STATE OF EXCEPTION
Alanna Lockward: WILD AT HAIR
IngridMwangiRobertHutter: Masks and
Skin Politics as a German DeColonial
While participating in the trans-disciplinary event The Black Atlantic, organized by the House of World Cultures in 2004, I came into contact for the first time with Black German postcolonial discourses and activism. It became clear to me that a new path of knowledge production was being opened within my long-time interest in Black Diaspora Studies. The first part of this research consisted in looking into one newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel [The Daily Mirror] to find how Black identity was rePresented. The first approach to this research is the content of my Master’s thesis at the Institute for Art in Context of the University of the Arts Berlin, entitled “Black-Schwarz-Afro. Widerspiegelung eines Wortfeldes im Tagesspiegel 2004–2006” [Black-Schwarz-Afro: Counter Reflection of a Word Field in the Daily Mirror 2004–2006].
I have continued my research on this subject within the framework of very recent theories on the DeNaming (EntNennung) of white German identity1. Based on them, I was able to defend my disputed first version (the teachers at UdK rejected my work because they felt accused of being racist), and eventually obtained my degree.2
The concept of EntNennung (Nicht/Benennung) was crucial in proving my case: that DeNaming white identity was the first sign of a white supremacist construction of a German identity. For the other part of my argument: that Black-German identity was also deMentioned completely in all of the 100 articles of my compilation, I created a new category inspired by and within this innovative theoretical linguistic frame: EntErwähnung (DeMentioning). This differentiation intends to clarify the asymmetries between the normalizing invisibility of privileged subjects and the ostracizing invisibility of marginalized ones. I am still in the process of detecting which linguistic (de)practices could be considered part of EntErwähnung. During the process of writing “Diaspora,” an essay included in a recent book on racism and discrimination in the German language, for example,3 I realized that when Black Feminist epistemology as well as Black epistemology and knowledge production is ignored in a text that deals with Blackness construction issues in Germany, in public issues such as “integration” and immigration, as well as in German history, this is also EntErwähnung. I base my argument on the EntErwähung of the amazing historical research of Fatima El-Tayeb (2001): Black Germans: The Discourse on Race and National Identity 1890–1933, which is not mentioned in two specialized references: the Dictionary of Political Sciences (2005) and the Small Dictionary on Africa (2004), published after El-Tayeb’s landmark work.
Both linguistic categories EntNennung (DeNaming) and EntErwähnung (DeMentioning) could be circumscribed within practices of DeEnunciation, which I would like to relate to what Roland Barthes calls ‘new semiologies’: “We need new concepts to grasp it, not the old ones of sign, signifier, signified, connotation and denotation, but ‘citation, reference, stereotype’. We need to offer an ‘antidote to myth’, and its reifications, languages which are ‘airy, light, spaced, open, un-centered, noble and free’, a ‘new semiology.”4
The first time that the category Black-German was printed in Der Tagesspiegel during 2004–2006 was in relation to a brutal racist attack committed against an academic. Arguably, this mention does not necessarily mean that the political self-position of Black-German identity is recognized here, but this is not the right moment to go further into this.
The following account on how Tagesspiegel covered Ermiyas M.’s case with regards to EntNennung (DeNaming) and EntErwähnung (DeMentioning) is presented in the aforementioned essay “Diaspora.” I depart from the thesis of Fatima El-Tayeb (2001) that white Germany was legally prescribed during its brief and brutal colonial intervention in the African continent,5 which literally declared Black-German identity as an oxymoron. I would like to paraphrase El-Tayeb, stating that white Germany was born in Namibia. In order to bring this experience to current debates on identity, and from a European perspective, I have contributed the new category “EntErwähnte Diaspora” (DeMentioned Diaspora), to talk about a deNamed Black Diaspora and the epistemic violence inherent to these racist laws, which are still fully applied in Germany to this day.
