The voices of the unheard
by Carla Gimeno Jaria
Think about all those stories which have been omitted or overlooked;
about all the people who has been killed or oppressed;
about all the lands that have been damaged or destroyed;
or about all the cultures which have been deprived or displaced
Still in contemporary societies, the legacy of colonial domination is a persistent condition for the distribution of movement and labour as well as for the configuration of relationships. Coloniality is like oil; once it has impregnated a surface, it is very arduous to take it out. The sociologist Anibal Quijano introduced the concept “coloniality of power” to designate this system of hierarchies, structures and forms of knowledge produced during the period of European colonialism and perpetuated during our times >1. In fact, Quijano traces back racial discrimination with the colonisation of America, a historical process that involved the constitution of a new model of power. This new model, based on domination and discrimination, unfolded through two main branches which were bonded to each other: “the codification of the differences between conquerors and conquered in the idea of race” and “the constitution of a new structure of control of labour and its resources and products” or what we know today as Eurocentric Capitalism >2.
Now coloniality operates crossways, not only by shaping patterns of productivity based on geographical domination but also by engendering and imposing forms of subjectivity according to its taxonomies. This second marker designates how societies must perform in order to sustain this model of power. Colonial power and thought, therefore, also inhabit in our values, judgements and behaviours. On this vein, Walter Mignolo defines the colonisation of the aesthesis as an imposed perceptive and sensitive experience of visual representations which rejects all those artistic or cultural expressions that do not achieve the Western ideal of beauty >3. This modern condition, moreover, has prevailed in artistic institutions, where erosion of cultural heritage has been supported. Indeed, one must recall that museums were the sacred temples of modernity: those almost untouchable entities of Western’s high culture.
lthough during the last decades there has been a shift in the way museums disseminate knowledge to their audiences through art, they still need to work towards a transversal model of inclusivity that encompasses a process of decolonisation >4. As I highlighted in the first paragraph, to eradicate this colonial model of power is a challenging project. However, it is a project that has already started and so it is an irrefutable necessity to act collectively in order to identify and erase the policies, taxonomies and behaviours that still today promote racial discrimination. In particular, art institutions, which also have an educational role within contemporary societies, need to make visible this decolonial project not only through the restructuration of their hierarchies but also in their programmes and activities. More specifically, I believe that curators, as mediators between audiences, artists, art collections, and museums, have a key role in this pathway by investigating and exposing the means and practices that can eventually uproot this colonial presence. But how can we embrace decolonisation through curatorial practice?
Does this make you uncomfortable?
One month before the pandemic hit worldwide, I visited Daniela Ortiz’s anthology “Esta tierra jamás será fertil por haber parido colonos” at La Virreina Centre d’Imatge in Barcelona, Spain >5. Some weeks before, I heard from a friend that a girl got offended by some comments the artist made during an exhibition tour, so I decided to go by myself on the 6th of February. The exhibition was an extensive exploration of 31 projects that Ortiz has produced during the last decade, a period in which she has experienced in first person the condition of being a migrant in Spain. Among these years, the artist has explicitly denounced the sustained colonial violence in the country, enforced through a wide range of governmental policies as well as social behaviours and rituals. Working across performative practices, sculpture, text and video, Ortiz has critically approached themes such as the abuse of migration laws or the celebration of the Día de la Hispanidad (also known by Hispanic Heritage Day) each 12th of October, among others.
What I found particularly interesting from this exhibition in relation to decolonial processes within artistic institutions was the way Ortiz confronted the audience during the exhibition visit. Even though all her visual projects depicted a strong political nature linked to the coloniality of power, she also performed a brilliant exercise of collective consciousness. Over a two hours tour, she uncovered firmly the intrinsic privileges that the vast majority of the audience had because of their whiteness and Spanish nationality. When entering the first room, for instance, one could see the phrase “ESPAÑOLA, BLANCA Y DE CLASE MEDIA” >6 printed in vinyl in one of the back walls, which was exhibited on a feminist show that took place in Ca la Dona in 2009. For this show, hosted within FEM ART 09 Festival, the artist had originally presented the sentence “ES DE PUTA MADRE SER MUJER”, which was used for the exhibition’s campaign >7. After the invitation cards were printed, Ortiz decided to change her slogan for “ESPAÑOLA, BLANCA Y DE CLASE MEDIA” as an act of dissent addressed to all those white, Spanish and middle-class feminists that promote a Eurocentric feminism. Ironically, this shift was not well accepted by Ca la Dona’s exhibition committee, therefore, the artist used their negative response as a starting point to her anthology tour in La Virreina Centre d’Imatge. Emphasising that this was not an isolated event that she had experienced over her artistic career, Ortiz questioned the type of feminism that is usually advocated by white, Spanish and middle-class women: a feminism that is constitutionally excluding for racialised and migrant women. Going back to this particular case, the artist asked then rhetorically to all white and Spanish females who assisted her tour if they considered themselves feminists. Personally, I understood this very first approach of the artist as a challenge to our colonial vision of feminism. Because although women have been historically displaced, there is a reality that is also frequently dismissed: the double discrimination that face racialised women, both because of their race and genre.
