The psychoanalyst and cultural critic Suely Rolnik interviews the Portuguese artist Grada Kilomba, whose works are part of the 32nd São Paulo Biennale.
This conversation took place via Skype on a Sunday at the end of July. Grada’s image does not appear in the text - the softness of her face, of her gestures, of the tone of her voice, her smile. And yet, these are essential elements of the place where the artist positions herself before the problems that move her thinking. I ask the reader to make an imaginative effort to impregnate Grada’s words with the atmosphere of her presence.
For the little I saw of your work, which I loved, I know it is a shamanic-psychoanalytic work. What are you preparing for the Biennale?
I am preparing two projects for the Biennale. One is called Project Desire, which is a video installation and the other is Illusions, which is a performance, or a lecture-performance, I don’t know how to call it. There are two different formats, which is something I like. I like that idea of being occupied by a theme, not having a concrete discipline, and then the theme appears in different formats and in different disciplines. It is totally transdisciplinary. And that to me is very important: this freedom, this flexibility of not clinging to a discipline, but being focused on a theme, being passionate and involved with it, and then, as we work on it, the format and the visualization appear. For me, this is part of the decolonization of knowledge. Project Desire is a video installation that creates three moments: the audience will enter a space and go down a little path to see three different films and three different stories, but which have the same sound; and the sound is a rhythmic drum, a drum that resembles a bit the African rhythms. So, through the same sound I get different information and see different things. And what I’ve worked on here was for these three videos to have no images: it is the text that becomes the image. I work only with text, words, rhythms and voices. They are silenced narratives acquiring voice to make themselves heard, to tell their story. This is the path: the three moments explore this idea of someone who wants to come to voice. This is the Project Desire: what I want, what I desire, what it takes, how I want to tell my story.
It is an essay then, in the sense of experimentation, of how to incarnate the desire, how to not give up the desire, how to not succumb to silencing. And which stories are you going to tell?
I started with the project I showed in São Paulo, when we met, it was a short video called While I Write, with only words. That was the beginning of the project, and I continued: While I Speak, While I Walk. There are three moments in this trajectory. It speaks precisely about the narratives that were silenced and how we got our voice back, how we gave voice to our history, or how we recollected our history, which is fragmented. There are three different moments that refer to it, and in each moment the audience will sit, watch the video, go to the next video, view it again, and then move to the third video, watch it again. For me, this is a spiritual and reflective journey, because I want to work with rhythm, voices, music and text and it’s something that is felt at the corporeal level also on the emotional level.
The drums themselves, the beat of the rhythm, set up a sound territory and, therefore, we are taken to this other place that you call spiritual, and which I call body knowledge, etho-ecological knowledge that comes from our condition as living beings.
Exactly. I worked with the idea that the narratives are silenced because other voices speak louder; it is not that we are not talking, but that our voice is not heard. So it’s not that we have not been producing knowledge and narration. We always talk, we always deliver knowledge, but they do not listen to our narration, they do not listen to our history. I made a series of recordings in public places and I use them at the beginning of the film, those background voices that are higher than our own voice, to play with this dialectic that is not that we do not speak, it’s that our voice is not heard. And I can only become a speaking subject if my voice is also heard. This is the interplay in the beginning. These voices then disappear as the rhythm and drums become louder and louder. They intersect like that. But I wanted to bring to a single project, almost simultaneously, the whole theory behind the dialectic of speaking and silencing, since talking and silence go together: I can only speak if my voice is really heard, and those that are heard are those who belong, those who don’t belong are those nobody listens to. I wanted to work with this interplay only through sound, and this is how it appears in the Project Desire, through the metaphor of the drums and music. So this is the interplay between listening, speaking and silencing.
This sound scheme is a beautiful solution: the layer of the background hubbub, the layer along with the words, the layer of the rhythm of the drums. So if the person is not fully “neuroticized”, if his/her subjectivity is not fully subsumed to the anthro-phallus-ego-logocentrism of modern Western culture, when s/he comes across the work, it will be difficult to remain focused only on the content of the words. S/he will be affected by the rhythm, the texture of voices emerging from the hubbub and making themselves more audible. With that, you bring a very important dimension of the black presence throughout the former Latin American colonies, which had slaves. Even though they have been and continue to be completely silenced, as if they did not exist, they occupied and continue to fully occupy a sound space. We do not realize, but it’s there.
