Uprising Art is happy to share with you the third 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 Jeannette Ehlers, an artist who participated in BE.BOP with screenings of her artworks, a presentation in the roundtable, as well as her first live performance ever.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Jeannette Ehlers, I am a Danish-Trinidadian visual artist born and raised in Denmark. I’m based in Copenhagen. I mainly work with digital media like video and photography. I have been working with the colonial-decolonial topic for a few years now and it is very important to me. It is what drives me, because there is so much to learn and to express regarding that issue.
How did you start investigating the Danish implications in the enslavement trade and colonial history? Indeed, it is a hidden part of history: how did you become aware of it?
I was in Ghana in 2008 where I was visiting some Danish friends that lived there. And I was there to do an art project but a completely different one. When I came to Ghana, I was reading one of the only books about the Danish slave trade by the Danish writer Thorkild Hansen. Being in Ghana and seeing where everything happened while reading about it was so powerful, and there were so many things I did not know. Visiting the forts where they kept the slaves before sending them over the Atlantic, for instance, was a gruesome and overwhelming encounter. There was so much evidence. History just hit me right there. I immediately knew I was not going to do the project I had planned so I changed it right away.
This was a crucial moment for me. Actually, before that, I always felt I did not want to make art about my Danish/Trinidadian background … and why should I? Looking back, I now know it was because I wasn’t well informed about Denmark’s colonial history, like so many other Danes. But when I came to Ghana, I realized – on a very personal level – how history tricked me and my cultural heritage. And from then on it made sense to me to investigate in that direction. I had become far more conscious and felt a deep need for bringing this into light. Necessity is the best drive for art production – at least for me.
I did some photo pieces in Ghana and then I traveled to the former Danish colonial islands, now the US Virgin Islands – St Croix, St Thomas and St John. Here I shot a few videos. I kept with my approach in Denmark of course, because there is a lot of evidence in Denmark too that one do not really expect or know of, but it is right there. There are no historical or obvious signs indicating it, so I made a lot of research. I did a piece called Black Magic at the White House. It is about the official residence of the Prime Minister of Denmark, Marienborg, that was built from slave trade money and passed on to different people who worked on the slave trade during this period. I believe the center of Copenhagen has the same history but people have no clue about it. There is no collective memory of it. It is all ousted and forgotten. For instance, I was never taught about it in school… Some Danes would have a vague idea of the colonies back then in the Caribbean and that’s all… And many would say ‘It is so sad we sold it. We could have had some nice islands in the Caribbean’, but they are actually not aware of the dark side of that “Paradise”.
Are you seeking to raise awareness on those hidden histories?
That is what I hope. I find it really important for the Danish identity to deal with it.
In France, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom many descendents from the colonies live in those countries now. They are not hiding: they are there. It is not the same thing in Denmark because there is no visible descendents from the slaves we brought to the islands. Yet, we share the same history, and people should know about it as it shapes one’s mentality and consciousness. I feel it is very important knowledge in a global world.
What kind of reactions did you receive from officials in Denmark or the Caribbean? I guess you had to ask for an authorization to film inside Marienborg, or for the video Three Steps of Story…
Three Steps of Story was filmed in The Government House in St. Croix and it was really easy access.
For Marienborg, I had to write the Prime Minister many times and it was somewhat difficult.
After the realization of the video, I did not get any reactions from the officials… But a lot from the audience: everyone was surprised about the story.
I think that the Danish identity likes to represent itself and Denmark as neutral. The Slave trade is a taboo. We like to appear as the good guys, which we are definitely not. The slave trade is the foundation of building up the Modern World. Denmark, like the rest of Europe, became wealthy from the slave trade. It was the era of The Golden Age. The Transatlantic slave trade and the colonial era still affect society structures today. Among more, that is what I hope to reveal in my works.
