The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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DEC 21-JAN 22 Issue
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Narcissus in Black, Brown and White

“Gained the whole world for the price of your soul. Tryin' to grab hold of what you can't control... Wisdom is better than silver and gold. I was hopeless, now I'm on Hope Road… [You] Can't slick talk on the day of judgment. ” — Lauryn Hill,“Lost Ones”(1998)

Debunk phallic fallacy numero uno: Idols are not chosen. Idols prickle at you—from screens, hieroglyphic stones, ink on paper, or if you’re Lauryn Hill, on the bus to school, senior year. Idols can be found in hidden places. They are conjured in sermons in the houses of the holy, and for some, in the hushed librettos of paternalistic survival—passed down from Gido to Baba, to you. They linger like ghosts, lodged in your subconscious.

My idols were pre-configured on the Motherboard

  • A deity in the form of the Ancient Egyptian god of Horus, whose protection was necessary for endurance—a noose around my neck?
  • He was paired with the goddess Abuk of the Dinka people of South Sudan for balance, no explanation offered.
  • The only acceptable “pin-up” model was Egyptian pop-star, Amr Diab, who, at 16 years of age, sang at Mama and Baba’s wedding. His song, Habibi (Nour El Ain) brought swaths of snow-colored girls to the once pristine shores of Sharm El Sheikh on the Red Sea.
  • The only “genius” my Mama insisted upon was a Sudanese author, Tayeb Salih, whom she alleged to have known my grandfather. He was a virtuoso, as he had managed to break the field of “world literature” despite the “black skin” that plagued the dreams of our people. Mama’s own dream as an author, she professed, dissolved along with Salih’s death, in those golden years before the second decade of the millennium.

In our mixed-race home of contradiction, political figures were not routinely exulted, only was their political maneuvering acknowledged. Egyptian hero President Gamel Abdel Nasser was no superman here, but a strategic player because for three years (1958-61) he had managed to yoke Egypt to Syria to form the United Arab Republic.

The Divine was not to be discussed outside of routine prayer acts. To break these codes led to potential extradition. Presenting a unified front was an immense but necessary burden for the expat family that I was born into.

To cynically profess that this context led me to bear no “idols” would be to align myself with the tweens who masquerade as teens, subsumed by all things “meta”—an existence in denial. My adopted children, on the surface, seem to have devolved from the potential for “deep thought” without constant reference to a device. Their obsessions, once made manifest as YouTube memes or in WhatsApp messages, have been erased from their memory banks since the birth of the collaborative avarice of/for TikTok. Who’s your idol?

To fashion an idol, contrary to those ordained upon me, was an act of peaceful dissidence. This was Thatcher-era Glasgow, Scotland in the 1980s; South Central Los Angeles in the early 1990s; the Saudi Arabian coasts thereafter and beyond. My laundry list of figures was thus necessarily constructed out of embodied obsessions whose identity I subsumed as my own. My parents were to interrogate psychiatrists of my “sick fixations,” presuming that I had developed dissociative identity disorder, but my fantasies took on sophisticated contours that fell outside the parameters of this diagnostic criteria. The first set of icons, were the loves, Stephen Gately—the first openly queer boy band member, now dead—and George Michael, whose unobtrusive tenor emboldened his lyricism, so much so that he could share a song and a stage with the Queen of Soul.

I enjoyed the formal aspects of ancient queens, mummies—often these sovereigns were to become significant emblems to me after summer visits to the “old” Egyptian Museum. The dead would soon become entangled with me. Descriptors of Virginia Woolf’s madness resembled the burdensome melancholy that I craved to excise. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems were daggers that I charged at the world—the first words I was to ever read aloud. Courtney Love, who I discovered as she wept, reading the words of her dead husband, was herself to become a beacon. Her band, Hole, pumped their dirty guitars along with Love’s vengeful poetry to climactic transcendence. Her howl served as a metaphor for how my caretakers perceived me—having imbibed poison and now living out the sickness of hysteria—“a cliché for colored people,” Baba said. I slept under a shroud of Oud, prayer beads, and inaudible mutterings in Arabic.

