IN CONVERSATION WITH ELSABETH DESTA
The arts play a significant role in feminist theory and practice. Art has the possibility to bridge past and present, making people relate to the past in new ways, and paving trails into the future with new ways of being. Jeannette Ehlers’ interactive performance, Whip It Good (2013), can be read in this light as it relates to activism, justice, and feminist theory, by creating a space for reflection and critical inquiry, dealing with the history of colonialism and the way it works through in the present.
The 1960s formed the start of a feminist art movement where artists thrived to create space for women artists and challenge stereotypical attitudes directed towards women. This medium was used not only for its aesthetical purposes, but as well for viewers to develop critical inquiry to standardized societal norms. Feminist art has different forms ranging from photography, performance art, body art, video art etcetera. Striff notes, “Feminist performance artists attempt to disrupt the cultural associations with the female body. They extend their bodily capabilities through cybernetic technology; they practice body modification; and they enact the abjection of the female body”. Performance art particularly diminishes the distance/boundary between the artist and the audience. It invokes an emotional response from its audience and has the potential to relate to activism, justice, and feminist theory, by making us reflect and critically pose questions.
Jeannette Ehlers: Justice, Art and Activism
With a white canvas, a whip, charcoal and her body, performance artist Jeannette Ehlers produces art intertwining justice, art, and activism. The first time I saw her performance, Whip it Good, was in one of my courses for Women’s and Gender Studies, called Art and Affect.
An audience surrounds her. Dressed in white and with white paint patterns on her body, Ehlers smears the whip with charcoal thoroughly. She stands up and looks at the white canvas intently as if contemplating what to do with it. She grips the whip tight and strikes the first blow. Again she returns to the charcoal to smear the whip. Again, another strike, whipping the white canvas with the whip smeared in charcoal. I felt the first smack ripping through the canvas and it echoed with my heartbeat. It vibrated throughout my whole body. It transferred out of the video and onto the room. I flinched, again and again, in union with the whip. She looked strong and determined. Like she had a point to make. A firm grip on the whip and then smash. The white canvas is now smudged, crisscrossed with strokes of the black charcoal. Ehlers is breathing hard with the exertion of whipping the canvas. She stops, and then she invites the audience to take the whip.
The whip leaves a mark on the white canvas as if it is trying to alter its structure. One can see the effort; the work of the muscles as the whip is wielded hard, smashing on the canvas. The artist seems to be fighting off invisible demons that are chasing her, causing/demanding a reaction from her.
We cannot change the past but how do we deal with it now? How do we make sense of it? What kind of truth is she telling? Ehlers makes us engage in a conversation with her, with the whip, with the canvas. She mediates between the present and the past. She beckons the audience to take the whip and to become an active agent in this process of bridging the past with the present. She looks around, searching for the next person to take over the whip. Who takes the whip? Who has the power to hold the whip? It invokes different feelings, depending on the person who holds the whip. This piece of performance art triggers an affective response from the viewer; furthermore, it summons one to analyze further and pose critical questions. Alex Rotas notes this distinct capacity of arts “… to trigger an empathic response from the viewer that, far from being an end in itself, ideally leads to thought and critical inquiry”.
Engaging with Denmark’s Neglected Part of History
Jeannette Ehlers was born in 1973 to a Danish mother and a Trinidadian Father. Her art explores the history of Denmark’s colonial past, which usually gets overlooked compared to the other colonial nations, like Britain and Spain. She mainly focuses on issues such as “identity and belonging, globalization and power”. Ehlers engages with questions such as: How do you cope with the history of your ancestors? What does your body reveal about your family history? And how do you deal with being part of a complex and brutal history of supremacy and exploitation?
Ehlers, with her performance Whip It Good, brings forth this neglected part of the Danish history. Whip It Good was first presented in 2013, commissioned by Art Labour Archives and Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, Berlin, and since then has been performed in various locations. Ehlers’ works have become more popular and gained an international audience outside of Denmark.
Who has the power to tell stories of truth? How can we engage with the past in a way that is productive? How can we negotiate the different positionalities of the oppressor and oppressed? These critical questions need to be addressed in the process of transitional justice, as governments attempt to move towards a more democratic system, with a focus on accountability, reform and reconciliation. This was the case of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa as it transitioned from an apartheid system to a democracy.
Blurring Dichotomies: Bridging Past and Present
The arts can bridge the past and the present, making us relate to the past in new ways, and paving trails into the future with new ways of being. It complicates the different positions of the oppressor and oppressed, by “working through the legacy of oppression, including all the possible positions this involves” and blurring the dichotomy of victims and perpetrators. Ehlers examines and questions the boundary of victim-perpetrator in her performance. This is perceived in the whipping of the canvas; Ehlers is participating in the whipping, which is in contrast to what is known about the history of slavery, of the white master whipping the slave. She invites the audience to take part in the whipping, and this gesture, I believe, makes us question the dichotomy of victim/perpetrator position and instead to view it as complicated and interweaving, a not so rigid positionality. As she invites the viewers to take over, she gives the space for interchangeability, the interaction of differentiated positionalities.
