DECOLONIAL DIASPORIC AESTHETICS: BLACK GERMAN BODY POLITICS
by Alanna Lockward
Decolonial Aesthetics refers to ongoing artistic practices responding and delinking from the darker side of modernity and imperial globalization: coloniality. This concept emerged from the work of the collective modernity/coloniality (1). As the Decolonial Aesthetics Manifesto states: “[ this theoretical approach ] seeks to recognize and open options for liberating the senses. This is the terrain where artists around the world are contesting the legacies of modernity and its re-incarnations in post-modern and altermodern aesthetics” (2).
The Decolonial Option questions the very notion of “universality” and “civilization”, or rather “the universality of civilization”. This rhetoric of modernity and “progress” always carries a secret weapon, which is articulated through dispossession, exploitation and ultimately, genocide: coloniality. By exposing this notion of inseparability between modernity and coloniality, decolonial thinking states that there is no such thing as an “autonomous European Sonderweg” of modernity. The colonial and its exploited, dispossessed, enslaved and exterminated subjects have always played a crucial role in creating, defining and literally “feeding” modernity.
I have conceptualized the Diasporic as a specific approach within Decolonial Aesthetics with the aim of theorizing artistic practices in the context of the Black and African Diaspora in Europe today (3) With this it is my intention to address the singularity of Black experience in Europe within the wider scope of this field. Some of these practices are a byproduct of the transatlantic trade of enslaved people from the African continent, as it is the case of those works created from the perspective of the Caribbean, the US and Latin America. Decolonial Diasporic Aesthetics also focuses in those discourses from the African Diaspora not directly related to this trade but which challenge and dismantle the very notions of “primitiveness”, “ethnicity”, “tribalism”, “animism” and so on, that made this inhuman and extremely profitable commercial enterprise, and the colonization of the African continent after the Berlin-Congo Conference 1884-1885, possible and “justifiable” by means of exposing the acceptance (or not) of Black European citizenship today.
For the exhibition at Duke, I presented a preview of BE.BOP 2012- BLACK EUROPE BODY POLITICS (4) an international transdisciplinary roundtable centered on Black European citizenship in connection to recent moving image and performance art practices, that will take place in Berlin from May 4th to 6th. The time-based positions that will be discussed at this meeting have been selected because they contest (racialized) fantasies on European citizenship. By means of analyzing these narratives of re-existence, BE.BOP 2012 aims at facilitating a long-term exchange between specialists and time-based art practitioners of different spheres of the Black European Diaspora as well as activists and law scholars. This meeting will be accompanied by a screening program and its content will be published in the form of an online publication, creating therefore the basis of a visible platform on this field in order to contribute to current debates on citizenship in the public sphere globally. Citizenship has been proclaimed as a “universal” right for all white, Christian and Western individuals inextricably connected to the concept of “civilization” which permeates normative paradigms of artistic practice and aesthetics in mainstream theory and curatorial perspectives. A good example of this state-of-affairs is articulated in the evaluation of the Documenta 12 by one of its curators, Roger Buergel, published in a brief newspaper clip (5). How do current notions of the African continent respond to very specific moments of European commercial enterprises and how has philosophy served the purposes of colonization and genocide? My hypothesis is that this could have only taken place through the silencing of the achievements of African cultures and the systematic “primitivization” of all African peoples. Artists working within Decolonial Diasporic Aesthetics have consistently challenged these notions sometimes using the reduction to absurdity through mimicry, the juxtaposition of different levels of meaning on a single plane and also very often quoting once again those common assumptions already made invisible by the pure force of reiteration, revealing their deeper and twisted purposes.
