When I meet Anawana Haloba she is sitting on a tropical beach in a digital multiverse. On an utopian island surrounded by swaying palm trees and glitchy lapping ocean waves, we exchange strategies for non­ Westernized, non­hierarchical art production. AFK (away from keyboard) she has taken refuge in her daughter’s room at her home in Oslo on a snowy January day.Text by Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor.

Anawana Haloba. Photo: Erlend M. Sæverud.

Haloba squeezes in our Zoom call between working on her PhD, teaching students at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO) and Livingstone Office for Contemporary Art, and mothering. Currently she is interrogating the relevance of decolonial theories posed by French West Indian political philosopher Frantz Fanon in ‘un­colonial’ contemporary Norwegian society with the aid of writings of poet, playwright and theorist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Haloba’s PhD entitled Negotiating the Subtle Encounters seeks to draw parallels between the two thinkers. If Fanon and Bjørnson seem like an unlikely duo, Haloba urges us to reconsider what she refers to as ‘Norwegian exceptionalism’ in order to create links between Norway’s colonial history, the role of the oppressed in nation building and the artist’s response to turbulent times. This intergenerational and intercultural dialogue builds the foundation for investigating a humanist approach to the question of “What Can Art Do?” Our discussion touches upon the implications and repercussions of art repatri­ation, what artists should be doing right now and whether it’s possible to embrace the brutal past.

Anawana Haloba, Close-Up (2013–2016). Sound­sculptural installation, 10 × 14 m. Installation view from the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil.
How we identify ourselves as political human beings is based on the complexities of our back­ground and histories. We need to acknowledge multiplicity, the positive and the negative; from this standpoint we can begin initiating a discussion that attempts to remove, challenge, and bring something else.

Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor: I want to start with a big debate right now within the Nordic art scene on the inclusivity of non­-Western artistic practices into the academy. Whenever I talk about the art canon and what is regarded as art history, the gaps in that history and what can be done to amend them, there is always a lot of pushback. How do you reconcile the question of amending art history?

Anawana Haloba: I heard some years ago in a lecture — I don’t remember now whether it was Okwui (Enwezor) or Chika Okeke­Agulu — who said that “Modernism happened in Africa and it was theorised in the West.” [What] if we were to rethink decoloniality in poet and scholar Harry Garuba’s definition which is “Decolonialism is simply putting the needs and interests of the epis­temologically disenfranchised at the forefront of knowledge production.” Therefore, I think it should not be the question of annulling art history but challenging it. To give an alternative reading vested in other methodologies of gathering knowledge that is based in the epistemologically disenfranchi­sed. How we identify ourselves as political human beings is based on the complexities of our back­ground and histories. We need to acknowledge multiplicity, the positive and the negative; from this standpoint we can begin initiating a discussion that attempts to remove, challenge, and bring something else.

I don’t know if it is possible to abolish art history altogether. It’s almost like you are erasing part of yourself. Look at me, I come from Zambia. I’ve got two things, a British colonial heritage, but then I also have my indigeneity, I am neither proud nor ashamed of having a colonial heritage. It’s history that my ancestors have lived and experienced. I carry the trauma of the brutality, the plundering and pillaging colonial history caused. And still, I am a product of that system that seems to have carried on even after the decoloni­zation from settler colonization.

So, I would like to have an open dialogue where everyone can take responsibility for their part, and all the unpleasantness associated with the histories that make us who we are, to rewrite the misread or missing contexts. If we are to rethink art history, we will find several references coming from outside Western knowledge. We all have the responsibility to question the historical legacy that we have collectively inherited. In other ways, I am saying the art historian of before has not paid attention or has purposely dismissed the need to decipher non­-Western narratives within artistic practices throughout history. He failed to create a comparative analysis showing how artists that stem from the regions where these narratives originate dealt with the same without prejudice. Therefore, the questions we ought to ask are: Why is this information here? How was it included? How and when did the Western artists referencing these knowledge systems come to ‘own’ them? There are many examples that illustrate the influ­ence of non­-Western art, religion, and spirituality on Western art and architecture.

The above can be traced throughout history; Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin. In the 60s several Western artists were interested in Shamanism, African metaphysics, African spirituality. The Fluxus Movement’s Joseph Beuys is one such example. Other artists such
as Joan Jonas reference Maya Daren’s film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1993). The film captures Rada, Petro, and Congo rituals, whose devotees commune with the cosmic powers through invocations — ritual offerings, song, and dance in Haiti.

