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ESSAYS Mousse 22

Raising the Phantoms of Empire. Post-Colonial Discourse in Recent Artists’ Films

by Katerina Gregos

 

Vincent Meessen, Vita Nova, 2009. Courtesy: Normal, BrusselsVincent Meessen, Vita Nova, 2009. Courtesy: Normal, Brussels

 

An African child soldier, young people in the Congo who stage “images of poverty” akin to the ones exploited by the Western media, Nigerian guerrillas fighting the big oil companies. These are some of the subjects analysed by Katerina Gregos in her overview of new work that falls within the vast scope of postcolonial artistic discourse. Art that reveals suppressed, marginalized stories, often on film or video, to create a counter-narrative to Western myths and stereotypes about Otherness.

 

Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism, published in 1978, can be said to have triggered the advent of post-colonial theory. In it, Said argued that “European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period”[1] and described how it was turned into a subject of power and knowledge, organized so as to maintain colonial rule. The book gave rise to post-colonial discourse, with its emphasis on the effects of European colonization in the “Third World” and the resulting domination, suppression, and censorship. It was crucial in determining the new historical narratives that have emerged as a response to the dominant “master narratives” of European nationhood, identity and culture, and in response to the residue of colonial power today. Though Europe’s colonial chapter is almost closed in terms of territorial occupation and direct governance, its repercussions can still be felt, and rewriting the histories of the dominated “Other” is still an unfinished project, as Europe gradually comes to terms with its dark history in this respect. As Homi Bhabha points out, “the history of colonialism is the history of the West but also […] a counter-history to the normative, traditional history of the West”; counter, that is, to the “enlightened” “master narratives of state, citizen, cultural value, art, science”[2]. In fact, the multiple silences around the truth of colonialism have only begun to be revealed, since many former empires fell subject to home-spun dictatorships and local despotic rule in the wake of their liberation, but also because Europe literally “stole” the colonies’ capacity to tell their own history, rendering them voiceless by what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called “epistemic violence”: the destruction or suppression of non-Western knowledge and thereby the consolidation of Western ways of thinking.

The legacy of colonialism continues today in different shapes and forms, and with it, the need for continued critical discourse. One way this is manifested is, as Homi Bhabha points out, in “the material legacy of this repressed history [which] is inscribed in the return of post-colonial peoples to the metropolis.”[3] Moreover, at a time when the West is engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—unquestionably a contemporary form of neo-colonialism—and the Middle East remains in crisis, the questions raised by Said are as important as ever. So it is not surprising that a number of artists have recently been making art in response to the continuing aftermath of colonial rule. Much of this work coincides with the recent historiographic turn in contemporary art, particularly the examination of repressed, alternative or marginalized histories, as well as the desire to look at history not through a nostalgic prism, but as a tool of knowledge that illuminates the present. I have chosen to focus on lens-based work, as such practices lend themselves well to the narrative possibilities that are needed to recount contested histories, aimed at offering a counter-narrative to dominant Western myths and stereotypes about the “Other”. Much of this work has been concerned with how historical narratives are negotiated and produced, and with the political implications of these processes. As Spivak has pointed out “We produce historical narratives and historical explanations by transforming the socius, upon which our production is written into more or less continuous and controllable bits that are readable. How these readings emerge and which one get sanctioned have political implications on every level.”[4] At the same time, these artists uncover countless fabricated narratives that supported and maintained what Adam Hochschild, in his book King Leopold’s Ghost, called “the great forgetting”, referring to the legacy of Belgian King Leopold II’s rule in the Congo, one of the most violent chapters in colonial history.

 

Mark Boulos, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (still), 2008. Courtesy: the artistMark Boulos, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (still), 2008. Courtesy: the artist

 

Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s six-screen video installation Where is Where? (2008) centers on the tensions and misunderstandings between two different cultures. In reaction to the atrocities committed by the French army in 1950s Algeria, two Algerian boys killed their friend, a French boy of their own age. The story that unfolds revolves around three main characters: the two Arab boys who committed the murder, and a present-day European female poet who tries to make sense of the event. The incident is thus fast-forwarded to today, then re-wound to the past, and sometimes plays out in a synchronous space. Its characters – who travel back and forth in time—belong to different eras, but inhabit the same narrative and psychological space. At the heart of the story is the relationship between this event and the current situation, attempting to put the conflicts between Western and Arab cultures into longer-term perspective, demonstrating how the ghosts of the past rise to haunt the present, and how past and present form one inextricable continuum.

Vincent Meessen’s Vita Nova (2009) takes as its point of departure a cover photo from a 1955 issue of the French magazine Paris-Match, in which a black child soldier is depicted making a military salute. The caption reads: “The nights of the army. Little Diouf has come from Ouagadougou with his comrades, children reared by the A.O.F. army, to open the fantastic spectacle that the French Army presents this week at the Palais des Sports”. The artist embarks on a search for Diouf, the child soldier who is depicted, weaving an elaborate narrative that brings together a number of phantoms from the colonial past, and focusing on the figure of Roland Barthes – who wrote a critical text about this particular image. Historical fact, reality, artistic interpretation, and imagination are conflated, and the spectator is invited to piece together the fragments of the story, as timeframes become dislocated and chronologically disconnected. Drawing on a variety of media and archival material, as well as his own footage, Meessen creates a parallel, updated story in which a new character is born (Vita Nova) and with him, a new narrative. The film also brings to life the personal story of Roland Barthes, who is revisited by the phantom of post-colonialism, and resurrected in a black body. By the end of the film, it turns out that Barthes suppressed his own personal history; we discover that his grandfather, Gustave Binger, was the first governor of Côte d’Ivoire, thus implicating Barthes in the very narratives he wished to critique. Vita Nova reflects on the artifice involved in historiographical discourse, using the fiction of “realism” and the experience of archives to arrive at a distinctive form of “factual fiction”.

