A Reflection by Walter Mignolo
It was indeed a formidable event. I wrote “formidable” without thinking; it just came to the dance of the fingers on the keyboard when I wrote the first sentences. It called my attention that this word came without being invited. I checked the Thesaurus and it gave me as options: difficult, impressive, alarming. Well, for some unknown reason I chose the right word. “The heart has its reason, that reason doesn’t know”, is a famous dictum of a famed French anthropologist. It is then appropriate to let the heart rule over the mind, particularly to refer to an event centered on “aiesthesis” (sensing); an event inscribed in global processes to decolonize aesthetics and to liberate aiesthesis.
It was not doubt impressive. Not just my opinion, but by consensus. It was difficult and Alanna can tell you what it took to put this event in place, in spite of fantastic cooperation partners such as Allianz Kulturstiftung and Ballhaus Naunynstrasse. And I imagine that it could be alarming, indeed, for the sector of the population assuming that creativity, imagination, innovation and progress are essential features of modernity and post-modernity (. Not that they are also essential features for decolonial thinkers, artists, scholars and activist denouncing the rhetoric of modernity, the logic of coloniality and delinking from modernity, postmodernity and altermodernity. If the rhetoric of modernity calls for invention, creativity and imagination to maintain the logic of coloniality, these features are also essential for the grammar of decoloniality. In other words, there are no strings attached to innovation, creativity and imagination. It all depends of the projects that require the uses of those concepts.
“Aesthetics”(as it is explained in the catalog) was—since the Eighteenth Century– regulated by philosophy and its function was to control, manage and manipulate “taste.” “Aesthetic” regulations did not happen in Namibia, China or Brazil. They were a regional invention of European philosophers. German philosophers, by the way, had a lot to do with it: Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Immanuel Kant and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing are the major architecs. It was just more than appropriate that “Black Europe Body-Politics” contested that legacy and opened up the imagination, ways of living and sensibilities of people left out of the game by “modern (postmodern and altermodern) philosophical aesthetics.” Kant was not shy in disqualifying 80% of the planet for falling short “in sensing the beautiful and the sublime”. The most damaged were of course (of course because the place of Africa in the Christian and Secular European imaginary) Africa and Africans. Kant indictment is well known:
“The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was every found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in colour” (Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, 1767).
More than appropriate then that this “formidable” event, Black Europe Body Politics, the latest addition to the impressive portfolio of Art Labour Archives, founded in 1996, was conceived, organized and executed by art critic, curator and author Alanna Locwkard (originally from the Dominican Republic), and took place in Berlin in cooperation by Allianz Kulturstiftung and Ballhaus Naunynstrasse.
Ballhaus Nauynstrasse: Alanna’s decision to hold the event there was one of her wisest moves in the organization of the event. We were at home, literally. The evening before the beginning of the event, that is, the evening of May 3, I had the pleasure and the honor of meeting the director of the Ballhaus Nauynstrasse: Shermin Langhoff. When you meet Shermin as head of a project such as Ballhaus, you know that the next three days would be right. Shermin (born in Bursa, Turkey) is full of energy, of kindness, of enthusiasm, of intelligence and achievements in her theatre labor concerned with the question of immigration in Europe. All of that was like a security blanket. Later on we met Wagner Carvalho, born in Brazil, curator and initiator of the project in/out and Move Berlin. At that moment he was designated co-director as Shermin was already scheduled to take other responsibilities. We found in Wagner the same enthusiasm and dedication. He did not miss one single screening or one single discussion session. He even took over the duties of photographer and video cameraman during significant parts of the event.
Beyond the security blanket that both Shermin and Wagner offered to all of us, I had the distinctive feeling that the creative thinking in Europe is being generated not longer by Kant or Hegel’s legacies, but by the sensibility, creativity, kindness, and vision of European immigrants, those who know both the reason of the master and the reason of the enslaved or to put it in other words, who know both the imperial rhetoric of modernity in Europe (and I mean, mainly the six European imperial countries: in the South, Italy, Spain and Portugal; in the North, France, Germany and England. Certainly we could add Holland and Belgium who was the main reason for the scramble for Africa of the Berlin-Congo Conference,1884-1885) and the necessary logic of coloniality. They/we know that without coloniality there is no modernity, postmoderniy and altermodernity.
