In this essay, Gee Wesley writes about Sandra Mujinga’s Flo (2019). Opening in early 2023 in MoMA’s Contemporary Collection Galleries, this work considers darkness and disappearance as means of remaining illegible to technologies of surveillance and data capture.
“The future,” writes artist Sandra Mujinga (born 1989), “is about the utopian possibility of being in charge of your visibility. . . . Up till now Black bodies are either visible and being policed, or they’re completely invisible.”1Sandra Mujinga, “The Nordics: Out of the Shadows Manoeuvring through the Dark with Sandra Mujinga,” interview by Sheila Feruzi, Contemporary And, January 14, 2020, https://contemporaryand.com/magazines/manoeuvring-through-the-dark/. Mujinga’s words name the cruel entanglement between the horror of anti-Black violence and the promise of Black visibility. So often Black life is tragically most visible at the point of its vanishing—in scenes of state murder, unjust incarceration, police violence, and national mourning. At these sites of spectacular erasure, the Black body is rendered culturally hypervisible yet civically underrepresented, socially surveilled yet politically dispossessed. This paradox of visuality is of course a problem, if not the problem, for projects of Black representation, both political and aesthetic. If Black visibility—seeing Blackness, if you will—disrupts the democratic assurance that links visual representation to civic emancipation, then how can one image or imagine Black freedom?
In the 2019 work Flo, Congolese-born Norwegian artist Sandra Mujinga attends to this query in brilliant fashion, pointing to the ways in which opacity and darkness, rather than representation and assembly, might offer liberatory possibilities for Black life. Drawing influence from speculative fiction, posthumanist scholarship, and nightlife subcultures, the work proposes control over the terms of one’s (in)visibility as a strategy for survival.
Upon entering Flo, one is enveloped by a darkened, black box enclosure punctuated by a hovering figure. This towering image is rendered by way of a “Pepper’s Ghost,” a kind of holographic illusion dating to the Victorian era that involves the use of projected light to create a ghostly ephemeral image. Recalling a computer-generated digital avatar or science-fiction heroine, the protagonist in Mujinga’s Flo is portrayed by producer and performance artist Adrian Blount, a frequent collaborator of Mujinga’s, who has donned one of the artist’s wearable sculptures.
Mujinga modeled this figure’s appearance after that of Ann-Marie Crooks, a Jamaican-American former bodybuilder and pro-wrestler, who went by the ring name “Midnight.” Beneath the bulbous black faux-leather garment, Blout is only vaguely identifiable, appearing and disappearing from the darkness in iridescent flashes as a haunting soundtrack reverberates through the gallery. The hybrid-biomorphic contours of the figure’s form and wardrobe highlight Mujinga’s interest in another kind of “body-building,” namely, imagining the human body anew by eschewing fixed notions of gender, biology, and species.
Protean surfaces abound in Mujinga’s work, hence the artist’s concern for organic and technological sites of contact: skins, textiles, screens, and of course digital interfaces. This attention to the haptic, dimensional, and multisensory qualities of sculpture, image-making, and technology reflects the artist’s affection for form, texture, and physical structure, as much as her profound skepticism of vision and its penetrative, extractive tendencies.
In Flo, Mujinga addresses the digital traces left behind by users of contemporary data systems. A frequently observed myth of data technologies is their deceptive immateriality. Typically represented by the trope of “the cloud,” such systems conjure spectral and ethereal metaphors in the public imagination. Think invisible broadband signals, wireless Bluetooth technologies, voice-command interfaces, and of course the unseen hand of predictive algorithms that drive everything from social media and internet commerce to high-frequency trading and predictive policing. Yet, beneath the frictionless, seamless surface of our smartphones and digital devices lie the hidden, tangible networks of deep complexity: a corporate data center in Finland, a coltan mine in eastern Congo, a transatlantic fiber-optic cable submerged in international waters.
The moniker of the cloud, therefore, shrouds not only the physicality of emergent digital technologies but also the environmental, social, and political inequities wrought by transatlantic networks of mineral extraction and capture. From the microscopic circuity that stores and traffics user information to intercontinental megastructures of transmission, data collection is seemingly everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous yet unseeable. In this respect, such emergent technologies abide by a curious spectral logic of simultaneous absence and presence; they are hidden in plain sight, constituting a pervasive yet unseen network of enclosure.
The work is named after the artist’s late mother, Flo, whose presence is revived through its title. This use of technology as a tether to a loved one who has passed echoes commercial uses of holograms to reanimate the images of deceased public figures, but it also situates the work within the Black oceanic practice of “wake work” as accounted by Christina Sharpe. Sharpe describes wake work as a methodology of care, as well as a pedagogical practice through which to restore the memory of the dead. Much of Sharpe’s work theorizes “in/for/from what Frank Wilderson refers to as ‘stay[ing] in the hold of the ship,”2Christina Elizabeth Sharpe, “The Wake,” in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 14, a state in which one willfully remains haunted by the violent and extractive forces visited upon Black life as well as a means through which to forge a trans-temporal communion with lives claimed by the past. Drawing upon the wake is a capacious metaphor for naming “a watch or vigil held beside the body of someone who has died,” “the track left on the water’s surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming or moved, in water.” Sharpe’s framework, directly addresses how Black life is lived in “the wake of the unfinished project of emancipation.”3Ibid., 10, 3, 5.
