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the weight of a kiss

The Weight of a Kiss is a series of digital scans that reflect on the choreography of kissing in film, and its implications on the construction of romance. The work departs from the iconic side angle profile that has canonically captured the event of the kiss. However, this time, hurling us into the middle of this encounter to witness the moment between a lover kissing another. This voyeuristic cross-sectional angle offers rather strange and grotesque images that in their (un)desirability interrogate how we arrive at representations of romance and its ‘ideal’ subject to begin with. Analogue in their quality, these scans have a photographic texture which subtly interrogates the historically interdependent relationship between the camera and the photograph by imagining other tools which can construct a photograph, and speculate on what these tools can offer the image which a camera may not be able to; In this case, the scanner operates as a compressed lens which allows us to insert it between lovers, to catch them at the instant moment of impact (kissing). This allows us to render confrontational images which unsettle a production which has historically punctuated passion and romance in film and photography, into an uncanniness that uncomfortably shifts the spectacle of this kiss. These images have a seductive grammar that invites us to become a deeply intimate voyeur, a welcomed intruder, and eventually, an unsuspecting participant in these intimate moments. In upsetting the cinematic kiss by inserting these uncanny, humorous, and awkward interventions, we suspend the weight of a kiss in romance in pursuit of the ‘unromantic’: A confrontation of deeply vulnerable portraits of black women in intimacy which compel us to consider question the social implications of race on romantic representations. However, more pressingly, these scans reflect on how these canonical romantic productions have historically excluded the experiences of black people and positioned black women never as agents of love, but rather as radars of its violent conditions. The work operates within this racialised representational gap to reflect on how this separation of black people from love is a colonially dehumanising practice which has incited violent romantic experiences for black people. The series creates romantic portraits which centre black women as protagonists in romantic narratives. These romantic portraits are “used as a ‘humanising’ strategy working against colonial racism that rendered the Black subject as an external surface that is always fully known through the ethnographic gaze, but also disavowed their status as full human beings, creating particular narratives around Black subjects in comparison to how Black subjects see themselves in loving, being loved and as loveable” (Sharlene Khan, 2023) The work interrogates representations of romance to offer a sincere and humanising documentation of black women as romantic subjects. The Weight of a Kiss is an uncanny reflection on the experience of kissing while noting the implications of race on romantic representations. Materially, the work attempts to imagine other image-making tools.

Kissing scans 

The Weight of a Kiss, single channel video

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'The Weight of a Kiss' exhibition preview

