Bodies of Knowledge: Can Contemporary Art subvert or challenge the status quo without recreating it in new forms?by
“Working with materials that range from books and silent film to ink, ashes and musical scores, artists Manon Bellet, Wafaa Bilal, Garrett Bradley, Adriana Corral, Mahmoud Chouki, Zhang Huan, William Kentridge, Shirin Neshat, Edward Spots and Wilmer Wilson IV propose language as a living and ever-evolving document that can counter more staid and static ways of representing our collective pasts. Bodies of Knowledge asks us to consider how we might write more inclusive narratives, reshape public space, and account for bodies and histories that have, in large measure, been written out of them. Bringing a new global perspective to current conversations in New Orleans surrounding cultural preservation and historical memory, Bodies of Knowledge draws together artists working with many different systems of knowledge to illustrate how history can be erased, rewritten and asserted anew.”
—from the exhibition text accompanying Bodies of Knowledge.
Bodies of Knowledge at the New Orleans Museum of Art brings Iraqi artist, Wafaa Bilal’s interactive installation 168:01 along with ten other contemporary artists to New Orleans, the crossroads, where all histories and peoples meet. Bilal, who has had asylum in the United States since the 1990s is known for his technology driven pieces, such as Shoot an Iraqi that have critiqued the Iraq War and its consequences on civilian populations. Bilal’s own brother was killed during a U.S. air strike in 2004 in his home town of Kufa. The title of this current exhibit borrows from the story of the destruction of the Bayt al Hikma (House of Wisdom) during the 13th century Mongol Invasion of Baghdad. The story goes that all the books from The House of Wisdom were dumped into the Tigris River where the ink bled for 168 hours. 168:01 marks the first second after. In Bilal’s case this after is the post-conflict zone of Iraq and its destroyed University of Baghdad library, which like the legendary Bayt al Hikma, lost 70-80,000 volumes during the second invasion into Iraq. This most recent loss is often referred to obliquely. In most written and exhibition accounts those responsible for the burning and looting go mostly unnamed. The installation begins with a bookshelf filled with stark white, blank books. The goal is that the book shelf be repopulated with books requested by students in the College of Fine Art at The University of Baghdad and shipped there at the end of the installation’s run. The book buyer gets one of these stark white volumes as a keepsake, a reminder.
I was put in contact with Bilal through the exhibition’s curator, Katie Pfohl to do a series of five gallery activations and discussions focused on Bilal’s practice and my research about the political and cultural connectivity between New Orleans and Basra, Iraq. Particularly the political and cultural consequences of Hurricane Katrina and the Second Iraq War and their shared histories as major slave ports. The first of our gallery activations was a joint conversation featuring the two of us. Bilal and I agreed that one could apply Iraq’s post-conflict designation to New Orleans, as he remarked with genuine sadness how much he deeply connected the two places upon first seeing images of the city following the levee failures of 2005. Katrina’s storm of human failures: capitalism’s lack of interest in infrastructural maintenance or innovation, racism and classism proved to have the deadliest impacts on the civilian population. Subsequent activations were conducted by myself in conversation with the exhibition’s visitors and the work. Highlights included Morrocan musician Mahmoud Chouki’s performances, meeting and talking with a blogger from Iraqi Veterans Against the War, and learning about the djoza, an Iraqi coconut and fishscale string and bowed instrument with a 5,000 year history from musician, Joseph Darensbourg.Among many things the installation asks us to consider, how we account for, preserve, replace, value, commodify or quantify what we’ve lost and what we replace it with resonated particularly with me.
New Orleans and Iraq share a history of ancient and modern political and cultural influence and a history as sites of contest between empires. The civilizations of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, The Mississippian Period in Louisiana, during which our most ancient mounds were built, flourished concurrently with such peoples and civilizations such as Benin City, the Dogon of Mali and the Bambara among many peoples in West Africa. Those who have traditionally and over time come to inhabit the land in Louisiana and Iraq via forced movement and displacement have been forced to contend with what being one nation, state or people has meant. For the Black, Native, /| Indigenous communities of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana (in all its various historical iterations) this has happened at various moments since the arrival of Europeans, the Middle Passage through the colony’s various possessors. This is true for Iraqis as well. The land they inhabit has transferred many hands and transformed many times over by the British imperial interests that drew its borders.
