A ghost is haunting your museum: the ghost of the Black Copenhagen
Shadow Memories … a beautiful description of the way in which those colonial memories are like ghosts embodied in everything.
If you start looking for them you will see for yourself; quite easy. They are right here and everywhere. The shadow will always follow you around—just like history will always be a part of you, whether you want it or not.
Slavery flows all over the city…Black Copenhagen….Running through our veins no matter how hard they try to let those flows dry. That's why I speak in visual tongues, poetically shaking up from colonial amnesia…confronting the denial, and challenging the denial of the denial.
We need to lead from oral disruptions to visions and consciousness. A long process, yet a truly necessary one for me…for them.
I know I cannot save the world and that’s not my mission at all. But I might be able to help shape our understanding of it. I’m interested in including the entire (his)story. Driven by a deep urge to learn how to unlearn, speak the unspoken, to reveal the unrevealed, and to build up from there.
Jeannette Ehlers (2015)
The work of Jeannette Ehlers circles around the return of a phantasmagorical image: the image of the black slave as a revenant, as an abject specter whipping our smoothly postcolonial imagination with its non-presence. Turned into a shadow memory, the elusive image of the black revolution is recuperated by the lucid eye of this artist, born in Copenhagen and projected into the walls of the White Cube. Focused primarily on the way in which the Danish culture systematically represses its involvement with the transatlantic trade of black bodies, luxury commodities, and human labor, Ehlers’s installations galvanize our senses, inviting a cinematic revolt against collective oblivion. Tracing the colonial wounds inflicted by the transatlantic diaspora in the oral memories of her own father, a Trinidadian descendant of enslaved Africans, her installations could be described as a video-vodou invocation of the Haitian revolution[i]. Echoing the phantasmagorical return of communism alluded by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx, her work invokes the specters of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the struggle to the death between history and new forms of visual racism.
In the following I will approach Ehlers’s work from the point of view of hauntology, a concept coined by Derrida during the conferences that gave name to the abovementioned book. More specifically, I will elaborate on the cinematic strategies used by Ehlers in order to expand hauntology, that is, to rethink its scope as a mere academic discourse. In a nutshell, this introduction contends that the significance of Jeannette Ehlers’s installations rests upon her attempt to make visible a ghost fully neglected, or at least systematically overlooked, by deconstructionist hauntologers: the black slave as damné, as the radical non-being alluded to by Frantz Fanon in his major books Black Skin, White Masks ( Peau noire, masques blancs) and The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre). Imminent and latent, yet too abstract and never fully addressed in Specters of Marx, the figure of the black slave is instead the major presence inhabiting the cinematic installations produced in recent years by Jeannette Ehlers. In her videos, Ehlers performs her own invisibility, dancing like a ghost with a variety of specters. We could say thus with Marx that the specters of L’Ouverture are haunting not only Europe, but also the corridors bridging Denmark, the Caribbean, and the African Gold Cost.
As it is well known, Derrida’s hauntology derives from the exhumation of four foundational texts of Marxism: The Manifesto of the Communist Party, in which communism is presented as a specter haunting Europe; the first part of Capital, where Marx describes the phantasmagorical dimension of commodities; The Eighteenth Brumaire, when he links the essence of the French revolution with the ghost of Napoleon Bonaparte in order to explain the double appearance of history—the first time as tragedy, the second as parody; and finally, The German Ideology, when Marx turns himself into a dialectical materialist who paradoxically seems to “believe in ghosts.” Derrida states, “[Marx] has recognized [in Stirner] someone who, like him, appears obsessed by ghosts and by the figure of the ghost” (SM 174)..
In my view, The German Ideology offers the “ideal” scenario to embrace the problem of the black specter, that is, to connect deconstruction, Marxism, and racism. However, it seems to me that Derrida misses the opportunity to include the black specters of Marx in his own pantheon of deconstructionist ghosts. Now, in inviting the reader to abandon her or himself to the cinematic presence in absentia of the Haitian black revolution conjured by Ehlers, I do not intend a skeptical reading nor a tangential critique of Marxist deconstruction. Specters of Marx is without doubt a foundational text: it elaborates on the structural impasse of ontology, opening the Pandora’s box of postcolonial studies and calling into question the strategic essentialism associated with the subaltern subject. Our approach to this book is in fact much more modest: to amplify, so to speak, the spectrum of hauntology and to explore the interplays between phantasmagoria, visual culture, and racism in the work of an artist fully aware of the overlaps between hunted and haunting images. A brief digression on Karl Marx’s anti-Hegelianism and Max Stirner’s devotion to enumerating any form of spirits could be useful here to explain my point.
