Yaron Michael Hakim has been painting at the limits of human possibility. Across two large bodies of work, Anthropophagy (2016–17) and Psittaciformes (2017–present), Hakim has used the titular figures, the cannibal and the parrot, respectively, to undertake these tremendous anti-colonial works. These paintings are typically large, and they are all pinned to the wall, unstretched and unframed, as they are all on cuts of Dacron sized from sailcloth. Psittaciformes (named for the order to which parrots belong) looks very different from Anthropophagy on first impression, as the series are. But when we look at these paintings with an understanding of the context of the parrot and cannibal’s places within art and intellectual history, we can start to see that these works together disrupt the colonial legacy of Western art, and do so resoundingly, because the parrot and the cannibal inhabit the paintings not only as representations of the exotic, but also as operative figures for deforming the aesthetic underpinnings of a humanist worldview designed to exclude others from the very field of humanity it establishes.
Currently based in Los Angeles, Hakim was born in Bogotá, Colombia, to parents whose names he has never known. Adopted by Israeli parents as an infant, he was raised first in Australia, then London, and after that Switzerland. He moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to study painting and sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, during which time he took leave to study Buddhism in India and Burma. After graduation he returned to Switzerland and worked for the Franciscans International, a human-rights nonprofit, until he moved to Southern California to study art at the University of California, Irvine, where he taught himself how to build a boat for his master’s thesis. Now he has been painting these magisterial works on sailcloth. Having been ordained a Buddhist monk, though twice disrobed; participating in the Jewish rites of his adopted heritage; and owning three passports and a green card, Hakim is certainly a worldly man. But, when we look at these paintings, they are not from the elite cosmopolitan perspective, by which something like a grand tour is meant to aggrandize a Western point of view. Rather, they suggest the itinerant, ever aware that boundaries are always around us.
Both cannibal and parrot are fundamental figures that stake out Western definitions of what it is to be human. Concerning accusations of cannibalism, Michel de Montaigne states, “no opinion has ever been so unruly as to justify treachery, disloyalty, tyranny and cruelty, which are everyday vices in us.” From the myth of Cronus to Titus Andronicus, Hannibal Lecter, and the cultural obsession with Jeffrey Dahmer, examples abound throughout the entirety of the history of Western art and thought that support Montaigne’s statement. Because cannibalism holds a singular space as the most inhumane act conceivable, it possesses the force to incontrovertibly designate populations—always defined as exotic and atavistic—as inhuman. As Herodotus says in his Histories of the cannibal race, the Androphagoi: “after the desolation is the country of the Man-eaters, who are a nation apart.” And this is the limit of the human: “And beyond them is true desolation, where no nation of men lives, as far as we know.” Ever since, cannibalism has been the apotheosis of exoticism, not only always over there, but also just beyond the pale.
Hakim’s Anthropophagy series locates itself on, and plays with, this outer boundary between civilization and desolation, laying bare the fundamental affront that cannibalism makes to our sensibility. In his 1939 magnum opus, The Civilizing Process, sociologist Norbert Elias argues that the emergence of what he calls homo clausus, or, “the closed personality,” has been the definitive development for Western modernity. Through a complex, uneven, but ultimately coordinated process, populations of occidental subjects adjusted habits of mind and body with the concept of the self-sufficient, perdurable, and independent subject as the ideal end. The concept of the individual arose and has become so dominant that it now feels impossible to consider a human subject’s basic paradigm otherwise. It is a given that there is a self and that one’s “true” identity is said to lie “inside” one’s body, wherever that is.
