The importance of curatorial practice in a decolonial perspective of black women
As scientific practices of knowledge in the field of the arts lend legitimacy to standards of beauty – deciding who deserves and who does not deserve to be seen - as well as notions of truth and falsehoods, it is important to understand and question which bodies and geographical regions western art history considers and what limits and categories it imposes. This text aims to spark reflection on the need to think about other aesthetic parameters and ethical codes for racially-determined, vulnerable and dissident bodies. So, based on our own experience, we propose what we are calling a curatorial practice from the perspective of black women. One that takes into account other perspectives of knowledge, developing discourse of these perspectives within the aesthetic field but also establishing an ethical code in institutional structures. Because curatorship holds a strategic position within the system of culture and art, the text calls for reflection on the experience of three curatorial projects: the exhibition Diálogos Ausentes (2016/2017), the AfroTranscendence programme (2015 -) and “Não me aguarde na retina” for the Valongo International Festival of Image (2018).
I see from this perspective,
The principal challenge in setting up a curatorial practice, in perspective, is the understanding that what we are doing is political.
I see from this perspective,
Curatorship, as an activity that mobilises a number of different narratives in setting up totality, is not only at the service of artistic design, but is first and foremost the chance to develop a discourse, particularly with the institutional structures that we believe to be our primary public and which take priority over external audiences.
Based on these observations, the objective of this text is to provoke a reflection on what has come to be called “a curatorial practice in a decolonial perspective”. This takes into account other perspectives of knowledge, presents their discourse in the aesthetic field but also establishes an ethical viewpoint in institutional structures.
As scientific practices of knowledge in the field of the arts lend legitimacy to standards of beauty – deciding who deserves and who does not deserve to be seen – as well as notions of truth and falsehoods, it is important to understand and question which bodies and geographical regions western art history considers and what limits and categories it imposes. This text aims to spark reflection on the need to think about other aesthetic parameters and ethical codes for racially-determined, vulnerable and dissident bodies. So, based on our own experience, we propose what we are calling a curatorial practice from the perspective of black women.
Black feminism in Latin American and in the United States provides us with the foundations for discussing these other perspectives of knowledge. Djamila Ribeiro presents the thinking of feminist Lélia Gonzalez in her criticism of the ranking of knowledge, as a product of racial classification of the population in an equation that shows us who holds social privilege and epistemic privilege, the valued, universal model of science being white.22. Djamila Ribeiro, O Que É Lugar de Fala? (Belo Horizonte: Letramento, 2017): 24.
In the field of the arts, to decolonise knowledge is to refute the very standards and values that, based on this hegemonic principle of a western universality, determine notions of beauty and therefore of that which deserves to be validated (systems of truth) and to be seen (systems of visibility).
The fields of aesthetics and of images have been fundamental and have provided the structure for us to understand how the modern western project of knowledge and governance has propagated the idea of race. Subordinating values, which are moulded as discourse in the institutions that create, organise and disseminate visual culture, are present in art objects and in the media. At the level of expression and of content, this confirms the superiority of whiteness and the status of the black person as a racially-determined body.
This crisis of alterity, established through stereotypical politics, is part of a colonising discourse within which, an entire system of representation is propagated through images, paintings, newspapers, advertising, maps and books. When this crystallizes, it forms a map of differences. These are the visual constructions and the studies of visuality – as communications processes – that build a game of truth-making discourses that create effects of truth concerning a set of beliefs about others.
Based on this knowledge, the production of culture and of art is founded on a collection of knowledge that is interwoven with power relations and rules of visibility and truth. So, practice in perspective presents as a challenge, the fight against the devaluation, denial and concealment of contributions from other sources of knowledge and epistemologies. Moreover, it fosters the production of artistic and cultural knowledge that are fundamental in ensuring human dignity. In this way, it tries to guarantee the visibility, the right to difference and the freedom of expression and experimentation of artists, thinkers, activists, educators and curators who also work in perspective, crisscrossing urgent contemporary political issues like gender, class, race and others. Finally, it proposes the fight against structural racism in the artistic and cultural institutions that are perceived to create systems of control and to restrict opportunities, making work relations insecure for racially-determined, and/or dissident bodies.
