Rasism, heterosexism och kapitalism i en tvålask

Imperial Leather är ett välkänt brittiskt varumärke för tvål och parfym. På sin hemsida lyfter företaget upp sin flera hundra år långa historia och sin världsomspännande position. Men tvålmärket har också fått ge namn åt den feministiska litteraturvetaren Anne McClintocks bok Imperial Leather. Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest som kom ut 1995. Boken är ett viktigt bidrag till antikolonialt feministiskt tänkande. Den kastar sig ut i en storslagen ambition: att tänka samman psykoanalytiska teorier om sexualitet och familjerelationer med teorier om arbete, ekonomi och materiella historiska förhållanden i en analys av hur kön, ras, sexualitet och klass skapades av och genom varandra i det brittiska koloniala projektet.

McClintock gör det genom att analysera bilder, reklam, brev och texter som kanske skulle kunna uppfattas som marginella för den postkoloniala historieskrivningen. Hon tittar så att säga i utkanterna av de mer officiella berättelserna, i gränsområdena mellan det offentliga och det privata, mellan marknaden och politiken, i skönlitteratur, självbiografier och privatpersoners bildarkiv. Med hjälp av detta material får hon syn på hur djupt kolonialismen inte bara format – och formats av – ekonomiska och militära relationer utan också format – och formats av – uppfattningar, erfarenheter och gränsdragningar i förhållande till kroppar, arbete, klass, kön och sexualitet. Hon ser hur liknandet mellan koloniserade marker och kvinnokroppen skedde på en rad sätt: i kartografier, i bildspråk och i själva känslan av att ha rätt till dominans.

Centralt för McClintocks projekt är att lyfta fram de många uttryck hon ser för motstånd mot dessa processer och bilder. Utan att lyfta något ansvar från kolonisatörerna för exploateringen och det destruktiva våldet vill hon visa att kolonialismen var en yta där makt förhandlades, utövades och stötte på motstånd på komplexa vis. Att de folk som koloniserades inte var passiva mottagare av kolonialismen utan på olika sätt ifrågasatte, gjorde motstånd och förhandlade de bilder och gränsdragningar som skapades.

Ett av många centrala argument i boken är att det skedde ett skifte från vetenskaplig rasism till det hon kallar ”varurasism” eller ”varufierad rasism”: ett skifte från att förklara och motivera kolonialismen och rasismen genom vetenskapen till att bokstavligen börja sälja kolonialismens och imperialismens tankegods på marknaden i form av reklam, hushållsvaror, skönhetsprodukter, sötsaker och dekorationer. Det är här varumärket Imperial Leather kommer in, när McClintock visar hur deras och andra företags reklambilder för skönhets- och hushållsprodukter på olika sätt iscensätter koloniala fantasier om att sprida civilisation, renhet och en viss könad familjestruktur. McClintock pekar alltså på tvålreklamen och visar oss hur det imperialistiska och det privata genomsyrar varandra. De gör det dessutom på ett sätt som skapar bilden av den vite mannen som den som kan leverera de här värdena, och osynliggör samtidigt såväl resursstölden från koloniserade områden som kvinnors arbete med rengöring, skönhetsvård och omvårdnad av hem och människor.

McClintock beskriver också hur den logik och de uppdelningar som den här varurasismen skapade kring kolonialismen, och i koloniserade områden, så att säga togs hem till kolonisatörernas hemländer, och formade hur man såg på och hanterade gränsdragningar, klasskillnader och arbete även i det viktorianska Storbritannien. Bilderna, och den världsbild de representerar och sprider, gör den vite mannen till den som går i bräschen för utvecklingen av den mänskliga familjen och civilisationen, medan vita kvinnor, arbetare och de koloniserade platsernas befolkning beskrivs som beroende och passiva mottagare av denna rörelse.

Men boktiteln anspelar på fler bottnar i varumärkets namn: det handlar om det specifika företagets namn och dess reklambilder, men mer generellt om hud, intimitet och fetischism. I en avancerad manöver väver McClintock samman marxistiska och freudianska sätt att förstå varufetischism respektive sexuella fetischer. Marx teorier om ekonomi, arbete och varor brukar anses tillhöra den offentliga sfären, medan Freuds analyser av sexualitet, relationer, familj anses tillhöra den privata. Men McClintock visar att sfärerna och deras fenomen behöver analyseras i dialog med varandra. Hon skapar en feministisk psykoanalytisk förståelse av hur våldet, exploateringen och orättvisorna som är inneboende i det koloniala projektet på olika sätt tryckts undan och osynliggjorts, men likväl pyser ut i de konstnärliga och självbiografiska projekt hon analyserar.