In the last chapter of Specters of Marx, symptomatically entitled “Apparition of the Inapparent,” Derrida brings to the discussion the problem of the ‘Negroid form’ (im negerhaften Zustande), a concept addressed by Marx to call into question Max Stirner’s, and by extension Hegel’s, idealism. Stirner uses this term to describe the lowest stage of the Hegelian spirit. In his attempt to turn idealism into a new form of egotistic economic liberalism, Stirner characterizes the ‘Negroid form’ as a thing-like spirit, as a childish stage of pure confusion. The ‘Negroid form’ is thus the opposite of the capitalized Absolute being: the pure white Caucasian thinker/owner. For Marx, Stirner is haunted, as the Young Hegelians are haunted, by Hegel’s lordship/bondage dialectics.
Marx mocks Stirner because of Stirner’s tendency to see in the self-consciousness of the slave not a liberating political act performed by concrete human beings in concrete material conditions, but rather the egotistic confirmation of the abstract idea of humankind. In Marx’s words, “From the fact that [Max Stirner] sees in the ‘liberation’ […] obtained ‘merely the consequence of his previous egoism’ […] it follows that he imagines that the insurgent Negroes of Haiti and the fugitive Negroes of all the colonies wanted to free not themselves, but ‘man’” (GI v. I, s. 3, The New Testament). [ii] The implications of this quote are twofold: whereas the figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture has to be inferred, its non-presence serves as proof of both the material existence of the revolt and the phantasmagoric recurrence of the black slave as a liberating ghost. In other words, what Marx points out in his critique of idealism is the fact that the specters of L’Ouverture are haunting not only Hegel’s silence on the Haitian revolution, but also Stirner’s elaborations on the ‘Negroid form’.
As I said before, Derrida traces this concept in order to emphasize the way in which Marx criticizes Stirner’s interest in ghosts as an obscurantist confusion lacking clarity: as “the night in which all cows are black” (SM 171).[iii] The ‘Negroid form’, asserts Derrida, “equals obscurantism plus occultism, mystery plus mysticism and mystification. Blackness is never far from the obscure and the occult. Spiritualism is but a spiritism” (SM 172). At this point, deconstruction seems to be ready for adding the figure of the black slave to the Marxist list of specters. Derrida, however, is concerned more with slavery as a concept rather than with the historical enslavement of African people and their descendants. Instead of connecting Hegel’s lordship/bondage dialectics with the slave insurrection initiated by Toussaint L’Ouverture in Saint-Domingue—as Susan Buck-Morss does in Hegel and Haiti and Sybille Fischer in Modernity Disavowed—Derrida seems to be mostly occupied with “the manner in which concepts ‘come onstage’ in the intuition” (SM 171).[iv]
In excavating the Marx-Stirner debate, what Derrida emphasizes is thus the enslavement of the mind: the abstract condition of our understanding of history, the self-enclosure of consciousness. “‘Negroid form’,” asserts Derrida, “might signal the enslavement of these pseudo-concepts that have no autonomy […]. These general concepts appear here first of all in the Negroid form as objective spirits having for people the character of objects […] and at this level are called specters or apparitions!” (SM 172). As this makes visible, the materialist dimension of slavery—the way in which Marx talks about the black revolts in the Caribbean as a liberating act of the body on the one hand, and the way in which he is devoted to give historical matter to the lordship/bondage dialectics on the other—is put aside in Specters of Marx.