It is crucial to point out that Hegel made his epistemic division of Africa (6) only three decade after the first German protestant colonizing mission was established in the continent. In this sense we could interpret his Philosophy of History as a very effective public relations campaign in favour of European colonization. Another symptomatic continuum of Hegel´s legacy can be found five decades later when the Berlin Congo Conference of 1884-1885 created the legal frame for an already de facto colonization. As Olufemi Taiwo explains:
“Many who read this are familiar with the phrases: “Africa South of the Sahara,” “Sub-Saharan Africa,” “Black Africa.” They also probably know that Egypt is not in Africa; it is in the “Near East” or the “Middle East”. “North Africa” is really not Africa. And in what must remain an incredible feat of geographical sleight of hand, South Africa suddenly became an “African” country in April 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela and the overthrow of the bastard apartheid regime. [...]. According to Hegel, ‘Africa must be divided into three parts: one is that which lies South of the desert of Sahara–Africa proper–the upland almost entirely unknown to us, with narrow coast-tracts along the sea; the second is that to the North of the desert–European Africa (if we may so call it)–a coastland;the third is the river region of the Nile, the only valley-land of Africa, and which is in connection with Asia ‘.We can now see why it was so important for Hegel to excise Egypt from Africa. It would have been not merely incongruous but also false to say of an area that enfolds Egypt, Carthage, and so on within its boundaries that it “is the gold-land compressed within itself” or that it is “lying beyond the day of history”.Egypt must be separated so that the racist attack to follow will have a veneer of respectability. How strong that veneer is can be seen in the persistence of this view of Africa in the imagination and discourses of Hegel’s descendants” (7).
During the process of writing “Diaspora” (8), in order to discuss how Black identities are portrayed -or ignored- in white mainstream academia, the media and in public debates, I realized that when Black feminist epistemology as well as Black epistemology and knowledge production are obliterated in a text that deals with Blackness constructions’ issues in Germany, this is a form of Silencing. I based my argument on the Silencing of the thorough historical research by Fatima El Tayeb (2001), “Black Germans. The Discourse on Race and National Identity 1890-1933” (9), which is not mentioned in two specialized referencespublished after El Tayeb´s landmark work. I based this conceptualization of the Silenced Diaspora on my master thesis (10), for which I critically selected one hundred articles from the mainstream German newspaper “Der Tagesspiegel”. This category has been conceptualized as a continuation and expansion of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s (1995) groundbreaking contribution with regards to the trivialization of the Haitian Revolution. In Trouillot’s research, the Haitian Revolution is exposed as an inconceivable achievement of (decolonial) History (11) which has been therefore systematically silenced from its beginning until today. I transport this notion of Silencing that is prevalent in most white (Christian, male) Euro-(North)American accounts of all accomplishments and realities of Black Peoples to the specific situation of the Black German Diaspora. The Silencing of the Black German Diaspora in German mediatic and linguistic contexts is an example of this. The strategic terminology intervention “Silenced Diaspora” is not meant to substitute the self-naming of the Black Community in Germany which remains as the only legitimate reference of a historical re-existence (12).
Only through the groundbreaking contributions of Black-German and Black Diaspora activists in Germany, and more recently in relation to the press (Sow 2009, Lockward 2006/2010, and the online media-watch portal der braune mob), the first ideas on a perception of a Silenced Diaspora in a white hegemonic context can be found. There are also recent theoretical approaches to the same phenomenon of Silencing by Black European scholars such as this one by Grada Kilomba (2008): „Once confronted with the collective secrets of racist oppression and the pieces of that very dirty history, the white subject commonly argues: ‘not to know…’, ‘not to understand…’, ‘not to remember…’, or ‘not to believe…’. These are expressions of this process of repression by which the subject resists making the unconscious information conscious; that is, one wants to make the known unknown [silencing]. Repression [silencing] is, in this sense, the defense by which the ego controls and exercises censorship of what is instigated as an ‘unpleasant’ truth. They say they do not know! But if I know, they too have to know as we co-exist in the same scenario. They say they have never heard of it! But how come, if we have been speaking it since 500 years. Five hundred years is such a long time. What do they want to know? And what do they want to hear?” (13) [The brackets are mine].
This first approach to Decolonial Diasporic Aesthetics focuses on what Mignolo calls the rhetoric of modernity, which in this case I connect with the Kantian/Hegelian notion of “civilization”, and the challenging and dismantling of this philosophical canon by means of exposing its counterpart: the logic of coloniality in the works of Black Diaspora artists in Europe. These artistic discourses are considered in the context of Decolonial Diasporic Aesthetics as strategies of re-existence.
