In this text, Walter Mignolo turns a visit to Let the Guest Be the Master, an exhibition by artist Hayv Kahraman at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York (10th September to 11th October 2013), into a narrative that explores the relationship between a viewer and the work of the artist. Using the form of a dialogue, Mignolo feels out the messages in Kahraman’s work, and explores the artist’s composition as expressed in the painted surfaces as well as in the use of space in the gallery.
The text was published in Ibraaz Nesletter, August 28, 2013]]>
This special issue is the current stage of a project that started in Bogota, in 2010, with the first exhibit-cum-workshop on the topic. The catalog and a book on the event had already been published. After Bogota, came Duke 2011, and after that several quasi simultaneous events took place: Be-Bop 2012 in Berlin, two panels at the Havana Biennial in May 2012 and five days in Kassel, Documenta 13, July 2012. References to this events you will find in the dossier in the contributions by Alanna Lockward, Miguel Rojas-Sotelo and Raul Ferrera Balanquet and Pedro Lasch.
I shall add that parallel to the unfolding of decolonial aestheSis there is also in the making a trajectory that i would like to call “dewesternizing aestheSis.” This trajectory is taking place in a different social sphere, that of museums and large budget, but not longer in Western Europe and the US but in the Middle East and East Asia. Sharjah Biennial 11, March-May 2013, is the first large event that collected a series of concerns regarding the overwhelming hegemony of Eurocentrism in the art world.]]>
This Spring, I taught a seminar on Decolonial Aesthetics. Or better yet, decolonial aesthesis. Aesthesis is a Greek word, as we know, it refers to senses, sensibility. There is a common sensibility among many people around the globe. The sensibility that comes from the experience of coloniality, that is, of being considered less or deficient human beings. Who consider them/as such? The One who control discourse and has the authority to define the human. Western aesthetics contributed to that. If you do not believe, read Immanuel Kant´s Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime. From the colonial wound inflicted by Western aesthetics (because of course aesthetics is not a universal entity or way of being and sensing) comes decolonial aesthesis. The intellectual force and creativity today is coming from that sensibility, decolonial aesthesis, not only in ¨art¨ but in all spheres of life. By mid-term, students had to explain their understanding of “coloniality and decoloniality,” how colonial/imperial aesthetic works, what a decolonial understanding would be in the formation of decolonial subjectivities–that is, of decolonial aesthesis.
Michelle K., from Singapore, wrote a letter to herself when she departed from Singapore to go to Cambridge. Now she, when writing this letter, she was a Duke University, North Carolina, US.
The letter was already published in the catalog of Be.Bop 2013 http://decolonizingthecoldwar.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/bebop-2013-catalogue-online.pdf
It was also recently printed in a special issue of Decolonial AestheSis. Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings, published by Social Text/Periscope, Summer 2013. Go to the end, the letter closes the volume.
I provide you here with the typescript version
To my eighteen-year-old self, on your departure for Cambridge
September 21st, 2003
In three days, you will encounter a fish knife for the very first time. You will not know what it is, but everyone else will. You will watch, and imitate.
You will not know how to eat – how to cut cheese, hold a wineglass, to dissect pheasant. You will not know how to dress, in the mandatory bulky black robes, or how to put your hair up as the other girls do. You will not know how to walk, high heels unsteady on ancient cobblestones. You will not know how to talk, of their celebrities, their politics, their favorite operas, their units of measurement, their terms of endearment.
In class, in Front Court just off the famous Wren Chapel, you will learn that you do not know Latin. Claudia, from Poland, knows Latin. She also knows Polish, but hates speaking it with the young Polish woman who cleans her rooms. We’re in England now, she says.
Julie, from Ireland, speaks with a perfect Standard English accent. So do Jonah from Manchester and Dr Davis, from Wales. So do Emma, from Oslo; and Adrian, from Belgrade; and Patrick, from Berlin. So do you. Joshua, also from Singapore, speaks with a thick Singaporean accent. Nobody speaks to him, because nobody understands him, except you.
