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'Into the Mind of the Coloniser': In Conversation with Adelaide Damoah

On Thursday 28 March, British-Ghanaian artist Adelaide Damoah will present ‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’, in the Virginia Woolf Room of the Mary Ward House in London. The performance is part of a three-day event organised by Open Space entitled ‘Forum: Of Hosts & Guests’. Throughout the evening, the audience will read aloud with Damoah, reciting passages from nineteenth-century instruction manuals written for colonisers. Slowly, the artist will be cut from her Ghanaian funeral dress, revealing her bare skin painted red like dried blood. She will then coat herself in shea butter and create an imprint of her form upon the manuals – the shadow of the past upon the present.

The somatic focus of Damoah’s practice is interesting given her background in applied biology and expertise in pharmaceutical sales, as well as her history of chronic illness. ‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’ takes the human body as its focal point in its response to the contemporary discourse on decolonisation. As the site of colonial violence, the body has the power to recall past traumas and heal old wounds; to represent one’s ancestry and anticipate one’s legacy. On the 28thof March, Damoah will ask for our participation. We will bear witness to the present as she pays her respects to the past, and take these lessons into the future.

I sat down with Damoah to learn more about her upcoming performance this Thursday, and to delve more deeply into the many threads that weave through her work. Below are excerpts from our conversation:

Portrait of Adelaide Damoah in traditional Ghanaian funeral dress which will form part of her performance ‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’ (Image: Jennifer Moyes)

CH: How did you come to be involved with Open Space?

AD: I have known the guest curator, Katherine Finerty, for a few years, and she invited me to work on this project. Huma Kabackı [founder of Open Space] attended my solo show last year – we follow each other on Instagram – and Halime Ozdemir [International Visual Arts Director & PR Manager of Open Space] works with me at MTArt Agency. I am not sure who decided to approach me. We were all connected and it worked out this way, which is fantastic.

Is ‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’ a work that you conceptualized prior to your involvement with Open Space? When did you first discover the colonisers’ texts that inspired this performance?

I found the colonisers’ texts – which are, in fact, digitally scanned out of print books – quite by accident on eBay. I have several search terms set up and a few of them are specifically related to Britain’s colonial history. Every now and then books, objects, photographs, maps and stamps come up which are of interest and I buy them. I am never really sure of exactly what I will do with them, but I am always confident that their utility will be revealed with time.

The out-of-print books came on a CD ROM and the seller claimed to have 204, rare, out-of-print British Empire books about our military and colonial history on it. It cost me £4.65 in the summer of 2018. I had been wanting to explore Britain’s colonial history [in] Ghana for quite some time and knew that this would be an interesting place to start. The desire to explore this subject seriously in my work was initiated when I found a photo of my great-grandmother holding my grandmother as a baby in 1920 – during the colonial era. I knew that these books had the potential to provide a lifetime of material and I knew I wanted to make work around [them] using video (reading), performance and the use of the text as background for body prints.

When Katherine sent me the brief for Open Space and I read about the reference to Albert Camus’s L'Hôte [an overarching theme in this edition of Forum], and its contextualization in light of the colonial conflict in French North Africa, I was immediately reminded of the texts I found – which then got the ball rolling for the development of the idea and everything fell into place after that.

‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’ by Adelaide Damoah

From what I have read about your work, I understand that you are wary of the discourse around the decolonisation of culture, and whether the mindset that engendered colonization has truly changed. Can you talk more about that?

I am not a scholar on the subject of decolonisation…I have an interest in the subject purely as a reasonably politically-engaged citizen who is also the daughter of people who were alive when present-day Ghana was a British possession. We live in a society which is still shaped by imperial power structures. I am referring to society as a whole when talking about decolonising culture. Is culture not the distillation of the customs, ideas, knowledge, and social norms of a people? The art world is a part of that. When we talk about decolonising in the context of the art world, we are often referring to the inclusion of the stories of the “other,” and about issues of representation – the importance of seeing oneself represented in popular culture.

But I am also talking about decolonising the mind (the title of Wa Thiong’o’s book which was the catalyst for much thought and published work on the decolonisation of the African mind). Gaining knowledge, knowledge of self (whatever your identity is) and understanding of our colonial past so that we can understand our present. The “de” in decolonising is not about the removal of anything as far as I am concerned, it is about understanding so that past mistakes are not repeated while at the same time including multiple perspectives which are relevant to where we are today. It is about placing multiple perspectives in dialogue with each other while simultaneously understanding and acknowledging the past and its impact on our present and potential futures.

There also seems to be a very logical, scientific element to your approach. We have not evolved much in the years since colonisation, though we claim to hold different morals. Has your scientific background contributed to your line of inquiry as an artist?

