Much has been said and written about concepts of entangled histories in the last decades. Ranging from Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), to Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmermann’s concept of ‘l’histoire croisée’, to Sebastian Conrad and Shalini Randeria’s notion of ‘entangled modernities’, these concepts have found their space both in academia and other cultural manifestations.
The latest adept and dexterous manifestation is Personne et les autres, Belgium’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, curated by Katerina Gregos and featuring mainly the work of Belgian artist Vincent Meessen in dialogue with international guest artists Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, Sammy Baloji, James Beckett, Elisabetta Benassi, Patrick Bernier & Olive Martin, Tamar Guimarães & Kasper Akhøj, Maryam Jafri and Adam Pendleton. It takes humility, but also tactical finesse for an artist, granted the possibility of a solo show on such an occasion, to open the door for a conversation with his peers and to challenge the concept and myth of national representation.
Five-hundred-plus years of slavery and colonialism are the greatest open wounds of history, and characterise one of the most brutal and inhumane phases of human existence: these infamous systems heavily and lastingly impacted both the oppressor and oppressed, and still reverberate within their societies – politically, economically, culturally and psycho-physically. It is against this backdrop that Meessen and his companions set out to explore the entanglements between Europe and Africa during and post so-called ‘colonial modernity’. Belgium’s legacy in this context is not one of glory.
The mesh woven by Gregos and Meessen is one of multiple threads of different cottons, colours, sizes and narratives. The central piece – Meessen’s three-channel videowork One. Two. Three. (2015) – literally sets the tone. Based on a 1968 protest lyric by Congolese Situationist Joseph M’Belolo Ya M’Piku, discovered in the archives of the Belgian Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, the song is reconstructed by Meessen together with M’Belolo and musicians in Kinshasa. Filmed on the site of Congolese musical and artistic modernity, the Un Deux Trois club of Franco Luabo’s ok Jazz orchestra, the work fleshes out important but little-known common denominators between the ‘former’ coloniser and colonised. These relations, their obviousness, ambiguities and asymmetries, are essential to this exhibition.
From a more surreptitious perspective, Abonnenc’s Forever Weak and Ungrateful (2015) and Forever, without You (2015) explore the bronze statue in Cayenne, French Guiana, of the nineteenth-century abolitionist Victor Schoelcher. The depictions of Schoelcher with one arm around the shoulders of a sparsely clothed slave and the other proudly showing the way to freedom reveal a paternalistic power relationship, but also a titillating and unclear liaison of dependence and desire. The relation in Baloji’s Essay on Urban Planning (2013) is one characterised by the 500m empty zone that separated black and white neighbourhoods during the colonial era – the maximum flight range of malarial mosquitoes – called the cordon sanitaire. In Sociétés secrètes (2015), Baloji connects Belgian Colonial Secret Service surveillance and repression practices, the scarification practices of indigenous groups and the copper trade’s subjugation of workers to enslavement-like conditions. Getty vs. Musée Royal D’Afrique Centrale vs. DR Congo (2015) is Jafri’s presentation of iconic independence images from Congo that portray the becoming of a new state, and examine the contested area of image ownership between the nation state and image banks.
Entangled histories sometimes exist in a state of checkmate, a concept that derives etymologically from the Persian shāh māt, which literally means ‘the King is helpless’. Such helplessness might derive from the fact that his pawns, knights, cortège and even the king himself have hybridised with the ‘opponent’ (or the ‘other’), a situation common in entanglement. Inspired by a 1961 photograph of a ceremony in Niger from Bernier’s family archive, depicting his grandfather of French Caribbean origin in grey, the president of Niger in black and a French military leader in white, in L’Echiqueté (2012), Bernier and Martin propose a chess game with a twist: the colour dichotomy is flipped as mixed coloured structures are formed upon a piece’s capture.
There is no exhibition without weak links, but Personne et les autres excels on many levels, as one sees how the idea of l’histoire croisée, of entangled modernities and histories, materialises into form.
This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue.