Excentric Cultural, Communal, and Collective Practices in the Art World

David Makala, Nyati Within, digital print, 2017. Image courtesy of artist.

David Makala, Nyati Within, digital print, 2017. Image courtesy of artist.

I want to begin a conversation about non-traditional, excentric practices happening in the art world. With few exceptions, many, maybe even most, of these practices are not happening in the United States. As an acquaintance recently reminded me, the US art world, viewed from outside the US, is considered very provincial. I would add that it is also very conservative. Where curation and art historical scholarship and discourse are concerned, there are attempts at intersectionality, excentric thinking, and de-colonial practice that, unfortunately, often end up as spectacle rather than actual excavation and undoing.

I am hearing about excentric practices in Europe and in certain places on the African continent. Last summer, I was in Harare for the 2nd International Conference on African Culture hosted by the National Gallery of Zimbabwe where I had the good fortune to deliver a paper and also engage with numerous arts professionals from the African diaspora and African continent. While many worked within traditional art world contexts, many were also working ex-centrically and intentionally confronting the so-called “center” with these excentric practices. I am reminded immediately of Njelele Art Station run by artist, Dana Whabira, Mpho Matsipa, one of the co-curators and co-conspirateurs of African Mobilities; and the Paris-based La Colonie founded by artist Kader Attia, restaurateur Zico Selloum, and their family.

A recent conversation with Kemi Adeyemi of the Black Embodiments Studio (BES) in Seattle, currently housed in the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington, reinvigorated my hope for an increased volume of ex-centric discourse promoted by scholars and curators, especially within the US. Artists are already, and have been, doing this for quite some time. Look no further than the multidisciplinary collective Black Constellation. There’s also iQhiya in South Africa and Reading Zimbabwe (Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Tinashe Mushakavanhu) based between NYC and Harare.

BES recently brought independent curator Claire Tancons - one of the three curators of the 2019 Sharjah Biennial - to speak at the Jacob Lawrence gallery. Among the many things Tancons discussed, was the intersectional nature of her contribution to Sharjah focused, in part, on invigorating a discourse around the socio-cultural realities of Africa’s Indian Ocean coast and it’s historical relationship with and proximity to Arabian Gulf countries. Arguably, engaging with this topic is precisely excentric as it makes secondary the geographically acceptable and popular discourse on African history )centered on the Atlantic and its corresponding African Diaspora) and shifts it to the continent’s Indian Ocean coast, following historic and cultural trajectories from that region eastward, igniting discussions about people and practices whose connections to the African continent have not been made visible within standard acceptable discourse about African and Gulf of Arabia culture and history.

I borrowed the title of this post from a text describing an event in which I participated last year: a talk in Amsterdam titled “Pedagogies of the Opaque(I): Black Schools: Learning for and by Black Futures.” This event was organized by Amal Alhaag and Maria Guggenbichler, Amsterdam-based curators and independent scholars whose intellectual and cultural practices are intentionally centered in the intersectional and excentric. This excentric lens obligatorily places the institutional mainstays of the art world into secondary, often tertiary roles. When these institutions do occupy primary roles, they are placed under intense scrutiny.

Last month, Alhaag and Guggenbichler organized an event at District in Berlin titled “Mad Vibrations: A Humming Ritual for Untrustworthy Narrators”, which as the description states,

“side-steps the cruelty of colonial modernity, and focuses on the radical, renegade voices of decolonial struggles who demand different realities for themselves through various forms of self-care and exchanges via diasporic and pan-african networks, connections, echoes and re-sonances. These decolonial vibrations and voices found their waves and ways while experiencing prohibition and criminalization. By using improvised or coded language, dance, music or non-verbal communication, which was often read as inaudible, made from scratch, unreliable, inconsistent, mad and incomprehensible forms of exchanges between enslaved and colonial subjects people managed to move below the radar of the systems of slavery and colonialism.”

Alhaag and Guggenbichler invited me to create an opening and closing meditation for this program. As a practitioner of a spiritual tradition created to defeat a slave system, and thus promote liberation, the notion of decolonial thinking and related acts are not lost on me. One could successfully argue that the maroons - free people of African descent in the Americas - were amongst the earliest examples in the so-called “new world” of decolonized people.

I accepted their invitation because I believed this was one of the few instances of genuine decolonial practice that was not just people talking at one another. It was designed to be participatory and collaborative. People were required to give, to share, to hold space. It offered me the opportunity to put into action my beliefs about healing as liberation, agentically using my body (my voice) with a view towards establishing an integrated decolonial praxis that is relatable and replicable. It was akin, in my mind, to the creation of a maroon colony.

Within talks of decoloniality one inevitably arrives on the topic of the body. It has been, for so long, the site of so much trial and tribulation and warfare that, whether we are ready or not, we must address it. Given the topic, I wanted my contribution to be one that returned to the body its agency.

I end today’s post with the opening and closing meditations I drafted and recorded for “Mad Vibrations: A Humming Ritual for Untrustworthy Narrators” presented in Berlin on October 20, 2018 at 7 pm CET at District. Please enjoy.

Opening Closing

Negarra A. Kudumu

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