Decolonise Your Concepts Do We Really Live in the Era of Postcolonialism?

Do we really live in an era of post-colonialism?
© picture alliance / Westend61

Who is Chatting?

Tiago Sant’Ana (visual artist), Vitjitua Ndjiharine (visual artist) and José Mendonça (writer) are chatting with you about the question of what the terms “postcolonial” and “decolonial” mean, how applicable they are to our present times and what would need to happen for them to be truly applicable.

Concept and further authors: Regine Hader, Dr. Elisa Jochum
 
On WhatsApp and Telegram #DecoloniseYourLife ends on 7.12.2019. Here you can continue to follow all chats, and discuss with us.
  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    _ LizChezca, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

    This week, a Facebook friend of mine posted the following sentence on his profile: “Postcolonial is an impossibility, decolonial is a fashion, and anti-colonial is a struggle. I get the fight.” This phrase is attributed to Bolivian historian Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui. What do you think of this sentence? And how does it relate to discussions in your local reality – the three of us being from the so-called global South?
     

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    I think this sentence is very interesting. And for me it sort of rests on the notion that “postcolonial”, “decolonial” and “anti-colonial” have different meanings.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    Yes. I believe these words are not innocent.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    First of all, I recall that, in the past, I have rejected anything related to colonialism. I prefer to think in terms of AFROTROPISM, meaning the need for an intimate impulse to free Africans.
    This is just a position.
    On the quote by Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, I go to the struggle. I am anti-colonial, against this new form of ethno-colonialism. (Ethno-colonialism is an expression already used by eminent African philosophers and political scientists to describe developments after the end of European colonialism. New states emerged as multi-ethnic and multi-racial mosaics within artificial boundaries. The new powers in charge installed patrimonial states and they rule these nations in a dictatorial way based on nepotism and affiliations to the same party or ethnic group.)

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    In a way, historically, colonialism never stopped in Africa. We just changed the captains in charge.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    I have always had serious problems with the term “postcolonial”. Because it implies that there is a “post” – a time after colonialism – or that perhaps the colonial is over. This expression may cause noise in communication. And we know that there is no postcolonial. Because we still live in a setting that updates colonial systems.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    @Tiago: I agree with your statement on the noise in communication. I agree that there is no postcolonial – at least not yet. But since you mentioned Afrotropism, perhaps this is what the postcolonial wants to be.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    I first heard the word “decolonial” about six years ago. Although there were already systematic criticisms against the shackles of colonisation. Made by black activism since the 1970s, for example.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    The last part of Rivera Cusicanqui’s sentence…I get the fight. Says it all for me. That, no matter which term you use, there are difficulties involved.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    @José: I had never read the expression “Afrotropism”. Can you talk more about it?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    I suggest that Afrotropism expresses the situation in Africa. We are under siege by a political wall of armies in power, which do not allow the people to work on it and to take action. Some countries, supported by the USSR in the anti-colonial struggle, created monolithic centralised states, supported by powerful armies and security forces. These security forces act as spies of their own people, in all public and civil institutions. The army’s main mission is to stop any attempt of the so-called Arab Spring. Then, poor people and independent intellectuals feel themselves bound to act in favour of the development of the country. We have a very high unemployment rate. So Africa needs an impulse to grow toward the sunlight, the human realisation. The main impulse should be quality education.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    I think this is a key point: I keep thinking about how to bring these discussions about coloniality closer to people who do not specialise in the subject. Do you have any practical experiences in which you have participated or which you have seen anywhere? What strategies could we use to make this debate more accessible?

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Those three terms from the opening quote – anti-colonial, decolonial and postcolonial – make me think of a number of other things, including that the process has several stages, and that perhaps the postcolonial feels like an impossibility because of the other two (anti-colonial and decolonial).

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    I think it’s important not to assume that people in Africa are not already having these debates. They may not be called decolonial but even a conversation about the current economic situation and a “kitchen-table” discussion about modern-day racism are part of this discourse.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    It is new in Africa to debate this topic. Opposition parties, university experts and writers were talking and writing about it but the debates were not freely accessible. In Angola, we have only been allowed to discuss these questions publicly since 2017.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    I live in Namibia, a country that was colonised twice – first by Germany (1885-1915), then under a South African mandate (1915-1990).

