by Efua Bea
I walked into the opening of Vasco Araújo’s Decolonial Desire exhibition, his first UK solo show, at Autograph ABP last month with somewhat low expectations. I guess I’ve just become a little tired of white men getting lots of funding and lots of space to tell me about my Blackness, the history of my country and how decoloniality is affecting him. I do, however have faith in the curating of Autograph and so kept an open mind.
The exhibition is made up of five installed works downstairs and a series of short films upstairs. The work has occupied the entire gallery and will continue to do so until December 3rd.
The opening is busy; an impressively brown and Black audience swells into the space. Sound bursts like a bubble on the triple height ceilings, the comforting polished concrete floors lending a little relief to the stretching white walls. My heart rate slows to that sense of calm reserved for exhibitions, theatre shows and Netflix marathons, anticipating an hour in which my body will not be called upon to perform gender, race or sexuality.
The introductory text vinyled onto the wall as you enter Autograph explains:
‘I want people to react with emotion. I hope that they not only get passionate, but also feel like they’ve been punched in the stomach. Discomfort, that is what I want, because discomfort provokes internal questioning.’ – Vasco Araújo
This has not prepared me to be confronted by fourteen larger-than-life self-portraits of Araújo himself in blackface, at times in drag as well, and at all times in costume as the different types of “blacks” permitted by a colonial psychology: the educated black, the pirate black, the maid black, the lawyer black, the preacher black, the subservient black, the pious black, etc. etc. etc. Moving on through the exhibition I am arrested by large dining room table sculptures penetrated with contemporary photographs of large plant life depicting vegetation that was transplanted from various parts of India and the African continent to exotic “Acclimatisation Gardens” in European cities, such as palm trees in Lisbon. Nestled in and amongst these quietly violent uprootings are framed archive photographs of enslaved Africans from different parts of the continent, who were toured in human zoos throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The image below depicts Ota Benga, who in 1906 was forced to live with monkeys in the House of Primates at the Bronx Zoo in New York.
As a deadened silence starts to echo back at me from the Black audience, as the pitch and enthusiasm of the white audience builds comparatively, as the space becomes segregated, a young white woman exclaims: “That’s so beautiful – I want that in my house!” I wonder if she has even perceived the photograph of the Black men in the Parisian zoo, being forced to swim around in circles in a pool clearly built for aquatic animals. I wonder that she cannot see herself – pointing at the sculpture – reflected in the white women in the portrait pointing at the “exotic” men who are advertised as practically amphibious. I am aware that race is a construct and that heritage is muddied with blood clots and fireside stories about “us” and “them”; and that our genetics and cultural adaptations are far more hybridized than much of society would have us believe. Yet it is hard here not to feel “colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”,1 hard not to feel the separation.
I watch this all play out before me and begin to understand the title of this exhibition – decolonial desire. Even in a space of “decoloniality”, the insatiable hunger of whiteness for the exoticisation, objectification and devouring of the black body persists, pervades, penetrates. Women of colour in the space start to recover from their shock and round on the artist who is laughing, comfortable, excited; others shake their heads quietly and sadly before they fold in on themselves and leave. White audiences exclaim how beautiful, how interesting, and stimulating the work is, or else exclaim in performative horror. I wonder if underneath his self-assuredness Araújo is aware that he has, in this room, recreated the human zoos he is trying to critique. I wonder if he would care.
How Mark Sealy, the curator of this exhibit, could have been comfortable with its installation remains beyond me. How could he stand next to Araújo proudly at the opening and make us all feel as though it was we who were overreacting and should respond with a more “intellectual” or un-biased critique?
According to the curator’s note, Capita “poses a series of uncomfortable questions regarding [the artist’s] right to perform the raced and gendered cultural body, and the implications of historical re-enactment as contemporary strategy of artistic articulation.” I like uncomfortable questions. However, I would argue that Araújo does not have the right to perform this experiment of “historical re-enactment” when the history he is re-enacting belongs to the oppressed peoples his country has humiliated and enslaved. This untroubled and simplistic presentation of race and gender, without any reference to the artist’s own subjectivity and gaze, fails to problematize or critique coloniality in any way. There is little difference between this work and colonial slave masters watching white performers in blackface reinforcing the preached natural order of inferiority and submission.
I am forced to ask what it meant for him to put on that wig, whether he was aware of how many heads were shaved as a mark of subjugation, how many afro wearing women were stopped or arrested or held at gun point for being presumed the then fugitive Angela Davis.
Another section from the curator’s note states, “Capita as a series of images therefore aims to encourage the audience to consider the making of ‘race’ as being both a political and unsettled ideological process.”
