Part 1: The Janus Face of the Invention of ‘Man’: Laws of Nature and the Thinkability of Natural, rather than Supernatural Causality versus the Dynamics of the Colonizer/Colonized Answer to the Question of Who/What We Are.–Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom”
The Problematics of Passage is a photographic series of my performative interventions at historic colonial sites in the United States. The photographs featured in this Art Work were taken at Greenwood Cemetery (Brooklyn) during the annual reenactment of the Battle of Brooklyn; inside The Old Stone House in Park Slope (Brooklyn); and on the grounds of James Madison’s House in Montpelier, Virginia. For each intervention, I dressed in colonial-era clothing from the North East region of the U.S.
Except for the self-portraits taken in the Old Stone House, I had a photographer document the work in much the same way as a director and cinematographer work together. In dialogue with the camera and its gaze, this collaboration allowed me to be both observer and observed. I worked with photographer Gerald Sampson for the Battle of Brooklyn, with artists Francheska Alcantara and Sandy Williams in Montpelier.
This body of work began with an invitation to create new work for the exhibition Appropriating Revolution, at which time I (fortuitously) happened be reading an essay by the philosopher Sylvia Wynter. It was a time in my practice when I wanted to return to photography again after having worked specifically with performance art and social sculpture for ten years. It was through photography that I had originally found my voice as an artist, and was able to understand my body––that of a woman of color––as a powerful disruptor in Art’s long domination by elite Western European ideologies. Photography has always held an important place in my life. Whether through family portraits, snap-shots with friends on vacation, or historical/commercial images of people who looked like me, the body (my body) was always framed within and simultaneously at times against, multiple contexts of place and time––something that only this medium does well. Photography forces the viewer to analyze the matter of being with history––in place––and refuses to allow the viewer to dismiss details as incidental due to its ability to bring them into focus within the frame. In this way, photography (as well as the moving image) has played a critical role in shaping how I have seen (and continue to see) myself, as well as what my physical identity (my body as a woman of color, what I wear, how I stand, move, talk, etc.) might signify to others.
Photography created two possibilities: one was the democratization of image-making (though mostly available to the white rising middle classes in Europe and the Western Hemisphere, and the other was the creation of a sharp visual distinction between colonized and colonizer (other/sef). Used as a tool to construct both the identity of the colonizer and the colonized, photography helped further implement white supremacist ideology and class divisions in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it helped solidify the other’s (the colonized’s) identity as savage and/or exotic through the proliferation of mass-produced photographic curios: carte-de-visites (travelling postcards) serving as counterparts to the popular photographic portraits that many middle class people were having made in major cities. Far more practical than commissioned painted ones, the photographic portrait made it possible for a wider population to access the visual power that portraits had traditionally maintained in the hands of royalty or the church. Everyone could now see a heightened image of themselves; everyone could be important enough to have a portrait rendered. What had occured between the overly staged carte-de-visites depicting Black, Indigenous, Arab, and Asian populations and the middle-class portraits of European individuals was the production of ‘proof’ of the difference between self and other. Used as a scientific tool to document nature and reality, photography purported to show the ‘real’ and created the semiotic evidence (based on western cultural values) needed to ‘justify’ who was human and who was not. What is significant for me in my work is is looking at this specific use of photography as a performance, paying attention to the staging of people at particular locations in particular historical moments. For as I have noted elsewhere, “the act of photographing colonial subjects was an act of performing in itself, as the photographer’s entire process was intentional, from choosing subjects through to the intended audience. Travel photographs of the 19th Century played their role in exoticising and trivialising non-European colonial subjects, ultimately dehumanising Other.”
I see the conceptual formation of The Problematics of Passage as a continuation of using performance as a practice to emancipate myself from the dehumanizing gaze directed at my body. For me, it is through performance that these colonial visual structures can partly be undone. I started working with this aim in my first photographic series Becoming Myth: An Auto-Ethnographic Study (2005). Here, I saw that:
As products of society’s structures and ideas, images show only what the gazer and photographer are able or want to see and interpret. What interests me are the transactions between the people in front and behind the camera both of who were influenced by the structures of colonialism, racism and the political and commercial endeavors of capitalism in the Western World. Their encounters in the creation of images built the foundations of identity in our modern visual language which are inherently Eurocentric. The photographic documentation of visual art performance is merely a residue of the live act yet it is from this artifact that we must complete our knowledge even if having had attended the actual live event. The documentation very often depicts the objectives of an artist to tear open, reconsider, mend, extend, mask, erase, or scar identity within the semiotic structure that the photograph houses.The act of performing can decolonize the gaze in images as well as the notion of identity.
As previously mentioned, when curator Katherine Gressel approached me to create a new piece for Appropriating Revolution, I was reading Wynter’s 2003 essay “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom.” What struck me most about this essay was Wynter’s assertion that black and brown people, in particular, have yet to truly see themselves (ourselves) as human due to the western bourgeoisie’s overrepresentation of itself as human. Colonial semiotic conditions continue to define what being human means. Wynter’s assertion presents readers with the understanding that people are able to free themselves from these conditions, ultimately beginning the journey to see themselves (ourselves) as human. Her ideas drew me back to how I had first begun to––and continue to––use performance and photography as ways of documenting myself in various environments, in order to consider connections, disjunctures, and/or discoveries about my identity and to move toward liberation. When I refer to myself, I mean my entire being––physical, emotional, psychological––and the implied signification of how others see me, many times coded through a colonial gaze. More intimately, Wynter’s work made me recall the manner in which I saw myself in family photos growing up. With these memories came others, just as rapidly––specifically memories of being told that I was not American by a classmate or asked by people I had just met, “where are you really from?”