In this account, we can reflect on how the identity of the academic, Ermiyas M., was constructed in Der Tagesspiegel: “In the twenty-seven articles analyzed (between 18.04.06–23.08.06), Ermiyas M. is characterized sixty-three times as the Other and, in this respect, seven times in connection to his skin and hair. That the perpetrators were white was never mentioned, the only reference to their identity is evident in the term neo-Nazi and in one allusion to their short haircuts. Ermiyas M.’s identity as an academic, father and German, was only mentioned once. His identity as Black-German is re/Presented four times respectively as: “Deutschafrikaner”, “Deutschäthiopier” and “Deutsch-Äthiopier”, and only once as Black German: “schwarze[r] Deutsche”, as mentioned before. His status as a recipient of white German racism against Black People is reproduced twenty times with the textual re/production of the “N. Word”.6
In my current research, I counter reflect these practices of DeEnunciation and racial profiling with the postcolonial knowledge production of the artistic entity IngridMwangiRobertHutter, who predominantly addresses normalizing white supremacist German identity constructions with the use of their own skin and hair. This is how they describe their collective work: “I’m IngridMwangiRobertHutter. And I try to develop a consciousness in which I have those two bodies. So when I make art, I put that masculine white body in relationship to this feminine “black” body. This is very exciting, because we are dealing with the materiality of the body. It expands the breadth of the whole theme: the concept for me comes from living. It’s how you live it, how you work with it, how it manifests itself, rather than just projecting the idea that we want to be one person.”7
In “Neger, Don’t Call Me” (1999), moving image and moving image rePresented as still image portraiture are juxtaposed in a manner characteristic of this collective. In IMRH’s work, it is common to witness an element reappear in different media with a different title, sometimes translating its meaning into a new context, especially with the intervention of performance. The artist’s dreads become one with her face establishing the perimeters of the stereotype challenged by the title. The mask conveys an identity constructed by means of an epistemic violence which denies a person any claim of individuality. Only white subjects have personality, Black persons instead have “features.” These “features” are reduced to absurdity in this visual equation where the “wildness” associated with Black hair is portrayed simultaneously in nine different frames, on video, with one single image agglutinating the alleged danger of these strange yet familiar masks, juxtaposed on top. The interaction between both bi-dimensional planes is then projected into one single screen, as a phantasmatic tattoo on these colonizing views of the Black subject, in this case, a woman. In one of the nine screens, she is playing freely with her hair, creating waves of resistance in a kind of possession, a common practice in many shamanic cultures that has found its most popular stereotype in the colonizing demonization of voudu, for example. The four chairs in this installation narrate the cultural shock experienced by Ingrid Mwangi when she first arrived in Germany after spending the first fifteen years of her life in Kenya. Permanently confronted with the epistemic violence of Otherness in an extremely hostile environment, she is giving voice to Black German experience with a very intimate tone; the audience can decide whether to silence her by literally “s(h)itting” on her experience, or to listen…
With an even subtler strategy, in the video art “Wild at Heart” (1998), a blurry image of the artist is seen through the bars of her dreads, while we listen to the murmuring roar of a beast. The double-consciousness of the Black subject is rendered visible again by reducing it to absurdity. How can an animal-like creature defend its case if not by means of indeed roaring and grunting its claims to become part of a “civilized” white hegemonic society?
In “Neger” (1999), the artist is using the single-channel video format to fixate the permanence of the stereotype in a classic first shot portrait; the white background plays a more significant role in this media. It is almost impossible not to be enchanted by its formal beauty; Blackness and exotization once again play their treacherous and seductive game; the artist demands from us a more proactive involvement with the subject in both meanings of the word, with the portrayed individual and with the complexities of the issues brought up by this masquerade.
There are plenty of hidden knowledge production agendas in IMRH’s manipulation of her own hair. IMRH’s pioneering involvement with this subject in a local German and also a broader Black European context is particularly groundbreaking, not only because it is produced in a gender-challenging collaborative mode, but also because it is rigorously multi-mediatic, as mentioned before. On a personal note, in a group exhibition that I organized in Berlin in 2009, I explored my issues with my own hair, addressing the compulsive need to make it look as white as possible and juxtaposing this longing with certain power issues of my curatorial persona and those of a Black Diaspora woman performing hetero-normativity and beauty.8
Playing with a characteristic synesthetic stamina, transforming the visual into text and vice versa, in the performance “Regen-Neger” (1999), the artist frees her voice, yet another constant in her performances. She has experimented with this medium since being introduced to it by New York performance artist Shelley Hirsch, a pioneer in expanded voice techniques. Her powerful voice creates unsettling sounds; she chirps, shouts and screeches in primal tones. While translating with her disturbing sounds the consequences of this double-consciousness, this bodily incarnation of Otherness aims at transmitting a knowledge of oppression that by no means pretends to be absolutistic or plainly accusatory, but which is instead open to transformation in the sense that Patricia Hill Collins understands Black feminist epistemology.