You never learn Latin, but you learn to fake it well enough to give the prayer before the Fellows in the dining hall. It’s an honor, you’re told. You shape the vowels carefully with your tongue: Oculi omnium in te sperant. The eyes of all look upon thee.
You study versification. Versification is the study of form in poetry. You learn that we all speak in iambs, like the Greeks. You write poetry, and learn the proper names for what you do: this is enjambement, this is anaphora, that is isocolon. You learn to paint with the textures that make up Britain: limestone, pipesmoke, lambswool, tweed; reckon, rubbish, brilliant, dodgy, quid.
At the International Students Gathering you will be told that you are interesting. You are foreign, you are a learning experience for others, you are exotic. People will ask where you come from. Singapore. Oh! they say – chewing gum is illegal there, isn’t it, and they cane people for vandalism. Don’t they also cut off the hands of thieves? No, you say. Oh, they say. Are you certain?
Every day you will walk by King’s Chapel and every day be astounded by the sublime. There is something sacred, it seems, in the smooth stone and stained glass, in the altitudinous arches against the northern sky. Even the sky looks different here – a truer sky blue. The plants are a different green, milder than the ferns of the humid tropics, and more elegant. The trees are deciduous, quadrilingual.
In the chapel you will hear Allegri’s Miserere and in the sharp highs and tumbling-bell cascades of gowned choir-boys come to know a different God than the one you met with guitar music in your old Sunday School. You will read Milton, and see His beauty. You will read Eliot, and see His wisdom.
You will travel. You go to Athens, and you go to Rome. You go to Paris, London, Vienna, old cities rich with marble and history. You see the rock where St Paul preached, the hall where Mozart played, the house Jane Austen lived in. You see the beds of heroes, the halls of two hundred kings and queens. You see places that matter. Nothing in your country is more than two hundred years old.
Your Marxist friend is repulsed by the splendor of Vatican City. You somewhat agree, but still you buy an overpriced rosary from the Vatican gift shop. Your people don’t pray with rosaries, so you don’t know what to do with it. Still, it is a valuable thing – made of plastic, to be sure, but stamped with the official insignia. The keys to the kingdom.
You go to the opera. You go to museums. You learn the names of the masters, you learn their styles – the long slim forms of Botticelli, the bright grace of Raphael, the abs on the Michelangelo, the curves on the Titians – pink cheeks and white faces. You see hall upon hall of kouroi, men in the proportions of gods, with smooth blank eyes. You see beauty in the rich thickness of oil paints, in the huge splendid canvases, the gold frames, the high ceilings. You are happy and gratified and impressed. No one from your country ever made such things. You do not think to ask why.
Your friends ask you about visiting Singapore. What’s there to see there? they ask. We don’t have much culture, you say.
You direct a play. You would have liked to act instead, but there are no Chinese women in Chekhov’s Russia. There are no Chinese in Ibsen’s Norway. There are no Chinese in the Germany of Carl Jung or in Chicago in the 1950s. There are no Brits either, but that doesn’t seem to matter. In three years of theatre you will see two black faces on stage. One is Othello. The other is a maid.
You see The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. We are gentlemen of Japan… / On many a screen and fan We figure in lively paint / Our attitude’s queer and quaint / You’re wrong if you think it ain’t! The emperor likes decapitation. The heroine’s name is Yum-Yum. It is a comedy. You laugh.
You study Shakespeare. You study tragedy. Ancient tragedy is the fall of a great man due to an unfortunate fault. Modern tragedy is the confrontation of a brave man with his own existential terror. Other things are tragic, but you don’t hear too much about them. You meet Willy Loman, Primo Levi, Nora Helmer, but it’s hard to pay attention. Sophocles speaks too loudly. Oedipus is king.
You study moral philosophy: Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Kant. You learn to read them with blinkers on, mining them for the things that matter. You learn to write the way they do – assertive, arrogant, to-the-point. Men do better in exams, you are told, because they write this way. You must be confident. You must write like a man.
