A DEEPER DARKNESS, A BRIGHTER EYE 

Notes on UNDER A DIFFERENT SUN. Obscured Histories, Female Perspectives

-by Chiara Cartuccia-

For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.

 

Audre Lorde, A Litany for Survival

   The following are some notes on the exhibition and performance programme UNDER A DIFFERENT SUN. Obscured Histories, Female Perspectives, which I had the pleasure to co-curate with my colleague and friend Celeste Ricci in the framework of Venice International Performance Art Week. The realisation of UaDS follows a year of research on the topic Historical Body. Over the past months we, at EX NUNC, attempted to investigate ways in which art initiates and inspires new performative approaches towards marginalised historical thinking. Since the very beginning, we have been interested in dealing with creative endeavours able to shake the foundations of the house of single knowledge.

 

The research path that led us to the realisation of this project assumed the form of a multi-voiced dialogue, between ours and the artists’ motivations, doubts and believes. Thus, on this occasion, rather than producing a fully monological curatorial text, I decided to collect suggestions stemming from the works of the four women artists we invited to take part in UaDS. This text finds its truer inspiration in the artistic visions of Lerato Shadi, Ato Malinda, Jeannette Ehlers and Nathalie Mba Bikoro; in writing these words, I have been driven by their understanding of History and histories, by their special proximity to the ghosts of the past, present and future.

*WHITE MASK*

 

 A white-faced creature wanders around the market, handing out pieces of paper.  Both exotic and familiar, indigenous and stranger, s/he is a female-male on the edge of history and myth.[1]

 

A myth, as any cultural construction, can have many distinct origins, not all of them strictly endemic to the society that produces it. Some myths are rooted in desires, others in dreads. Mythology originates in the real and has, at the same time, the power to influence and transform the very understanding of reality. In her video work On Fait Ensemble, Ato Malinda recovers the ancient, pre-colonial pagan belief of Mami Wata, to discuss 21st Century Africa. In the video the artist embodies the myth, in its male version of Papai Wata, in order to address issues of cultural hybridity and contamination, in the pasts and presents of a continent. But this white mask could maybe reveal something else: the persistence of latent forms of colonial dominations, which affect society in many ways, not last, by determining the unfavourable position of women in dynamics of power and representation.

 

Myth is the necessary fictional counterpart of any historical narrative. Perhaps, only looking through the loose fabric of legend it is possible to glimpse the honest face of the past, hence, of the present.

 

 

*SONIC COMMEMORATION*

 

 Long lost voices melt into noise, to resound again a moment after. Sonic confusion in a chaotic interweaving of languages.  Some sense weakly restored from the archive of forgotten memories.[2]

 

Nathalie Mba Bikoro is an artist of gesture and document, of performance and archive. The outcomes of her polyhedral research into the mechanisms of erasure and denial, which constitute the backbone of the still-standing systems of cultural and political (neo-)coloniality, appear in many shapes and consistencies. The on-going project Demounting Doegen, with its various manifestations, among them the sound installation My Name Is (2016) seems to sum up quite well the mutable nature of Bikoro’s practice. Nevertheless, the thematic core always lies in the same element: a voice lost in a lost archive. In this case, a voice that was not meant to be heard with intention to catch its meaning; just a sound, not to be associate with a face –if not a stereotypical one– or with a personal story. The aseptic classificatory method is an instrument of reduction and, eventually, of annihilation. Voices of prisoners in German colonial camps, during First World War, collected by linguist Wilhelm Doegen for ethnographic reasons, take back their real human value in the work of Bikoro. In My Name Is, words are reconnected to their historical meanings.

 

Sound re-joined to sense, becomes, once again, memory.

 

 

*STRANGE FEAST*

 

 A woman brings handfuls of dirt to her mouth. Swallows. Tries to. A repeated act of acceptance, filled with disgust. Deadly nourishment, which sets free.[3]

 

In the video performance Motlhaba Wa Re Ke Namile by Lerato Shadi, we see the artist stuck into an apparently pointless action, trying to force-feed herself with inedible material[4]. What we are witnessing, watching this work, is the painful evidence of an ancient body knowledge, which doesn’t require the artificial construction of any narrative in order to tell a story.

