ARTWORK AND TEXT BY NOLAN OSWALD DENNIS
In a global circulation of ideas and art, there is a tendency to assume that contexts and audiences are interchangeable, and more specifically, that Black knowledge and artworks can become decolonial toolkits, summonable and deployable in whatever geographies (including the eyes of the empires) in a complaisant spectacle of “solidarity.” Nolan Oswald Dennis generously shares with us their reflections on this extractivist process and the possible ways to exit it.
On December 8, 2022, the opening program of a recent exhibition of no conciliation is possible (working diagram) in Berlin featured a conversation between Zoé Samudzi, Edna Bonhomme, and myself, which was framed as a reflection on and inscription of the artwork within the context of German history and memorial violence.
Three black people, one based in North America, one based in Europe, and one based in Africa sat on a cold winter’s evening in front of a German crowd with vaguely mis/aligned political commitments. They were given the task of providing a voice through which this artwork might speak to German political anxieties, or in which irresolvable German political anxieties might speak through the work—meaningful anxieties no doubt, some of which are, to some extent, latent in the diagrammatic logic of the artwork. Nonetheless the entire scenario unsettled me in ways I have struggled to articulate. It is not the instrumentalization of the work (in many ways this is the point of the artwork, for better or for worse), or the reinstantiation of a geography of power in miniature that unnerved me, but something I’ve later come to understand (through the writing of Vusumzi Nkomo) as the assumption of possibility.
Possibility is a slippery notion, but it is helpful to distinguish between what we can simplify as a performance of politics or a politics of emancipation. In the former, an assumption of possibility allows us to participate in the denial of socio-geo-political antagonisms that structure cultural consumption, which might otherwise make participation impossible. Let me try to explain.
The difficult task is to mediate that revision without diminishing the structural and conceptual antagonisms that abound when reflecting on, or deploying art as a tool for sociopolitical transformation (something which art is particularly ineffective at). I keep thinking about the passage in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth where the title of the work comes from. “The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers […] No conciliation is possible, for of the two terms, one is superfluous.”
A careless assumption of possibility allows audiences, particularly white cultural consumers in the Global North, to substitute a trivial relation in one place for a meaningful relation elsewhere, and enjoy a kind of derived meaningfulness without risk. This recreational attitude may not always be a problem, but it is one we should not misconstrue as a genre of recognition or solidarity. When this relies on the material labor of black people invited to play along with the idea that, basically, without too much extra work, our struggles can align, we must remember that one part of this “our” is being made superfluous. In any case, this kind of alignment is not possible.
Looking back at my notes for that conversation in Berlin, I find it strange that my first remarks were about failure. It is not a word I find very helpful, failure—particularly the idea of a generative failure, it concedes too much to the present. And yet, in that moment, it was the language I chose to express, in that community, what was not possible in that space. This is to say there is a feeling that my work can be useful, that it can be put to work so to speak. I work within a grammar of educational and analytical devices: drawings, diagrams, maps, models, etc. These forms, like all forms, have histories that affect our engagement with them, but they also have futures which press back against our assumptions of them. This is how I think about them at least. There is a type of agency in the formalization of thought that exceeds my own individual intentions and expectations. In some ways, the relationship between the work, myself, and the rest of the world is a relationship of community. We work together. For a slippery but highly discerning sense of “we.” This is something in the order of the myth and the reality of artistic practice.
It feels wrong then to imagine that there is a language of success or failure about this relationship. A relationship is only reflective of its constitutive parts and practices, it can be ethical or unethical, violent, nurturing, healthy, productive, generative or not. Failure is something else. Maybe this is about a balance of forces, social contradictions which exceed, or even highlight, the role of art in emancipatory practice. Maybe this is the substitution of a critical “object” for a critical practice. The object can perform a critique (this I am sure of), but not alone. Its criticality, its liberatory capacity even, is only a product of its embeddedness in other actual critical practices, actual practices of liberation.
This way of ascribing agency to the work is a tricky gesture which has its limitations. The agency of the work, the formalization of the thought and practice as it were, is the weight of actual and potential histories rubbing against a zone of being, against collective knowledge and gradients of memory and forgetting and even dreaming. There is a potentiality there. There are, however, real pitfalls to this conception if we do not pay attention to the actual, material circumstances that condition this potentiality. Without going too far down the road of defining this, it is enough to acknowledge that in this anti-black, misogynistic, colonial situation where we are working, collective practice and specific historical experience guide whatever is possible in, with and through an artwork (which, to be fair, is not very much, and yet somehow still important).
Indeed by ascribing agency without acknowledgement of the specific historical relations of practice that enable that agency (what we could call a genre of the spiritual) we erase whatever meager liberatory work an artwork might be able to do, while simultaneously obscuring the new agency it is suddenly in service of. There is a whiteness that will absorb us.
The geography of power is always there. An African artist in Europe, a black person in the art world, in the world world. These dynamics are unavoidable in my experience working as I do. They give us a language for recognizing the flows of violence across multiple contexts. They give others a language for articulating the violences they are subject to as well. Sometimes in actual solidarity with us, sometimes in rhetorical solidarity, other times not. This grammar of identification is also a cultural tool, like an artwork, its liberatory potential is a factor in its relations to actual liberatory practice. Of course, like any tool it is always subject to misuse and especially misappropriation. We should not forget that “our” is a possessive pronoun, and “we” is not the same.
I want to reimagine that cold evening in Berlin. Three black people. We are not even there. ■