In this regard, there is a close connection between Daniela Ortiz’s practice and Walter Mignolo’s outlook to aesthetic, political and philosophical radicalism. Mignolo outlines that those artistic practices that unfold through this kind of radicalism have the ability to reach a decolonisation of the imperial aesthesis >8. Indeed, he understands these artistic projects as mechanisms to dragg the spectator towards a likely uncomfortable position, but in which one might be able to face directly the personal privileges and discriminatory gestures that are commonly disregarded. Mignolo believes that it is from within this inconvenient standpoint that unlearning processes can flourish, thus opening up a space for disarming Western and colonial identifications and conformations >9. Now, looking back to Daniela Ortiz’s exhibition tour, one can relate the questions and statements that she brought out to her audience with this attempt to create awareness on the labels that colonialism has consolidated for its convenience. It is no coincidence then that Ortiz’s critical actions and political positioning have put her recently in the spotlight. Having lived for more than 13 years in Spain, on August this year, the artist had to leave the country very promptly because of an incessant campaign of hate towards her person. After her participation in a national TV programme, in which she defended the need to tear down all public monuments that enhance colonial and racist symbology, the verbal abuse received through social media increased notably. Though she was used to these kinds of attacks because of her polemical activity, the situation was intensified by death threats and physical assaults, a moment in which she was forced to migrate to Peru for her safety. Sadly, this event is just another exemplification of the ongoing Colonial violence. However, it is undoubtably a call for social action; in order to dismantle these discriminatory and oppressive attitudes that have prevailed since the historical period of Colonisation.
Embodying oral history
Daniela Ortiz’s artistic practice has revealed that personal histories and experiences coming from those who have been marginalised are certainly powerful tools to defy colonial structures and bring to light its inalienable violence. This oppressive nature is actually visible in written history, which has favoured a steady suppression of cultural and historical heritage of the marginalised areas of the world. In point of fact, Western museums and artistic institutions, that have been codified under the colonial model of power, have endured this absence by consolidating the hegemonic discourse of written history. This tendency is now to be redirected, although there is a stubborn impermeable layer that withstands the entrance of decolonial views and aesthetics within exhibitions. The curator Sumesh Sharma proposes an interesting approach to exhibition-making inspired by syncretism, a concept that alludes to the mix of beliefs, religions, cultures and schools of thought >10. Sharma asserts that this method “would ensure that curators do not succumb to representation based on loose understanding of identity politics, but rather invest time in the practice of artists to unravel the layers of complexities that syncretism proposes” >11. Likewise, Sharma highlights that this approach to exhibition-making would rather be based in making visible the work of migrant artists whose practices unleash though their personal histories and not in commodifying colonisation as a theme in exhibitions, a tendency that has been prevalent within the museum arena >12.
In November 2019, the L&B Gallery (Barcelona, Spain) presented the work of the South African artist Lhola Amira in the exhibition “Ditaola. Divining Bones”, curated by Mariella Franzoni >13. This proposal featured diverse photographs and three short films that were the result of “Presence”, a long-term project through which the artist has illustrated her ongoing journey to explore the traumas of European colonialism. The three films: Looking For Ghana & The Red Suitcase (2017), LAGOM; Breaking Bread With The Self-Righteous (2017) and SINKING: Xa Siqamla Unxbo (2018) trace Amira’s spiritual navigation in different landscapes that evoke scenes and traces of the violence caused by colonialism >14. While the first short film shows the artist walking and mapping the streets of Ghana, the first African country that became independent from European Colonisation, the second film is relocated in Sweden, a country that had a key role in the distribution of colonies. Even though each film depicts a particular exploration of the historical wounds of Colonialism, the three pieces intertwine with each other by showcasing the artist’s poetical and ancestral approach when reflecting upon the search for emancipation >15. Moreover, Lhola Amira explicitly clarified that she understood this project as a healing process; as an attempt to rediscover a decolonial Africa in a contemporary context, even if it has been historically impregnated with colonial power >16. In an interview, the artist described this experience as such:
“Africa as we know it now is still seen and experienced through a colonial lens. There are colonial monuments everywhere, and by this I mean infrastructure, churches, street names, town planning, etc. To rediscover Africa would mean to deconstruct the colonial experience as the only narrative from which we trace ourselves, but at the same time being aware that there is no other Africa to return to. This is what Africa is. Essentially, to rediscover it means to deconstruct it by admitting that this contemporary moment is what decolonised Africa actually is” >17
Amira’s practice, therefore, reinforces the power of oral history within exhibitions as a means to promote decolonial perspectives. Whilst written history has predominantly been narrated by conquerors, oral history emerges now as a potential instrument to both reconstruct and reclaim what has been omitted and marginalised.
Now that we are here
Along this text, I have revisited diverse approaches and practices that enact decolonial processes within the exhibition space. However, a conundrum surfaces in relation to the Eurocentric privileges that still persist in different artistic scenarios. My main point here is that unravelling this colonial presence through exhibition-making is a long and ongoing project that starts by re-educating ourselves. From a curatorial lens, this can only happen if we invest time in unlearning and deconstructing colonial subjectivities, either through mapping carefully the behaviours and codes that strengthen this model of power or by paying attention to the voices of the unheard.
On the one hand, Daniela Ortiz’s tour in her exhibition “Esta tierra jamás será fertil por haber parido colonos” put into evidence that one way to generate awareness around the coloniality of power is through a position of forced discomfort. This approach towards the spectator within an exhibition not only brings to light the comfort zones in which the white privileged inhabit but potentially displaces the audience from them. On the other hand, Lhola Amira’s exhibition at L&B Gallery exemplifies the importance to give voice to racialised artists, who through their narrations also confront the audience by bringing forward the scope of coloniality. However, despite coming from different backgrounds, these two artists have a common point in using their personal testimony and ancestral experiences as a departure point to their practices. Within artistic institutions, therefore, this oral history coming from artists from racialised and migrant backgrounds remains fundamental to sustain and perform a decolonial curatorial practice crossways. As the visual artist and activist Jakob Jackobsen stated in his on-conversation with María Berríos about a collaborative project for 1968 Cultural Congress of Havana: “the approach of oral histories, just speaking to people and getting personal testimonies, was quite important in our process, also as a critique of official history writing” >18. So maybe, it is time to start listening.