Grada Kilombas Rituals of Resistance


Grada Kilomba is discreet when it comes to describing her previous work in counseling war victims. “It was a long time ago,” the Portuguese artist and writer, who trained in clinical psychology and psychoanalysis, told me recently on a visit to New York.

In a hospital in Lisbon and later in Berlin, where she moved in the mid-2000s, Kilomba met refugees from different countries who were experiencing new trauma. “People came straight from war situations,” she said. She worked with women and children in particular.

What was left to her were the stories – and how they were told. “I was particularly fascinated by the stories I heard and the images that seemed to deal with them in order to stage them,” she says. “And that also shows up in my work.”

Kilomba, 53, is now a well-known visual artist whose work blurs disciplinary boundaries and incorporates art and ritual; Film, sculpture and performance; Greek Mythology, Black Studies, and Feminism. “I don’t want to lock myself up in a format,” she said. “Every story wants to be told in a certain way.”

It was in the. shown São Paulo Biennial 2016, Documenta 2017 and Berlin Biennale 2018. And this season she has big projects on both sides of the Atlantic: her first big public installation in Lisbon and her first exhibition in the USA at the Amant Foundation in Brooklyn, until October 30th.

Storytelling, both as an imperative and a healing method, is the common thread that runs through her art and connects her to her earlier clinical practice; her years taught psychoanalysis and postcolonial studies; your writing, especially “Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism“(2008), based on interviews with black European women; and their personal journey to understand their roots and subjectivity.

“Grada’s artistic practice emerged fully formed, nourished by other practices,” said Omar Berrada, the author and curator who moderated her lectures in Marrakech and at the Cooper Union. “She came into the world of contemporary art with a world.”

Kilomba is a distinctive figure with a signature style of thick cornrows stretching into long braids while speaking gently and precisely. She offered me a tour of her exhibition at Amant, a quiet place that opened this year, accompanied by Ruth Estévez, the artistic director who curated the exhibition.

One work, “The Desire Project”, is a text work projected onto three walls of a darkened room in which Kilomba expresses how writing brings liberation: “I write almost as an obligation to find myself … I am the authority of mine own story. ”At the entrance to the room is a shrine to Escrava Anastacia, the Brazilian folk icon portrayed as an enslaved woman forced to wear an iron mask that prevents her from speaking. This passage – from objectification and enforced silence to full agency – is a core drive in Kilomba’s work, noted Estévez. “By becoming a subject, she frees herself to write and create as she needs it.”

The installation “Table of Goods” consists of a mound of earth surrounded by candles and covered with sugar, coffee and chocolate. The pursuit of this luxury, Kilomba noted, brought disaster: plantations, monoculture, enslavement. “The joys of the West and the horrors of the rest,” she said. “I wanted to materialize that in a work.”

The highlight are “A World of Illusions”, three performance films in a triangle, in which Kilomba tells the myths of Narcissus, Oedipus and Antigone and builds them up into pointed reinterpretations. In each, actors play the story in silence against a blank background with musical interludes, while Kilomba tells on a smaller screen – in the way she said a West African griot would.

Narcissus, she suggests, can tell us something about the self-respect of being white. Oedipus speaks of the role of cyclical violence in maintaining the state. And Antigone – women play every role in Kilomba’s production – conveys the need to remember. “These women tell the past,” she said, “but produce the memory in order to be in the present and to shape the future.”

Kilomba’s work suggests that trauma and annihilation are wounds that undermine society.

When she was born in 1968, Portugal fought wars against liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde and only withdrew after a 1974 coup in Lisbon that ushered in the Carnation Revolution, and independence for the former colonies a year later . But for African families already living in Portugal, like theirs, laws still enforce the use of standard Portuguese names instead of African ones.

Kilomba is a regained family name that she learned from her grandmother; it’s not the name on her passport. On her first trip to Africa in 1999, to the islands of São Tome e Principe, she visited plantations and looked for documentary traces of her ancestors.

Growing up in the area around Lisbon for immigrants, Kilomba found her career entry as well as methods for self-image in psychology and psychoanalysis. But Portugal found them restrictive: “I wanted to do a lot of things and everything was forbidden,” she said. “I was the only black student in my university department. You are in constant isolation. “

She received a doctoral scholarship in Berlin and stayed; the city has been their home since 2008. She was drawn away because of her role as a place of black thinking in Europe WEB Du Bois’ time there in 1892-94 to Audre Lorde almost a century later.

Germany’s reckoning with its Nazi past was another appeal. “When other countries are in a state of denial and oppression, 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 view places her in a number of thinkers – in particular Franz Fanon – who resorted to this ostensibly western field to understand the aftermath of colonial rule. But in her case, it made her find her fulfillment in the fine arts.

“I see art like an iceberg,” she said, “where one is used to seeing everything that is above, but I pull the audience into the unconscious world and interrupt the collective imagination. I do it with pleasure.”

Kilomba’s work met with a positive response. Your exhibition 2019 in São Paulo Art Gallery was a sensation, people stood at the opening all day. “It’s seductive,” said Valéria Piccoli, chief curator of the Pinacoteca, about Kilomba’s art. “Your thinking is really subtle, but when it comes through in work the message is clear.”

In Lisbon this fall, Kilomba has 140 panels of burned wood outside the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. They form the pattern associated with images of the holds of slave ships and their cargo. The location on the water is highly polluted: There is a huge “Monument to the Explorers“Who built the Portuguese empire and often launched their ships from these docks.

Kilomba’s “O Barco” (“The Boat”) is more than a counter-monument, but an act of healing. Audiences can stroll between the blocks, some of which are labeled with lines of poetry in European and African languages. the actor who joined Kilomba in dancing and singing during the installation are lay people from Lisbon’s black community.

The project is tacitly radical in Portugal, where “the treatment of racial issues from the perspective of the racial is not yet so common,” said the musician Kalaf Epalangawho composed the score. Only recently, according to Beatrice Leanza, Managing Director of MAAT, “these issues have gained the urgency they deserve”.

For Kilomba, the need goes beyond activism to deeper catharsis: “How can you live in a city where you have no symbols and metaphors to work out trauma?” With the rise of violent ideologies around the world, universal stakes are at stake. “I am concerned with the repetition of barbarism,” she said. “That is why it is so important to tell the stories anew.”

Grada Kilomba: heroines, birds and monsters
Until October 30th, Amant, 315 Maujer Street, Brooklyn,

O Barco / The boat
Until October 17th MAAT, Av. Brasilia, Belém, Lisbon,

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