Uprising Art is happy to share with you the second interview dedicated to BE.BOP 2013, an amazing initiative we supported as media partner, last May 19-23 in Berlin, Germany.
Focusing on the legacy of the Black Power Movement in the context of the « Cold » War from a Global South perspective, it presented several Caribbean contemporary artists – becoming in this regard the first Afropean performance festival – and by extension the first performance festival of the Caribbean Diaspora in Europe.
Here is an interview with Alanna Lockward, the curator and initiator of the project.
Where did the primary inspiration for the event arouse?
This series has started last year. My main inspiration is to connect wonderful people and artists – of the African diaspora – that I have met during six years of research and that work on issues related to Black citizenship in Europe. I personally have done a research on the press, the Der Tagesspiegel newspaper in Germany, for my master thesis at the University of Arts in Berlin, dealing on how Black identities are constructed linguistically in German. I was shocked by the incredible racism of the German language against Black people. This afrophobia was a motor behind my interest.
On the other side, it was also triggered by the history of Black consciousness, by the legacy of Audre Lorde, who was a teacher here and who can be described as fundamental in the history of Black consciousness in Germany, and by the work of Black feminists such as May Ayim. Once I encountered their work, I thought how can this knowledge exist and be ignored so blatantly? How can this happen, how can this society be so anti-Black if they were not a colony? And then, I understood I was wrong, they were not a colonial power but had colonies. I started researching on German history, and found up connections between the colonial amnesia of the whole of Europe – with regards the European colonization of the African continent – and the Berlin-Africa conference of 1884-1885. Those were the issues raised in the first event of the series of BE.BOP connecting with artists and scholars, that are addressing the same topics in their work.
This 2013 edition is dedicated to decolonizing the ‘Cold’ War and has been inspired by artists’ works in relation to the legacy of the Black Power movement in different parts of the world.
What are the aims and objectives of the project?
The aim is to network, to have a South-South, a global South dialogue. The aim is to speak among ourselves, not to speak to the white hegemonic Western establishment, but to deal with our own narratives, to deal with our own stories and own artistic productions without having the need to legitimize ourselves in front of a white audience. It is a very focused discussion in this regard. The idea is also to create a free space, a kind of oxygen room, for people that are working in Europe right now on those issues but that are isolated in their own context.
BE.BOP is about creating this room for mutual recognition and celebration.
As you could probably experience there was this South-African / Swedish family, the Gärdings, that have done this amazing film contribution to the struggle of Black citizenship in Europe (We are all like oranges) that constantly wanted to share their experiences. This was rewarding and is symptomatic of what BE.BOP is about: voicing and finding resonance with others from the diaspora.
There is also another secret agenda that I have which is to bring up, give visibility and outline – slowly but surely – the role of the Caribbean diaspora artists in Europe. The Caribbean diaspora has always been present in those struggles of Black consciousness in Europe, starting by Audre Lorde herself who was of Caribbean descent.
Last year, Black Europe Body Politics was engaged in discussing decolonial diasporic aesthetics. Now you have moved to the Afropean concept. Could you elaborate on the evolution of the process?
I wanted to find a concept that differentiates the unique experience of the African diaspora in Europe and I found this Afropean term really useful.
The “decolonial aesthetics” has been developed in the Americas, so the Caribbean, the US Latinos, and the South Americans thinkers, artists and activists that have worked on this concept of decolonization of aesthetics are departing from a reality that does not need to question the existence of a colonial history. Whereas in Europe… You have to make a point that there actually was a colonial history! This is so absurd. It is a kind of schizophrenia, neurosis, even described as pathology of the European selves’ descriptions as white and western. They avoid any connection with Africa. Yet, the European Union project was first called “Eurafrica“. The EU started with a very clear agenda: that Europe cannot exist without the richness and resources of Africa. This is what has been going on and that very clear agenda has been hidden from current hegemonic accounts on the history of the European Union. It has been hidden and then officially camouflaged with this hypocritical notion of “developing aid” or stuff like that.
I think ‘Afropean’ intends to highlight more clearly this connection between Africa and Europe, by erasing the African-European and make it as one single word. I am not the first one using it but, when I wrote it, I had never seen it before. Now I see other persons, in the fashion industry or pop culture for instance, using it, claiming the Afropean as a unique way of defining the Black diasporic identities in Europe.
According to you, what is the singularity of Black experience in Europe?
The particularity comes precisely from this colonial amnesia: an extraordinary denial scenario that regards the Black body as alien.
For instance in the USA, when a Black person is seen, you automatically think he is Afro-American, whereas here when you see a Black person, you see him as being an African, not me obviously, but the official racism in Europe that places this Black body as alien. The absurdity comes from us having always been here in Europe, with more than 800 years of African presence in the Iberian peninsula for instance…
The issue is specifically strong here, in Germany, where philosophers like Kant and Hegel have been instrumental in the racialization of the world, or in the epistemic separation of Egypt from the rest of Africa. Those constructions are taken for granted in all academic works; people accept those notions without questioning them… Two amazing essays by African philosophers discuss this: Olufemi Taiwo’s “Exorcising Hegel’s Ghost: Africa’s Challenge to Philosophy” and “The Color of Reason” by Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze. Kant wrote about “races” and anthropology, but he never set foot out of Königsberg! And yet racialized the entire planet… This is the foundation of German and world philosophy and aesthetics, imagine that!
Decoloniality addresses the singularity of the Black experience in Europe. Indeed, this diaspora and the trajectories of those existences in continental Europe have always been silenced, as well as the involvement in the enslavement trade, such as the Scandinavian involvement in that matter.
