Curatorial Intensive alumna Marisol Rodríguez reflects on her exhibition silence, murmur, clamour, tumult: ZAM ZAM chapter four, opening as part of the 13th Dak’Art Biennale.
Image: Video still. "FLIP COIN TEN VIDEO", 100 min, video, color, sound. Courtesy of MID51.
In 1956, forty-six honeybee queens from South Africa and Tanzania were taken to Brazil as part of a project aimed at creating better breeding stock for local beekeepers. After having accidentally escaped in 19571, one queen bee went on to colonize the entire bee population of South and Central America, displacing the “local” European breeds with an aggressive and highly migrating hybrid of “Africanized” bees.
As their advance from Mexico into the United States became imminent in the late 1980s, the bees’ origins became intertangled with the epoch’s politics of sensationalism to create a flood of popular culture2 that, reviewed today, recounts the anxiety surrounding the so-called “killer bees’” relentless colonization of America.
Today, they are back in their symbolic homeland, and their buzzing, originally recorded in Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize, 1.73 miles from the Guatemalan border, surrounds us in the first floor of the Théodore-Monod Museum of African Arts in Dakar, Senegal. The sound is divided into a four channel installation that marks the perimeter of what is “silence, murmur, clamour, tumult: ZAM ZAM chapter four,” the presentation by MID51, a group of artists and workers of all trades I’m curating as part of the 13th Dak’Art Biennale. The buzz brings the place together, and the bees’ extraordinary journey and uncontrollable nature serve as a rich analogy for the myriad and ever-morphing links between two continents, some of which have been explored as part of the present curatorial and artistic research.
This text is a glimpse of that project, the preparations for which could be dated back to my first visit to Dakar in May 2016 for the Curatorial Intensive that took place at Raw Material Company, right before the end of the last Biennale. Feeling electrified by what I experienced while there3, I came back home to devour the literature from the African diaspora, recognizing there how similar, and at the same time how distinctive our recent stories and the strategies we use to approach them are, from a Latin American standpoint. Recognizing too how I agreed and yet was also, by the words of those same writers, encouraged to interrogate contemporary counter narratives to the colonial machine based on a cultural exaltation of ethnicity. This urge to navigate present-day identities in our post-colonial societies (residually colonial) drove me to find my own image in the many mirrors of literature and art.
I accepted Simon Njami’s invitation to be a guest curator for the 13th Biennale wholeheartedly despite the challenging conditions4. His general theme, “l’Heure Rouge” (The Red Hour) set a combative tone, implying a discourse associated to that of négritude (but knowing Njami’s work, suggesting also a highly critical stand to that very concept), and referencing a color linked with action, rebellion and blood. The presentation that opened on May 4th 2018 is full of hints and suggestions in tune with this energy but loaded with the unapologetic criticality of the MID51 team and the intensity of the thoughts and realities coming out of that gargantuan vortex of history, the HURRICANE ZONE.
Greetings from di zone
The Yucatan Peninsula, home of MID515, stands 4,701.91 miles in a straight line to the west of Dakar. To get there, you would need to travel beyond the Cape Verde islands, the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the southernmost tip of Cuba. If this imaginary itinerary rings a bell, it is because this was in part one of the most infamously successful trading routes in history. It was the route of millions of human lives snatched from Africa and beyond from 1501 until slave trade officially ceased in Cuba in 1886. In preparation for the inevitable, from 1847 to 1874 Cuban planters brought in 142,000 Chinese indentured workers to their sugar plantations. Thousands of the original people of the Yucatan peninsula and over 40,000 laborers from the Canary Islands were also shipped to Cuba, and since 1839 laborers from Malta, Madeira, India and even Japan were shipped to the Caribbean and South America to replace the growing number of emancipated slaves6. This is the complex genealogy of the diaspora that inhabits the Caribbean today, one whose very cultural, religious and pigmentary fluidity escapes any attempts of labeling or pigeonholing, including those of post-colonial theory. These complexities are often too ample to even mention, creating a partial image of what constitutes the African diaspora in the Caribbean, one which is visible only in the measure that it has remained somehow “intact” and intrinsically linked by language to its original, external, oppressor (i.e. Jamaica, Martinique, etc.).
While human trafficking from Africa was banned in the late 19th century, systems of exploitation perfected by wealthy criollos and European industrials continued to operate throughout the continent, Yucatan being a shining star of this “progress” due to the worldwide demand for yaxqui7, a raw material harvested by Mayan slaves (sons and daughters of those who had resisted colonization for 170 years and were then completely subdued), confined for generations to life and death inside (much Instagrammed) haciendas henequeneras8.