From the strategic position of curatorship within the system of culture and art, it is possible to see how power relations are organised in both the field of aesthetics and also at the institutional level. When we take into account that there are very few black women curators, we see that we are talking about a curatorial practice that, as well as providing a framework of the contemporary and ancestral knowledge of the cultures of the African diaspora, is created through lived experience. Knowledge is incorporated in experience itself, rooted in that which our presence provokes in places of power. This is what we call “performing discourse” and is similar to the Afro-American feminist bel hooks’ definition of what it is to be a female intellectual: a woman who unites thought and practice in order to understand actual reality.
We can, therefore, talk, from the feminist standpoint of Djamila Ribeiro and Patricia Hill Collins, about a concept of a place of discussion. They show us that the place in society that an individual occupies determines his/her access to particular spaces:
Not being able to access certain spaces leads to not having production and epistemologies of these groups in these spaces. Not being placed fairly in universities, communications channels and institutional politics, for example, makes it impossible for the voices of individuals from these groups to be catalogued and heard, including in the case of people who have more access to internet. Speech is not restricted to the act of forming words, but is also about being able to exist. We think of a place of speech as refuting traditional historiography and the ranking of knowledge, which arise from social hierarchy.33. Ribeiro, O Que É Lugar de Fala?, 64.
This perspective takes into account the point of view and the place of speech of those who suffer from violence and invisibility, in life, in work relations and in the field of art; spaces where the visual narratives and constructions of images that define our world compete.
It is important to stress that curatorship from the decolonial perspective of black women does not rank oppression. Adopting a broader point of view, it positions itself intersectionally, considering other places of speech. Ousting, disorganising and transcending white, masculine, cisgender, heteronormative and phallocentric authorisation and envisioning in the ruins the destructuring of the system of oppression, subordination and power which has been reduced to the figure of the white male curator. In the words of Ribeiro:
theory from the feminist standpoint and place of speech leads us to refute a universal vision of women and of blackness and other identities. It also means that white men, who consider themselves to be universal and racialise themselves, understand what it means to be white as a metaphor of power, as Kilomba teaches us. Thus, it also intends to refute the pretention of universality. By promoting a multitude of voices, the predominant wish is to break away from an authorised, single discourse that has the pretension of universality. Above all, it seeks to fight to break the regime of discursive authorisation.44. Ibid., 70
As an example of the curatorial practice from this perspective, I would like to propose a reflection on the experience of three projects. The first of these happened in 2016 and 2017 and was called “Diálogos Ausentes” (Absent Dialogues). This programme took place over a period of one and a half years at Itaú Cultural. It followed the protests that occurred in May 2015, due to the use of blackface55. Make-up worn by non-black people. This has been a well-known and recurring resource in the history of drama to represent, characterise and reinforce the racial stereotypes attributed to black people. in the theatre play A Mulher do Trem, also at Itaú Cultural. The event had intense repercussion on the internet and in the media and caused the institution to review the racial structure of its production methods, generating the first Afro-Brazilian action to be held in the 30 years of the institution and the first curatorship carried out by two black women.
The objective of Diálogos Ausentes was to discuss the presence of black men and women in the visual arts, cinema, theatre, dance, literature and music, by means of 18 encounters. These took place at the end of 2016, in Itaú Cultural, in São Paulo and in 2017, in a new montage in the Bela Maré area of Rio de Janeiro. I was the curator of this exhibition, together with the artist Rosana Paulino. I also developed a six-month programme at Itaú Cultural, focused on racial awareness that I called “A.gentes – Um programa de não-ficção artístico-científico para conscientização racial e descolonização do pensamento” (A.people – a programme of non-fiction artistic science for racial awareness and decolonisation of thought). It was held over six months in the Ibirapuera Auditorium and was made up of between approximately 20 and 25 collaborators from all sectors of the institution.