Art history, as it is, is a result of the failure to understand the complexity of the object, it’s logic and the knowledge systems that follow it.
So, if the ‘pagan’, ‘religious’, ‘ritualistic’, or ‘primitive object’ becomes a source of inspiration to an artist from a totally different world. It shows that the artist is willing to see through the prism of Ubuntu philosophy — and find opportunity for a dialogue between/through cultures, but unfortunately this has not been exploited. Therefore, the possibility to learn that the African mask, for instance, is not only for admiration but has different meanings, uses, and embodies knowledge systems like that of cosmology and architecture is lost. The question we have to ask is: Is the art historian of today able to rewrite or emphasize the oppressed knowledge? That is also the question I pose here in the Nordic context: How do we teach and share art history with this perspective in mind?

Mwana Pwevo. Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts Museum.
One of my favourite poets, Taban Lo Liyong, an Ugandan poet, talks about how we can laugh about the brutal past. He writes “to your one, I have two. Because I have your gun and mine.” We must embrace/accept the different complex situation that defines contemporary political identities. How we choose to talk about these histories is the only way we can help decolonize.

JLET: That reminds me of how Choreographer and Activist, Thomas Talawa Prestø, spoke about the legacies of colonialism within the museum. (1) He spoke about specific objects from outside the Western hemisphere and how they are stripped of their meaning when they are brought into the museum and the long­term harm to the communi­ties which these objects were taken from. He said: “There are certain masks which to the believer, they are a god. So, in many ways the museum has become a place that is holding gods hostage. Which means they cannot do the purpose they were intended to in the community.” My question is how can we begin to talk about repatriation when the stakes are this high?

AH: I don’t know if the museum can hold the gods’ hostage. In Siluyana, a language almost extinct now, once spoken by the matrilineal Luyi people before their integration with the Makololo people (a Sesotho speaking people) from present­-day South Africa to form the Barotseland Kingdom in western Zambia. We say: “Nyambeangula musi­mukaloyangundu umusimwanyi” which translates to “God almighty owner of creation — does not show himself anyhow, who himself is creation.” “Umumona atukabakanu lyangwa nalimwala” translates to “Omnipresent God, who appears to no one and only makes himself seen in death.” For the Luyi, God inhabits them and everything around them — the master who creates the art exhibits God’s manifestations. Therefore, my understanding of Siluyana philosophy is that the gods can never be bound.

Prestø is right to point to the destru­ction of whole civilizations that the plundering of artefacts did to communities all around the world. The artefacts represented a certain type of knowledge systems, logics and methodologies. What happened to those methodologies when those objects got taken away? For instance, the Luvale/Chokwe mask Mwana Pwevo (a mask representing a female teaching young boys during initiation) is one of the masks sold worldwide on the internet and also kept in museums. How do we receive Likishi Lya Mwana Pwevo in masquerade form and Mwana Pwevo as the sculpture mask? What is the symbolism of Mwana Pwevo teachings during Mukanda (initiation for boys) and how do they relate to feminist philosophy within Luvale/ Chokwe cultures? What ideologies, strategies, or methodologies can we borrow from the knowledge Mwana Pwevo inhabits?

I am asking these questions not to delve into a study of Mwana Pwavo but to illustrate and suggest: “repair”. Yes, the West’s looting and pillaging caused enormous trauma and destruction of a civilization that still sends ripples through societies today and has continued in other sophisticated unbalanced trade policies and so on. But I wonder whether the repatriation of the stolen arts on its own — as a symbolic gesture — is enough to resolve/heal the dehumanization of a people. The West admitting to the crime committed is a beginning of a dialogue. The process towards a meaningful “repair” starts with admitting the truth and then we have to rewrite and bring into consideration the trauma and accept the colonial condition and histories that define who we are today.

One of my favourite poets, Taban Lo Liyong, an Ugandan poet, talks about how we can laugh about the brutal past. He writes “to your one, I have two. Because I have your gun and mine.” We must embrace/accept the different complex situation that defines contemporary political identities. How we choose to talk about these histories is the only way we can help decolonize.

LoCA participants at Wayi Way Art Studio & Gallery.
From ‘Tuning In — Other Ways of Seeing’, LoCA Minilab with Stephane Kabila­ Kyowa and Lucas Ngoma during 2020. Facilitated by Tenthaus’s Ebba Moi and Helen Eriksen and guest artist Emma Wolukau­Wanambwa. More information at Livingstone Office for Contemporary Art: Locazm.com/academy

A poem by Taban Lo Liyong, Let Us Praise Famous Men — Our Past Masters:

I was taught a tongue
with which to curse prospero and woo miranda
since ariel was so airy
he had no room for heart

well mr I admired your gun
but you could not my magic
now I can your gun make
but do you know my magic
to your one I have two

From Fanon’s Uneven Ribs. Poems, More & More [African Writers Series, 90] [1971]. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Anawana Haloba, I shall cure you my tongue (2018). Sound and sculpture installation, Oslo Kunstforening. Photo: Christina Leithe Hansen. Courtesy of the artist.

