Performance “Trilogy of Illusions: Geography/ Mathematics/ Biology”, 2016, by Grada Kilomba

Text originally published in 2016, when Grada Kilomba participated in the Bienal de São Paulo. The artist comes to Brazil in 2019 to launch the book Memórias da Plantação (Cobogo Publisher), on the violence of daily racism, at FLIP.

*by Suely Rolnik

 

This conversation took place over Skype on a Sunday in late July (2016). The image of Grada's face, her smile, her gestures, the timbre of her voice do not appear in the written text. However, they are essential to access the place where this artist is faced with the problems that move her thinking. I ask the reader to make an effort of imagination to imbue Grada's words with the atmosphere of her presence.

Suely Rolnik – From the little I've seen of your work, which I've been enchanted by, I know that it's a shamanic-psychoanalytic work. What are you preparing for the Bienal?

Kilomba Grada – I am preparing two projects for the Bienal. one is called The Desire Project, which is a video installation, and the other is illusions, which is a performance, a lecture-performance. They are two different formats, and that I already like. I like this idea of ​​being busy with a topic, and not having a specific discipline, and then the topic appears in different formats and in different disciplines. It's totally transdisciplinary. And that for me is very important: this freedom, this flexibility of not being attached to a discipline, but focused on a theme, passionate and involved with it, and then, while we are working on it, the format, the visualization . For me, this is part of the decolonization of knowledge. Projeto Desire is a video installation that creates three moments: the public enters a space and goes through a small path to see three different films and three different stories, but with the same sound; and the sound is a rhythmic drum set, a drum that reminds a little of African rhythms. With the same sound I get different information and see different things. And what I worked on here was that in these three videos there are no images, it's the text that becomes the image itself. I work only with the text, words, rhythms and voices. They are silenced narratives that reach the voice, make themselves heard, tell their story. This is the trajectory: the three moments explore this idea of ​​someone who wants to reach the voice. That's it The Desire Project: what I want, what I want, what it takes, how I want to tell my story.

SR – It is therefore an essay, in the sense of experimentation, on how to embody desire, how not to give up desire, how not to succumb to silencing. And what stories will you tell?

GK – I started with the project that I showed in São Paulo, when we met, which was a small video called While I Write (As I write), just with words. That was the beginning of the project, and I continued it: As I Talk, As I Walk. There are three moments in this trajectory. She talks exactly about the narratives that have been silenced and how we manage to reach the voice, and how we manage to give voice to our history, or to collect our history, which is fragmented. There are three different moments that talk about it, and at each moment the audience will sit down, watch the video, move on to the next video, watch it again, and then move on to the third video, watch it again. For me, this is a spiritual and reflective path, because I want to work with the rhythm, the voices, the music and the text, and it's something that feels on a bodily level as well, on an emotional level.

SR – The drums themselves mark sound territories, the rhythms mark territory and, with that, we are already taken to that other place that you call spiritual.

GK. -  Exactly. I worked with the idea that narratives are silenced because other voices speak louder; it is not that we are not speaking, but that our voice is not heard. So it's not that we haven't been producing knowledge and narration. We always talk, we always deliver knowledge, but they don't listen to our narration, they don't listen to our story. So, I made a series of recordings in public places and at the beginning of the film I use these background voices that are louder than our own voice, to play with this dialectic that it's not that we don't talk, it's the voice that is not heard. And I can only become a speaking subject if my voice is also heard. This is the game at the beginning. These voices then fade away as the rhythm and drums appear louder and louder. And they cross each other like this. But I wanted to bring all this theory behind speaking and silencing in a single, almost simultaneous project, because speaking and silencing go together: I can only speak if my voice is actually heard, and those who are heard are those who belong. The ones that don't belong are the ones that nobody listens to. I wanted to work on this game only through sound, and that's how it appears in Project Desire, through the metaphor of drums and music. It is this game between listening, speaking and silencing.

MR. - This sound plane is a beautiful solution: the background noise, the voice together with the word, the drum rhythm plane. So if the person is not totally neurotized, that is, if his subjectivity is not totally submitted to the anthropo-phallo-ego-logocentrism of modern western culture, when he comes across work, he will hardly be left only in the content of words. It will be affected by the rhythm, by the texture of the voices emerging from the clamor and becoming more audible. With that you bring a very important dimension of the way of presence of blacks in all the former colonies of Latin America that had slaves. It is that, although they have been and continue to be totally silenced, as if they did not exist, they occupied the sound space and continue to occupy it fully. We don't realize it, but it's there.