These are visions that come from dwelling in the borders (and not just crossing borders); they are none-imperial. There are visions aiming at a world where we can live in harmony and in plenitude. And they are not inclusive, but open. Being inclusive means that you want to keep control (like the generous inclusiveness of Habermas); being open means that you are open to built together, and not to include the other (white in this case) in your private territory. In the room and among the participants, where several white German nationals, those who understand the injustices committed by governments, merchants and corporations of their countries and the imperial legacies of an otherwise remarkable German philosophical legacy. The cooperation with dissident German nationals (and Western Europeans in general) is no doubt the way futures without exclusion and without inclusion shall be built. The only way to eliminate exclusion is to eliminate inclusion. You cannot eliminate exclusion by being generously inclusive!! The moment you feel you are inclusive you are already maintaining the specter of exclusion.
Indeed, “philosophical aesthetics” was and still is a conceptual apparatus to control (include and exclude) sensing, sensibility and to shape the population—aesthetics was clearly linked to the national-state emerging project in Europe at the end of the Eighteenth Century. It was necessary to shape the taste of the citizens, parallel to civic education. Kant was not only influential in shaping aesthetics principles. He was decisive in shaping epistemology and in lining up the modern university of the Enlightenment. The Contest of the Faculties (1798) remains as a pillar for the organization of the secular field of knowledge. It was indeed a potent move to take away the control of education from the Church and the Monarchy and to form the sensibility of the emerging ethno-class: the white German (and European) bourgeoisie.
Times have changed. “We are here because you were there” as the dictum goes to understand the historical logic of coloniality hidden under the rhetoric of civilization, progress and development of modernity. Europe is not only in the most spectacular political-economic crisis, but it is also being radically transformed by the rumor of the disinherited. Kant couldn’t have imagined at that time that his ideas in Observations and The Contest will be contested by people, now European residents and citizens who he, Kant, considered lesser human and far away. BE.BOP 2012, and what is to come in the future, is a signpost of the reversal of fortune: the sign that decolonial forces are liberating aiesthesis and by doing so liberating the sensibility that was politically and legally enunciated in the “Declaration of the Right of Man and of Citizens.” We know very well now what “Man” meant and who the “Citizens” were.
By the time of the event, I have been working with Alanna on decolonial aesthetics for about two years. I have seen several of the short pieces in the morning screenings and a one of the two long pieces, Jean-Marie Teno’s Le malentendu colonial (2004), by far the best documentary I have seen on the topic. More so, a frankly decolonial documentary. Right on the spirit of Aimé Cesáire, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah and other decolonial thinkers.This documentary, together with “ Other” by Australian photographer and videoartist Tracey Moffatt, provided the frame to understand the shorter pieces in line with the issues set up for discussions in the late mornings and afternoons. The seven minutes video by Tracey Moffatt is composed of a montage of clips taken from Hollywood and Hollywood-type movies, where the anthropos (Others, non-Euro-American whites) around the world are portrayed. The first part amasses a selection of confrontational situations in which white people are “alarmed” by the strange presence of the anthropos. The in crescendo editing of the clips taken from different films, is accompanied by a soundtrack taken from Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algeria (1966). The soundtrack belongs to the moment in the filmin which four Muslim women are changing their habitus and becoming European looking. The reason for their transformation is to become the carriers of bombs that will be placed in the French quarters once they manage to cross the security line guarded by French soldiers. In the second part, the video collects scenes in which People of Color, men and women, and white men and women fall in love with each other, or reached a situation in which the embrace of friendship and/or passion dissipated the mutual fear and disrespect. However, love and friendship as “good” as it seems are always in the white man’s imagination. People of Color are portrayed; they do not have the opportunity to portray. The second part shows the generous inclusivity of white filmmakers who keep for themselves the privilege of being generous and inclusive.
