Earlier in 2019 I was fortunate to present a paper at an international conference on African-European Studies that took place in Portugal at the ISCTE-IUL Lisbon University Institute. While there, I took the opportunity to visit a number of museums and galleries to review exhibitions and collections featuring works by modern and contemporary visual artists shown at sites such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in northern Lisbon and Museu Coleção Berardo in the district of Belém.
At the time of my visit to the Gulbenkian the display area near the entrance to the Modern Collection [Coleção Moderna] featured a film-based installation and performance lecture created by Portuguese artist, writer, academic and scholar-activist Grada Kilomba (b. Lisbon, 1968) – an internationally acclaimed artist known for producing thought-provoking, interdisciplinary projects focused on issues of cultural diversity, hybridity, inter-cultural dialogues, anti-racism, equalities, social justice and the decolonisation of knowledge.
The artist’s installation – ‘Illusions Vol. I, Narcissus and Echo’ (2017) – first developed as a commissioned piece, originally presented in 2016 at the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo as part of a diverse programme of contemporary artistic practices addressing the theme ‘Live Uncertainty’ [‘Incerteza Viva’]. As a Portuguese woman of colour with African (Angolan, São Tomé and Príncipe) and European heritage, who has been based in Berlin for many years, Grada Kilomba’s creative interpretation of the brief involved taking the mythical story of Narcissus and Echo from Ovid’s epic poem, Metamorphoses, and transposing its ancient narrative into a 21st century context to specifically examine issues of inequality, racism, anti-blackness and other forms of discrimination within contemporary multicultural societies.
The 2017 version of the filmed performance shown at the Modern Collection featured Grada Kilomba reading the story of Narcissus and Echo (in English, with Portuguese subtitles) from a solitary, seated position. Her small screen was angled diagonally to overlook a much larger floor-to-ceiling video projection that showed an ensemble cast of three German actors of African descent, dressed in black and performing a dramatic sequence of mimed interactions to the sounds of the artist’s mellow voice-over, an accompanying drumbeat and, later in the c. 30-minute looped piece, a recording of the famous jazz-blues song ‘I Put A Spell On You‘ by Nina Simone (Philips Records, 1965).
The interpretation literature written on the information panel at the Gulbenkian described the installation as a re-staging of oral storytelling traditions and oral knowledge production, whereby:
“[T]he myth of Narcissus and Echo is simultaneously a metaphor of the colonial past and a metaphor of the politics of representation, in the present, introducing the black body into the white space of the image, with references to the white space of the gallery and the museum (White Cube) marked by the historical absence of the black body.”– Artist, writer and academic Grada Kilomba
At various instances the character of Narcissus is shown wearing a checked suit and hat, fashioned from the same type of material used to manufacture the distinctive red, black/blue and white, woven PVC plastic bags widely used for carrying shopping, laundry and other bulky goods, in addition to also being regularly used as low-cost suitcases (as shown below).
It is clear from the use of this familiar material that the artist has made a strong, symbolic association between the ubiquitous availability of cheap and disposable PVC carrier bags and the ways powerful industrialised nations in the global North have historically exploited (and continue to take advantage of) the labour of those migrating from the global South, often forced into low-skilled, poorly paid, precarious types of work commoditised as ‘disposable’ jobs and, thus, also seen by some as ‘throw-away people’.
The inclusion of this quotidian polyvinyl fabric evoked memories of its use by other internationally renowned contemporary visual artists from continental Africa and the diaspora when addressing similar themes to Grada’s Illusions. For example, the portfolio of Cameroonian painter and mixed-media artist Barthélémy Toguo includes the sculptural installations Climbing Down (2005) and Redemption (2012), which both feature assemblages of the PVC bags, interspersed with Dutch Wax printed cotton fabrics and other culturally significant materials and objects to draw attention to the socio-political and economic plight and precarious lived experiences of migrants, asylum seekers, undocumented workers and other oppressed communities in Europe.
The artist’s primary motivation for creating Illusions Vol. I – and her associated work within this series, Illusions Vol. II, Oedipus (2018) – was to critically analyse systems of knowledge production through the formulation and aesthetic expression of three underlying questions:
- “Who can speak?”
- “What can we speak about?”
- “What happens when we speak?”
I am so grateful that Grada Kilomba has chosen to focus on considerations about these questions in such creatively experimental and interdisciplinary ways – always carefully combining powerful image-making and insightful storytelling with poetic oratory, music, classical literature, academic scholarship and theatre performance. It is this type of nuanced artwork about memory, the legacies of colonial trauma, identity, belonging and our ongoing relationships of interdependence with one another world-wide that enables our ancestral histories to remain ever prescient in the contemporary moment and essential for fostering collaborative engagements that shape more hopeful shared futures for us all.
To read more about Grada Kilomba’s interdisciplinary oeuvre and her bibliography of scholarly publications, please visit her website: https://gradakilomba.com/