GK. – It is exactly that sound space you speak of. It's beautiful. How do you talk about this dialectic of speaking and silencing, without speaking, without explaining, but through sound space? How is this knowledge transported through sound space? This is the experience of this project. So I thought: I'm going to work only with the rhythms, only with the percussion, only with the voices. And then, instead of having the visual with images, as we are used to, I will bring the word that we print on paper and that becomes visual. It's an exchange of formats and place of things, that's what The Desire Project. Does it make sense to you?

SR – It makes complete sense; the idea is beautiful. This brings me back to what you said earlier about the need for transdisciplinary in your work. What you call a theme, something already has a form and a meaning, I would call it a state that is in our body, which is real, but unspeakable and invisible; a state that results from the effects of the forces of the world, from all the memory of the world in our body, from the current coup d'état in Brazil or the danger of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States to the entire history of slavery, passing through the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula, going back there… It is this experience that leads us to create something that makes it sensitive and, in order to do so, desire will connect us with different things until something begins to compose that brings that state of the world to light. world that inhabits us. In your case, this state results from the effects of colonial violence on your body, especially on your blackness, which leads you to connect with the drums, the timbre of the voices, leads you to remove the image and put text in its place. , etc. Attracted by this experience that you want to bring into existence, all these elements enter into the composition of your work. So, how can this process fit into or from a discipline, if the starting point is an experience that has no word, no sound, no image, no gesture, and inventing them is precisely the work to be done?

GK – That's exactly it. It is what makes it possible to work with other artists who seek to create meaning for an experience that resonates with ours and, therefore, our paths cross.

SR – And what about the other work you are preparing for the Bienal?

GK – The other job is called illusions. It was a dream I had; I wanted to do a performance, or a lecture-performance, I don't know what to call it. I wanted to work with the oral tradition, I am very enchanted by the tales of African stories, that tradition of telling, bringing knowledge through orality, telling stories. I thought that's exactly what I want to do, tell stories, bring this African tradition into a contemporary and very minimalist space, with text, narration and video projection that brings memories, sometimes images of the imaginary; It's that simple, very simple. What made me write these stories is that sometimes I feel like there's nothing left to tell. For example, in relation to colonial history, we want to dismantle it, but we are always telling the same story. We live in a quadruple ignorance regarding this story: we don't know, we don't need to know, we shouldn't know and we don't want to know. So in Illusions I decided to tell another story. They are two stories linked to two myths: the myth of Narcissus, the love story of Narcissus with Eco, which I recapitulate in a colonial context, a Narcissus who is turned towards himself and who only represents his own image, only sees his own image reflected in the lake.

SR – He's the one who talks the loudest and doesn't hear.

GK - Exactly. And Narcissus, who only looked at himself, was also condemned because he didn't love anyone, and was condemned with the sentence that he would fall in love with someone who wouldn't return his love. He arrives at the lake, looks at the image and falls in love with it, not knowing that he is himself reflected in the water. Therefore, he never receives reciprocal love, and he continues to ask for this love, looking petrified at that image of the lake, thinking that it is another person who does not respond to him. And then comes Echo, who confirms his words because she too was condemned to not be able to say more words than the last ones she hears, because she talked too much. She can only repeat the last words spoken to her. While Narcissus talks to himself saying “I love you, come back to me”, Echo responds “come back to me, come back to me, I love you, I love you”. She only repeats Narcissus' last words. In Illusions I play a little with this mythology, with these stories as metaphors for colonial tragedy. It is an infinite repetition and an infinite representation of itself that does not represent reality, but only that colonial, white, patriarchal image that is constantly repeated and that is in love with itself and idealizes itself, and condemned because it no longer sees nothing but its own representation. It is a representation, a kind of utterance in which other people do not exist. And at the same time it also has the confirmation and consensus of Eco, who is so fixated on Narcissus that she always repeats and confirms what he says. In this colonial and patriarchal narcissism in which we live, how are we going to recover other narrations and other stories? The work is a performance in which I tell these traditional stories.

