Reopening Old Wounds. Exhibition by video artist Jeannette Ehlers at Nikolaj Kunsthal
Anne Neimann Clement from Copenhagen 31/03/2014
JEANNETTE EHLERS: SAY IT LOUD! Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen March 15 - May 25, 2014
Colonial times may seem long ago, but recently we have seen the old wounds pop up. At the same time as Steve McQueen's “12 Years a Slave” has just been rewarded the Academy Award for “Best Picture”, 15 Caribbean countries from the Caricom Reparations Commission have demanded apologies, cancellation of debt, and compensation for the misdeeds they were exposed to in the 17th and 18th centuries.
With the exhibition SAY IT LOUD! at Nikolaj Kunsthal, the half Danish-half Trinidadian video artist, Jeannette Ehlers, speaks up about the history of the African slaves and Denmark’s colonial past in the Danish West Indies, revolving around such themes as identity and belonging, globalisation and power.
SAY IT LOUD! marks the first overall presentation of Jeannette Ehlers’ works from 2009 to this day.Unfolding in the entire Lower Gallery of Nikolaj Kunsthal, the exhibition involves several video projections, screens, and spatial elements. In her visually fascinating and engaging works she employs all facets of the video medium: the artist's own video recordings, historical material, digital effects, and not least, a very powerful use of sound.
Jeannette Ehlers (born 1973) has by now established herself as one of the most significant contemporary artists working within video art, both in a Danish context and, increasingly, also internationally. She has in recent years participated in a number of important exhibitions and conferences, among them: El Museo del Barrio, New York; BLACK EUROPEBODY POLITICS, BE.BOP 2012 and 2013; ENTER 2011, and Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul.
PERSONAL BACKGROUND AND THE HISTORY OF COLONIAL TIMES
Jeannette Ehlers experiments with and challenges the complex issues of identity. While her mother is Danish, her father was born in Trinidad - as a descendant to the African slaves, and her video works deal with exactly this relation. How do you cope with the history of your ancestors? What does your body reveal about your family history? And how do you deal with being part of a complex and brutal history of supremacy and exploitation?
SAY IT LOUD! is a contemporary and personal look back. The artist’s own background is elegantly interwoven with the major historical threads. The exhibition transcends past and present and spans continents as Jeannette Ehlers links a number of significant moments in the history of the Western world: the time when Denmark was a colonial power engaged in the slave trade in the West Indies, the black civil rights movements in the US, and the rebellion among the black slave population of Haiti that paved the way for the secession from the French colonial power.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN GHANA
The exhibition sets off at the Gold Coast in West Africa (what is now Ghana) - where the history of slavery began in the 17th century, when black slaves where dispatched to the West Indian Islands in trade for weapons and ammunition from Europe.
In the entrance hall we are met with a photograph taken by the artist on her journeys to Ghana. In the picture we see a row of people. Or rather - we see their reflections in the water. With a characteristic device that also recurs in some of the video works in the exhibition, Ehlers has carefully edited out the persons depicted in the photo so that only their reflected images are left on the coastline.
By going into the picture frame for frame, and removing elements from it, Ehlers accomplishes not only an immediate visual change, but also a change in meaning, allowing us to read the images in a different way.
Atlantic (Endless Row), C-print 2009
The next thing we see are the three big video projections: Three Steps Of Story, Speed Up That Day, and Black Magic At The White House, which are all part of the ATLANTIC series.
In Three Steps of Story we see Jeannette Ehlers waltzing in a grand, mirrored hall of the colonial Government House at Saint Croix, which is where the colourful and rebellious Danish Governor, General Peter Carl von Scholten, threw his controversial balls that scandalized the white citizenship by inviting the then “free Negroes”.
Three Steps Of Story, video 2009
It was the same von Scholten who proclaimed the emancipation of the slaves on St. Croix in 1848, in front of Fort Frederick, which forms the basis of the video Speed Up That Day.
In the video, we see the fort exposed to the movements of time. The wind shakes the leaves of the trees, the sun shines and then disappears, people wander in and out of the worn-down red building, shutters open and close, clouds drift by. Time itself appears to be vibrating. By speeding up the video, Jeannette Ehlers emphasises the fragmented and transient character of time – but at the same time, the words Speed Up That Day refer to Martin Luther King’s famous speech, I Have a Dream, from 1963.
Here, as in other works in the exhibition, Ehlers establishes connections among significant historical moments by embedding fragments of sound and images in each other. But as we wind time backwards or forwards, these moments still seem somewhat unresolved, and the issues of freedom, restitution and reconciliation make themselves felt across time and place.
In the video Black Magic at the White House, Ehlers dances like a ghost through the grand halls of Marienborg Castle, which has a strong connection to the triangular trade. She wiggles, kisses the floor and performs a so-called vévé – a voodoo ritual in which the priest draws certain patterns on the ground in the hope of invoking the gods of health, reconciliation, and protection against evil spirits.
Black Magic At The White House ties Marienborg’s present function as the official residence of the country’s prime minister to its lesser-known past. By subtly stepping into the scene, Ehlers puts history into play in relation to her own identity. Her empathetic insight becomes quite literal, but also questioning and investigative.
The title of this work may induce one to think of another famous white house - one in which a seemingly almost magical political change took place as America’s first black president was elected.
Black Magic at the White House, Video 2009
HOMAGE TO THE REBELLIONS IN HAITI - FORMERLY KNOWN AS ST. DOMINIQUE
In 1789, the rallying cry of liberty, equality, and fraternity resounded in the streets of Paris, only shortly afterwards to echo across the Atlantic – among the slaves of the French colony Saint-Dominique.
