On Show Me Your Archive and I Will Tell You Who is in Power, at Kiosque, Ghent

— Giovanna Zapperi

Karl Rolfsen, sketchbook from NGO Forum 85’ newspaper, July 19, 1985, p. 6-7

Karl Rolfsen, sketchbook from NGO Forum 85’ newspaper, July 19, 1985, p. 6-7

In an unofficial intervention at Forum ’85, during the 1985 World Conference on Women, Angela Davis established the agenda:

We have to recognize that women are oppressed as women, but we are also oppressed because of our racial, national and class background. There are those who might say, let’s forget about race and class, we are all sisters, let us join hands across races and classes. Well, I think we should join hands across races and classes, but the specificity of our specific oppression must be recognized and acknowledged.

Forum ’85 was an event organized by a network of international associations and NGO
feminists in response to the concurrent conference promoted by the UN, which was deemed to be too Eurocentric. Françoise Dasques’s film La conférence des femmes – Nairobi (1985) is a passionate document of this event: it puts us in the middle of discussions, a shared atmosphere, and the exchanges, often informal, that took place over the conference’s ten days. Alongside Angela Davis are women that have come from Africa, Europe, Latin America, and Asia to discuss different forms of oppression, struggles, and strategies of resistance that women can adopt across extremely diverse contexts.

Produced at the time by the Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir, Françoise Dasques’s film was shown in the exhibition Show Me Your Archive and I Will Tell You Who is in Power, organized in the spring of 2017 at KIOSK, Ghent by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and Wim Waelput. The exhibition explores the archives of Belgian feminism from the standpoint of their possible resonances within the present. The title, taken from a 2009 conference by anthropologist Gloria Wekker, condenses the questions at the heart of the exhibition: the constitutive link between the archive and power on the one hand, and the possibility of a genealogy of intersectional feminism on the other (of which Wekker is one of the most impactful figures).[1] Shown alongside a grouping of historical documents are works realized for the exhibition by Marwa Arsanios, Saddie Choua, Amandine Gay, Kapwani Kiwanga, Ato Malinda, Eva Olthof, and the Study Group for Solidarity and TransActions collective. These works tackle questions entwined with the archive and feminism, often through the production of new archives. Indeed, the exhibition maintains a balance between historical excavation and actualization: the documents allow a retracing of the ways in which race and class-based forms of oppression infiltrated feminist struggles, whereas the artworks sketch out possible directions to think again, today, this legacy. While the archives are focused on a single regional context, the artworks surpass this framework by placing the question in a transnational dimension.

The elaboration of the link between art and the history of feminism is already present in the history of KASK, the Royal Academy of Arts, where KIOSK’s exhibition space is located. Chantal de Smet was the director of the school between 1989 and 1996—up until this day, the only woman to hold the position—and was equally someone very involved in the feminist movement. One of the founders of the feminist collectives Dolle Mina and Marie Mineur (its Francophone sister),  de Smet played an important role in the history of Belgian feminism, notably in the emergence of an intersectional and transnational perspective. Drawing from de Smet’s archives, the two curators were able to align the traces of a little-known history in which the feminist movement was confronted, in a complex fashion, by racism and Belgian’s colonial past. The opening room of the exhibition focuses exclusively on the work of the archive, with a collection of documents that follow the links between the feminist movement and anti-racist struggles at the time. In 1971, de Smet was also one of the founders of the Comité Belge pour la libération d’Angela Davis (The Belgian Committee for the Liberation of Angela Davis): the African-American activist played a catalyzing role in raising consciousness of the systematic violence committed against racialized persons. The artist Evelyne Axell is also among the names of the committee’s founders, who, at the time, had been working on a series of portraits of Davis. One of her preparatory sketches, entitled Black is Beautiful (1972), is shown alongside the documents summoning the history and activities of the committee.

This first room of the exhibition, essentially composed of archival materials, is particularly dense: it touches on the emergence of a transnational perspective in Belgian feminism but also on a certain number of impasses and ambivalences that equally characterizes this history. The encounter between European feminisms and anti-racist struggles happened via African-American liberation movements, despite the no less present history of colonialism in European societies and the temporal proximity to anti-colonial struggles. Like Françoise Vergès recently showed in reference to the French context, the birth of the women’s movement at the beginning of the 1970s actively participated in a generalized process of repressing the colonial violence that marked the years following independences.[2] What one observes in this first room is the at-times insidious fashion in which becoming conscious of the transnational dimension of struggle and of racism can coexist alongside the persistence of a stereotypical visual language, with posters meant to represent those they still called “women of the third-world.”

One of the exhibition’s many strengths is how it brings a little-known  history of European feminism to the fore without masking or mythologizing its ambivalent approach to racial and class difference as something of the past. It’s not about rewriting a history that would “save” the feminist movement from its blindness to the apparatuses of racialization. Instead, the threads are to be tugged at, so as to render this history more complex. Without doubt, this is how the shock produced in the pairing of historical works with contemporary ones is meant to be read. Adjacent to the room where Françoise Dasques’s film is projected is a work by the Kenyan artist Ato Malinda focusing on a memory from her childhood in Nairobi. Four-Year-Old Temptress? (2017) is at once a response to Dasques’s film and to a question the curators asked her—whether her mother had attended the conference in Nairobi, where she was born in 1981. In the video—installed in the interior of a mirror, where the spectator may catch her own reflection—the artist recounts suffering sexual abuse from her mother and aunt since she was a child, around the same time as the conference. This installation raises the latent content in the proposed question, notably, that it is determined by the point of view of those who formulated it. If, from the point of view of this response, the question is made to appear a little naive, this is not all that is at play: Malinda’s work functions like a counterpoint to the Nairobi conference and its impact, real or imagined, on the life of women living in the context where it took place.

