Reading Tuggar's "Village Spells"
by Gary Sullivan
If magic is that which changes properties by persuasive gesture, Fatimah Tuggar's Village Spells are acts of genuine magic. The village itself -- admixture of western and African properties -- is virtual, a product of seeing the world in a particular way -- say, Marshall McLuhan's Global Village. Essential to the magus, the late U.S. poet Gerald Burns once said, is the creation of a field in which magic can be said to work. I like his description, even if it's necessarily vague. He was relating the task of magician to that of poet, saying something about the poet's relationship to language. Some visual artists, especially those who consistently generate visual collage work -- I think here of the German Hannah Hoch and Americans Joseph Cornell and Jess Collins -- work with images, things given, in the way poets do with words. The collage artist, I want to say, might have as much or more in common with the poet as with, say, the painter. Tuggar is no exception. The image-to-word puns in her work are lively and frequent enough to engage the viewer who likes to read as well as to look. While looking is hardly a passive act, reading requires conscious viewer participation, and Tuggar's collage work, I've found, rewards the curious reader.
Tuggar is playing here, ultimately, with possession, with material property. All three words -- "possession," "material" and "property" -- have, of course, applications in political, artistic and magical discourse, and I'd be surprised if Tuggar were not aware of each. To begin with, the very act of creating collage images digitally brings into question the materiality of the work itself: what is the "real" work? The image you see on the screen? The image as printed out (significantly larger), mounted and hung on the walls of galleries, museums and collectors? The disc on which its binary information -- its electronic DNA -- is stored? In a very essential way, Tuggar's collage work exists in a no-man's land in between realms available to human experience. . . very much like the places she evokes by consistently abrupt, not-quite-seamless juxtaposition of Western and African backgrounds, possessions and people. While the cultures are not without a history of intermeshing, Tuggar speeds up and "democratizes" the process, setting an African woman in traditional dress up, in "Working Woman," with what looks like a brand-new, fully-loaded computer with CD ROM and stereo speakers, as well as a calendar, reading lamp, rotary phone and clock (all but the calendar of which are reproduced in reverse; the clock, upside-down as well). The effect, from image to image, ranges from what seem utopian longings ("Working Woman"), to playful fancy ("Village Spells," "Shaking Buildings," "Sibling Rivalry," and "Pleasures") to visions of horror and capitalist/imperialist critique ("The Spinner and the Spindle" and "Untitled I").
Tuggar's work also plays not only with how the Other (whether African or Western) is viewed, but how the Other is self-portrayed. In "Untitled I," the invading army is nothing more than Western-produced plastic reproductions of soldiers, helicopters, parachutes and weapons: is this a critique merely of imperialism/militarism, or, further, of a culture reveling in the portrayal of itself as such? In "People Watching," the bird in the upper-right hand corner of the image is an African-made reproduction meant not for African use, but to be sold to Western tourists. The background itself, from a brochure published by the South African government, further implies Tuggar's nudging the fact of self-portrayal forth. This is not the sort of identity art we've come to expect in the 90s. Tuggar equates identity on some level with image, and her ideas with respect to what constitute an image are, given the nature of her medium, open to interpretation.
Gary Sullivan's poetry, fiction, cartoons and essays have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including City Pages, the Gertrude Stein Awards 1994-95, the LA Weekly, Lingo, the Multicultural Review, Rain Taxi and Talisman. A novella, Dead Man, was published by Meow Press (Buffalo, NY) in 1996. He lives in New York City.