An interview with the political scientist, film producer, curator, activist, and educator on her participation at the 12th Berlin Biennale.
Contemporary And: A Decolonial Feminist Antiracist Practice will imagine and create, collectively, a public performance that addresses the urgent necessity of multiplying refuges and sanctuaries. Why is important to create such work in a city like Berlin and how can it intersect with yet another influx of refugees, this time from Ukraine?
Françoise Vergès: My idea of curating a public performance around antiracist feminist refuges and sanctuaries is based on a critical analysis of a state of permanent war that fabricates differentiated vulnerability to premature death.
War means rape, destruction, exile, loss, murder, devastation, it leaves behind longlasting traumas, scars, wounds, and damage. Humans, land, rivers, cities, and forests are damaged. The afterlives of war linger for generations. We haven’t had a lasting peace for decades. Of course, if you think “western Europe,” you will say there has been peace. Because violence has been happening elsewhere. France, Portugal, the UK, and the US launched terrible wars throughout the second half of the twentieth century against the peoples they had colonized. The Soviet Union crushed revolts. Postcolonial states betrayed independence. Currently, there is war in Yemen. France, England, and Germany are big producers and sellers of weapons, and selling weapons means selling wars.
The war against Ukraine has brought back war, with all its brutality and cruelty, with all its horrors and sufferings, into European consciousness. Europeans have been legitimately horrified. Who would have thought that dreams of past empires or of a fictional pure past could be so strongly reactivated by autocrats and extreme-right nationalists (the Russian empire, a purified Hindu India, postcolonial melancholia in the UK and France)? Who would have imagined that libertarian billionaires’ projects, with their unfettered individualism and no rules or regulations, would be able to decide elections, impose their policies on climate disaster or public health?
In the current context it is very difficult to say anything about the wars that have been ravaging other parts of the world for decades without being accused of “what aboutism” (a position which exists). But what I want to underline is the tendency to denounce war when it touches “people like us.” We need to reactivate radical thinking about war and peace. I know that “peace” has become a word associated with naiveté, lack of realism, even complicity with those who wage war. But peace has another genealogy, another history, which is far from naiveté, credulity, and a misunderstanding of what is at stake. It is about building peacefulness, refusing the fabrication of vulnerability to premature death, showing the association between war and systemic violence. That understanding of peace has never meant being passive, it does not reject self-defense and taking up arms. Rather it means that peace is not that short interlude between two wars, and that peace in one part of the world should not depend on war in another part.
Refuges and sanctuaries are spaces where one can find not only a place to rest, to get food, water, warmth, showers, and active solidarity but also a space where it is possible to reflect on what leads to permanent war, to learn about the status of refugees (reading Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis…) and past forms of resistance. They are places to mourn and remember, to be sad, and to imagine commitment and action. Spaces with libraries, with the possibility of printing, of creating images, posters, of collecting archives and documents about individual experiences. When I think of refuges and sanctuaries, I have in mind the Underground Railroad, but also all the refuges against fascism and colonial wars created in Europe. This does not ignore the absolute necessity of the first gestures toward exhausted and traumatized women, children, and men who want to rest in safety.
In recent decades a racial division between “good” refugees and “bad” refugees, between those who deserve protection and those who do not, has been naturalized. That racial division embodies a structural racism that is inseparable from xenophobic masculinistic nationalism and increasing fascistic thinking in Europe and the world. Being protected by rights is not universal; it depends on your skin color, your class, your religion, your gender, your origins. I repeat, protection and solidarity are not universal rights. Refugees from Ukraine deserve protection and solidarity, but the ways African, Arab, and Roma refugees have been treated at the borders, and the fact that they have not received equal treatment once they have been able to cross, has made us reflect on the constant fabrication of “us” and “them.” The argument that the majority of refugees from Ukraine are women and children whereas those of the Global South are mostly young men ignores the growing number of women and plays on the colonial/racial trope that fabricates brown and Black men as dangerous and a threat to European womanhood.
Selling “reasonable” solutions to the wars on the planet and on peoples – green capitalism, neoliberal antiracism, femo-nationalism – cannot mask what permanent war is about.
C&: What can the arts do in these situations of extreme social upheaval?
FV: Two things are important today: transmission and imagination. And artists, rather than “art,” play an important role in both. Transmission of forgotten stories, forgotten figures, narratives, memories, and individual stories. Artists are able to show us what we don’t see but which is there, right under our eyes. And we need so much to foster the power of imagination, which capitalism restricts. There is no struggle without that creative dimension. Artists can translate hope, anger, revolt, joy, and aspirations, into art-dreams.
C&: How is your project Décoloniser les arts structured and what are some of the changes it has brought to the French art scene?
FV: I cofounded Décoloniser les arts in 2015 with other women of color, artists and activists. I left in the beginning of 2021, so I can only talk of the time when I was a member. The organization denounced racism and sexism in the arts but wanted to go beyond asking for equal representation. We saw art and cultural institutions as social structures, and looked at them from top to bottom: Who is cleaning? Is that work sub-contracted? What is the process of nominations? Where does the money come from? What are the conditions of art workers? The art world is not protected from ideological, political, and social conflicts. By what mysterious process could it have been saved from what Aimé Césaire calls the “boomerang effect” of slavery, colonialism, sexism, class conflict, and racism? To use Saidiya Hartman’s expression, it has not escaped the afterlives of slavery.
We organized a free monthly “university” in the space Kader Attia co-founded, La Colonie, which was very well attended. We had two publications, we organized decolonial visits to museums. We brought the question of the decolonization of the arts into the public debate and forced French art and cultural institutions to listen. What we did was met with extreme hostility in some quarters of academia and arts.
We also observed how quickly some institutions sought to quell dissent by appropriating our vocabulary, or reducing our demands and objectives to the question of equal representation. Suddenly, all the big institutions found that colonial history, decolonial theory, and Blackness were important topics. Neoliberal capitalism has capacity to absorb critiques directed at it, and to do so more and more rapidly.
In 2021, following the pulling down of statues throughout the world triggered by the murder of Georges Floyd, I published On Colonial Violence in the Public Space, discussing how statues and other artworks are symbols of colonial violence in public space. They contribute to creating a hostile environment. Hostile to non-white refugees, to migrants, queer, LGBTQI+ people, sex workers, the elderly, children, women, the poor. Black and Arab young men know they cannot enter some neighborhoods, women know they cannot circulate freely at all moments, the elderly know they will not find streets or transport made for them, or for children, or for exhausted workers.
Artists must protect themselves from the voracity of the extractive economy in academia and institutions. I am currently in conversation with friends about creating a space that would operate as a refuge, sanctuary, library, gathering creation.
C&: Your book A Decolonial Feminism is a manifesto that centers anticolonialism, putting forward an urgent demand to free ourselves from capitalism and imperialism. How can that thinking be applied to a biennale context?
FV: Biennales can be spaces of pacification. Many play that role even when they pretend otherwise. But a biennale also offers space for conversation. Anticolonialism, as I understand it – seeing that the coloniality of power structures society, that we are not entirely decolonized, that abolitionism offers a horizon of struggle – can be applied to a biennale content. It will create a space to collectively debate how art can open consciousness and foster dreams.
By Will Furtado.