Melissa Chemam writes about a new installation of 140 blocks of wood that summons a forgotten history.
The outline of a slave ship is laid out on the stone courtyard of London’s Somerset House, like the fossilised remains of a whale. Grada Kilomba, a Portuguese writer and interdisciplinary artist of African descent, created O Barco / The Boat out of 140 blocks of charred wood (from Sao Tome and Angola). The piece, which takes the shape of a boat’s bottom, alludes to the slave ships that transported millions of Africans enslaved by European empires for centuries. Poems in six different languages are also inscribed on the surface of the blocks. “Addressing the history of European maritime expansion and colonisation,” the curators explain, “the piece invites the audience to consider forgotten stories and identities.” Somerset House was once home to the civil administration in charge of the British Royal Navy.
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trengwip before the start of the year. Live performances of song, music, and dance complement the artwork. “I would call it a sculpture, an installation, a performance, and poetry,” Kilomba tells BBC Culture. I’m not interested in any particular discipline, but rather in telling stories… I started with the Greek myth of Antigone, about a woman whose two brothers murder each other for power. Creon, the new king, allows only one to be buried in the city, leaving the other to the dogs. It became an important story to me about ceremony and memory. as well as human dignity.”
In Europe a history is being told that doesn’t reflect the complexity of the reality of people who lived and survived the slave trade – Grada Kilomba
Kilomba is also a lecturer, teaching post-colonial studies and psychoanalysis at institutions including the Free University of Berlin, Bielefeld University, and the University of Ghana. “The story of Antigone interrogates values that, to me, resonate with current human stories,” she continues. “It asks, ‘When will we be respected as bodies?’ ‘Which communities are granted the right to be treated as human beings?’ Whether in London, Lisbon, or Berlin, a history is being told in Europe that does not reflect the complexities of the reality of people who lived and survived the slave trade. The boat to me is a symbol of these times of glory, adventures and exploration that led Europe to exploit some humans for fabric wealth. “I wanted to question what was inside these boats and reflect on the ghosts and traumas of our societies.”
The ship’s hold
Kilomba studied psychoanalysis and uses “the language of the unconscious” to provide healing. Her goal is to create a language and physical forms that reflect the questions she has about her heritage, society, and the world around her. “I work with associations,” she says. “It’s become a natural process for me to transform these human tragedies into a visual language.” She incorporates bodies, movements, music, and rhythm into her performances, with music produced by award-winning writer and musician Kalaf Epalanga for this piece. “The work is there to raise questions that were not previously raised,” Kilomba adds.
“I work for creation and vision, not in the realm of morality”.
When asked how she feels about the post-colonial concepts she introduced in her writing and lectures in the 1990s, and how she reacts when audiences criticise them, she first acknowledges the work of artists from many generations. “I don’t think we’re living in a moment for black artists, black women artists, or queer creators,” she says emphatically. “This is a risky strategy. Our kind of artist has been creating work for a very long time. Now, because our work is very futuristic, the hegemonic frame of the Western world can make it difficult for some people to understand our narratives. We live this timeless language, looking beyond the present while also looking back. The boat is about how the past and present connect, as represented by the pieces of wood, with the paint and verses inscribed in various languages – Yoruba, Creole, Portuguese, English, Syrian Arabic…”
She works with symbols of repeated violence and tragedies, as a form of reflection on what it is to be human. “I’m concerned about which stories can be told in public,” she says. “And my goal is to flip knowledge, to inverse the concept of knowledge as it is known in Western civilisation, in order to include black people. For far too long, the history of the slave trade and the “Middle Passage” was not represented in public spaces, and I want to show what happens when we refuse to remember that history.”
Many African artists who have long participated in the 1-54 fair produce work along these lines. N Barreto, from Guinea Bissau, was among the first to participate. His work on psychological wounds and African unity has since travelled around the world, most notably his Disunited States of Africa series of African flags.
“Grada is a very interesting artist,” he says, arguing that, “as artists and as Africans… we have some important questions to raise about our identities, often multiple. My work with flags was political, and I continue to tell my story through my art. And what touches the African continent touches me, even though I don’t want to be defined by labels like nationality or ethnicity. However, as an artist, it is my responsibility to investigate these issues.”
The fair, according to Barreto, helps to empower artists and gallery owners. He met an international gallery owner, Nathalie Obadia, at the first 1-54 event and has since exhibited in New York City, Brussels, Paris, and most recently Marseille.