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A Decolonial Reading of Sammy Balodji's “Mémoire”, by Alanna Lockward

Berlin based author and curator Alanna Lockward investigates Sammy Baloji's exhibition "Memoire". The text was written on the occasion of the opening of "Mémoire" in Berlin in 2013 in the framework of AfricAvenir's project "Paradoxes of Sustainability" and was first published  in the inaugural issue of ELSE: The Journal of International Art, Literature, Theory and Creative Media, Oct. 2014.

In a video interview for the exhibition “Contested Terrains“ at the Tate Modern (2011), Sammy Baloji explains the genealogy of Memoire by concluding that his aim was to create “a new dispositiv, a new narrative”. The translation, however, uses the term “slides” instead of the Foucauldian “dispositiv”. And it is  precisely in resonance with this misunderstanding, with this colonial misunderstanding, to paraphrase a film with the same title by French-Cameroonian documentary filmmaker, Jean-Marie Teno, that I want to introduce a decolonial reading of this exhibition.

The modernity/coloniality research program was inspired by the groundbreaking contribution of Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano. It offers a tool to dismantle the continuities of colonialism after formal decolonization. At the same time the program defines modernity as a rhetoric inseparable from the logic of coloniality (Mignolo 2008). This explains the systematic exploitation of entire populations in the name of “progress” and “civilization”. The analysis and contestation of the inseparability of these processes gives birth to the modernity/coloniality/decoloniality research agenda. Decolonial thinkers consider postcolonial studies to be limited in scope since, in addition to omitting this inextricability, their genealogy is anchored in rather provincial theories of (post)modernity based largely on Eurocentric historical and intellectual genealogies.

Memoire, realized between 2006-2009, has been exhibited in iconic venues such as the above mentioned, Tate Modern, the Museum of African Art in New York and also received the prestigious Prince Claus Awards, in 2009. Some of the texts accompanying

the series in its travels tend to preclude two pertinent aspects that I would like to outline. These two vacuums are linked to  form and content respectively. On the formal vaccum, it is surprising to find the lack of interest in reading Memoire as inscribed within the long-standing tradition of photomontage as a political tool that started precisely in Germany with the Dadaists, and more specifically in Berlin with John Heartfield.  Considering that Baloji describes himself as self-taught, any reference to his inspiration in European and African sources in his formal education could be easily dismissed.  Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that  art critique must consistently relate to canonical genealogies in order to validate itself. Even decolonial readings like this one, must follow this respectable path.

The second vacuum is defined by the content and since I have named this  presentation as a “decolonial reading” I  will focus my comments on this particular aspect. Rather than describing such a void as surprising, I will choose “symptomatic” instead. This gap is indeed very illustrative of the way in which European modernity has systematically fictionalized itself as completely independent from colonialism. Dismantling this narrative is the chore of decolonial thinking and  it is the reasoning behind my interpretation of Memoire as a virtual “manual on decoloniality”

According to Bogumil Jewsiewicki  “The landscapes [that Bajoli] portrays are of a kind seen throughout the world, as factories and production, resources and profits, are moved from one continent to another due to the vicissitudes of globalization”. In this judgement, globalization is presented as a “new” phenomenon, something that “inevitably“ carries with it the impoverishment of entire populations using a rather benevolent expression “the vicissitudes of globalization”.

In opposition to this perspective, for decolonial thinkers this pattern represents the logic of the colonial matrix of power, a term coined by Quijano. There are four interconnected spheres in which the colonial matrix of power was constituted in the 16th century, and has operated since then,  according to Walter Mignolo and Madina Tlostanova.  

“In each sphere there are struggles; conflicts over control and domination in which the imposition of a particular lifestyle, moral, economy, structure of authority, etc., implies the overcoming, destruction, marginalization of  the existing precolonial order.”

These are the four spheres:

1) The struggle for the economic control (i.e. the appropriation of land, natural resources and exploitation of labor);

2) The struggle for the control of authority (setting up political organizations, different forms of governmental, financial and legal systems, or the installation of military bases, as it happens today);

3) The control of the public sphere —among other ways, through the nuclear family (Christian or bourgeois), and the enforcing of normative sexuality and the naturalization of gender roles in relation to the system of authority and  principles regulating economic practices. It is based on sexual normativity and dual “natural” gender relations;

4) The control of knowledge and subjectivity through education and colonizing the existing knowledges, which is the key and fundamental sphere of control that makes domination possible.

The colonial matrix of power went through successive and cumulative periods, in which the rhetoric changed according to the needs and the leading forces shaping these four spheres. In the period from 1970 to 2000 neo-liberalism was consolidated in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The neo-liberal agenda translated the previous mission of development and modernization, into the Washington Consensus of granting the market economy priority over social regulation.“[1]

In Memoire, Sammy Baloji creates a series of tableaux-vivants where neo-liberalism is simultaneously re-enacted, dismembered and rigorously portrayed as the macabre fiction that it is. We feel that we are looking at different films where the actors only change costumes and the themes are repeated in a lethany where the interconnectedness between enslavement and wealth is presented over and over again. This work is a result of his own personal confrontation with the hidden side of modernity.  In, 2005, while researching  Lumumbashi’s colonial architecture and industrial sites, which he has photographed extensively,  the artist found  the photographic archives of the Gécamines mining company, which was the main industry  of the province of Katanga for many years. These photographs were completely unknown in Katanga until then, he never learned the stories portrayed in them at school. These images reveal the genesis of the forced labor that created the by now long gone “economic success” of Lumumbashi. The ruins of the industrial backdrop operate as a signifier of an unbroken continuity. The landscapes are static but in contrast the dynamism evoked by the subjects that are juxtaposed on them challenge any attempts to  understand the different historical moments as ruptures. These are splendid illustrations of how the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality are inseparable or rather mutually inclusive. It is impossible to understand the one without fully acknowledging “the Other”.

Since the orchestrating quality of these images reminds me of the different movements of a symphony, and in order to avoid a misreading of his intentions, (even decolonial misunderstandings should be avoided) I asked the artist how he would describe his work in musical terms. He answered  by quoting Sun Ra´s “Concert For Comet Kohoutek”. According to Jesse Jarnow, this album recorded in late 1973 and released in the early '90s, “...captures a typically inspired night by Sun Ra & the Intergalactic Space Research Arkestra., since it is guided by a musical theme composed around the idea of the Comet Kohoutek, which was passing close to Earth at the time.”

Sun Ra, an openly gay Black performer that has dismantle many clichés of the music  industry seems as the perfect embodiment of the challenging  of the coloniality of gender, economic control, knowledge and authority. By quoting this particular album by Sun Ra,  Sammy Baloji is certainly outlining the liberating and decolonizing potential of his images because it is only by means of acknowledging the truth of inequality, of our differences, as the Black Feminist Audre Lorde comands us to do, that we will be able to materialize a true

creative force for change. Only by decolonizing our understanding of history it is possible to forge what Baloji calls a “new dispositiv, a new narrative” and Sun Ra defines as “The fiery truth of Enlightenment”.

[1]     Mignolo, Walter & Tlostanova, Madina (2009). Global Coloniality and the Decolonial Option. Kult 6 - Special Issue. Epistemologies of Transformation: The Latin American Decolonial Option and its Ramifications. Department of Culture and Identity. Roskilde University. P. 134-136.

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