 

The performative practice of Lerato Shadi is unspectacular, unentertaining. In most of her live performances plain gestures conquer weight and significance through repetition, while the involvement of the witness in the artist’s action takes place in a diachronic time. The moment occupied by the artistic act doesn’t belong to the observer. It is when the artist leaves the scene, that the spectator becomes relevant, her decisions transformative, or her perception more precise. Shadi creates traces that, if followed, bring us back to those who left silence and obscurity as their only legacy. As an artist of performance, Shadi can count all the temporalities that her body contains. She is aware of the fact that the many histories inscribed in her blood can be acted in contemporaneity, just through her living presence. She understands, in the deepest of ways, that there is no need for secondary representation because we are, indeed, the history that we carry[5] and our very existence in this time is a statement already.

 

 

 

*DISTANT MARCH*

 

 Figures in the sand, moving towards the sea in a pained line. No body left to cast any shadows, the waves erasing the last signs of an ancient parade. [6]

 

“At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there’s a railroad made of human bones”, cried softly Amiri Baraka. A cemetery of faded human stories, of faded Human History, bridges the two coasts of the Ocean. This invisible bond, which crosses the centuries in the flesh and bones of the survivors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and their descendants, is the central object of Jeannette Ehlers’ work. Each gesture, each image is a passionate re-affirmation of the too blurry, the too distant as something deserving to be looked at and addressed.

 

In the photographic work Atlantic (Endless Row) ghosts of the past wear contemporary clothes. Certainly, those distant shadows marching in the direction of a nonworld that no ancestor will haunt[7], never ceased to demand a place in the stream of present things. What attracts the eye in these images is the absence of any solid, living body. Here Ehlers, rather than translating violent imposed invisibility into its opposite, decides to focus on the void itself. She creates a space of visibility that incorporates the invisible, so to loudly expose its always-renovating being-in-the-world. Neglected shadows of history finally come to occupy the main stage.

 

 

*DIFFERENT SUN*

 

In some lines of his play, Monsieur Toussaint, Edouard Glissant states: “For those whose history has been reduced by others to darkness and despair, the recovery of the near or distant past is imperative. […] This is a poetic endeavour”[8]. We can go back to the meaning of that poetic, as related to poetry, of course, to art in a broader sense, but also, and maybe more profoundly, to the very notion of making as creating[9].  To remember is a poetic endeavour insofar as to renovate the presence of an endangered, liminal memory means to open up new scenarios of the possible, in the present. The practice of commemoration operates a creative disruption in the flux of the plainly given, breaking a crack in the guilty tranquillity of oblivion. A crack from which something new can finally get in.

 

With its kaleidoscope of fragmentary imaginaries, UNDER A DIFFERENT SUN turns on a light in deep darkness, and asks the observer to stare straight at it. Indeed, all of the artworks participating in the curatorial apparatus demand the visitor, the reader, the listener, to be blinded by this other, different sun, which shines in obscurity and because of it.

 

Unafraid of darkness, the sharp and distinct female gazes of Bikoro, Ehlers, Malinda and Shadi emerge in a succession of images, words, sounds and moves. Their bright eyes and loud voices challenge the logic of domination and hierarchical submission, promoted by univocal Western perspective in the understanding of so-called world history. These authors have succeeded in creating for themselves those decolonial tools, able to dismantle the master’s house[10]. Their daring voices speak out for the hidden, for the lost, for the drowned, while their artistic gestures both embrace and overcome the double negation inscribed in their very existence, as black women and artists. For, as the poet said, they were probably never meant to survive. Yet, they did, and their survival loudly resonates throughout times.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Ato Malinda, On Fait Ensemble, video (2010)

[2] Nathalie Mba Bikoro, My Name Is, sound installation (2016)

[3] Lerato Shadi, Motlhaba Wa Re Ke Namile, video (2016)

[4] The inspiration for this work comes from the history of slavery in the African continent. Shadi’s action in the video makes reference to the act of consuming soil in order to attempt suicide, a practice diffused among enslaved people, which led to the use of so-called slave masks.

[5] "I want to suggest that history is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”,  Baldwin, J., from the speech  ‘Black English: A Dishonest Argument’ (Detroit, 1980) in The Cross of Redemption, edited by Randall Kenan, Pantheon Books: 2010

[6] Jeannette Ehlers, Atlantic (Endless Row), photographic work (2009)

[7] Glissant, E, Poetics of Relation, Translated by Betsy Wing, University of Michigan Press, 1997

[8] Glissant, E., Monsieur Toussaint, Paris: Gallimard, 1961

[9] The etymological origin of the word poetic has to be found in ancient Greek word ποιέω, to make, to create.

[10] “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” Lorde, A. , Sister Outsider, Crossing Press Feminist Series, 1984