I bokens sista del zoomar McClintock specifikt in på Sydafrika och utforskar hur psykoanalytiska perspektiv är relevanta för att förstå den könade symbolik som både boernas nationsbygge och ANC:s antikoloniala nationalism uttrycktes genom, och hur olika berättelser om nationen och kolonisatörernas känsla av rätt till mark, rikedomar och dominans uttrycktes i skönlitteratur och reseskildringar. McClintock lyfter här också fram att det är centralt att se hur kolonialismen skapat helt skilda villkor för kvinnor i kolonialstater och i koloniserade stater, även om processerna hon analyserar visar vissa likheter i synen på kvinnor. I analyser av texter av vita kvinnor ser hon hur beskrivningar av emancipatoriska och frigörande processer för dessa kvinnor möjliggjordes av föreställningarna om koloniernas expansiva, fria och tillgängliga marker och resurser.

 

ILLUSTRATION: KARIN SUNVISSON

 

“Who are you?” Unmasking Sweden’s Colonial past with Cecilia Germain

To be interrupted is part of my daily life as a Black man living in Europe. Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here? Who do you think you are? Confrontations masked as questions shot at me at every turn. Living and working in Sweden, as a Zimbabwean expatriate, I have started to embrace the notion that the Black body is an invisible and hyper-visible site. It is as though my subjectivity is so little as to be comprehensible in a single conversation, and simultaneously too much to exist freely without constant disturbance. As a curator, I am interested in anti*colonial fantasies/decolonial strategies (see note 1) that are radically imaginative and limitless. However, the landscape of visual art in Sweden is currently fraught with restrictions. Artists like Cecilia Germain, are not only taking it upon themselves to untangle the burden of history, but are proving that where we are now is far from being arbitrary. Paying homage to Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, it is fitting to trace the presence of coloniality in every crevice of contemporary society including visual art.

 

Earlier this year, Santiago Mostyn’s Kunstkritikk essay aptly titled ‘The blind spot of Swedish art criticism’ caused shockwaves. ‘I believe that what is actually expressed by this cultural elite is, at least in Sweden, a fear that their own authority will be eroded as the social landscape changes. Fear assumes the form of ridicule, with “norm criticism and decolonial thinking” as the main goals of their anger. Pride over a certain self-image and country is a less obvious form of nationalism, but a form which is perhaps more dangerous precisely because of its invisibility – a colourless nerve poison that maintains the status quo’ (see note 2). Mostyn’s challenge of the insularity of the Swedish art world seemed to ruffle feathers. His critique; sharp, bold and intentional, pointed to the urgency that is needed in transforming a society that has been lackadaisical in reversing the effects of the imperial project even within the sphere of art. Sweden particularly has an interesting history; the once deemed ‘dirt house of Europe’ rose to become one of the wealthiest countries in the world, praised for its ‘progressiveness’ (see note 3). In discourse, Sweden is often spared a sense of colonial responsibility, and yet the modernisation project was sponsored by plunder and exploitation of Africa (see note 4). There was direct capitalist expansion in various forms, including but not limited to, profit gains from the supply of iron chains used in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Colonialism also left its marks through domestic constructions of visuality in relation to the so-called ‘Other’. Whiteness was posited as superior and affirmed through multiple discursive forms, such as ‘exploration and discovery’ literature that depicted people of colour as lesser. This history moulded the hegemonic frames that affect us up to now. Ontologies and epistemologies that are favoured in visual art are currently Swedish and Eurocentric, erasing, disparaging and deterring any ideas from ‘elsewhere’. To be seated at the table is to survive a slow suffocation.

 

I first encountered Cecilia Germain in 2018 at Conversations on Blackness, Beauty, and States of Being – an event held at Malmö Konsthall. She was part of the panel ‘Black Art in Contemporary’ times moderated by Sarah Nakiito, together with Fatima Moallim, and Makda Embaie. I was moved by her evocative way of speaking and was motivated to look more into her work as someone who has paved the way for other racialized artists in Sweden.

