IDENTITY POLITICS IN THE INSTITUTE
Graduates mentioned: Nagare Willemsen, Sherida Kuffour
In our times, racism and xenophobia are on the rise across western Europe and the United States of America. Black Liberation movements are also spreading across the globe, from Black Lives Matter (1) in the USA to movements in South Africa and the UK seeking to decolonise university spaces.
At the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), a society called Decolonising Our Minds (2) has been established to “challenge the political, intellectual and structural legacies of colonialism and racism both within and outside the university”. In 2015 the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa called for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from the University of Cape Town,(3) parallelling a similar protest at Oxford University in the UK. Both campaigns have since evolved and are now demanding the decolonisation of teaching methods and knowledge production in the university space. In light of this new discourse and momentum, many progressive organisations are seeking to move with the times and address the ways they are affected by forms of oppression such as White supremacy. Decolonial Futures is an example of an exciting extracurricular programme exploring these themes at the Sandberg Instituut and the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. I have been working with the Sandberg since October 2016, conducting anti-oppression training sessions with students and teaching staff. I have also been working with Black students to support the creation of the Black Students’ Union.
Due to a lack of representation and understanding of oppression, work by Black people exploring identity can be dismissed by the high art world as unimportant or an exhausted issue. During a round table for the Art Genome Project entitled “Can Art Change the Future for Racial and Ethnic Identity?”, curator Ryan Wong emphasised this by saying, “In the art world, there is a deep resistance to acknowledging race and racial construction as a reality.” (4) In practice, many art institutions actively discourage their Black students from making work about race because it is not deemed a relevant topic of inquiry. This echoes Nagare Willemsen’s experience at the Sandberg Instituut. It is important to question knowledge production and legitimacy within the art world, as it has been shaped by racism and Western superiority influencing what is seen as relevant and what is not.
Nagare Willemsen is interested in working with re-enactment and performance to explore her relationship to Blackness within White spaces. Her final piece, My Black Body: A Letter Addressing Racial Concerns (2018), was a performative reading of a letter she has written to the teaching staff of the main department Dirty Art and future Black students at the institute. It outlines her experience of racism and the lack of support she received during her studies. It ends with recommendations for the appointment of more Black teaching staff and diversity initiatives to increase the Black student body at the Sandberg. For the next five years, Willemsen will approach other Black students at the institute to issue a call to action to continue to hold it to account. The re-enactment of this process mirrors the reproduction of White supremacy within institutions and demonstrates Willemsen’s awareness that these issues are unlikely to be solved quickly.
It will take continued work to make change and the nature of this piece, as well as her continued involvement in the Black Students’ Union, shows her willingness to contribute to that change at the Sandberg.
The letter speaks to the lack of support given for Willemsen to explore her identity and to develop this within her art practice. At one point during her studies, she was instructed to visit her country of origin because the department “couldn’t offer the resources” to help her learn about Blackness. This demonstrates reproduction of Whiteness (5) and Eurocentrism, along with the expectation that Willemsen should assimilate into this culture of art production in order to make others feel comfortable.
The fact that Willemsen has chosen to perform this letter as a public protest speaks to the reality that her words alone were not enough to be acknowledged. The English language in written form is a dominant form of knowledge production that is celebrated by the institute and thus gives a sense of legitimacy to her statement. In The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), Michel Foucault argues that knowledge and power are symbiotically related, maintaining hierarchies in our societies and the social rank of individuals. Using the English language affords Nagare more power than she would otherwise have, due to the way she is racialised as a Black woman. This dynamic highlights White superiority and the ways that certain forms of knowledge production, such as writing and the natural sciences, are more valued than others.
The letter mirrors tactics being used by other Black artists and writers, such as Reni Edo Lodge, who recently published the acclaimed book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.(6) It seems that using the written form makes conversations about racism easier for White people to digest and allows Black people to avoid the hostile reactions and pushback which are so commonly experienced when we try to convey our experiences about racism verbally to White people. “White fragility” (7) is a term coined by Robin DiAngelo, a researcher of Whiteness, to describe the discomfort and defensiveness many White people feel when the topic of race is brought into conversation. “White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviours such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviours, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” (DiAngelo, 2011).(8)
Nagare’s letter aims to hold the department to account. She notes that the course was advertised as culturally diverse and progressive, but this was far from the reality. In On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), Sara Ahmed notes the way universities use the language of diversity and imagery of Black bodies in public relations materials to increase their cultural capital. However, diversity marketing does not shift the power relations or dominance of Whiteness within these spaces. During Willemsen’s studies, little support was given to suggest appropriate artists or theorists who would support her research. This may reflect a lack of knowledge about critical race theory and non-Eurocentric perspectives within the department.