This is not a real omission, but rather a problem of emphasis and intensities. In the same way that Hegel could not not know about the Haitian revolution when writing The Phenomenology of the Spirit, Derrida could not not be aware of the fact that enslavement is not a mere self-confinement of reason, but rather a historical institution and a machinery for the production of specters. To a certain extent, Derrida reduces the problem of the black slave revolt to a question of self-awareness, of discursive différance. In doing so, Derrida precludes a more radical reading of the black specters haunting Marxism, projecting the problem into the abyss of ontology. The same situation reappears when he links the foundations of the law to the ten categories of ghosts listed by Marx. Derrida asserts, “One might read the whole German Ideology as the inexhaustible gloss on this table of ghosts […] a Table of the law in ten parts, the specter of a Decalogue and a decalogue of specters” (SM 178). The list includes ghosts such as the spirit of the people and the being/essence, but their opposites—the phantasmagoria of the monster and the spectrality of the slave as a non-being—can only be inferred. Here again, the foundation of the law that interests Derrida seems to be the droits behind the French Revolution and the Declarations of Rights, rather than the proclamation of the Jacobin black new citizenry in Haiti.
In his attempt to amalgamate Marxism and deconstruction, Derrida turns the figure of the black slave as damné into a metonymy. The missing specter not at hand in Marx’s list is painted by Derrida as a mere concept: a ghost of ghosts, an eidolon, a mere idea with no body, a constitutive abjection in Marx’s obsession with ghosts. “[Marx] pretends to count off the specters on his fingers. For there would be ten of them, as if by chance. Marx only feigns to count them, he pretends to enumerate for he knows that one cannot count here. He intends precisely to give a demonstration of the innumerable […]. There is in sum, no doubt, but a single ghost, a ghost of ghosts, and it is but a concept, not even a concept, the obscure ‘Negroid’ presentation of a larger concept, more englobing than all the others, indeed it is but a name, a metonymy that lends itself to any and all substitutions” ( SM 173). Circumscribed to the liberating gesture of rereading Marx as the foundational myth of hauntology, Derrida circles back on the obscurity of the mind rather than on the dark side of modernity.
Unlike Derrida, whose concern with phantasmagoria seems to be exclusively discursive, the work of Jeannette Ehlers explores the site-specific screen as the sensible house of the revenant. In her work, the screen has a double meaning: it is the stage for representation, the place in which phantasms and eidolons dwell, as much as the collective skin in which the black slave acquires visual presence and corporeal density. Rather than a general approach to the history of ghosts, her work elaborates on the return of a very specific kind of alterity: the radical Other and the ‘non-being’ described in first person by Frantz Fanon. In my view, her work hosts the black specter not as a mere conceptual form but rather as the sensible presence of an absence. Her screens are inhabited by the silence of Hegel on the Haitian revolution and, subsequently, by this silence that haunts Stirner, haunts Marx, haunts Derrida, etcetera.
The title of this introduction, “Specters of L’Ouverture,” alludes, in fact, to the blind spot resulting from the celebrated reencounter between deconstruction, postcolonialism, and The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Emerging from the darker side of capitalism as much as from the internal contradictions of the enlightened colonial world, the figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the betrayed alter ego of Napoleon Bonaparte, reappears together with hauntology as an archetypal black specter. L’Ouverture the revenant haunts the postcolonial museum as much as the official history of slavery, alliterating and expanding the specters of Marx. The silence surrounding the Code Noir, the written but ‘never spoken law’ of the transatlantic slave trade is nothing but a symptom that bridges the dark side of modernity with our postcolonial imaginaries. Fully aware of this bridge, scholars such as Louis Sala-Molins have connected the silence of French Enlightenment philosophers such as Condorcet on topics related to Haiti, L’Ouverture, and the Code Noir, with the 1989 monumentalizing postcolonial commemorations of the French Revolution. In his own words:
Contortions needed […] to better cover up the official silence on that other sad end, the one that in Fort-de-Joux swept away Toussaint Louverture into nothingness. [O]ur very Republican leaders gave proof “before the country,” in the most dazzling of feasts, in the most prestigious of places—the Jeu de Paume and the Pantheon—that they can, in the most democratic way possible, hurt the liberty of a people and its basic right to know by manipulating memory and erasing “awkward facts from history.” Like his minister in the Pantheon, the president succeeded in narrating, in the Jeu de Paume, the real end of slavery, well after the death of the Enlightenment, without once mentioning either the revolt in Saint-Domingue or Toussaint Louverture's name, but that of France alone! (Sala-Mlins 2006, 147-48)
As you can see, the bicentennial “commemoration” of the French Revolution consisted not only in “pantheonizing” Condorcet, but also in spectralizing L’Ouverture in an attempt to obliterate the whole debate about the existence of the written but unspoken law regulating the black slavery. The pantheon, the place for all Gods, becomes a phantom—the apparition of something having the form, but not the substance, of a real thing. Digging out the Code Noir, the work of Jeannette Ehlers revolves around the cinematic emergence of Toussaint L’Ouverture as a black specter—a specter disrupting and to a certain extent supplementing deconstructionist hauntology.
