Bare Feet in the Snow. A Conversation Between Patricia Kaersenhout and Alanna Lockward

Patricia Kaersenhout and Alanna Lockward

A recent interest in performance has brought Patricia Kaersenhout’s Blak radical imagination to a mesmerized audience. Articulated intuitively, her performance “Stitches of Power. Stitches of Sorrow” (2014) combines her long interest in (in) visibilities with the juxtaposition of moving image, sound, three-dimensional objects and audience participation. By means of unveiling the inherent violence of the apparently innocent act of embroidering, she triumphantly conveys key contestations of epistemic disobedience. The narratives of the Continent of Black Consciousness become an embodied knowledge in the thirty minutes were rotating members of the audience alternate their seats and the portion of a shared piece of cloth where their stitches will be permanently embroidered as a collective memento. Kaersenhout herself is embroidering in a separate chair. Silence is almost a ritual while the voice of Angela Davis on a loop challenges the white reporter who asks her about her opinion on violence over and over. It is simply electrifying. In the following conversation, the artist shares her vision and engagement with the rigour and passion that permeate her artistic contributions.

Q. What is your interpretation of the colonial wound? What role does healing play in your artistic practice?

A. Being a descendant from Surinamese parents but born in the Netherlands, my artistic journey became an investigation of my Surinamese background in relation of being raised in a West-European culture. Both my parents were brought up with the idea that western views were the best. This was passed on to me and in it laid the roots of my invisibility. Not knowing the social codes made my parents decide to raise me with the thought not to draw attention to one self because of being different.  Invisibility is one of the running threads in my work.

In his essay ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ Stuart Hall emphasizes that we can properly understand the traumatic character of the colonial experience by recognizing the connection between domination and representation. ‘They had the power to make us see and experience ourselves as Other of a dominant discourse.‘ As long as I can remember I’ve lived my life in multiple realities and I’ve found my own safety doing so hiding behind my ‘veil’. I came to realize that I as a daughter of Diaspora am in an advantageous position ‘cause I could look through my veil at the Other while they could not see my reality hidden behind my veil. This realization gave me the strength to reclaim the neglected histories of my ancestors returning their dignity.

Q. In your own words, what is Decolonial Aesthetics/Aesthesis?

A. Even though I consider myself a visual artist, written language and how to interpret words is very important to me. The word ‘Decoloniality’ still beholds a colonial thought/ feeling. I would prefer the term Blak Aestethics/Aesthesis. The C in Blak should be banned, because it also stands as a symbol for a colonial thought. Why do we need a C in Black while in the pronunciation we cannot hear it?? Blak to me symbolizes a political movement open for every person who is willing to liberate him/her self by joining the revolution of the blak community. They should destroy themselves and be born again as beautiful blak persons. I would like to refer to a quote on “Black Looks, Race and Representation” by bell hooks in her approach to James Cone’s understanding of the possible solidarities between the oppressor and the oppressed:

“In his work, Cone acknowledges that racism harms whites yet he emphasizes the need to recognize the difference between the hurt oppressors feel and the pain of the oppressed. He suggests: ‘The basic error of white comments about their own oppression is the assumption that they know the nature of their enslavement. This cannot be so, because if they really knew, they would liberate themselves by joining the revolution of the black community. They would destroy themselves and be born again as beautiful black persons.’

Since it is obvious that white folks cannot at will become ‘black’ that utopian longing must be distinguished from a solidarity with blackness that is rooted in actions wherein one ceases to identify with whiteness as a symbol of victimization and powerlessness.”

A couple of years ago I was at the launching of an art magazine on contemporary Aboriginal art. It was there where I first encountered the word Blak and it’s political meaning. Aboriginals from all over the world were questioning the relevance of the word Black. They also discussed the power of colonial language and how to reject it by means of deliberately writing it phonetically or with spelling mistakes.

