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Platform for discussion008

How do we productively map the historical and contemporary relationships that exist between North Africa, the Middle East and the Global South?

Jeannette Ehlers
6 November 2014

A Response to Platform 008 by Jeannette Ehlers and Walter D. Mignolo in conversation

Global South, Colonial Wounds And Decolonial Healings

Walter D. Mignolo: I would like to focus on the general question formulated for Platform 008: How do we effectively map the historical and contemporary relationships that exist between North Africa, the Middle East and the Global South?

The work that you have recently exhibited at Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Centre displays your concern with the Atlantic, which you make clear in the wall-to-wall video of the movements, the colours and the sounds of the Atlantic Ocean. Is the concept of the 'Global South' relevant to your work?


Jeannette Ehlers: The term 'Global South' is quite new to me – but since my practice is concerned with the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and the impact colonialism has on today's power structures I find it obvious that the concept of the 'Global South' is of great relevance in my work. No doubt about it. On the other hand, I also feel quite connected with the North; the so-called First World, since this is where I live and mostly operate. The North is the target of my artistic questioning. I draw on both worlds so to speak: the Global North could not exist without the Global South and vice versa. But the division of the world into superior and non-superior is a colonial construct.


My background is Danish/Trinidadian and I utilize this quite personal aspect as a starting point for my artistic practice. My using the Atlantic Ocean as a large dramatic wall projection is one tool to sensitively engage with the audience. And to emphasize and connect the relations and interactions between the continents, history and all the emotions that belong to this. The triangular trade could not have taken place without the Atlantic Ocean. My aim is to question and reflect on history and the present often from a personal and emotional point of view to shed light on crucial parts that are mostly overlooked or symptomatically silenced. From this point of view I bring into debate all sorts of notions from the transatlantic slave trade to the 'Arab Spring'.


WM: I like and remember the story you told me and the video you sent me, Ghost Rider 1 (2000), where the viewer sees a football game without players, just the ball is moving back and forth. This explained to me your early interests in animation. Technology is often more accessible in the Global North, and can be enacted in whatever domain of life. So when you told me that your visit to Ghana really changed you and that animation became a tool to enact a strong 'emoting' of this experience reveals how you used animation as a way to deal with the awareness of racism and Atlantic slavery – an awareness you could say came from the Global South. Could you comment on these two aspects of your work?


JE: Yes that's right, Ghost Rider 1 was created during my first years at the art academy in Copenhagen and it is my very first manipulated video. Digitally, I erased all the players from a football game leaving only their shadows and the ball behind. On a formal as well as on a perceptional level I was very interested in the notions of absence/presence and spent several years developing and refining some of the techniques and methods, which I still use in my work today. Those early works were very much about experimenting and creating new images, which it still is of course, but I did not have an overall substantive agenda back then. It was much more about finding my own artistic language.


The trip to Ghana was a turning point in my life as well as in my artistic production. For more than 200 years Denmark was involved in the triangular slave trade. Nobody ever taught me anything about Denmark's colonial past in Africa – which is completely erased from the Danish consciousness as well as from the history books, at least the ones we used when I went to school and I am afraid it is still the case now. I was born and raised in Denmark and my physical encounter with my country's hidden past as a slave trade nation just blew me away. I was in a state of shock. I took the experience very personally and knew from that very moment that I had to work around these issues – because it was so needed!


Even though I have a strong connection to my Caribbean roots I only vaguely knew about the former Danish Virgin Islands (today the US Virgin Islands) but never really connected it with all the gruesomeness that happened during slavery, and never reflected on this aspect in relation to the wealth that sets the foundation of our modern lives. In general the Danes are totally disconnected from their colonial past. It's really sad and characterizes the mentality here towards a lot of crucial questions and debates revolving around modernity and globalization. 


WM: So that your Ghana experience was what provided the 'decolonial click': you knew in your heart, your body and your emotions what the culturally trained brain was blocking you to see and understand. And you responded through art and decolonial aesthesis?


JE: My Ghana experience just nailed it with the artistic strategies I'd been working on for a long time. Within a split second the notion of absence/presence was taken to new dimensions. They completely made sense on all levels! Personally, emotionally, technically, historically as well as artistically. Since I'm a visual artist I was driven by a deep urge to reveal, discuss and understand these issues in a poetic manner through the power of the image. From then on I started digging deeper into history traveling in the footsteps of the Middle Passage, creating works revolving around many different aspects of this dark chapter in history. And being introduced to decolonial theories by Alanna Lockward and yourself, among many other amazing people from our network, has just been an incredible and eye opening journey, nurturing my inspiration and studies.


WM: What you just said about your experience in Ghana reminds me of another conversation we had. You said that you have recently encountered the words coloniality and decoloniality but as soon as you heard or read the words you knew their meaning, and more so, you sensed their meaning. Coloniality and decoloniality are not concepts that emerged in the Global North, but in the Global South (including South East Asia) and in the North of the South (North Africa). This connects us with the theme of Platform 008. Would you like to tell us more about your feelings, your understanding and the connections between your life, your work and coloniaity/decoloniality?


JE: Yeah you're right, I was not familiar with the term decoloniality when we first met – even though I instinctively dealt with decolonial questions and issues.


