Writing Out Of The Margins: Selected Footnotes on the Film Det Sorte Kapitel
In response to the film Det Sorte Kapitel (The Black Chapter) which premiered on September 29, 2018 I have many complex thoughts and feelings, but I will begin by giving some context. During the weeks leading up to the film there was a mounting sense of anxiety and confusion as I began to see the trailer and press package information emerge. I had also received communication that the premiere and panel discussion I was invited to attend as one of the key characters in the documentary would be in Danish, even with the push back of how language has functioned as a way to isolate and narrow the dialogue around colonial history. Instead of on the panel, I was placed in the audience with a translator as I watched a disjointed, pain-filled and confusing discussion about the experiences of people of color in Denmark. I sat there silent trying to understand the translator, trying to process the film I had just watched for the first time, wondering why I hadn’t seen it before and awkwardly coming to this conclusion: that in real time I was experiencing what it felt like to be written into the margins of history. This was very different from looking at the colonial archives and searching for invisibilized narratives of the enslaved and colonized of which much of my artistic practice entails. I was looking at an archive being created in front of me, in which my story had been written out, even though the record- in this case the film- evidences that I was there.
The challenge is that the film’s premise, at least how my engagement was secured, was a film that would follow the I Am Queen Mary project, a multi-year public art work between myself and the Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers whose first phase was inaugurated on March 31, 2018. This project garnered worldwide attention, being covered in over 100 media outlets in over 15 countries with an estimated reach of 1 billion people. Engaging the press in such an intentional way was an artistic and political strategy based on the knowledge of the importance of the narrative as a decolonial tool. So in addition to many hours of conversation since the film’s release with both Jeannette and the film director Maya Albana I present selected footnotes on the film Det Sorte Kapitel to extend the conversation to include the challenges in doing decolonial work.
I first became aware of this film project in 2016 when Jeannette told me that her friend, a filmmaker, had received funding to make a film that would follow her along the process of creating a memorial around the centennial. This memorial project was in its infancy, however, the film presents itself as capturing its birth in the scene of Jeannette standing in front of the Danish West Indian warehouse and declaring that she would make a sculpture there of a large black woman. This is not the beginning of the I Am Queen Mary project. Depending on where you place the coordinates this project has many beginnings and depending on how you frame the beginning dictates how you shape the narrative that follows.
One could argue that I Am Queen Mary began around 2008 when Jeannette and I both had opportunities to travel to each others’ homelands. I made my first trip to Denmark and experienced the incredible erasure of the former Danish West Indies in the collective Danish narrative. This sharp contrast to the inescapable reminders and visual remnants in the Virgin Islands led to the investigation of these material artifacts of the colonial period in my practice. On this first trip I was working with a Danish curator, Jacob Fabricius, on another transatlantic exchange project and met Jeannette at the artist talk of the exhibition. That trip changed the course of my work dramatically as it began to focus on our colonial past with our longest colonizer, Denmark. During that same year Jeannette made her first trip to both the Virgin Islands and Ghana which deeply impacted her practice and created a similar shift. She began to investigate her own country’s colonial history through her perspective of being a black Dane, often using her body as a vehicle and making diasporic linkages. Separately, on either side of the Atlantic we began a parallel trajectory of working with issues of colonialism from our respective geographies and biographies.
However, one could also argue that I Am Queen Mary began in 2014 when Helle Stenum, a Danish migration researcher and professor conceived of the Warehouse to Warehouse project for the upcoming Centennial anniversary of the sale and transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States in 2017. This was to be a transatlantic conversation through exhibitions and other programming housed inside the warehouse in Copenhagen and the one in Christiansted on St. Croix. It was Helle who also wanted to raise the funds to commission two memorials that would have the theme of mobility and she asked both me and Jeannette, as the leading artists from our respective countries working with these issues, to interpret this theme in anyway we saw fit. My initial response to the proposed memorial was a sculpture of coral stones encased in plexiglass which I entitled Trading Post.These stones came from my properties but were originally harvested from the ocean by enslaved Africans and form the foundation of most of our colonial era buildings. They represent the invisibilized labor as they are often placed on top of Danish bricks and not seen until the building is in ruin. They also represent the true basis for the wealth of Denmark, the labor and lives of the Africans brought to the colonies. Jeannette’s response was transforming the image of the persona she creates in her Whip It Good performance into a sculpture of a large black woman and place it in front of the Danish West Indian warehouse as a counterpoint to Michelangelo’s sculpture of David that was already there. In conversations with Jeannette, Helle suggested that a homage to Queen Mary might be an appropriate figure to memorialize and Jeannette then decided to recast her Whip It Good persona as Queen Mary.
In another beginning I Am Queen Mary originates in 2016 when Jeannette and I first entered into dialogue around the memorial project. Jeannette was in St. Croix filming for another work she was doing on Hans Christian Andersen’s theater play The Mulato. By this time the Warehouse to Warehouse project had collapsed as the museum operating inside the warehouse had closed and the chief interpreter at the warehouse in St. Croix had left his position. Also by this time Jeannette had applied for funds that were made available by Danish agencies for the upcoming Centennial year and had received them. When I first saw the mock-up of her proposed memorial I had some concerns. We were able to discuss them when I invited her to my home for dinner. This conversation was the beginning of our transformative dialogues that led to a deeper understanding of our different positions and ways of seeing and which form the basis of the project I Am Queen Mary.