JLET: If decolonizing is an action that has to be per­formed and investigated routinely, then the aim has been too middle of the road. I first want to say that diversity is dead. And not the goal. Representation used to be a goal: “Let’s get a bunch of different types of people into a room and then we solve the problem of all structural inequities.” (Laughs) It was a Band­Aid on a festering wound. When in actuality, we should just cut off the arm. As an artist who has come to Norway and made a career, where do you think the gaps lie between performative diversity and actually addressing and remedying structural inequities in the Norwegian art scene?

AH: I think if we’re going to talk about diversity, then we should pose the question: “from which position?” There is a misconception that diversity means the happy integration of immigrants into the host country’s traditions and language. For instance, in my context — Norway — the word mangfold is used to discuss diversity and integra­tion. I speak Norwegian, spend my weekends at the cabin, and have my kids in Norwegian kinder­garten. I attend 17th of May [Norwegian Consti­tution Day, Ed.] and eat sausage and lompe. Is that what constitutes a complete diversity, does this mean that I’m fully diversified within the culture — therefore we are in a happy mangfold? To some extent, yes, because this diversity is one­-sided, it does not allow full exchange where my host learns about the culture where I come from or my lan­guage.

If I had to commit an offence my ‘otherness’ will be influential in judging me and my coming to terms with ‘becoming norsk’ will be overlooked. I will be cast aside: Black, woman, and African. The mangfold I illustrated above are merely the tricks an immigrant must learn in coming to terms with exile. Diversity will only happen if it’s both ways. The hosting country also has to diversify itself with the cultures of the people they are bringing in.

To say: “I’m from Norway, and when Norway was under Denmark we had this slavery fort in Ghana which was called Christiansborg (2) and my history has colonial heritage. I hear you because this is also my heritage.” This will be the beginning and then we are starting from somewhere because we are starting with the collective historical baggage. With such a resonance then we will avoid stereoty­pical statements like “I understand that when you come from Zambia.” or “It doesn’t mean that you have seen a hundred people dying from HIV.” or “Do you have bookstores there?” (Laughs) Diversity can only happen if the Western world starts teaching people the truth about somewhere else.

Norway should only talk about diversity if it’s able to deal with its history and accept it. To borrow from the Ubuntu philosophy: What completes my humanity is your humanity.

JLET: There’s so much unnecessary pressure for the diversity issue. Even the push to keep talking about it is obsessive and false. I think about the diversity that I grew up in terms of religion. My father’s family is Christian, Baptist. And my mother was Christian alongside embracing my stepfath­er’s spirituality of Paganism and Wiccan. And so, growing up this kind of diversity was a normal, almost causal experience. It didn’t feel fragile or like a goal that had to be reached again and again.

AH: I grew up with my Rastafari uncles (cousins of my mother), my Catholic mom, my Dad even if he did not attend church, associated himself with the Seventh­day Adventist movement. My older sister is a Jehovah’s Witness and in high school I conver­ted to Evangelical Pentecostalism. But on stormy rainy days everyone gathered in the living room and sang common hymns. I started understanding that religion is how people come to terms with where they are.

Diversity must be rethought significantly here in Norway, the position where one is speaking from has to be established and reflected upon. We have to reaffirm empathy on the subject. Lately several people have contacted me to talk about diversity and decoloniality, especially in the aftermath of the brutal killing of George Floyd. As much as I know, it is human nature to reflect on these issues. Still, I become curious why, for instance, does Billedkunst want to have a discussion on decolonization? Is it because it’s a hot subject now and somewhat related to the debate in the papers a few months ago in which KHiO was central? What is the goal, I ask myself, whether it’s in Billedkunst, the university, the Arts Council Norway, or KHiO’s main artist-producing factory?

JLET: Often, it’s a brain drain for the BIPOC participants and it’s very exhausting and triggering for them.

AH: The question should be what do you want to change? If they want to change the Norwegian art scene, they have to change the Norwegian art education. The main art production factory is KHiO. And KHiO has a standard way of producing artists. I’m sitting in a jury right now and it’s interesting that people submit work that reflects nothing.

