Commissioned for an exhibition*) in honour of Anton Wihelm Amo (c. 1700-1753), who is considered the first Black academic and philosopher in Germany, Kaersenhout’s installation While we were Kings and Queen brings together twentieth-century German sources on Enlightenment; the text of a 1712 speech by slaveholder Willy Lynch; and tools recalling the traditional use of nkisi objects as a pledge or vow to banish evil. Here, as in previous bodies of work such as The Dream of a Thousand Shipwrecks (2009) and We Refuse… (2009, ongoing), Kaersenhout deploys historical materials to draw explicit connections between narratives of colonialism, and contemporary forms of education, resistance and solidarity.
“For the exhibition pieces I have printed images of proud and beautiful Black and Brown people on pages of a book called The European Enlightenment: Zeitalter der Aufklärung published in 1976. The book gives an overview of the European Enlightenment. This particular book was part of my 2017 performance Daughter of Diaspora at the Decolonial Summer School in Middelburg. As a result from the performance some of the pages contain angry remarks by the Black and Brown students whose ancestors are not considered here. A basic principle of the Enlightenment says that knowledge is more important than origin. Everyone is born a ‘tabula rasa’ and gains knowledge and experience during their life. Everyone has the same start; accordingly, everyone deserves the same opportunities for emancipation and democratic living conditions. In 1712 – the same year that Jean Jacques Rousseau was born – Willy Lynch gave an infamous speech to slave owners in the Colony of Virginia, sharing his methods of oppressing Black slaves. The term ‘lynching’ is derived from his name.
I am fascinated by philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo’s ideas concerning the body and the mind where he says that the mind can’t feel pain. It’s only the body that can perceive pain. Willy Lynch’s speech shows how the brain can invent immense cruelties because it is decoupled from the body. With While we were Kings and Queens, I also want to show the white Psychosis in which Black and Brown bodies are trapped. A psychosis that on the one hand has promoted emancipation and equality, but on the other hand is responsible for terrible crimes. The sentences from Willy Lynch’s speech thus stand in sharp contrast to the Enlightenment texts and the philosophy of Amo.”
Regarding the performative element of the work, which invites viewers to hammer nails into Lynch’s text, Kaersenhout writes: “Nkisi or Nkishi (plural varies: minkisi, zinkisi, or nkisi) are spirits, or an object that a spirit inhabits. It is frequently applied to a variety of objects used throughout the Congo Basin in Central Africa especially in the Territory of Cabinda that are believed to contain spiritual powers or spirits. The term and its concept have passed with the Atlantic slave trade to the Americas. Minkisi are primarily containers – ceramic vessels, gourds, animal horns, shells, bundles, or any other object that can contain spiritually charged substances. The metal objects commonly pounded into the surface of the power figures represent the minkisis’ active roles during ritual or ceremony. Each nail or metal piece represents a vow, a signed treaty, and efforts to abolish evil. Ultimately, these figures most commonly represent reflections upon socially unacceptable behaviors and efforts to correct them.
“Instruction: Please read the text carefully and whilst reading sense your body. Whenever your body gives a negative physical reaction to a word you are reading, it’s a signal to hammer a nail into that word. Try not to think. Try not to judge. Try to only feel the sensation of your body. By hammering a nail into the text you are making a communal vow to abolish evil and you are liberating the text from its initial destructive and negative message. You are releasing its negative energy and are creating space for positive energy. Together we are hammering for justice and equality for all people and by doing so we are connected. We become a communal body.”
*) THE FACULTY OF SENSING – Thinking With, Through, and By Anton Wilhelm Amo, at Kunstverein Braunschweig (DE) from 28 March till 2 August 2020. Click here to find out more.