I think my scientific background has had a marked impact on my approach to many things in life. I think when you are trained well in a particular way of thinking early on, it shapes and colours the way you look at things in future.

Speaking of science, chronic illnesses affect the way a person relates to their body. Do you think experiencing endometriosis contributed to your arts practice centring your own body as a tool?

Yes! I used to obsessively relate to my own body and specifically my womb in a very direct way in my art. Presently, using my body feels like reclaiming my body from my own condition. Like taking back control. Agency. However, ironically, it is the condition that brought me to art as a career in the first place. I am painfully aware of my body because of my condition and do my best to stay healthy with diet and exercise. I have to be reasonably strong to do the work that I do. The endometriosis informs so many areas of my life. None more so than my artistic practice.

‘A Person Alone Hurts’ (‘Ɔbaako yɛ ya’) by Adelaide Damoah (Image: Todd White)

Prior to your medical diagnosis of endometriosis, had you explored art-making at all? Were you an artistic child?

I was a very artistic child! My earliest recollection of an art project was when I was around six years old. Funnily enough, it was a silhouette of my own head, which is funny when you think about how I work now! Art and science were my two favourite subjects at GCSE level, and it was in those subjects that I always scored my highest grades. After I left secondary school, I continued to create what I considered to be works of art as a hobby and as a comfort in times of stress or pain. Art has been a retreat and a healing tool for me for as long as I can remember.

I have also heard the term ‘Sankofa’ used in reference to your work. What is its significance?

Sankofa is a word in Twi – the language of the Akan people of Ghana – which translates to something approximating “go back and get it.” There is a longer proverb associated with the word which means something like, “it is not wrong to go back and fetch that which you have forgotten.” That which you have forgotten relates to the past. History. The proverb teaches us that it is important to learn from our past in order to understand the present and to build a fruitful future.

Is the original proverb a common one? Is this a term you grew up hearing or is it more literary, something you came across later in your research?

Yes, it is very common. I don’t remember when I first heard the term. I feel like I have always known it, but I only started to think about it and relate to it in the way I do now in around 2005 when I started making art about social issues. The Sankofa proverb is represented by a symbol which belongs to a group of ancient Akan symbols called the Adinkra symbols. They all represent different proverbs. The Sankofa symbol is represented most commonly by a bird turning its head to pick up a precious egg from its back whilst its feet are facing forward. When I started working as an artist in 2005, I was looking for a Ghanaian symbol to connect my work to my heritage. I think that is when I really adopted Sankofa as a principle… and I started to embody it more consciously in the last three or four years.

How will you utilize ‘Sankofa’ in your performance?

This performance is all about the concept of Sankofa for me, in that I am intentionally reading about a past – which for my ancestors was painful – but from the perspective of the people who colonised the land of my ancestors. I will do this in a very direct way, by reading from the colonial texts and by imprinting the present onto them using my own hands. The whole performance is an enactment of the concept for me.

What do you hope that viewers/participants will gain experiencing your performance?

A little understanding of the past and perhaps some empathy for those who are not like them.

Do you think that the performative element of your work lends itself to a stronger emotional connection with the viewer?

My performances certainly provoke an immediate and more direct response than my studio work, so you may be right. I have witnessed people crying and having to sit down to take a breath during performances, which could only be seen as a strong emotional connection – certainly a strong emotional response.

Could you also tell me about Black British Female Artists Collective? What is your involvement with the BBFA?

I am a founding member of the Collective. The BBFA as the brainchild of my sister-friend Enam Gbewonyo. I think many black British female artists were feeling marginalised and left out in the cold when it came to discussions about African/black art in this country due to the significant increase in interest in the African continent and its artistic output in recent years. British women have been historically left out in the art world and we have all sorts of statistics to support this and black women simply did not even feature at the time we were looking into this. Enam, therefore, reached out to myself and six other artists to form the collective. We believe that together, we can help to establish a path and a platform for ourselves that allows us to engage with the art world in meaningful ways in order to help establish sustainable careers. Our plan is to eventually open up the collective with incubator and mentorship programmes so that we can replicate the mechanisms and paths we have used to develop our respective careers through leveraging our contacts and relationships with institutions, galleries and other artists to help those coming up behind us.

Where has the BBFA exhibited so far?

To date, we have participated in multiple projects nationally and internationally, including a group show with Tafeta Gallery, Bisi Silva’s Gallery of Small Things in Lagos and Dak’art Biennale, a number of panel discussions and symposiums including with South London Gallery, a partnership with the Tate Schools and Teachers programme, an Arts Council funded cross-cultural programme with Nubuke Foundation in Ghana and a conference with Adidas at their headquarters in Berlin and America. All of these projects have exposed us as a collective and as individual artists to institutions and contacts which might otherwise have been difficult to access as individual artists. We are stronger as a collective than alone.