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    With two struggles for independence, these talks on the decolonial have occurred in various forms here in Namibia: both in political organisations and within local communities.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    I don’t agree that debating this topic is new. I agree that the term is new. But I believe that, for as long as colonialism has existed, Africans have also launched various forms of resistance.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    I believe these discussions have been going on for some time, but with different nomenclatures. What I want to explore is: how to make this an everyday discussion?

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    In Brazil, last year, we had the first presidential election where the internet played a key role in the campaign of the ultra-conservatives. They used the language of the internet, social media and messenger services to reach people. I keep thinking that perhaps the most progressive parties have somewhat neglected this language. Have you ever wondered what it could mean if these debates on colonisation were turned into memes?

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    Obviously, this would not solve 100 % of the problems. But does it, for example, offer a possibility for approaching people who are not necessarily specialised in decolonial subjects?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    @Tiago: Yes, on Facebook, the debate on this subject is very passionate.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    This is why I do not like the word “colonialism”. Colonialism finished. Nobody can ask for any kind of indemnification. So, that is in the past. The main problem today is the dominance of our peoples by corrupt and dictator leaders.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    If the world is a globalised one, why do the super powers contract with fascist African leaders? Do we deserve dictators? If we do, why did we fight colonial empires?

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    @José: In your opinion, to what extent is the term “colonialism” important so as to not forget the exploitation committed in the past and (the repercussions of) this exploitation which still continues, based on this past? In other words, do you think that not using the term would create the risk of minimising or even forgetting the crimes/exploitation?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    I don’t think so. We have a slavery museum and history books about that long period…

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Here in Namibia, for example, there’s a collection of records, a radical archive, preserving the 1940s testimonies of Herero men and women who talked about their struggles.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Historian Dag Henrichsen has written a paper on the archive I mentioned earlier. The archive is called the “Windhoek Book of Prophets”.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    It looks very interesting.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    The “Winhoek Book of Prophets” was first published by Theo Sundermeier who received it from local Namibians in the 1940s. It’s available in the archive of the Basler Afrika Bibliographien: ​https://baslerafrika.ch/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/PA.73_Sundermeier.pdf

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    This archive also features women speaking about their struggles and giving suggestions about how they would want to be treated by men – which brings to mind another struggle that is tied to the colonial: the struggle of feminism.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    So here we have black men and women – not only voicing their struggles but also putting forth ideas on the kind of society in which they would like to live. This was during a time when Namibia was a police state under the apartheid regime.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    And, most importantly, this was probably the first sampling of post-genocidal thoughts among Herero people, who in the years of 1904 and 1905 experienced genocide under the German colonial regime. For me, this is an example of a decolonial discussion that was not explicitly labelled as such.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    What I see is a worse treatment of people than the one by white invaders. For instance, in the times post-independence, retaliations against adverse political actions meant mass killings and torture rather than judicial trials.

    I just want to illustrate the kind of new slavery that independence brought, meaning that the essence of the state is the same along this history. In sub-Saharan Africa, we had Boer apartheid and now Bantu apartheid.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    This is another strategy: the archives and the museums. The act of registering colonial wounds in public monuments or archives where, every day, people pass and see buildings designed to make them think about the consequences of colonisation.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    I can personally confirm that education (or re-education) through the arts is an effective tool.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Over the last year, I’ve been working on an art and history project, which led to three exhibitions in Hamburg (Germany) and Windhoek (Namibia).

