Monsters, skulls, maimed limbs, marauding birds, giant bugs, hybrid creatures melding humans and animals — these have long been the stuff of dreams and nightmares. With monsters as stand-ins for the ever-evolving horrors of the human condition, the Carlos Museum’s And I Must Scream is a take on the atrocities that define our times. Planned prior to the pandemic, the exhibition was expanded to address Covid in addition to existential crises ranging from environmental destruction to governmental corruption and human displacement.
And I Must Scream succeeds on several fronts: Artists are important messengers to bring awareness to critical global issues. The exhibition’s strong and accessible works tell stories that help us empathize with our fellow citizens. Although somewhat cramped by the configuration of the Carlos’ temporary art galleries, the exhibition is a rare Atlanta opportunity to see the work of international artists in an important context.
The exhibition title, And I Must Scream, references a 1967 short story by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. In the story, titled “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” the AM — Allied Mastercomputer — has allowed a mere five humans to survive destruction of humankind. Made immortal, they are being held captive and tortured. At the end, only one human remains, reduced to a blob, but AM has been compromised as well. Humanity survives, but only tenuously. The Carlos exhibition adeptly pays homage to this classic work.
With an emphasis on the Global South, the Carlos’ African art curator Amanda Hellman has created a visual dialogue among 10 artists who are giving shape to our collective and personal nightmares.
The exhibition appropriately opens with “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Africa),” a 2008 staged photograph by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.
Riffing on Francisco Goya’s 1799 famous etching from Los Caprichos, Shonibare’s “reason” — a sleeping White man clothed in 18th century garb made of colorful Wax Hollandais African fabric — unleashes a nightmare swarm of ominous owls and critters. By calling out colonialism and the centuries-long devastation it unleashed, Shonibare is extending Goya’s critique of a society that lacks reason and allows the proliferation of monstrous forces.
Tunisian artist Thameur Mejri and Egyptian street artist Ganzeer were witnesses to the Arab Spring of 2011 in which corrupt dictatorships throughout North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula were toppled. What began as a period of hope quickly evolved into further government corruption, massive human rights violations and ongoing violence, including the Syrian Civil War.
Mejri’s paintings from 2012-2021 are disturbing compositions dissecting this lived trauma into a mélange of wounded bodies, skulls, swirling limbs and weapons. The monsters unleashed depict the dehumanization of both the torturers and the tortured.
For And I Must Scream, political activist Ganzeer created a site-specific mural around a doorway that echoes entrances to ancient royal Egyptian tombs. Macabre (derived from the Arabic word for tomb) images of his toddler son’s head suspend over skulls with visual references to warfare and turmoil. Now living in the United States, Ganzeer counterpoints innocence with the horrors of the dictatorial state.
Rounding out the section about government corruption and the legacies of colonialism are artists Steve Bandoma of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Laeïla Adjovi of Benin. Bandoma’s works on paper depict DRC commandants whose heads are composed of swarms of insects or parrots. These atrocious hybrids testify to the systemic corruption that plagues the DRC as a direct legacy of the brutality of colonialism.
Adjovi’s contribution is Malaïka Dotou Sankofa, a 2016 collaboration with French artist Loïc Hoquet. In this narrative photographic series, Malaïka, an androgynous figure living in a cell, fashions giant wings made from the same Wax Hollandais fabric entwined with the legacy of colonialism that Shonibare uses. The hybrid that emerges embraces liberation.
The exhibition next tackles the theme of environmental destruction. In his 2013 Prophecy series, Belgian-Beninese photographer Fabrice Monteiro collaborated with Sengalese fashion designer Doulsy to create monstrous creatures that are decked out in costumes created from plastic detritus and the electronic waste so frequently disposed of in the Global South. The goddess Pollution has prophetically arisen, warning us about global environmental crises.
Using European folklore as an inspiration, Kahn & Selesnick, a collaborative team based in upstate New York, produced the 2007 Eisbergfreistadt (Iceberg Free State) photographic series to critique corporate greed’s impact on climate change. Complex tableaux tell the 1923 story of an errant iceberg off the coast of Germany that is declared a free trade state — capitalism gone amuck. A cast of characters, including musicians with animal heads and a man covered with birds, populate the apocalyptic series.
Linking the galleries is a series of site-specific installations by Atlanta-based Amie Esslinger. Imaginary viruses populate the acid-color walls, nightmarishly replicating at a horrifying pace. Frenetically beautiful, the works set up a bait-and-switch situation in which we’re drawn into their complexity and lurid colors only to realize the horror that they represent.
Esslinger’s work takes on new urgency in the context of the Covid pandemic. She is not only visualizing our lived trauma, but also making a call to action to address contemporary unbalances between humans, animals and the environment that industrialization, deforestation and global inaction has caused.
And there is hope! The exhibition concludes with works by Native American artist Cannupa Hanska Luger and Cambodian American artist Anida Yoeu Ali. Luger’s practice has focused on creating 21st century stories that can alter global consciousness and renew balance with the natural world, taking inspiration from his Plains Indian heritage.
His 2020 “Muscle, Bone & Sinew” recalls Mandan Buffalo Dancers whose rituals were meant to call back the buffalos that were killed by white expansionism. Standing in the gallery, Luger’s faceless monsters/dancers are warriors meant to restore the scorched earth. A video-and-sound work show the monsters in action — looking to a future where the balance between humans and the environment is reinstated.
A Cambodian Muslim woman whose family escaped the terror of the Khmer Rouge, Anida Yoeu Ali came to the United States as a child and a refugee. Her The Buddhist Bug series is inspired by her return to the land of her birth to reconcile her personal history. While there, she inhabited a meandering 100 foot-plus saffron colored bug that made itself present in schools and communities.
The Carlos installation not only includes photographs and a video documenting these encounters, but the bug itself, whose body stretches around the gallery and even invades the African art gallery. This monster bug is peaceful, bearing witness to the complex history of Cambodia, as well as recognizing the 82 million people currently displaced due to conflicts, persecution and climate change.
So, why are we so attracted to monsters and the grotesque? Is it because they give face to our grave dilemmas, most of which are of own making? Is it because horror, at the end, is a path toward empathetic understanding of the human condition? Underpinned by rigorous scholarship that defines university museums’ exhibitions, And I Must Scream brilliantly visualizes the monsters we live with. The Carlos Museum should be celebrated for introducing Atlanta to these artists, as well as taking on such important contemporary issues.