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Entertainment & Arts

Banana boxes, BDSM gear and the intended message of artist Jebila Okongwu

Jebila Okongwu’s installation at Baert Gallery in Los Angeles.
Jebila Okongwu’s installation at Baert Gallery in Los Angeles.
(Joshua White / From Jebila Okongwu and Baert Gallery)

Bananas may never look the same after you see Jebila Okongwu’s exhibition at Baert Gallery. The Nigerian British artist’s sculptures and paintings of banana boxes use the language of Pop Art to comment on exoticism and the legacies of the slave trade, with varying degrees of success.

The easiest sculptural reference is Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Okongwu’s banana boxes faithfully reproduce the bright, clean lines of commercial packaging down to holes for ventilation and handholds. But where the Brillo boxes are life-size, Okongwu’s banana boxes have been super-sized. In stacks of two or three, they tower over viewers as if a giant had casually left them in the center of the gallery.

On closer inspection, they are in fact people-sized. What appears to be a stack is actually one continuous volume, large enough inside for a person or two. Peering through the holes, we see gear associated with BDSM roleplay. One stack contains a black hammock suspended from shiny silver chains. The other encloses a metal cage, sized for a small animal or a person on all fours.

Given the bright, sunny graphics on the exterior, the bondage equipment is intended as a contrast. Although BDSM is a consensual practice, Okongwu seems to use it here to suggest nonconsensual human trafficking and, historically, the slave trade, whose routes between Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas are retraced by the banana industry. The sculptures intend to suggest how the dark history of these routes has been papered over with cheery graphics of palm trees and fruit.

Inside detail of “Five Banana Boxes” by Jebila Okongwu, 2018, on view at Baert Gallery in Los Angeles.
Inside detail of “Five Banana Boxes” by Jebila Okongwu, 2018, on view at Baert Gallery in Los Angeles.
(Joshua White / From Jebila Okongwu and Baert Gallery)
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However, the blurring of the line between consensual BDSM cultures and slavery is problematic. BDSM is essentially an erotic practice that absorbs and transforms the horrors of imperialism and slavery; it is not itself an example of dehumanization and abuse. By hiding it like a secret inside the banana boxes, Okongwu confuses and blunts his own critique.

He’s better served by his paintings, which depict sections of banana box graphics draped with loops of rusty chain.

“Alba Bananas” by Jebila Okongwu, 2019. Oil on linen, 35-3/8 inches by 57 inches.
“Alba Bananas” by Jebila Okongwu, 2019. Oil on linen, 35-3/8 inches by 57 inches.
(Joshua White / From Jebila Okongwu and Baert Gallery)

In “Alba Bananas,” the chains interrupt a sunny tropical landscape. In “Product of Cameroon (study),” they overlay a list of the contents of a box, reminding us of the ways in which human bodies were turned into commodities and accounted for as ledger items. These simple juxtapositions are quietly powerful and more effective than their less focused sculptural counterparts.

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Jebila Okongwu
Where: Baert Gallery, 2441 Hunter St., L.A.

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, through Nov. 16.

Info: (213) 537-0737, baertgallery.com

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