I’m curious about Adidas, because I have seen them partner in London recently with several queer artists and artists of colour. What was it like working with them?

Adidas were a joy to work with! Enam and I were flown to Portland in the USA and Carleen to Herzogenaurach in Germany. The events were happening simultaneously. We got to meet some really wonderful and talented people and were even given merchandise (shoes) to take home. The company is very multicultural, and they have an employee networking group for black and minority ethnic people called Progressive Soles. We met some of the members and had a fireside chat/presentation with them which was very cool. The event was quite big, and they flew in some interesting speakers from other countries.

Going back to your remark on the popularity of African artists from the continent – why do you think collectors have expressed interest in their work?

The recent interest in African art is intoxicating and exciting, but African artists existed before the Western world started taking interest in them. There is this glorious mix of modernist art made in response to the post-colonial era in the mid-twentieth-century, and fresh, new, exciting talent from all over Africa. The range of voices serves to amplify the fact that Africa is not a homogenous mass – there are 54 countries with rich and varied cultures. Innovative artists, thinkers and curators, like the recently passed Okwui Enwezor, have been fighting for African art to be seen in dialogue with, rather than in opposition to, the Western art canon for decades. Anyone who knows a little bit of history knows how deeply intertwined our histories are.

There are new museums like Macaal in Morocco, the newly opened Zeitz Museum in Cape Town, 1:54 Art Fair (London, New York, and Marrakesh) and various galleries, which have contributed significant venues for African art in the Western world as well as in Africa. These types of venues attract international collectors. In any case, the African market still only represents a tiny proportion of the global art market. Analysts said in previous years that the Asian market was slowing, and that African art was starting to fill the void. However, China has just taken over the UK as the second largest market worldwide according to the Art Market 2018 report. I am no analyst, but I can see that the art market is a complex one and the rules of this business dictate that collectors are attracted to what is seen to be selling and to what could potentially go up in value. Capitalism is at play here as well as all of the above.

Portrait of Adelaide Damoah in traditional Ghanaian funeral dress which will form part of her performance ‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’ (Image: Jennifer Moyes)

Since you began your arts practices and founded BBFA, do you feel that there has been an improvement in the recognition of black female artists in England? What do you see as the strongest barriers for representation in the art world?

Since the collective formed in 2015, we have seen Lubaina Himid win the Turner Prize, and Sonia Boyce and Lynette Yiadom Boakye gain more prominence – but this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless black British female artists who are doing amazing work and are not getting the accolades or the opportunities of their white counterparts. As women, we still have a hell of a lot to fight for in the art world and I do feel like things are changing slowly, in part due to the consciousness-raising that continues to happen through the formation of collectives up and down the country and through the activities of associations like AWITA (Association of Women in the Arts London). More women are installed in positions of power within institutions. But we need to see more women of colour gaining prominence as curators and decision makers to widen the conversation and move things along significantly. There are significant problems in our institutions when it comes to representation.

I am from New York, and what I see there is that so many major galleries prefer to show artists with an MFA, which serves as a major barrier to entry. A lot of taste is also determined by older, white, male investors with obvious racial and gender prejudices. Are these common problems in London too?

I have personally experienced this issue in London and yes, a lot of taste is determined by older white male investors and gatekeepers so it follows that the experiences and achievements of this group would filter into their decision-making processes. This is why decolonisation is such an important topic as this narrative can only be changed by widespread education and active decolonisation processes in all of our institutions. Again, not to remove any one narrative, but to include the perspectives of “others” in our narratives and to show more about the colonial context in which much of our cultural output has been and continues to be produced. In this country, and indeed, across the world – as Britain colonised 24% of the Earth’s total land area – much of what we have in common, regardless of social class, race, gender or sexuality, is the British Empire. It is the foundation upon which our multiple and varied identities have been built. All of us seem to have some degree of collective amnesia when it comes to what the empire represented and to what its legacy is today. Whether that is people who believe everything about the Imperial era was great or people who seem to have forgotten that many of the people they see as foreigners came from previously colonised countries precisely because of that relationship with their land.

To be clear, when talking about decolonising, I am not just talking about being included or being legitimized by white-led institutions – which is very often dependent on looking at things from a colonial context – in terms of the oppressed vs. the oppressor. I am talking about genuine discourse, knowledge and understanding, such that the work of black and minority artists is not just looked at and spoken about through the prism of their difference/identity – i.e. race, gender etc. It is about a wide-ranging, deep, nuanced investigation of and representation of all of the complexities of the stories and work of “other” artists in the same way as their white peers and this can only really, genuinely be done if things are radically changed from the inside.

Adelaide Damoah will present ‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’ this coming Thursday, March 28 from 18.30-21.00. Register here to reserve your place:

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