On the 9th of December I gave a talk at the Decolonial Research Day at Wolverhampton University that I would like to share with you in three separate blogs. One was published in January, another one in March and this blog sees the third part being published. In the first part I considered two distinct periodizations of socially engaged art by Grant Kester (2011) and Oliver Marchart (2019). In the second part I inquired into what Massimiliano Tomba’s (2019) method of decolonizing modern history might reveal about those attempts at periodizing a field of socially engaged art, in addition to introducing Massimiliano Mollona’s (2021) notion of Art/Commons. In this third blog I ask how Tiffany D. Pogue’s analysis of the Bois Caiman ceremony of the Haitian revolution may reconfigure our genealogies, what Oliver Marchart calls the “long Davidian moment”. I recognize that there are obvious limitations to decolonial recontextualization, reconceptualization and reimagining in my blogs – for instance my use of sources, that are predominantly white and male – but also more generally, these are for me early steps in the discursive terrain of decoloniality.
Beyond the Long Davidian Moment
If we look closely at Mollona’s Art/Commons — “the reproductive gestures and rituals that re-introduce movement and openness into fixed and static human institutions … and socialize knowledge and emotions” (2021; 28) are certainly not absent from the Haitian revolution, invoked by Tomba in his chronotonical reading of the French Revolution. Pogue (2019) tells us, that the revolution is widely believed to have started in August 1791, with a voodoo ceremony known as Bois Caiman. The ceremony was integral to creating unity and loyalty among different insurgent groups from Senegambia, Angola and the Bight of Benin, as well as those Africans born in the colony, who “occasionally viewed themselves as separate from the bossales, or Africans brought to the colony directly from Africa,” Pogue tells us, adding that the symbolic production of shared identity that took place through the ritual, specifically, and the voodoo tradition more generally – which unified different social groups while honoring their different identities – was in fact instrumental to the rebellion taking place at all and being successful. “According to some accounts,” she continues, “during the ceremony, a great storm rose over those gathered, and a mambo or priestess appeared and danced with a blade held high above her head,” slaughtering a sacrificial pig. “Blood from the animal, and some say from humans as well, was given in a drink to the attendees to seal their fates and loyalty to the liberation of Saint-Domingue.” This mambo may have been one Cecile Fatiman, although there is no scholarly agreement on her identity. Pogue surmises: “Whoever the mambo present actually was, she was elevated after her death to the status of lwa, or Vodou deity, and was given the name Marinette Bwa Chech … an incredibly powerful deity whose colours are black and blood red. Known to ride those she possesses rather violently, she is feared, but also highly respected for her role in the fight for Haitian independence” (131).
As Tomba makes clear, chronotonical reading is not about the complete proliferation of perspectives nor is it about exchanging history with fiction. After all, he insists on the valence of historical sources that guide our understanding of the past but encourages their juxtaposition, that is, for us, to effectively slide different temporal layers against one another to create the friction necessary to discover new historical horizons. From this perspective, the Davidian moment urgently needs to be chronotonically read against what we might perhaps call the long moment of Marinette Bwa Chech, or the Bois Caiman, as well as countless other similar moments, not only in the past, but precisely right now. Although the disposition between artistic expression and politics may have been different, I argue that it is only a historical and cultural coincidence that David’s paintings, rather than the dance of the lwa, the sounds, and the music, the colors and symbols, clothes and gestures of the voodoo ceremony, are currently being construed within contemporary discourse on art and politics as foundational.
What we should furthermore refrain from doing, in my view, is to construe our periodization of socially engaged art in terms of either the one, or the many (see January blog). These do not mutually exclude one another, and a history either predicated on an individual, such as the one Marchart outlines, or on the collective, such as the one recounted by Kester, is in my opinion not particularly useful. This is perhaps also where I can offer a preliminary critique of Tomba’s anonymous historiography (see March blog). We will not resolve the dichotomy of the one and the many, by simply dissolving either one, but instead staying with the friction that is created in the interaction between the two.
Kester, Grant H. 2011. The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context.
Marchart, Oliver. 2019. Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere. Sternberg Press.
Mollona, Massimiliano. 2021. Art/Commons: Anthropology beyond Capitalism. ZED.
Pogue, Tiffany D. 2009 “Bois Caiman.” In Encyclopedia of African Religion. Edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama. Sage.
Tomba. Massimiliano. 2019. Insurgent Universality. An Alternative Legacy of Modernity. Oxford University Press.