The video work Black Bullets is a tribute to the first and only successful insurrection of slaves in history; having occurred at Saint-Dominique, it paved the way for the establishment of the new independent state of Haiti in 1804. The video was recorded at a mountaintop citadel in Haiti built after the rebellion as a defensive measure for the new state; to this day, it stands as a symbol of the emancipation.
A series of black figures move in a looping sequence across the silvery sky to the pulse of a heavy, hypnotic drone-like sound. Unlike the figures in some of Ehlers’ other works, the subjects have not been erased here. On the contrary, they are united with their reflected images, merging with them, almost like bullets gradually being cast.
Black Bullets, Video 2012
“Revolution has come. Time to pick up the gun. No more pigs in our community. Off the pigs!”
So sang the American black civil rights fighters of The Black Panther Party about the white police (“the pigs”) in the 1960’s. With a sampling of significant historical voices in the black struggle for freedom – among them, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Haitian slave leader Toussaint L’Ouverture – Ehlers creates a fragmentary, historical resonator for her own black and white recordings of a pig.
The pig has always occupied a central position in both Western and African myths – albeit with a different status. In Off The Pig, the black pig alludes to the mythical voodoo ceremony Bois Caïman, which played an important part in the Haitian revolution. As myth has it, drinking the blood of a sacrificed pig gave hundreds of slaves the power and courage to fight the battle for freedom against the superior forces of the French rulers.
Off the Pig, Video animation 2012
VIDEO ANIMATION AND ABSTRACTION
Besides making use of documentary video material and digital manipulations, Ehlers also uses brand-new animation techniques that add a beautiful level of abstraction to her work.
The video work Bustin’ My Knots consists of a 3D animation journey through the nervous system that has been produced from brain scans of the artist’s brain. With its visuals that tend to remind one of tangled hair, the video revolves around power structures and repression mechanisms with roots in colonial times, and which still today have an impact on black people. Based on African American hair culture, the video investigates the destructive way of thinking that is inherited through many generations.
In the previous century, an entire industry emerged offering products that promised to smooth out the naturally curly hair of Afro-American consumers. To this day, millions of people spend considerable resources and amounts of time controlling their natural hair with noxious creams and scorching-hot smoothing irons. Smoothed-out hair would seem to pave the way to higher societal status – the hairdos of the current American presidential family seem to underpin this notion.
Bustin' My Knots, Video animation 2011
The video work The March makes use of the same animation technique. By means of a digital black and white 3D animation, the video takes us inside the artist’s brain, where blood is running and creating extensive networks and new streams. On the white background, shadows of a crowd of people emerge and the sound of marching feet can be vaguely heard.
With these elegantly embedded layers of sound and images, Ehlers reactivates historical material. The title refers to the so-called Voting Right March of 1965, in which 600 black American citizens marched from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, struggling for their right to vote. Even though the marchers were attacked by local police with billy clubs and tear gas, their protests could not be muted out. The civil rights movement was a fact that happened all over the US.
REENACTING THE BRUTALITY OF THE PAST - GIVING ART HISTORY A FAIR CRACK OF THE WHIP
In her performance Whip It Good, Ehlers takes a whip into her own hand and administers a large number of well-considered lashes to a white canvas. By re-enacting one of the most brutal means of punishment during slavery – corporal whipping – Ehlers performs a simple, yet tense rebellion against the past.
With a reference to Pollock's action painting, the performance is not merely a confrontation with past atrocities against the slaves, but also with the white male domination of art history. Using the white man's tool on the white canvas, Ehlers criticises the one-dimensional representation in the art world.
On the opening night at Nikolaj Kunsthal, guests were invited to participate in the lashing, which in a pretty intense way, gave room for the audience to form an actual bodily experience of – and thus to reflect on – the brutality of history.
SLAVERY THEN AND NOW, AND THE STRUCTURAL RACISM OF EUROPE
In The Invisible Empire, Ehlers' father, Roy Clement Pollard, performs as narrator and singer. In this piece, an extremely sad story about human trafficking slowly unfolds.
With her West Indian-born father, whose ancestors were stolen away from the African continent to work in the European colonies as a result of the slave trade, Ehlers points to her own family history once again. Linking her father to the less visible kind of slave trade taking place today – human trafficking, Ehlers subtly intertwines her personal history with the narrative of the work. Her questioning of historical ties and personal implications unfolds a strong pull on the viewer while raising awareness for slavery in globalized societies.
Besides bringing up human trafficking as a theme that relates directly to the situation of today, the exhibition also raises a just as severe, but even more invisible theme: the structural racism that permeates Europe.
Denmark has been well known for being tolerant, liberal, and open minded. We can say whatever we want to in the name of freedom of expression. And yet, the Danish People's Party is growing bigger every year, and now seems to be the second biggest political party at the coming election.
"Because we sold our colonies relatively early, Denmark is extremely white." The artist announces. "Because of the dominance of “white privilege”, most people here never realize it, but the racism is everywhere. My dad is a living example – it has had a great impact on him up till this day.
All in all, Jeannette Ehlers has created a particularly potent exhibition.
Because of the refined imagery and effective use of sound and texts, she manages to process extremely heavy historical material. Her digital manipulations are beautifully tied up with her historically-anchored identity search – that sends us all the way from Denmark, via Ghana, to the former Danish West Indies.
SAY IT LOUD! offers no answers, but it is a poetic representation of history. Instead, the exhibition creates reflections on colonial times, the hundreds of years of slavery, the triangular trade, and Denmark's part in all this – leaving a strong and powerful impression that re-actualizes an often-overlooked chapter in history.