In our ongoing series of round-table discussions we ask a selection of artists and art practitioners to answer a set of questions on a specific topic. This time around the theme is “identity” and the invited artists include Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, Faith Ringgold, Zineb Sedira, and Kelvin Haizel.
“Identity” and “identity politics” are terms with which artists from Africa and the Diaspora are often associated, whether they like it or not. This has been the case for decades, or rather ever since there has been a debate around artistic production by artists from African perspectives. The idea that those artists are working on “identity” may be one of the assumptions made by a “Western” audience — and this applies just as much to Black communities. But is this fair? Is it not also leading to a “burden of representation,” as Kobena Mercer once called it? What does it really mean to make work on our “identity”? And who gets to decide that? And what about those artists with African perspectives who aren’t addressing the issue of “identity”? Their work and viewpoints are relevant and important, as they move away from this “burden to represent.” In this round-table discussion, four intergenerational artists discuss the problematics of these terms and their usage.
Elisabeth Efua Sutherland’s practice is always rooted within her current environment, which at the moment is the streets of Ghana. Yet the co-founder of the Accra Theatre Workshop refuses to let her subject be reduced to “identity.” Through local perspectives she wants to gain insights into the social microcosms that surround her. Be it the behavior of agitated drivers on the road or of young women trying to balance work and family life. She talks with C& about dissecting her surroundings without losing sight of the bigger picture.
Contemporary And (C&): In your work you examine the way culture can shape identity and you often engage with your local environment in Accra. How important is this local perspective to you and your practice?
Elisabeth Efua Sutherland: My practice is very reactive. A lot of what I make, especially in choreography, comes out of what I see, hear, or feel as I move around – when I listen to the radio, or when I walk on the street. So in one sense my practice is always local, because the physical and social geographies of my environment play an active part. And as I spend most
of my time in Accra, that is the locality I bring to my practice at the moment. What draws my attention in those day-to-day moments is how culture shapes the ways people move, interact, and behave in social situations – for example, the physical and verbal interactions between drivers on the road, or the struggles of young professional women balancing career and family, and the traditionalism and stereotypes that still affect how gender roles are played out. In all of this there is a culturalization that causes individuals to behave the way they do, especially in public situations and in smaller relational units like family or circles of friends. I try to constantly unpack and explore this. Who are we as a people? Where did we come from? And why are we where we are today? That’s what I want to know.
C&: Why do you think “identity” – in the broad sense of the word – is a recurring topic with artists from Africa and the Diaspora across generations?
EES: I think because other people know so little about us, and they put the burden on us to explain ourselves without necessarily giving us the power to do so. It’s about narrative. People ask you, “Who are you?” Then they interrupt your reply to negate or edit what you just said because it doesn’t fit into their perception of what you should be, based on their own prejudices and previous exposures. I think it’s about power and about narrative. Who gets to tell the story? Whose version of the story is heard? Whose version is accepted? You have to keep asserting who you are until people have the stomach to take it. And that’s not only an external thing but an internal one as well.
C&: How specifically relevant is it to your practice that you speak about subjects related to your culture or identity?
EES: I believe in somatic history, embodied history. I believe you carry the cultural marks of where you originated from in your DNA, and that these can manifest in your spirit and in your fleshly life. So for me it’s important to look at the history of a person and a people and the objects and practices and lived histories of that lineage in order to explore the ways they manifest today – as road rage at rush hour, or as a struggle to choose between having a job you care about or answering the combined call for reproduction by your ovaries and your church auntie. In a roundabout way I do believe you can never really escape or transcend your history, and that it may just morph into a different manifestation in your current life. You may embrace or reject it, but either way it remains part of your self- identification.
C&: When a conceptual artist from Accra focuses on non-identity topics, such as Bauhaus for example, they are often questioned in a way white artists aren’t. How do you think this can be challenged?
EES: By refusing to engage with that questioning, by engaging the people and structures doing that questioning and challenging why they feel the need to question – it says more about them than it does about you. Just continuing to do the work.
Interview by Will Furtado.
This interview was initially published in our new C& Print Issue #9. You can read the full magazin here.