SR – It is an incredible device to bring out the colonial relationship in its living pulse, and not in its ideological representation. It is the experience of the living presence of the other in the body, which in white western subjectivity is totally anesthetized and, with that, the other is a mere representation, he does not exist. For me, this is what fundamentally defines what I call the colonial-capitalist unconscious. It is like a spell, which crosses all relationships in our societies and not just between colonizer and colonized. Breaking that spell is the issue and I think that's what you're looking for in your work.

GK - That's right. And it's so hard to break this spell, to get out of these places. It's funny how psychoanalysis is present in our work; I see that connection in all the dimensions we're talking about. And in this Illusions there is another important dimension to which I bring the tale of Oedipus. It is the dimension of loyalty. To whom are we loyal? Why is it so difficult to transform? And that combined with another question: what are we defending? Who do we have to defend? So I'm making a passage to talk about post-colonial themes through several stories, several tales, and I try to make a connection between one and the other.

SR – And how does Oedipus enter this work?

GK – There is a part that I really like, because it made me think about violence, especially against the black population. Where does this violence come from? Why is the black body the recipient of so much aggression, so much violence? And then I managed to connect with the story of Oedipus, the story of loyalty, of the rival, of the real rival, the fantasies of aggression against the father figure, against the mother figure. Fantasies that cannot be exercised because otherwise access to power will be lost, and that is why they will be performed, performed in the body that I construct as another. In this other body, I can then exercise all the violence and all the aggressiveness and in this way I keep the family and the colonial structure healthy, safe and in their places, civilized. And all this aggression is a performance that is done outside the home, and that's what others are created for. It is at this moment that I made the connection with Oedipus. Where does this violence come from? What are we defending? Oh, of course, if I rebel, if I carry out this aggression within the space of the house, I will be expelled...

SR – That's where loyalty comes in, but as submission and obedience; conservation of the status quo.

GK – Exactly. Why can't I have another narrative, another vocabulary different from my father's house? Why can't I speak differently from my father or mother? Who am I loyal to? Why this loyalty? And then I think it makes a lot of sense to tell the stories and make the connection with Oedipus. It's also a nice way to get into this theme. Do you think it makes sense to you?

SR – It makes perfect sense. When subjectivity is reduced to its experience as a subject and disconnected from that other experience, that of the effects of the forces of the world on the body, as is the case in our culture, the subject interprets that destabilization that results from these effects as a threat of the end of the world. , when, in fact, it is that world that is coming to an end because another world is germinating. And for this subjectivity that ignores the knowledge of the body, the threat of the disintegration of that world is also the threat of the disaggregation of itself, since it is in that world that Narcissus mirrors himself. So, in order to preserve that world and itself, subjectivity has to project the cause of its discomfort onto another, it has to create another as a screen for this projection, and the actors who play this character of the other vary along the way. of the story. But the black man has been in that role for too long…

GK – This takes us back to the ignorance we were talking about. I don't know, I don't need to know, I shouldn't know and I don't want to know. And then we are always in the same place, we do not unfold this colonial, patriarchal, racist, homophobic history, etc., exactly because of this narcissism and this loyalty. It is this narcissism and this loyalty that I want to explore in these illusions, but in the format of storytelling, of bringing knowledge through oral tradition. I'm working with video and images and I wanted to collect some archive footage as well. I'm still working on these illusions, on this performance, but I wanted to do something very minimalist, very simple. I like to focus on storytelling like the other project, without too much noise and too much spectacle, and I think this is also another format, another way of using performance. I'm still collecting the images.

SR – What images have you already collected?

GK. – I found, for example, a letter from my Portuguese great-grandfather, a letter he wrote when he arrived in Angola, to my great-grandmother and to my grandmother, who was already born. He went to Luanda as a cook and he came from a village. He describes in the letter the trip and what he sees in Luanda, he describes the people with all that colonial, racist vocabulary. It's pretty complicated. And I have another letter, more recent, from my father when he arrived in Angola, and this one has another narrative. And I also have a document from my grandmother in São Tomé and Príncipe when her name was taken from her. I'm trying to create a narrative, and I think that part of the document is very beautiful, Suely, because it dates from the time when Portuguese colonization used assimilation as a strategy: to become as similar as possible to the colonizer. Therefore, we all have the same name and one of the forms of assimilation was the ban on the use of African names. My name Quilomba is my grandmother's name. Quilomba, like quilombo too, comes from Kimbundu, which is one of the most important languages ​​in Angola.