You study the Romantics. You learn what nature looks like: white cliffs, high moors, rolling hills, spring air, green meadows; here and there a Roman ruin, here and there a shepherdess. What’s there to see in Singapore? your friends ask. We don’t have much nature, you say.
You go bird-watching. There are several thousand bird species in the UK alone – robins, garnets, ravens, terns. You learn the names of trees and flowers – lilacs, magnolia, primrose, rosemary for remembrance, hyacinth for constancy, poppies, which mark the War Dead.It seems these flowers have a history that your flowers don’t. Poets write about them; they have meanings in books, and value in the flower shops.
No one writes about the ixoras that grew in your old neighborhood – dense stubby shrubs with blooms no bigger than a wink, but beloved for the single drop of nectar you could suck from the stems. Or about the hibiscuses, brilliant and brash with their long dangling stamens; or the bouganvilla, common, roadside-dusty, with their paper-thin petals. Or angsanas, with their space-ship seeds. Rain trees like vine-strewn umbrellas. Franjipanis. Pong-pongs.
Three short years later you will stand in a queue; neat rows of black robes and mostly white faces. When your turn comes you will kneel at the feet of an old man in a five-hundred-year-old chair. He says something in Latin you won’t care what it means. He gives you a scroll. You smile. You graduate.
All this is not a warning or a complaint about how unfair life will be for you. After all, you will not be unhappy; or if you are, you will not really notice. No one will be cruel to you, no one will be unfriendly, and you will learn many things. You will enjoy yourself, more or less; and you will make friends, acquire ‘social polish’, a confidence in speaking, the tools to make yourself heard.
These are all good things. They are the things that you went to Britain to acquire. But I am writing to you to make you see what you will be at pains not to see: that as you acquire them, there will also be parts of you that are lost. And I am writing to tell you that your gains are not innocent – that they come with the baggage of coloniality.
You will deny this at first, because you and your country are modern and free, and you will see your choice of university as precisely the expression of that freedom and ability. To think otherwise will seem almost absurd: you are at Cambridge; how could you possibly be oppressed?
But coloniality didn’t end in 1963, when the British let your country go. It is not just the business of unfortunate Third Worlders in distant lands, still floudering in corruption and poverty because they lacked the vision and the statecraft of a Lee Kuan Yew.
Coloniality continues, in fact, whenever bright young men and women from all over the world decide to cap off their educations by going on pilgrimage to pinnacles of Western civilization; when they dedicate themselves to the Western canon and walk in the shadows of gothic cathedrals and imperial facades, and learn that this is the good life.
It continues whenever anyone anywhere in the world walks down a street and sees a billboard on the modern cathedral that is a shopping mall, and sees in that conjunction of power, wealth, and beauty an image of desire. In other words, it happens these days not by the strength of arms or the power of states, but by the captivation of the eyes, the training of the taste, by unwritten rules of thumb – that we all learn everywhere, without even knowing it. Coloniality is far from over: it is all over. It is perhaps the most powerful set of forces in the modern world.
That may sound strange to you, because the power of Cambridge – of Europe itself – seems today to lie in the richness of its history. But to be truly modern is precisely to have a rich and legitimate history that one can master, draw from, and transcend. It is to have a history that is valuable in the present, transactable as social capital in an economy of competitive relations; in clear contrast to other, ‘anthropological’ histories – ‘African’, ‘Oriental’ – that are outdated, unusable, primitive. Besides, modernity comes in many guises: in skyscrapers and banks, to be sure, but also in fish knives, in cathedrals, in the knowledge of opera, in savoir faire.
But modernity is not truly in the skyscraper or the bank or even the savoir faire. It is in the movement of a dangerous gift, transmitted from the West to the rest. Modernity says: we have the good, and we will give – or teach, or sell – it to you. Modernity is salvation through this gift from your prior self. It is Sir Stamford Raffles of the East India Company turning Temasek, the fishing village, into Singapore, the trade hub and aspiring metropolis. It is the magnificent edifice of Cambridge University turning Melissa, the girl who wore cheap pajamas sewn by her grandma to bed, into Melissa, the cosmopolitan, who graduated in a Hepburn dress and a fur hood.