The German palindrome “Neger-Regen” is commonly reproduced in popular culture; this and many other extremely racist statements against Black People are embedded in the German language and culture. Another example is the children’s game: Who is afraid of the Black Man?
Hair and skin as a medium share an established tradition in the visual arts, and above all in performance art; this tradition is especially meaningful in the context of Black feminist epistemology for more than one reason. The interplay between different levels of meaning in, for example, the relationship between text and image is extremely relevant. As Ellen Gallagher says in reference to her collage work “DeLuxe”: “I am definitely working with characters that are culturally recognizable, this body, this 1939 to 1970, this moment. The way the word Negro brings to mind something that is impossible with the words African American or Black. A particular span of time, a something passing. There’s that idea of loss and ghosts. It’s something that’s more than just me. It’s about this stacking of my own resonances or dissonances with the material, but the material itself has a structure, which has a life through me, beyond me, before me, after me. It’s material that I am activating. I am making a private language within this material to reanimate this material. Each repetition is an initiation. These characters are initiated into this altered state, but you remember them from before I touched them.”9
Blackness á la MwangiHutter has a very different agenda to that of Gallagher, since contrary to the U.S., the “N. Word” is not a historical subject in printed media; as we have seen before, this term is constantly reProduced in German media without (still) major consequences.
In the first article of Der Tagesspiegel that made a clear statement on the Germanness of Ermiyas M.’s status as a citizen, based for instance on his membership in a soccer club and the social-democrats’ party, SPD, in spite of the author’s intention to question the until then commonplace of constructing Ermiyas M.’s identity as a non-German, the reProduction of the “N. Word” is still not part of this critical approach. The role played by dreadlocks in the white male fantasies on the Black subject is portrayed with extreme accuracy in the same article: “…two men pass by the bus stop, maybe they are [the white Germans] Björn L. and Thomas M., that were imprisoned on Thursday night as suspects. It was a fatal encounter: The big Black [man, individual, person, human being, Black-German, perhaps…?] whose dreadlocks reach nearly to his waist, and two [white German] men, one a petty criminal, the other known to the police as a sympathizer of the extreme right.”10
Here we encounter Black hair as a signifier of “positive” exotization, and male Blackness is again associated to those white sexual fantasies so thoroughly analyzed by Frantz Fanon in White Skin, Black Masks. Whenever Black Diaspora’s knowledge production and epistemology is ignored, I consider it also as part of the all-inclusive field of EntErwähnung. This idea is discussed in depth in my aforementioned essay “Diaspora.”
It might be useful to point out here that German printed media is exceptional with regards to racism against Black People. German politicians are more updated about issues like, for example, racial profiling than the press itself. To paraphrase this statement: Germany might be the only country in the world where the media is more conservative than the politicians.
Civil Rights initiatives such as der braune mob and KOP – Rechtshilfefonds für Opfer rassistischer Polizeigewalt [Legal Assistance for Victims of Police Brutality] are lobbying intensively to introduce the notion of racial profiling into the public space. As a result, the German government has already included racial profiling as part of its National Action Plan Against Racism [NAP – National Aktionsplan gegen Rassismus].11
This government initiative was made public in 2008; eleven years before, IMRH created “Black Half – Half Black” (1997), a self-explanatory diptych in which the idea of the mask as hair and vice versa is already announcing the artist’s preoccupation to translate Black Diaspora’s experience specifically to the German context. Germany is still embedded in colonialist language practices, which have already been declared taboo by any standards of journalistic practice in the United States, for example, for many years.
The second element by means of which white hegemonic society constructs Otherness with regards to the Black subject is the most visible one: Skin. As in other works, “The Skin Thing” (2006) stretches the notion of projection beyond its familiar boundaries. Here, the screen is the body and the projector, the sun. The artist exposes her upper body wearing a stenciled t-shirt, which is then later separated as a fetish, no wonder it is a white one… The mark, however, remains indelible. In this piece, the actual passiveness of the artist is oversized when presented as an installation; her body is made two meters long.
Other works “portray” a headless body reinforcing the absence of subjectivity by which the white hegemonic gaze constructs its fantasy of the colonized subject, especially of women.