It is exactly this sound space that you speak of. It’s beautiful. How to speak of this dialectic of speaking and silencing, without speaking, without explaining, but through the sonorous space? How to convey this knowledge through the sound space? This is the experience in this project. So I thought, I will work only with the rhythms, only with percussion, only with the voices. And then, instead of having the visual aspect with images, as we are used to see, I’ll bring the word that we print on paper so it becomes visual. It is an exchange of formats and of the place of things. This is the Project Desire. Does it make sense to you?
It makes perfect sense; the idea is beautiful. This brings me to what you said earlier about the need for transdisciplinarity in your work. That which you call theme, something that already has a format and a meaning, I would call a state that is in our body, which is real but unspeakable and invisible; a state that results from the effects of the world forces, the whole world’s memory in our body, from the ongoing coup in Brazil or the danger of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States to the history of slavery, passing by the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula, and to a more distant past. It is this experience that leads us to create something that makes it sensible and, to do so, the desire connects us with different things until something begins to be composed, something that brings to light that state of the world that inhabits us. In your case, this state is a result of the effects of colonial violence on your body, especially on your blackness, that makes you connect with the drums, the tone of voices, makes you take off the image and put text in its place, etc. Attracted by this experience that you want to bring into existence, all these elements enter into the composition of your work. So, how can this process be fit into a discipline or depart from it, if the starting point is an experience that has no word, no sound, no image, no gesture and inventing them, is this precisely the work to be done?
That’s exactly it. It’s what allows us to work with other artists who seek to create meaning out of an experience that resonates with ours and because of that our paths cross.
And how is the other work you are preparing for the Biennale?
The other work is called Illusions. It was a dream I had; I wanted to do a performance or a lecture-performance, I do not know how to call it. I wanted to work with the oral tradition, I am very enchanted by African tales, that tradition that brings knowledge through oral tradition. I thought: that it is what I really want to do, tell stories, bring this African tradition into a contemporary and minimalist space, with text, narration and video projection that brings back memories, sometimes imaginary elements. It is simple like that, very simple. What made me write these stories is that sometimes I feel that there is no longer anything to tell. For example, in relation to colonial history, we want to take it apart, but we are always telling the same story. We live in a fourfold ignorance of this history: we do not know, do not need to know, should not know and do not want to know. Then in Illusions I decided to tell another story. There are two stories linked to two myths: one is the myth of Narcissus, Narcissus’ love affair with Eco, which I bring to a colonial context, a Narcissus who is facing himself and who only represents his own image, only see his own image reflected in the lake.
He is the one that speaks louder and does not hear.
PERFORMANCE "DECOLONIZING KNOWLEDGE", VON GRADA KILOMBA | © Grada Kilomba
Exactly. And Narcissus, who only looked at himself and was convicted because he did not love anyone; he was sentenced to the punishment of falling in love with someone who would not reciprocate his love. He arrives at the lake, looks at the image and falls in love with it, not knowing that it was himself reflected in the water. So he never gets reciprocal love, and continues to ask for this love looking petrified at the image on the lake, thinking it’s another person who does not respond to him. And then comes Eco confirming his words because she too was convicted because she spoke too much and her punishment was not being able to say words other than the last ones she hears. She can only repeat the last words that are spoken. So while Narcissus talks to himself saying “I love you, come back to me,” Eco answers “back to me, back to me, I love you, I love you,” repeating Narcissus’s last words. Then, in Illusions I play a bit with this mythology, with such stories as metaphors for colonial tragedy. It is an endless repetition and infinite representation of oneself that is not the reality, but only one colonial image, white, patriarchal that is repeated constantly. It is about that one who is in love with himself and idealizes himself, and is condemned because he does not see anything except his own representation. It is a representation, a kind of enunciation that affirms that other people do not exist. And at the same time he also has the confirmation and consensus from Eco, who is so fixated on Narcissus always repeating and confirming what he says. In this colonial and patriarchal narcissism in which we live, how are we going to recover other narratives and other histories? The work is a performance in which I tell these traditional stories.
It is an amazing device to bring out the colonial relationship in its living pulsation, and not in its ideological representation. It is the experience of the living presence of the other in the body, the experience of the body-knowledge, which is distinct from cognition and which in the Western white subjectivity is fully anesthetized, and with it, the other is a mere representation, it does not exist. For me, this is what fundamentally defines what I call colonial-capitalistic subconscious. It is Narcissus, the perverse colonizer who abuses Eco and inseparably, Eco, the colonized, an appendage of the colonizer, condemned to idealize and mimic him. It’s like a spell, which runs through all the relationships in our societies and not only between colonizer and colonized. To break this spell is the issue and I think that’s what you seek with your work.
