“here is my hand, I am not afraid of the night”
Claiming the other kinds of stories brings the position of the narrator to the foreground. The formalistic and discursive methodologies of storytelling, language construction, and imagination come with it. The first Dialogue exhibition between Dread Scott and Kameelah Janan Rasheed, two Black artists of different generations concerned with Black epistemologies and their various interpretations, is situated upon how they claim their positions as narrators, mediators, and learners. Despite the massive amounts of information that can be found on search engines, what W.E.B. Du Bois wrote back in 1903 -in the uniquely dehumanizing context of the so-called ‘Jim Crow’ era- is still the truth: the tragedy is not that humans are poor and wicked, but rather that humans know so little of humans. Scott and Rasheed are both militantly aware of how history is the fruit of power, how power is invisibly marked while it asks visibility from others, and how challenging it is to expose its roots. In the artistic conversation between their bold, layered gestures the powerful ending of “poem at thirty” by Sonia Sanchez resonates: “here is my hand, I am not afraid of the night.”
Dread Scott’s work is driven by how the past sets the stage for the present yet also exists in the present in new forms. His straightforward conceptual actions attack the foundation of modern society by profit-oriented white men through slavery and colonialism. He takes us to the gist of the story through his major action in 2019, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, which with hundreds of Black and First Nations re-enactors restages the 1811 Slave Revolt of Louisiana, the largest Black revolt in the United States, also known as the “1811 German Coast Uprising.” This early Louisiana settlement above New Orleans was on the west side of Mississippi River. It was mostly inhabited by the German immigrants associated with four sugar plantations named Karlstein, Hoffen, Mariental, and Augsburg. The 1811 Slave Revolt, which is “commemorated” by a small road sign at a busy crossroads, hasn’t been studied as widely as it deserves to be. Initiated by Dread Scott and filmed by John Akomfrah, the reenactment is the first collective and community-building effort of claiming this ground-breaking action in the “unknown” history of the United States inspired by the Haitian Revolution in 1791. The revolters in 1811 couldn’t reach their aim of taking over Orleans and ending slavery, yet they opened the way for many powerful resistances to follow. The exurban communities and industry that have replaced the sugar plantations form the backdrop of the reenactment. The anomaly created by the descendants of slavery today once again reminds us that the conditions we live in are the outcome of the centuries-deep roots of capitalism.
“How do we become aware of the tenets of what we go through, and how do we begin to live self-consciously?” Practices of self-consciousness are among the central questions posed by poet, theorist, and activist Audre Lorde. For Kameelah Janan Rasheed, self-consciousness comes “in the meanwhile of” making. “There is no perfectly parallel process of making and knowing. And there should not be,” she says. “In the meanwhile of,” a series of works newly realized for the Dialogue exhibition, elaborates on abstraction as a political and poetical tool of the unfinished or incomplete. It is a body of new language, not there yet but realizing itself while being learned in its illegibility against those eyes that always want to see, know, and control. It gains more agency in its incompleteness. Hands find their way in the darkness of the night. Following her xerox experiments, Rasheed created the series of prints entitled “God did not glitch, but they did move the sun” using colored acetate plates, India ink, a scanner, and an overhead desk lamp. She chooses India ink, which is one of the ancient materials used to write on paper as well as a pathological laboratory tool applied to surgically removed tissue specimens in order to indicate tumor resection margins. The outcome is a series of illegible organism/cell/brain x-rays that refuse to be legible, to offer any results.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” Strange Fruit may be one of the most well-known lynching protest songs written and composed by Abel Meeropol and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. It was around the same time period when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an interracial civil rights organization founded in 1909 whose members included W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington, Moorfield Storey, and Ida B. Wells, placed a flag reading “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” outside its offices every time a lynching incident took place in order to confront them and raise public awareness. Dread Scott re-introduced the flag outside a gallery in a similar manner after Walter Scott was murdered by a policeman in 2015 among 1,133 other victims in the same year. Lynching has been transformed into ongoing police brutality against black people. Despite the growing protests, police brutality continues as worldwide reactions have arisen after the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. In the context of Germany, Scott’s action may remind some the death of the Sierra Leonian asylum seeker Oury Jalloh, who was found burned to death in a police cell in Dessau in 2005. Oury Jalloh was mentioned many times in the Black Lives Matter protests in Germany alongside the nine young victims of right-wing extremist shootings in Hanau that took place in 2020; Gökhan Gültekin, Ferhat Unvar, Mercedes Kierpacz, Said Nesar Hashemi, Sedat Gürbüz and Fatih Saraçoğlu, Hamza Kurtović, Kaloyan Velkov, and Vili-Viorel Păun.