Q. How was your first encounter with the “Continent of Black Consciousness” in the art world, and in art education?

A. One of my teachers at the art academy said that in the arts we all know that there are some universal truths as, for instance: “Everybody knows that when it’s cold we need to wear a warm jacket”. My thoughts wandered off to the winter of 1963, one of the coldest winters in Holland since the beginning of that century. My mother opened the curtains of her dormitory and saw to her surprise that the outside world had turned white. She ran outside on her bare feet wearing only a nightgown. In her eagerness to grasp this wonder she didn’t feel the cold. When one of her fellow students urged her to go inside and get a coat she realized how cold it was. She was mesmerized by the beauty surrounding her…

My first big Blak art project was Wakaman, in 2009. This was an exchange project between Surinamese artists living in a Western society and artists living In Suriname. Surinamese artists Remy Jungerman, Gillion Grantsaan and Micheal Tedja initiated the project. One of the important outcomes next to a major show in Paramaribo, the capital, was the publication of a catalogue dealing with contemporary art from Suriname which was totally written from a Blak perspective. My work was contextualized and it empowered me on many levels. Until today we Wakamans meet up and do shows together and some of us have become good friends.

Q. Is the experience of learning and practicing performance art in Europe as a Blak artist different from the US, the Caribbean and the UK? What is your connection to different networks of Blak Diaspora artists, could you comment briefly on how you perceive the nuances between each context?

A. The Dutch mentality differs so much from the German, French, English and most Scandinavian ones. We come from a country of farmers and tradesmen and as long as they can make a lot of money ethics are not high on the political agenda. England had its abolition in 1807, the Dutch in 1863, but they paid the enslaved owners compensation and the enslaved were forced to work 10 more years on the plantations. According to most Blak folks the real abolition took place in 1873. Apartheid is a Dutch invention and the word Baas (=boss) appears in 53 different languages. Holland is a deeply racist country still believing in it’s own innocence because it serves its social and economical agendas.

My personal experience is that Diaspora artists from the countries mentioned above are raised in an educational system which allows them to develop a critical thinking and therefore develop a critical discourse. In the Netherlands there is hardly a Blak discourse because we’ve been subjugated by a politics of confusion for such a long time that we still remain on a one-dimensional level. And we are a minority with no economical and political power.

Q. How relevant is it to give these nuances a national inflection such as “German” or “Dutch” Blak Diaspora? How would you rather frame the question, as European Blak Diaspora, Afropean Decoloniality, Blak Diaspora in Europe, or rather as Blak Diaspora and Europe? Please explain your choice. Also please feel free to add your own suggestions.

A. As a Blak woman there are not many safe spaces for agency. Fortunately, I know how to live in parallel realities without losing my integrity and myself.  I started to feel safe when I got in touch with a broader network of Blak intellectuals and artists dealing with the same issues. I found my liminal space from which I can operate and feel free. Invisibility has become a very forceful power, which I use to my advantage. When speaking to the oppressor I would prefer a term like Afropean or other general terms because it implicates a movement consisting of a big group of humans. Since in Holland we are such a small group it is good to be able to relate to a European network. But within our own small community I would prefer geographical naming. i.e. the countries you and your ancestors were born and with whom they paired becomes a part of your identity. Being a descendant from a Diasporic legacy I get to pick and choose what feels more comfortable for me. I can choose between: Belgian, Danish, Creole, Ghanaian, Indonesian, Indian and Chinese.

Q. There is a long history of performances of Blackness in Europe in the framework of coloniality: how do you approach this legacy in your work? Do you see a common thread with other practitioners in Europe in this regard?