At the time, and as part of the actions of Diálogos, I wrote the text “Diálogos Ausentes e a Curadoria como Ferramenta de Invisibilização das Práticas Artísticas Contemporâneas Afro-Brasileiras”66. This text is available from: Diane Lima, “Diálogos Ausentes e a Curadoria como Ferramenta de Invisibilização das Práticas Artísticas Contemporâneas Afro-Brasileiras.” Itaú Cultural, 2016, accessed May 2016, http://d3nv1jy4u7zmsc.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/di%C3%A1logosausentes_dianelima-rev_02.pdf. (Absent Dialogues and Curatorship as a Tool for Rendering Invisible Contemporary Afro-Brazilian Artistic Practices). I discussed how curatorship was at the service of a colonising project, which has been defining the continuous quashing of the cultural production of Afro-descendants, through their marginalisation and by rendering them invisible, the parameter of which is values that are rooted at the heart of the production of the intellectual knowledge of institutions.
I believe that Diálogos was an important moment in understanding what we now call the curatorial practice in a decolonial perspective, as it presented the opportunity to try out solutions around aesthetics and ethics and broadened understanding about the figure of the curator.
The second project I would like to share is called “AfroTranscendence” or “AfroT”.77. For further information on the project see: “AfroTranscendence,” NOBRASIL, 2017, accessed December 7, 2018, http://nobrasil.co/afrotranscendence. I created this project in 2015. It started out as an immersion project in creative processes for promoting contemporary Afro-Brazilian culture. It was pioneering because it led to law 10.639/2003, which made the teaching of Afro-Brazilian and African history and culture obligatory in the domain of the arts. During the first week of “AfroT” 20 artists from all over Brazil participated in a programme made up of talks, laboratories and workshops with a number of specialists from Brazil and from around the world. At the end of the research experiment, the result was presented to the public at an evening event to celebrate and nurture epistemologies and artistic practices of the African diaspora through activities, exhibitions, presentations, readings and performances.
Nowadays, “AfroTranscendence” appears as a concept and practice for creating space-time: time as a unit linked to a historical review, traumas of colony and epistemicide, joining knowledge and technology, ancestral legacy, vital energy, spirituality, critical thought and the production of knowledge; space as the processes of creation and collective learning, of methodological experimentation, rites and passages to connect memories, of exchanges, of emotions and crossroads, of expanded consciousness and of exercises of imagination, production of meaning, ruptures and future projection.
Thus, I see “AfroT” as an experience that has made it possible to exercise the decolonial perspective in the field of production of knowledge and education, not as a project that discusses these issues as themes, but primarily, performs them, allowing ancestral and contemporary knowledge about the cultures of the African diaspora to be brought together and to be available as a creative reference. Knowledge, then, is produced at the same time as it fights devaluation, denial and the concealment of our epistemological contributions (epistemicide) that find no place in history and in the system of art as we know it.
Finally, I would like to present my most recent curatorial project called Não me aguarde na retina (Don’t Wait for Me in the Retina), the title at the Valongo International Festival of Image,88. To find out more about the programme, photos, videos and curatorial texts, see Valongo, Homepage, 2018, accessed December 7, 2018, https://valongo.com; or VALONGO (@valongofestival), 2018, instagram/valongofestival. a contemporary art festival, the fourth edition of which will take place in 2019. It was held in October 2018 in the port district of Santos, in Sao Paulo state. The reason why this project is presented in more detail is because it managed to cover some of the principal challenges that we raise when we consider curatorship in the decolonial perspective. For this reason we consider it to be a good case study and reference.
