The Cape Town Art Fair is on. Last evening, my friend Thenji and I went to the Goodman Gallery’s “South-South: Let Me Begin Again”. I know that I said that I probably wouldn’t be able to go because of my work but, I give my heart what it wants – always. In the video room, seated to the right of a white wall and surrounded by a few microphones, sat Professor Grada Kilomba. The audience sat on the floor as her silent video played and she read along – this is called “Illusions”. I sat at the very front and listened intently as she narrated a story of Narcissus and Echo. I’m not going to retell it here or give notes like last time but the switch up was delicious: Greek mythology until a point, then a rereading in which Prof. Kilomba positions whiteness as Narcissus and Echo as “white consensus”. It was obviously incredible. The microphones, a motif in the video as well, make me think of her work regarding the slave bit (please, look it up!), the silent black subject and how she says “listening is an act of the authorisation of the speaker.” The image of multiple microphones, read against her eloquent take-down of whiteness in this performance lecture, emphasises the black subject as an authority. Our lived experiences are adequate and enough of an authority on whiteness. Our lived experience is knowledge. The subaltern speaks. (Word to Professor Gaytari Spivak.)
I attended her exhibition because she invited me after reading I Want To Be You When I Grow Up, Professor Grada Kilomba! I knew about the exhibition but I had no idea she would be present. When she told me, there was no way I would not have gone. You understand. Her performance lectures are an experience! You come away from it with new, profound ideas (although she tends to emphasise that “we already know this”) and a deeper appreciation for this moment we’re all in, in which our work and lives and legacies can be more transformative than the generation before. Meeting her was amazing! She is warm and gracious and lovely and beautiful and she told me that she shared my blog post about her on her Facebook page! Me? I was just nervous and so excited that I don’t all-the-way remember what I said to her. I was joyous as hell, though.
Let me tell you (again) why this woman is so precious to me. How I feel about her is the same thing that I felt when I read Professor Michel-Rolph Trouillout’s “The Savage Slot” back in undergrad. I remember being floored by that text. I remember thinking “damn, this is how whiteness screwed us!”as signs, symbols, language, silences and erasure gained a new significance to me. A genuine, wide-eyed epiphany. Trouillot masterfully breaks down why whiteness needs and created an “Other” laden with all the negative, dehumanising stereotypes that we’re burdened with today in order for it to understand and construct itself as a subject and ultimately as “human.” After reading “The Savage Slot”, I decided that if I ever become an Anthropologist, Prof. Trouillout is who I want to be – same with Prof. Kilomba. Some scholars are just so brilliant that their work makes your blood run faster and your sense of purpose a little clearer, you know?
When I state that I have been thinking about, over and through, I mean that #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall thrust the conversation about decolonisation into public discourse. In all of the talking and seminars and papers that have been written, I’ve always wondered: what can I do in my individual capacity and how do I make decolonisation real in my life? Grada Kilomba’s work around decolonising knowledge has been crucial to how I’ve been thinking through these questions. Knowledge. What do we know? How do we know it? Who created this thing that we know? The more I work towards becoming an Anthropologist and making a life of it here in South Africa, the more my concern grows about the ways in which I will produce knowledge, what my pedagogical project will be and how I will ensure that blackness is never othered in my work. I’m currently working on my Masters project that is about young women in romantic relationships in which their partners give them money and gifts. Considering public discourse, media and academic representations of such young women as either victims or villains – what will my contribution to the narrative be? I’m working through it. I hope you read it when it’s done.
My other favourite part of the night was when she was giving her performance lecture and all us African folks in the room started snapping at all of her salient points, like we do when we’re moved by particular kinds of poetry. I loved that! It is so refreshing to hear a critique of whiteness outside of a university space – it’s a message that has to reach and resonate with Africans wherever we may be, like my friends who weren’t familiar with her work prior to seeing her. (It’s also great that it’s in the presence of white people in a non-university space.) All in all, it was a lovely, bright Woodstock evening full of talented artists, reunions with special people and affirmations. I’m so happy I was able to make it and spend time with Thenji. I’m so happy I met my hero.
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Thank you, Prof. Kilomba for existing and choosing the path that you have, illuminating the way for all of us coming after you. You’re a blessing!