Venice Biennale 2017

Barby Asante: Knowledge is Agency

With her work Intimacy and Distance, Barby Asante is a participating artist at the Diaspora Pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale. She speaks education through art, the notion of independence and shared knowledge of women of Colour.

Performance by Barby Asante. Photo by Jess Harrington

Performance by Barby Asante. Photo by Jess Harrington

By Aïcha Diallo

C&: As an artist and art educator, which connections between art and education are the most relevant for you personally?

Barby Asante: I use the terms artist, educator and curator to describe my practice. Though for me these are all slippery descriptions of what I do, they are the easiest way I can describe the kinds of interests that inform my practice. Pedagogic methods within my practice are for me about questioning and exploring. Like bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress, I’m thinking about education as a philosophical possibility, as a practice of liberation. For me the classroom can be anywhere, so wherever my practice appears is the space where the learning happens. This is not a didactic experience; I am interested in the relational experience as I see myself as an equal learner. With my work I hope to create spaces for reciprocal relationships between teacher and student, artist and audience, for us to explore the contexts in which we are learning collaboratively and collectively.

C&: You are showing your piece called Intimacy and Distance at the Diaspora Pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale. What are your aims and ideas with this work? 

BA: The piece Intimacy and Distance is actually part of a larger body of work I am developing called As Always a Painful Declaration of Independence: For Ama. For Aba. For Charlotte and Adjoa. Taking its title from Ama Ata Aidoo’s poem “As Always, a Painful Declaration of Independence,” from her collection An Angry Letter in January (1992), my project is what I would describe as performative writing, a living archive and a cartography of women’s stories. It will be created in different locations beginning in Venice in May as part of the ICF (international Curators Forum) at the Diaspora Pavilion. Ata Aidoo’s poem speaks of independence not just as a rupture between Africa and its colonial rulers, but also as a breakup between lovers and the possibility of independence for Ama, the woman the poem is dedicated to, also implying the possibility of a woman defining her own political, cultural, and social agency. I have added my own dedications to create the title of this work to my mother Adjoa, grandmother Aba (who passed away last year aged 102, singing herself to the eternal sleep with songs of praise, the day after Britain voted to exit the European Union), and Charlotte Dada, a Highlife singer who was known as the Ghanaian Miriam Makeba, with whom I’m slightly obsessed!

Intimacy and Distance is the preface to As Always… and formally brings together some of the conversational musings I have had over the last year with a number of other women of color, who are friends, colleagues and cultural workers of some kind. Together we have shared our work, food, texts, thoughts, tears, rituals and more, as we attempt to navigate our way through our cultural practice in a world that feels increasingly antagonistic to our presence. This has been done through a number of exchanges beginning with a 30-minute Skype meeting in which we shared responses to Ata Aidoo’s poem and a poem I wrote to commemorate the death of my grandmother.

I also wanted to think of Venice as a space founded by refugees, a space where many cultures have met and traded, where the seeds of imperialism may have been sown. Today, Venice is a sinking city of wonder and romanticism, of tourism, of migrants drowning in the waters, a space where an international biennale exhibits artistic nationalisms. The Pavilion in which Intimacy and Distance is being exhibited could disrupt notions of nationalism and propose a new utopia – like Venice might have been seen once upon a time.

C&: Ama Ata Aidoo’s poem “As Always, a Painful Declaration of Independence” being a clear reference point here, how does your work relate to women’s agency? To which extent does it honor women of color?

BA: This is what I really hope that the work does. I want to give agency to the voices of women of color. I want us to inhabit the spaces. To utter our words in these spaces. To whisper, to scream, to speak in our tongues and bring forth the voices of our ancestors. In my poem for Aba (my grandmother) I ask:


When an old man dies 

A library is burnt 

What about an old woman

What of her library?


On 25th June 2016

Dina Kwansema Edwin Baiden

Left this world joyfully singing songs of praise 

102 years of living joyfully taken to the other side 


She took her songs with her

Along with her stories

Her recipes 

Her jokes

Her grooming techniques 

Knowledge of the before before 

Before the men started plotting the downfall of the British

They didn’t know the women were plotting too

Those plots 

Those plans went with her

Along with her tips for making the best bread in Asylum Down

And her knowledge of herbs and plants

Herbs to heal anything from menstrual cramps to a fever

Herbs to turn a baby in breach position 

And to settle a violent sickness 


And she took with her what those plants looked like and where to find them


C&: Sound is quite a powerful tool. In which way are the sound pieces in this work connected to affective listening and embodied knowledge?

BA: The pieces are essentially visual interventions with a significant sound element. I see them as performances without presence. In the work I use parts of the conversational responses from the Skype calls with my contributors and have worked with composer and electronic musician G-Marie to create soundscapes in which the voices sit. The basis of this soundtrack has been formed through sampling a recording of Charlotte Dada’s cover of the Beatles song “Don’t Let Me Down”. We are left with traces of voice and sound that have been added to other sounds that explore musical geographies. The sounds are very stripped back with melodic moments that lift and enhance the voices. By working in this way I wanted to present the voices not as sound works alone but also create a fragmented composition that lived within the spaces and accompanied and also added drama to those voices as they relate to the pieces presented in the Palazzo. I wanted to think about the idea of sound as an archive, and as expressed in my poem about my grandmother, our voices are ephemeral and our words disappear. These pieces express the intimacies that we share, our anger, fears, politics, desires and more. These are the ways we learn from each other as friends, collaborators, co-conspirators.

C&: And what is knowledge to you?

BA: Well, if knowledge is power, then of course it’s also agency! I’m interested in expanding the idea of knowledges rather than knowledge in order to question where we think knowledge is made, what its purpose is and where it is taking us. I think I’m interested in knowledges being living, insecure, precarious, possible… And this probably means unlearning what we know, to be in an unknowing space, described as a “radical act” by Dr Karen Salt. In this way the possibilities of the knowledges we excavate and create may actually be transformative.


Barby Asante is a participating artist at the Diaspora Pavilion, an exhibition held at the Palazzo Pisani S. Marina during the 57th Venice Biennale.


Interview by Aïcha Diallo



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