In its landscapes, Santos, and especially the Valongo district, has distinct temporal layers (human and non-human), revealing a complex map of contexts, situations and narratives, which are currently of particular importance: historical amnesia, ports of passage, uprisings of the diaspora, crossings, migratory flow and different settlements. This territorial complexity defined the outline of the research. The first step was to develop a vocabulary that would capture our concerns. Instead of words, it focused on the act of occupying and revitalising. For example, we came to cohabit and dialogue with its ruins, monuments, historical buildings, churches, museums, squares and streets.
In an architectural setting composed of many layers of time, the Valongo exhibitions and the entire programme, dialogued with both the monumentality and the precarity that the spaces presented. It was put together by women. There were more than 50 artists and six exhibitions in the port district, with nine commissioned projects and 31 projects selected in three different public tenders, of different types. They presented, for example, solutions to important diagnoses at the research stage, like the need to think about specific calls for projects to foster artistic production in the Santos region, and from an aesthetic point of view, the need to think about the relationship between performance, fiction and photography. Important names from the international scene were involved, like the individual exhibitions of the Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda and Emmanuelle Andrianjafy from Madagascar. The edition also had its first residential programme with five guest artists, as well as activities that preceded the event. Performances, film showings, parties with singers like Xênia França and Rico Dalasam, book launches and another 20 educational activities such as workshops, seminars and debates give an idea of the size of the festival.
Also worth mentioning was the exhibition ZUMVI – A gente se ascende é nos outros (ZUMVI we ascend through others). This was Zumvi’s first exhibition outside Bahia and showed a collection of photographic images created in 1980 that narrates over 30 years of an important history of struggles of resistance of the black movements in Bahia and in Brazil.
So, as well as seeing through different eyes, from a different perspective and point of view Não me aguarde na retina also invited the public to see with all their senses, bringing an expanded concept to the understanding of visual culture, no longer limited to photography (a Valongo tradition), but opening up to other areas of expression and artistic languages – sound, cinema, audiovisuals, body, scenery and words.
It is impossible to think about the politics of exhibiting another person’s work without taking into consideration how the normatisation of the museological practice or of the ethics of exhibitions is directly conditioned to produce difference. This fact is related to overseas domination, the expansion of ethnography as a discipline, collectionism, and, consequently to an idea of universality developed as a colonial science at the heart of modern life.
If we consider that this a curatorial practice in perspective, we can challenge ourselves to understand that some of the studies in decolonialism are not centred around seeking the end of colonialism, but rather an end to the point of view from which colonialism makes sense. For this reason, we reserve the right to refuse that which is offered to us or that is expected of us and this provides us here with a potent life strategy.
When Valongo posed us the question “What can a festival do?”, we responded with a question about what it could be if relationships with the public, personal and private realm were conducted in perspective. By incorporating a large part of the negotiations and interactions throughout the process, our doubts and observations became the thing itself and the effect in the world, its diagnosis. As we will see, the empirical practice considered absences and effects of the presence itself as detonators of a knowledge that stemmed from a lived experience and these were the platforms that sustained most of the exhibition and educational guidelines and choices of the festival.
In this small corner of the world, once again, it was necessary to destroy in order to create. Being a representation of the difficulties found in our social fabric, the conditions of creation stem from the moment when a latent epistemological crisis meets with the traumas from which the power relations impregnated in the figure of curatorship emerge. When it is necessary to dismantle differences between hierarchy and the exercise of power, the perspective reveals the precariousness of the working system, destruction as a condition of structuring and corruption as a practice of domination in order to install a monoculture in the very system of the production of national culture.
It was fundamental then, to understand whether we would be able to produce internal tools of dialogue and listening and whether we would have the capacity to develop a sensitive layer of understanding, which would at least mean our collective bodies would be able to see how these invisible layers emerge in our daily choices.
In this sense, we believe that the success of Não me aguarde na retina, came about first and foremost in its ruins, even before the reviews and interaction with the public; in its ability to go all the way, with vitality and to be a means to discuss relations; in its capacity for resilience and the demolition, that the idea of the festival made possible, this being our principal route to bringing about its creation.