In order to build an introductory argument for this conceptualization, I have selected certain works by IngridMwangiRobertHutter, formed by a Kenyan-German woman and a white German man that have merged as a single artistic entity since 2003, that address in their performances, video-art , photography and installations the silencing of Black German identity and Germany´s colonial legacy in the African continent in current historiography and mediatic (white Western Christian European) accounts. This is how they explain their collaboration: “I purposely try not to speak too much about it, because we are creating a sort of a myth or a fictional personality, trying to redefine the history of this personality. [ … ] we’re really not a group or a collective, but we try to be one artistic personality, or what I’d like to call an artist-collective-being (14).
In the installation piece, Neger don´t call me (1999), moving image and moving image represented as still image portraiture are juxtaposed in a manner characteristic of this collective. In IMRH’s work it is common to witness an element reappear in different media with a different title, sometimes translating its meaning into a new context, especially with the intervention of performance. The artists’ dreads become one with her face establishing the perimeters of the stereotype challenged by the title. The mask conveys an identity constructed by means of an epistemic violence which denies a person any claim of individuality. Only white subjects have personality, Black persons instead have “features”. These “features” are reduced to absurdity in this visual equation where the “wildness” associated with Black hair is portrayed simultaneously in nine different frames, on video, with one single image agglutinating the alleged danger of these strange yet familiar masks, juxtaposed on top. The interaction between both bi-dimensional planes is then projected into one single screen, as a phantasmatic tattoo on these colonizing views of the Black subject, in this case, a woman. In one of the nine screens, she is playing freely with her hair, creating waves of resistance in a kind of possession, a common practice in many shamanic cultures that has found its most popular stereotype in the colonizing demonization of Voudun, for example. The four chairs in this installation narrate the cultural shock experienced by Ingrid Mwangi when she first arrived in Germany after expending the first fifteen years of her life in Kenya. Permanently confronted with the epistemic violence of Otherness in an extremely hostile environment, she is giving voice to Black German experience with a very intimate tone; the audience can decide whether to silence her by literally “s(h)itting” on her experience, or to listen…
With an even subtler strategy, in the video-art Wild at Heart (1998), a blurry image of the artist is seen through the bars of her dreads, while we listen to the murmuring roar of a beast. The double-consciousness of the Black subject is rendered visible again by reducing it to absurdity. How can an animal-like creature defend its case if not by means of indeed roaring and grunting its claims to become part of a “civilized” white hegemonic society?
In Neger (1999), the artist is using the single-channel video format to fixate the permanence of the stereotype in a classic first shot portrait; the white background plays a more significant role in this media. It is almost impossible not to be enchanted by its formal beauty; Blackness and exotization once again play their treacherous and seductive game; the artist demands from us a more proactive involvement with the subject in both meanings of the word, with the portrayed individual and with the complexities of the issues brought up by this masquerade. There are plenty of hidden knowledge-production agendas in IMRH’s manipulation of her own hair; the level of involvement of Black (Diaspora) women with their hair is epic and its implications could be considered encyclopedic. The multiplicity of codes brought up by the interplays within a constructed Otherness, of the dialectic between an empowered self-affirmation and an ostracized self-deprecation, with regards to a white hegemonic norm of “beauty” and “cleanliness”, are already a subject of many scientific publications and art projects in the US, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Among other iconic references to this subject are the groundbreaking works by Ana Mendieta and Ellen Gallagher. IMRH pioneering involvement with this subject in a local German and also a broader Black European context is particularly powerful, not only because it is produced in a gender-challenging collaborative mode, but also because it is rigorously multi-mediatic, as mentioned before.
The second element by means which white hegemonic societies constructs Otherness with regards to the Black subject is the most visible one: Skin. As in other works, Static Drift (2001) stretches the notion of projection beyond its familiar boundaries. Here the screen is the body and the projector, the sun. We have screen-savers on our computers to avoid a possible tattoo, a static image will most likely deliver a permanent imprint on our screens. IMRH aims at becoming this tattoo, an object of projection in which the unavoidable skin issue is constantly present. In this piece, a headless body reinforces the absence of subjectivity by which the white hegemonic gaze constructs its fantasy of the colonized subject, especially of women. Static Drift (2001) deconstructs the notion of language as image and vice versa, by means of juxtaposing the common places of the “irreversible” Otherness of the African continent, also the notions of naked exotization and Blackness juxtapose each other.