A. I really don’t know. Performance is new to me. It fits in my process of totally liberating myself, it is therefore a very personal process. I haven’t had the time yet to dive into other Blak European performance artists and their meanings. But I am sure I will eventually.Q. How do you see the role of the art institution, of the art plantations of modernity as catalysts for decolonizing Aesthetics/Aesthesis? How have you been able to decolonize your own relationship with the white cube? Are these strategies equally effective in Europe than in other parts of the world?A. I am just not interested in white cubes, at least not the ones in Holland, because they will treat me as an exotic layer on their colonial cake. As an artist I do not set out strategies. Everything I do comes from my heart and soul. Ethics and integrity are the main focus points in my art practices. I’ve found my strength by staying in my own circle and live my life according to my own ethical convictions. It works like a magnet and like Quantum Physics: like attract likes.

Q. How would you define solidarity among P.O.C in Europe today, what are the urgencies, what has been achieved so far, what has been the role played by performance in these strategies of re-existence?

A. Compared to the US we have geographical and language problems. And we were all victims of different colonizers. It makes it harder to unite but not impossible. I wish there was an overall network representing all the major Blak organizations. A lot is still very fragmented. Proper education is to me one of the major urgencies because there is still a whole generation who cannot see the relation of POC and former colonies. And I am not only referring to white people…

There is still a huge denial concerning racism. But unlike what the dominant culture did to me and my ancestors I do not wish to take away their histories and their believes. We have been subjugated to their convictions for more then 500 years. It is about time to add other perspectives in order to give our ancestors their dignity back; and for the dominant culture to finally admit that this shared colonial trauma is what connects us. Maybe then we can start healing colonial wounds. I would like to add this beautiful quote from Malcolm X:  “We may never become arrogant towards ignorant people. We all once have been ignorant ourselves. Ignorance of each other is what has made unity impossible in the past. Therefore we need enlightenment. We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity. Once we have more knowledge (light) about each other, we will stop condemning each other and a united front will be brought about.”

Q. Your next exhibition is based on a research on P.O.C feminist pioneers in the Netherlands. How did this project came into being and what are your expectations on it?

A.  I moved to Amsterdam from Dem Helder to study social sciences in the 80’s. Being young, enthusiastic and very ignorant, I joined the feminist movement. Coming from a Black working class environment I felt the need to approach as many women from different social classes as possible. The white feminists intellectuals were opposed to my ideas of offering low profile courses such as quilting or painting flowers, in order to reach my goal. Soon I noticed that as the only Black woman within their midsts, I couldn’t identify myself with their white dominant and intellectual ideas so I choose to leave. I was unaware that at the same time a Blak feminist group was coming into being in Amsterdam. Twenty five years later, I want to give myself a second chance to meet those pioneers who are until today still active in liberating POC women in Dutch society. These women founded their own organization called Flamboyant, in 1985. They felt the need to separate from the white feminist movement because they couldn’t identify with it. Black women had to face daily realities of racism and sexism which were ignored by most of the white feminists. This became painfully obvious during a conference on women’s history which took place, in 1984, in Amsterdam.  Women of color were totally ignored and therefore walked away from the conference. While researching in the archives of the municipality of Amsterdam for another project, in 2003,  I came across a short story about a young rebellious Black domestic worker named Christina, who lived in Amsterdam, in 1768. She was named a swartin (a very condescending way of naming black womanhood). Because she was running away all the time from her oppressors, she was locked up in Het Spinhuis, a house of correction for women at that time.

Christine appeared to me as a rebel, a feminist. I decided to take her story as a starting point for an art project in which the stories of women of color, the heroins of the 80’s will be intertwined with Christina’s history. Since there are hardly any facts about her in the archives, I will use my imagination to give her a voice in order to reclaim her history. The whole project will consist of a short film, a series of portiere cloths inspired by African political cloths, and a publication. The final result will be shown at the CBK Zuidoost and the Amsterdam Museum as part of a major exhibition about rebellion in Amsterdam opening at the end of april 2015.

hooks, bell.  Loving Blackness as Political Resistance (1999). New York: South End Press, 1999. P. 14

Cone, James (1990) A black Theology of Liberation. New York: Orbis.

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