So, as open as we may be to infinite possibilities of approach, discourse and character development, the object does not shift from our own condition as subject. The question is how it affects you, how your position in the world creates another point of view about it and principally how it is able to change our field of desire.
Celebrating the meaning of a festival, another issue that guided us throughout the creative process of Não me aguarde na retina was the questioning about what images can achieve in the politics of encounter, between what we are and what we become when we allow ourselves to be affected by the intrinsic capacity of aesthetics in aesthetic experiences. These issues refer to the political function of images as well as, principally, to understanding of their sensitive presence as a condition that is able to affect us, move us and make us feel what someone else is feeling. In this sense Não me aguarde na retina discusses the strategies offered by images to widen our ability to see and, therefore, to feel.
Given the human faculty of making sense of the world, it is in the act of articulating that we are able to express ourselves in the midst of systems of representation that generate a sense of belonging, produce knowledge and establish relationships of autonomy and power. This is a force field where we fight for the chance to create discourses about me, us and the world. The importance that artistic practices offer to a festival of image appears to us to be the ability to introduce ruptures and fractures into our automated daily lives.
We live in an age where the process of fragmentation is happening on a planetary scale. We are witnessing political collapse, the apex of the unravelling of the social body, an expansion of totalitarian regimes in the Americas and an absence of common experience. The optic games of the world of images is the place where alternating between creation and destruction become potent strategies of resistance and also the scenario for contradictions.
In the midst of the crisis of the logics of representation, we must see that, although political bodies have been historically subordinated along with their perspectives, place of speech and ways of being in the world, they are also broadening their presence. However, at the same time, they are also being imposed upon by transnationally updated versions of systems of control and domination.
Our responsibility as the curatorial team was to reveal obscenities, rigid shams and processes of extreme violence of stereotypes and to shed light on the somatic dimension that these acts of violence produce and that, as we see, are not exclusively limited to condemnation, but appear more broadly in the form of an enunciation.
If the place of condemnation and the relationship of art versus politics has been fundamental for social movements, what are the effects that these procedures have had, bearing in mind the neoliberal systems of earning that exist around identity politics? In Brazil issues surrounding decolonialisation are still led by the logic of representation, whether in the visual arts, theatre, dance or in documentary photography, so how can the structures of racialisation that limit and objectify our practices and singularity as individuals, be broken? What are the effects of these processes and what can both help us to understand about the underlying proposal of Não me aguarde na retina and the curatorial practice in perspective?
If we make a brief diversion into the historiography, we see that over time artistic practices have been found at the crossroads of the resistance, by means of body memory and different uses of language. Although iconography and national history have been the advocates of a wide variety of mythologies and of black Brazilians’ presence being quashed – like, for example, the myth of racial democracy and the theory of whitening – this was at the expense of many uprisings, quilombagens and rebellions that also mark history. Quoting Gates, Leda Maria Martins emphasises that the Africans who crossed the Atlantic Ocean did not travel or suffer alone. She says:
[…] with our ancestors came their divinities, their particular ways and different views of the world, their linguistic, ethnic, technical, religious and cultural alterity, their different forms of social organisation and of symbolising reality.1111. Leda Maria Martins, Afrografias da Memória: O Reinado do Rosário do Jatobá (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1997): 26.
They brought their own bodies as their central form of expression and it was through interaction and making sense that black people created possible strategies of ways of managing themselves, employing the precarious structures of the architecture that held them captive to affirm their identity and their condition as subjects. These files and repertoires of oral memory, that unfold over infinite generations,
[…] are micro-systems that leak, crack and reorganise the cultural fabric and Brazilian symbolism in an African and ‘agrafa’[language without script] way, keeping alive the possibility of other forms of verdict and perception of reality that dialogue, not always in a friendly way, with forms and models that are favoured by the West.1212. Ibid., 35.
It was a relationship with time and ancestry that allowed not only the physical survival of black people during slavery, but also kept alive the apparatus of philosophy and identity that form African personality.
