CHALLENGING OBLIVION 

Reflections on unknown stories by four women artists.

-by Celeste Ricci-

Continuous history is the indispensable correlative of the

founding function of the subject: the guarantee that

everything that has eluded him may be restored to him; the

certainty that time will disperse nothing without restoring

it in a reconstituted unity; the promise that one day the

subject - in the form of historical consciousness - will once

again be able to appropriate, to bring back under his sway,

all those things that are kept at a distance by difference,

and find in them what might be called his abode.[1]

                                                                                           

Michel Foucault

 

What Michel Foucault defines as “continuous history” is that steady unfolding of events that creates one single story; a totalising History dominated by few perspectives. Therefore, a single History is a controversial subject-matter within the wider system of knowledge: how can one single perspective tell the ‘has been’? Even more questionable is the claim for an objective search of the truth. Not paying attention to the methods for the moment, a further question emerges: how can this truth be claimed without thinking of who controls it? And to what extent does the past really belong to our present?

 

UNDER A DIFFERENT SUN. Obscured Histories, Female Perspectives is an attempt to remark the questions above as well as to generate new ones. Through the work of four women artists, Nathalie Mba Bikoro, Jeannette Ehlers, Ato Malinda and Lerato Shadi, the project proposes different ways of looking at History, which is no longer seen as a linear sequence of facts that leads to the present. Taking into account individual works, this contribution will focus on two methods of approaching the investigation of history: subtraction and addition.

 

Subtraction / Deduction

 

By collecting traces and establishing facts, the present is understood by the past. Therefore, History is linked to notion of inevitability. To legitimate the present, we have to support our story with an intricate linkage of causes and effects, which are not necessarily examined through a plurality of vision. According to Foucault, History is both a form of knowledge and power, and historiography might be seen as a tool for controlling our understanding of the past[1]. A common attempt of historical writing is to explain the present by establishing a continuity with the past, but this method implicitly suggests a principle of subtraction: denying differences to the point which these are erased in order to justify the present. What remains are traces and a plurality of untold memories. Seen from this perspective, History is an incomplete summary of what we know about the past, and its fundamental methods are inclusion and exclusion. It is on this concept that I would like to focus the next part of this writing and, without trying to establish any new method for historical investigation, I will attempt to reveal these two modus operandi in the work of the participating artists.

 

Danish-Caribbean artist Jeannette Ehlers, incorporates this process of subtraction in her photographic work, Atlantic (Endless Row), to raise questions about the Denmark’s past as colonial power. Through a subtle manipulation of the image, the artist removes the human element in the photo, and only leaves the reflection of a group of people walking on the shore. Ehlers, in this instance, uses as a visual method to construct the image the same constituent process in which History is affirmed. She subtracts essential elements from the visual structure of the work, and in doing so she creates photos that are intrinsically evocative and challenge oblivion by revealing the building mechanisms underlying Western-centred History. 

 

In the wider context of this project, Atlantic (Endless Row) plays the role of mediator between the two approaches here described. Through a peculiar construction of the image, the artist adds a new level of interpretation to the work. She invites the spectator to look at elements that are missing from the stream of History, and it is this action of looking at the particular that characterises the work of the exhibiting artists.

 

Addition / Construction

 

At this point, let’s forget about the linearity of History, in particular the relation between causes and effects. The works presented use strategies of investigation that distance the idea of a present as an inevitable result of the factual past. These, in fact, show the latter as fragmentary, and inspire to an understanding of History as plural and inherently incomplete.

 

In her performance work, Seriti Se[2], Lerato Shadi openly employs both actions of adding and subtracting within the context of a gallery/white cube, which is seen as a symbolic place of exclusion. Writing on the wall names of Black females, whose contributions did not make the selection of History, is the adding process. Asking the public to erase with paint the names is the subtracting action, which recalls latent constructing elements of Western Historiography. The actions employed in this work act as metaphor to make a simple dualism evident: absence/presence.

 

Another important aspect of Shadi’s work is her use of language as a recovering tool for an obscured past. Shadi incorporates two songs from popular Setswana[3] folktales into her video work, Matsogo. These are mixed together in order to confuse the narratives and create a fragmentary and incomplete story. This particular, and for many people, unknown language becomes a signifier of lost traditions and negated cultural originalities. As Frantz Fanon observed in Black Skin White Masks:

 

“Every colonized people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country [...]” [4]

 

Colonisation operates as an eraser on the culture and history of the different. It is not just a matter of geographical appropriation, but it heavily effects cultures, traditions and peoples. Colonising language is one of the most evident example of negation of differences. The “civilising nation” forces the colonised country to adopt their language in order to establish unity, or better, continuity in the totalising historical-political Western discourse. As a result, the cultural richness disperses and becomes a fragile product of a historical struggle.

