The resistance rituals of Grada Kilomba
Grada Kilomba is low-key when it comes to describing her past work in advising victims of war. “That was a long time ago,” the Portuguese artist and writer, trained in clinical psychology and psychoanalysis, told me during a recent visit to New York.
In a hospital in Lisbon, and later in Berlin, where she moved in the mid-2000s, Kilomba would meet refugees from various countries experiencing new trauma. “People were coming directly from war situations,” she said. She has worked in particular with women and children.
What stuck with her are the stories – and how they were told. “Above all, I was fascinated by the stories I listened to and the images that appeared to process them, stage them,” she said. “And that’s what also shows up in my work.”
Kilomba, 53, is today a recognized visual artist whose work blurs disciplinary lines, involving art and ritual; cinema, sculpture and performance; Greek mythology, Black studies and feminism. “I don’t want to imprison myself in a format,” she said. “Every story wants to be told in a certain way.”
She was presented at the São Paulo Biennale in 2016, at Documenta in 2017 and at the Berlin Biennale in 2018. And this season she has big plans on both sides of the Atlantic: her first large public installation. scale, in Lisbon, and its first Exhibition in the United States, at the Amant Foundation in Brooklyn, until October 30.
Narration, both imperative and method of healing, is the common thread of his art and links it to his past clinical practice; his years of teaching psychoanalysis and postcolonial studies; her writings, notably “Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism” (2008), based on interviews with black European women; and his personal journey to understand his roots and his subjectivity.
“Grada’s practice as an artist emerged fully formed, nourished by other practices,” said Omar Berrada, the writer and curator, who has lectured in Marrakech and at the Cooper Union. “She came to the world of contemporary art with a world.”
Kilomba is a distinctive figure, with a characteristic style of thick cornrows that extend into long braids, and speaks both softly and precisely. She offered me a route through her exhibition at Amant, a serene place which opened its doors this year, accompanied by Ruth Estévez, its artistic director, curator of the exhibition.
One work, “The Desire Project”, is a textual piece, projected onto three walls of a dark room, in which Kilomba expresses how writing brings liberation: “I write, almost like an obligation, to find myself… I am the authority of my own history. At the entrance to the hall is a shrine dedicated to Escrava Anastacia, the Brazilian folk icon presented as a female slave who was forced to wear an iron mask that prevents her from speaking. This shift – from objectification and enforced silence to full agency – is a key driver of Kilomba’s work, Estévez observed. “By becoming the subject, she makes herself free to write and create however she wants.”
One installation, “Table of Goods”, consists of a mound of earth, surrounded by candles and sprinkled with sugar, coffee and chocolate. The pursuit of these luxuries, Kilomba noted, brought disaster: plantations, monoculture, enslavement. “The pleasures of the West and the horrors of the rest,” she said. “I wanted to materialize this in a work.
The highlight of the show is “A World of Illusions”, three performance films presented in a triangle, in which Kilomba recounts the myths of Narcissus, Odipe and Antigone, building sharp reinterpretations. In each, the actors play the tale in silence against a blank background, with musical interludes, while Kilomba, on a smaller screen, tells – in the manner, she says, of a West African griot.
Narcissus, she suggests, can tell us something about the self-esteem of whiteness. Odipe talks about the role of cyclical violence in maintaining the state. And Antigone – in Kilomba’s production, women play all the roles – expresses the need to remember. “These women tell the past,” she said, “but produce the memory to be in the present and to design the future.”
Kilomba’s work shows how trauma and erasure are wounds that undermine society.
When she was born in 1968, Portugal waged wars against the liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, only withdrawing after a 1974 coup in Lisbon. which ushered in the Carnation Revolution and, a year later, the independence of the former colonies. But for African families already living in Portugal, like hers, the laws still mandated the use of standard Portuguese names, rather than African ones.
Kilomba is a recovered surname that she learned from her grandmother; it is not the name of his passport. During her first trip to Africa in 1999, to the islands of São Tomé and Principe, she visited plantation sites, in search of documentary traces of her ancestors.
Raised in the immigrant suburb of Lisbon, Kilomba found in psychology and psychoanalysis both her early career and methods of understanding herself. But she found Portugal limiting: “I wanted to do a lot of things and all of them were forbidden,” she said. “I was the only black student in my college department. You are in constant isolation.
She got a scholarship to complete her doctorate in Berlin and stayed; the city has been her home since 2008. She has drawn her, she said, to her role as a site of black thought in Europe, from WEB Du Bois’s time there in 1892-94 until that of Audre Lorde almost a century later.
The reckoning of Germany with its Nazi past was another call. “If other countries are in a state of denial and repression, Germany is in a state of guilt and shame,” she said. “It’s a starting point – you can ask questions, experiment, work on difficult topics.”
Kilomba’s psychoanalytic perspective places her in a line of thinkers – notably Frantz Fanon – who drew on this ostensibly Western field to understand the aftermath of colonial domination. But in her case, it led her to flourish in the visual arts.
“I see art as an iceberg,” she said, “where you’re used to seeing everything at the top, but I drag the audience into the unconscious world and interrupt it. collective imagination. This is what I love to do. “
Kilomba’s work resonates. Its 2019 exhibition at the São Paulo Pinacoteca caused a sensation, with people lining up all day for the opening. “There is a seduction about it,” said Valéria Piccoli, chief curator of the Pinacoteca, of Kilomba’s art. “Her thinking is really sophisticated, but when she goes out into work the message is clear.”
In Lisbon this fall, Kilomba installed 140 slabs of burnt wood outside the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. They form the motif associated with the images of the holds of slave ships and their cargo. The site at the water’s edge is very busy: nearby is a huge “Monument to the Discoverers” who built the Portuguese Empire, their ships often launching from these same docks.
More than a counter-monument, “O Barco” (“The Boat”) of Kilomba is an act of healing. The public can walk among the blocks, some of which are inscribed with verses of poetry in European and African languages. The performers who joined Kilomba in dance and song during the installation are non-professionals from Lisbon’s black community.
The project is quietly radical in Portugal where “addressing racial issues from the perspective of racialized people is still not so common,” said musician Kalaf Epalanga, who composed the score. It is only recently, said Beatrice Leanza, Executive Director of MAAT, that “these topics have acquired the urgency they deserve”.
For Kilomba, the need goes beyond activism for a deeper catharsis: “How can you live in a city where you don’t have symbols and metaphors to craft trauma? The stakes are universal, given the global rise of violent ideologies. “I am concerned about the recurrence of barbarism,” she said. “This is why it is so important to tell the stories again. “
Grada Kilomba: Heroines, Birds and Monsters
Until October 30, Lover, 315 Maujer Street, Brooklyn, amant.org.
O Barco / The Boat
Until October 17, MAAT, Av. Brasilia, Belém, Lisbon, maat.pt.