Since 2021 kicked off with a violent mob laying siege to the nation’s Capitol followed shortly by the inauguration of a new administration, all while the virus continues to roil despite the promise of a forthcoming vaccine, National Opposite Day (January 25) seemed like an appropriate touchstone for this week. Who hasn’t wished it really were Opposite Day and all the news uncovered in our daily doomscrolling was in fact a joke?
Opposite Day’ also transports me back to the chaotic days of my childhood on a parochial schoolyard blacktop where we would viciously bombard each other in dodge ball or try to wrap someone up against the tether ball pole. The Opposite Day of my youth offered an introduction to the more subtle torture of the sarcastic verbal twists to come as I sat around the lunch table with pals, daring Mark Whiting to pass an entire cheese sandwich through his nose. (He thought I was serious and made it halfway through his Velveeta on Wonder Bread before the bell rang.) I’m certain we should outgrow the happy delusion of living with our friends for an entire day in reverse reality — but then we’ve just been reminded that large portions of our population still haven’t.
For our new year, I found two titles befitting the Opposite Day theme. The first is AfriCOBRA: Messages to the People, a comprehensive collection from the influential artist collective. Founded in 1968 in Chicago by Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu and Gerald Williams, the group explored the definition of a “Black Aesthetic” and by extension the empowerment of a systemically disenfranchised population. Initially they called themselves the Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (COBRA) and centered themselves on the singular purpose of self-determination and universal Black liberation. In 1969, following the widespread civil rights protests of the time, they changed the name to AfriCOBRA, pronouncing it “a-FREE-cobra” to emphasize their vision.
More than a historical overview of AfriCOBRA, the book documents the continuing contributions and influence of one of the nation’s longest running art collectives. TIt connects their works to today’s events through essays, photographs and exhibitions as well as contemporary images that celebrate the impact of this revolutionary group of artists over time. The book reminds us that it is possible to live “opposite” today’s reality in which equal justice is the not norm, as long as we commit to make it so.
For the people of North Korea, as depicted in a newly released and fascinating book by Photographer Stéphan Gladieu it seems like every day is Opposite Day, but there is no end to the joke. You are told you are part of a powerful and prosperous nation while you struggle to feed yourself. The book is titled North Korea and along with engrossing descriptions of the photographer’s journey, it includes some 80 pages of portraiture in color from inside the hermetically sealed state where such forms of expression are virtually forbidden.
Constantly surveilled, Gladieu devised what the publisher Actes Sud calls “an ingenious space of freedom.” Gladieu created mirror-portraits of the people who hosted him, often in full length and requiring a frontal pose and direct gaze — a look similar to the country’s propaganda imagery. The approach placated his incessant monitors who allowed him to continue.
While projecting images of power in military parades, nuclear programs and robotically synchronized marches, North Korea endures famine and the perpetuation of a state / personality cult that requires people to display portraits of the regime’s founder Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il. Family photos are not allowed; nor are personal portraits. In this restrictive context, Gladieu’s work can be seen as a potent political intervention.
Both books prompt us to remember that without our opposites we cannot easily define ourselves. There can be no light without a shadow. Extremism at either end is ultimately self-defeating. Here’s hoping the new year brings a balance in which we can all thrive.
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