Modernity is someone saying to you: look, we have made you better. And you believing it.
But why do you believe it? Why will your ignorance of the fish knife cut so deep? Why will your love of opera and your love of ixora be respectively crucial and inconsequential for your sense of sophistication and self-worth? It makes little logical sense, but coloniality doesn’t work that way.As you will learn, it works by the smallest and the largest things: from chit-chat to cathedrals. Another way of putting this is that the West has colonized not only knowledge, but aesthesis – every kind of sensing, believing, feeling.
What can you do, then? Coloniality cannot be un-done, any more than you can un-read Chaucer or un-see Caravaggio, and it is undeniable that these things have broadened your mind.
But the question is not how to retreat or how to prune yourself back to some pristine, native state. In fact, it is the opposite: how to recognize the narrowness of this so-called broadened mind – to realize that Europe is not the universe – and to take your sensing and knowing beyond those dominant ideas of the true, the good, and the beautiful. To move towards a pluri-verse that gives dignity to both the girl in the pajamas and the one in the little black dress – and yet to do so in a way that, unlike Western liberalism, is not naïve about either the ‘equality’ of the two, or about how we got from the one to the other.
This means that it is not enough to simply read Confucious alongside Aristotle, or to turn from Uffizi to the Asian Civilizations Museum. That is part of it, certainly, but it doesn’t go far enough. In fact, merely claiming that ‘our’ art or philosophy is as beautiful or good as their Western counterparts only disguises the problem: it hides the issue of why we are in the position of having to make that claim in the first place (the question of coloniality), and it begs the question of what we mean by ‘good’, or ‘beautiful’, or even by ‘art’ or ‘philosophy’ (the question of imperial aesthetics).
The movement known as ‘decolonial aesthetics’ is aimed at asking exactly those two questions. It is the study of how Western aesthetic categories like ‘beauty’ or ‘representation’ came to dominate all discussion of art and its value, and of how exactly those categories were are used – in everyone from Kant to Conrad – to organise and control the way we think of ourselves and others: as white or black, high or low, rich or poor, strong or weak, good or evil.
And decolonial art (or literature, architecture, and so on) is art that enacts these critiques by exposing coloniality and its injustices and contradictions, often using juxtaposition, parody, irony, or simple disobedience towards the rules of art and polite society, so that the viewer or participant is not swept up in the sublimity or beauty that is the Western ideal, but in feelings of sadness, indignation, repentance, hope, and the determination to change things in the future.
You may not see much decolonial art at Cambridge, but, just as the colonial aesthetic works on us in myriad and subtle ways, so can performances of decoloniality, if we learn how to see them. So as you walk through the grand college gates, look out for the homeless man, who refuses to move from his corner no matter what important procession passes by.
Look out for the posters put up by the residents of Mill Road, in their campaign against the large-chain supermarket that would put the small Indian and Korean grocery stores there out of business. Think about the British Indian girl who wears a sari to class every day. And listen again to Joshua’s accent, and hear in it not failure to communicate, but a casual, everyday protest – a way of saying, I don’t have to sound like you to be worthy of being heard.
These things may be hard to spot amidst the distractions of tall spires and lofty aspirations, but they are there]]>
2.- I suppose you could say that the world is moving in the direction of touching objects and being disconnected with yourself and your body. But still calling that “Connecting.” Alienating perhaps? But true, progress is “progress” and on the name of progress sacrifices are necessary, and you can sacrifice anything in the name of progress.
And, of course, the point I am raising is not to allow youngsters in the street of Peru (first YT) to enjoy the marvels of technological connections. No, the point I am making is this: look at both YT and reflect on what kind of persons you see in each of them. I would like to say that progress and the future is announced the YT of street dancers in Peru. However, the majority would think that I am wrong, that it is the reverse: those kids in the street of Peru shall be brought up to “connecting” in the manner of the no-more “First World” people do.