Starting in June every year, the same Atlantic currents that pushed the first colonial veils towards the Caribbean continue to send violent hurricanes to the region, whose currents infallibly form in the warm winds of the Senegalese coast. Lifting swirls of fine Saharan sand, they travel across the globe, waiting to unleash its accumulated force over towns already devastated by colonization and contemporary corruption.
This meteorological coincidence and the image it provides is a central metaphor of the research, reflected simply in the conceptual environment conceived for the Biennale, constituted by the mentioned sound installation of recorded Africanized bees in Central America, and a number of iron structures welcoming visitors to a visual and sound experience.
Image: Detail of "di zone." Newspapers, the most utilitarian and universal of objects, are a leitmotif in the presentation. Courtesy of MID51.
For ZAM | ZAM, a six-chapter project by MID51, it is the certainty of the cyclical destruction that the hurricane ensures that feeds their artistic and social practice:
“The HURRICANE ZONE [HZ] is a philosophical and political concept that reflects the passing of a destructive force through a geographical area, one that consumes, digests and vomits in its path, leaving behind crumbled infrastructures, destroyed natural resources and the displacement of people. quick recovery is futile, for as soon as one leaves, another passes through.”9
According to the project’s definition (or A-B-C in their own vocabulary), the first event to define the current identity of the HURRICANE ZONE was the sudden invasion of Spanish colonialism 500 years ago:
“Since then a series of hurricanes has swept through the region, including British, French and Dutch colonialism, and most recently, U.S. imposition and domination. And yet from the eye of the ZONE, BELIZE connects the isthmus with the islands of the CARIBBEAN and gradually generates its own energy and counter force through artistic tactics and attitudes.”10
It is crucial to explicitly stress that, despite being a multi-national team operating from Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula, the group’s demarcation is that of the HURRICANE ZONE, an area with whose past they establish an interpellative dialogue, allowing them to pin down their regional colonial past and present in acknowledgement of the fact that the establishment of servitude and submission to European colonizers was not abolished but institutionalized by the locals after each of the disparate independence movements in the region: from the early independence of Haiti (1804) to the relatively recent independence of Belize from the British Empire (1981). The recognition of this inescapable reality (and perhaps inescapably dooming) and the critical revaluation and recovery of the many exceptions it contains is the group’s lifeline.
Paraphrasing Andreas Malm, both metaphoric and literally, it is in dialogue with that past, about which nothing can by definition be done, that the future hurricane originates.11
Image: Detail of production of metal furniture in Dakar. Courtesy of MID51.
NEEX NA BARI NA
Participating in this event demanded introspection and self-criticality to acknowledge the Biennial’s history, its ambitions and the often-questionable relationships most events alike establish with the diverse communities12 to which they impose their discourses and terms of (alleged) dialogue. The curatorial choice of engaging with MID51 to produce in Dakar their fourth chapter reflects a will to cultivate an ongoing practice instead of performing a mere transplantation of contexts. However, we are aware that, as a footprint set in sand, the impact of this chapter in Dakar is ephemeral, as it's the nature of most biennials unless they establish structures allowing the continuation of exchanges initiated extraordinarily within the margins of an international event.
Considering these and other challenges posed by, amongst others, almost total lack of institutional funding and support13, the artists and I tried to impose as little as possible to the local context, developing works that were neither aesthetically, nor technically, out of place; acknowledging the imperfections of the building and the materials already used locally and integrating them into the works and the general mise en scène; indeed trying to create at every step a whole that was simultaneously though-provoking, digestible (if never literal or didactical) and feasible. The weighting of its success requires distance, of course, but as a process it has already been hugely enriching.
l’Heure rouge and all the experiences surrounding it constitute thus a new node which MID51 connects with their ample, existing tiling. By contrasting the cultural nationalism of négritude (as established by Cesaire, Senghor and Damas) to the political ideology and astonishing actions of the intellectuals seeking emancipation, respect and justice in early 20th century Yucatan (like Elvia Carrillo Puerto, her brother Felipe Carillo Puerto and José de la Luz Mena14, with whose revolutionary ideas about Mayan emancipation, workers rights, women’s rights and education ZAM ZAM has engaged with deeply in the previous chapters of their project), the contours of a critique have been established. The many questions, reactions and even emotions it provokes are present in a laboriously produced environment that invites their urgent discussion inside (and outside) the Théodore-Monod Museum.
Image: Untitled (Yucatecan-made simple metal instrument to make corn tortillas + Senegalese coin). Size: 49 x 70 cm. Recycled newsprint US-made paper printed on 1932 Heildelberg press, plotter and silkscreen. 2017-2018. Courtesy of MID51.
