Indigenizing the gaze

A recent exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien uses radical curatorial hospitality to dismantle Western supremacist frames of visioning the world.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Nov 06, 2021

My brown body struggled through my first cinematic screening in two years at the opening of the Innsbruck International Film Festival on October 5, 2021. This, the 30th edition, was helmed by Anna Ladinig, who introduced the opening film, Notturno by Gianfranco Rosi, a film she had first viewed and been moved by at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. She hoped we would ‘like it’ as much as she did. The premise was intriguing—the film is composed of footage recorded over a three-year span among people who have survived the brutalities of war between Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon. Except, the audience is never ever privy to the context of the aesthetically exaggerated scenes. We never gleam the location or even the identities of those who have been documented even as we are exposed to the horror and grief that continue to frame their lives. The gaze is unapologetically white, and much of my immense discomfort was rooted in how the film seemed to extract suffering, filtering it through a sophisticated filmic lens in order to distil and project it to feed characteristically white curiosity about wars that are the direct consequence of colonialist legacies, but which remain distant to the everyday consciousness of white Europe. I was personally culture-shocked by the audience’s ability to engage in chit-chat and drinks immediately after. I was still reeling from an early scene in which grieving mothers move from room to room in an abandoned prison mourning the tortured demise of their sons. It felt wrong, even reprehensible, that a filmmaker should allow us such unbridled access to the privacy of such intensity of emotion. Was it consensual in an informed and educated way? Did the women know their tears were being harvested to induce feeling in a western audience whose engagement with their realities is heavily insulated, tangential at best? And the Yazidi children we see sharing with their counsellor the violence to which they were subjected to is through their retelling of their dreams, drawings, and memories… did they have any say in how their lost childhoods would be projected to the rest of the world, and to what end, to stir European audiences into empathy? Though I’d never seen Rosi’s 2016 Oscar-nominated film, Fire at Sea, and probably won’t, I wondered at the ethics of his cinematic strategies, the over-privileging of aesthetics over radical empathy. Only in white Europe could a film like this be screened without any form of post-viewing discussion. What was the point of watching this collectively in a theatre if there was no way to process or even critique it collaboratively?

Bartolina Xixa, Ramita Seca, La Colonialidad Permanente [Dry Twig, The Permanent Coloniality], film still| Maximiliano Mamani/Bartolina Xixa | STIRworld
Bartolina Xixa, Ramita Seca, La Colonialidad Permanente [Dry Twig, The Permanent Coloniality], film still Image: Courtesy of Maximiliano Mamani, Bartolina Xixa

Alone in my annoyance with Rosi's hierarchic valuing of craft over compassion, I found myself revisiting some of the most poignant moments I had encountered at and if I devoted my life to one of its feathers? It was an exhibition staged at Kunsthalle Wien, in association with Wiener Fest Wochen, curated by Miguel A López, that placed, centrestage, the dissident voices of indigenous peoples from different parts of the world. Arriving soon after the opening days of Steirischer Herbst, the environment that had been evolved from the heightened state of contact between the displayed works felt like a site of refuge for marginalised subjectivities like my own. López had been invited by Kunsthalle Wien's directors, WHW, (what, how & for whom) to curate the show, which had originally been scheduled for 2020. It was akin to the spirit of the 2016 documentary, Les Sauteurs (Those who Jump), in which Scandinavian filmmakers Moritz Siebert and Estphan Wagner empowered Abou Bakar Sidibé, with cinematic agency by offering him the camera, allowing him to exert influence over the film's trajectory and narrative as he, along with other hopeful African migrants, attempt to trespass the land border between Northern Morocco and Spain to access the enclave of Melilla, known as Europe on African Land. We witness how Sidibé, from Mali, evolves a relationship with the lens and intuitively acknowledges its power as a framing device and as documentary witness. Watching the ensuing film, also about resilience in the face of devastating circumstances, one doesn't feel like the protagonists are being mined for their suffering. Instead, there is an overpowering humanity that is revealed in their desperation to cross over, unlike in Rosi's film, which is achieved purely because the filmmakers had the audacity and courage to surrender their gaze and resist the urge to project emotion through the editing process, thereby allowing the people most invested in the narrative to share their truths and points of view.

02 min watch Notturno, a film by Gianfranco Rosi | Trailer | 01Distribution
Notturno, a film by Gianfranco Rosi Revisiting the Past Video: Courtesy of 01Distribution

The entrance to and if I devoted my life to one of its feathers is populated by Babi Badalov’s visual meditations, M-otherlanguage which set the tone for the exhibition’s re-appropriation of language to speak about epistemic violence that has historically ‘othered’ the racialised South and non-cis-het-white subjectivities. María Galindo and Danitza Luna’s 2019 poster series, La piel de la lucha, la piel de la historia (The Skin of the Fight, the Skin of History) hits the nail on the head quite literally. In one work an illustration by Luna of a hammer lodging a nailed book against a fissured head is accompanied by this all-caps text, ‘I need a European Cultural Institution where I can return to them the universal history of philosophy, the universal history of art, and the universal history of humanity because they are not universal but particular, androcentric Eurocentric and colonial.’