I find it problematic that the Danes, and other European countries, do not really want to speak about and acknowledge it. In the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I read a text honoring the “wealthy and brave” Dutch traders of this period in history, but not a word about the African slaves…
Each place you choose is highly symbolical. In your last video, Off the Pig and Black Bullets, you chose to film at the Citadel in Haiti. Those places are entrenched in symbolism for the Black liberation struggles and for the knowledge on that part of history. How do you choose that places?
I choose them because they are loaded.
Especially Marienborg: It is a place of power in Denmark, both in the past and still nowadays. I wanted to do it exactly at that spot, I could have done it somewhere else but it would not have been the same.
Also for the Citadel, I liked the idea to make it right there because it is a symbol of freedom in Haiti.
Did it immediately ring a bell with the photographs of Atlantic (endless row) you had shot in Ghana? During the discussion, you have stated that if in that picture you had separated the bodies, you wished, in Black Bullets, to reconnect them.
I did not have the exact idea when I arrived at The Citadel but of course it was somehow stored in my mind. I was lucky though because just as I was confused and frustrated, and needed some material, suddenly this school class was there on a field trip and I was like ‘yes, this is it!’ I needed to use the kids in my video. When I was filming the children, I did not know I would be mirroring them. I just had a feeling of something right by using them.
Then when I returned to Denmark I experimented, edited, and there it was: the idea upheld in a symbolic way.
What is the place of experimentation in your work?
It is necessary. Of course, when you experiment, you find some ways that work, some that do not. It is a process.
I have been using manipulation for some time now, and I like the fact that some of the same visual methods can bring different expressions and interpretations. Even if I had done a bit of ‘erasing’ in some parts of my video and photos in the past, the result has always been different. And especially since I started my new axis of work. Erasing is a tool that I like to use, but of course I’m open to new tracks as well.
Is erasing, and playing on invisibility and shadows, a way to make those historical vacuums more evident?
Yes, as I said I used those methods before but with a different focus. Back then my work was based in more technical and phenomenal issues. It was an eye opener for me when I started dealing with The Transatlantic Slave trade that the methods I had been using in former pieces made completely sense in a heavy historical context linked to a personal approach. It was ideal. It clicked.
Erasing something revolves around appearance and distance, visibility and invisibility. I think it provokes a strange atmosphere and raises questions. In Atlantic (endless row) – as an example, some people do not immediately see what is wrong… Suddenly they realize something is missing and hopefully that experience is thought provoking and will start a journey towards consciousness from there on.
You like playing on contradictions and tensions. This is also present in your use of sound.
You know, some of my videos are soundless, sometimes sound is too much.
But sound can also emphasize your point and create a heavy atmosphere. This was what I was looking for in, for example, Black Bullets.
How do you integrate ritualistic elements in your process? Like the voudoun dance in Black Magic at the White House.
I used that only once actually. In that same video you mention. I like the title and I wanted to raise a contradiction. A white house / a European space invaded by African-inspired traditions and rituals. I wanted to focus on history – of course – and on the appearance of Black culture too. This is why I thought it should be African and Haitian inspired. It was obvious for me to do that and contrast those spaces. The voudoun dance came as an evidence of the Danish involvement in the slave trade.
Have you investigated your Trinidadian background?
Since I have been focusing on the Danish connection in The West Indies, I have not had the specific idea for a project in Trinidad yet, but I would love to do it. Nevertheless, Trinidad is present too in each and every one of my works. It is part of the Caribbean and shares the same history.
Lately, you have been working with Patricia Kaersenhout, a Dutch-Surinamese artist. Could you tell us more about this collaboration and especially the video The image of me?
We were coupled last year by curator Sasha Dees, during a residency with OAZO-Air, in the Netherlands. We were investigating the National Gallery in Copenhagen and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see how colonial and slave trade history are represented (or non-represented) at the two national museums. In Denmark, there were very few paintings from the period representing the slaves, and the paintings were primarily made by Dutch painters – not even Danish painters. And one of the paintings was representing slaves having a party… This was completely out of tune. Patricia and I took some photos in the halls of the museum and manipulated them in order to erase the black colors in it. The artwork is called 17th century department: lack of black.
