Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The person we need to listen to

Grada Kilomba, The Kosmos 2 (Detail) © Esra Rotthoff, courtesy of Maxim Gorki Theatre. (image taken from the website Contemporary And)

A few weeks ago, there was an artice in the newspaper Público entitled Grada Kilomba is the artist Portugal needs to listen to.
 Until then, I had never heard of Grada Kilomba. Last week we had the opening of two exhibitions, apparently the first two in her homeland, although Grada Kilomba has already got an intense career abroad. A fact which is "perversely coherent", according to the Público, "as getting into the work of Grada Kilomba - in her video and sound installations, in her performances, in her rehearsed readings, in her texts - is having to deal with the violent history of colonialism and post-colonialism, a history in which Portugal is deeply ingrained, but is stubbornly pretending that it has nothing to do with it."

I still remember the shock and some pain I felt when I was first confronted with a "different" version of the history of my country, different from the one I had been taught at school or the one we shared at home (I wrote about it in the post The stories we tell ourselves). Today, when this happens, I'm not shocked anymore, but still feel pain, every once in a while. As well as some intellectual pleasure, for being challenged and for continuing to learn and discover other versions and, ultimately, other people.

Lisbon - Ibero-American Capital of Culture 2017 has firmly placed the issues of slavery, colonialism, post-colonialism and racism at the center of our thinking. The diverse cultural and other organisations that accepted the challenge have responded more or less efficiently - and perhaps also honestly, regarding their intention to discuss these issues. One of the first exhibitions I saw, for example, was the one at the National Museum of Archaeology, with the curious title One Museum. So many collections. The museum states on its website that the project of the Municipality of Lisbon Testimonies of Slavery - African Memory was a "Motivating project that led to the review and reappreciation of lesser known collections of this museum". As a visitor, I could not identify or appreciate the results of this work, since the exhibition labels were limited to a simple description of the objects exhibited. Can we really think about and debate slavery - the dehumanization and the pain it has caused and continues to cause - through texts like the one below?

Labels from the exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum (click to enlarge)

Returning now to the Grada Kilomba, last Saturday I visited the exhibition Secrets to Tell at MAAT. A small and rich exhibition, a good introduction, for me who did not know her work, to the artist’s universe, her thinking, her ways of expressing herself, the questions she seeks to discuss with us. However, when the visitor enters the exhibition (following the most usual route, which is going down the ramp or the staircase of the Oval Gallery) he/she does not find the introductory text of the exhibition, which would make sense (as it happens, incidentally, if one enters from the opposite side of the room, contrary, though, to the usual sense of the visit). Therefore, first we have the videos of the rehearsed reading of Plantation Memories, then we find the piece Table of Goods and only then do we see, in the background, the introductory text of the exhibition. At that time, some visitors have already passed by the Table of Goods, a piece the museum has little to say about (see image below), and they have already exclaimed "Is this art?". If the intention of the museum, of any museum, is to involve in the discussion people who have studied at home before coming, nothing of what I said here is particularly relevant. But if it is not - and I think it is not - the way of exhibiting and what is said about the works exhibited should be given a second thought. I also have to say that I considered the introductory text of very good - for me, with my homework done -, but in order to involve more people, its language, extension and graphic presentation should also be given a second thought (see image below).

Label of the work "Table of Goods", MAAT (click to enlarge)
Introductory text of the exhibition "Secrets to Tell", MAAT (click to enlarge)

Soon after visiting the exhibition, I attended Grada Kilomba's talk with Carla Fernandes (activist, journalist and responsible for the radio-blog Afrolis) at Maria Matos Theatre. This talk marks the end of the cycle Decolonisation, promoted by this theater. A cycle that sought to address, as explained in the booklet by curator Liliana Coutinho, two liberations: that of the lands occupied by Portugal, more than 40 years ago; and that of the mind and behavior, which fed the colonial culture and relations of inequality and of exploitation, and which persist.

My first impression, while I was still waiting to enter the auditorium, was that I had never seen so many black people at Maria Matos. Not even for the play Libertação, a few days ago, or Moçambique, last year. So I asked myself whether the fact that these are works by white artists, and even though they involve black interpreters, means that they are not inviting or interesting enough for black people or if they do not even feel welcome. And what may have made the difference in this case? Grada Kilomba, whom until recently few of us knew? Maybe the black community knew her? Or was it the fact that the conversation would be moderated by a black journalist and activist who brought her audience with her? I think it would be worth trying to understand better why the black community accepted this invitation and not others, however much one might think that the subject was relevant to them.

