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 © Jeannette Ehlers

LOOKING at / with / for / after ONE ANOTHER
BLOG Mohammed Z Rahman

Response to pieces

When I first saw Jeanette Ehlers’ pieces they felt like medicine. Ehlers offered two digital performance works for Europe’s Kitchen, Black is a Beautiful Word. I &I (2019) and The Gaze (2018). To me, these are pieces about reckoning with history through intimacy. Ehlers pulls a table between the present and past where the former reaches across and the latter can only sit.

Black Is A Beautiful Word. I &I (2019) is an act of care between a morphing descendant and her ancestor, Sarah, pictured livid in a stiff dress from the Danish colonial archive. I was touched by Ehlers’ choice to frame this through a validation of rage instead of simple consolation. In doing so, Ehlers deftly shows us how there’s no room for formality when the intimacy of blood runs quick to the heart. The descendant inhabits Sarah and speaks as though looking into a mirror. To children of empire, an ancestor can make us star-stuck with their sudden apparition, eerily absent from textbooks and television. We often find them well outside of our school years and when we do, we lose no time writing and rewriting their and our own characters, and in a sense become Ehlers’ morphing portrait.

In The Gaze (2018) the all-Black crowd looks empire in the face. They tell the score with the Stuart Hall quote, “I am here because you were there,” smashing any illusion that empire resides in the past alone. I owe much to Black cultural production for helping me understand my own place as a reluctant child of empire, and though I can’t speak for any Black experience, I saw flashes of myself in the eyes of the performers, in the disjointed unity of diaspora. Originally part of a theatre performance, now a video, The Gaze (2018) retains its power. To look into someone’s eyes and have them look back, however much I knew it was pre-recorded, made me feel seen. I became excruciatingly conscious of how the current world order dehumanises so many. This really played on my own ambivalent place on the colonised/coloniser binary as a British-Bengali. My people endured famines to make this country rich and yet who made my shoes?

The months have been a blur of numbers, pixelated shapes struggling, headlines and tweets. The inertia of the pandemic, the ability to watch the world from our palms and the utopian negotiations of a new normal has plunged us into what feels like a collective fever dream. I think the current social upheaval in the world can be read as an immune response against the illnesses of the old normal, the outcome of which is unknown. We can only hope the present inflammation will be the necessary evil for wellness.

Ehlers’ pieces fit together as intimacy and painful histories do- the bitter and the sweet taken together in hope the medicine will work. As Ehlers said herself on how her work has new resonances with the recent popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement: “The world is burning, it’s been burning for a long time now but it’s really showing, and that’s what I’ve been trying to deal with in my art… Hopefully we’re going in the right direction”.

Ehlers’ reckoning with history shaped the virtual Europe’s Kitchen discussion for Glasgow and Huntly on Sunday 18 October. Hosted by Priya Basil and featuring Jeannette Ehlers, Paul Gilroy, Lizzie Collingham and A. L. Kennedy, the panel discussed their responses to the performance pieces. Regrettably curator Karen Alexander and Izzy Conway of Soul Food Sisters couldn’t join due to technical difficulties. The panel comprised of an artist, academic, historian and poet laid the albeit immaterial table with plenty of food for thought, especially on the political potential of melancholia and food.

Food historian Lizzie Collingham kicked off the conversation with the image of slave ships, described by Ehlers in Black Is Beautiful. I&I (2019) as “seed pods” sowing Black diasporas across the world. Collingham explained various ways the transatlantic trade transplanted peoples, ecology, agriculture and food knowledge between West Africa and the southern US, a silver lining to the violent engine of empire. She framed the celebration of cultural exchange as a means of overcoming difference; the action of mopping pot likker with cornbread as a kind of gastric solidarity shared between Ghana and the deep south. “It’s about understanding a history, knowing it, acknowledging it and then moving on from it and not holding that as a reason to have resentment… that’s the challenge,” reflected Collingham with an optimism I wish I could embody.

Paul Gilroy, consistent with his notion of the Black Atlantic, also spoke on the freeing relationality of culture and its appropriation against the grain of domination. Through two African-Americans, Rufus Harley, the jazz bagpiper, and Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist inspired by the poet Robert Burns, Gilroy highlighted how the culture of one colonised people can stoke the imaginations of another. This was interesting given the complexities of Scotland with its own bitter colonial history under England and its role as a coloniser, evident in the saltires over Jamaica and the Confederate South.

“The utopia of drawing lines and moving on is not one I can entertain,” Gilroy responded to Collingham, dubbing the political approach as Blairite and obscene. Rather, it is best to hold these histories together without the arithmetic. For those who can draw on it, melancholia is a very present mobilising force for better or for worse. As Gilroy explained, “I don’t want to make sides. The figure of the suffering person is the ultimate prestige object in mainstream thought and I hope it’s not a phase we get stuck in.” I took these words to speak to the role victimhood played in driving Brexiteers to sink the country into isolationism over selectively-amnesiac ideas of a UK bled dry by foreigners.

Poet A.L. Kennedy elaborated further on the dangers of sinking into melancholia: “You can’t think and feel strong emotions all at once. A lot of the racists narratives produce emotion which prevents [people] from thinking rationally and holding complexity”. Here Kennedy made a great point about food using this same mechanism, but to the opposite end. Food can bypass the complexities of hateful ideology towards an instinctive shared humanity. I’m a firm believer in this. Drawing on the ironic appropriation of fish and chips, an originally Sephardi dish, by white nationalists, Kennedy mused, “I can eat someone else’s food and my skin will smell like theirs. This is why it freaks racists out [to know the origins of their food] and I love how you can get in at that level”. Here Kennedy is hinting at what is perhaps one of the answers to unrest of our time. Food is an intervention into the everyday and the intimate, and is perhaps more potent than the boots and billy-clubs we see on our streets.

In coming back to intimacy and revolution, we owe a return to Ehlers’ pieces. Picking up on Kennedy’s points on the food we eat, Ehlers remarked, “Our bodies smell of history, they contain history.” Ehlers went on to explain a recent piece of hers which uses afro hair as an intervention in the Thorvaldsen museum, Copenhagen. In placing hair, something so imbued with self and human presence in a space populated by depictions of white people in marble, Ehlers honours her ancestors’ contribution to the museum, otherwise underrepresented despite the museum being founded with slaveholder money. As in The Gaze (2018) and Black is a Beautiful Word I&I (2019), when handling history Ehlers’ work conveys how intimacy is the ingredient that stops us from looking away. In a context where mutual aid is needed more than ever, a plateful at the table will do more for us than the walls steepening across Europe and the world.