Installation view: And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers, Kunsthalle Wien 2021 | © eSeL.at - Lorenz Seidler| STIRworld
Installation view: And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers, Kunsthalle Wien 2021 Image: © eSeL.at - Lorenz Seidler; Courtesy of Kunsthalle Wien

The exhibition's strength is precisely in its embrace of collectivity, allowing for myriad perspectives through a colossal range of artistic mediums and techniques whose origins are not necessarily nestled within Western intellectual or art historical traditions. There is an enmeshed soundscape that emerges from diverse works situated across the length of the gallery. It is the choreographed, responsive clapping from the Afro-Peruvian artist, Victoria Santa Cruz's 1978 filmed performance, Me gritaron negra (They Called Me Black) that punctuated my experience of the exhibition. Though played on loop, not once did it seem repetitive. In fact, each time she recounts for us her childhood account of being derisively called Black and her personal re-appropriation of the word as a powerful embrace of her body and her legacy you can sense your blood-tide swelling in assonance.

03 min watch Les Sauteurs (Those who Jump) by Moritz Siebert, Estphan Wagner, Abou Bakar Sidibé| Trailer | Zurich Film Festival
Les Sauteurs (Those who Jump) by Moritz Siebert, Estphan Wagner, Abou Bakar Sidibé Video: Courtesy of Zurich Film Festival

The exhibition is emotionally complex because it allows for so many convergences to manifest and assemble around the titular poetic fragment, drawn from Cecilia Vicuña’s 1969-1971 poem, which the curator situates as a call to weave aesthetic and spiritual threads between human and nonhuman entities and worlds and her monumental installation, Burnt Quipu, a visual lament against forest fires, a manifestation of unchecked extractivist capitalism furthered by white supremacy and patriarchy. The title, the curator tells us, also ‘evokes the assemblages that Vicuña began to create in the mid-1960s: a series of small sculptures made out of things she found on the beach, which she would place on the sand at the water’s edge in a humble act of communication with nature. Like sacred offerings, these fragile articulations—pieced together out of feathers, driftwood, pebbles, and string—played a role in a larger dialogue. These objects, fated to disintegrate and blend into nature, represented a way of honouring the reciprocity of the natural world, without submitting it to violence of any kind.’

Installation view: And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers, Kunsthalle Wien 2021 | © eSeL.at - Lorenz Seidler| STIRworld
Installation view: And if I devoted my life to one of its feathers, Kunsthalle Wien 2021 Image:© eSeL.at - Lorenz Seidler, Courtesy of Kunsthalle Wien

The state of suspension evoked in Vicuña’s hanging threads is re-iterated in Hiwa K’s poetic odyssey, Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue), a retracing of a journey afoot through wastelands and harbours, from Turkey to Athens and Rome, apparently the same path he took as a child when fleeing Iraqi Kurdistan for Europe. Hiwa K balances absurdly, upon his nose, a handmade pole bearing an assemblage of rear-view mirrors while his voice-over hand-holds us through his consciousness, and what it meant for him to have been born at all, despite his mother’s attempts to undo his conception. This seething resilience in the face of extremities is carried forward in the Andean drag queen Bartolini Xixa’s dramatic performance over a garbage dump to music and lyrics composed by folk singer, Aldano Bello, in a video work titled Ramita Seca, La Colonialidad Permanente (Dry Twig, The Permanent Coloniality). The introduction to the film is a powerful reminder of the consequence of epistemic violence performed against indigenous populations through continuing forms of colonisation: ‘We are a great metabolism that digests economic consumerism and expels its shit in the peripheries of our world. We are the garbage that this hygienic and neat world does not want to see. We are the ones who pay the ecological debt of those who squander us and transact in power.’

04 min watch Victoria Santa Cruz- Me gritaron negra/ They called me black (woman)- Poem with english subtitles| Alicia Quevedo
Victoria Santa Cruz- Me gritaron negra/ They called me black (woman)- Poem with english subtitles Video: Courtesy of Alicia Quevedo

Despite the visual and poetic renderings of violent brutalities, the artistic visions in the exhibition belligerently rely on hope as that thing with feathers. The curatorial vision seems vehemently invested in revealing how so many forms of activistic and artistic resistance are life-sustaining in how they celebrate the resilience of alternative subjectivities that thrive despite their marginalisation. Zapantera Negra's installation that harmonises the ideological and aesthetic frameworks of the 1983-founded Zapatista Army of National Libration and the Black Panthers (1966-1982) is another excellent inclusion that underlines the myriad contexts for alliances and solidarities between various modes of resistance and the numerous possibilities that exist by way of exhibition contexts and re-framing the gaze. The exhibition, like the film, Les Sauteurs, derives its heft from the radical hospitality extended by white intellectuals to those who have been historically denied artistic agency. Both serve as potential models for how non-Western, non-Eurocentric, indigenous place-thought pedagogies can occupy centrestage as we collectively attempt to repair our world(s).

Click here to know more about the exhibition.

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