result is a multimedia installation in which the email is examined in song, with theatrics, through the lens of an etiquette expert and by a copy editor.

Perhaps appropriately, Calle answered by email a few questions for the Beacon about “Take Care of Yourself.” She said it was her strength and the “positive side of age” (she’s 59 now) that prompted her to so quickly cope with the hurtful message by sharing it.

And what of the ex-boyfriend? “We are now friends but this is between him and me,” Calle wrote.

For exhibit-goers, viewing “Take Care” is a poignant experience, according to Van Dyke.

“It has a social-network aspect of love, and speaks to literature, film, music, therapy, language -- all of these things that move us,” Van Dyke said.

“The Progress of Love” also includes two pieces by British-American artist Yinka Shonibare. Shonibare has cast British naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson and his estranged wife Frances in dramatic renderings that illuminate historical components of  processing love.

Works by Temitayo Ogunbiyi, an American-Jamaican-Nigerian artist, are displayed not on walls or floors but in a manner typically associated with colas and candy bars. Ogunbiyi’s “Lovely Love Text Message Books” are dispensed by vending machine and include advice on topics ranging from pursuing a lover to breaking up with one (email is likely not cited as the ideal method.)

Taken as a whole, "The Progress of Love" encourages us to probe and expand our own understanding of a ubiquitous emotion, according to Van Dyke.

"It tries to create the conditons for people to question their own notions of love as well as what love looks like elsewhere,” Van Dyke said.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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