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Issue 15: Gunpowder Body

Minia Biabiany

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19.08.2019

Body-Trace, Body-Space: Initial Observations on a Caribbean Pedagogic Exploration of the Body and Opacity

Building on the encounter between the body and Caribbean imaginary as forms of sensitive and corporeal interpretation for the building of other perspectives outside the colonizing and capitalist format, the artist Minia Biabiany sketches pedagogic reflections on projects she has led, such as Semillero Caribe and Plataforma Doukou.

Body-Trace, Body-Space: Initial Observations on a Caribbean Pedagogic Exploration of the Body and Opacity

We spend our time refuting something instead of affirming it. This imperialist figure does not stop interfering in our processes of reflection and narration of ourselves.
—Dionne Brand [1]

For four years, my questions about what is internalized and produced when learning in a post-slavery and/or post-colonial context have led me to work with doing, with the actions of different bodies—from the historically-denied body to the body that is inhabited as a tool for attention and self-observation. Two questions that arose from observing the logics of assimilation as they are experienced in Guadeloupe [2], my native island, were, and continue to be, the threads that drive my exploration around learning today: Through what actions can we deconstruct a social format? How can we recover the possibility of understanding and determining ourselves? Two projects articulated around the body and concepts developed by Caribbean authors were born from this research, each with a temporality of its own: Semillero Caribe, developed with Madeline Jiménez and Ulrik López in 2015 and carried out in 2016 in Mexico City, and Plataforma Doukou, which I conceived on my own and first led in Cali in 2018, and which continues to this day.
The archipelago of Guadeloupe is located in the Caribbean, in the arch of the Lesser Antilles, and currently belongs to France. Its population, like that of many other islands, is strongly marked by capitalist and colonial alienation. Here, the word “alienation” problematizes two aspects of life in Guadeloupe: the fact of becoming foreign to oneself and the desire to become another. It marks the erasure of the value of difference and of the possibility of self-discovery based on the recognition of said value. The historically-alienated body is as much the enslaved body, whose humanity was denied for two centuries, as the body of the European settler who dominated. For those who were enslaved, the body is the affirmation of survival, the only power of the naked migrant. [3] It was through the body that any escape could occur, either through death or through reinvention. This allowed for the creation of new languages of knowledge of the environment and natural forces: the inven- tion of rites, music, dance, oral tradition, and languages. The imaginary of the body in the Caribbean, which was developed after the sixteenth-century transatlantic European invasion of the continent renamed “America,” has had, since its origin, an echo within the logic of capitalist oppression of self-forgetfulness. [4] On the other hand, it has another resonance, one that comes from the constant need of the enslaved to have their humanity reaffirmed; that is, listening to one’s self as a form of resistance that gives rise to a valorization of the body as a means of reconstruction and empowerment. Bigidi [5], body-history.
Learning, acquiring from experience, implies a reading and an experience specific to bodies. When I arrived in Mexico City in 2015, being a black Caribbean woman with curly hair aroused a semi-hidden curiosity. My body interrogated. I regularly went to the Cooperativa Cráter Invertido, a collective of artist-activists and a multi-dynamic space that focused on the exploration of autonomous production and common creation. During our lively discussions, the thoughts of Martinican philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant frequently came back to me as a tool for delineating the links between violence, colonial domination, the struggles and traumas of globalization, transatlantic trade, and the origin of the pretension of Western Eurocentric intellectual superiority. The concepts of opacity and the Relation seemed to me relevant conceptual resources, endowed with a poetic force alluding to a sensible and corporeal interpretation that would allow for new perspectives on the Western construction of the interpretation of yesterday and today’s societal realities. [6] The construction of the relation to the different Other seemed particularly pertinent in a Mexican context marked by societal and institutional racism, classism, machismo, and the state-sponsored destruction of the riches of native peoples that denies their difference, their languages [7],  their beliefs, and their bodies. How can these very concepts give rise to a new way of approaching them? What can a decolonial Caribbean pedagogy look like? Thanks to the logistical support of Cráter Invertido, and in the midst of its fertile chaos, I invited Madeline Jiménez and Ulrik López—friends and Caribbean artists currently residing in Mexico City—to work with me to invent the future interactions of Semillero Caribe. [8] To jump on the boat and let it take us away.
With our experiences of three different Caribbean islands—Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Guadeloupe, each island marked by levels of colonial domination and resistance of varied visibilities—we decided to work from contrasting yet complementary means of learning, such as gesture, word, and text. We departed from four axes of work—the Relation, internalized colonialism, body/orality, territory—derived from texts by four authors—Antonio Benítez Rojo from Cuba, Édouard Glissant and Frantz Fanon from Martinique, and Kamau Brathwaite from Barbados [9]—around whom we structured each of the eight four-hour sessions with a mixed (known and unknown) group of a dozen people, depending on their availability and curiosity to learn more about the Caribbean.
Within the methodology of Semillero Caribe, we worked with the body as the main tool for conceiving the comings-and-goings between the texts, narrations, and feelings generated by breathing, drawing, shouting, touching, listening, repeating. The exercises were designed as a way to access emotions through the senses. For example, the formulation of individual and communal questions; reading in a particular setting; bodily expressions; the link between activities that follow one another; the search for emerging similarities, all formed a progressive network between participants. How can content be conceived to elicit emotions linked to concepts? Generally underused when it comes to theoretical thought, the modulation of attention and the implication of the senses are aimed at generating the experience of feelings linked to concepts. [10] These fundamental circulations seek traces, accumulated emotions. Together, the sensations of each person constructed the act of doing in a common, heterogenous, and fertile entity.