That’s right. And it’s so hard to break this spell, to come out of these places. It’s funny how psychoanalysis is present in our work; I see this connection in all dimensions that we are talking about. And Illusions has another important dimension to which I bring the tale of Oedipus. It is the dimension of loyalty. Who are we are loyal to? Why is it so difficult to change? And this is combined with another question: what it is that we are defending? Who do we have to defend? So I’m making a text to speak of postcolonial issues through various storytelling, many stories, and trying to make a link between one and other.
And how does Oedipus enter into this work?
There is a part that I like a lot, because it made me think of violence, especially against the black population. Where this violence comes from? Why the black body is the recipient of so much aggression, so much violence? And then I managed to connect with the story of Oedipus, the story of loyalty, the rival, the real rival, the fantasies of aggression against the father figure, against the mother figure. Fantasies that cannot be exercised because if they are, you lose access to power. So they will be performed on the body that I build as “the other”. In this other body I can exercise all the violence and all the aggressiveness and thus I keep the family and the colonial structure healthy, safe and in place, civilized. And all this aggression is a performance that is made outside of home, and it is to this end that the others are created. It was in this moment that I made the connection with Oedipus. Where does this violence come from? What we are defending? Oh sure, it is because if I rebel and exercise this aggression within the space of the house, the home, I will be expelled ...
And that’s where loyalty fits, as submission and obedience: preservation of the status quo.
Exactly. Why can’t I have another narrative, another vocabulary that is distinct from that of my father’s house? Why can’t I speak differently from my father or my mother? To whom am I loyal? Why such loyalty? It’s then that I think it makes a lot of sense to tell the stories and make the connection to Oedipus. It is also a beautiful way to get to this theme. Does it make sense to you?
It makes perfect sense. When subjectivity is reduced to its experience as subject and disconnected from that other experience of the effects of the forces of the world in the body, as it is the case in our culture, the subject interprets that destabilization which results from those effects as threatening the end of the world, when, in fact, it is that world which is coming to an end, because another world is already germinating. And for this subjectivity, that ignores the knowing-body, the threat of disintegration of that world is also threatening the disintegration of the self, since it is in that world that Narcissus is mirrored. So to preserve that world and itself, the subjectivity has to project the cause of its malaise in an other, has to create an other as a screen for this projection, and the actors who play this other character will vary throughout history. But it has been far too long that the black man has been in this role…
This brings us back to the ignorance that we were talking about. I do not know, I do not need to know, I should not know and I do not want to know. And then we are always in the same place, we do not disengage from this colonial, patriarchal, racist, homophobic history, precisely because of this narcissism and this loyalty. This is the narcissism and the loyalty that I want to explore with Illusions, but through the format of stories, bringing knowledge through oral tradition. I am working with video and images and also wanted to collect some archival footage. I’m still working on these Illusions, in this performance, but I wanted to make something very minimalist and simple. I’d like to focus on storytelling like in the other project, without much fuss and show, and I think this is also another form, another way to use performance. I’m still collecting images.
What images have you collected?
I found, for example, a letter from my Portuguese grandfather, a letter he wrote when he went to Angola, to my great-grandmother and my grandmother who was already born. He went to Luanda as a cook and he came from a village. In the letter, he describes the trip and what he saw in Luanda, describes people with all that colonial, racist vocabulary. It’s very complicated. And I have another letter, a more recent one, from my father when he went to Angola, and this is another story. I also have a document from my grandmother in São Tome and Principe when her name was taken away. I’m trying to create a narrative, and I find this is a very beautiful part of the document, Suely, because it is the time when Portuguese colonization used the assimilation strategy: becoming as similar as possible to the colonizer. So we all have the same name and one of the forms of assimilation was the prohibition of the use of African names. My Kilomba name is the name of my grandmother. Kilomba as quilombo also comes from Quimbundo, which is one of the most important languages in Angola.
What does quilombo mean? Because here, as you may know, this word has a political sense of black communities who escaped slavery. And there were hundreds of quilombos during the colonial period, some even joined and formed official cities. [TN: As in American Spanish, quilombo became a reference –obviously in the white and disrespectful sense – to disorder, chaos or quarrel, itself derived from brothel or bordello; although, as it is known, the same has been intensely and strongly propagated with the sense of struggle and collective insurgency, primarily on the Rio de la Plata, during the last decades of the 20th century and up to the present. In order to give a name to the places that became refuges and settlements for blacks who were fleeing slavery, and where some communities currently remain, the terms used today include Palenque, mainly in the Andes and in the Caribbean, and Cumbe in Venezuela.]
Quilombo in quimbundo meant village, gathering, but then was transformed into a political term, but keeping the same sense.