Taking a global stand on the Hegelian constructions of an undifferentiated identity for all the countries of the African continent (in which Germany played and still plays a crucial role), which is constantly reproduced in academic texts, popular culture, the media and everyday language, these images also reflect the long journey of recognition between the white and Black subject participating in this creative experience. On the one hand the Black female body is the constant by which the rule of Otherizing is established, the white male body appears only on rare occasions. Wearing the Object of Contemplation (2007) evokes the solution of this riddle, all these efforts have finally made sense, it is possible after the first piece of 2001, (Static Drift), to find a way in which the white subject can reflect on and literally project his own colonizing constructions and practices on his own body, in a way that is neither patronizing/patriarchal, or responds to the demands of white guilt.
And finally, this entire colonizing mess is solved in Resolution of Lies (2008) a poetic equation, not surprisingly found in Nature, indeed… We can hear the sound of silence in this image. Its powerful self-explanatory ‘nature’, its iconographic stamina and self-referentiality might also be a trap of our own senses. This reproduction of the shape of the continent on a rock that seems to have captured by pure chance the residues of a red deluge, conveys the notion of a never ending randomized algorithm of questions, of possibilities, historical, biographical, cosmic, physical, textual, visual, and, and, and…. How do we know that this image was taken in the African continent, for example? Is this question relevant at all? What are the truths that remain hidden in the white supremacist constructions of the African continent? What remains Silenced in these constructions? Could Silencing become a methodological translation of lies, of (deliberate) omissions? I argue that not only white Germany was born in Namibia (El Tayeb 2001) but also that the current construction “Africa” was invented by Hegel (Taiwo 1997) and legally prescribed IN Germany during the Berlin Congo Conference 1884-1885. How is it possible that such historical facts remain “unknown” in white supremacist Germany?
The way in which this artist-collective-being is redefining the nuances between re-acting and acting is the next step of my conceptualization of Decolonial Diasporic Aesthetics: “When I started talking about becoming a collective, there was a whole variety of reactions. Some people just didnot accept it, because they were very attached to Ingrid Mwangi’s previous work, which was a lot about racism, the Black body and Black feminism. [ … ] there are some things that you have to let go of when becoming this collective being.. I really think that this is a model for the future. [ … ] So since we are interested in overcoming cultural barriers and really communicating, we create and demonstrate a common vision. That’s our proposition.”
It is my immediate agenda to look for connections between learning by doing and vice versa from a decolonial perspective in the works of Black Diaspora artists in Europe. The relationship between method and methodology, which is the axis of Ruth Wodak´s Critical Discourse Analysis, is the starting point of my inquiry. How to analyse works and narratives that have been systematically silenced and connect their challenging counter-discourses in a meaningful way? How to theorize on the body politics and the precariousness of Black Diaspora cultural production and specifically those pertaining to the sphere of women, as Audre Lorde explains to us (15)? The Camino is already opened by pioneering thinkers and creators as Lorde and MwangiHutter, they are one of the many sources of my inspiration for Decolonial Diasporic Aesthetics.
1. It has its first manifestations in a volume edited by Zulma Palermo (2009), in Argentina, with the participation of Colombian intellectual, artist and activist, Adolfo Albán-Achinte who used the term around 2003. It was revived in the Summer of 2009 in the seminars of the Ph. D. in Cultural Studies at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, in Quito. Pedro Pablo Gómez, director of the magazine Calle 14, was the main instigator of the conceptualization of Decolonial Aesthetics. He then requested an article from Walter Mignolo in this regard who theorized on it for the first time (Mignolo 2010). Based on Mignolo´s article, both him and Gómez curated the first exhibition under that title with the collaboration of Elvira Ardila, director of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá, in November 2010. It was accompanied by a workshop where the concept created a public and hotly debate. The sequel, also in the format of a workshop and exhibition, took place at Duke University, in May 2011,and was curated by Mignolo and co-curated by Marina Grzinic, Guo Juin Hong and myself. The organizers where artist Hong-An Throng, historian Aimee Kwon, cinema scholar and video artist Guo-Juin Hong and Colombian critic, artist and curator, Miguel Rojas-Sotelo.
Mignolo, Walter. Aiesthesis Decolonial. Calle 14, No. 4, Marzo 2010.
Palermo, Zulma (Ed.) 2009. Arte y estética en la encrucijada descolonial. Preface by Walter Mignolo. Buenos Aires: Editorial del Signo.