Presenting Exu as a dynamic principle of individualisation and simultaneously of communication and interpretation in order to make a metaphor of the semiotic crossroads of black cultures in the Americas, Leda Maria Martins helps us understand the use of language and the effect it has on the contemporary world.
The author points out that the consequence of the notably dialogic function of black arts was “the elaboration of discursive formations and behaviour of double reference that establish an inter-textual and inter-cultural dialogue at different levels.”1414. Ibid. In this culture of appearances, that happens in two fundamental dimensions – secrecy and struggle – an African ethos was forged, that plays with the ambiguities of the system, acting in the gaps of ideological coherence.
In the face of a system of oppression and captivity, the life force found a way to act undercover and to organise forms of coded communication to resist the violence, to express feelings and to create tactics of uprising and rebellion. This is the root of samba, capoeira, reinados, drumming, mythical-religious systems, dance, folguedo, the brincadeiras and a whole rich cultural system that is constantly and diversely being updated in contemporary life.
In the 19th and 20th centuries a number of phenomena were integrated in an important phase of construction and internationalisation of the black movements, as a new effect of meaning started to reverberate, by means of a conscious act of enunciation (articulation). This no longer took place in an inter-black communicational interaction, mocambagem, but was instead directly speaking about, condemning and exposing the socio-political conditions of the time, as can be seen in the statement of the black Sociologist W.E.B Du Bois, on the relationship between art and propaganda:
Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.1515. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” The Crisis, no. 32 (1926): 324
In these maritime currents, movements like the Pan-Africanism of Du Bois and Garvey, “Harlem Renaissance” (1920) and “The New Negro Movement” (1933) in the United States and the surrealist negritude project of Césaire, Damas and Senghor (1930s) are pivotal to comprehension of what we understand about an instrumental perspective of art and about how this has changed, particularly among the new generations, in an important strategy of expression and communication. If today we start from a place of awareness of how important these tools of affirmation were and still are, we can also observe that many of these reiterations not only take away the freedom to create, but also limit us and trap us in the depths of raciality. In this way, they impede the broadening of our subjective experiences and the strengthening of our specific, singular individuality. We are different although we all come under the aegis of collectivity and “us”.
Therefore, the criticism that curatorship in perspective reveals is not the denial of these procedures. In fact, what it brings is the possibility to think of new forms of self-definition that are able to express the complexity of our bodies, crisscrossing agendas and taking into consideration our own desires beyond the laws of raciality.
With these issues in mind, what made us so happy in Não me aguarde na retina was the exercise of language and the search to understand the density of relationships. Bodies in perspective at the height of the reinvention of certain practices of self-definition, announce a world in which they are no longer dependent on others, but instead make their own mark, exercising their unique, anti-themed expression, although never losing sight of the decades of condemnation that has been led by other bodies and social activism.
Movements that alternate between announcing and condemning, further singularise a desire to perform the perspective of those who articulated the festival. At Valongo 2018, there were no themes, categories or sub-divisions. Like a live organism, it pulsated like a great manifestation bringing together effects, diagnoses, observations, questions and references. Issues arose out of the broadening of perspectives and out of the effect of this being present and immersed in curatorial practices in cultural management and in the production of knowledge.
The retina is the screen that is responsible for forming images and for the sense of sight. We project what we see onto the retina and through visual perception and other senses, we are able to process, understand and interpret our surroundings by means of the cognitive stimuli that we receive.
Thus, Não me aguarde na retina is like an electrical current, a declaration and a positioning that invites us to broaden our field of vision, to appropriate pressure and vibrations, feel frequencies and essences and free ourselves of what we know to be good and bad taste.
[here] the black man says of himself that he is not understood; he is not where he was said to be and certainly not where we looked for him, instead he is in a place nobody thought of.1616. Achille Mbembe, Crítica da Razão Negra (Lisboa: Antígona, 2014): 59.