exhibition text written by Danielle Bowler I learned about desire in a Summer heavy with excess. The KwaZulu Natal humidity exerted its gravitational force as December turned to Dezemba: cascading sweat down legs and breasts, calling for daily beach visits, and declaring Malaika’s Destiny as the new national anthem. Everything morphed with the season. My hair swelled and matted with saltwater and no care for combs, skin reddened, darkened and peeled as if shedding the year that was, and a bed meant mattresses and couch cushions laid out on the floor in a house filled with cousins. In South Africa, we know Festive is a proper noun, adjective, verb, and instruction to strain every limit and exhaust each day. So we did. And the result was the kind of too-much-Summer that is just enough, in a coastal village where the beach is merely a backdrop – a nonchalant paradise to kids who dream of cityscapes, by which I mean that it was the perfect setting for a rom-com-tinged first kiss. There’s a reason they call it a crush: ‘because it crushes you’ . I would learn this lesson 2 years later. But first, I would learn about kissing. Before April 2004, kissing was television. On Days of Our Lives, Bold and Beautiful and Generations, people KISSED(!) – and I viewed these forbidden scenes through the only options available to a child watching soapies with her parent/s: 1)Slightly cover your eyes (but peek through) 2)Awkwardly look to the skies or at take a sudden and immense interest in the pattern of the couch 3)Pretend you have the urgent need to make a cup of tea 4)Look, if your parents aren’t in the room Kissing was geometry to me then – all angles as heads moved side to side like windscreen wipers while lips touched. It was pretty, choreographed and contained, only occasionally offering a window into other possibilities when celluloid desire’s edges frayed into more human contours. 6 months after that Summer, I would experience kissing as a tongue-touching reality on a wooden deck with a panoramic ocean view. Moonlit, tender and beautifully naïve, I uttered words I now find (embarrassingly) hilarious as a cinematic prelude: ‘please don’t hurt me’. Of course he did. We were teens. One of Motlhoki Nono’s images pulls this memory to the surface. In it, a woman’s hands gently press against the scanner, lips tenderly engaging its glass, as a sweet softness emerges from the examining still. We arrive within the kiss: a snapshot, cross-section and excavation. With no cinematic befores and afters through which to construct the narrative, we have to surrender to these Kissing Studies, and to ourselves, to see them – as twinned questions rise to the fore: ‘how do you like to be kissed?’ and ‘how have you been kissed? These kisses are portals. They are also real – not actual, but honest, open and vulnerable: made to be seen and witnessed. In Motlhoki’s ‘aesthetics of romance’ kissing is exposed as an unruly and irrepressible world where tongue, lips, saliva and teeth merge, squash and smash, a place where the tongue is a surface and the scanner is a ‘witness’. Passion and intensity vary, breath creates a foggy haze and bodies are made malleable and messy as each collaborator imagines how they want to be kissed. The scanner’s snapshot reflection reveals that the answers are different for each person in these works. There are many kinds of kisses here and none of them look like television. In the mainstream cinematic landscape that birthed ‘The Weight of a Kiss’, romance has a general formula: meet cute + attraction (which might be followed by initial repulsion, competition or annoyance) + build up + KISS + arrival of the problem + resolution = happily ever after. And the kiss is so cute! Perfect! Beautiful! Arriving to music swelling in the background and the camera zooming in on our central couple’s faces, in profile! In my mind, my first kiss fits into this structure ¬– as nostalgia and distance conceal the awkwardness that must have been present. I had no idea how I liked to be kissed then, and just knew that I wanted to be. My sense of romance is undeniably shaped by these rom-coms, by my annual Julia Roberts Watching Weekend (in which Notting Hill and Pretty Woman compete for my favourite film), and by a childhood spent projecting myself into the worlds of these scenes. In 19 works – 18 images and one video – Motlhoki deftly brings her immersion in and critique of this construction of white romance as universal to the fore, by centring ‘black people’s intimate experiences with kissing’ and asking how we come to learn, know, understand and participate in romance as constructed by cinema scenes. Her playful, imaginative, subversive, experimental and submersive response is an invitation to the viewer, another kisser, as she asks us: ‘What are you willing to do?’ I asked myself the same question in Autumn, 2021 – when I learned what it means to fall, anew. The months were anxious and extended – filled with agonising crushing as a spark turned into ‘a desire so strong it feels annihilating’ . Crushing is a group project, a witnessing – maybe in some ways akin to the scanner’s interface. I deciphered texts with friends as we pondered the loaded meaning of emojis, requested advice with intense urgency and had endless post-date-that-we-didn’t-call-a-date debriefs. ‘Does she like me?’ was our thesis question. In it all, the kiss was weighted and critical. ‘It’s that pivotal moment’ – loaded with expectations and all the information we need to know. It will tell us everything (we presume), particularly when we’re caught in Whitney Houston’s ‘central question’ : ‘how will I know if he really loves me?’ As Cher (and cinema) tell us: it’s in his kiss . It was in her kiss. Perhaps not love, in those early days, but its vulnerable beginnings, tangled with lust and carrying every version of ourselves that we had been up to that point with us – bearing a weight. The scene was a curated experience, touched by many hands in its making. From one friend, a romantic but chill R&B playlist was sent over WhatsApp, from another the instruction to wear silk (it’s touchable), and from my own imaginative requirements, candles present (but the lights still on, for a lowkey ambiance), ‘natural’ make up to serve an effortless sensibility (maybe it’s Maybelline) and her favourite food on order (Glory, Johannesburg). I was not a teenager anymore – many kisses deep and many crushes past – but a familiar anxiety simmered to the surface and curved around the question of rejection. We had been unspoken students of black queer romance up to that point – coming together to watch a series of films as an excuse to see each other. First, Set it Off (Queen Latifah! Ursula! That scene atop the car!), then Pariah’s coming of age story, and were meant to watch Waiting to Exhale on that Saturday night. We never got there – as a turned my living room into a confessional instead, uttering words that exposed my insides: ‘do you like me?’. Her answer was affirmative, spinning out a monologue that revealed the gravity of the moment, a pause before the plunge. In response, we choose silence, as breath laboured out of our lungs, and ‘what now’ infused the closing space between us: limbs connecting for the first time in the way that those slight first touches are electric. I kissed her. It was the first time I kissed someone. Desire moved in new ways as I walked around on a cloud in the days after a kiss altered the geography of my world. I still spin in those heady skies with my last first kiss, my partner and beloved AK Jenkins. ‘Imagine the scanner is AK’, Motlhoki Nono says. She is in my Winter-y apartment – arranging a scanner on my desk, alongside sheets of cellophane as she prepares for her upcoming show. I put on FKA Twigs as an echo, then Lianne La Havas, beginning a performance that makes me feel transparent and awkward at first. Nervously joking as a way to approach this collaboration, with each kiss and direction, I get clearer, more playful and experimental, and find surrender. It’s much like getting to know a lover. Motlhoki’s deconstruction of the kiss, through the acts of intimate revelation in this work, is a tangled universe of simultaneous ecstasy, awkwardness and ache simultaneously. And, like love and lust, these kisses are magical too: as lips spill and split, tongues multiply and heads dissolve – revealing how the kiss is irreducible and the experience of romance is fugitive and inexplicable, in the way that it evades capture. In the two images from this night, present in this exhibition, my hands cup the face of my beloved – a reach across the ocean, with tenderness; the scanner like the phone screen that defines our cross-continental connection. The exhibition stages the kiss with a humanising impulse – opening it up to point to all the coordinates and constitutive parts that create its connections. And, just as in life, with ‘The Weight of a Kiss’, Motlhoki reminds us that love is something we make.

exhibition review written by Tatdena Magaisa...

This work was made in fulfilment of the Ernest Cole Photography Award (2022 - 2023 recipient) 

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