Any Black person living in the diaspora or in settler colonial territories is already well aware of the making of “race”. Very few people of colour who live in this country are unaware that they are living amongst the relics of the colonial empire that devised so much of the scientific and literary “evidence” that the colour of their skin, their features, their hair types marked them as an inferior species. Is any Black boy who has been stopped and searched by British police, any Black woman who has been called a “Black slut” or a “N****** whore” or even a “slave” when refusing to respond to street harassment, unaware of the politics of race?
In the upstairs gallery is a two-hour film projection made up of five shorts. Almost all of the pieces are highly problematic, not to mention creatively lacklustre; their curation together homogenises Araújo’s various explorations of “Otherness”. One of the films, The Slave, works with Verdi’s opera Aida mimed in the film by transgender Black actress Jenny Larrue, interspersed with quotes from Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism.
This piece begins with a male narrator’s voice intoning over somewhat mundane footage of staging props and backstage archives:
“Are there stories which you could not tell to a stranger? Like the stories of one’s great grandfather who sold slaves? Like the story of one’s great, great uncle, who was a doctor and measured human beings? Like the story of one’s second cousin who worked on a coffee plantation until he dropped dead?…”
Why are these “stories” laid out for us side-by-side as though they share anything beyond the fact that some of these ancestors did the oppressing and others had to survive it? And why is Araújo the one telling these “stories”? Why has he built the “coffin” downstairs that holds photo albums of mutilated Congolese rubber workers? Why are these bodies, already the vessels of so much violence, at the disposal of his career?
The narrator from the film continues:
“I am both white and black and I know that there is no difference between the two, each one casts a shadow and are but colours of the night.”
The supposedly post-racial discourse of Araújo’s works appears again and again throughout the various films as Black bodies are either presented naked, as a silent figure holding a spear, or as a faceless fertility idol animated with Araújo’s words alongside lonely or displaced white bodies, as though their struggles are comparable. The re-primitivisation of African bodies as inanimate objects for what the artist imagines the “colonised other” might be thinking makes this exhibition even more of an offensive, fetishizing and self-indulgent extension of the colonial project. And no amount of collaborations with Black trans-experience women, or Franz Fanon or Edward Said quotes will make this a decolonial work. One cannot cheat the hard work we all must do to challenge our own conditioning, positions of privilege and complicity in the racialised violence that continues to be enacted through capitalism and global economics.
I am not arguing that white artists should not be making work about colonialism. On the contrary, as bell hooks wrote in 1989, “One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness.”2
This is an exhibition, then, that has succeeded in parading the bodies of semi-naked Black people who have already been penetrated by every possible colonial gaze and explorative implement; succeeded in presenting Blackness as a simplistic if dazzling delicacy to be feasted upon; succeeded in creating a stimulating and challenging reflection of colonialism for white audience members; and succeeded in punching people of colour in the stomach as they are once again forced to face the horrors of the colonial project enacted by a white man who clearly has no interest in his own “internal questioning”.
As with Exhibit B, the problematic human zoo Brett Baily attempted to show at the Barbican in 2014, Araújo makes again a spectacle of the Black body in his attempt to remember what has apparently “been forgotten”, without considering who is doing the forgetting.
I have not written this article to encourage a boycott of Autograph ABP, which remains one of the only art institutions committed to highlighting issues of identity and colonial critiques for and by artists of colour. It is rather to highlight the problematics going on in their curatorial decision-making. It is to ask them to be held accountable for feeding into a creative sector narrated and orchestrated by white bodies that still cannot seem to consider Blackness beyond slavery, gang crime, and sexual violence. Because there is something particularly painful about going through this experience at Autograph ABP, a building that has always felt “for me” in ways that the National Portrait Gallery or the V&A have not, which only heightens the feeling that this is a personal betrayal.
I have kept this article emotional rather than academic, because slavery should always be an emotional topic for Black people, we should never be numbed by numbers and history books, or be able to look with an un-biased eye. I encourage you all to go, to look, to feel and to write to Autograph ABP and remind them that decoloniality is a dialogue which we are all responsible for enacting. We cannot afford to assimilate, to be un-critical and not to call in our own when, especially in this intensifying racist and sexist social climate where accused rapists backed by white supremacists can sit in at the most powerful desk in the world, decolonisation remains a process we require for survival.
1 Zora Neale Hurston, How it Feels to be Colored Me.
2 bell hooks, “Travelling Theories: Travelling Theorists” (1989), p. 162.
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Efua Bea is a writer, artist and events curator whose work navigates explorations of race, liminality, diaspora and feminism. With a bachelors in performance art and a resume of feminist event curation, Efua is a queer woman of colour focusing on the decolonisation of critical creative spaces and LGBTQI discourses. She has worked in La Paz, Accra, New York and across the United Kingdom.