In the morning screenings of BE.BOP 2012 the audience enjoyed a festival of the anthropos’s creativity, inventiveness and imagination. Mind you that I am writing this piece as an anthropos. As son of Italian migrants to Argentina, I am of European descent but not a European citizen—therefore, an anthropos. I am white in Latin America, like William Kentridge in South Africa, but we become off-white in Western Europe and the US. South Africa, in contradistinction to South America has the “advantage”, from the perspective of the dominant white imaginary, to have English as the official language of the country. In South America, Italians ended up speaking a broken Italian and the official language of the respective countries, Spanish or Portuguese. .The three languages were already “suspicious” of belonging to the “South of Europe, (are not Spain, Portugal and Italy those in need or who have been “rescued” by the “European Union” to which they also supposedly belong?). But when they are spoken in the ex-colonies, they denounce the presence of the anthropos, the Sudacas, as South Americans migrants are known in Europe.
Let’s think of who were the artists and performers featured in the morning screenings: Afro-Danish Jeanette Ehlers; Quinsy Gario, born in Curacao and educated in Saint Marteen and Curacao and now residing in the Netherlands; Sumugan Sivaneesan, a nomadic South East Asian born of a Singaporean mother, who resides in Australia; Jewish South African William Kentridge; Ingrid Mwangi, born of a Kenyan father and a German mother, who lived both in Africa and Germany and collaborates with her husband Robert Hutter forming a subject-compound IngridMwangiRobertHutter. Teresa María Díaz Nerio and Alanna Lockward herself, both Dominicans, Teresa residing in The Netherlands and Alanna in Germany and Emeka Udemba, a Nigerian who lives in Nigeria and Germany.
Why did I abuse of your patience by telling where people circulate, where they were born, where do they live, instead of talking about their work? Because I wanted you to remember Kant’s dictum about the special sensibility of Europeans (and it was clear for him—and later on for Hegel too–that the core of Europe was France, England and Germany), to sense the beautiful and the sublime, and what he said of Africans, in the paragraph I quoted above: that Africans were far from being endowed with a sensibility to perceive THE beautiful and the sublime (Chuckwudi Eze, “The Color of Reason”, 1997). He meant what for him, in his skin, he considered beautiful and sublime. Nothing wrong with that; he had the right to express what he sensed. He had no right to make a universal statement, classifying and ranking people according to what he sensed in his skin and processed in his brain.
I could do the same with the profile of the participants in the roundtable discussions, but I will spear you the time here and invite you to go to the catalog and check their webpages . You would be as surprised as I was when learning who was seating around the table. The majority of the participants were convened around the subtitle of the roundtable discussion: “Black Europe Body-Politics.” Certainly, it is not obvious who should be invited to address such an issue. One option is to invite white “experts” to talk about black “experiences” or Black “problems.” The other is to invite people with “experience” to talk about their experience and “their experiences with the experts,” since experts hide their experience under the pretense of “objectivity and neutrality”
I am not for a minute going back here to the old and idle posed dilemma (indeed a modern and postmodern dilemma, not a decolonial one), of whether Africans or Afro-Europeans have epistemic privileges in their understanding of Africa or other continents beyond Europe and the US; or of their situation in Europe. Nor I would support of course the claim that Euro-American social scientists and humanists have an “objective” view of Africa and of Afro-European immigrants (and you can change Africa here for any other place and any other immigrants associated with that place—it could be Pakistan or former Eastern Europe or Russia). I am claiming that Euro-American social scientists, artists or museum curators are entitled to their own opinion exactly as Africans and Afro-Europeans. And that every-body should know that it is their own opinion. In both cases, opinions are tied up with interests, and there is not one set of interests that have the right or the privilege to be imposed upon the other. That is why it is imperative to end with the idea of epistemic and aesthetic privilege. That is precisely what BE.BOP 2012 contributed to dispel. Otherwise, I will not be writing what I am writing here.
The difference is, since Kant at least (but certainly before too), that the hegemony of knowledge, in politics, philosophy, aesthetics or economy was built, institutionalized in the fabrication of Western “civilization”, with its two languages and philosophical pillars: Greek and Latin. BE.BOP 2012 was a potent sign, among many of our times, to understand that the “epistemic and aesthetic privileges” of modernity (cfr. Kant) are over.