The most tangible presence of L’Ouverture in Ehlers’s work is a series of black-and-white videos: The March, Black Bullets, and Off the Pig. Conceived as a multi-channel installation, these videos work well as autonomous video-projections. In The March (2012) the idea of the Haitian revolution as a cognitive map ramifies and becomes physical. This work is about the offspring and permanency of the revolution across time, represented through a suspended tree, apparently immobile in space, in a never-ending development of new branches and new roots. This tree is in fact a digitally manipulated moving image of Jeannette Ehlers’s own brain, scanned and modeled in 3D. In the background we see a walking multitude of insurgent ghosts. Ehlers used historical film from the Voting Rights Movement in Alabama to create this juxtaposition. The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery is turned in this way into a timeless demonstration, collapsing the insurgent disruptions of the 18th Century in Haiti with the ‘60s civil rights movements in the US. Rather than a historical event located in the past, the “march” is presented as a never-ending approach to our contemporary screen, identifying the past of the revolution as a historical event with our now-time as spectators situated at the other side of the visual representation. Everything in this piece seems to deal, thus, with the time-space of the revolution: the revolt occurring in some specific place and the revolt inhabiting multiple temporalities.
Extending this idea of the time-now of the revolution, Black Bullets (2012) depicts a line of young black students appearing and disappearing in the sky. The video was filmed in Haiti, at the emblematic local fortress known as Citadel, the protective symbol of the revolution. Avoiding any sort of traditional renaissance perspectivism, the line of black bodies dematerializes horizontally, as if the bodies were subsumed under themselves as they walk. Paradoxically, the origin of the revolution seems to be located before their eyes, in the direction of their steps. A possible reading of the piece has to do again with disavowing Hegel’s lordship/bondage scheme: the existence of these bodies (the multitude of the black revolution) does not require any master in order to be recognized as real subjects, objects, or specters; they appear and disappear, indifferent, in front of our eyes. Black Bullets recalls, in fact, that passage of The German Ideology in which Marx and Engels quote Hegel’s racial distribution of the self-conscious:
It is no more difficult to handle the instrument of this monotonous formalism than a painter’s palette which has only two colors, say black [realistic, childish, Negroid, etc.] and yellow [idealist, youthful, Mongolian, etc.], in order to use the former to paint a surface when something historical [the “world of things”] is required, and the latter when a landscape [“heaven,” spirit, holiness, etc.] is needed. (GI v. I, s. 3, The Old Testament) [v]
In this famous passage, Hegel uses a pictorial metaphor to describe his philosophical understanding of history. For Hegel, real, corporeal, and historical things should be confused with the obscurantism of the surface (become a ‘Negroid form’, as Stirner would say), whereas sublime ideas must acquire the clear and distinctive shape of a landscape. What interests us more is that Marx and Engels do not simply quote Hegel. Surprisingly, they correct, flood, and amplify his words. In the original version of The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel uses red and green instead of black and yellow, colors associated after Carl Linnaeus with two racialized subaltern subjects and two continental imaginations: “Negroes” (Africa) and “Mongols” (Asia). Moreover, bracketed words in this quotation are in fact Marx-Engels’s commentaries, rather than Hegel explanations. The purpose of this palimpsest is obvious: Marx and Engels aim at matching Hegel’s pictorial metaphor with Stirner’s ideas about the new liberal self/owner to come. In The Ego and Its Own, Stirner describes the development of the egotistic self-awareness of the Self as a three-step dialectical process. The first one is called realist childhood, or the thing-like stage, and is associated with blackness and the ‘Negroid form’. The second is called the idealistic or youth stage, a stage in which consciousness experiences a self-enslavement associated with yellowness or the ‘Mongoloid form’. Finally, the third is called free egotism, a stage characterized by the fully autonomy of consciousness. The amalgamation between Hegelian racial “style of painting” and Stirner’s liberal economic subjection of non-Western history is clear. Now, what The German Ideology omits is precisely the “monochromatic” consequences extracted by Hegel from his pictorial metaphor:
What results from this method of labelling all that is in heaven and earth with the few determinations of the general schema [using two contrasted colors to discriminate between historical surface and spiritual eidolons] is nothing less than a “report clear as noonday” on the universe as an organism […]. We have already remarked that this way of thinking at the same time culminates in a style of painting that is absolutely monochromatic; for it is ashamed of its schematic distinctions, these products of reflection, and submerges them all in the void of the Absolute, from which pure identity, formless whiteness, is produced. (PS 31) [vi]