It is with attention to the closed line that Anthropophagy exposes the deeper, structural problem that the cannibalistic worldview poses to the civilized world. Anthropophagy is all dissolution and dismemberment; neither eater nor eaten has any claim to being homo clausus. Cannibalism shocks our sensibility, not only because man eats man, but moreover because one cannot swallow another whole. Think Titus Andronicus’s mincemeat pies, the gross dismemberment of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (a modern take, given the myth has the father swallow his progeny whole), or the hunk of flesh Hannibal Lecter takes out of the guard’s cheek. No body in Anthropophagy is spared this unwholesomeness. On the one hand, the self-enclosed body parts are mere fragments, all portions hacked off bodies presumably dead. On the other, the living agents all bleed into the background, as lines in appendages are dropped, or appendages left out altogether, making it difficult to see any conventional sense of an outline that designates the “inside” and the “outside” so central to recognizing the presence of a living person, at least in our modern age. Here, the shape that a closed line gives to a human form does not present life, but rigor mortis. If the totality, independence, and integrity of an individual are used to establish one person on a higher hierarchical plane than another, as Elias demonstrates they do, time and again, these paintings depict the unsettling democracy of cannibalistic debauchery. When a cannibal eats, that cannibal does so fully aware that he too can be eaten.
But cannibalism goes further, Hakim suggests, unsettling the boundary between person and object, human and world. With the figure of the cannibal always comes associations with the occult and animism, and these paintings help us understand why. In order to endow the individual with freedom and prepare him for immortality, the unbreachable line that makes an individual is meant to close him off from the world. Cannibalism is demeaning, because to turn a human body to simply meat, we must divest the flesh from some essential human spirit, some transcendent organizing principle. As Gilles Deleuze states in his study of the painter Francis Bacon: “Meat is the state of the body in which flesh and bone confront each other locally rather than being composed structurally.” For Deleuze, Bacon’s paintings profess that “every man who suffers is a piece of meat.” “Meat is the common zone of man and the beast,” he continues, “their zone of indiscernibility.” And that indiscernibility makes humans, as meat, simply matter of and for the world.
The painting Anthropophagy ii is especially instructive here. The lightly drawn leg to the right—is it the man’s or the table’s? And is what the cannibal on the right holds skin or cloth—vellum? Keeping with the feet: as we have seen, the most resolutely present appendage is the fragment, which is heightened in relief by the tremulous strokes that compose the legs plausibly of the living. The right one is a mark that would typically be seen as the beginning score on a sketch, a line that thins out as it rounds the peg’s tip; the left is seemingly cleft as an artist tries various positions for the foot before committing to a final pose by erasing lines. This all makes the cannibals not only nascent, but also prominently painted, beings, dramatizing the themes of figure and material world—cannibal and earth—on the level of painting itself. Throughout the series, Hakim emphasizes the materiality of his unconventional surface, here by pronouncing the numbers found on the original sailcloth. So, when the background is noticeable, just below the cleaver, one can’t help recognizing it not as blank space, per se, but rather as the surface to be painted. (The stitches that run across are another faint reminder, and, given the context, come with a macabre Silence of the Lambs–like resonance.) The central space of absence in this chaotic painting is a common zone of indiscernibility, where cannibal, victim, and surface bleed into each other with a beautifully delicate chiasmus made by the arms, one’s hand at the other’s elbow, and with the victim’s hand positioned as if holding a brush. A head floats off to the right, death mask or outline, one cannot truly determine, bleeding into what has to serve as the painting’s frame. Given the unconventional mounting of these works, the “naturalness” of the frame to a work of art is lost. When the frame is painted almost where it should be, just inside the border of the work, we can see that the frame too is a closed outline that endows a work of art with integrity, totality, unity, and perdurability. That the internal frame cuts across these numbers—the markers of the material surface—shows that this outline is violent in discriminating what is inside and outside. The face that grows out of the frame is the arbiter of homo clausus, watching from the fringe, at and as an outline arbitrarily drawn into the material world.
