On Friday night, I sat in a powerful digital holding space online, a poetry event called ‘Break into the Forbidden’ organised by Ignota Books. Over five hundred people came together across time zones and data networks to co-witness expressions of grief and “cosmic rage” by poets of colour. Each of the eleven featured poets intervened with different moods. Most turned up live from their homes, one poet joined from his phone in the forest, two produced video interventions. M. NourbeSe Philip explained in her video that she would not show herself because, “I feel like a piece of frayed fabric.” Many co-signed with this feeling, nodding and supporting in the message board. This was a moment for slowing down. To take mindful breaths. To realign with matters of care. To quietly mourn the wasteful loss of Black life, and to contemplate pathways of recovery from another vile erosion of humanity.
I have been looking to art for ways to describe the indescribable, and during these last few months the funereal works of Doris Salcedo have regularly come to my mind. In particular, her installation Shibboleth, shown at the Tate Modern in London in 2007. Aesthetically, the Columbian sculptor engineered a chasm in the gallery’s industrial Turbine Hall: a rupture in the concrete floor beginning with a light crack at the entrance, and growing in depth and severity over the course of 167 metres. Conceptually, the work was a layered intervention, calling the politics of immigration and racialisation into the museum. In a 2016 interview at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, the artist described it as,“an irrational event crossing through a rationalist building. Its appearance disturbs the museum in the same manner the immigrant disturbs the consensus and homogeneity of European societies.”
Salcedo’s crack materialises the effects of a profound structural trauma, an event that signifies displacement, wounding, division, loss of integrity, and a border too difficult to cross. The artwork’s title, Shibboleth, is a word that refers to longstanding customs or practices that distinguish a particular group; shibboleth are insider behaviours. Salcedo’s breaking of the ground (institutional and historical) produced a “negative space” of “bottomless difference” as an index for the colonial racial project,an inheritance that has acquired force, speed, and density as it continues to be renewed. Viewers of the artwork naturally followed its path from beginning to end, as it literally pulled the gallery space open. The scale of Salcedo’s work also gave an embodied sense of what is at stake and how profound the effects of the rupture are. To this day, the intervention remains a scar on the gallery’s entrance floor, years after being filled in.
Shibboleth helps us to understand racism as a structure of white supremacy that enacts violence and simultaneously creates the conditions for its reproduction. Translated in the current situation, this means that the breach in social contract which brought about George Floyd’s brutal lynching, also allowed for the desecration of his last moments of life, the severing of his family and relationships, the invasion of his privacy, the appropriation of his (black body) image, and the forced removal of his right to choose as a citizen subject. Racist violence begets more racist violence. The first task of repair therefore, must be to understand what precisely we are dealing with, to reckon with anti-blackness as a reality, and then to understand how racism has colonised our humanity. I think that if we understand racism as extractive (that it only takes/steals/bereaves), then we can accept anti-racism must be an embodied, generous, and loving praxis.
In response to witnessing repeated and senseless Black death online and in the news, international businesses and cultural institutions have embarked on a strategy of political communication (with a small “p”), showing their solidarity with messages of equality and social justice and showcasing Black talent. In the US in particular, museums, tech giants, banks, sports companies, as well as numerous fashion companies, have all stated their alignment with Black Lives Matter, often including lengthy statements from directors and CEOs, highlighting their good works and reinforcing a commitment to change. There appears to be a concerted effort to manage the crisis of faith in structures, and in the overwhelmingly white and male leadership running these structures. However, all these attempts to quell discontent and speak empathy are only a temporary fix for what is a constitutional problem. By this, I mean the inherent nature of these places of cultural work, economy, and influence. As decolonial scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang so eloquently summarise in their paper, “Unbecoming Claims: Pedagogies of Refusal in Qualitative Research,” the deeper questions are not just representational, but concern a redistribution of power: “Who gets to know? Who gets known? Where is knowledge kept, and kept legitimized? What knowledge is desirable? Who profits? Who loses/pays/gives something away? Who is coerced, empowered, appointed to give away knowledge?”
