Three things strike you upon staring at “Why I Hate Europeans” made by Manuel Ocampo (b. 1965) in 1992: the image, the text, and the piece of cardboard stuck on the bottom edge of the canvas.
All these compose the painting, technically and conceptually. But in the hands of Ocampo, who has lived and worked in several cities around the world and has exhibited in important institutions and galleries, a painting is never straightforwardly just a picture. It is ultimately what makes and unmakes the picture as well as the dubiousness of the craft and the canon of painting itself, from which the irresistible temptation towards it likewise stems.
So what is this before us?
First, it is a scene of figures holding each other’s hands to form a circle in the gesture of a dance, à la Henri Matisse only that it is macabre, as the map of the world hovers above the wicked romp and while a man on a table blows the trumpet as if to at once herald and mock the coven. Second, it is a statement, prompted by the line “Why I Hate Europeans,” which is both a creed and a ruse. And third, it is a marring and a reforming of a painting via the collage that disrupts and extends the painting. It is a fragment of the package of Sani White, an agent to whiten or white-wash. According to the Museum of Health Care at Kingston in Canada, “Sani-White was used by nurses to shine their white shoes, and by parents to clean their babies' shoes, as it was advertised as non-toxic and safe so that babies could chew on their shoes.” Surely, the sordid horrors of race must be made edible and antiseptic, rid of the stain and the toxin.
Within this matrix, the startling signs lead to other signs and not exactly to well-wrought meanings. The distortion may remind you of Thomas Hart Benton of the grotesque American regionalist school or the belatedly Medieval Matthias Grunewald of German Renaissance. The reference to the wind instrument summons the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. The text may well be a graffito and, as the artist vaguely recalls, evokes Eric Fischl. And the stray element is a legacy of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Obviously, this is on the whole heady, because it is altogether ominous, crawling out of the woodwork of a book on freaks and a catalogue on Pop Art or a punk concert. The juxtaposition of the words “hate” and “Europeans” is finally compelling, made to teeter on the edge of prejudice and civilization, culture and barbarism.
In a recent interview, specifically on this painting, Ocampo states that his “concern is not about what it is and what it means but how these concerns can be short-circuited in a painting.” In light of this comment, our desire to capture the painting in terms of its theme or subject matter is disabused. In fact, Ocampo forces us to reconsider the notion of painting itself through the idea of a short circuit.
In the realm of electricity, a short circuit happens when current strays from a proper path and burdens the channels with errant and erratic energy, causing them to fluctuate and inevitably mess with the system. In everyday speech, to short-circuit is to skip a process and upset a norm. This seems to be the project of Ocampo in the task of painting: not to entirely negate it, but to disturb the bureaucracy that transfixes it and consequently fixates us. He wants us to bypass a certain flow and throw the entire conduit into a tizzy, to “gut” it in more ways than one. For him, this is to fulfill the promise not only of painting but the spectatorship of painting in the same vein. As he puts it: “I do not want to explain anymore because this form of practice has been inculcated to us by the academy and the market and painting I believe belongs to a much more primordial nature.” It is this primeval instinct of painting, the painter, and the beholder of painting that Ocampo tries to anticipate and release. The effect is wayward because the impulse is catholic. In his own words, painting “comes from an urge to deface. I see graffitied surfaces of monuments as painting.”
Writers have weighed in on the import of “Why I Hate Europeans.”
According to Pedro Romero, the figures in the work are “caricatures of the Napoleonic era where kings and heads of state are intently splitting the world among themselves, or making fun of it.”
Cathy Curtis of the Los Angeles Times for her part has this to say: “Gathered in a map room for a dance of death are a sorry-looking bunch of 19th-century imperialists: the swell-headed; the cockaded; the epicene; the porcine; the creature whose sucked in face spews effluvia. Affix to the bottom of the canvas is a label for white shoe polish – as if even bootblack were tarred by association with the ‘natives’ they must subjugate.” It is a tribute to Ocampo’s visual scheme that even the vocabulary of the annotation is unhinged.