JLET: It makes me question the participation. What would opting in signify?

AH: We have to ask these questions. I’m teaching part time at KHiO. I decided I wanted to have the students within the university to have a non-hi­erarchy way of using films and text from outside the Western world. So, after watching the film or discussing the text, I ask: “In what ways can you use the methodologies of how this film is made or how this novel is written in your own work?” Very few wanted to have that critical digging.

Re­enacting Frantz Fanon’s saying that: “Literature only becomes complete if it is able to reflect in the society where it is produced.” (3) So, we used that as a metaphor for the art that is produced now to critically rethink the landscape, the society, and the situation and engage with that problem within an artist’s work?

JLET: That leads me to ask about your PhD project. What are you working on?

AH: My PhD project entitled Negotiating the Subtle Encounters explores two trajectories. Firstly, it brings together the works of two thinkers (Frantz) Fanon and (Bjørnstjerne) Bjørnson to reflect on one another and evoke an idea of empathy within the Norwegian memory of trauma and see how they can rethink the ideas of otherness.

It also examines the nuances of the writers’ works and humanistic thought in opposition to the goals of feminism and other ‘otherness’ while engaging in the criticism levelled at Fanon by some feminist groups. Bjørnson states ‘The modern woman, in contrast to the women of earlier times, rea­lizes that the fate of her children will chiefly be determined by society as a whole, and that her work is aimless and may prove in vain if she is unable to play a part in shaping the conditions of society.” (4)

Fanon in A Dying Colonialism writes about women freedom fighters and the profound transformations they generated, “A new dialectic of the body of the revolutionary Algerian woman and the world [emerged] literally forged a new place for herself by her sheer strength” The similarities between these two thinkers’ articula­tion of women’s or the oppressed/minority’s role in the process of nation-­building – despite their noticeable cultural, time and historical differences – open new possibilities for intercultural dialogues about feminism in postcolonial and contemporary society. I imagine my project as a critical ‘time machine’ that continuously switches and conflates the two thinkers, their ideas, and their historical, political, racial and cultural contexts.

The second trajectory centers on the comparative methodology, which I experiment on within my teaching. I position my claim by bor­rowing the radical idea of feminism that women are humans. To be feminist, I am becoming fully human. This is closest to the African Philosophy of Ubuntu I mentioned earlier. We identify based on history, and history has a colonial past, which all human beings share either by the heritage of the colonized or the colonizer or by ethnicity associ­ation. Therefore, since we equally share a DNA of trauma and fully accept the responsibility of the shared trauma, let’s start a discussion.

Anawana Haloba (b. 1978 in Livingstone, Zambia) lives and works in Oslo and Livingstone. She is educated from the Evelyn Hone College of Applied Arts in Lusaka, Zambia. Haloba completed her BA at the National Academy of Arts in Oslo 2006, graduate of the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and an alumnus of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (SARF) in Washington, D.C. She is currently working on her PhD at KMD, Bergen. Anawana Haloba’s artistic practice is an ongoing investigation of different societies within varied political, social, economic, and cultural contexts, ideologi­cal and post­-independence frameworks. Her artistic practice is symbiotically linked to exercises in drafting poetry used within moving image, installation, and sound. Haloba’s work has featured in both solo and group exhibitions, including, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Oslo Kunstforening: GAMeC, Bergamo; SKMU Sørlandets Kunstmuseum, Kristiansand; Museum Berardo Collection, Lisbon; la Biennale di Venezia, 2009; Sydney Biennale 2008; Manifesta 7, Bolzano; the Sharjah Biennial 08, 11 and 14, as well as the biennales in São Paulo (2016), Shanghai (2016), and Lyon (2017). She is currently working on an experimental opera titled Negotiating the Subtle Encounters as part of her PhD result that will premiere at KODE, Bergen, Norway.

Notes

1. Prestø, Thomas Talawa, “Power and Diversity in Arts and Culture”, panel, Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo, 22 October 2020. Watch it here:

2. “Christiansborg (Osu) Castle”, Visit Ghana, Ghana Tourism Authority, 2020.

3 Loosely from: Fanon, Frantz (1963 [1961]), The Wretched of the Earth. Translates by Farrington, Constance. New York: Grove Press. Originally published as Les Damnés de la Terre. Paris: François Maspero éditeur.

4 Blom, Ida (1980), “The struggle for women’s suffrage in Norway, 1885– 1913”, Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 5, issue 1–4, p. 3–22. Abington: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. DOI: 10.1080/03468758008578963