Artist and culture critic Hito Steyerl once described one of Gabriel Embeha’s works performed at Berlin’s Volksbühne and later published in a compilation by music critic Diedrich Diederichsen as “gorgeous” and “enchanting.” Culture critic, biographer and anthropologist John Szwed said he found this same piece to be “disturbing.” Embeha would be perfectly fine with having a good part of his work being considered as all three together.
While not intended to be enigmatic, per se, most of Embeha’s work has the to-some-unsettling effect of creating challenges to, or actually disarming the use of biography in attempts to interpret it. In place of biographical background, Embeha provides those engaging his work with narratives in which he exists unfixed as a person, place and thing.
A significant part of Embeha’s work today stems from the 15 years he lived as a self-described “family-man hermit” and “would-be hero” studying life in a small town in Midwestern US near to where he grew up. In his teenage years there he was a part of the Detroit punk scene, orbiting around the remnants of Iggy and the Stooges and MC5, at the time making up the band Destroy All Monsters. At university in nearby Ann Arbor he studied philosophy while haunting Detroit gigs and the university’s art school. After graduating, Embeha moved to Berlin and then on to New York. Over the next years he lived and worked in 1980s Berlin, New York’s Bowery, the 1990’s Lower East Side, and rural Japan, followed more recently by Detroit and then Berlin where he currently lives and works.
As an emerging artist over the last several years, Embeha’s work has involved various forms of mixed media art that explore what he sees as particular ways of ideating, talking about and imagining that in themselves actually make up what is today called the state. According to Embeha, these “ways of the state” are best depicted as universally shared, everyday forms interaction between persons, places and things. In these forms of everyday interaction, says Embeha, we can see, as he is dedicated to helping us to do, one key fact. All persons are also places and things, all things are also persons and places, and all places are also persons and things. It is an essential part of what we call the state that we are compelled to talk and act in ways that continually deny this fact and commonly philosophize the persons, places and things in the world. Embeha wants us to see how there are no figures of speech, pictures or fixed locations per se. Similar to the provocative stance of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Embeha urges us to accept that what a person, place or thing “is” is nothing mysterious but rather present, immediately accessible in what we say and do in our everyday interactions. The figure on the left below, for example, is simultaneously a person, place and thing, as the title expresses.
Third Wheel (2023)
Ink on Paper
29.7 x 21 cm
In much of his most recent figurative work Embeha’s depictions of such instances of everyday social interaction seem to also involve beings not at all dissimilar to the Roman Genius or Juno spirits.
The Old Drill Sergeant (2023)
Mixed Media on Paper
21 x 29.7 cm
Embeha himself calls one particular form of such instances, like the one above, “famillyker scenes.” Each of these scenes offers the beginning of a story that viewers themselves would be encouraged to tell.
In addition to such interpersonal experiences, Embeha has long focused on the recognition of social and cultural groups by government, business and non-profit funders and actors that actually make up the state itself. This has included hands-on work and existential engagement with different parts of the state seen in the academy, non-profits, government (including the military), electoral politics and healthcare. In particular, Embeha’s experiences and investigations have involved the role of such state bodies in fixing persons, places, and things for the purposes of (often needed) official state recognition and handling.
Embeha’s film, video and mixed media work developed out of years of participant observation and alternative forms of ethnographic representation. Through his apprenticeship and friendship with anthropologist (and physician) Michael Taussig, Embeha spent his first couple, pre-dissertation years at Columbia’s Department of Anthropology with a great degree of freedom to develop forms and processes that over time have come to make up his current work. Embeha cites his time with and exposure to a wide variety of characters and subjects, from Peter Lamborn Wilson and Carolee Schneemann, to Sylvere Lotringer’s graduate course on Simone Weil, as having helped him to see the possibilities for a life doing what he felt he needed to do, making the right things out of what those with disabilities and so many others had given him.
As a kind of counterweight to everyday social interaction, the lived interpersonal experience of Alzheimer’s and delirium in particular has been one of Embeha’s key sources for questioning and exploring the social and cultural aspects of language, ethical behavior, truth and reality themselves. Embeha’s doctoral dissertation for Columbia was a quasi-ethnographic, cultural critique of the state-recognized groups working with those personally affected by Alzheimer’s. This included a critique of himself as a trained medical anthropologist, academic scholar, and ethnographic fieldworker. Running through this book are accounts of interactions—textual and face-to-face personal—with many aspects of medical and social work. Much of the dissertation’s narrative involves a fictional character named I.M. Gabriel caught up in a sci-fi plot to prevent an impending cure for Alzheimer’s. Embeha received the award of distinction for the dissertation.
Embeha’s well-intentioned work in the 1990’s using mixed media and theatrical (performance- art-like) presentations on ethnographic subjects was met by many anthropologists with almost violent forms of opposition. He was mainly alone in doing such work. While “performance” and “the performative” had become in-the-know subjects of discussion in cultural anthropology, the importance of being a scholar of forms of performance and a practitioner of performances was, and still too often remains, unappreciated. For helping develop theatrical aspects of his process, Embeha owes much to fellow students and teachers around the Department of Performance Studies at NYUs Tisch School of the Arts. This especially includes theater practitioners such as Richard Schechner and the late scholar of West African masquerade performance James Ndukau Amankulor. Embeha’s study of and experiences with masquerade groups and indigenous medical practitioners in the Niger Delta continue to permeate his work.
After leaving Columbia, Embeha began what has become a kind of epic or peculiar pursuit of a philosophical, political and anthropological definition of that entity known as “the state.” His investigations of this subject, full of dissimulation and anti-biographical creativity, lasted from roughly 2001 to 2011, when he began work on his film Masks in the Sun. These ten years of experience-based investigation and the existential toll involved in learning and doing so many diverse things, amount to what may very well be the most in-depth participation in and observation of the state done as artistic process.
Embeha’s current large-scale project named Kindness and Civil War brings together what are often thought of as two disparate realms—the military industrial complex and the long-term care industry. While much of his mixed media work post-2013 has been centered on how we as “state grantees and actors” go about arranging and maintaining the fixity of persons, places and things, it has equally focused on reality in senses of unfixity that stand in contrast to this maintenance of fixity. The unfixity shown to us by various groups, from those with PTSD, to those with Alzheimer’s is presented as a challenge to begin to see and appreciate how an essential unfixity that is an important aspect of reality is being fought against on a global scale.
Kindness and Civil War stems from the story in Embeha’s film and theatrical or performance-art vehicle Masks in the Sun. It takes the very local political and spiritual or religious world in the film into wider, global arenas, where the local actions of these characters have unknown and uncontrollable effects on international affairs and violent conflict on a global scale. Almost all of Embeha’s mixed media work in the past several years has been in conjunction with the writing of a story that might best be called “an anthropological techno thriller.” This story involves such diverse things as high-altitude drones, US veterans on hallucinogenic camping trips in a fictional South America, nursing home funding schemes, homegrown US militia groups, military intelligence, local theater groups, the use of algorithms in military operations and criminal investigations, PTSD, Alzheimer’s, and psychological conflicts within medicine and nursing.