Theorizing Post-Colonial Art
Art in Post-Racial Los Angeles

From the very beginning, the problem has been that of language. Not how to speak the dominant dialect; that was all too easy. The words, as Hamlet would say, come trippingly off the tongue, leaving the speaker trapped within what Édouard Glissant called the pulsion mimétique or the “mimetic drive.” This is the fate of all post-colonized peoples, whether of those who have been dispersed through Middle Passages to Other worlds or of those whose worlds have been invaded and overlaid with the discourse of the conquerer or of those who simply are women, installed in the domain of the male. While Spivak wondered if the “subaltern” could speak, Glissant pushed that question aside. Of course, the Colonized has a voice, the struggle is how to disentangle from what Glissant termed “the desiring violence of speech” or the yearning to echo the tones of the white male, hoping somehow to steal the Promethean flame. And yet there is no authentic language for those who are outside the borders of male discourse and attempt to speak. To mimic is not to be accepted. Moreover, the post-war breakdown of Empire disturbed the universe of authority, setting free the dialogic. Glissant warned that “..the world can no longer be shaped into a system. Too many Others and Elsewheres disturb the placid surface..” The French-educated philosopher from Martinique was of the post-Fanon generation, a Deconstructionist avant-la-letter, a champion of formlessness and belatedness and sub-texts and mutations of language, which should create “une poétique de la Relation” or a cross-cultural poetics.

Installation of paintings by Holly Tempo at Launch Gallery

Decades before the easy buzzwords of “multiculturalism” and “identity” and “diversity,” words too lazy and too malleable to be of much employment, there were the efforts of black postwar writers who, like Glissant, who felt that language could rethought into a generative non-system. To utter deceptively simple words could be a powerful and empowering act which creates the subject through the activity of making, bringing her into a unique state of being. In Philosophy of the Relation (2009), Glissant stressed the urgent need for the children of slaves to create a new language, an/Other mode of speech via a Detour or a going around the obstacle of a strait/ed syntax, whether English or French, that is unavoidably white and male and colonialist. His books on Creole poetics demonstrate the futility of seeking selfhood and the danger of stepping into the trap of attempting to find something called “identity.” A search for stability leads only to the cul-de-sac of social and cultural constructions. Glissant spoke against the myth of the racine unique or the myth of the “single root,” a purist definition of race as either white or black, where a single origin can be located. Race, for any African in American territories, is a fiction convenient for the dominant order, a concept that is utterly stifling for an individual voice and must be replaced by an interrogation of alterity. Glissant asserted that writing must spawn rhizome identities, which are relational, growing and grasping and reaching like roots working their way down and out, carving paths through the earth, moving further and further away from origins. The term he used to describe the rhizome effect was métissage. Deleuze and Guattari notwithstanding, the etymology of the word Latin mixticius, refers to a cloth that was woven from different fibers, suggesting a braiding. The Hegelian dialectic is rejected and is replaced by the rich excess of intertextual knittings, tightened by an assured loom.

Installation of paintings by Loren Holland at Launch Gallery

Although the author does not elaborate upon the origins of the word, the source is actually female: Metis an ancient pre-Olympian being, a figure of wisdom, a Titaness who was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus. She was a weaver and a trickster, who could transform existing purities through the paradoxical weaving of different textiles. Métissage suggests a loss of  “pure” identity or a definite origin in favor of a mixing and rapprochement of distinctions. Metis was a maker, an artist, one of the few cultural producers among the idle Greek gods who seemed to seek employment by interfering in the affairs of humans. As the first weaver, she worked with her hands, painting with strands and strings, feeling the different textures on the tips of her fingers, mixing the colored cords, celebrating the divergences and the contradictions. Her fibers were plaited, crisscrossing in warps and woofs, designed by her own ingenuity. Patterns were entwined into an ur art form. In her book, Life Writing and Literary Métissage as an Ethos for Our Times, Erika Hasebe-Ludt and her co-authors collaborate and write in one voice, stating that métissage is a theory and a political practice in that it holds genres, texts, and identities as separate. This separateness is necessary–paradoxically–in order to blur their outlines, while holding their shapes, to combine history and mythology and biography into a messy and untidy braiding. The looping entwines threads into a hybridity that is seamless and yet seamed, concealing and revealing sources and opposites. As Erika Hasebe-Ludt said “Our writing illustrates métissage as an artful research praxis that mixes binaries such as colonized and colonizer, local with global, East with West, North and South, particular with universal, feminine with masculine, vernacular with literate, and theory with practice. We braid strands of place and space, memory and history, ancestry and (mixed) race, language and literacy, familiar with strange, with strands of tradition, ambiguity, becoming, (re)creation, and renewal into a métissage.”