Black Bullets is, to a certain extent, the antagonistic picture of Hegel’s monochromatic idealism. Rather than producing an absolute shapeless whiteness, the line of black bodies disappearing in the surface of the screen gives form to a black specter with Particular rather than Absolute shape—a specter characterized by its peculiar opacity, “peculiar” meaning here “what belongs exclusively to one person,” what is “possessed in exclusivity.” As the “mass of propertyless workers” described by Marx, the unique non-materialistic private property of the revenant is its non-being: they only possess their own peculiar immateriality, their dispossession. It is not a coincidence that Marx and Engels entitled the chapter in which they recall Toussaint L’Ouverture without naming him Pecularity (The New Testament: “Ego,” part IV). As a ghost “out of time,” L’Ouverture possesses a peculiar form, a form depicted by and in contradiction with the Code Noir. As a material specter within history, L’Ouverture is possessed by its own dispossession, by the very form of the Black Constitution he envisioned. In his letter to Napoleon written in captivity at the Fort de Joux, he asserts “…if I was wrong in forming the constitution, it was through my great desire to do good; […] I was one of your soldiers, and the first servant of the Republic of St-Domingue; but now I am wretched, ruined, dishonored, a victim of my own services” (L’Ouverture 2008, 79). [vii] Extrapolating Hegel’s visual metaphor, we could say that Black Bullets is a “report black as midnight” on the revolution as a living historical organism. Some people call this Afrofuturism, a different way to talk about pictorial decolonization or to refer to what I have described elsewhere as the ‘coloniality of seen’.
Off the Pig (2012) completes this triptych. The video registers another icon of the black revolution, the so-called creole pig, a species indigenous to Haiti. Despite controversies on the subject matter, several anthropologists and historians support the idea that the blood of this pig has been traditionally offered to Ezili Dantor, the dark skinned vodou female spirit, and used in Haiti in different ritualized insurgencies against colonial oppression (Laguerre 1989; Menneson-Rigaud 1958; Pluchon 1987; Thylefors 2009). The foundational myth of the correlation between the pig and the revolution has in fact place and time: the area of Bois-Caiman (Haiti) in 1791 during the so-called Bwa Kayiman ceremony. Stressing the division between myth and history, it is easy to notice that, for the popular political Haitian imagination, the revolts in Saint-Domingue gained momentum as a result of the ingestion of the blood of this animal. The video consists of a series of statements by and about Toussaint L’Ouverture, juxtaposed with direct shootings of Haitian creole pigs. The subtext of the video is precisely the opening (l’ouverture) of the revolution: the trigger for the insurrection. Here, Toussaint L’Ouverture appears at the same time as a historical figure and as a specter of the black revolution as such. It is not a coincidence that the first public statement in which Toussaint Bréda calls himself Toussaint L’Ouverture opens with the invocation of a ghost, the martyr Vincent Ogé. The evocation of this ghost is accompanied by an inversion of history, anticipating, or perhaps better, echoing the thesis of The Eighteenth Brumaire:
Remember the brave Ogé, dear comrades, who was killed for having defended the cause of liberty! Yes, he died: but those who where his judges are now his defenders. I am Toussaint L’Ouverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. (L’Ouverture 2008, 1)
The presence of Vincent Ogé in the inaugural appearance of L’Ouverture, the specter to come, is symptomatic. We are in front of a ghost announcing the spectrality of another ghost. We are not sure, however, which one is anticipating the other. We only know the potential spreading of an echo: “perhaps my name has made itself known to you.” L’Ouverture, the trigger for the revolution, is in fact the “second opening” of the revolt, the promise of its permanency or recurrence. L’Ouverture embodies the imminent disclosure of a black insurgency to come. His surrogate name, the “opening” ( l’ouverture), works in fact as a black parousia, a second coming, a prospective advent of the Haitian revolution. Parousia actually means “to attend a meeting,” “to appear,” to be present, as much as being a presence. It embodies the non-ontological and, in this case, the black essence of the revenant. Betrayed and spectralized by the same former master, Ogé and L’Ouverture share a common faith in spite of their different visual ways of disappearance. Ogé, the mulatto insurgent, was tortured, and his dying body was exhibited in the central square of Saint-Domingue as an example and warning to others; Toussaint, the black insurgent, was vanished in silence and sent by Napoleon to his death in a French prison: two ghosts with opposite visual textures.