The critical lesson here is that idols must often be sanctioned. Whatever their social, political, or religious beliefs—an idol is “conditioned” into collective consciousness, not simply through the heavenly act of folklore, but through the mystical affinities developed from knowing and not-knowing; from expressed actions that speak for or of a communal sense of identity that may not be your own. When one veers into the incongruous space of fashioning their own idols, it is assumed that a fracturing of “self” and “other” occurs; the idol is here to stitch and sew; to heal and seal.

Does a culture of heretics emerge? Certain religious groups believe that representations of idols are hazardous to civil society. I believe it is not merely what the idols represent, but also the ingenuity and skill that they symbolize, which put them at risk. The Taliban destroyed the 6th century Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001 allegedly as the leader of the effort professed because, “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols…”—a myopic statement of inherent folly. Would it perhaps be more apt an analysis to argue that it is the genome of fear that propelled such an act?

The meticulously carved sculptures inspired generations of artists and crafts makers, evolving concepts of art and creative expression. Was the nauseating act of the Buddhas’ destruction, generated by fear that alternate forms of illustration could destabilize the Taliban’s hold? Or is it that the language of creativity elided them? Did they hold within their bosoms too many secrets? Had these idols borne witness to a history that this resistance militia now wanted in its own grasp? Had the Taliban themselves built them as monuments of their valiance, would they still be alive and well?

My idols, mostly dead, still remain largely contemporary figures: Susan Sontag who went to every expense “not to die” and Alexander McQueen who gave me the confidence to adopt my interstitial identity as a Scot—donning a kilt with a sweater of Disney’s Mickey Mouse, sullying antiquity through contemporary avatars. Spike Lee and Public Enemy were perhaps too close to home in the early years, but as I entered my first year of film school at the turn of the millennium, Do the Right Thing (1989) not only ushered in mega identification, it propelled me off into otherworldliness. Spike spoke truth to power in every forum. A polymath storyteller, his films emote; his visual tapestry is as complex as that of a history painting. It is safe to say that without Lee, there would be no Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, or Jordan Peele as we know them today. The fight, looking through the glass pane, seems a little less cumbersome. But pain is habitual. Except for moments of transcendence.

This came in the form of a voice like no other to have bristled through these ears. The mixed-race chanteuse, Mariah Carey, once the best-selling female artist of all time, was epically inviting in her vulnerability. Almost every lyric, her own, ascending. At the 2002 Super Bowl, she performed a feat that brought me home. It was the year after 9/11, and within her grasp was an instance to carve out the emotional aura of a people. As far as I am aware, she is the only singer to take the American National Anthem and pound out its ending in a whistle tone, nearing the 7th octave. The Star-Spangled Banner, a technical challenge for any singer with its innumerable key-changes in its first eight-bars alone, became animate in divergent ways through Carey’s tranquil verse and phrasing, accentuating the poetic resonance of the USA’s anthem. Her phrasing reminded me of Patti Smith, poet du jour, whose album Horses (1975) had accidentally made its way to me when I was 13 years old. Here, words were unspooled from the gut in myriad manifestations—swilled vomit, out and in; ready for the next one.

Notwithstanding the chronology of my references, I consider myself, or at least believe myself to be of the first breed of millennial. We are not as free-wheeling as those from the aspirational era of the 1960s Woodstock generation, but boast some of their utopianism. The difference: We were witnesses to collective traumas in close-up—crisper than the Black and White images of violence of the Vietnam War. The injustice of Rodney King’s violent abuse and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that ensued were pivoted alongside the euphoric freedom of Nelson Mandela’s release, his subsequent presidency and the legal end of Apartheid in South Africa. The visceral horrors of September 11, 2001 were presented in lockstep with the brutality of the Second Iraq War and the YouTube videos of Saddam Hussein’s death. The panic that ensnared London after the bombings of 7/7/05 were sutured by the global euphoria of President Barack Obama’s election. The formal decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain and the full legalization of gay marriage was juxtaposed against the 2011 England Riots triggered by the violent shooting of Mark Duggan. The self-flagellation that led to the Arab Uprisings ushered in hope, only to stagnate, and disappear. In 2020 and beyond, George Floyd’s murder crossed with the pandemic-era riots that followed globally led to a trial of retribution. The teenage girl, Darnella Frazier, who held her hand steady for almost ten minutes to document Floyd’s inhumane treatment on her smartphone, is a heroine.

