Remote studio dates is a series of conversations with artists, curators and researchers to document and explore coping mechanisms for isolation in the current health crisis. Each date focuses on one work, project, concept or dream, with digressions and slippages, without the need of ending somewhere but with the desire of opening something up.
27 March 2020. It’s 8:30pm in Melbourne and 10:30am in Enschede. I am waiting for Susana on Zoom. Camera on, there she is. It’s been a year since we last saw each other in Cuba during the 13th Havana Biennale. Susana and I met in Germany in 2018. We were presenting in the same panel at the conference Cuba Quo Vadis, organised by the Ludwig Foundation in Aachen, in the context of a survey exhibition on Cuban art from 1989 to the present. We progressively developed a friendship that we have nurtured for the past two years through Skype chats (whenever she is outside of Cuba) and frequent WhatsApp messages. So meeting up on Zoom, today, is not unusual for us. What is extraordinary is the current state of the world we live in. Besides looking at the effects of the Coronavirus on our lives, our exchange revolved around two things: archives and hair.
M: Susie! How are you?
S: I am in the Netherlands. Moved here recently from Budapest. I got a Guest Professorship position, at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts (HUFA), supported by The Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation.
M: Wow, that’s wonderful! Congratulations!
S: Yeah, but I moved to online teaching now.
M: Oh yes, I hear you. How are you feeling?
S: Well… I am keeping a routine to hold up with everything. It’s hard to stay inside all the time. I miss meeting people. When I was in Hungary, before coming here, and started to work remotely from home, I would spend days without talking. That was disturbing…
I was hoping to start our conversation from art and keep a light spirit. Of course, it was not entirely possible. We spent quite some time sharing personal accounts of our family and friends and smiling in silence.
M: So what are you working on? Beyond teaching.
S: I am trying to remain focused. I was supposed to join a residency in July in Spoleto, Italy, and bring a work to Dakar for the Biennale in May but everything is postponed.
M: What was the work about?
S: Cannot say yet. You know the way I do it. It’s very site-responsive.
M: Want to tell me about what happened before Covid then? What were you doing?
S: Right before all of this started I was in Kenya with a fellowship, for a residency-workshop organised by the Center for Arts, Design, & Social Research. It was an amazing experience where I was invited to discuss ideas with a group of artists, academics and curators from both Africa and Europe.
M: What was the topic of the meeting?
S: We mainly talked about the role of archives in constructing histories and the power they have to challenge mainstream narratives. In particular we spoke about East Africa, where Britain and Germany used archives as foundations of colonial power. After independence, these colonial archives remain sites of social contention that tell about history and the importance of memory but that can also open space for re-interpretation. We tackled the issue of restitution of artefacts, artworks and other objects to Kenya and to Africa, more in general. The main argument against it is that of preservation. As if the traditional owners of such works had not the means or the skills to care for what has once been stolen from them.
M: This perspective assumes that criteria of preservation, care and quality are universal, while they are not. A couple of weeks ago, I was revisiting a 1998 text with thoughts by Okwui Enwezor, for a class I am teaching. He highlighted how curatorial statements in large-scale exhibitions like Biennials often adopt a language that merely reflects the thinking structures of the West – by ‘West’ here I mean Western Europe and North America as much as parts of other anglophone countries of the geopolitical north, like Australia, for instance. Anyway, for him, passionate words such as love and beauty should also be employed to talk about the encounter with art, because they would address feelings, emotions and experiences of communities that have suffered deeply, where sometimes being an artist is a life or death situation, and where English is not the main spoken language. Different linguistic structures stand for different structures of thinking. I am saying this here to reinforce the fact that knowledge is not universal and it is not homogeneous either. So we cannot apply the same, restricted parameters to evaluate and judge cultural systems, and art, from all over in the world.
I think the tragedy we are currently living is reminding us of that too. While the virus does not discriminate, and is confronting society with the fact that deep inside we are all the same, there are so many different contexts and situations and degrees of privilege and access that need to be taken into account to develop strategies to cope with this crisis. Take online teaching for instance. We are all embracing it and being thankful for it, but not all countries and communities have access to technology in an equal way. There is a large number of people that is still excluded from the privilege of connectivity and for whom staying at home today means true isolation. But I am digressing so much now…
S: No… absolutely. I agree with you on the point of fragmentation and discrimination. This is where the archive is important to me. The ones who own the archive hold the keys to write history but that history is not necessarily the univocal truth. For a long time, historical narratives have been written by the winners. Today, perhaps we can use the archive, the retrieved documents, to re-discuss these narratives, to question them, to decolonise them.