Why I think so? Because I see Vania Masia’s project empowering, while I find interaction design disempowering, but good business. I know that the leaders of interaction designs will disagree with me. And that is again the point: how is it the interaction with objects displace the interaction between people. When you loose direct connection with living organism and replace them with dead objects, it is easier to loose concern from living organisms.
You become oblivious of the no longer valid distinction between “First” and “Third” worlds. You forget that in order to have those wonderful experiences with objects that separate people (“I can do many things while talking with you, Younghee Jung observes”) while they are facing each other, you have not to ask question of the cost involved in doing business by alienating people. And I am not talking about money when I mention “cost”, I am talking about life, living organisms dying to have the possibility of certain human beings to get in touch with objects.
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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Be.Bop 2012. Black Europe Body-Politics, Berlin, was the third event in the series of Decolonial Aesthetics exhibits and workshops. The first took place in Bogota in November of 2010 (catalog is available on line, Estéticas Descoloniales, Bogotá). The second at Duke in May of 2011. The third one in Berlin in May of 2012. In May of 2012, two panes were delivered at the Havana Biennial. Pedro Lasch is organizing an event “Five Days of Decolonial Aesthetics” for Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany (July 2012).
The catalog contains short articles and statements by the participants, plus some illustrations of the screening. The success of this event secured already the follow up, same place, same time next year: Be.Bop 2013
Transdisciplinary Roundtable and Screening
A Project of ArtLabour Archives In collaboration with Allianz Kulturstiftung and Ballhaus Naunynstrasse
Alanna Lockward, Curator
José Manuel Barreto (England) / Manuela Boatca (Germany) / Artwell Cain (Holland) / Teresa María Díaz Nerio (Holland) / Gabriele Dietze (Germany) / Simmi Dullay (South Africa) / Elvira Dyangani Ossé (Spain) /Jeannette Ehlers (Denmark) / Fatima El Tayeb (Germany) / Heide Fehrenbach (USA) / Quinsy Gario (Holland )/ Ylva Habel (Sweden) / Ulrike Hamann (Germany) /Grada Kilomba (Germany) / William Kentridge (South Africa) / Michael Küppers-Adebisi (Germany) / Rozena Maart (South Africa) / Tracey Moffatt (Australia) / IngridMwangiRobertHutter (Germany) / David Olusoga (England) / Minna Salami (England) /Robbie Shilliam (England) / Sumugan Sivanesan (Australia) / Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (Germany) / Robert A. Stemmle † / Emeka Udemba (Germany) Rolando Vázquez (Holland)
Walter Mignolo, Advisor
BE.BOP 2012- BLACK EUROPE BODY POLITICS is an international screening program and transdisciplinary roundtable centered on Black European citizenship in connection to recent moving image and performative practices. It took place at The Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, a translocal theatre space which serves as point of arrival for artists from (post) migrant communities and beyond, founded in 2008 by Shermin Langhoff with the support of Fatih Akin.
The framework of this meeting was circumscribed within decolonial theories which expose how the idea of citizenship is linked to current racializing configurations and hence with the limits of humanity. In that sense, the racial hierarchy of human existence, originating in the Renaissance and prescribed legally during the Enlightenment, established current (white-male-heteronormative-Christian-Western) European notions of who is Human and who is lower in that hierarchy, thereby designating citizenship, one of the most important legacies of modernity. The time-based positions discussed at this meeting were selected because they contest (racializing) fantasies on European citizenship.
By means of analyzing these narratives of re-existence, BE.BOP 2012 aimed at facilitating a long-term exchange between specialists in disciplines unrelated to visual arts and time-based art practitioners of different contexts of the Black European Diaspora. It successfully created multiple dialogues across the fields of history, legal studies, theatre, art and political activism.
This meeting was motivated and theoretically embedded to Decolonial Aesthetics and more specifically to Decolonial Diasporic Aesthetics, a term coined by curator, Alanna Lockward. In the spirit of the transformative and liberating qualities of performance art, this event was free and open to the public.