Altering structures is profound, paradigm shifting work. Salcedo reminds us that it will require shock, break, rupture, schism; also, deep accountability. Frantz Fanon said the same thing in the 1960s. He described decolonization as “a program of complete disorder” that “never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally.”
In a Nordic context, the question is if and how the art community will process recent events; if it will look/move courageously towards these issues and thoroughly investigate local entanglements with (and manifestations of) racist logics, or if the sector will maintain a recurring attitude that racism is an American problem with no effect on arts policies, practices, and relationships. For now, things seem to be business as usual in the Nordics, although a few art spaces joined “Blackout Tuesday” by posting a black square on social media. The burden of representation has been on artists and activists in major cities (like Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Malmö) taking the issues and pain into the streets. Vulnerable bodies taking risks to foment change here, where they stand.
In 2018, Migration Memory Encounters (MME) hosted a day of African Diasporic Talks at Malmö Konsthall. The MME is a decolonial platform for dialogue, which I am part of, and the topic of the conversations were “Blackness, beauty, and states of Being.” One panel chaired by artist Sarah Nakiito (of Systeria Art Collective) was focused on Afro-Swedish artists and their experiences in the art world. Cecilia Germain, Fatima Moallim, and Makda Embaie came together across generations to discuss different strategies for producing authentic work and gaining professional recognition in an art scene that is insular, hierarchical, and almost exclusively white on the level of decision-making and leadership. They described the challenges of finding critically-minded professors in art school who were willing to see their work beyond the lens of biography, and similarly expressed frustrations with the higher levels of justification required to legitimise their practices. They detailed everyday examples of situations where they needed to “become the teacher” in classrooms around issues of race or colonialism (often as a lone voice). The affective labour involved in defending their right to exist in a white space naturally took its toll. They did not offer a language for it, but they were describing what has been called “Racial Battle Fatigue.”
Other structural problems were discussed together with the artists and audience: “the burden of representation”; “double labour”; “politics of gratitude”; “protection strategies” from literal and symbolic violence; “dependency” on sporadic funding and a few friendly white allies; and “being the alibi” for institutions wanting to appear more inclusive. Cecilia Germain, an established artist with a powerful performance-based practice, also reflected on the ways in which art and aesthetics were “colonised by modernism,” which produced scenarios where the artistic values in Black art were regularly questioned. Rarely were the panelists called to speak about or represent art in general terms, only through the particularities of race. I wondered how artists navigating such precarity and misrecognition could ever see themselves as belonging to and forging a Nordic art history, an art history in which they are a critical part.
Time and space tend to collapse around issues of race. The panelists’ words back then have got me thinking about scenarios in other contexts. Like, for example, British artist Sonia Boyce, who in 2016 was the first Black woman to be elected to the Royal Academy of Art in London. In 2021, she will become the first Black woman to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. I recall Fred Moten’s affecting words from last Friday’s poetry reading, about time lag: “always being behind”, in “arrears.”
In different ways, the Afro-Swedish artists speaking in Malmö were attempting to bridge Salcedo’s dangerous chasm, navigating unforgiving and biased structures whilst at the same time trying to produce what, in her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016), literary scholar Christina Sharpe calls “enfleshed work.” Despite all this, these artists were hopeful and determined to make art possible as a choice for the next generation. This courage to “break into the forbidden,” to quote Aimé Césaire, even when it hurts, is the energy mobilising the protests we have seen in recent days. But for artists of colour, it is also the call of the heart, which insists on making a path, insists on imagining differently as a practice of freedom.
Temi Odumosu is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Malmö University. Her research and curatorial practices are concerned with colonial archives/archiving, slavery and visuality, postmemorial art, image ethics and politics of digitisation. She recently curated Thresholds at Camp Copenhagen, and is currently a member of the research network The Art of Nordic Colonialism: Writing Transcultural Art Histories.