SR – And what does quilombo mean? Because here, as you may know, this word has a political sense of black communities who managed to escape slavery. And there were hundreds of quilombos during the colonial period, some even got together and formed real cities.

GK – Quilombo in Kimbundu means village, gathering, but later it was transformed into a political term, but keeping the same meaning.

SR – And was Quilomba her surname or her name?

GK. - It was last name. We had two names, Buzie and Quilomba. Buzie was my grandfather's and Quilomba was my grandmother's, and Grada was my other grandmother's first name. But African names were all canceled during colonial times. I went to the archives in São Tomé and Príncipe to look for the documents, because my grandmother and mother told me how their name was banned and disappeared. And I found the documents in which my grandmother's mother still had the name Quilomba and was removed, because she, like many other people, was forcibly taken from the mainland to São Tomé and Príncipe to work on the cocoa and coffee plantations. They came from Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and were taken to São Tomé and Príncipe, isolated on different plantations, with different languages ​​and the names were cancelled. That's why we almost all have the same name, in Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, Goa, East Timor. We turned all the Fernandes, da Silva, Ferreira, etc., and it is not known where each one comes from.

SR – And what is your birth name?

GK. – I have a number of civilian names. I tried to officially put my family's previous name, Buzie Quilomba, but the Constitution is not prepared for colonial history, it is only allowed to change the name by marriage, divorce or adoption. Colonial history is not part of the Constitution, it has no solution for it, there is not even a paragraph on how to deal with it, which, however, concerns an entire population. You cannot recover a name that has been revoked. So, a couple of years ago, I decided to get my original names back, but as stage names, because even though they're my names, I can't have them in my passport.

SR – And what is your name on your passport?

GK – I have all the Portuguese names in my passport, I have Ferreira, Pereira… And Grada is my first name, which is, as I said, that of one of my grandmothers. All other names I chose. For example, Quilomba, the name of my other grandmother. So I have two women's names in my name. But what is beautiful about this name story is that, as in Brazil, it is part of our colonial history.

SR – Have you done any work on this?

GK. – I've already written a story that I now want to include in the book I'm preparing, Performing Knowledge, and this story in the name is one of those that appear there.

SR – It's incredible to have the memory of the name cancelled; an annulment that results from violence to trauma and that continues to perpetuate itself in the impossibility of rescuing it.

GK “That's right, and it's not just the trauma. There is also alienation: I can only be myself, have my name registered, official, civil, being the name of the colonizer, that is, I can only have an official civil existence through the identity of the colonizer, through his name. We cannot forget that for a long time, until the 60s, I cannot remember now exactly until when, the black population did not have the right to an identity, to a nationality. Now I am doing this archival work to find which images to work with to tell this story of Illusions, what it is and what it is not, and who can I be, who do I have to be, for me to make visible. So there's this game with the Illusions. How do I retrieve this story?

SR – And what is the origin of your father?

GK – My father is Portuguese and comes from an area, Coimbra, where they are all Jews; there was persecution throughout that region and the entire Jewish community was forced to change its name. This is the case with my father's family. All Portuguese names that end in eira, Macieira, Pereira, Ferreira, are Jewish.

SR – So you also have a Jewish bit, via your New-Christian father. Just as I have a piece of blackness, via Brazil. We share the work with these two traumas.

GK. – I really think it is very beautiful to be able, in our work, to make this bridge with the past, with the body and knowledge, through the body and its memory, with this spiritual dimension and with so many other dimensions.

SR – For me, the return to the past is not a return to ways of living, to systems of behavior and their representations, to moral systems, to a certain philosophy. It is much more about returning to this connection with the knowing-of-the-body, and the more you go into the memory of the past in the body, the more you feel authorized and stimulated to activate this connection. It's what we do each in our own way in our work. It is a kind of love for life and for the people, groups and communities that have kept and still keep in touch with life and took it in their hands moved by the desire to take care of it.

GK. – It's really love, that's why maybe we talk about serious things and with a calm and a smile.

SR – That smile comes from there. But we had to fight hard for that smile. That smile had always been there, but it didn't stop getting punched, doubting, disappearing, until it began to impose itself.

G.K - I bring that smile on my face because I've cried too much.

SR – So that's enough, isn't it?

GK. - And even. We've talked about so much already. It was so nice talking to you, thank you so much.

SR - I thank you, It was so good to hear from you.

 

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