Now, what is to be noted, is that artists, participants and audiences in the three intense days, were not all Africans or of African-descent (diasporic as the dictum goes). They were Afro-Caribbeans, former Eastern Europeans, South East Asians, “Latin” Americans (meaning, of European descent), white German nationals and perhaps other whites in the audience that I couldn’t identify. What is crucial to understand here is that BE.BOP 2012 was lead and organized form the perspective of “BlackEurope Body-Politics.” That is, of political aesthetics. It was an event of identity in politics not of identity politics. The non-“Black Europeans” were not excluded. The event was open to all who wanted to play according to the rules set up for this event: identity in politics. Meaning that this was not an event lead by Blacks and for Blacks only, but it was unmistakably an event lead by “Black Europe Body-Politics” open to all–of different colors, religions and ethnicities–who are struggling to make visible the darker side of Western modernity and to build plenitude of life and harmonious futures.
We all know that it is not an easy task, but options have to be built. We, all those involved in this event and in the line of thinking and doing that the event presupposes, cannot leave the future in the hands of the architects of democracy and socialism. These are two options, and two ways to achieve harmony and plenitude, but not the only ones, and by far! We shall not confuse means with ends: democracy and socialism are means: two options toward a common end; but they are means to go there, not the end in itself. It is imperative to conceive democracy and socialism as two among many other options. To build options is the name of the game, and that is the direction decolonial aesthetics is moving.
I close with the wise words of a Jamaican philosopher based in the US
“Each epoch is a living reality. This is so because they are functions of living human communities, which, too, are functions of the social world. As living realities, they come into being and will go out of being. What this means is that societies go through processes of birth and decay. An erroneous feature of most civilizations that achieve imperial status is the silly belief that such an achievement would assure their immortality. But we know that no living community lasts forever, save, perhaps, through historical memory of other communities. Decay comes. The task faced by each subordinated community, however, is how prepared it is for the moment in which conditions for its liberation are ripe. When the people are ready, the crucial question will be of how many ideas are available for the reorganization of social life. The ideas, many of which will unfold through years of engaged political work, need not be perfect, for in the end, it will be the hard, creative work of the communities that take them on. That work is the concrete manifestation of political imagination.
Fanon described this goal as setting afoot a new humanity. He knew how terrifying such an effort is, for we do live in times where such a radical break appears as no less than the end of the world. In the meantime, the task of building infrastructures for something new must be planned, and where there is some room, attempted, as we all no doubt already know, because given the sociogenic principle of the problem, we have no other option but to build the options on which the future of our species rest”. (Lewis Gordon, “Fanon and Development. A Philosophical Look,” 2011).
The decolonial is an option whose aims are to contribute to dialogue of civilizations, continental integrations and to communal and harmonious futures. The communal is neither the liberal political communitarianism nor the Marxist communism. It is neither the liberal economic common good, nor the Marxist commons. It is the communal, a decolonial horizon of life that come from non-modern local histories that have always co-existed with Western modernity. Decolonial aesthetics, the liberation of aiesthesis, is crucial for breaking away from the imperial chains of modern knowledge and aesthetics. The European.Union 2012 has send us many sings that things falling apart. BE.BOP 2012 is one of the many signs of becoming futures.
A Reflection by Robbie Shilliam
In early May I took part in this:
BE.BOP 2012. BLACK EUROPE BODY POLITICS
BE.Bop 2012 is an international transdisciplinary roundtable and screening program in which the (racialized) fantasies of European citizenship are contested.
It was curated by Alanna Lockward and affiliated with the Transnational Decolonial Institute.
The Transnational Decolonial Institute (TDI) aims to explore the formation and transformation of the darker side of modernity: coloniality.
It was held at this amazing place in Berlin: the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse
These are websites to do with some of the amazing artists:
There were many other artists, activists, writers and scholars. And Be Bop 2012 put us all together to cultivate a decolonial aesthetics. These are my reflections:
I had three reactions to the artistic works presented at Be.Bop 2012. I think they speak to my appreciation of the importance of cultivating a decolonial aesthetic in an intuitive and intentional way, facilitated by a strong relationship between writers and artists, both of whom are “intellectual workers”.