I later read that Mamadou Ba also commented this black presence on his Facebook page: "The question of place is central to the debate on racism in societies where coloniality assumes a cultural relevance. Many epistemological, theoretical, doctrinal and ideological disputes, which go beyond the debate of the mere theoretical formulation of decolonization, are related to it. And today, in the conversation between Carla Fernandes and Grada Kilomba, without neglecting the various possibilities for debate that arose, and they are many, what I mostly registered was the significant presence of the black body in a space, traditionally, of white privilege. (...) It is clear that there is no shortage of Black women and men who want and can talk about themselves, about and with the society and the way it perceives them. Black racialised subjects thus affirm, by choosing the moment, strength and circumstances of their appearance in the public space, a clear political position. More than historical objects of a specific historical condition, they are political subjects, struggling for their affirmation." Here we have a first answer, which was revealing to me, but which does not answer all the questions asked above. Thus, I repeat that it would be worth trying to understand better.

In relation to the conversation itself, it lasted about two hours, but I confess that the first part (until the audience began to intervene) was of little interest to me. Instead of talking about Grada Kilomba (person - woman - black - academic - artist), there was too much talk, in my opinion, about concrete works in her two exhibitions in Lisbon, which, since they had opened two days before, they had still not been seen by many of those present. This part of the conversation brought us little. We had the opportunity to get to know Grada Kilomba better, her thinking and way of being in life, thanks also to the questions / interventions of some members of the audience, "questions - poems". I was sincerely impressed: by her way of being, her voice, her contained expression, but no less emotive, and especially by the choice of words and the way she uttered them. A clear, solid, sensible, informed, realistic and honest thinking.

The third impression I had of this conversation has to do with listening and silencing, of which so much was said in those two hours. It has to do, in the words of Grada Kilomba in the theatre brochure, with "who can actually speak, what happens when one speaks and what one can talk about." The last intervention of the audience, very near the closing of the session, came from a lady who said she "did not understand" whether Grada Kilomba considered that she could not be a university professor in Portugal because she is black. We realised very quickly that it was a rhetorical question. What she wished to share with us was the idea that things in Portugal are not that bad, because there is a black professor at the Faculty of Letters, because there was the play Libertação at Maria Matos Theatre and Os Negros at São Luiz Theatre. Immediately, voices were raised in order to contradict her. She asked to be allowed to speak, she said, "Let me speak, please, because when the 'other' begins to speak ...". She was interrupted another couple of times. The moderator did not intervene, except to ask her to be brief.

I registered the detail that she identified herself as the 'other'. She knew, of course, that what she was saying would not be consensual. Did she try to provoke? Was she sharing an honest opinion? In any case, the repeated attempts to interrupt her bothered me. And perhaps not so much the reaction of people who are tired of hearing certain things, but the lack of intervention on behalf of the moderator in the sense of defending, before the majority - who felt strong, like all majorities -, the right to speak.

One of the main concerns of cultural organisations that wish to be part of the public debate on a range of issues that divide societies is how to involve those who have an opposing opinion. If the aim is to promote a dialogue that can make people rethink some of their ideas, in the face of other facts and other people, whom they get to know personally, one should not wish for consensual discussions. No matter how uninteresting or little intelligent opposing opinions may seem. We all feel more comfortable in the midst of people who think like us, who reinforce our convictions. But little or nothing will change if we do not allow the 'other' to speak and to be heard. If it quickly became clear for us what the lady’s point of view was, it should have also become clear that she had spent two hours exposed to opinions that contradict her own vision. But she stayed and listened and did not interrupt anyone. In fact, she had the courage to attend a conversation she knew beforehand that it was not going to be about her point of view, her vision of the world. But there she was; and she had already visited the exhibitions; and she even said that, having heard Grada Kilomba, she would return to visit them. Isn’t this what this is all about? Isn’t this also a person we need to listen to? As hard as it may be? As much as it may annoy us?

I am sure that I am looking at all this in the cool (or serene) way that those who do not feel the racism on their skin may have. However, I believe in Culture as a place of encounter. Not for neutral or consensual conversations, as most cultural spaces have accustomed us to, but for confrontational discussions, passionate, intense, where the right to speak is defended and respected, and where there is the capacity to handle a small or big provocation or an honest opposing opinion. I believe that Grada Kilomba's answer, as well as her Plantation Memories, will have shaken just a little bit the vision of the lady who asked the question. More, much more, than the voices that tried to silence her.

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