The contrasts between Hakim’s Psittaciformes and Anthropophagy are immediately striking. The meta-pictorial non-setting of the latter compared to the lush tropical backdrop of the first. The broad, impressionistic strokes of one versus the fine, resolute lines of Dutch realism in the other. The disarray of cannibals; the constant singular point of focus of the parrots. One fundamental reason for the contrast is that in Psittaciformes Hakim takes on the genre of portraiture. It might be self-evident to some that portraiture is the visual genre most instrumental to the emergence of the closed personality. The modern notion of portraiture consolidated in a mere fifteen years as the late Middle Ages turned into the Renaissance, the nascent period for the emergence of homo clausus. During this time “portrait” transformed from a general term for “‘pictorial imitation’ of any kind,” as art historian Norbert Schneider puts it, into a coherent genre “whose function was the depiction of public figures who wished to demonstrate their social standing as autonomous individuals.” Although the aforementioned The Civilizing Process pays no attention to Western art whatsoever, the Norberts together have it that the transformation of portraiture’s ostensible function from depicting social status to capturing the essence of the subject tracks the process Elias describes by which social relations have been internalized as aspects of psychology, personality, and identity. Thus, when someone like philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy exalts the titular genre in his book Portrait as “the putting (in) to (the) work of exposition, our exposition, our being-before—and only thus within—ourselves,” his underscore protests too much in its ontological claim for universality. This “our” is a bounded set.
But Nancy knows this and briefly acknowledges it. In his “Preface to the English-Language Edition,” he states, “this art [of portraiture] has always oscillated between an administrative or policing technique and a meditation on the infinity of a face,” following swiftly with an acknowledgment that his interests lie exclusively in the latter. What Nancy does not acknowledge is that the latter, as synecdoche for humanist thought, has been instrumentalized to achieve the former, as something like the colonial discourse of the cannibal attests. Anthropological illustrations of native subjects have never been considered “portraiture,” due to the subjects’ subhuman status. Conversely, the scandal of work such as Théodore Géricault’s portraits of mentally ill subjects, which John Berger calls approvingly “profoundly anti-social,” reveals the violently denominating line that controls the definition of what counts, and does not count, as portraiture. Indeed, when Schneider defines portraiture as “the depiction of public figures who wished to demonstrate their social standing as autonomous individuals,” the demonstration does discursive work. A portrait does not merely reflect a subject’s reality, per se; it confers power to him or her by legitimizing a privileged sort of social status for the subject.
The line drawn between humans and animals is fundamental. In every dictionary I consulted, the second definition for “animal” invariably qualifies the opening definition to exclude humans, as, in the Oxford English Dictionary: “In ordinary or non-technical use: any such living organism other than a human being.” Schneider points out that this line’s seemingly intractable position is a modern invention, which even affected the genre of portraiture: “The tendency, inherent in this ‘modern,’ anthropocentric terminology, to draw clear distinctions between humans and other living beings possibly marks the end of a typically feudal ‘symbiosis’ between animals and humans. It is perhaps of historical interest here to note that animals were considered as legal entities or ‘persons’ in the Middle Ages, and that they could, for example, be brought to trial.”
Whereas Anthropophagy disrupts the modern line between human and non-human drawn within the species homo sapiens, by choosing supremely the limit-case within that scenario, the power in Psittaciformes lies in the appropriate choice for the limit case when it comes to the line drawn between human and animals, which we see instantiated by John Locke. A troubling story about “a very intelligent rational parrot” forced John Locke to elaborate on his already magisterial An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by interpolating into the second edition an important chapter titled “On Identity and Diversity.” Upon publication, Essay immediately effected what is commonly known as the “epistemological turn” by first deracinating the doctrine of innate principles, which had dominated theories of knowledge up to that point, from the idea of the human. No more were people born with the idea of “God” or “justice” already planted therein. Knowledge, as Locke’s theory goes, is learned through experience, that is through ideas of sensation and ideas of reflection. Basically, human knowledge is built by experiencing something through the senses, and then reflecting upon the sensation in the mind in order to derive an idea for and/or from the sensory experience in order to cultivate a reason that can abstract the idea from its generative context so that it can be applied in different contexts.
Thus the parrot’s preternatural ability to mimic human language would poses a major problem for Locke. “Of Identity and Diversity” was instigated by a reputable story about a parrot who successfully held a conversation with a stranger, answering the human interlocutor’s every question accurately. We find parrot-speak at times delightful and at times disconcerting, because of two matters of agency. First and foremost, when a parrot repeats a word, it does so in its own voice. It is not perfect duplication. Additionally, that parrots can repeat human words in contexts other than an immediate echo is especially beguiling. Parrot words spoken in the context of human conversation is the fundamental structure for just about every parrot joke. Whether fitting or not, the parrot words are always out of context.