M: This approach is very much at the heart of your practice. I am now thinking about the Afro hair competition you put up in Havana during the Biennale last year.
S: Yes, that work was a way for me to create awareness and pride in my community. A pride that would start from the body to then influence the mind as well. The competition was very successful since a big number of people attended. It generated a series of activities as outcomes, such as entrepreneurial projects on hair and beauty products, and inspired other creatives as well; for instance, in the hip-hop music industry. The point is to acknowledge our heritage and to free ourselves from the legacy of colonisation. This is an economic objective but also a more intimate and personal one that does not need the intervention of major political systems or governments. It is about identity. Who are we?
M: Are you referring specifically to the African heritage of Cuba?
S: Yes, with that project. But in my wider practice I am also interested in the Chinese heritage of our island, as you know I have both African and Chinese ancestry. The Chinese migration to Cuba and the integration of Chinese people in Cuban society are unexplored. I am looking into it, trying to revive stories, using images, objects and documents to talk about these communities – that are also mine – and to show that the identity of Cuba is not one, but many. Our identities come from the wonderful crossing of cultures but also from exploitation and injustice. People with mixed heritage, be it African or Chinese, have long been hiding cultural traits that were deriving from, indeed, Africa or China. Hair is a case in point. Women in Cuba often straighten their hair to make it look like something else. Comparing each other against an idea of beauty that is not attainable or authentic. More extreme cases include bleaching of the skin to make it seem paler. This is dangerous health-wise and shows the degree to which we, as a community, have absorbed cultural hegemony to the point of denial of our own origins. To the point of self-censoring. Of feeling ashamed of looking black. With the hair competition taking a life of its own, with people joining in big numbers, participating in the celebration of pride and developing independent activities at the end of it, I accomplished my goal.
M: Will you be staging something similar in Dakar too?
S: Hm. Not sure. Dakar is not my context. I would not feel comfortable to reach out and involve the local community there, in the same way I did in Cuba. I would need to do more research, to talk to local experts, to ask for permission, to study further, to listen, to understand. For now, I will continue thinking about it and let the need of planning go. We have no other choice, really, but to let go.
Susana Pilar was born in Cuba in 1984. From 2011 to 2013 she did a Postgraduate course in New Media, Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG) with DAAD Scholarship, Germany. From 1998 to 2008 she studied in the Fine Arts Academy “San Alejandro” and the High Institute of Arts (ISA) in Havana, Cuba. She is currently artist in residency of CAD+SR 2019-20 Research Fellowship, and Guest Professor at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary, 2020 with the Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation Grant. She was a recipient of the CIFO Grants & Commissions Program Award, Miami, US, 2019; AIR of the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna, Austria, 2017; AIR SKÖVDE, Skövde, Sweden, 2016; Apexart Fellowship, New York, US, 2016; KulturKontakt, Vienna, Austria, 2013; MAP Residency in ARTEZ and B93, Enschede, The Netherlands, 2010-2011; the Art Centre Darling Foundry in Montreal, 2009 and others. Selected group shows and biennales include: the 14th Biennale of Dakar, Senegal (2020), 6th Lubumbashi Biennale, République Démocratique du Congo (2019); 13 Havana Biennale, Cuba (2019); Resilience and Resistance in African Diaspora, New Museum of African Civilizations, Dakar, Senegal (2018); 56th International Art Exhibition, Cuban Pavilion, Venice, Italy (2015); 1st Biennale of International Contemporary Art, Martinique (2013); Prome encuentro Bienal Arte Contemporaneo di Caribe, Aruba (2012); III Biennale Arts Actuels Réunion, Reunion island (2011) and the 7th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (2008).
Featured Image: Susana Pilar, Dibujo intercontinental, 2017, performance, 2 hours. Photo: Marnix van den Berg