And Kilomba was her last or first name?
It was a surname. We had two names, Buzie and Kilomba. Buzie was my grandfather’s and Kilomba was my grandmother’s. Grada was the first name of my other grandmother. But African names were all prohibited during the colonial time. I went to an archive in Sao Tome and Principe to search for documents, because my grandmother and my mother told me how their name was banned and disappeared. And I found the documents in which the mother of my grandmother still had the Kilomba in her name and it was removed because she and many others were taken from the continent by force and taken to Sao Tome and Principe to work on cocoa and coffee plantations. They came from Angola, from Mozambique, from Cape Verde, and were taken to Sao Tome and Principe, isolated in different fields, with different languages and had the names prohibited. That’s why we have almost all the same name, in Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, Goa, East Timor. We all became Fernandes, da Silva, Ferreira, etc., and no one knows their own origins.
And what is your birth name?
I have a series of civil names. I tried to officially put back my family’s former name, Buzie Kilomba, but the Constitution is not prepared to deal with colonial history, we are only allowed to change the name by marriage, divorce or adoption. The colonial history is not part of the Constitution, it has no solution for this, there is not even a paragraph on how to deal with it, even when it refers to an entire population. You cannot retrieve a name that was canceled. So a couple of years ago, I decided to take back my original names, but as stage names because, although they are my names, I cannot have them in my passport.
And what’s your name on the passport?
I have all the Portuguese names in the passport, Ferreira, Pereira ..., and Grada is my given name which is, as I said, the name of one of my grandmothers. All the other names I chose. For example, Kilomba, the name of my other grandmother. So I have two women’s names in my name. But what is beautiful in this story of the names is that, as in Brazil, it is part of our colonial history.
Have you done some work on that?
I have written a story that I now want to include in the book Performing Knowledge and this name story is one that will appear there.
It is incredible to have the memory of the name aborted: a cancellation resulting from a violence which continues to perpetuate itself as the impossibility of recovery. It is the trauma infinitely reproduced.
That’s right and it’s not just the trauma. It is also the alienation: I can only be me, to have my name registered, officially, legally, if it is the colonizer’s name, that is, I can only have an official civil existence through the identity of the colonizer, by his name. We cannot forget that for a long time, until the ‘60s, I cannot remember exactly how long, the black population had no right to an identity, a nationality. Now I’m doing this archive work to check which images to work with to tell the story of Illusions, what is and what is not, and who can I be, who do I have to be, in order to become visible. So there is this wordplay with illusions. How do I retrieve this history?
What are you father’s origins?
My father is Portuguese and comes from a district in Coimbra, where everyone is Jewish, there was persecution throughout the whole region and the entire Jewish community was forced to change names. It is the case of my father’s family. All Portuguese names that end in eira, Macieira, Pereira, Ferreira, are Jewish.
Then you also have a Jewish part, via your New Christian father, with all the trauma that this name brings with it. Just as I have a Polish name that at some point was adopted in order to escape from persecution against the Jews, though we don’t even know what happened or when it happened. In addition, blackness is also part of my life, because of my closeness to Afro-Brazilian culture, but especially because of the pain that racism rouses in my white middle-class body, every time I observe this colonial-enslaving disease in Brazilian society – which goes much deeper than feeling solidarity or simple indignation. We share the work dealing with these two traumas.
I think it’s very beautiful to make, through our work, that bridge with the past, with the body and knowledge, through the body and its memory, with this spiritual dimension and many others dimensions.
For me, the return to the past is not a return to the ways of living, to that system of behavior and its representations, to the moral systems, a certain philosophy. It is much more a return to this connection with the knowing-body, and the more we go back to the memory of the past in the body, the freer we are of the toxic effects of its traumas, the more strength we gain to confront violence, to show it in the present, and the more powerful and precise our actions become for transforming this state of things. You’re right, this is what we do, each in our own way, in our work. It is a kind of love for life and for people, groups and communities that have remained and still remain in contact with life and have taken it in their hands with the desire to care for it.
It is love really, that’s perhaps why we talk about serious things with calm and a smile.
This smile comes from there. But we had to fight hard for it. It was always there, but didn’t cease to be struck down, doubted, in danger of disappearing, until it succeeded in imposing itself.
I bring this smile on my face because I’ve cried too much already.
Enough then, right?
Yes. We’ve talked about so much. It was beautiful talking to you, thank you.
Thank you too. It was lovely hearing you.
Interview originally published by the magazine ARTE!Brasileiros kindly made available for reprint on the Goethe-Institut's website in Brazil.