As a group, social behaviors facilitate the identification of resistance with a certain vulnerability, which allows for a change in their respective emotional trajectories, a capacity for sensitive self-knowing.

During Semillero Caribe, the body-tool was activated out of each participant’s acceptance—without the possibility of fixating on waiting and without knowing what came next—of a position of fragility.

This is how we tried to disturb the common political and cognitive values of living together, of validation, of giving and receiving, of attacking, of being attacked, of being attentive, of guiding, of being guided. We experimented with the principle of neurological functioning: the cycle of perception/action, body/mind. We observed the Relation operate in multiple ways in and among us, with several exercises involving finding new strategies for communicating with others. Our appropriation of the notion of opacity allowed us to propose activities without being forced to recognize the intelligibility of what is lived. It is here that opacity resides. We looked for alternatives to colonial clichés of Caribbean corporality, exploring climatic experiences, such as humidity or the movements of hurricanes. In this this way, another type of bodily experience placed the relation to one’s own body in perspective of self-observation and emotional responsibility. Observing our needs through the exploration of our relationships through our bodies offered us an unprecedented means of facing these concepts and authors, giving us the opportunity to invent, in a decolonial manner, a Caribbean imaginary in the context of Mexico City. Several temporalities, which evoked memory, projection, and the body living in the present, wove together during these sessions. In addition to being one of the tools for the construction of narrative in certain exercises, speech took over from sensation at the end of each session so that the instantly-identifiable highlights of the event could be shared. [11] There were no predetermined results to be achieved. We at- tended each session in a horizontal manner, attentive to the needs of the group and open to the possibilities of everyone present. We sought both to mark the bodies and to reveal their traces, to draw openings upon their own reflections—one of the advantages of working with opacity in order to plant blindly, moving away from habits of control and enabling rhizomatic forms of narrating. Body-trace, body-seed.

“Knowledge grows according to lines of correspondence: in the sharing, where they intersect, and in variation, where each becomes itself”. [12] During Semillero Caribe, the poetic force of opaque-doing manifested itself out of the interpenetration of a context, the group energy, the precise rhythm, a trusting disposition, and a willingness to learn. Back in Guadeloupe, I continued to reflect on the productive action of the experience as a privileged way of learning autonomy. Since then, I have led several creativity workshops about the history of Guadeloupe for children in schools [13], and in 2017 I founded Plataforma Doukou. [14]