In an article entitled “Marx Dematerialized, or the Spirit of Derrida,” Pierre Machery describes hauntology as a science of ghosts, of what returns (Buse 1999, 17-26). Before Ehlers’s work, we are tempted to propose a different approach to the term: rather than a science, we understandhauntology more as a hauntosophy, or even better, as a ghosthetics: the sensorial knowledge of what remains present in absentia, the embodied evocation of a preterit presence never fully here and never already gone. If in hauntology the inferred but diminished term is ‘ontology’ (the ontos swallowed by the presence of a ghost), in ghosthetics the implied and at the same time cancelled term is ‘aesthetics’. Following this idea, our reading of the work of Jeannette Ehlers starts by holding hands with the specters of L’Ouverture, allowing their presence/absence to achieve the elimination of both Western aesthetics and white ontology.
Pieces such as The Images of Me (2012) elaborate on this twofold elimination. This video is the result of her extended collaboration with Patricia Kaersenhout, a Dutch artist with whom Ehlers shared an artistic residency at OAZO-Air in Amsterdam in 2011. The Images of Me uses a stop-motion video technique to portray two women, one black and one white. Using as a plot the poem “Lord, Why did you make me black?” by RuNett Nia Ebo, both women experience a racial centrifuge process, acquiring as a result the exactly opposite color. This video calls into question Westernized ideas of female beauty and rejects deterministic views on racialized ontology. Other pieces, such as The Invisible Empire (2010), explore the disconnection between oral and visual ontologies. The Invisible Empire is a black-and-white, single channel installation in which Roy Clement Pollard, the father of Jeannette Ehlers, narrates a series of dramatic stories collected from a variety of victims of human trafficking. Missing people, fractured memories, and vanished familial archives are the ingredients of this video. The absent relatives alluded to in the ethnographic accounts appear as ghosts, embodied in the voice of the narrator. Voice, body, and memory are out of joint in this video. Saturated with light, the phantasmagorical image of Roy Clement Pollard coats these anonymous stories with the atmosphere of the slave trade.
Prospero: What would you be without me?
Caliban: […] I’d be the king […] The king of the island given me by my mother, Sycorax.
Prospero: […] She’s a ghoul! A witch from whom […] death has delivered us.
Caliban: Dead or alive, she is my mother, and I won’t deny her! Anyhow, you only think she’s dead because you think the earth itself is dead […] I respect the earth, because I know it is alive, and I know that Sycorax is alive.
Serpent, rain, lightning.
…Often, in my dreams, she speaks to me and warns me…
–Act 1, Scene II
Derrida’s foundational book on hauntology opens with a quotation by Shakespeare, taken from the scene in which Hamlet the prince encounters the ghost of his father, Hamlet, the former King of Denmark. Father and son, reunited in the intersections between life and death, between past and present, together swear an oath of revenge. The past reemerges in the present, announcing a revolt to come. Fully present as an image, yet invisible, Hamlet the ghost acquires the form of an empty suit of armor. His voice resonates from within, using a visor to talk, despite his lack of a bod, and to see without being seen. As Derrida asserts, this visor effect inaugurates a disjunction between presence and absence. They are together in a time “out of joint.” Hamlet, the emblematic Danish spirit, is, without a doubt, the foundational myth of hauntology. Who is by extension the black and gendered alter ego of Hamlet? What kind of specter can we count as the foundational figure of ghosthetics? Atlantic (2009), another multi-channel project by Ehlers encourages us to improvise an answer: the figure is Sycorax, the female ghost emerging from the Shakespearean pantheon.
