Professor Grada Kilomba.

Which is to say, she’s the most phenomenal sight that I have ever seen with my two eyes. I still think of that night in spiritual terms. Someone beyond sky and time; someone who loves me gifted me this experience. Friday night and I’m all alone (as usual) and I was running late. I was cold as all misery. I’d received invitations to several parties and declined, despite the fact that the week was long and I deserved ease. I hadn’t been able to make it to the Decolonising Feminism Conference that had been held during the week but this was one of the last sessions titled, “Decolonising Knowledge: A Performance Lecture”. Just for those two last words, I had to be there. I tell you, interdisciplinarity consumes my thoughts. I obsess about how I want my academic and artistic vantages to intersect. When I spend a lot of time shifting between this Economic Anthropology text and that proposal on love and intimacy and that seminar that requires zooming through Haiti and Hegel and universal history books – the spirit stops to ask for poetry. Finding the balance between a worldview that demands unrelenting analysis and one that begs for stillness, softness and an economy of language induces much anxiety and the heartbreaking sacrifice of one. It’s urgent that I grow the space in my mind where the union of poetry and Anthropology is natural, in a way that is organic for me. It’s the stuff that my daydreaming is made of.

The traffic hurt my feelings. To avoid the roadworks, I offramped into Hillbrow but the robots were out and taxi drivers were being prime anarchists as usual so negotiating the four way stop was painful. I was 20 minutes late and sad inside as I parked on West Campus, regretted my casual disregard for umbrellas and ran through a threatening drizzle to the Wits Theatre on East, hoping it wasn’t too late. I arrived outside the theatre complex to two women complaining about the conference delegates being delayed so the event had not yet begun. Relief, doesn’t even begin… I told you, someone was looking out for me.

She’s a vision. In a long sleeveless red dress, leggings underneath and some matching Nike sneakers (I believe they were Thea’s, perhaps we’re kindred like that) and her signature, thick cornrow braids, she walked on and off the stage making a few final checks. Set up in front of a floor to wall projector screen was a chair, a desk with a lamp on it and a microphone. I didn’t even mind that the event hadn’t yet begun 30 minutes after my arrival – I was about to witness the whole thing and you simply don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I also made the v v adult decision to not live tweet! In so doing, I got some coherent notes down and now, I’m sharing them with you.

Notes from Prof. Grada Kilomba’s performance lecture.

These are her words and ideas, in mine and her words. I encourage you to get into her work and see about her because she is ALL that. She is cited as an interdisciplinary artist, and from my observations, it’s because she combines media such as lecturing, film, music and people.

*Opens with: ‘Teaching to Transgress’ by bell hooks

“I came to theory because I was hurting, the pain within me was so intense, I could not go on living… I saw in theory a location for healing.”
– Currently, theory and knowledge are very violent and colonial, not a space for liberation.
– The biography should make part of theory.

*First story – about the slave mask/bit

– Colonial story is memorialised in a way that leads to forgetting.
– The bit mask was used to prevent eating of sugar cane or committing suicide – it was a tool of silencing. Why must the black subject be silent? What does the coloniser not want to hear? What knowledges do they prevent from becoming known? Secrets like colonialism, racism.
– Common expressions of repression: “you are too sensitive/ you are exaggerating.”
– The mouth is a special organ.

-How can we bring knowledge and theory into the room?

– Listening is an act of authorisation of the speaker
– Those who belong are those who are listened to.

*Second story – ‘Conakry’, a film

– Amilcar Cabral was an important African liberation figure but, he was not written about
– Colonial history is like a ghost that keeps interrupting us  because it was never buried. We bury the ghost through decolonising knowledge.
– Film produced by 3 women including Kilomba
– Cabral commissioned films and colonial footage to be recovered and archived. Important. He was assassinated 4 months later and everything disappeared.

*Third story – 

– Begins her class (in Portugal) by asking about the Berlin Conference and “who was Amilcar Cabral?” Asks about Steve Biko, Audre Lorde, Queen Nzinga
– The students give no answers.
– Africa was divided to 7 countries
– Black students usually attempt to answer while white students are silent
– Room becomes a performative space where the idea of knowledge is being challenged. Shows that knowledge is gendered and racialised.
– Who knows what and why? What knowledge has been acknowledged?
– Not only what counts as knowledge but – who can be believed?
– Which themes and topics deserve to be questioned and known?
– From which perspective can we produce knowledge? And, which format?
– Your knowledge is “not objective…too black”
– When they speak, it’s objective, scientific, rational, facts. We are the opposite.

*Film -Plantation Memories

– Based on book by her
– Wants to bring together theoretical knowledge with performance.
– Students have knowledge but do not know what to do with it
– Knowledge is understood as rational and it leaves out the body and the biography
– “Over-interpretation” = the oppressed is about to say what is not to be said and to make seen what is not to be seen. Reveals the race and gender dynamics at play
– Blackness signifies being “outside place” – racism constructs black bodies as bodies that are out of place and do not belong. White bodies are at home everywhere. Black bodies are always invited to be at home “outside” of academia or outside of where whiteness exists.
– Academia has a problematic relationship with blackness.
-Fanon uses the word of trauma to describe the experience of being black
– Being over-determined by violent  fantasies that one sees : being forced to perform according to the scripts of whiteness

*Film – “What we are talking about is negation…”
– Desire and envy: whiteness’ obsession with black things but not respecting the humanity
– Jazz

– There are no neutral discourses
– If it is claimed that it is neutral, those are voices of power: dominant
– Whiteness is an absence; presented as human. Whiteness as the condition of being “human”. Reference point from which others defer. Make whiteness and power visible: unpack it.
– Biography would become attached to theory and theory to knowledge.
– From what place? What time? What history? Ask questions so that knowledge is always specific and understood in its context.

*Ends – Film: ‘While I Write’

“Sometimes, I fear writing….”  

Oh. My. God. I sat still and breathed through the weight that was rising up in my chest and building behind my eyes, blinking away the familiar stinging that precedes the rain. This woman had traveled across so many oceans and had so calmly revealed myself to me. My head was swirling. I had been slayed in the spirit. It was church and then some. Grada Kilomba had just ministered to my soul. Through her, I now have a clear understanding of how and why I do my work. I have a greater sense of why I must honour my blood and my bones in the face of working within a discipline that’s essentially implicated in imperialism, conquest, bloodthirst and the generational dis-ease of African people everywhere. Her work is helping me  to better think through difficult questions and how better to position innate, embodied, important knowledge in a world whose whims regarding what is “objective” and “universal” hardly sway in my favour. (I know for certain that those two are hardly things to aspire to and it’s comforting.) I really wish I’d gone to thank her afterwards but my reverence for her was too great at that point. I’m still incredibly grateful for that experience. She is exactly what I needed and in perfect time, I received and it was plenty. As I said in an earlier post, #WhatWouldGradaKilombaDo? is my thing for when I’m thinking over, about and through. I feel blessed to have encountered her point of view. She is important. She is necessary. I hope she feels loved and appreciated for all of her critical work. May I see her again.

“The Desire Project”, one of her video installations is exhibiting at the Goodman Gallery, Cape Town soon and it’s taking everything in me not to just fly down and go see it. (As usual, the work is keeping me away from nice things.) Go if you can and tell me all about it!


Grada Kilomba’s website 

Conakry film

Plantation Memories, part I

Plantation Memories, part II 

* * *

Thank you, Anjuli, for suggesting Grada Kilomba’s work when I was researching African hair and whiteness as embedded in school regulations. Her name stayed with me and soon after, I discovered her work. You introduced me to my fave!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s