By Lisa Andrine Bernhoft-Sjødin
It’s a curious term; ‘the post-racial era’, especially in its native country, USA. Directly after a two term stint with a black president - dubbed the end of racism in the States - tokenism, stereotyping and profiling still lingers, the rise of ideological white supremacy perforates its political arena. More curious still is when the term is applied to countries that hasn’t even had a ‘racial era’. We apply this transplanted term as if we’ve worked through figuring out what race means to our society. The only racial era we’ve had in much of Europe is the era of silencing race and ancestral ties. Other than an anticipated answer to the forever tedious follow-up question ‘so, where are you really from?’ after you’ve answered ‘Born and raised in Oslo’ to the initial question ‘Where are you from?’, one is encouraged to marginalise the ‘foreign’ side of one’s identity and assimilate to the Norwegian one, to adhere to a minimum of Whiteness, as Blackness still answers to Whiteness, rather than to itself.
The American artist, filmmaker and community organiser Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor grew up in Florida in a black-conscious household, to a mother who was a force within their community, creating a black creative space. When Taylor moved to Berlin, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and created the salon ‘Black in Berlin’ because the public discourse around issues on blackness and racism were scant in the German society. Through ‘Black in Berlin’, and her art practice, she is creating a foundation for the black diaspora to voice their issues in an otherwise discourse-poor European society. With her work she underlines the importance of continually questioning Eurocentric and patriarchal structures, and recognising the existence and histories of those who have been excluded by these structures. And what it means to be a black creative in a global setting.
While working on a residency in Berlin she grew a garden in its backyard, she contributes her green thumb to her grandmother who loved to garden as her mother loves to garden as Taylor herself do, which had an aspect of communicating with her maternal ancestral ties. Through this work she found that the flowering garden was a good set up for doing exploratory interviews with femmes (femme: self-identifying women and non-binary) of the diaspora, on their relationships to their mothers and grandmothers and to their own motherhood. The resulting five stories became the film Muttererde (2017).
Alice Walker's book "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose"(1983) has been an inspirational framework for the film's feeling, and Taylor quotes her throughout the film. Alice Walker's voice is a beautiful and important contribution to the film itself, as it gives us one of many frameworks in Muttererde, that of womanist theory; the black feminist or feminist of colour; and is quite radical in her explorations of what it means to be a committed black feminist, mother and caretaker.
The power of lineage weaves through Muttererde which translates to Mother Earth or more commonly, to top soil. The awareness of how we nourish that which surfaces through the femme experience as mothers and daughters, is fundamental to Muttererde. The film documents through interviews the artists Camalo Gaskin (a doula), Tobi Ayedadjou (an artist and art historian), Niv Acosta (a dancer and performance artist), Natalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro (a visual artist), Fannie Sosa (a performance artist), their mothers and their mother’s mothers. By doing so it breaks the silence that often befall the stories from the diaspora, and empowers and visualises how our generational knowledge and un-knowledge transmits and shapes the past, the future and the now. The imperative experiences that these people give us access to by letting your roots guide you, even when these roots are unavailable to you or denied. The more you have a language, the better you can interpret the images that come to you. It means you have a tether, and a counter to colonial history that champions amnesia and lethargy.
In Contemporary&’s 10th Berlin Biennale (BB10) Special 2018, BB10-curator Gabi Ngcobo comments in an interview that «there are a lot of other people who think we start from the same position, especially white women. They make remarks about a shared subject, focus or theme, but for us it is not a matter of interest or focus - we can only begin from here, it’s our reality, this is us - it’s not our subject.» Niv Acosta in Muttererde comments on that same issue, that acquiring his work is acquiring his politicised body, from which his work emerges from and that he strongly urges prospect projects to take on his work as such.
All the five people challenges essentialism, the blank spaces which essentialism thrives on and that reaches far into the space beyond words. By crystallising experiences of a different kind of clarity, they combat mythologies that persists around blackness, motherhood and womanhood, as Camalo Gaskin by telling the story of her grandmother, who was a synchronised swimmer. She had been passing for white, but was kicked off the team once the leaders saw her two brown children. When Gaskin started school, knowing her grandmother’s story, she was told by a teacher that it was a known fact that blacks lacked the gene of buoyancy and thus could not learn how to swim. These femmes lay bare the constant fight they’re in, by blatantly moving through the world as self-defining as possible. There’s an extreme vulnerability in negotiating invisibility and visibility in terms of colour, gender choices, and occupations.
The work is simultaneously an educational tool and an archive. The former is how to live on autonomous terms and the latter, creating a pinpoint in time. There’s a billboard work by artist Alisha B. Wormsley for the Manifest Destiny-exhibition in Detroit earlier this year that states «THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE». Taylor’s work answers to Wormsley’s challenge. By unpacking these conditions, by questioning authority, they form a vocabulary taken directly from the black diasporic ecology and thus giving voice to others across the globe.
Muttererde (2017) is a multi-voice video work by Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor in collaboration with filmmaker Astrid Gleichmann. The film was shortlisted for The Mother Art Prize, a prize awarded femme artists who also have caring responsibilities.
Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor (b. 1984, Florida) is an artist, filmmaker and community organiser. Her roots are in the Southern United States, born in Mississippi and bred in Florida. Taylor's work manifests through performance, text, dialogue, dance and community building for Black People and People of Colour. Her work centres on themes of ritual, visibility and identity mythology. She is chiefly concerned with ways to dismantle oppressive institutions and the creation of racial equity in art and theatre. She strives to address race politics as a performer, maker and artist. Taylor curated and hosted the almost monthly discursive salon on race politics and race relations 'Black in Berlin'.
The platform ArtConstructs was created to examine, through art, a language for a heterogeneous future in Europe, beyond the constructed national state and identity. This year ArtConstructs+Objektiv Journal will question how we consume art: whose narratives are being told? Are we aware of our own prejudice when we look at and deal with art? Which representational spaces are non-white artists restricted to? And how do these artists navigate and negotiate their own voices in this landscape?