Atlantic is a complex project composed of four different video installations and a series of digitally manipulated photographs. In conjunction, the project offers a sort of cinematic counter-cartography of the triangular transatlantic slave trade. Taking as a starting point the role of Denmark in the articulation of the colonial world, this project reconnects three emblematic points across the Atlantic: the Danish West Indies (Fort Frederick, St Croix), the African Gold Cost (Fort Prinzenstein, Ghana), and Marienborg (Copenhagen). In addition, the project gives an important place to the Atlantic itself. By displaying a three-channel, immersive projection, Waves is an eight-minute video loop depicting a moving image of the ocean—the immense liquid screen inhabited by millions of black slave diasporic specters.
Part of Atlantic is Three Steps of Story, a single-channel video of three minutes, 38 seconds. This video registers a performance by Ehlers in which her own dance evokes the presence of the first former black slaves invited in the mid-19th century by Peter von Scholte to waltz in the Mirror Hall of Fort Frederick, St Croix (today the U.S. Virgin Islands). Haunted by the specters of the Caribbean slave trade, the empty dancing saloon feels however saturated by memory shadows. Ehlers’s ghostly waltz appears in fact alliterated by the mirrors, emphasizing the spectrality of the colonial architecture. Filmed in St Croix and also part of Atlantic, Speed Up That Day is a fixed shot documenting the passage of time from sunrise to sunset at the façade of Fort Frederick, the place where Peter von Scholte proclaimed the emancipation of slaves in 1848. The substitution of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech for von Scholte’s proclamation reconnects past and present, encouraging the collapse between slave colonial revolts and the American Civil Rights Movement during the 20th Century.
In addition to two series of photographs—Atlantic: Endless Row (2009), which depicts shadows of spectral slaves without body, and Gate of No Return (2009), which depicts traces of vodou ceremonies haunting the walls of the Fort Prinzenstein in Ghana—Atlantic includes another piece: Black Magic at the White House (2009), a three minute, 46 second single-channel video filmed in Marienborg, Copenhagen. Constructed in 1745, this White House still serves as the official residence of Denmark's prime minister. Presenting herself as a female sorcerer performing a vodou dance ceremony, Black Magic at the White House examines the interplays between slave trade, economic wealth, and the spectral value of artworks as commodities. The White House in which this vodou ceremony takes place alludes in fact to another White Cube, the aseptic museum. Furthermore, the Afro-Caribbean syncretic scratches mocking the bourgeois adornments on floors and walls recall the Eurocentric history of painting, as well as the colonization of the senses. The ceremony is thus an exorcism of the aesthetic spirits of coloniality.
Let me conclude by asserting the following: if Derrida evokes the spirit of Hamlet the father, embodied as a suit of armor and encouraging Hamlet the prince to take action, Black Magic at the White House seems to evoke Sycorax, the Algerian-born black magic sorcerer, the mother of Caliban, and the most invisible presence in what probably is the last play ever written by Shakespeare, The Tempest. From this point of view, Sycorax could be properly described as the racialized alter ego of Hamlet and the articulating figure of ghosthetics. Liberated by the forceful rhythm of the African drums and the cathartic invocation of black magic, Sycorax, the female specter, haunts the White Cube, in particular, as much as art history, in general.
This is also true in Whip It Good (2014), one of the latest performances by Jeannette Ehlers. As in Black Magic at the White House, Whip It Good addresses the spectral coloniality of Western aesthetics.[viii] During the performance, Ehlers assumes the role of Sycorax, the vodou sorcerer, and whips a white canvas in the middle of the White Cube. The charcoal rubbed into the whip wounds and marks the whiteness of the surface. The echo of the bang lacerates the whole audience. Following another well-known book by Derrida, we could say that The Truth in Painting in this piece is the echo of a wound—the artist’s hand mastering the canvas of history. In this way, the ‘Negroid form’ of the childhood consciousness described by Stirner and the monochromatic absolute white of the spirit idealized by Hegel fall to pieces—even more so when Ehlers invites the public to join her in the violent act of whipping the white surface of both the history of painting and the history of slavery.