How do artistic practices resonate with this experience?
In all different ways… Through historical re-enactments and epistemic re-appropriations of hegemonic spaces that are considered neutral… Those spaces are being intervened – for example – in the work Black Magic at the White House by Jeannette Ehlers, for instance, where in a voudoun dance, she appears and disappears in the official summerhouse of the prime minister of Denmark, a house that was built with financial gains from the enslavement trade.
What does it take to organize such a transdisciplinary event, bringing together artists, scholars, activists?
A lot of madness! I am myself a transdisciplinary person and I believe in the dismantling of disciplines. I have met people that are knowledgeable on Black studies that do not necessarily write about art, and my concern is to bring together those persons to discuss the work of Black diaspora artists. In their works, there are different levels of meaning that can be decoded properly in this arena by specialists on Black global histories, as opposed to the specialists in the art world that don’t get it or would put it in a special box where all this knowledge has been codified in a racist, demeaning and patronizing way. For them, only art that comes from Europe is universal…
The rest has to be “Caribbean” or “African” or you name it… – which I claim absolutely. Call me a Caribbean theorist, or please call me a Dominican theorist, I love that.
BE.BOP is a travelling project, with presentations and screenings all over the world. Is this a crucial component of the project?
There is a need to readdress how the Black body is codified outside of Europe as well. This project is a way to translate diasporic knowledge, from different diasporas, and to present mechanisms of invisibilization of those stories, that are little known. Personally, I was ignorant about them so I am basically sharing what has created a paradigm shift in my own understanding of Black history.
In addition, I have been involved in video-art for a while, and for me it is the perfect medium to convey a lot of things fast. This is why screenings are useful and through films, I can engage an audience and explain faster, synthesize the complexity of what is going on with Afrophobia, racism against Black people in Europe… The situation is alarming and terrible and I hope my work contributes to create some understanding and awareness on the urgency of discussing this issue. We should not let it be trivialized as some occasional, anecdotic things that happen (as the last news in France or Sweden). The policy of Frontex, and the permanent racialization of Afropean citizens (everybody that is Black has to be always visible and constantly asked for her/his papers) is absurd.
Just an example: there is a European policy to bring artists from outside of Europe to Europe, but it is increasingly difficult as people have no idea of what it takes to organize the visa for someone outside of Europe. Those that never invite people to visit Europe have no idea what it means to bring people from outside.
Let’s address the curatorial aspects of the festival.
Well, some of the works I had already seen years ago, like the movie Cuba. An African Odyssey by Jihan El Thari or Rethoric that Preaches Revolution by Adler Guerrier that I saw for the first time at the Whitney Biennial (2008). Others are more recent. I am putting in dialogue works strictly related to the issue of Black Power legacies with works that are not necessarily related to that, and are made by African and Caribbean diaspora everywhere.
One of the aspects of my curatorial approach was to present work highlighting issues of Blackness and crucial legacies such as the Haitian Revolution. I am making connections between different struggles of liberation of Black people in different moments of our histories.
It was an ambitious screening program this year, and I am deeply thankful for the support of Eric Van Grasdorff of AfricAvenir and of course the Hackesche Höfe Kino.
For this edition, it is the first time that BE.BOP also included performances. How do you feel about it?
Very proud, very happy.
It is kind of hypocritical to talk about the Black body at a theatre space and not to present Black artists on the stage. I am happy that thanks to the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, and the new co-director – Wagner Carvalho – with this partnership, the artists had full support to do their work here.
It is a huge step forward. The artists are thrilled to do it and it brings an enormous contribution of having the narrative of performance, which is what I love about it: not only matters what happens in the moment and the physicality of it, but also what stays afterwards, the memory that remains, the dialogues created. It is also important because I have made a point of having the artists get into an interaction with the public immediately after the performance, which can be extremely challenging. So it is a great step forward, and it is the first time that an Afropean festival of performance is done in Europe, and specially here at the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse which is an iconic space in terms of new theatre in Berlin and Germany and also in Europe already only five years after being re-opened by Shermin Langhoff.
You have talked about the transformative and liberating qualities of performance art…
Yes. There are things that can only be conveyed with the physicality of the body, through its presence. Such an ephemeral form of art as performance is so precious, through the immediacy of the moment.
It is very expensive to do, but it will become profitable – let me stay positive! You just need a lot of people to make it happen, but it is worth it. It moves people’s perceptions and sensations.
Decolonization starts with the body I think, and then the mind. Or it could be the mind first! I give permission to everyone to start wherever he/she wants.
Getting back to the performances presented, it is all experimental. There is no guarantee about anything, and that is the danger and the beauty of it. We are all exposed: the curator, the organizers, the artists, and the audience. We create together this thing that is called performance. It can only be done with all those energies combined.
What is next for BE.BOP?
I am proud to say we will do BE.BOP again next year in 2014, thanks to the support of Wagner Carvalho, and we will be expanding it to another European city in partnership with other institutions.
The fundaments of next edition are already established and I am happy about that. However, the main issue is to have funding. Ideas I have plenty… but it is about making it happen. This year, I did it because I knew I had to do it in depth and to expand it with the spirit of last year in order to keep its continuity. I worked very hard for it and the guests demonstrated their commitment to the issues at stake and the project in particular by self-financing their participation, as opposed to last year when we had full support by the Allianz Cultural Foundation: once again retrospective thanks to Allianz! For the next one, I want all the help that I can get.
May 22, 2013, in Berlin, Germany
By Clelia Coussonnet
Headline picture’s credits :