On Penumbra, Caio Fernando Abreu, and Alain Mabanckou


The Review’s Review

Penumbra (2022), by Hannah Black and Juliana Huxtable. Press image courtesy of the artists and Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève.

It has always been frustrating to me that animals—whom I love, sometimes feed, and never eat—mostly ignore or even run away from me! For this reason, I enjoyed Hannah Black and Juliana Huxtable’s animated film Penumbra, which stages a court case against a nonhuman defendant—“representing all animals or the animal as such”—that is on trial for crimes against human beings in contempt of human reason. The judge is an animal, the members of the jury are animals, too; from the beginning, power and numbers are on their side. There are two humans, but they’re dressed as creatures: “Juliana Huxtable,” the defense, is costumed in furry-esque bunny ears, which mirror the headdress worn by the prosecution, and “Hannah Black, genus homo, species sapiens” recalls the animal-headed Egyptian god Ra (in Derrida’s reading of Plato, the father of reason or logos). The CGI places human and nonhuman characters on a fair—and very low poly count—playing field of unreality. And so the debate begins.

But it’s really a monologue: Huxtable speaks only rarely; her nonhuman “kin,” never. Animals, here, are outside the realm of representation, in both the legal and the semiotic senses. It’s a canny dramatization of the absurd, unhappy impasse posed by the discourse of anthropocentrism, which, in its attempt to “decenter” people in favor of a more inclusive worldview, must also mute the capacity that enables discourse (and community, identity, thought) itself. This capacity is both subject and object, content and container, of Black’s breathless address. “Through the use of language,” she begins, “I will show you, and you will understand, and through doing so you will have to admit that you do not fundamentally sympathize with the principle of the animal, you respond to abstract concepts, you know how to come when your name is called.” 

Yet the dazzling avalanche of words that follows is less an airtight argument and more a poem with the rhetorical texture of a rant. Penumbra isn’t just an intervention in theory masquerading as video art; it brilliantly reveals, aesthetically, what analysis cannot: the illogic, the nonhuman, within language and hence within us. Black’s rapid-fire circumlocutions and cascading repetitions are actually impossible to follow; instead, they are reduced to an ebb and flow of breath and rhythm that wash, anxiously, over us. The animals, of course, refuse to respond to her questions, her attempts at taxonomy: “Do you deny that you practice cannibalism?” Legally, the word penumbra refers to constitutional rights inferred using interpolative reasoning; in science, it connotes the gray area between a light and a shadow. This trial is an arbitration of gradients via an indictment of law: a tragedy of reason that makes a mockery not just of justice, but at all of our attempts at living in harmony.

It’s a sign of our species’ self-hatred that most people in Sunday’s audience at Metrograph—where the film screened along with two others from the 2021 Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement—seemed to interpret Penumbra as a celebration of the inevitable triumph of the inhuman. Maybe they’re right. And no one wants to sympathize with the prosecution! But I felt so bad for us, the tiny minority in a universe that, though sensate, is senseless. As Black’s character says, “We have tried to hold on to the collective being, but the animal refuses to speak to us. All that we know about brutality we learned from animals. We learned how to treat each other as food, we learned how to die indifferently.” Aprés nous, le dèluge, I thought, despondently, leaving the theater.

All three short films from the series, which was curated by DIS, are now available to stream online at Metrograph.

—Olivia Kan-Sperling, assistant editor

Reading the queer Brazilian writer Caio Fernando Abreu’s Moldy Strawberries this week, I was reminded of a scene in Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue in which Delany meets a stranger who ceremoniously pisses himself before sex. It’s one of many scenes of abjection featuring bodily fluids in Delany’s work—a predilection I encountered, too, in Abreu’s rapturous collection of linked stories, out from Archipelago Books next month in a new English translation by Bruna Dantas Lobato. Originally published in Portuguese as Morangos mofados in 1982—under Brazil’s anti-communist military dictatorship and at the onset of the global AIDS pandemic—Moldy Strawberries is a portrait of queer life in which it’s impossible to divorce pleasure from politics. Abreu attests to the fraught ties between friends and lovers in Brazil’s cities of the time, and his tendencies toward formal excess—jagged, labyrinthine sentences that vault across different registers; innumerable and unabashed appearances of liquid waste (piss, semen, sweat, glitter, cognac, mud, rainwater, blood); a story consisting solely of dialogue between two friends, accompanied by instructions that it be read ad infinitum—also reflect his defiance of the political autocracy that censored his work and eventually sent him into exile. “I’m not desperate, not more than I’ve always been, nothing special, baby,” says one of his narrators. “I’m not drunk or crazy, I’m lucid as fuck and I confidently know I don’t have a way out.”

Abreu’s project is entirely different in scope from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, which chronicles the eighties redevelopment of Times Square and its consequences for the cruising scene. But the two writers share an interest in how queer social relations are formed in shifting urban environments, and there can be a nearly psychedelic quality to both of their prose styles. Abreu’s turn to psychedelia, though, was the result of the dissident Tropicália movement of sixties Brazil, founded by a countercultural group of avant-garde musicians and artists that included Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, and Hélio Oiticica. Music especially may have been one way Abreu attempted to escape the conditions of dictatorship. The stories in Moldy Strawberries reference a varied and intoxicating collection of songs, including ones by Veloso, Angela Ro Ro, Donna Summer, Frédéric Chopin, the Beatles, Elis Regina, and Billie Holiday. Abreu even instructs us to listen to particular songs as we read some of the stories. (As I read the collection I was also often listening to the self-titled album of the late-sixties Brazilian rock band Os Mutantes, who aren’t named in the book but who were important figures in the Tropicália movement.) The musical dissonance here leaks beautifully into the prose, and Dantas Lobato’s translation moves with lightning speed as Abreu’s characters go out in the rain, drink with abandon, reach across the dance floor, and gaze at the planets and at one another. Abreu hammers away at the core of life until it’s chiseled and brilliant, until it splinters, suddenly, into language. “I was always relearning and inventing, always toward him,” says one of his narrators, consumed by an obsession with a lover, “to arrive whole, the pieces of me all mixed up, he would lay them out unhurriedly, as if playing with a puzzle to form what castle, what forest, what worm, or god, I didn’t know, but I was going in the rain because that was my only reason, my only destination—pounding on that dark door I was pounding on now.” Abreu died of AIDS in Porto Alegre in 1996, at the age of forty-seven. 

—Oriana Ullman, intern

“But why do we no longer write poetry?” asks the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou toward the end of his essay “An Open Letter to Those Who Are Killing Poetry.” “Wrong question! Is what is presented to us really poetry? That’s the question!” What is and is not poetry—and who gets to decide—are just two of the many questions Mabanckou has taken up over the course of his decades-long career, which includes the Booker-nominated novel Black Moses as well as my personal favorite, the queasy, alcohol-soaked, and at times scatological satire of contemporary Congolese politics Broken Glass. The essay in question appears at the end of As Long as Trees Take Root in the Earth, a collection of the first-ever translations of his poetry to appear in English (by Nancy Naomi Carlson), and is a fitting companion to the poems that precede it. In spare, untitled stanzas, Mabanckou writes poignantly of the natural world, a mother’s love, and the hypocrisy of borders, observing that “nation after nation / despair endures.”

—Rhian Sasseen, engagement editor