 

Collecting memories and personal narratives is another way of revealing obscured histories. In the practice of multimedia artist Nathalie Mba Bikoro, this element of digging into her personal past is constantly present and creates a body of work that aims to de-colonise dominant historical narratives and common beliefs. Her sound installation, My Name Is, is the result of an intensive archived-based research on recorded voices of many African and Asian prisoners of war from German colonial camps, during the Great War. These recordings, made by Linguistic Wilhelm Doegen, were, at the time, only aimed to be models of pronunciations of the different languages; therefore, the content was not relevant: personal stories, messages for help and jokes were heard but not understood. Through this work, Bikoro gives voice to buried stories and unveils new meanings around those findings.

 

Finally, video work, On Fait Ensemble, by Ato Malinda represents an analytical investigation through African religious beliefs. The artist tells a story of a pagan myth that was influenced by colonialism: Mami Wata, an ancient African water spirit worshipped by African before the arrival of Europeans, even though recorded for the first time in the 15th century. According to archival findings, at the sight of European ships, Africans associated water spirits with Europeans. Malinda appears in the video performing a symbol of white man in Beninese tradition, Papai Wata, who is related to the figure of Mami Wata. With her face painted in white, wearing a dark suit, the artist distributes leaflets at a market place in Cameroon. This work digs into an intricate story of iconography of water gods and suggests the hybrid nature of African identity[5]. Malinda adds a new piece to the puzzle of history, by revealing an unknown story of beliefs and by making evident the Colonial influence on religious traditions of specific areas of the African continent. It is the addition of previously unknown elements that brings new meanings to the story of Mami Wata.

 

 

Other than continuity

 

Common to the practice of the participating artists is a performative approach, which is not only exclusive to the live actions, but it is essential component of the videos, sound installation and photos presented. A sense of performativity is produced by the manipulation of images that re-create a different visual perspective; by the repeated kneading action that brings, through deconstruction, to a not-quite-the-same shape; by re-listening to voices of people before unheard; and by bringing back African traditions that challenge authenticity. Through a plurality of stories, performativity breaks the continuity between past and present, altering the linear vision of Western History. This offers a new way of thinking about History and generates new viewpoints in the understanding of the past. As Homi K. Bhabha wrote:

 

“The recognition that tradition bestows is a partial form of identification. In restaging the past, it introduces other, incommensurable cultural temporalities into the invention of tradition. This process estranges any immediate access to an originary identity or a ‘received’ tradition.”[6]

 

Thus, for Bhabha tradition is not given, but it is an active action of negotiation with the past, which results in the construction of different identities and brings new meanings to the present. The performative action, in this context, still leaves space to a chronological understanding of History but challenges the notion of continuity that does not allow a plurality of visions. A single perspective brings forms of appropriation and perpetuates oblivion in favour of few stories. Hence, the challenge here is not just to get away from the research for the truth in historiography, but also not to only focus on the representation of micro-perspectives, as this imposes stereotypical visions brought by systems of power. Borrowing the words of contemporary Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

 

“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. […] Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story. […] The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”[7]

 

In that respect, UNDER A DIFFERENT SUN is presenting particular narratives and interpretations, with the aim to give the audience different artistic perspectives. Ehlers, Bikoro, Malinda and Shadi adopt an analytical approach to History that takes into account submerged stories and focuses on fragments, in the context of a wider world historical perspective. In doing so, the artists ask new questions to History, which implies looking for the obscured and finding the unknown, rather than the truth.

 

[1] M. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969): Routledge, 1972, p. 12

[2] See: M. POSTER, ‘Foucault and History’, Social Research, Vol. 49, No. 1, Modern Masters, The New School, Spring1982, pp. 116-142.

[3] Seriti Se is a performance, drawing and installation shown for the first time in 2015 at Galerie Wedding in Berlin. The work is not included in UNDER A DIFFERENT SUN performance programme, but it is mentioned as it is relevant to the subject-matter discussed.

[4]“The Tswana language, Setswana, is a language spoken in southern Africa by about five million people. It is a Bantu language belonging to the Niger–Congo language family”. See: Wikipedia, Tswana language, last modified 1 Oct 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tswana_language.

[5] F. Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, London, Pluto Press, 2008, p.9.

[6]“During colonialism, in the 1880s a famous German hunter, Breitwiser, brought back a wife from Southeast Asia to Germany. Brietwiser’s wife performed in Hamburg’s volkerschau, essentially human zoos, under the stage name “Maladamatjaute”. She charmed snakes. The Frienlaender lithographic company, in Hamburg, made a chromolithograph of the snake charmer, the original of which has never been found. However in 1955, this image was reprinted in Bombay, India, sent to them from Ghana. It is unknown how exactly the image got to West Africa, but it is thought to have been taken from Hamburg by African sailors when they were in Germany. However on its arrival in Africa, locals declared Maladamatjaute to be a resemblance to Mami Wata. The image has since proliferated throughout the African continent as Mami Wata, the snake charmer. On Fait Ensemble suggests in a metaphorical sense that this image came from Europeans. This is done through the market performance of Papai Wata.” See: http://atomalinda.org/on-fait-ensemble.html

[7]Homi, K., Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London, Routledge, 1994, p. 3.

[8]C. N. Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story, Ted Global, July 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg, (accessed on 29 November 2016)