The painting “Why I Hate Europeans” is itself a mutation. Another painting of kindred presentation works on it, adding an inset of what may be typified as a native figure and replacing the prosaic global map with a painterly garland executed with more marked sfumato. It bears the same title and year, and is split into two parts. This is the afterlife of the painting, which affirms Ocampo’s penchant to return to the scene of the crime, as it were, to revisit the tableau of colonialism, civilization, racism, and all-over violence. Another post-painting moment of the work came in 2007 when Skinny Puppy, the electro-industrial band from Vancouver, appropriated “Why I Hate Europeans” as the cover of the album Mythmaker. The image, thus, has circulated with alacrity.
The atmosphere surrounding the thinking through and making of “Why I Hate Europeans” bears retelling. In 1992, Ocampo was invited to the fabled Documenta IX in Kassel in Germany. His dealer sent a number of works for exhibition on the request of the organizers. But only one was chosen to be presented. The paintings included images of the swastika, which seemed to have made the curators nervous. According to the account of the Los Angeles Times written by Michelle Quinn, the one spared by the baffling edit was hung all right, but in the vicinity of what the artist would describe as a tool room, or the quarters of installers, and so making it nearly invisible. Lore has encrusted this event and charges of censorship have been raised. Ocampo in an interview with the newspaper was quoted as saying: “I was told that no swastikas would be permitted in the show out of sensitivity to the Germans.” He, of course, was not sustaining the fascism of the swastikas; rather, in the words of the Documenta spokesperson, Claudia Herstatt, he was “using them in the Oriental meaning for the sun…bent in a clockwise direction.”
The location of the lone painting to survive this sequestration was the basement: “The only option they gave me was to hang it in the work room. I had no choice. Either that or pull out…I’ve been ghettoized to the work room.” The word ghetto is fraught in this particular convergence of forces in Documenta. And Ocampo’s proclivities in a way invite, or in fact incite, this kind of trouble in the same way that he renders difficult the explication of what it means to be Filipino and how his images are consumed in the market of pictures. That he was part of the Philippine Pavilion in Venice in 2017 and “Why I Hate Europeans” will soon be auctioned testifies to the thickets of involvements Ocampo finds himself in. He does not extricate himself from this ecology of labor and capital; he thrives in this mangrove. Out of Documenta came “Why I Hate Europeans,” thus constellating the dark matter of the global: imperialism and ethnocide.
The year 1992 was a watershed for Ocampo. He was selected to be part of the important survey of art in Los Angeles in the nineties in the exhibition Helter Skelter: L. A. Art in the 1990s at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. As a possible response to what had happened at Documenta, he felt the need to sort out his relationship with empire, this time displacing the feeling of hate, and the trauma, across the colonial continents, Europe and America, that had violated his archipelago successively.
The burdens and aspirations of Ocampo as an artist have led him to continually complicate his subjectivity as a “one-man national movement,” as a writer would phrase it. What may well be emblematic of this perceived consciousness is the hooded figure that recurs in his paintings. For him, it is “an ambiguous vessel, maybe a self-portrait, something I can identify with and at the same time distance myself from.” Here is an allegory of complicity condensing in this image that morphs across the gamut: white clansman and supremacist; self-abnegating penitent; and intemperate revolutionary. In the “pestilent body of painting,” Ocampo, who has spoken copiously about his art in interviews and has been robustly written about by critics and curators, becomes provocatively productive when he foils the iconographies and the ideologies of critical and political art and refuses the tendency to hail it as “an elite object manifesting its superiority of awareness.” After all, in the artist’s imaginarium, “it’s all about image,” his oeuvre being both “religious and iconoclastic” and his artistic person akin to an “atheist who’s looking for, who wants to believe in, an image.”
Again, for Ocampo, the broader project is to demystify and, yes, to deface all manner of self-righteousness and malice, and with this, as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze chillingly chastens us, the “indignity of speaking for others.” The painting is charged, because it short-circuits.
“Why I Hate Europeans” by Manuel Ocampo will be part of Leon Gallery’s Asian Cultural Council Auction 2021 happening on the 27th of February.