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Education requires massive investments. We still invest more in the armed forces to fight the people.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    Education using history, memory and art is a sure-fire tool. Because it deals not only with the real facts but also with the power of imagination. And I think colonisation never robbed us of our power to imagine, to create.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    For me, education through art is not relevant. We need to invest in healthy engineering and industry performers.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    The engineers you invest in are capable of reproducing colonial thinking because the humanities, where often times such thinking is contemplated and questioned, lack investment. This is a problem.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    It doesn’t help to invest only in one sector of society.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Decoloniality needs to happen on every level of society in order to change the social fabric.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    Totally agree.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    I agree that education requires large investments. But I think the work of grassroots efforts is very valuable: doing community-based projects, hosting talks on what decoloniality is etc.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    For example, the art project I mentioned earlier. It was a group effort that mobilised artists, historians, curators and scholars in both Germany and Namibia – creating a cross-national conversation about archives and history, about how history is told and how this sometimes reproduces colonial knowledge and violence.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    @José: But don’t you think this would reduce our ability to create a different world? Don’t you think education without art can merely mechanically repeat reality?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    The world now is a strange one. In colonial times, our traditions and languages were more represented in music, dance and literature than they are today. The best Angolan singers had their discs sold in Paris. Today, it is rare to see a singer perform in local languages. We freely adopted R & B and American styles.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    Last year, here in Brazil, there was a huge exhibition called “Afro-Atlantic Histories”: https://glamurama.uol.com.br/galeria/exposicao-coletiva-historias-afro-atlanticas-ganhou-estreia-concorrida-no-masp/#6. In this exhibition, the idea of colonial trauma was central to the discussion. It was one of the most successful exhibitions held in Brazil in recent years. And it showcased artists who thought critically about the flows of colonisation on the African continent and on the American continent.
    In Brazil, today, there are many people who think of art and education as sectors that change the imagination of the population. I believe that art and education operate in the field of micropolitics, that is, they change subjectivities.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    For me, AFROTROPISM implies the reduction of army budgets and the promotion of political alternatives to prevent the state from acting as a major source of insecurity.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    What steps do you think would we need to take to tackle these shackles of colonisation? Is such a “decolonial” world possible at all in the capitalist system governing the globe?

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    We talk a lot about a financial logic – the logic of investments – but I think it’s very important to talk about the human side, too.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    The example of the exhibition “Afro-Atlantic Histories” is also relevant to my group exhibition that I mentioned earlier (I’ll pull up a picture in a second). We dealt with German and Namibian history, which was also traumatic and involved colonial genocide, as I mentioned earlier as well. This history is not taught nowadays, neither in German nor Namibian schools. Partially because it’s a very political topic and partially because the ways it’s been represented (archived, talked about, written about) have been very problematic.
    Very much “from the side of the victor”, that is, German-centric, patriarchal and sort of praising the white men who conquered the land.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    One of the topics that came up a lot was how to re-tell this history without re-traumatising the victims of this history, and how to use it to empower future generations of young Namibians. As we all know, history is as much about the past as it is about the future. Our art project gave us, the Namibian artists, agency to address and discuss heavy colonial topics.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    And it created a platform for critical pedagogy.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Yes, the human side is important. But how to push it? Rwanda is developing its car industry. But there is no freedom. Colonialism also created industries. In 1973, Angola was the third largest coffee exporter worldwide. My main point is: what is the difference between colonialism and independence?

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    @Vitjitua: Exactly. There will be no change if we do not criticise the official (usually white and Eurocentric) look at the history of colonisation. I keep thinking that change will only come through a political imagination of a new reality.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    @José: I believe that independence does not imply an overcoming of colonialism.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Remember that Namibia has not changed drastically the way Angola has. Namibia still keeps a kind of colonial economy. That gives them some prosperity. Am I a colonialist for saying this?

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

     Photo (detail): Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Exactly: the change here has been slow. And mostly because the colonial past has never been confronted. This process is only slowly beginning now. One way it’s happening is through the arts. On a real-world practical level, Namibian art is revolutionary and it’s educational.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    This, for example, is one way I chose to deal with the topic through art. This work is called “Mirrored Reality”. This work deals with images taken during the German colonial era in Namibia. These are blown-up museum inventory cards (called “ikono” cards) on which photos were inventoried in a colonial archive (this archive is housed in the Museum am Rothenbaum MARKK in Hamburg): http://www.akademie-solitude.de/en/events/membrane-exhibition-refracted-gazes~no3976/

