Suffering is not relative
What happens when, for the German EU Council Presidency, the Goethe-Institut invites artists and strangers to a table? At Europe’s Kitchen in Scotland, video installations by artist Jeannette Ehlers were the focus of the table discussions.
By Annette Walter
In many of her performances, artist Jeannette Ehlers deals with the topic of colonialism. This is due to the biography of the artist whose parents come from Denmark and Trinidad. “Black is a Beautiful Word. I&I” and “The Gaze” are her two most recent video works on the subject. The first piece is based on a historical photo of Sarah, a Black woman forced to work as a maid in the former Danish West Indies for the Danish pharmacist and amateur photographer Alfred Paludan-Müller. The photo is contrasted with several portraits of women of different ethnicities. Only Black actors can be seen in the performance “The Gaze”. Ehlers addresses the subject of observation: What does the “white” gaze mean, how do we reflect the present-day influence of colonialism, how should we think about humanity and power structures?
“It was very unusual for Denmark to have so many Black performers on stage in ‘The Gaze’”, explains Ehlers. Her aim was to create a very intense atmosphere and to indicate the challenges for the fortress that Europe has become. “The EU must deal with its colonial past”, stressed moderator Priya Basil.
Connections to the African diasporaIn her works, Ehlers feels closely connected to the African diaspora. For the artist it’s “heart-breaking that we still have to deal with the issue of colonialism”, but at the same time she believes that people today are more aware of what was done to the people in the colonies.
Following up on the mention of Africa as a continent shaped and exploited by colonialism, the author and historian Lizzie Collingham, who has long researched the history of food and nutrition, explained how African culture and way of life came to the United States. Rice found its way into the American kitchen when rice was imported, for example by farmers in the state of South Carolina. The North American continent was also shaped by the knowledge and labour of enslaved African people who taught white people how to cook with rice. Collingham deems it important that we understand the history behind our food and critically reflect on the stories of brutality that are associated with it. Taking this development seriously gives us the opportunity to overcome unfortunate aspects of history.
Paul Gilroy, writer of the landmark book The Black Atlantic and professor at University College London, said, “Jeanette Ehlers’ works celebrate the fact that racism can be overcome. In her extraordinary pieces she reveals the sadness of not having a home”. For the Scottish author A. L. Kennedy (Serious Sweet), “The Gaze” demonstrates that whites always want to be seen, a behaviour she finds toxic.
“I have to know my place in the world”Moderator Priya Basil mentioned Scotland’s own bloody colonial history, while Scotland, in turn, suffered under English rule. “I don’t want to take sides”, Gilroy said in response. He noted that it makes no sense for a scholar to try to ascertain which group suffered more. But how should we deal with the suffering of the affected population groups caused by the brutality of colonialism? The moderator responded by quoting British author Zadie Smith: “Suffering is not relative.”
Gilroy thinks we should not have a purely melancholy relationship with past suffering. “We mustn’t insist on such a melancholy political relationship”, he recommended. For Ehlers, the study of history means one thing above all: “I have to know my place in the world.”