Yesterday I went to the Africa Centre Summer Festival Exhibition in Covent Garden with my parents, and was lucky to catch (after a delicious lunch at Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen!) a talk and performance by Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro in the art space where two of her works are on show.
The French-Gabonese artist spoke about her work with young and mature students around the world to reconnect them with their own history, to which they have had no access, and about using the power of history to fight violence and racism “not with violence but with love”, especially in relation to her explosive lithograph The Brick Moon in which historical walls of conflict and division like the Berlin wall are demolished and used to construct a work of peace. By knowing our history of violence we can save the future from the flames.
Asked about the art market, she mentioned the racist and colonial construction of the African artist by the western art world, which has, absurdly and indefensibly, questioned the ‘authenticity’ of artists who don’t fit a poor rural uneducated stereotype. In response to a woman who asked her to talk about her own life, she revealed some details of the racist abuse and exclusion she endured in France as a child and young adult. I was moved by her statement that whatever she does in her performances, it can’t compare to the pain of the history she is bringing to life.
Bikoro then did a performance for us. She lay on the floor of the studio and drew around her own body with chalk, rolling from one position to another on the wooden boards. She wore black clothes which, like her brown skin, were marked by the chalk. This action was incredibly powerful and the room was completely silent despite Bikoro’s insistence that we ‘do whatever you want’ during the work.
By marking our history, we transform its shape
By marking our history, we mark ourselves
Marking history is like rolling in the dust; when we dig ashes from dirt we cannot stay clean
Black bodies, called unclean and unholy, murdered and buried unmarked, restored to honour and love by celebration, by marking in the human curves of a Black woman’s body
Black history embodied
She stood up, and, intoning numbers of dollars and people, she sprinkled gold leaf on us from the floor above (in fact, on us, myself and my parents, the largest group of White people in the room).
With us this work succeeded because we were “rattled out of our comfort zone” Mum said. Yes, and we don’t want to go back to it; being White is a comfort zone people of colour cannot access. We can’t go on accepting that privilege of ignoring history and racism, of experiencing our bodies and culture as the norm from which non-White people are deviant others.
Black history is also our history, and until we look at ourselves through the eyes of the colonised & enslaved, we will not unlearn White supremacy or dismantle its effects.