The first reaction was a scream in my head. This arrived quite strongly with the works of Ingridmwangiroberthutter, especially Neger and Wild Life. Actually, what arrived was more like a cadence of scream and grunt: the first, the horror of being racially interpolated; the second, a gut response to this in the form of caricaturing violence visited upon the self through dehumanization. When Quincy Gario showed us the video of his arrest in Holland for wearing his “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” t-shirt, I realised that this scream could come from another direction. Not from Quincy being wrestled to the ground by police, unprovoked, but from white gazers who must use white noise in their head to drown out a conversation on racism. Perhaps they have no pedagogical resources through which to understand the cognitive dissonance that makes them scream for silence in the presence of complicity in injustice.
The second reaction was a quickening and thumping of the heart. I felt this in Tracey Moffatt’s work. At first, I thought that her video was a cerebral presentation of the orientalist “self”/”other” trope, cutting together a collage of Hollywood scenes of exotic encounter. However the music said otherwise and by the end of the video I was angry and pumped up. Quincy mentioned afterwards that the music score was taken from the famous film, The Battle of Algiers. And then I realised that Fanon had infiltrated the Ballhause! I also felt this quickening and thumping with Teresa María Díaz Nerio’s installation of Sarah Bartman. The video witnessed various onlookers and interlopers passing by Teresa who was standing stifled in a huge grotesque and sexualised costume. I wanted to run into the room and help her out of that suit. I’m not sure if there wasn’t some masculinity in that reaction, but I am sure that I felt that the conclusion to the installation had to be to escape it. Finally, I felt the quickening and thumping in Jeannette Ehler’s videos, especially Black Magic at the White House. Jeannette draws a vévé on the floor, invoking the spirits to exorcise the whiteness that makes slavery invisible. But with this, I also felt something else.
The third reaction was a soothing, a different kind of saneness, a reconciliation. I only ever felt it in combination with my second reaction, sometimes fleetingly. But it was there. For example, when Jeannette draws the vévé she opens the gate for healing agencies. I got a similar sense of reconciliation in some of Ingridmwangiroberthutter’s more recent photographic work. The counter-sensibility to this would be melancholy, which I think William Kentridge invoked on the part of the German colonizer over the Herero and Nama genocides in South West Africa (present day Namibia). Melancholy does not allow for reconciliation, it is a deferral of responsibility for historical injustices.
So, I interpret these three reactions as: 1) the shock of being wounded; 2) resistance to the aggressor; 3) collective self-healing. Postcolonial studies has been very good at attending to – albeit sometimes cerebralising – the first two. The third is avoided by most scholarship. I do not want to retrieve the third aesthetic for the sake of fulfilling a linear progression. That would be a liberal-abolitionist deferral of accountability for past relationships. I want to avoid developmental psychology, a product, along with Freud, of categorising vast swathes of humanity as “savages” in need of being trained into adulthood, or more accurately, ward-ship. Instead, I want to take these three sensibilities as co-eval, as relational, as woven together. To have an aesthetic purely of healing would be utopian. People feel the pain. That has to be acknowledged. And yet, the pain itself and its reaction is saturated in an aesthetic of violence. So to focus only on that would be an abrogation of the responsibility we hold to creatively attend to injustices. Besides, pain and resistance can be easily commodified into a safe voyeurism.
All three sensibilities, but perhaps with the gravity situated in healing: that is a decolonial aesthetic to me. This is because healing requires an aesthetic that is not immanent to colonial violence or white supremacy but transgressive of it, perhaps transcendent to it. Healing requires a special kind of self-confidence when confronted with the colonial episteme. I remember that Jeannette showed a sequence of photos from a Ghanaian beach of a group of people walking into the Atlantic waters. She makes only their reflections in the water visible. A debate ensued about whether the aesthetic was invisibilisation or simulacra. I mentioned that the pictures could be comprehended by way of an aspect of many African-America cosmologies whereby Guinea is comprehended as the land of ancestors and spirits that lies under the sea. Such a comprehension cannot but fundamentally humanise those – and their descendents – who were forced to make a passage of dehumanization. Such a comprehension also makes the one-way passage into a two-way street. Later on, Alanna commented that she was well versed in such cosmologies and yet she had not made that connection. I am certainly no genius. Quite simply, I had been researching these cosmologies before the conference, so they were in the front of my head already. But I think this episode demonstrates that we have some way to go before our decolonial aesthetics become both intuitive and intentional.
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