These contested lands also share a history of revolt. From the Zanj, Bantu-speaking people brought from East Africa to Iraq as enslaved people, who rose up against the Abbasid Caliphate in the ninth century, to the Shia uprising of the nineties against Sadaam Hussein, resistance to American occupation following both wars, to the many revolts of Louisiana colony ( the Natchez-Bambara Revolt in 1729, the conspiracy at Pointe Coupee in 1795, the Natchez plantation burnings in 1797, the German Coast Rebellion in 1811, Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, and post- Katrina resistance strategies) the various populations have engaged a constant struggle and grappling with what freedom actually is?
The world is an imminently dangerous place for Black people and other marginalized and oppressed groups. Who gets to document and archive the events of our time is of critical importance. A multiplicity of perspective among Black artists and intellectuals must be respected, encouraged, valued and compensated equitably while institutions look to “diversify.” What knowledge and whose bodies are valued actually? Who is considered an expert? Who is continually studied? How can art subvert or challenge these norms without intentionally or unintentionally recreating them in new forms? Who is still left out of even new frameworks of multiculturalism and inclusivity?
I am reminded, when considering Bodies of Knowledge of the previous exhibit Bondye: Between and Beyond. This exhibit featured a white female artist who worked with unnamed Haitian artists to create aesthetic representations of traditional Haitian Vodou Flags. The exhibit and accompanying panel featuring myself, Denise Augustine, Sally Ann Glassman and Soraya Jean Louis elicited many lingering questions. At what point do certain fundamentals concerning equity, authorship, and compensation of Black artists become non-negotiables? Frequently my life and existence as a Black woman native to New Orleans who works in the arts sector as a writer, performance and installation artist, I am frequently called to play into the white supremacist dichotomy of “(Black) natives” and “scholars” as mutually exclusive categories. I’ve tried to make a practice of challenging these dynamics when they have been presented to me. Why do I and so many others like me have to flee the borders of our birth to find freedom for our bodies or our minds? How much, if any free territory is left at this point?
I considered while sitting with this installation, Bilal’s personal story as an artist. He was denied the opportunity to study art in Iraq and made to study geography as a repercussion for his family’s politics. Also of his time in a refugee camp before becoming who he is known and regarded as today. At what point does this transformation take place? When is it complete? Is it ever solid for people who have experienced war and displacement? Is it ever possible for the descendants of the enslaved? Is it even a desirable outcome?
During the gallery activation that took place on September 11th, I read from my working manuscript a section entitled “You Already Know.” The following is an excerpt from that reading. The person speaking below is a priest.
“The United States will be at war for the rest of your natural lives. It might be wise to start thinking seriously about how you and your descendants plan to survive. The old ones did it for us and so must you do it for the ones that are to come. These are Father’s words to me on the morning of September 11, 2001. If you use this framework, he says, it does not matter what morning it is. The point is … the point is… Father says loudly, in case you have not heard much till now, the point is… to understand that when things like this happen, the powerful will have to find ways to assuage their fears. The casualties will be foreign and domestic. The deaths will remind them and us that they are, in fact, immortal, infallible, and invulnerable. This is always a brutal process. Always. No matter how they dress it up.
The point is to remember that oppression is unnatural. That it makes the human body recoil and that resistance is never futile. Not even when chained together and defecating where you lay. This is your duty. It will always require a fight. This is what it takes to have the will to make a new generation. Expect no less than a full- scale upheaval. History is long. Freedoms you have never known your life without will be challenged. Remember, generations of your family were born and died never seeing these shores or chains or the ships that would bring disease in. You come from a people who entered this politics already post-modern. You have already survived the apocalypse. You should have nothing to fear.
The city that you know, its days are numbered. They have built a house of cards, a castle of sand. It cannot stand. The bottom will fall out of their shit and they will be arriving shortly to kick you out of yours. A lot will be required of you. There will be no one else left to pick up the pieces. You have not lived as long as me. I know you may not understand this lecture today. But if you remember anything…
Ask yourself, what will you do with calamity?
You must decide.
This is the pattern.
This is history.”