Like I already mentioned I was quite shocked to learn about the Danish past and it brought a lot of mixed feelings along with it and most importantly it opened my eyes to new ways of perceiving the world. And on top of that what also really flipped my mind a bit later in the process was being invited to BE.BOP2012 (BLACK EUROPE BODY POLITICS) in Berlin. It was a crucial event for me; I had the feeling of being placed in the middle of a true historic moment in which a new world order was being created. It was massive, deep and emotional and for the first time in my career I felt that my work resonated completely with the discourse. Beyond doubt this encounter opened up additional proportions to my life and work. It gave me inner strength to position myself even more. Suddenly I found myself unravelling questions around identity from new perspectives, recalling personal experiences and childhood memories of being black in an all-white community and so on. These were questions and experiences I had been oppressing for ages because they were not at all part of the discourses around me. It was an absolute wake up call!


WM: And what is the profile of public (media) and institutional (museums, universities, research centers) in Denmark? Is the 'colonial question' addressed and decolonial thinking debated?


JE: When it comes to decolonial thinking, Denmark is way behind. That is why I am so happy we got a chance to present BE.BOP 2014 in Copenhagen in May. 


Lack of knowledge permeates the Danish mentality. That's what concerns me these days. Discussions in the media are quite provincial. South African academic Simmi Dullay says that whenever minorities demand an end to humiliating images or representations of themselves they are systematically smeared by the so-called defenders of 'freedom of speech'. In this context, these freedom of speech arguments are pure signs of ignorance and arrogance, which is a very bad cocktail. There's no will to progress nor to take the debate to higher grounds. Every initiative ends up in this unfruitful corner. I am completely pro freedom of speech, which in my opinion requires a good amount of respect and responsibility. Why is there this deep desire to constantly dehumanize those that are disempowered and claim the right to do so just because you can? What's the point?


WM: Can you provide an example?


JE: A classical example of what is going on in this region right now is a situation in which the super racist works of a Swedish 'street artist', whose works were recently confiscated by Swedish authorities when exhibited in Sweden will be exhibited in Denmark in the name of free speech and with tremendous media exposure. The Swedish guy was actually sentenced to prison due to the racist content of his work. I'm not the one to judge if that is the right way to handle the situation but what I'm trying to say is: The Swedes don't approve of racism full stop, while the majority of Danes do (and still deny being racists!). That's the symptomatic difference between Denmark and Sweden.


This is an extremely bizarre example, openly manifesting Denmark as a racist nation. On top of that there's the structural racism that we experience on a daily basis in the media as well as in our private lives. Not long ago, Mette Moestrup, a Danish writer was fired from her job on the most left winged news paper in this country, because she insisted on debating whiteness and racism. They told her they found this discussion outdated. That's outrageous! On a personal level I recently had an experience with one of my colleagues; a so-called old friend of mine, whom I had not seen in a very long time. We were a group of people chatting and the conversation came across my exhibition SAY IT LOUD! that was on display at the time and was surprisingly very well received by the press and audience. Suddenly my 'friend' started criticizing me by questioning my artistic motifs. He said something like, 'So all of a sudden you are considering yourself a n*****?' I was paralysed by his racist statement and unable to react in the situation. This is a guy who has known me for 15 years or more, who has been in my house several times and who is quite familiar with my strong Caribbean roots.


WM: How did you respond to that?


JE: With a shameless smile, he was dehumanizing me right in front my face in the presence of the rest of the group! When trying to defend myself the best I could, still quite shaken by his act, he passionately repeated his Afrophobic aggressions towards me, over and over. When indicating that I had no words for his behaviour, he had the guts to ask if I was offended that he didn't praise my exhibition!


After overcoming this degrading incident it reaffirmed for me that my work (and decolonial activism) is needed more than ever, so actually it just made me stronger and more determined. I'm learning all the time!


WM: Can you talk about The Invisible Empire (2010), the video we are presenting here as your Platform 008 response?


JE: The Invisible Empire works around the notion of modern slavery, also known as human trafficking. After being involved with the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade for a number of years before the making of The Invisible Empire I wanted to explore and shed light on today's slavery. When I first started out, I did not know much about it and I was horrified to learn how comprehensive it is. It's a mega worldwide industry that involves so many different elements, all the way from the bottom to the top – from prostitution to forced labour in the construction business, like the creation of Dubai – and somehow it is a still-kept secret and visible at the same time. It's really difficult to comprehend.


Like in many of my other pieces, I started out with a personal approach so I decided to ask my Trinidadian father, a descendant of enslaved Africans, if he would participate in the video. Thankfully he found the topic very important and agreed to be part of it. In a quite simple, but still complex way, my using him in the piece couples the past and present: the transatlantic slave trade with today's slavery as well as intertwining the personal with the universal. He's a former crooner so quite used to performing and I asked him to sing one of his favorite songs in front of the camera. He chose Charlie Chaplin's Smile (1954). In the video, you see him singing this song in slow-motion while you hear his voiceover telling a story about human trafficking. Visually, once again I have worked with invisibility versus visibility but with a different method than in many of the other pieces. My aim was to tell this contemporary story in a simple yet powerful way as well as to draw attention to, and reflect upon, the historical ties that bind the globalized society.

Jeannette Ehlers

is currently based in Copenhagen, Denmark. She graduated from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 2006. She has exhibited her work at C&H Art Space, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, CBK, Zuidoost, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Museo Del Barrio, New York, USA, ISCP, New York, US, Kianga Ellis projects, Santa Fe, US, Cartel Gallery London, England, The Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea, Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center, Cph, Denmark, BRAENNEN Gallery, Berlin, Germany, and Image 10, Vevey, Switzerland.

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