Locke’s solution to keeping the parrot closed off from human understanding is to draw a distinction between “man” and “person,” by inventing the concept of “consciousness” as the variable element owned by the latter. With consciousness comes reason, reflection, and personal identity, the essential matrix for what is truly human: “we must consider what person stands for; which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness, which is inseparable from thinking, and as it seems to me essential to it.” Here we see that Locke ultimately defines the human—contra the merely talking bird—based on mental activities of self-involvement and self-assurance. Here we see empiricism—a discourse ostensibly about the exchange between person and world—turned inward and closed off from that world. What is ostensibly a theory of experience built upon engagement with the world, through observation, is ultimately established as a reinscription of homo clausus. What is at stake, as we see from Locke, is the individualism we find a proprietary right of humans.
Hakim’s paintings are so profoundly unsettling because they tap into the anti-humanist power of the parrot’s gift for tongues by endowing the animal with individualism while attributing the disconcerting mimicry and repetition to man. (The series also includes unusual flutes, like the one depicted on this issue’s cover, made with casts of the artist’s nose, which we unfortunately do not have the space to consider at length.) The paintings give the impression of bird illustrations. The outline is the bird’s, and, unlike the cannibal’s in Anthropophagy, these outlines have the undeniable sense of being closed, giving the figure an air of singularity. But, it is within the outline that the critique of humanist individuality plays. Hakim mixes the appropriate avian features with features of his own face and body, extracted, duplicated, and repurposed for the likeness of the bird. In Self-Portrait as a Santa Marta Conure, the down feather below the beak is a beard, or, in Self-Portrait as a Pyrrhura Perijá Picta, the top of the parrot’s head wisps into a “man-bun” (both tufts of hair accurate until they were recently shorn off). In Self-Portrait as a Rose-Faced Blue-Armed Pyrilia, the speckled gray of a parrot’s claw colors the artist’s hairy foot, the orange wing is a collection of hands, and the tufts of feathers at the crown, upon closer inspection, are all tongues. The human features make the bird’s outline a portrait’s, in a way, which exposes the humanist double standard of painting portraits. Whereas the painted likeness of “non-human” subjects, such as birds or natives, have the expressed purpose of teaching the viewer to identify every other like subject out there in the world, the painted likeness of a person—strongly in the Lockean sense—is meant to capture the subject’s utter individuality. And per the portrait, the epitome of personality, the most distinctive zone of a person, is the face, which is why the absolute iterability of the painter’s face here so unsettles what a portrait is meant to do.
This double standard has further implications, when we consider self-portraits. The distinctive nature of the self-portrait is that the painter is painted—the object is also the subject. This self-assuring structure is often the grounds to praise self-portraiture as the pinnacle of art, as it affirms the artist’s individuality in his aesthetic medium. Artists from marginalized communities have long used the prestigious genre of self-portraiture as a means to play with the double standard for being seen, invariably emphasizing that, generally, to be seen as something other—whether woman, of color, and/or queer—is not an affirmation, as it plays out in public, but rather an objectification, an alienation, which makes the work of self-portraiture vexed when done by those often seen as other. Like Anthropophagy, Psittaciformes reveals that these icons of the non-human rely not so much on their distance from, as their closeness to the human, and through these portraits, Psittaciformes achieves this startlingly. The juxtaposition of human and avian features depicted with such fine-grained realism makes these creaturely, recombinant portraits utterly uncanny. Many, especially from marginalized communities, are acutely aware that the affirmation of a “self” has been one of the most trustworthy ways to establish and maintain a hierarchy between populations of people deemed legitimate and those who are not. Some try to embrace the techniques of self-affirmation to legitimize greater and greater populations of people. Others, like Hakim, work to decreate these violently denominating lines.
Images appear courtesy of the artist. © 2021 Yaron Michael Hakim.