Another element of the presentation is the 100-minute film FLIP COIN TEN VIDEO, the tenth of MID51’s hundred-film project, which will premiere at the French Institute in Dakar on May 4th. During this premiere there will be an open conversation with the curator and the artists Sara Martínez, Joan Duran and Moisés Martínez, who will be present in Dakar.15
Back inside the Museum, the sounds of much-misunderstood Africanized bees will accompany the viewers into their own experience of the HURRICANE ZONE, connecting past and present, east and west. For some visitors, the works will be like powerful stings, painfully benign inoculations of thought; for others, the images and questions will be little more than the fleeting buzz of a bee as it passes you by.
1. Camazine, Scott, and Roger A. Morse. "The Africanized Honeybee: The Epithet “Killer Bee" Is Undeserved." American Scientist 76, no. 5 (1988): 464-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27855385.
2. Take as example the films The Killer Bees or The Swarm; or a bizarre comedy sketch in Saturday Night Live in which fat “Killer Bees” (picture John Belushi) break in a suburban home branding knives, wearing sombreros and speaking with Mexican accents; or better, Swarm, a supervillain appeared in Marvel comics in 1977, whose body is entirely composed of killer-bees. His original body was that of the Nazi scientist Fritz von Meyer who, after World War II escaped to South America where he became a beekeeper, discovering a colony of mutated bees that ultimately killed him and created with his body an intangible extermination machine with a Nazi-conscience.
3. See my “Report: Curatorial Intensive in Dakar” http://curatorsintl.org/research/report-curatorial-intensive-in-dakar
4. These deserve a text on their own and perhaps some distance, but its fair to openly state that I was invited without a budget and the support from the biennale can be described as uneven at best. This in turn forced me to develop an economic strategy (yet to be proved successful) to see the completion of an ambitious project that without a significant investment and the help of friends and colleagues couldn’t have been possible. In this sense the words of Andrea Ancira come to mind on the precarious conditions we place ourselves in as independent curators: http://curatorsintl.org/research/report-curatorial-intensive-in-new-orleans-2017
5. An arts and crafts team whose members fluctuate from project to project. For ZAM ZAM chapter four as in the previous 3, dozens of people have participated and actively worked in multiple capacities, among them Moisés Martínez, Joan Duran, Vania Sosa, Omar Said, Fabián Arriola, Pedro Castro, Alex Castilla, Miguel Pérez, Caryana Castillo, Lizzet Ortíz, Carmen Gallardo, Sara Martínez, and Ingrith León as shown in the triptych/catalogue printed for this and each chapter; these people constituted a network between Belize City and Benque Viejo del Carmen in Belize; Ibiza and Barcelona in Spain; Montreal, Canada; Geneva, Switzerland; Merida and Mexico City, Mexico; and Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic.
To fully understand the scope of MID51’s actions, submerge into their web-based work, created as a stimulating flux of images and statements expressed with poetic economy, better viewed on a desktop computer. Start at: https://www.mid51.com/ ; www.duazamzam.com
A simple introduction to Joan Duran’s remarkable previous work is: http://curatorsintl.org/posts/mapping_central_america_belize
6. Marable, Manning. “African & Caribbean Politics: from Kwame Nkrumah to Maurice Bishop.” Verso, London, 1987: 12-13.
7. Yaxqui, in the original Mayan, also known in Mexico as henequen, world-wide known as Sisal, the name of the port in Yucatan from which ships loaded with the raw material departed.
8. Production that, after having devastated the Yucatan Peninsula, moved to Tanzania. Kapwani Kiwanga did an excellent exploration of this subject in her project “Ujamaa”, about which I wrote here: http://www.dailyserving.com/2016/09/kapwani-kiwanga-ujamaa/
9. ZAM ZAM’s ABC: https://www.duazamzam.com/a-b-c.html - It should be noted that hurricanes are a healthy part of global weather balancing, reef life and Caribbean nature.
11. Malm, Andreas. “The Progress of this storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World.” Verso, London, 2018: 12.
12. Starting from the relationships established between the Biennale and its curators and artists.
13. Absolute lack of institutional support from the curator’s and the artist’s countries, except for the government of Belize, who kindly, if modestly, supported the team.
14. One hundred years ago, Yucatán was the epicentre of what was at the time Latin America’s most intense and innovative social movement, a widespread struggle for the vindication of Mayan culture and language, workers and women’s rights and education, to put it succinctly. Three figures stand out: Felipe Carrillo Puerto, governor or Yucatan from 1922-1924, year of his execution; his sister Elvia Carrillo Puerto, a feminist leader, elected in 1923 as a deputy for Yucatan in Congress; and José de la Luz Mena, precursor of the implantation of Rational Education in Yucatán, influenced by the Modern School of Francisco Ferrer I Guardia. ZAM ZAM has explored these important references of revolutionary thought and action from the HURRICANE ZONE in their previous chapters, as well as in the third chapter, one that will remain open and permanently on-going.
15. Due to a change in the Biennale's schedule, this event had to be cancelled last minute.