Dear Carolina, dear Laurence and dear Felicity,
We have had to comply with new regulations and restrictions with the COVID-19 pandemic and though I understand them, the devastation brought by the politics of «social distancing» and lockdown cannot be dismissed. Studies are showing how the burden of teaching at home, of taking care of elderly, children family, of cleaning and cooking is falling first on women, how women of color have been put on the forefront everywhere and thus exposed to the virus, how lockdown and economic distress have led to more sexual violence, how big corporations have seized the opportunity to increase their profits, how practices of surveillance and control have developed.
Artists have of course been affected. Decolonize the arts, the association I co-founded in 2015, sent a questionnaire in May-June to artists of color and they all told about greater financial difficulties and the racial dimension of their vulnerability. Then there have been the global marches for Black Lives Matter, the understanding that structural racism is not something marginal but central to the cultural and social environment.
In Europe, west and east, south and north, migrants and refugees are raising the question of what hospitality, humanity, solidarity is. We cannot ignore the realities of criminalization of the migrants and the refugee, Islamophobia, ethno-nationalism, xenophobia, police violence, State violence, anti-Blackness and it is with all this in mind that I am answering your questions.
There is this saying «Tell who is in charge of archives and I will tell you who is in power», and I think it says a lot. Archives are the repertoire of power and when one works on oppression and exploitation, it is impossible to ignore. However, there is the long tradition of reading against the grain, in the margins, of interpreting silences and absences to recover unheard voices.
There is a long history of destruction of libraries and archives by war of conquest, wars erase the memories of cities, of culture and knowledge, soldiers' rape, loot, burn. Wars are a tool of power. However, I often say that power cannot fully erase an event, there is always a trace, a fragment, a vestige from which we can reconstruct even in incomplete ways a narrative, a moment, an event.
The ways they silence peoples is terrible, but they can be read with other forms of narration and different forms of writing history. In France, the historians Arlette Farge and Ludivine Brantigny have given voice to the marginalized, the servants, the criminals, the proletarians. In India, there is the work of historians in the Postocolonial Studies though Gayatri Spivak famously asked «Can the Subaltern Speak?» She speaks of course but not in the colonial or the postcolonial national frame. So, there is this constant interrogation with the ways in which we read and use the archive.
There is the power of myths based on real events. Nothing concrete, no material evidence remains of the Bwa Kayiman («Alligator Forest») ceremony in the woods on the night of August 14, 1791 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue during which the insurrection of the slaves was planned. Later, the Haitian writer Hérard Dumeste visited the region and took oral testimonies in order to write his account of the ceremony. And yet, there is an archive of this major event because of the evocative power of the ceremony and the fact that it led to the victory of the slaves and the creation of the first Black Republic.
What was, and is not in the official archives, is brought back through oral poetry, songs, myths. This is the archive of the dispossessed and the silenced. With the smallest piece of a broken object, with the smallest bone, with some letters surviving on stone or on walls, decolonial archeologists bring back from the dead what was. The methods developed by archeo-botanists, linguists, oral novelists, forensic architects contribute as well to the making of non-hegemonic archives. And feminist and indigenous pedagogies of transmission and production of knowledge question how the archive is produced.
You ask if a place for alternative knowledges can be created and sustained institutionally and will it still remain «alternative» then? It depends how the institution is built, by whom and for whom. Building an alternative institution should mean thinking hard about its architecture from bottom to top (and not the other way), wondering, how do we enter the institution, who cleans, who works in the administration, how do we access the archive, how do we learn about the process of collecting it, who owns the institution, who funds it? How is the archive indexed and organized? Will it be saved from becoming rigid and hierarchical? There is no written rule that will guarantee anything, it will be a constant process of paying attention, of collective and collaborative work but one cannot ignore institutional fatigue or inertia. The institution is a social organism, hence it gets affected by what happens around, by political setbacks with their economic and social consequences or by changes brought by emancipatory struggles.
Power relations are hard to escape because we live in a world saturated by violence, and power is exercised through violence whether symbolic, linguistic, sexual, racial. Building an institution outside of any power relation will constitute a threat to the powers that be, power does not allow full autonomy, it must hinder, obstruct, hamper it.
When it must cede some autonomy, power will do everything to contain its possibilities and capacities to expand. And «we» are not outside of the relations of power: we are craving for recognition, for being allowed to enter the master's house but as Audre Lorde said, one cannot dismantle the master's house with the master's tools. She set a very high standard, very difficult to attain. It is a long process to invent and create the tools that are not the master's tools. However, we are not without an archive of imagining these tools, of building them. It is a matter of constantly looking for them, knowing that they take time to be built. It is a pedagogy from below, of incomplete productions, of being aware that we are standing on the long road of decolonization.