Taking away the black was a political and conceptual act. The image looks strange because we replaced the black color with white, it looks infected and sick.
As for The image of me, we were invited to the Black Magic Woman Festival 2012. The title for the whole festival was “Be You”. We were discussing, having different ideas, when Patricia said she found a poem she had kept for some time and did not know what to do with it. She had the feeling we could use it for this project. Patricia works mostly with painting, drawing, and sometimes video as well …
…And she also works on the themes of visibility and invisibility.
Yes, we have a lot in common, but we have different expressions. This project was a meeting point. I work with the moving image, frame by frame, and this video consists of a stop motion technique. The setting of the video is two women – a black and a white – that changes colors, with a voice over reciting the poem “Lord, Why Did You Make Me Black?” by RuNett Nia Ebo. The video is a tribute to blackness.
As an artist, you often work on your own so it was nice to collaborate. This collaboration could have gone in many directions but we really matched each other, became close friends, and want continue working together in the future on different projects too. It is stimulating to find someone who understands and inspires you and with whom you can create new important work.
Is your artistic practice a kind of catharsis process?
A kind of healing process. The way one can be influenced by history is crucial. I am really moved by and engaged in this topic because it affects the modern world in so many ways.
I have been dealing a lot with oppression and repression in my works and in later works focusing on uprising and the power stemming from the Black liberation struggles from the Haitian Revolution up till today. It is essential to express the power of striking back and showing that you can do something.
It is both healing and empowering…
Yes, it is important to remind the world that the Black slaves actually managed to win a war and liberate themselves from the colonizers, France, as it happened with the Haitian Revolution 1791-1804. Haiti became the first Black republic. The Haitian Revolution is one of many repressed stories. The country is in this tragic condition today – partly because of the Revolution back then. Haiti was punished by the former colonizers and forced to pay a huge debt to France for their economic loss.
Nevertheless the Haitian Revolution has been a huge inspiration to many later civil rights movements like for example The Black Panthers.
Your first live performance is tomorrow. How do you feel?
Alanna asked me a few times if I wanted to do a performance for BE.BOP 2013. First, I did not really want to do it. I do perform in my videos sometimes but I edit them and there is no live audience. Then I decided why not try myself out and push my boundaries. I changed my mind and agreed.
I will do a performance where I involve the audience as well. The performance is a make up with history and also of Eurocentric art history and my own experience with it. When I started out as an artist, I wanted to be a painter. I struggled with painting for quite some time, but then I realized, I am a horrible painter. Actually, my professor at The Royal Danish Academy thought so too. On top of that, I slowly realized that I had no interest at all in questions related to western painting and that is when I started working with video.
I am going to whip a painting. I will start out with a white canvas on which I am reenacting the methods of punishment used during slavery. I will invite people to join me, so we create the painting together. As mentioned it is a personal make up for my early art experience but first and foremost in relation to history it is a symbolic act of striking back. I guess one could also call it decolonizing aesthetics.
I am excited and nervous at the same time.
Can you give us a comment on Whip it good! now you have done the performance?
It was an overwhelming experience. I found that the performance created a quite complex situation. When inviting the audience to finish the painting for me it actually became a tricky collaboration project/painting. And it created a great debate afterwards. Many reactions on who was whipping ; if it was a black or white person. And that’s obvious because history is layered within us all. I think the performance revealed that in a simple manner.
What are your upcoming projects?
I will have a huge solo show in Copenhagen at the Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center in 2014. I am preparing it and I want to do new work for the exhibition. Maybe, I will go further with performance? I do not know yet.
Another thing I am thinking about is using my father again. I used him in the video The Invisible Empire, a work that deals with the Transatlantic slave trade in relation to modern slavery.
But nothing is worked out yet!
May 21, 2013, in Berlin, Germany
By Clelia Coussonnet
Headline picture’s credits : Jeannette Ehlers © Carsten Bundgaard