Jeannette Ehlers, Gina Ulysse, Kerry Whigham, and Marcial Godoy have been wonderful first readers of this essay. I am very grateful to them for their commentaries and intelligent suggestions.
Barbour, Charles. 2012. The Marx Machine: Politics, Polemics, Ideology. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
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[i] This is not the place to elaborate on the concept video-vodou as an artistic practice. In a nutshell, I use this neologism as an invitation to rethink the role of new media as a living syncretic technology. Rather than a mere use of the camera to document religious practices of any kind, a video-vodou artistic strategy would be characterized by the creative acknowledgement that neither the visual spirit of the ritual nor the specters invoked during a vodou ceremony can be properly represented, visualized, or ethographisized. Rather than as a mnemonic or scopic device, video-vodou is understood here in the double sense of the expression medium: as a material surface (the screen), as much as an immaterial bridge inaugurating a time out-of-joint between present and past, between presence and absence. In sum, the video-vodou as a medium opens the possibility to deal with the Marxist distinction between vetreten and darstellen, between speaking on behalf (of a social class) and making (a historical event or a ghost) present again. Other artists, such as Belkis Ayon, have been using artistic media (engraving, performance, body art, etc.) to extend the spatial presence and the affective dimension of syncretic ceremonies. In her case, Ayon was involved in the Abakuá Secret Society, a masculine religious Cuban society organized around the invocation of Sikán, the female African specter. More on the interplays between aesthetics and phantasmagoria can be found below, in the subchapter entitled “From hauntology to ghosthetics.”
[ii] This passage is part of the Third Section of the First Volume of the work that we call The German Ideology. Referred to as “III. The Leipzig Council: Saint Max,” Marx and Engels propose in this section a radical and systematic critique of Stirner’s The Ego and its Own. This section is only included in reviewed or critical editions of the 1845-46 manuscripts. Our quote is from “The New Testament: ‘Ego,’” part IV: Peculiarity. For the editorial history of The German Ideology view Carver 2014.
[iii] Derrida uses this expression, actually a reference from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
[iv] On the similarities and differences between Buck-Morss and Sybille Fischer on the topic, see Ulysse, “Sibylle Fischer by Gina Ulysse” in: Bomb, no. 90, Winter, 2005 [http://bombmagazine.org/article/2712/].
[v] The Oxford’s edition (1977) of Phenomenology of Spirit translated Hegel’s passage as follows: “The instrument of this monotonous formalism is no more difficult to handle than a painter’s palette having only two colours, say red and green, the one for colouring the surface when a historical scene is wanted, the other for landscapes” [PS 30].
[vi] The expression “report clear as noonday” alludes to Fichte’s ‘ Sun-Clear Report to the Public at Large concerning the Actual Character of the latest Philosophy: An Attempt to Force the Reader to Understand (1801), one of his multiples attempts to force his readers to agree with the principles on transcendental philosophy he presented in his Foundation of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre (1794).
[vii] Italics added.
[viii] The presence of the whip in art and history museums is not new. Following his critical excavation of museum storages, Fred Wilson displayed in 1992 a whipping post, “discovered” in the dark side of the Museum and the Maryland Historical Society’s collections. Entitled Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960, this installation awoke a variety of shadow memories, confirming to a good extent what we learned in Fanon’s work, that racism lives in the most irrational storage of our collective memory.
An experimental nature generally characterizes Jeannette Ehlers's work. Her photographic and video-based work often includes image manipulation. On these changeable terms she explores meaning and identity in both a sophisticated and immediate way.
For years she has created cinematic universes that delve into ethnicity and identity, inspired by her own Danish/West Indian background. She challenges and explores the medium of film’s ability to communicate in a visually fascinating and engaging language. Creating imaginative stories with both edge and sharpness, her work still retains broad appeal. Her pieces revolve around big questions and difficult issues, such as Denmark's role as a slave nation—part of Danish cultural heritage that is often overlooked in the general historiography.
In Spring 2014 Jeannette Ehlers had a major solo presentation of her works at Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center. Her works are also part of the group show CARIBBEAN: Crossroads of the World, Pérez Art Museum Miami, as well as DAK’ART 2014, Biennale of Dakar, Senegal.