Mobilizing the Whip’s Violent History into a Mode of Subversion
Ehlers’ interactive performance art links aesthetics and justice. It questions power structures, engaging with patriarchy, slavery, and colonialism. The whip, the canvas, and the body paint. What are their histories? Does Whip it Good perhaps create something new by working with the tools that have been used to subdue, exclude and repress? The performance invokes memories of trauma and channels it into something new. It does not tell us what that something new could be. However, it creates the possibility for the audience, and the people participating in the performance, to have a new insight. It does not give answers; it makes one ask questions. The whip is known historically as a tool of suppression and violence in the colonial past. It has a violent history, and it has been used to subdue and repress black bodies. Ehlers’ use of the whip subverts the notion of victimhood. She takes control of the whip and strikes back.
In Reconstructing Apartheid, Redefining Racism: The South African Truth Commission and Its Representations, Shakti Jaising criticizes artworks based on the TRC like the movie In my Country (2004), where the labeling of apartheid as systemic racism is evaded and instead dealt with as a problem that was between individuals resulting in the violations of human rights. Ehlers whips the canvas, again and again, recalling history, reminding us that it is not just in the past. It is there, calling our attention, demanding to be dealt with. By placing a canvas in place of a person, she is suggesting that the history of slavery surpasses its physical aspect. By doing this, Ehlers, in my opinion, brings our consciousness to the systematic racism that goes beyond oppression between individuals. Looking at the history of slavery and designating it as the past, disregards the structural racism and devaluation of black people that has left a mark and is still taking place in every aspect of their lives, its effects reverberating to this day. Ehlers questions this state of mind, asking the critical question of who has the power to say history starts and ends at a certain point in time. She repeatedly strikes the white canvas, again and again, iterating that question.
Whip it Good in the In-between State of Possibility and Impossibility
Eva Ziarek, professor of comparative literature, notes on the position of aesthetics within feminist theory, and she promotes and argues for “theory of transformative political action”. What she poses as essential is giving attention to “the emancipatory potential of artistic practice” its particular relation to “transformative political action”.
Whip It Good is doing precisely this, showing insight into the unpredictable possibilities and impossibilities. It hints at slavery’s past, in the same way, it confronts us to deal with its effects in the present moment. It cannot be erased. Ziarek explains the paradoxical characteristics of the transformative potential of political and aesthetic practices as having the potential of possibility and impossibility, “what can no longer be recovered” and “which has not yet been realized”. I believe Ehlers performance is in this in-between state of possibility and impossibility. She mediates between the past and the present. She follows Ziarek’s argument in that change should occur but without losing our connection to the past. Whip It Good reminds us again and again that history is impossible to efface. However, this is not in a way that makes us cling to the past. Instead, I interpret the performance as a direction to pave the trail for the future, with the awareness of the past, endeavoring for an alternative outcome.
Creating Space for Critical Query
Ehlers is also offering a resignification, an alternative interpretation of the whip. The whip, the canvas, the charcoal; they all have history, and they invoke some affective response in the person viewing Whip It Good. Schweitzer and Zerdy emphasize we should “understand physical materials not as inert human possessions but instead as actants, with particular frequencies, energies, and potential to affect human and nonhuman worlds”. Ehlers is using these objects, particularly the whip and charcoal, in a way that subverts their violent history. The whip, a powerful and violent tool to subdue, and the charcoal a resource borne out of the labor of enslaved black bodies in coalmines. She smears powdered coal on the whip before striking it against the white canvas. In this manner, Ehlers’ work creates an interaction between form and matter, creating space for a critical query.
Deploying tools that have been used to exclude, oppress and suppress, Ehlers creates art that mediates between the past and the present. With the whip, canvas, charcoal and her body, Ehlers’ interactive performance art links aesthetics and justice and challenges power structures, engaging with colonialism and slavery. Ehlers performance makes us ponder upon the Danish colonial past, and puts a question mark on the history of the arts. It puts the black female body, as an actor, an agent, a creator, criticizing the white male-dominated history of art. She confronts the audience, invites for the blurring of rigid positionalities, such as victim-perpetrator. Her work reminds us of the unerasable connection to the past, moreover encourages for new ways of interacting with each other and to objects, for new structures of being to emerge.
Elsabeth Desta is a second-year student of the Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies program at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. She holds a bachelor degree in Social Work completed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
For more information about Jeannette Ehlers’ work, visit her website.
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