Available until June 8, 2023
Christina Sharpe in her text In the Wake: On Blackness and Being speaks of the wake of slavery to understand the life and death of black people in our present. She asserts that the past does not always reappear to fight the present; rather, it is a taking over. So in no case, we can identify it as a chronological past.
That idea is extremely powerful because it speaks to how current everyday disasters are linked to unwavering black exclusion and its ontological negation since modernity. Throughout that text, she mentions a key point: “I include the personal here to connect the social forces on a specific, particular family’s being in the wake to those of all Black people in the wake; to mourn and to illustrate the ways our individual lives are always swept up in the wake produced and determined, though not absolutely, by the afterlives of slavery.”1
Sharpe understands microhistory as an autobiographical example, as Saidiya Hartman says, “which is is not a personal story that folds onto itself; it’s not about navel gazing, it’s really about trying to look at historical and social process and one’s own formation as a window onto social and historical processes”.2 Her reading confirms the power of microhistory to reformulate History—with a capital letter—and generate knowledge. This is a power that has gripped me since 2017, when I carried out at La Virreina Centre de la Imatge de Barcelona program entitled Microhistories of the Diaspora: “Embodied” Experiences of Female Dispersion, which sought micro stories to account for something much larger, uncontrollable and overflowing. I am fascinated by this method of knowledge that displaces the grand narrative of history, questioning the dominant contents, gazes and languages from singular perspectives and placing the body at the center. This exercise also involves approaching everyday life to subvert the secular principles that categorized some as men and others as primitives, semi-men expelled from humanity.
Giovanni Levi,3 makes a clear analogy to understand microhistory: it is like using a microscope, the scale of observation is modified to see things that, in a general vision, are not perceived. Looking at a reduced and specific scale, as in a laboratory, it is possible to pose general questions and answers that have relevance in other contexts and realities, opening the possibility of linking processes and intertwining perspectives of very different kinds. An arduous exercise when information is not available. Saidiya Hartman resolves this conflict with critical fabulation, that is, she proposes fictional reconstruction to account for the gaps and voids that appear when archiving the history of people affected by racist violence, and in particular, that exercised against black women during slavery.
Carlo Ginzburg develops another proposal of microhistory that attempts to recover the problems from “the very perspective of the victims”. Ginzburg states that it is impossible to understand the space of mental or cultural realities of a society without starting from the essential division between hegemonic and subaltern cultures, the latter being understood as the cultures of the marginalized sectors and the lower classes of societies marked by the division of labor and the context of colonial production. Contexts that have molded subaltern individuals without history or voice, alienating them to the point of minimizing them, especially when it comes to poor and black women. While these women increasingly emerge with greater force appealing to their state of subversion, speaking unchained from social rules and reclaiming women as the source of life, power and energy, a timeless voice comes from the hand of intersectional microhistory, and from very disparate places and perspectives. Microhistories question historiographical versions and bring visions of everyday life, struggles, pleasure, suffering, dreams, desire or mental health, and above all, they reveal how the violences of slavery and colonization emerge in contemporary existences.
The Weight of Elimination – The Disappearing Act
Yinka Esi Graves
A new time opened up under the new power structures that changed the world after 1492 and later since the acute racialization of our existence in the 19th century. This context still largely informs the dominant imaginary of the world. Since then, the safest way to exist in a black body has been to be invisible. Or to be visible under limited constraints of space and time.1
How to remain in the past? How to endure what is among us despite its apparent disappearance? How to coexist with those still lost in the waters? How does a body in search of an embodied memory cope with spaces that deny its own history?
Perhaps some of these questions were prompted by readings of In The Wake. On Blackness and Being (2016) by Christina Sharpe, and are what led dancer Yinka to explore the past in the present through her body and flamenco. It is very likely that Sharpe has had an impact on how Yinka Esi Graves explores and traces the intersection between flamenco and the various expressive forms of the African diasporas. A tracing that constantly encounters the way in which African peoples have been erased from modern Spanish history. This erasure leads Yinka to work with the idea of material invisibility, accepting itself as an omnipresent force in the black experience, as a common denominator that floats through the various diasporic realities that intersect class, gender or religion: “choreographically speaking, I needed to find new ways of “looking” to engage with this force, given that the tools of my flamenco education were embedded in the same value system that refuses to see us.”
Unlike Sharpe, Graves’ project does not focus on everyday disasters to connect the past to the present, but on silences that are embodied in spaces and retrieved through the body, as if it were a medium. Her body is the place where the trail of violence is impregnated and where all temporalities converge. This is the starting point of The Disappearing Act, an exploration of the invisibility that Yinka perceived when relating to certain places in Spain, Portugal and Ghana that she had sailed through in her life and that historically had been thresholds during the transatlantic slave trade or were linked to the Afro-European population. With her choice, Graves intended to recognize and value the omitted and to celebrate the resistances erased from the structures that care to show that we are not there.
The staging was burdened with the weight of this elimination and the improvisation gave rise to a unique language with a movement vocabulary with which the question of visibility and presence was addressed. The collaboration with filmmaker Miguel Angel Rosales made it possible to archive the improvisations. Together they made 6 short films: La Costa- La Costa II- El Puente- El Bosque- La Isla- La Puerta [The Coast- The Coast II- The Bridge- The Forest- The Island- The Door].
Here we present The Bridge, a piece shot on the San Telmo Bridge, Seville, Spain: “I used to cross this bridge regularly on my way to class. I always felt a strange downward pull when crossing it and I remember one day thinking to myself: There are people in this river. Later I learned that this was once the Puerto de Las Indias. The port where the ships from the point of no return disembarked.”
“The Bridge”, from THE DISAPPEARING ACT
Concept and dance by Yinka Graves
Filmed by Miguel Ángel Rosales
In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Christina Sharpe . Duke University Press, 2016.
“Fugitive Dreams of Diaspora: Conversations with Saidiya Hartman.” Patricia J. Saunders. Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal,
2018, p 6.
Giovanni Levi is one of the promoters of microhistory, together with Carlo Ginzburg.