One of the most important series of books, taking about three decades to complete, the Black Athena trio, rocked the world of white academics. Those who have read Martin Bernal’s towering achievement are painfully aware of the excruciating scholarship that makes reading his books a long hard slog. One wades through the dense research, aware that the British author knew that his re-writing of ancient history would be put to the test of collective outrage. Indeed, Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.Volume I: The Fabrication of Greece 1785-1985 of 1987 was one of the opening guns of the culture wars. On the face of it, so to speak, Bernal’s thesis was a simple one, but it was one to roil the usually staid world of history. In his own words, as set out in a “Very Brief Outline,” Bernal described the intent of all three of his volumes: “In my three volumes with the title Black Athena, I argue that the Ancient Egyptian civilization can usefully be seen as African. I also maintain Ancient Egypt and Semitic speaking South West Asia played fundamental roles in the formation of Ancient Greece. I do not claim the Ancient Greeks were Black or that the Ancient Egyptians all looked like stereotypical West Africans.” He continued “Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic periods 500-50 BCE believed that their religion had come from Egypt that there had also been profound Egyptian influences on the formation of their philosophy and mathematics. Similarly, they maintained that Phoenicians from what is now Lebanon and Northern Israel/Palestine had introduced cultural artifacts notably the alphabet. I have called such beliefs, the “Ancient Model” of Greek origins. This Ancient Model was generally accepted until the beginning of the 19th century CE (AD). It then began to fall into disrepute and by the 1840s, it was replaced by what I have called the “Aryan Model.” According to this, the Greek stories of their origins were mistaken and Greek culture was “in fact” a mixture of the soft but civilized natives of the Aegean basin and the dynamic Northerners who had conquered them. This mixture was seen as having created the perfect balance of Greek civilisation. In Volume I of Black Athena I argued that the destruction of the Ancient Model was not the result of any new discoveries. Rather, it came from various ideological forces, one of which was the racism which made it intolerable that Greece, now seen as the pure cradle of Europe should have received its higher culture from Africans and “Semites.”

The phenomenon described by Bernal was something that could be termed a “whitening” of history that was signified by the pure white marble used to carve the Classical Greek sculptures and to construct the shining white temples. From the eighteenth century on, Europeans were reluctant to accept the fact that Greek sculpture and architecture was anything but gleaming and blanched, but was, instead, brightly if not garishly polychromed. There are strong suggestions that the perceived “whiteness” of the art of the ancient Greeks was a racial subtext that haunted art history. Conflating modernism and imperialism, historians insisted, inaccurately, upon the “purity” of Athenian culture and its position of primacy as the foundation of Western culture. The truth, as Bernal asserted was more complex and rich and differentiated. The Greeks were not isolated, protected by their borders, or submerged in their own self-satisfaction. The Greeks were, in point of fact, colonizers and traders who mixed and mingled with the Mediterranean cultures, weaving together a culture that was more polyglot. A famous pairing in art history would contrast an Egyptian statue with that of a Greek Kuros, implying an anatomical and artistic, if not cultural superiority, of Greece over Egypt. Greek culture had “advanced” beyond that of Egypt, with the dynamic and evolving aesthetic proving to be superior to the conservative tropes of Pharaonic Egypt. The sub-text that underlies this well-known and non-contextual comparison was racist.

Bernal was writing in the midst of a philosophical reconsideration of colonialism in a post-colonial era, and his attempt to return to the actual historical conditions of the formation of the Greek culture dropped him into an argument that lasted until the last days of his life. But he was but one of a cacophony of voices emerging and entering into the guarded grounds of what was considered “culture.” Whether or not one agreed or disagreed with him, Bernal’s main contribution was to shine a light on the distinction between the actual–history as lived–and the abstract–culture as a colonial concept. The reduction of the word culture to an abstraction or what Roland Barthes would refer to as a “myth” allowed this empty vessel to be filled with the discourse of oppression. Bernal was not a deconstructionist, but it is possible to examine the Black Athena controversy from another angle: sous rature. We find the idea of putting a word or a term “under erasure” in both Heidegger and Derrida. The X that covers an inadequate but irreplaceable word under the X that allows us to see the word but at the same time attempts to cancel it out is an act that is highly aggressive. For the philosophers, the word “Being” may be necessary but it is also too subjective to be written about or explained or even satisfactorily defined. But on the other hand, try to imagine a word without être or to be. Being is necessary or one must be suspicious of its presence. As a result, the two decisive strokes do not obliterate the idea but signal the beginning of a critique of the concept. In other words, to do “X” is to deconstruct.

The term that both artists confront is not “Being” but “Culture,” but for very different reasons than Heidegger crossed out Being. If Being is a word too romantic and too unwieldy to have much objective content, “culture” has been wielded as a very powerful word, a weapon of the colonizer adversely defining those who have been colonized. The Other must be controlled and ruled by the One precisely because their “cultures” were judged (by the One) to be deficient. What deconstruction reveals is that the word “culture” rests upon its being paired with its opposite, with one polarity assumed by society to be of a lesser order, mirroring the white/black dialectic. The interdependence of the co-dependent binaries is inherently unstable and the artists interrogate the old idea that culture refers only to one (white) society. Therefore, it is also important to put “culture” sous rature in a time of postcolonialism. In 2013, Ayman Abu-Shomar, a Saudi scholar, wrote,Following a post-colonial and Derridean deconstructionist repertories, I argue that the limitation of the term stems from its singular and latent form as it fails to reflect the mobility dynamicity, multiplicity, and hybridity of current societies. The study is based on the premise that ‘‘culture’’ is thought of as hybrid, contested, and in constant (re)construction; not a noun but a ‘verb’. I, therefore, put the concept ‘under erasure’ to challenge the taken for granted, fixed and unified meaning of the term and move beyond the limitations of several ways it has been studied and theorised. In so doing, I speculate on the relevance of the concept to the liquid post-modern era that is marked by the fragmentation of societies, the emergence of new identities, Diasporas, immigration and birth of cyber-cultures.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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