Sitting on my mother’s lap, Anse Royale, Mahé, Seychelles, early 1970s.
Moving Histories is a research project initiated by Dr Yvette Greslé. Yvette is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow, Global Excellence Stature Fellowship, Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg. Yvette is based in London and works between London and Johannesburg. Moving Histories builds on the research and writing archived and published on my blog writing in relation, and the research undertaken for my PhD dissertation, University College London (2015), which I have subsequently begun to publish.
Reflecting the ethics of feminist epistemology, my readings are ‘situated knowledge’. Understanding is always partial, perspectival and inflected by the social formation and personal histories of the researcher. This is not, however, an excuse for relativism. Research is answerable to its subjects. Based on evidence, any analysis must make clear the grounds of the argument. I cannot pretend to a false universalism, neutrality or detachment – Griselda Pollock (2013: preface).
Feminist theory taught me that the universal is what needs to be exploded …. You blink and the world reappears: clarity can feel magical. For me reading feminist theory was a series of continuous clicks – Sara Ahmed (2017: 29).
A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art. This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority – Rebecca Solnit (2014: 101).
Visual images can hold historical, political and affective power. They are sites of psychic projection and violence as much as they can be mobilised for their critical and transformative capacities. I am interested in the political and ethical questions raised in relation to how it is each of us engage in processes of looking, listening, writing and reading. I work very deliberately from the experiential and intellectual space of my own situatedness as I encounter art and its histories. Questions of visibility/invisibility, of erasure and negation, of who speaks for whom and how, the ethics and politics present in image-making, and the ethics and politics present in how histories are constituted are major preoccupations.
The objectives of Moving Histories are multivalent and multisited. Moving Histories sets out to explore how artists encounter history and memory through the moving image as art. It takes into account how moving images, and their particular visual vocabularies and languages, enter the work of artists who define their practice through a specific medium such as photography, sculpture or painting. I am engaged by the connections between moving images and media such as performance, sound, photography, painting, drawing, sculpture and object-based installation. I consider how artists grapple with History and Memory imagined here through historical events and figures; archives; memories; places; cultural forms; emotions and affects; or identities. The internal worlds of moving images and their temporal, sonic, spatial, sensate and affective capacities are points of focus. The artist’s relationship to her particular creative and research processes, and her exploration of media and materials, is also emphasised.
Underpinned by the ethics of feminist, anti-racist and queer thought, Moving Histories is conceived of as a space for thinking about the inheritances, experiences, feelings and affects attached to the after-lives of historical violence and its iterations in the world today. This site is open to multiple perspectives and points of view but within the ambit of my own ethical position. This is sketched here and is informed by my own life experience and subjectivity; and the literature and scholarship that is meaningful to me. In this sense, this is a historiographic project framed by an ethical position formulated over a sustained period of time through my subjective and personal experience of the political conditions and geographies into which I was born and that have shaped me: apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa (as a subject classified white by the apartheid administration); the colonial and post-colonial conditions of the Indian Ocean (emerging from British and French colonialism) and, more recently, the historical-political conditions of the northern hemisphere and the United Kingdom more specifically (through the lens of migration from the Global South).
I am alert to the entanglements of gender and race across historical-geographical sites. I am also personally affected by my lived experience of white South African spaces within which I began to see (before I had a language to articulate what it is I saw and felt) that there are hierarchies and gradations of whiteness. I experienced how, within worlds circumscribed by white supremacy, racial ambiguity can be projected and mobilised to diminish and dehumanise both consciously and unconsciously. These personal experiences enabled me to see what I might otherwise not have seen and, in particular, they brought me to my interest in the more opaque and insidious forms of racial violence. I draw on the work of Sara Ahmed who, writing on institutions, conceives of whiteness as a “phenomenological issue”: “Whiteness could be described as an ongoing and un-finished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space” (2007:150). Ahmed’s theoretical, political and ethical project provides me with a language through which to articulate my own weighted relationship to the past as a historian, and as a gendered and racialised subject. The past is unfinished and my body, constituted as white by the historical, political and social, is not an invisible, unseen presence in the historical-ethical project in which I choose to participate. The work of Christina Sharpe (2007, 2016), which mobilises personal narrative, literary texts, artworks and archival materials, underpins my conception of racism’s violence in relation to historical, personal and cross-generational trauma. Sharpe’s exploration of racism, gender and sexuality; and racial violence made ordinary (across historical, political and geographical sites) provides me with a language to articulate what I have witnessed as a subject classified white by a white supremacist state: “everyday mundane horrors that aren’t acknowledged to be horrors” (2007). The feminism that has been most influential to me, particularly through my reading of Sara Ahmed, and her theoretical and historical sources, considers the heterogeneity of experience and the politics and power relations that have staked a claim on asserting which bodies can and can’t be fully human and citizen.
It was only after my migration from the Global South almost a decade ago that I began to write about the work of artists situated (historically, socially and politically) in the northern hemisphere. As a consequence of living in the United Kingdom, new spaces for research, thinking and writing have opened up for me, and I have become increasingly interested in artists who exhibit here (across geographies). Moving Histories is a site for documenting and sharing new research.
Ahmed, S. 2007. “A phenomenology of whiteness”. Feminist Theory 8:149, 149-168, p.150.
Ahmed, S. 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; 2nd Revised Edition.
Ahmed, S.2014. Willful Subjects. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Ahmed, S. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Bennett, J. 2005. Empathic vision: affect, trauma and contemporary art. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Greslé, Y.M. 2015. Precarious video: historical events, trauma and memory in South African video art (Jo Ractliffe, Penny Siopis, Berni Searle, Minnette Vári). Doctoral thesis, UCL (University College London).
Morrison, T. 1993. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. London and Basingstoke: Picador. (First published in 1992, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press).
Pollock, G. 2013. After-affects/after-images: trauma and aesthetic transformation in the
virtual feminist museum. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Parker, R. and Pollock, G. 1981. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
Sharpe, C. 2007. Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Sharpe, C. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Solnit, R. 2014. “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”, 2009. In Men Explain Things to Me (And Other Essays). Great Britain: Granta Books, pp. 85-106.
Ware, V. 1992, 2015. Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History. London and New York: Verso.
Wekker, G. 2016. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
© Yvette Greslé and the Moving Histories Research Project (initiated 2016). Any material used for any purpose must only be reproduced with the permission of the author and must follow ethical citation practice.
This project aims to develop into publications, exhibitions and collaborative initiatives with others.
Image credit: From Conrad Ventur’s filmic memory work following the death of New York based artist Kathleen White. Conrad Ventur, 200 1st Avenue (2014-2016), 41 minutes, 15 seconds ©2016 the artist. All rights reserved. Copy of the video and still images courtesy the artist and ROKEBY gallery (London).