In the main part of the exhibition, many of the commissioned works explore feminist uses of the archive from contemporary perspectives. The works address questions from the 1970s and 80s concerning strategies of struggle and emancipation, yet sketch different possible directions of self-organized resistance, solidarity, and feminist emancipation today: speaking from the first-person, the critique of racist and sexist stereotypes in the media, the deconstruction of apparatuses of racialization at work in European societies, and in forms of autonomous organizing, especially when at war.

In reality, not all of the works are “artworks” properly speaking. Sometimes the exhibition rooms take on the form of an archive themselves, attesting more to an unfolding process than to a finalized end. Take for example the contributions of Marwa Arsanios and the Study Group for Solidarity and TransActions. The latter, in collaboration with a collective from South Africa, Title in Transgression, take up the solidarity of Swedish activists with the fight against apartheid as their subject. Marwa Arsanios’s contribution compiles research materials from her ongoing collaboration with women in the Kurdish autonomous movement. The presentation of the research, with its multiple components, evokes the idea of how constructing an archive can become an artistic work: books on the Kurdish feminist concept of “Jineology” and the liberation of Kurdish women in general are placed on two tables; a little farther along, two monitors create a dialogue between scenes filmed by Arsanios on her last trip to Kurdistan and an interview (conducted in collaboration with Dima Hamadeh) with Pelsın Tolhıldan, Kurdish fighter and feminist. The images on the right-hand screen, where one sees fragments of landscapes and nature scenes, echo the discussions on feminist ecology and the complicated coexistence between ecology and armed struggle. Over and against the woman fighter as an image-symbol depicted in the media, these fragments of an ongoing research immerse us in the heart of Kurdish women’s practices of resistance that flow as much from theoretical elaboration as from the structuring of shared practices and new forms of communal life.

In the same central room, Saddie Choua’s installation calls to mind that the racist and sexist stereotypes funneled through media (cinema, TV, music, pop…) crystallize themselves at the level of subjectivity, especially in the construction of oneself during childhood and adolescence. Am I The Only One Who Is Like Me? (2017) is an assemblage of screens that are placed on the floor and wedged inside cardboard boxes. One finds well-known samplings from popular culture but whose normative dimensions are not immediately obvious. That’s how I felt rewatching, for example, images from Live Aid that I saw in my childhood, and in which I had confusingly perceived a self-absolving character. It’s impossible not to feel troubled by the realization that, at the same moment where the entertainment industry was fabricating this clearly obscene representation of Western guilt, hundreds of women were meeting in Nairobi to collectively discuss struggles to be waged against the joint forces of patriarchy and the legacy of colonialism.

In an annexed room, extracts taken from Amandine Gay’s film Ouvrir la voix (2016) accompany a photographic installation and a grouping of drawings by D. Mathieu Cassendo in response to the film that deals with the experience of being a black woman in France today. The scenes relay a series of testimonies suggesting a kind of collective empowerment that can take the form of self-narrative. These interventions express a collective agency—and a collective subjectification—that counters the joint apparatuses of racism and sexism, which are at the center of the film’s discussions. The articulation between subjective lived experience and the critique of power becomes a search for autonomy and the constitution of self as a political subject. With its manifesto-like aspects, Amandine Gay’s work is emblematic of the issues faced by contemporary feminism, and in particular, in French and Francophone contexts. It also raises the forms that have been taken, historically, by women’s struggles, concerning separatism, consciousness-raising groups and the importance of subjective experience and personal histories. [3]

Upon leaving the exhibition one thinks that if “to open the voice,” following Gay’s terms, remains fundamental in moving towards a feminist consciousness, then perhaps “to open the archives,” as this exhibition does, is an equally crucial endeavor. In a present characterized by, among other things, an ambivalent historicizing process of 1970s feminist movements, the need to rethink the past from the standpoint of today’s urgent questions becomes a politically significant undertaking. Open the archives to interrogate power relations: this is just what this exhibition, to paraphrase Gloria Wekker, tried to do.

Translated from French by Anna De Filippi

  1. [1] Gloria Wekker is the author of White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
  2. [2] Françoise Vergès, Le Ventre des femmes : Capitalisme, racialisation, féminisme (Paris: Albin Michel, 2017). Vergès was one of the guests invited to the extremely rich public program that  accompanied the exhibition.
  3. [3] This is even more true given that separatism, chosen by certain organizations of racialized women in France, is legally persecuted by institutions and public powers, as the recent polemic around separatist spaces planned for the Afro-feminist festival Nyansapo in Paris, July 2017. See the collective text, Barrage républicain : la maire PS de Paris Anne Hidalgo, la LICRA et l’extrême droite, that appeared on May 29, 2017 on Mediapart: https://blogs.mediapart.fr/testone/blog/290517/barrage-republicain-la-maire-ps-de-paris-anne-hidalgo-la-licra-et-lextreme-droite (accessed July 7, 2017).