Thanks to an invitation from curator Yolanda Chois in the framework of her project Tópicos entre trópicos [Topics among Tropics] [15], I was able to continue my ex- ploration of the body-tool over the course of a week with a unmixed group of women from Cali in Colombia. The activities took texts by Caribbean female authors (absent from the selection of Semillero Caribe) as a starting point. Considering the racial discrimination present in Colombia and the lack of knowledge about Colombian Pacific female authors, we included authors from the region and created a diasporic bridge between the Caribbean and black Colombia. I centered the reflection for the series of exercises on the narratives of Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua) and Nefta Poety (Guadeloupe) for the Caribbean and Mary Grueso and Nohelia Mosquera for Colombia (Chocó). Unlike in Semillero Caribe, the texts selected for Doukou in Cali were purely literary. Indeed, the absence of textual production identified as “theoretical” written by the great majority of Caribbean female authors responds to a strategy of rejecting the patriarchal need to affirm that which is true or correct, and a decision to distinguish itself from logics of intellectual domination. [16] The structure of the sessions was formed around images taken from the texts and juxtaposed with a concept: the mangrove and relationality, water and opacity, trace and bigidi. Because I was in Colombia for the first time, the relationship to the body in Cali—a city known for the omnipresence of salsa and its social role—was unknown to me. I also invited local researchers to intervene into each session: the dancer Angélica Nieto with danza-manglar; the writer Jenny Valencia of the urban tale Shangó y el cerro de las tres cruces de Cali [Shangó and the Hill of the Three Crosses of Cali]; the artist Carolina Charry with her voice work; and the curator Ericka Florez in collaboration with the dancer Andrea Bonilla regarding her research around straight and curved lines. Additionally, Otilia Caracas, an author from Valle del Cauca, accompanied us with her texts throughout the semillero. The semillero Doukou was made possible thanks to logistical support from Más Arte Más Acción and the cul- tural area of the Banco de la República in Cali.
In general, when we become aware of something—that is, when the gaze’s perspective on a specific event shifts—this new awareness is accompanied by a strong emotion (pain or pleasure) that changes our certainties and habits of thought/action/relationship—in short, our beliefs—and it is here that learning emerges. It is out of emotion that awareness originates. This is tied to the political issue of one’s personal consideration of their own needs and of the search for autonomy. According to biologist Francisco Valera, every mechanism of learning inevitably passes through it. [17] For the semillero Doukou, in the context of Cali, I was interested in defining the conditions necessary for poetic emergence and the detachment of the gaze to take place in each individual, with their own temporalities and without the imposition of externally validated knowledge. For example, the participants did not introduce themselves in a formal fashion. They worked together without knowing their respective names with the purpose of activating and deactivating systems of judgement. They had to look at each other for a long time, write each other’s texts, and talk about their relation with the object that each participant offered to the space during the sessions. The multiple versions of attention, listening, and feeling, the call to the automatisms of judgment, the doing, intimate traces, and personal narrations circulated in a conspicuously chaotic fashion during the workshops. The united and creative group developed its own mode of knowledge in movement, passing through writing and the appropriation of space. The body-tool and the volumes that comprised it were displayed in a space with multiple possibilities for perceiving the same thing.
Experience shows that there is a new questioning for the participants that emanates from the power to decide for themselves and guided by their body as validation. In the dialogues at the end of each session, participants mentioned their surprise at the power of the presence of the body and its memorization of key concepts in that moment. The semillero Doukou [18] experimented with the importance of feeling, of observing emotions, of being surprised in an encounter with the body, its strata, the emotions of instinct. The body allows us to not focus on the violence of the colonial and capitalist narrative, while simultaneously helping us to get closer to them. Without wanting to systematize a method, the active/passive alternation that summons our habits makes distance in observation possible. Body-space.
Each person perceives his or her body in a unique, constructed, and inherited way. We are adapting and constantly learning. The body possesses a potential for learning and healing through focusing attention on each intention through emotion and feeling. The facilitators’ position is key here (attitude, benevolence, absence of judgement, experience). Decolonial pedagogy returns the possibilities of exercising the inventive power of each person, stemming from actualized deconstruction. To work with the body is to ceaselessly work the faculty of connection with the environment and oneself and to open the question of the limit. Body-history, body trace, body-seed, body-space.

Notes

  1. Dionne Brand, “Forger une langue à la mesure de notre richesse,” Cases Rebelles radio program 82, December 2018. http://www.cases-rebelles.org/episode-n82/.

  2. Guadeloupe is owned by France since 1635 and will be successively English and French. Since 1946 it is a French “department”. The Guadalupe archipelago now has a privileged standard of living, higher than in the neighboring islands thanks to a fragile and artificial economy that depends entirely on the European funds.