On the one hand, the Black female body is the constant by which the rule of otherizing is established, the white male body appears only on rare occasions. “Wearing the Object of Contemplation” (2007) evokes the solution of this riddle; all these efforts have finally made sense, it is possible to find a way in which the white subject can reflect on and literally project his own colonizing constructions and practices on his own body, in a way that is neither patronizing/patriarchal nor responds to the demands of white guilt.
And finally, this entire colonizing mess is solved in “Resolution of Lies” (2008), a poetic equation found, not surprisingly, in Nature, indeed… We can hear the sound of silence in this image. Its powerful self-explanatory “nature,” its iconographic stamina and self-referentiality might also be a trap of our own senses. This iconographic reproduction of the shape of the continent, on a rock that seems to have captured by pure chance the residues of a blood deluge, conveys the notion of a never ending randomized algorithm of questions, of possibilities, historical, biographical, cosmic, physical, textual, visual, and, and, and… How do we know that this image was taken in the African continent, for example? Is this question relevant at all? What are the truths that remain hidden in the white supremacist constructions of the African continent? What are the lies? What remains entErwähnt in these constructions? Could EntErwähnung become a methodological translation of lies, of silences?
I argue that not only was white Germany born in Namibia, but also, that the construction “Africa” was invented IN Germany during the Berlin Congo Conference of 1884–1885. How is it possible that such historical facts remain “unknown” in white supremacist Germany? Grada Kilomba has a very clear way to explain this: “Once confronted with the collective secrets of racist oppression and the pieces of that very dirty history, the white subject commonly argues: ‘not to know…’, ‘not to understand…’, ‘not to remember…’, or ‘not to believe…’ These are expressions of this process of repression by which the subject resists making the unconscious information conscious; that is, one wants to make the known unknown [EntErwähnung]. Repression [EntErwähnung] is, in this sense, the defense by which the ego controls and exercises censorship of what is instigated as an ‘unpleasant’ truth. They say they do not know! But if I know, they too have to know as we co-exist in the same scenario. They say they have never heard of it! But how come, if we have been speaking it for 500 years. Five hundred years is such a long time. What do they want to know? And what do they want to hear?”12
“If” (2003) was inspired by a similar image printed in the magazine Der Spiegel with the title “Hitler’s Admirers.” The white subject of IMRH suggested that the Black subject should impersonate all the women on the frame, and in a similar way the Black subject suggested that the white one should impersonate Hitler. This dynamic is very much associated with the raison d’etre of this artistic entity:
“[…] how would Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter have related to each other only seven decades ago? […] And: how far have we succeeded in overcoming this history? In previous works I have been discussing the concept, history and reality of Blackness, beginning with my personal story, and going beyond that into further identification with what it must mean to be discriminated, exploited and violated, by the mere fact of dark skin color […]. My artistic strategy has become increasingly one of identification; to take the place of the other, in order to feel, to understand. In “If,” I take a similar approach of putting myself in place of the other, but resulting in a different outcome, for the viewer will not as willingly accept my identification with the white as he does with the Black. In this case, ‘the Other’ are those who should have known, who knew and who benefited.”13
I add: …who still benefit from not being confronted with the epistemic and structural violence against Black People in Germany, mainly because of the enormous epistemic profit ensured and sedimented in/by EntNennung and EntErwähnung.
This text was presented as a lecture at the Workshop/Research Meeting “Feminist Perspectives on Racism and Migratism as Concepts for Analysing Swedish and German Realities from a Constructivist and Postcolonial Perspective,” Uppsala University, May 13th–15th, 2010, organized by Prof. Dr. Antje Lann Hornscheidt.
A new (decolonized) version of this text is now available at the author’s webpage: http://alannalockward.wordpress.com/wild-at-hair/
Alanna Lockward is an author and (in-extra-trans-meta)disciplinary agent from the Caribbean based in Berlin.
1 A. Lann Hornscheidt, “(Nicht) Benennung: Critical Whiteness Studies und Linguistik”,in Eggers, M./Kilomba, G/Piesche, P./Arndt, S (eds), Mythen, Masken, Subjekte. Kritische Weiβseinsforschung in Deutschland, Unrast, Münster 2005. The concept of Nicht-Benennung of whiteness is basically a white German feminist adaptation to racial profiling from a linguistic perspective. The first reference I found on this subject, in Germany, was in the guidelines for journalistic practice edited by http://www.derbraunemob.de. They were already included as an annex in the first version of my Master’s thesis.