 

Germain was born in Uppsala in 1974, to a Swedish mother and Afro-Caribbean Canadian father. She is a multidisciplinary artist who has been active in the art scene for years. She is interested in history and archives, and uses various mediums in her practice including performance. Starting her career as a blacksmith in the 90s, primarily making artisanal objects with metal and iron, she swiftly found her way to visual art. Her eye has always been aware of power, and her subjectivity has led her to many complex investigations. In our conversation, time immediately became anachronistic, with us travelling to the lives of our ancestors—their beauty, sophistication and systems, to the violence of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the effects of neoliberalism, and the state of affairs in the present day. “With the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe/the Western world, there is no time to question the extent of one’s Blackness. We are connected.” She affirmed me, a restless migrant, and held my hand as we explored the intricacies of producing and ‘being’ in Sweden.

 

Cecilia Germain’s performance Josephine’s House at Uppsala Konstmuseum November 15th 2018. Photo: Uppsala Konstmuseum/Pär Fredin.

 

Going back to her time at Konstfack, Stockholm in the early 2000s as the only Black student, she recalls walking the halls and feeling a strong sense of alienation. As a young woman who carved her own path she was initially drawn to gender and sexuality studies, but at night time she found herself getting lost for hours on the internet, searching for a deeper understanding of herself through Black studies. She simply did not exist in the curriculum as both Black and woman, and had to forge her own space. One of Germain’s earliest works, Survival strategies and Escape attempts, inspired by her independent research, took bravery to realise. It centres a fictional character who resembles her father, trying to unshackle himself from the bounds of his body but also stopped by the same body. She was inspired to construct the work from conversations with her Black cousins who lived in Canada. Constantly profiled, stopped, questioned and delayed by the police, one of them got fired from his job for always being late. The work comprises of photographs, objects, and historic and contemporary written texts. The work was met with fear, and handled as a provocation. How was it possible that she dared to claim agency? How could she question that which is deliberately, systematically left unquestioned?

 

In Germain’s work, there is poignant understanding of the psychosis of slavery, colonialism and the global economy, and how it eats at the Black body, how it slowly corrodes. In her performance, How to carry white men no. 3/Brown woman carrying white men/Big Mama’s Last Lullaby, she centres Black women, as women who have had to carry burdens throughout history. Displaying strength and fragility, she sits on a chair next to a bed. She gazes into the audience and takes her time, then approaches, with a slow and controlled gait. She physically picks white men in the audience from their seats, one at a time, puts them on her shoulder and places them on the bed. Unbeknownst to the audience, she starts burying these white bodies in the bed, one sheet at a time, calmly then violently, until every limb is covered with no trace of human life. Speaking to her about the performance, I feel shivers on my skin, as I connect with the emotionality of the work. In her words, she explains that How to carry white men no. 3/Brown woman carrying white men/Big Mama’s Last Lullaby is a deeply personal exorcism, an exploration and meditation on what is projected onto the Black/Brown female body. Going back to the archives, she questions the mythical construction of Black/Brown women through colonial texts; as exotic/sexual/inherently strong/maternal, and how it is still etched in contemporary imaginations. She goes further to remind us that Black/Brown women all over the world are the number one producers of material wealth in the Global economy, but remain the lowest paid. In majority white societies, medical research shows a correlation between the increase in ailments such as heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure, and being persecuted by racist structures, she explains to me. As of 2016, Germain has been spending time on consciously constructing new strategies of survival and healing. Her subsequent work, The Difficulty of Carrying White Men came out of the realisation that her body was now too weary to physically and symbolically carry white men. She now purposefully utilises technologies of refusal, control and obstruction in her performances.

 

Cecilia Germain is not done with digging into the archives and reminding Sweden of its colonial past, and I am just getting started. To construct a fecund visual art landscape of multiplicity and complexity, is to understand, acknowledge and deal with history.

 

1. https://zaglossus.eu/publikationen/alle/anticolonial-fantasies?isorc=1
2. https://kunstkritikk.se/den-svenska-exceptionalismens-blinda-flack/
3. ibid.
4. Suvi Keskinen, Salla Tuori, Sara Irni, and Diana Mulinari, Complying with Colonialism : Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Nordic Region, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009