In the beginning…the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep…And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. – Genesis, 1: 1-3
We live in a time of accelerating change and instability. It can also be said, of course, that this clichéd mantra has echoed down the ages and that change is the only constant. Still, with nation-states merging into entities like the European Union on the one hand, and long simmering “civil” wars that are the legacy of European colonialism splintering nations on the other hand, with free-trade and borders which are increasingly porous to goods, capital, and human migrants, and with news about all this tumult flooding the 24 hour information-stream, we are at least more aware of incessant change than we have ever been before. Solid footing on terra firma is out; surfing liquefied landfill is in.
In this instable context, it is probably foolish to be too sure of anything, and our language reflects these doubts (note the “probably”). We hesitate to speak with self-assuredness. In his poem “Totally like whatever, you know?” Taylor Mali observes that, “Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)’s / have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences? / Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? You know?” Lacking authority and conviction, our simplest declarations end with the upturned inflection of interrogatories. Right?
Yet, it is in this very same context that homeless people in Houston brave traffic and climate to display their handmade placards declaring, unequivocally, “Will work for food,” and “Disabled vet–anything helps,” or even the more humorous, like “Why lie? Need beer money,” or “Family kidnapped by ninjas–need money for karate lessons.” And it is that medium–that of the homeless person bearing a short, earnest message on a piece of cardboard–which became Masa Lemu’s means of expression for two years.
Picture, then, a young, clean, able-bodied, black man posing with a cardboard sign on a street corner. You have seen this before. You have a word for it, “panhandler,” and the moment your brain applies that word to the person before you, you cease seeing because you are now blinded by your preconceived notions.
“The universe [is] a place of wonders,” writes Rushdie in The Satanic Verses, “and only habituation, the anesthesia of the everyday, dull[s] our sight.”
But this is no ordinary panhandler. This panhandler’s sign reads, “Nihilist in search of tenure.” On another day, it might read “No fry zones,” or “Plot tectonics” or “In pursuit of fulfailment” or “Those who venture there get immunized.” This panhandler is a Poetic Terrorist.
For two years, Lemu, a trained painter and a third-world migrant (“an artist who would probably never get a gallery deal,” he says) stood in busy Houston intersections holding cardboard signs for an audience of motorists–motorists who most often preferred not to acknowledge his presence. For two years, Lemu turned curbs and sidewalks, medians and crosswalks, into a stage for performance art where he attempted to engage an often unwitting, sometimes unwilling, and always fleeting audience with what anarchist theorist Hakim Bey has called “Poetic Terrorism” — a phrase which describes Lemu’s project to a tee. Bey opens his essay with a list of absurd and/or beautiful public pranks then writes:
PT is an act in a Theater of Cruelty which has no stage, no rows of seats, no tickets & no walls. In order to work at all, PT must categorically be divorced from all conventional structures for art consumption (galleries, publications, media)… Don’t do PT for other artists, do it for people who will not realize (at least for a few moments) that what you have done is art. Avoid recognizable art-categories, avoid politics, don’t stick around to argue, don’t be sentimental.
Though Lemu was unaware of Bey’s essay during the time of his performance, he echoes theories laid out in “Poetic Terrorism.” Lemu describes interactions with motorists who tried to engage him in conversation:
Every attempt for the motorist to ask questions or for me to explain was unsuccessful because of time…Even communication itself was difficult because of the noise. And also you are shouting to somebody who is constantly looking at the lights and their cell phone. Honestly, I never really worried about explaining to the motorists because I knew that was impossible. Explaining was not part of the deal because the work itself plays with communication and meaning. If somebody read it that was enough. If they started asking questions, that was more. But they were not getting answers.
There were times when my presence was acknowledged, when I could tell from facial expressions such as puzzlement, a frown, a smile, or laughter that somebody had read my statement. Some people acknowledged my presence by trying to offer me money even when they had not read the statement. There were a lot of averted gazes , too, when people deliberately avoided eye contact with me. The pitiful moments were when people completely shut me out. Those were the moments I felt most invisible.
When pressed about his reaction to being offered money, he says, “I realized that that was an awkward moment for the Good Samaritan when I refused the money. But that was also my opportunity to get more noticed-in the confusion.”
Rather than use the language of the panhandler wholesale, I was interested in the unstable linguistic space between sense and nonsense, not only to say veiled things but also to focus on communication itself and break boundaries of thought….to disrupt the reader’s expectations of what a panhandler’s sign would say… With slight alterations to phrases through misspellings and odd word insertions, common expressions were transformed into awkward phrases such as “no fry zones,” “plot tectonics” or “in pursuit of fulfailment” to disrupt and provoke thought in the puzzled commuter.