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    In order to return the colonial gaze, my strategy was to remove the photographic subjects and replace them with a reflective mirror film, allowing viewers to see themselves instead. The cards often featured texts describing the subjects or settings of the photographs. To me, this was an example of how archives reproduce colonial knowledge. In some cases where the description was racist or sexist, I covered those words with pink strips – essentially censoring those problematic words.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    In the Namibian context, such images were never really dealt with; everything was sort of swept under the rug – which creates more tension manifesting in different forms.
    So this was one strategy that allowed me as an artist to be able to talk about violent histories rather than ignoring them.
    Plus, it also offers a strategy and an opportunity to deal with the colonial gaze, which is frankly still relevant today.
    Colonial photography played a major role in legitimising and normalising colonialism. To this day, such photographs play a role in how modern-day Africa is portrayed.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    @Vitjitua: I have also artistically engaged with this topic – my work as a visual artist deals a lot with the memory of colonial architecture in Brazil. I do performances in old sugar mills in the region where I was born. It is very painful to note how the stories of colonial violence in these places are not being voiced anymore.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Yes, absolutely. I think that’s what we have in common here as well. Certain sites where violence occurred are just being ignored today. Here in Namibia, there are many instances where railway tracks or buildings are built on top of mass graves of victims of colonialism.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    I have one last question: how to imagine a world that is different from our local realities, keeping in mind that it is necessary to overcome the colonial logic?

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    May I get back to our reality? The images of colonial abuse were replaced by current regimes.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    As a writer, I created stories and poems that deal with the past and the present just to show that there is a difference: lack of humanism is greater now... Destruction of cultural roots is greater now....

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    One strategy for me as an artist and writer is to reclaim our images. To write our own stories in our own words. This is a way to make this debate happen on an everyday level.

  • Tiago Sant'Ana Tiago Sant'Ana

    Dear readers, what terminology would you use in this discussion? What do you think about the notions of the postcolonial and the decolonial? What strategies would you suggest for involving a larger audience in discussions about the decolonial perspective?

  • Reader Question from a reader

    As we discuss (post-)colonialism, it is necessary to critically look at the existing power relations, not just between the global North and the global South but also between countries in the global South. And equally interesting: the powers relations within specific former colonies that can be attributed to colonialism.

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    I agree that looking at power relations between former colonies is crucial to the discussion. I also think that cultural practitioners and even policy makers from the global South need to engage with each other – compare and contrast the impact of colonialism in the respective countries. Colonialism continues to take on many forms (the power relations today between the global North and South, for example, are a different iteration of colonialism). There needs to be a coming together of these affected nations in order to negotiate a postcolonial future among themselves and with the colonial perpetrators.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    Relationships between the countries in the South are dictated by the impulse to create a trade surplus. May I point to our relation with China? This is an evident case. Among former African colonies, there are neither remarkable economic nor cultural exchanges, particularly with Angola. We are umbilically linked to Brasil, Portugal and other European countries.

  • Reader Comment from a reader

    Postcolonialists would not say that colonialism is over. Furthermore, they would argue that colonial discourses still persist.

  • José Luís Mendonça José Luís Mendonça

    The above situation justifies a continuation of the postcolonial discourse. But this subservience is due to our leaders.

  • Reader Question from a reader

    My concrete question is whether not all religions - the religions or concepts about the world whether they are described as large or small - can be valid around the world and for all human beings equally. Why are terms like "cultural appropriation" always used for Afro-Brazilian religions, but not for Christianity or Islam?

  • Vitjitua Ndjiharine Vitjitua Ndjiharine

    Let me preface my comment with this: I would need more context to be honest. My knowledge on Afro-Brazilian religions and how they are perceived is limited.
    As far as I know, Brazil is mainly Christian – Catholic in particular – and in a syncretistic way (i.e., combined with other beliefs and schools of thought). I see this as the outcome of a melting pot of cultures rather than appropriation. For example, Candomblé, which integrates some aspects of Islam as well as forms of West and Central African religious beliefs.
    In this context, slaves who were brought to Latin America were able to hold on to their cultures of origin while adapting to new methods of worship in their new setting – it's a little bit more complicated and nuanced than cultural appropriation.
    Now, on the other hand, Beyoncé dressing like Oshun in a performance at the Grammys, for millions of viewers, in a pop-culture moment that is “cool” and also fleeting: that is cultural appropriation.