In one of Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s provisional works in her recent solo exhibition at Kunstverein Hannover I am not done yet, she xeroxes and pastes from her personal educational material archive: “We speculate that everyone will be saved through the algebra.” Such a statement may remind some of “education as a necessity,” as stated in “Education,” which was released as part of Steve McQueen’s film anthology Small Axe (2020). The film is based on real-life events in the 1970s, when a number of London councils followed an unofficial policy of transferring disproportionate amounts of black children from mainstream education to schools for the so-called “educationally subnormal.” The film ends with the self-organized home schooling of black children, learning histories they’d probably be never taught in mainstream education. Algebra also reads as Rasheed’s continuous interest in early Islamic enlightenment in mathematics and astronomy that flourished through bridging ancient Greek teachings to Indian knowledge like “Al Jabr” written by Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī in 9th century in Baghdad. It can be suggested that Rasheed is not only interested in the illegibilities of Black epistemologies but also what kind of patterns made them illegible in the first place.
The Haitian Revolution, which inspired the slave revolt in Louisiana, is one of the first reactions to the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. When Toussaint Louverture initiated the revolution, taking the values of liberty and equality for all of mankind to the heart, the whole experience showed the exclusive limits of the definition of human and rights: the definition of a humanism that only took the white men as its measure. “The slave trade increased in the years 1789-1791 while French politicians and philosophers were debating more vehemently than ever on the rights of humanity,” writes Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his famous Silencing the Past. A humanism made to the measure of the world rather than the measure of men, breaking the double standards of European Enlightenment and its notion of universalism, became one of the central concerns for black thinkers such as Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Sylvia Wynter. In his famous essay “Discourse on Colonialism,” Césaire argued that what Europe calls “fascism” is just colonial violence finding its way back home. A vicious cycle.
The use of the term non-fungible in NFTs, for Dread Scott, reminds us how “fungible” as a term was used by scholars of the history of slavery, how humans became interchangeable with different goods, and how this notion was translated and settled into today’s capitalism for its continuity. Therefore, the NFT “White Male for Sale” features a seven-minute video loop of a non-descript white man standing on an auction block in the middle of a predominantly Black Brooklyn neighborhood. His take on the non-fungible reveals the necessity of this unfinished project of making a humanism that can take the world as its measure. Urgent statements such as “We Have to Do Something to Stop White on Black Crime,” “It is Happening Right Here & It’s For Us to Stop It,” “Redistribute Wealth,” “Stop Being White, It’s Alright, You’ll Be OK” rendered in the flashy colors and typography of the canonical Colby posters used to advertise concerts, films, and performances on the West Coast of the United States are installed opposite “White Male for Sale.” In their agitational voice, these posters confront their public in an unusual manner, reminding them of how their subject position might be used in the service of racial and social justice—for a humanism that doesn’t divide, hierarchize, and polarize.
In her abstract shapes and markings, Rasheed chooses to dwell on “poetic knowledge” and “poetic truth” as alternative modalities of knowing and more elevated forms of reason that could overcome what impoverishes modern life in today’s polarized societies. Following Césaire’s rendering, poetic images enable a revolutionary form of knowing that unsettles conventional coordinates for the artist. In the mural “Good Morning. Has your body reached a consensus?” the application of asemic writing created immediately after awakening from lucid dreams on the walls of the gallery seeks a poetic image and untimely vision that merges past, present, and future in order to go through the other side of the upheaval of contemporary. We are no longer sure if it is a form of syncretic prayer, an endless mathematical formula, a dream chart, or a cosmological map. They may be inspired by all the forms of survival and resilience that Black communities have created and protected under constant colonization. She invites her audience to witness the alternative wayward imaginaries concurrent with the manufactured crisis content that we encounter on a daily basis. Here, Rasheed resonates with Lorde again, “We need the ability to have different visions. We require both the vision and the possibilities that do not yet exist.” These asemic writings also create an open-ended dialogue with the flags of SRR, recreated for the reenactment. The timeless anomaly of these undeciphered forms connects to Rasheed’s unidentified forms of lucid dreaming that come from different sources of cerebral and spiritual knowing. They address resilience, making community, and illegible forms of communication.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed and Dread Scott’s conversation, which unfolds in NOME’S exhibition space across different bodies of work and similar concerns voiced in different frequencies, is a generous and necessary one in Berlin—which we don’t get to hear often. It urges us to know each other as humans, not in the way we tend to do. Still unable to dismantle the machinery of war economically, cognitively, and psychologically, there is much more urgency at the moment for the vision and the possibilities that don’t yet exist, for a possibility of humanism that would be fitting for the world. We can all start by taking Rasheed and Scott’s hands in the night and keep on walking to see, know, bridge, and tell otherwise in that darkness.