Her act is demonstrative of a grassroots social justice in the firmest sense. This was not a revelation unspooled from archives decades later by investigative journalists, but by our very own children—a generation who clearly holds an internal moral compass. For a second, we can breathe: Acts of evil will not go unchecked, no matter how powerful the institution—be it the police or government—those state vessels traditionally instilled with the status of idolatry adulation.

Matters do not function as they once did. As Grandmaster DJ Trump demonstrated, the nodes through which we connect and ascend to demigod status emerge through game-play—understanding McLuhan’s infamous salvo of how to “message” through the “media.” The curtains nevertheless can just as easily be pulled down—not by the mob, but by the corporate forces that own the platforms that allow for one’s ascent. Is Twitter and Facebook’s censure of the Grandmaster a form of justice? Or an affront to liberty? Is it even worth asking such adolescent inquiries in a world where the performance of ourselves is a commodity subject to constant manipulation? A manipulation that we consciously enjoy? Our lives are managed through algorithms that feed us all that we desire, or at least aspire to.

How then do we choose our idols? Who is most likely to become one? There are few, if any, public intellectuals. Instead of Toni Morrison or Edward Said, we have thousands of more-focused figures who unfurl the specificities of their specific contemporary condition. Unlike the birth of supposed atheists who were reported to have emerged in the Free Love era of the 1960s, instead one is presented with a generation who have grown-up on a diet of scaremongering—violence is affective; experienced in visceral detail through mobile telephony—right in your pocket, up against your bare skin, cultivating a field of constant emotional unease. Meanwhile, forest fires devouring swathes of nations; a prompt: the environment is alive and thrashing—clearly incensed. A global pandemic ensues, but “the youth” choose to look the other way. The world is almost 8 billion going on 10 billion kinfolks by 2050, some scientists forewarn. The planet has left us with a generation whose lives are defined by precarity. Some seek salvation through the funnel of enterprise known as Spirituality and Mindfulness, which fills a gap where traditional faith cannot leap. In 2018, The Guardian reported that 84 percent of the world’s population identifies with a religious group. Are we clinging on, fretful that Mother Earth is ready to unspool its inhabitants from its fragile womb?

In psychiatric and psychological care, those who refer constantly to idols are often accused of cognitive distortion or dissonance—perceptions that assume contrarian information to what is presented or evidence that is assumed to be inaccurate. Many of us resolve this ailment with therapy and medication. Hurtling towards a result with no end. What do we want to see? An image of ourselves? Idols only exist to suggest what we can become. The act of “becoming” in the chaos of digitality, of a “oneness” and “aliveness” to invoke Kevin Quashie—a magnificent aspiration for “othered” communities, may be but a mere transient act. Exalting humans—the imperfect vessels, who are prone to creating errors and fostering terror is not a solution—the only idol should be a quest for environmental justice. Turning inwards is a salvo, but to do so, we must accept our status as active vessels, experiencing the gift of time—living in “an age of emotion,” living side by side with our individual anxieties, radiant beings, giving back to the Earth, until the time comes to usher in nature’s eminent disciples.


Omar Kholeif

Dr Omar Kholeif, CF FRSA is an author, curator, cultural historian and artist whose ideas come to life in words. They currently hold the double-pronged position of Director of Collections and Senior Curator at Sharjah Art Foundation, Government of Sharjah, UAE.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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