Video frame "Illusions Vol. II - Oedipus", by Grada Kilomba. Photo: Levi Fanan

"É unthinkable not to take a stand in what we do. If I don't stand  in what I do, then my position is one of power and privilege so great, that I don't need to mention myself, and being an exercise of power, then it's a colonial exercise",  defended the artist Grada Kilomba in a debate at the Pinacoteca do Estado at the opening of her exhibition Poetic Disobedience, on display until September 30.

Kilomba was responding to a question from the audience about the reasons for the biographical elements in his work, so placing it there denotes this first-person character: “It is important to explain why writing in the first person; I don't talk about others, I have to talk about myself, about my issues, ”she said alongside Djamila Ribeiro, philosopher  which today embodies the debate around the place of speech, one of the elements present in the Pinacoteca debate.

For Kilomba, taking a stand represents an important break in the history of art, since “many artists and many women artists who are also white base their work on the absolute exploration of blackness, testimonies, language, discourse, images, archives and of the performance of blackness”. Writing this, I remember the paintings in which Adriana Varejão portrays herself as an Indian in one of her series, and I think that it is indeed necessary to question representation strategies like this one.

Kilomba herself acknowledges that “this worked until recently because many black female artists did not have access to these platforms, but in 2019 it is absolutely impossible to give credibility to these works. It is important that there is no re-enactment of colonialism. When we speak on behalf of the other, we are reproducing the essence of colonial discourse, which is to use the other as an object for which I speak as a subject”.

With his slow and deep voice, Kilomba uses words precisely, as in the narrations of two of his video projections on the second floor of the Pinacoteca: Illusions Vol. I Narcissus and Echo e Illusions Vol. II Oedipus. In them, the artist recounts the Greek myths in a performative way and then deconstructs them based on questions about race. While Freudians understand the father's death as a family conflict, Kilomba points out how “this fixation on the (white) family ignores the historical and political dimensions of this conflict”, according to his own narration.

Grada Kilomba and Djamila Ribeiro in conversation at the opening of the exhibition. Photo Levi Fanan

She still goes on to say: “in the midst of a colonial relationship, no matter how much marginalized people obey the law, we rarely become the legal authority; instead, we become those who are punished and murdered by the law itself.” , how to portray in an exemplary way the daily discrimination in Brazil.

Already in illusions II, the artist deals with how “narcissistic is this patriarchal white society in which we all live that is fixed on itself and on the reproduction of its own image, making all others invisible”, also using her own narration here. In the exhibition catalogue, Djamila Ribeiro points out how, in Brazil, Cida Bento already used the same idea with the term “narcissistic pact of whiteness”. According to her, this concept advocated that “white people consent to a pact to reward themselves, protect themselves, no matter the circumstances and, with that, maintain the unjust state of affairs towards black people”.

Nothing is more appropriate, therefore, than seeing works like this on the second floor of the Pinacoteca, where the institution's collection is located, so that they function as a disruptive agent in the official narrative of the history of art that has left the minorities so invisible, which in Brazil are the majorities.

Grada Kilomba's works occupy exactly the rooms in the corners of the collection, as if to allow that, between one displacement and another, it is possible to reflect on the traumas of the colonizing process. In Table of Goods, for example, she creates a sculpture with cocoa, coffee and sugar, precisely the products produced by slaves in Brazil. Topped by candles, this sculpture becomes a kind of memorial to the sacrifice of millions of black men and women.

Already in The dictionary, it creates an environment where five words are described in their meanings – denial, guilt, shame, recognition and reparation – establishing a kind of path of how oppression can go through different phases until it is eliminated.

What is remarkable in this small set of works is the use of the body in a performative way, particularly in the videos, in which Kilomba herself works with a group of actors who act on the limits between dance and theater.

This strategy is consistent with its position in defense of decolonization. As she states: “The key moment of decolonization is to position ourselves in our subjectivity to always say from what place, from what time and from what space I am writing, who I am and what biography of mine is this that leads me to write this and to this knowledge production. I am reflected in my work and this is the key moment in the decolonization of knowledge and the arts.”

The debate at the Pinacoteca is accessible at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovSKrDLs9Ro.

In addition to participating in the opening of his exhibition, Kilomba was in São Paulo to launch the book “Memórias da Plantação. Episodes of everyday racism”, his doctoral thesis defended 10 years ago in Germany, a text that questions not only social violence in discrimination, but also the academic format itself.

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