  3. The naked migrant is a term used by Édouard Glissant. He contrasts the “naked migrant” with the migrant who carries with him goods and symbols that speak of his cultural or religious belonging to the place which he has abandoned. For more information, see: Édouard Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation: poésie en étendue (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 2009).

  4. The forced forgetting of the awareness of corporality, gods, knowledge, and ancestry has been one of the main destructive strategies employed by European settlers in the Americas, who aimed to subjugate the African being and render it docile.

  5. Bigidi is a concept that centers around the idea of imbalance as a new way of moving forward. It was made known by the Guadeloupean choreographer Léna Blou from her observations of Gwo Ka, a traditional Guadeloupean dance. The popular expression in Creole says “embigidi men pa tonbé,” which means bigidi (staggers) but does not fall.” Watch the Youtube video: Léna Blou Le bigidi la parole de l’être! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8Oojo5pJqg [Accessed on May 20, 2019].

  6. Since the eighties, Glissant has questioned in his work the validity of the Western model, its formation and logic of domination, and its notion of progress. His concept of the Relation and rhizomatic identity proposes another reading of what identity is, in its movement and its encounters, without valorizing one cultural model over another.

  7. For example, when, in several passages, Glissant states that he “speaks in the presence of all the languages of the world,” he conveys that it is not necessary to understand all languages in order to be in touch with them, while simultaneously pointing out the dramatic disappearance of the languages of many indigenous peoples.

  8. The name Semillero Caribe is a play on words. We chose the word semillero and not “seminary” in order to differentiate our approach from a classical theoretical context of learning by integrating the metaphoric action of planting seeds, each with its own needs and time of germination, as well as to recognize the existence of the semilleros and booklets of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation).

  9. This epistemological nucleus gave rise to the same number of trilingual publications responding partially to the linguistic diversity of the Caribbean (English, French, and Spanish) conceived as the pedagogical supports of the Semillero Caribe. Semillero Caribe’s publications were produced under the Creative Commons and may be freely accessed through the following link https://www.dropbox.com/sh/4qbrc7gt53a738g/AACmumaGtwg21TSp8RT2TlIfa?dl=0 [Accessed on May 20, 2019]

  10. Each nuclear family generates systemized reactions in the face of their own perception of an emotion. Any social sphere responds to and generates codes of behavior in front of emotions, which in turn usually become habits. How can we cause a re-signification of emotions to emerge that offers the possibility of receiving and experiencing these emotions in an unusual way in order to change one’s perspective at the moment of one’s reaction when observing the experience of an emotion? How can the revised concepts provide a vivid perspective on the deconstruction of coloniality? My research hypothesis is that the concept works as a multifocal experience that emanates from a conception of what the act of understanding is like a succession of stages never detached from the emotional.

  11. In the act of group sharing there is a constant double activation that moves from the stage of listening—of receiving the experience of another person—to the comparison with what one has lived. It is also a stage of formulation, of translating the lived into words. In order to do this, it is necessary to revisit lived experience through a mental, emotional, and physical activation that travels continuously between the gesture and the word. To share in a group is to constantly flow from one level of passivity or activity to another. To learn more about the relation- ship between passivity and activity, see: Tim Ingold, L’anthropologie comme éducation, éditions Paideïa (Rennes: PUR Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2018).

  12. Tim Ingold, L’anthropologie comme éducation. Éditions Paideia, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2018.

  13. Project Wi’an Art, Questionner en rézistans with the artist Jean-François Boclé.

  14. The word doukou refers to a lunar phase in Guadeloupean Creole. It is observed in order to know when to sow, prune, and harvest. It involves acting at the right time to complete the phase of a cycle.

  15. Tópicos entre trópicos is a platform for artistic practices managed by the curator Yolanda Chois. It is projected as a program of thoughts and actions ex- changed between people who live in places whose realities share a colonial past, elements of the African diaspora, cultural miscegenation, political and aesthetic crisis, and, for the most part, are marginal or peripheral territories.

  16. Odile Ferly, A Poetics of Relation: Caribbean Women Writing at the Millennium (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

  17. Watch the Youtube video: Francisco Varela: Né pour organiser (FR / ENG / ESP) (2/2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qIWCMssyTk [Accessed on May 20, 2019].

  18. Website for the semillero Doukou: https://doukousemilla.wordpress.com/

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