While the running time of Flo is just over fifty minutes, there is a distinctly cyclical temporality to the work. As the audio drones and the figure in the work paces back and forth, the outline, body, face, and wardrobe of the performer undulate in form. The physical fluctuations of the figure shift through and between recognition illuminating the ways that identities and positions are in constant states of flux as we migrate through and between societies or social spheres. Meanwhile the work’s nonlinear embrace of the loop recalls Black studies scholars’ appraisals of how Black life and historical experience unmoor conventional notions of progress and linear temporality. Sharpe’s account of wake work proposes that practices of mourning, care, and recognition bridge temporary divides allowing “the past that is not past” to reappear, “always, to rupture the present.”4Ibid., 9.
One of the undercurrents of Flo is how the work examines the conceptual registers of formal blackness alongside the conceptual registers of racial blackness. Black bodies have been subject to the invasive and asymmetric realities of surveillance and technological hypervisibility long before the advent of emergent data technologies. Simone Brown describes how “certain surveillance technologies installed during slavery to monitor and track blackness as property (for example, branding, the one-drop rule, quantitative plantation records that listed enslaved people alongside livestock and crops, slave passes, slave patrols, and runaway notices) anticipate the contemporary surveillance of racialized subjects.”5Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 22–24. Similarly, scholar Shaka McGlotten has theorized the phenomenon of “black data” as a way to “think through some of the historical and contemporary ways people of African descent and people of color more broadly, are hailed by big data” and how “technés of race and racism reduce our lives to mere numbers: we appear as commodities, revenue streams, statistical deviations, or vectors of risk.”6Shaka McGlotten, “Black Data,” in No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, ed. E. Patrick Johnson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.), 263.
A defining feature of data capture that is shaped by these historical precedents is how the inner workings of emergent systems often remain hidden behind proprietary corporate copyright. We share, post, and circulate images and messages on our feeds and profiles, and yet remain in the dark as to how our data might be stored or analyzed and ultimately leveraged. These opaque algorithmic systems constitute a “black box” in which the user is privy only to the inputs and outputs of the platform. Nonetheless, for McGlotten, the apparently disempowering nature of the closed “black box provides a model for the individual and collective” and how “using an array of technological and political tools, we might turn to black boxing ourselves in order to make ourselves illegible to the surveillance state and big data.”7Ibid., 269.
Another key influence on Mujinga’s approach to these questions lies in the writing of artist and researcher Zach Blas whose 2018 text “Queer Darkness” theorizes the titular concept as “the refusal to cohere, to become legible.” In Blas’s account, queer darkness “carefully attends to the relations of darkness and blackness” and “bursts forth from colonial rage, Black struggle, and the decolonial project.”8Zach Blas, “Queer Darkness,” in Studies into Darkness: The Perils and Promise of Freedom of Speech (Amherst, MA: Amherst College Press, 2021), p. 177. Similarly, in this work and others, Mujinga deploys shadows as zones of agency and plurality. The work asserts that there is an agency, liveness, and vitality to things that are marked as sites of lack: the hold, voids, perfect darkness, Blackness.
In Flo, darkness is not simply a site of absence and ignorance, or an obstacle to identification, but rather a generative space in which identities that are vulnerable to violent erasure are able to flourish and redefine the terms of their self-presentation. As Mujinga describes, “Part of the comfort of shadows comes from giving myself permission to use them as a strategy. . . . I see shadows as a framework within which to reimagine other bodies.”9Sandra Mujinga and Olamiju Fajemisin, “There’s Nothing Black About This,” in SONW – Shadow of New Worlds (BOM DIA BOA TARDE BOA NOITE, 2020), p. 66. By enveloping the viewer in darkness, Mujinga’s work constructs a space in which viewers share one another’s presence without the assurance of mutual recognition or the surveillance-oriented contrivance identification, thus fashioning a forum structured by a right to opacity. Amid this shadow commons—in which one’s presence is not prefaced on the scopic logic of seeing and being seen—the ethereal translucent form of the figure in Flo is visually present yet physically elusive, appearing to the audience while forever alluding capture.
- 1Sandra Mujinga, “The Nordics: Out of the Shadows Manoeuvring through the Dark with Sandra Mujinga,” interview by Sheila Feruzi, Contemporary And, January 14, 2020, https://contemporaryand.com/magazines/manoeuvring-through-the-dark/.
- 2Christina Elizabeth Sharpe, “The Wake,” in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 14
- 3Ibid., 10, 3, 5.
- 4Ibid., 9.
- 5Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 22–24.
- 6Shaka McGlotten, “Black Data,” in No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, ed. E. Patrick Johnson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.), 263.
- 7Ibid., 269.
- 8Zach Blas, “Queer Darkness,” in Studies into Darkness: The Perils and Promise of Freedom of Speech (Amherst, MA: Amherst College Press, 2021), p. 177.
- 9Sandra Mujinga and Olamiju Fajemisin, “There’s Nothing Black About This,” in SONW – Shadow of New Worlds (BOM DIA BOA TARDE BOA NOITE, 2020), p. 66.