These issues are not limited to the Dutch context. In the UK, many Black students at art and academic institutions report not receiving the support they need and continually having to navigate the discomfort of their White professors whilst educating them as to why their work is relevant. As a result, BBZ and sorryyoufeeluncomfortable are hosting an alternative graduate show in London to give a platform to emerging Black artists with the support, celebration and understanding of their peers.(9)
Sherida Kuffour is a graduate of the main department Design and her piece Chasing Lizards… and Other Memories (2018) consists of a book of poetry and prose as well as several videos which relate to her experience as a Black woman existing in a White institution. The book she has compiled is full of pictures of family, beautiful imagery of the artist, biographical poems and memories which counter the erasure of Black people and their stories in a White, Western context. The poems also speak directly to other Black people about leaning into joy and moving beyond anger. It is a radical proposition to suggest that oppressed people do not wait for oppression to end in order to experience happiness and contentment.
Kuffour’s poetry explores finding ways to move beyond anger and provides a vulnerable insight into the complex emotions which arise from the experience of contemporary racism in a liberal context. White supremacy is subtle but pervasive. Examples of this are demonstrated in her poems.
In Suppose I am something, Kuffour speaks of misogynoir – the intersection of racism and sexism which is often directed at Black women, diminishing their brilliance, intellect and contribution to the world.(10) “S’pose I am some-thing brilliant, s’pose I am something to behold, and that when I speak, I too can move mountains … S’pose I do have tales worth sharing.” This highlights the daily treatment that many Black women in White spaces experience; the sense that their stories or ideas are overlooked and undervalued, and the inherent expectation of them being no more than the stereotypical portrayals of Black women shown in the media. Many Black people will have experienced their parents instructing them to work twice as hard or be twice as good as their White counterparts, because they will be confronted with a racist stigma that expects them to fail, be less capable or be less innovative than White people.
The performances in the videos with two other Black women dancing in rich colours and textures are about taking up space. In the historical processes of enslavement and colonialism, Black bodies have been contained in certain spaces and instructed to remain in certain locations and behave in certain ways. This has led to a diminishment or colonisation of the body, where-by many Black people feel invisible or are complicit in their own invisibility. This can be demonstrated in making our gestures or body language small, masking our emotions, not speaking in public spaces. All of these have become survival strategies. The videos show Black female bodies moving freely, taking up space and being in the centre of everything rather than the margins. This allows the dancers to decolonise themselves and to readdress patterns internalised in the body due to legacies of racist trauma. The work invites White audiences to embrace the power, grace and beauty of the Black body and to question the dominance of White beauty standards.(11)
Both Kuffour and Willemsen are members of the newly created Black Students Union at the Sandberg. As a result, they are committed to increasing diversity at the institute while making it a safer space for students of colour. I believe that both artists made a strategic choice to use the English written language, as it is a legitimate form of knowledge production in the West and as a result holds more legitimacy than other media alone.
In her book Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies out of Place (2004), Nirmal Puwar examines the trend of more women and people of colour entering spaces where White male power is entrenched, such as the art world and academic institutions. In entering these spaces, marginalised bodies are seen as alien or other and have to take measures to navigate the different treatment they experience in order to survive. They rarely thrive in these spaces because the power relations of Whiteness are continually normalised and reproduced. Both Willemsen’s and Kuffour’s work mirrors Puwar’s research.
It is a shame that Nagare Willemsen and Sherida Kuffour did not receive more support during their time at Sandberg. Progressive institutions can support students of colour by ensuring that their teaching staff acknowledge and learn about the reality of racism in their cultural context, while expanding their view of the arts beyond Eurocentric perspectives. As Willemsen states, increasing the cultural and racial diversity of staff will also contribute to this effort. It is important that students be given educational materials and references to research their areas of interest rather than being coerced into making work about non-racialised issues.
Camille Barton is an artist, a researcher and the founding director of the Collective Liberation Project (CLP), which designs educational experiences to help people understand oppression and how it relates to their lived experience so they can stop behaving in ways which reproduce oppression, such as racism and sexism. This work is inspired by her ongoing research into somatics and social justice, exploring how trauma from oppression is rooted in the body and how it can be healed with movement and mindfulness. Barton is very interested in identity politics and how the stories of our bodies relate to formal spaces, such as art or educational institutions. It is for this reason that she has chosen to write about the work of Sherida Kuffour and Nagare Willemsen. Both artists are Black women who have created work about their experience of Blackness and institutional racism in the predominantly White space of the Sandberg Instituut.