3. One of the most suitable conceptualizations of the African Diaspora for the purpose of this first approach is to be found in a thorough essay of Agustín Lao Montes:
“In short, I conceptualize the African diaspora as a multicentered historical field, and as a complex and fluid geo-cultural formation and domain of identification, cultural production, and political organization that is framed by world-historical processes of domination, exploitation, resistance, and emancipation. If the world-historical field that we now call the African diaspora, as a condition of dispersal and as a process of displacement is founded on forms of violence and terror that are central to modernity, it also signifies a cosmopolitan project of articulating the diverse histories of African peoples while creating translocal intellectual/cultural currents and political movements.”
Lao Montes, Agustín 2007: Hilos Descoloniales. Trans-localizando los espacios de la Diáspora Africana. Tabula Rasa. Bogotá Colombia, No. 7: 47-79, julio-diciembre 2007:55
5. Documenta director: “The liveliness was missing”. The rainy summer was responsible for taking away the excitement of Documenta 12 that finished last Sunday, according to exhibition director, Roger Buergel: “The life outside the exhibition halls could not flourish. This meant that the ideal atmosphere, the liveliness could not be nurtured.” The arts need warmth: “This is why Greece is the origin of civilization and Africa that of mankind.
Der Tagesspiegel, 24.09.07., P. 25.
6. Taiwo, Olufemi , 1997. Exorcising Hegel’s ghost: Africa’s challenge to philosophy. African Studies Quarterly. Issue 4 (Religion and Philosophy in Africa). http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v1/4/2. P. 8.
7. Africa proper, as far as history goes back, has remained-for all purposes of connection with the rest of the world-shut up; it is the gold-land compressed within itself, the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of night. Its isolated character originates, not merely in its tropical nature, but essentially in its geographical condition.
Hegel, G. W., 1837. The Philosophy of History, p. 1.
8. Lockward, Alanna 2010: Diaspora. In: Nduka-Agwu/Hornscheidt (Ed.) 2010: Rassismus auf gut Deutsch. Frankfurt a. M.: Brandes & Apsel.
9. El-Tayeb, Fatima 2001: Schwarze Deutsche. Der Diskurs um Rasse und Nationale Identität (1890-1933). Frankfurt/Main: Campus.
10. Lockward, Alanna 2006: Schwarz-Black-Afro. Widerspiegelung eines Wortfeldes im Tagesspiegel 2004-2006. www.derbraunemob.de.
11. “The discursive context within which news from Saint-Domingue was discussed as it happened has important consequences for the historiography of Saint-Domingue/Haiti. If some events cannot be accepted even as they occur, how can they be assessed later? In other words, can historical narratives convey plots that are unthinkable in the world within which these narratives take place? How does one write a history of the impossible?”
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph (1995). Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press. P.73.
12. This concept has been recently articulated by decolonial thinker, Adolfo Albán Achinte, as follows:
“It is important to consider that the indigenous peoples as well as enslaved African peoples not only resisted the dominant power, but furthermore developed highly creative alternatives to continue inventing their existence sometimes outside the legal framework while at the same time playing along with the establishment.Both in the past and in the present these peoples and communities maintain and develop certain forms of existence production in their everyday lives. I call these acts re-existence.”
Albán Achinte, Adolfo 2010: Comida y colonialidad. Calle14, Bogotá, Colombia, volumen 4, número 5, julio-diciembre de 2010, p. 20.
13. Kilomba, Grada 2008: Plantation memories. Episodes of everyday racism. Münster: Unrast, p. 33.
14. Official site of IngridMwangiRobertHutter: http://www.ingridmwangiroberthutter.com
15. “Unacknowledged class differences rob women of each others’ energy and creative insight. Recently a women’s magazine collective made the decision for one issue to print only prose, saying poetry was a less “rigorous” or “serious” art form. Yet even the form our creativity takes is often a class issue. Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper. Over the last few years, writing a novel on tight finances, I came to appreciate the enormous differences in the material demands between poetry and prose. As we reclaim our literature, poetry has been the major voice of poor, working class, and Colored women. [ … ]. The actual requirements to produce the visual arts also help determine,along class lines, whose art is whose.”
Lorde, Audre 1984: Age, Race, Class,and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. In: Sister Outsider, Los Angeles: Freedom, PP. 114-123.