 

Wendelien Van Oldenborgh, No False Echoes, 2008. Courtesy: Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam and Van Abbe Museum, EindhovenWendelien Van Oldenborgh, No False Echoes, 2008. Courtesy: Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam and Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven

 

In Staged Archive (2008) Maryam Jafri sets up a dramatic, theatrical mise-enscène which functions as a metaphor for the personal abuses and repercussions that derived from colonial rule. The film’s fictional narrative is inspired by the history of missionaries and travelers voyaging to the far reaches of the globe to spread their rhetoric. Conceived as a fiery, baroque courtroom drama, the story revolves around a grown man who revisits his traumatic childhood in Africa. A tragic twist of events ensues, resulting in the murder of a black woman. The story unfolds as a series of spatial and identity shifts, and references various film genres. Jafri creates a bleak landscape where suppressed memories and nightmares, stemming from stereotypes of colonial “desire”, can resurface. The work is mostly concerned with personal facets of the specter of colonialism – its psychological effects on the individual, and the question of personal guilt. Staged Archive is a kind of theater for the camera, situated between reality and total artifice. The artist uses narrative excess to dissociate her work from normative or dominant representations of history, which often ignore the human psychological parameter, and instead highlights history’s imposition on individual consciousness and the return of the colonial subconscious. Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s Maurits Script (2006) is based on a compilation of excerpts from different sources about Johan Maurits van Nassau, who as governor of North East Brazil (1637 – 1644) secured control of vast areas for the Dutch West India Company; he has often been credited as being an early modernist ruler, one who exercised a more enlightened, tolerant, statesmanlike form of colonial rule. The work was staged and filmed at a live event in the Mauritshuis, The Hague (built by Maurits as his residence). A group of participants from different ethnic backgrounds, some of them second or third-generation immigrants from the former colonies, “performed” and discussed the contents of the text in relation to the present day. Maurits Script focuses on the paradoxes and friction produced by the “art of governing”, on the institutions of the period, and on personal relations between different groups of people with conflicting interests, who found themselves living together at a given moment. It also highlights the different perspectives that arise due to the relativity involved in interpreting historical texts. The narrative that emerges is multifaceted, allowing many different colonial “voices” to emerge, conflating “official” history and “unofficial” or grassroots history. But which version of history is true? Finally, the work situates the legacy of colonial history in the light of contemporary society. More problematic, but equally relevant in terms of the questions it raises, is Renzo Martens’ much-contested film Enjoy Poverty (2008). Martens travelled deep into the Congo, meeting Congolese people who are unable to benefit from the wealth of their country’s natural resources. He tries to convince these people to capitalize on their poverty by instigating a do-it-yourself emancipation program based on the idea that “images of poverty” could be a lucrative resource for them. Under Martens’ guidance, local photographers are instructed how to photograph images of impoverishment and suffering. The film is meant to critique how the Western media exploits Africa’s misery for the news. The problem with it, however, is that it offers the disempowered false hopes of empowerment, which in this writer’s opinion both treads dangerous ethical territory and perpetuates the same situation it sets out to critique, thus making itself susceptible to accusations of a neocolonialist stance, if we see “neo-colonialism [as] a displaced repetition of many of the old lines laid down by colonialism.”[5]

 

Mark Boulos, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (still), 2008. Courtesy: the artistMark Boulos, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (still), 2008. Courtesy: the artist

 

Mark Boulos’s two-screen installation All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2008) also offers a more contemporary angle on one aspect of colonialism that continues to this day: the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources by the West, in this case in the oil-rich Niger Delta. One screen depicts the Nigerian guerrilla group MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), which has declared “total war” on the Western oil companies – the corporate colonizers – that mine their territory, in this case Royal Dutch Shell. The other screen depicts American traders who buy and sell “futures” – perhaps the most speculative of financial products – on the trading floor at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. From the physical world of guerrilla struggle and hard labour to the virtual world of financial speculation, the material commodities themselves and the people who toil to produce them vanish into nothingness. Nonetheless, in documenting the armed struggle of the guerrillas, Boulos challenges the contemporary convention of “human rights” documentaries and the post-colonial cliché of the “Victim”. Post-colonialism, no doubt, is still an unfinished project as the erstwhile colonized world continues to be full of unresolved issues, of “contradictions, of half-finished processes, of confusions, of hybridity, and liminalities.”[6] In conclusion, one might say that while these artistic perspectives do shed more light on the disenfranchised “Other” and allow suppressed or marginalized histories to resurface, they also affirm that post-colonialism is still mostly written by the West; what is lacking to this day is space for non-Western multiple perspectives, space where Spivak’s “sub-alterns” can reclaim their voice.

 

[1] Said, Edward W., Orientalism (1978), Penguin, 1995, p. 3.
[2] Rutherford, Jonathan (Ed.), “The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha”, in Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1990, p. 218
[3] Ibid.
[4] Spivak, Gayatri Chaktavorti, “Who Claims Alterity”, in Harrison, Charles & Wood, Paul J. (Eds. ), Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Blackwell, 1992, p. 1120.
[5] Ibid., p. 1122.
[6] Eds. Johnston, R. J., Gregory, D., Pratt, G., Watts, M., Dictionary of Human Geography (4th edition), Blackwell, 2007, p. 561.

 

Originally published on Mousse 22 (February–March 2010)

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