The Pinacoteca de São Paulo, a museum of the Secretary of Culture and Creative Economy of the State of São Paulo, presents from July 6th to September 30th 2019 the exhibition Grada Kilomba: Poetic Disobediences, the first solo exhibition of the Portuguese artist in Brazil. Curated by Jochen Volz and Valéria Piccoli, general director and chief curator of the museum respectively, the exhibition consists of four works that occupy the four rooms adjacent to the Pinacoteca’s collection of Brazilian artistic production from the 19th century. Strongly political and committed to the perspective of postcolonial narratives, the works propose a sort of restitution of the voices of those that have been silenced throughout history.
The interdisciplinary artist Grada Kilomba was born in Lisbon, in 1968, and has roots in São Tomé and Príncipe, Angola and Portugal. Currently based in Berlin, her work has been displayed in some of the most important exhibitions and institutions in the world, including the 32nd São Paulo Biennial; Documenta 14, in Kassel; the 10th Berlin Biennial; The Power Plant, in Toronto; Kadist Art Foundation, in Paris; Bozar Museum, in Brussels; MAAT, in Lisbon; Wits Theatre, in Johannesburg, among others. She is also the author of Plantation Memories (2008) and coeditor of Mythen, Subjekte, Masken (2005), an interdisciplinary anthology of critical studies about whiteness. She received a doctorate in Philosophy from Freie Universität Berlin in 2008, and since 2004 has taught in several international universities, such as Humboldt Universität Berlin, where she was Associate Professor in the Gender Department. Since 2015, she has collaborated with the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin.
Known for her subversive writing and the nonconventional use of artistic practices, Kilomba intentionally creates a hybrid space between academic and artistic languages, giving body, voice and image to her own texts through staged readings, performances, installations and videos. Strongly influenced by the work of Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), a French psychiatrist and philosopher from Martinique, she started writing and publishing about memory, trauma, psychoanalysis, black feminism and colonialism, extending her research to performance, staging, choreography and visualization of postcolonial narratives. “Who speaks? Who can speak? To speak about what? And what happens when we speak?” are permanent questions in her works, in which the artist creates singular images to deconstruct the concepts of knowledge, power and violence.
The Poetic Disobediences exhibition in the Pinacoteca corresponds to this singular practice by Kilomba, who poetically disobeys the various disciplines, disturbing the common narratives of the museum galleries with a “new and urgent decolonized language”, according to her. The exhibition includes the works Illusions, in which she uses the African oral tradition to play the role of a storyteller, or griot, in order to retell and enact Greco-Roman myths, gradually turning the metaphors and narratives over themselves so as to explore the cyclical structures of the systems of postcolonial oppression. Creating scenes of minimalistic aesthetic, where black bodies move, Kilomba leads visitors to rethink how even a room in a museum (or white cube), that integrates a system that presents itself as universal, can hide a colonial and patriarchal logic.
Illusions Vol. I, Narcissus and Echo (2017), commissioned by the 32nd São Paulo Biennial, in 2016, in the form of a performance and later reconfigured as a film installation, occupies room A in the Pinacoteca. In this work, awarded by the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2018, the artist approaches the myth of Narcissus and Echo to explore the politics of invisibility, questioning the notion of “whiteness” as an imperative component in the memories and realities of the postcolonial world. To her, Narcissus becomes a metaphor for a society that hasn’t dealt with its past and considers its own image the only object of love, reflected in the surface of the water; while Echo is consigned to silence, only repeating Narcissus’ words. The question enclosed in the work is: how to reveal this mould?
Illusions Vol. II, Oedipus (2018) is presented in room B. Commissioned by the 10th Berlin Biennial, it presents the myth of Oedipus, sentenced to death by his own father, not through the common perspective of desire, but as a story of violence. The image of the Sphynx, on the other hand, appears as a symbol of this condition: the mystical character questions Oedipus on what he knows, reminding him that something terrible has happened and that no one can escape their own destiny or past. The Sphynx, who devours those who don’t know, here frees those who do. The myth becomes, in the artist’s work, a metaphor for the patriarchal and colonial politics of violence, rivalry and genocide against black and marginalized bodies. “A metaphor for knowledge,” the artist explains.
In the new version of the work The Dictionary, developed for the Pinacoteca and installed in room C, “the artist creates an immense space where five words, denial, guilty, shame, recognition and reparation, are revealed and intensely described as their synonyms and antonyms. The words are projected in the walls of the room, creating a chronology of consciousness, until they disappear again, leaving the audience enveloped in a sound installation,” Piccoli explains.
Finally, the installation Table of Goods, from 2017, presented in room D, is composed of a handful of dirt, positioned in the centre of the room, which emerges from the ground with small portions of colonial goods such as sugar, coffee, cacao and chocolate. The main axis of the work is the transatlantic history of slavery and postcolonialism, recalling centuries of deaths of black workers in plantations to produce goods and pleasures for the elites. In this context, Kilomba uses the term “unspeakable” as a metaphor for the trauma caused by colonialism, which, as a disease, has never been properly treated in society.
“Only when we transform the reconfigurations of power – which means who can speak and who can ask questions and which questions – do we reconfigure knowledge. In art we also produce knowledge by creating works that generate questions that weren’t there before (…). For me, one of the important roles of the creation of a work of art is dismantling these configurations of power by recounting stories that we thought we knew, giving and creating another meaning of who we are. We are many,” Kilomba concludes.
The exhibition integrates the 2019 programme of the Pinacoteca, dedicated to the relations between art and society. With it, the institution proposes an examination of the social dimensions of artistic practice, presenting exhibitions that reevaluate the idea of social structure, coined by German artist and activist Joseph Beuys. This exhibition was possible thanks to the support of Lei Rouanet and PRO-MAC.
Grada Kilomba: Poetic Disobediences is accompanied by a catalogue that includes the presentation of the general director of the Pinacoteca Jochen Volz, an introductory text to Grada Kilomba by the writer, researcher and activist Djamila Ribeiro and the scripts of the works Illusions 1 and Illusions 2, illustrated with stills of the respective videos and handmade annotations made by the artist.
PARTICIPATION IN THE 17TH FLIP
Grada Kilomba is one of the confirmed guests in the 17th Flip, which will take place from July 10th to 14th in Paraty. The artist is author of Memories of Plantation: Episodes of Everyday Racism, which will be published in Brazil during the Flip (Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty) 2019 by Editora Cobogó. The book, originally published in 2008, analyses and uncovers the atemporality of everyday racism, filling gaps on the subject and establishing connection between race, gender and class.
TALK: GRADA KILOMBA AND DJAMILA RIBEIRO
The artist will talk with the Brazilian writer, researcher and activist Djamila Ribeiro, author of one of the texts of the exhibition catalogue, on July 6th 2019, Saturday, at 3 p.m. There will be a simultaneous transmission for Pátio 2. Place: Pinacoteca Auditorium – Luz, ground floor. 132 seats. Rating: free.