We discussed in depth her Whip It Good performance piece and I explained how using Queen Mary, our national icon and hero would be met with controversy regardless of the image used, however that aligning Queen Mary’s narrative with what I viewed to be a fetishized image of herself in Whip It Good was highly problematic. Jeannette disagreed with this interpretation of her piece. However, she did eventually agree to not use the whip as this was an instrument of torture and in the context of this history and what Queen Mary represents could be seen as a colonial version of a revenge fantasy. I suggested instead replacing it with the cane bill and the torch which were the primary tools of resistance used in the 1878 Fireburn and in many of the revolts in the Caribbean including the Haitian revolution. They are also worker’s tools that originally have functioned in the colonial project to dominate the landscape and convert them into plantations. By displaying these tools as weapons the subversive nature of converting colonial tools into tools of resistance could also be referenced. These were issues that I had been working with in another project entitled Cuts and Burns in my attempt to create a visual vocabulary around these ideas. All of this was and more were discussed that day and form the basis for another origination.
A few months after the meeting at my house Jeannette contacted me with the suggestion to combine our two projects via a brief Skype call. This alternate beginning is an important one because this moment speaks to many of the issues that the film positions itself to talk about, how the structures of power and privilege that are born in the colonial project are complex and implicate everyone. These systems and structures are mostly invisible yet infiltrate our most intimate spaces of desire, friendship and collaboration. Most importantly, because these structures are systematic we often find ourselves participating in them without intention. So although I agreed to the collaboration, it was not without reflecting on some of the structural imbalances embedded in our positioning in the world and our relationship to these systems. I was concerned first by the fact that my project Trading Post was rather understated in comparison to the bombastic nature of placing a two-story black female figure in the public space. Being that I was from the Virgin Islands and this was one of my initial contributions to the project, I was worried that it would be a reenactment of the same invisibilizing of our narrative that the project was contesting. I was also concerned about the framing of our collaboration. Did Jeannette invite me into her project? Or did we enter into a collaboration? With the project now occurring in Denmark and Jeannette being the one who was ultimately responsible for the money, did we enter into the collaboration on equal footing? Would Jeannette feel that she had more of a voice because of these imbalances? And more importantly, would I? It took many months, many conversations and negotiations, me moving my entire family to Denmark for three months, on top of numerous other trips where I left them behind for our collaboration to develop and become solidified. Unfortunately, the film shows very little of this process. Very differently from the film project I believed I was a part of, the film’s narrative transformed into centering the friendship of two Danish non-white women, who have known each other since childhood, but whose friendship becomes threatened by the increasing racial consciousness of one, and the yearning of the other to understand. The film follows Jeannette’s journey through her artwork and begins and ends with Whip It Good, with I Am Queen Mary being a way station.
The history of several beginnings that I have articulated speaks to the power and significance of positionality. In the historical “black chapter”, in comparison to the Virgin islands, Danes continue to operate in a space of power in which they craft the narrative, because they have the resources and the institutions to do so. This is why a project that started out as two sculptures morphs into one that is located in Denmark. When thinking about the colonial project which has centered European narratives while marginalizing the voices of those who were colonized, one would have hoped that someone attempting to narrate any part of the story of I Am Queen Mary, would have taken these issues of geography and biography into account. This is the aspect of Danishness that is left unanalyzed in the film, although it is definitely commented on in one of the two scenes taken from the Virgin Islands. In the scene from the open forum that took place in July 2017 where I present the project for the first time in St. Croix there was a lot of debate over this positionality. As I explain to Jeannette in the scene that follows, “They see you as Danish. It doesn’t matter that you are black.” Although not in the film, I also explained that there is a “Danishness” that was critiqued in the lack of engagement and research done prior to our collaboration. There was a concern that once again the Danes are taking our stories and centering themselves in them by taking Queen Mary to Denmark. This is why hybridizing our two bodies to make the figure becomes an important aspect of the piece in an attempt to create a bridge. The work then functions as a platform by which these issues can be interrogated, exposed, and discussed and we use our bodies, our nations and our narratives to do so.
Although I am aware that it is radical in Denmark to have a film that centers the narratives of two non-white Danish women, I lament that the choice to do so further replicates the centering of Danish narratives while marginalizing those of the former colonized. As I watched the film for the first time at the premiere, I wondered about what it would have looked like to have widened the coordinates to have included: discussing the Warehouse to Warehouse project; to have imaged my studio and the work Trading Post; to have seen the coral stones lying in the ruins, or any of the myriad colonial structures that are we are left to live among in the former Danish West Indies; to have had the juxtaposition that I too lost a parent in this journey, that I too am a mother and that my children were often there in our meetings; or to have even a mention that in the midst of this project we suffered two category 5 hurricanes in the Virgin Islands. Admittedly there was a pain in watching my narrative reduced so much that I barely recognized myself. However, I Am Queen Mary is at its core a decolonial project. Decolonial work is not neat or linear. It is painful, messy and at times fraught with contradictions. But it is necessary. It requires each and every one of us to look hard at the ways in which we participate in this system and continue to uphold its policies, values and ways of imaging. Perhaps in the way Det Sorte Kapitel best functions is it gives us something by which to really see the complexities of this process and how difficult it can be. How despite friendship, despite good intentions, despite color, how the legacies of colonialism entangle us all. It is often the responsibility of the marginalized to signal their marginalization which adds an extra burden. Yet, part of decolonial work is to make visible these structures, to search for the ways we are implicated and compromised, and to write ourselves out of the margins.