Lemu’s signs and performance aim aims to shake motorists awake from “the anesthesia of the everyday” by slipping in his subliminal message using a familiar medium and then sideswiping them with a jolt of confusion. There is freedom, he seems to suggest–of thought, of emotion, of perception, even–in that confusion. A chance to reconfigure fixed thinking patterns in their fleeting moment of fragmentation upon shattering.
“Later,” Bey writes, the audience “will come to realize that for a few moments they believed in something extraordinary, & will perhaps be driven as a result to seek out some more intense mode of existence.”
“By this magazine” suggests the T-Shirt Terrorist in Richard Linklater’s film Slacker, similarly, “you might be able to stimulate some thought in yourself, you know, switch your gestalt so that you might have some perception and be able to see our way out of this. Alleviate suffering or make us enjoy it or something.”
“Houstonians have excelled at the appropriation of spaces along the edges of Houston’s car-oriented infrastructure,” writes Raj Mankad in “Where’s the Revolution?” (Cite 80). “‘Freeway blogging’ on the Hazard, Woodhead, Dunlavy, Mandell, Graustark, and Montrose bridges over the Southwest Freeway, when timed with rush hour, has been used to communicate various political messages to thousands of commuters.”
Montrose and Richmond is where Lemu first saw a panhandler fold up a cardboard sign, place it in his back pocket, and walk away. That is the corner where he got his idea for his performance, and that became his “main spot.” His other locations were Bissonnet at Fondren and 288 at Southmore.
“My audience was the motorists,” Lemu says, similar to the freeway bloggers described by Mankad. “It is to them that I was trying to bring my daily concerns as an artist. At the heart of this practice was the concern to intervene in the social.”
He had few meaningful interactions with “other” panhandlers while performing, and few with pedestrians.
“I think it would have been a different experience on the streets with more pedestrians,” he says. “There would be more questions, and more conversations. It would even be more volatile.”
Craft & Theme
As a boy, in his native Malawi, Lemu would use a stick to draw kung fu scenes on the sidelines of the soccer field where his friends played. In crafting his panhandler signs, he likened writing to drawing. Rather than using a broad-tipped marker to write his slogans, he used a ball-point pen and his artist’s hand for line work, shading, and cross-hatching. This, despite the fact that his art object, the sign, would be viewed very differently than art audiences typically observe objects in galleries.
Object in galleries attract a focused gaze–viewers observe them up close for detail, take a wide view to apprehend the whole, and view the objects in relation to other objects. Lemu’s signs got, at best, an oblique view out of the corner of a viewer’s eye while s/he pretended to look elsewhere.
At times, the cardboard itself related to the message it displayed. “This cardboard is well-traveled,” Lemu wrote on a box from Amazon.com. (“That cardboard may have traveled more than the typical homeless person,” he says, later, tying that piece in to his enduring interests in migration and colonialism.)
Another sign goes beyond the declarative to depict a performative statement. Performatives are statements which complete an action in their utterance, e.g. “I resign,” “You are under arrest,” “This court is adjourned,” “War is declared,” and “Let there be light.” If declaratives pack a punch that interrogatives lack, then performatives speak with the most authority of all.
“IN THE BEGINNING,” reads one of Lemu’s signs, echoing Genesis, “THERE WAS NOTHING / THEN IT BECAME / A BRITISH PROTECTORATE.”
The British, in this twisted cosmology, have taken the place of god. It is the British who call Lemu’s Malawi into existence by fixing their imperial will on it.
The homeless, like migrants, occupy a strange liminal space–they are ubiquitous yet all but invisible. Though they, themselves, live under an ever-watchful eye with absolutely zero privacy, the broader public prefers to look past or look through them. Literally, even, they live in alleys and under bridges, behind dumpsters, in overlooked, overgrown lots, and camp out on traffic islands.
Like a homeless person who has found a temporary shelter for the night, Massa Lemu’s ephemeral, temporal “Passages for the Undocumented” performance briefly found a temporary shelter at Rice University’s Emergency Room gallery, where it met a different kind of audience and a different kind of gaze than it was used to. The show ran from November 1 – 29, 2012. Lemu has no plans to bring back this performance.
A shorter version of this article appears in Cite Magazine issue 91.