2 “[Alanna Lockward] is prejudiced in the way that the results of her research are already established from the beginning. In the first sentences of her introduction, she talks about the discriminatory use of language in Der Tagesspiegel, which in her simplified opinion is established by the fact that when a white German is the victim of a crime, any mentioning of a phenotypic feature is irrelevant, while the newspaper does mention this phenotypic feature if the victim is a Black German. It does not occur to her, that the norm must be treated differently from the exception.”
Dr. Volker Hoffmann, 2006: First evaluation. In a second evaluation, Volker Hoffmann accepted my thesis after the theories of Antje Lann Hornscheidt’s on (Nicht) Benennung were presented as a scientific reference. No other substantial changes were made in the content of my previous (rejected) version. (The bold is from Volker Hoffmann, the underline and capital letters in “Black German” are mine).
3 Nduka-Agwu Adibeli/Hornscheidt, Antje Lann (ed.), Rassismus auf gut Deutsch, Brandes & Apsel, Frankfurt a. M., 2010.
4 Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, Fontana Press, London, 1977, p. 168.
5 “It was at this meeting (Berlin Conference, November 14, 1884–February 23, 1885) that Africa’s final fate at the hands of the imperial powers of Europe was sealed. To be sure, the colonial enterprise was short, a mere but brutal seventy years (as the history of the Belgian Congo under Leopold II reminds us). Yet it left an indelible mark, whose crude, schematic features remain difficult both to erase and to reconcile with civilized conduct.” Okwui Enwezor, 2001, p. 12.
6 Alanna Lockward, “Diaspora,” in Nduka-Agwu/Hornscheidt (ed.), 2010, p. 61.
7 IngridMwangiRobertHutter’s statement. http://africanartists.blogspot.com/2008/06/ingridmwangiroberthutter-kenyagermany.html
8 Truestories.Truesuccess. http://truestoriestruesuccess.wordpress.com/2009/09/22/alanna-lockward/
9 The Brooklyn Rail. “In Conversation with Ellen Gallagher,” http://www.brooklynrail.org/2005/03/art/ellen-gallagher
10 Lichterbeck, Philipp/Mitarbeitstaff, Tiede, Peter, 22.04.2006, Der Tagesspiegel, Third page: Before it was dark around him. Father, a PhD student, member of the SPD, footballers – who is the victim of the racket of Potsdam.
11 http://www.derbraunemob.de, http://www.reachoutberlin.de, http://dip21.bundestag.de/ dip21/btd/16/090/1609061.pdf
12 Grada Kilomba, Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism. Unrast, Münster, 2008, p. 21. (The brackets are mine).
13 IngridMwangiRobertHutter: “If,” 2005, Statement. http://www.ingridmwangiroberthutter.com/mh/text_ingridmwangiroberthutter_about_eventualities.html
Official Webpage: http://www.ingridmwangiroberthutter.com
Fatima El-Tayeb, Schwarze Deutsche. Der Diskurs um Rasse und Nationale Identität (1890–1933), Campus, Frankfurt/Main, 2001.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press, London, 1966.
Okwui Enwezor (ed.), The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994, Prestel, Munich/London/New York, 2001.
Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Unwin Hyman, Boston, 1990.
IngridMwangiRobertHutter (2003). “About eventualities. Statement to the photographic work if”. http://www.ingridmwangiroberthutter.com/mh/text_ingridmwangiroberthutter_about_eventualities.html
IngridMwangiRobertHutter (2008). “Along the Horizon”, in Genova: Il Trifoglio Nero.
Lichterbeck, Philipp/staff: Tiede, Peter 22.04.2006, Der Tagesspiegel, Third page: Before it was dark around him. Father, a PhD student, member of the SPD, footballers – who is the victim of the racket of Potsdam
Alanna Lockward, Minnette Vári and a Continental Patience: Africa in the Venice Biennial History, 2007. http://www.videoartworld.com/beta/reviews_int.php?id=61
Alanna Lockward, “Schwarz-Black-Afro: Widerspiegelung eines Wortfeldes im Tagesspiegel 2004-2006 [Black-Schwarz-Afro: Counter Reflection of a Word Field in the Daily Mirror 2004–2006]”, 2006. http://www.derbraunemob.de
Alanna Lockward, “The Era of Negritude: The Short Century, Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994,” in Atlántica. Revista de Arte y Pensamiento. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno. No. 30, October 2001.