From 2001 through 2016, close to five million people were deported from the U.S––a number that far exceeds the number of people deported between 1892 and 1997. It was during this time that I started creating work influenced by reports of increasing mass deportations and their calamities. Having responded to the dehumanization of undocumented workers in my previous performance Illegal Death, I came to think of Wynter’s assertion as a series of questions: Had the act of immigration always been a demand to be seen as human? Had the border and deporations become structures and acts that denied the humanity of the other? Could becoming more ‘American’ make me more human (this question resting on the idea that immigrating to a colonizing or settler-colonial country makes the immigrant somehow more human)? I am a brown woman of color, whose ancestry includes West African, Indigenous, Middle Eastern, and Iberian peoples. I am the child of parents who grew up in the larger geographical area of Turtle Island and immigrated from the unceded land of the Taino people in Quisqueya, to the unceded land of the Lenni-Lenape people, Mannahatta. From this place and context, how much more ‘American’ could I become, given that my being is a result of the colonized Western Hemisphere’s version of ‘America’?
Taking my family’s history of immigration and the process of assimilation as points of departure, The Problematics of Passage foregrounds my engagement with the conceptualization of the other as a colonial tactic of dehumanization and my performative interventions as ways of undoing this conceptualization in order to move toward freedom and the possibility of becoming ‘human.’ More broadly, I direct my interdisciplinary practice towards critiques of the politics of presence, that is, the argument that the inclusion of disenfranchised communities in political and social spheres is sufficient. Instead, I use performance as a research tool that exploits the semiotics of my body, in order to examine what it means to be an ‘American.’ I critique the idea that ‘Americans’ are white (of European descent), wealthy, capitalist, from the Mayflower (or carrying a historically European colonial trace), and from the country called the United States. Generally, anyone who falls outside of these definitions is not considered ‘American’ and is therefore not thought of as human, with the understanding that being white is the largest defining factor of what it means to be human.
Inserting myself into a hegemonic U.S. history is one way to begin unsettling the post-coloniality of my being. The dominant narrative that the colonial U.S. offers is ripe with contradiction, especially in the context of my background as well as in relationship to the history of black and Indigenous resistance in this country. For The Battle of Brooklyn images, I focused on a major revolutionary war in New York City because this is where I grew up. I participated in the annual Revolutionary War reenactment dressed as a colonial militia man who had volunteered (most likely) without any prior training to fight in battle. I interacted with re-enactors in exercises (shooting muskets, preparing for battle scene, and participating in the battle) and actively engaged with visitors. In my shoes, I carried the Ferguson protestors 2014 Open Letter and the Red Nation’s 1977 Nine Points Manifesto. My reasons for doing this was to keep me grounded in the histories with which I identified as an American. The contemporary acts of rebellion in Ferguson against anti-black police violence and the Red Nation’s nine points insisting on sovereignty both stand in stark opposition to the Revolutionary War, which was a consequence of wealthy white property owners refusing to pay their taxes in 1776. They even had poor men and free black men fight this war for them. The Battle of Brooklyn was also a moment wherein performance allowed me to create a more conceptually metaphysical objective: to use myself as a witness of these ‘future’ rebellions coming back to the ‘past’ in an effort to somehow alter it. What stood out for me on the day of the reenactment was that these yearly performances–performed mostly by history buffs––were themselves ritualistic, replaying one historical point-of-view in order to make it seem more real.
The three self-portraits taken inside The Old Stone House––a Dutch colonial house in Brooklyn––were named after artworks by Dutch painters from the height of the Dutch Golden Age. I named them after work by Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer because the golden age occurred as a result of Dutch settler-colonial acts of resource extraction and genocide. Rather than loudly intervening in the space itself, I chose to place myself in the setting as well as within the titles of their artworks, situating myself in the context of this history, which is uncomfortable for my body and distorts my identity.
Visiting James Madison’s House in Virginia was somewhat less planned than the other two locations, but carried out with the same intentions. I had originally wanted to focus this body of work in and on the places where I had grown up (New York City). But for the Virginia images, I reckoned with location as a magnifier, asking: Would I become more ‘American’ (and ultimately more human) if I were in places that were considered more ‘American’ than New York City? Would my fitting in become more convincing or less so?
This body of work has allowed me to look further into the intersections of photography and performance and has crucially enabled me to be both observer and observed. Through this process, I have created cohesively complex portraits of myself as I played with colonial semiotic conditions in order to disassemble my identity. Have I become more ‘American’ and/or human as a result of doing this project? Each viewer’s response will be different from mine. It will depend on what or how they read, what knowledge of information is produced for and by them, and how they interpret both. Proving my humanity to myself has never been the issue. Rather, it is a matter of undoing colonial logics and patterns of signification through performance. In this way, I free myself from the confines of the identities imposed upon me.