Pertinent reading for the turn of the decade — the turn of any decade in the last few hundred years. Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy came to me from I have no idea where, early last year. My ‘Want to Buy’ list is mad out of control, and taking 18 months for a book to circulate up to getting ordered is quick. I’m presuming it turned up in my RSS feed, or maybe Twitter shortly before I bailed from there.
I play this game when I’m reading histories of racial segregation. It doesn’t have a name, and it’s quite simple. It’s a ‘What if’ game and goes like this: ‘What if my dad or his parents lived there?’ How would or could their lives be shaped and changed by the laws and regulations at that place and that time? What might they be categorised as? I am reminded every time I play how conditional and tenuous ‘race’ is, how arbitrary the race line is, how those tenuous and arbitrary demarcations of where the line falls determine even if they could have married at all. And if they did, and if then my parents could — for the same reasons — the possibilities for life stop with me. White supremacy is, after all, bound at its root with reproductive heteronormativity and the eugenicist-defined ‘health of the White race’.
Around the time I saw the exhibition, Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente Seiner Geschichte Und Gegenwart, and while Germany was (and is) moving through its unfinished history with Namibia, I noticed the burden of proof that genocide had occurred always rested on the victims. Again, conditional, arbitrary. Namibia (then German South-West Africa): genocide; German East Africa: (now Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania), merely subduing of an uprising. If we accept the fact that the aim of European colonialism was to divide the entire globe amongst itself (clearly seen in its late-19th century form of the Berlin Conference dividing up Africa), we must also agree that two fundamental tools or strategies in that were (and are) race and genocide. Eugen Fischer, who was there in German South-West Africa, later with the Nazis, whose ideology shaped the Nuremberg Laws, said of genocide, “whoever thinks thoroughly the notion of race, can not arrive at a different conclusion”. Wherever colonialism happened, so too did genocide.
And after the Second World War, after anti-colonialist movements, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain, the End of History and all that, we didn’t magically cease to live in a racist, genocidal, white supremacist world. That should have been self-evident before the events of the last few years, and arguing this is again an instance of burden of proof falling on the victims.
While this book deals with a narrow time period and geographical context (primarily 1920s–1960s and the Jim Crow South; broadly the US), nonetheless the role of white, cisgender, heteronormative women in collectively and individually creating, enforcing, and adapting racial segregation is something we’ve seen continuously, around the globe, without pause, right up to the UK election result on Thursday. Whatever racist, colonialist, genocidal (and we’re talking about planetary scale genocide these days) white supremacist fuckery the straight white men who run shit get off on, it’s their women who, in all the little, everyday ways, from home to school to communities to government offices who make it happen.
This wasn’t meant to be a review or compilation of opinions, it’s a Sunday, I haven’t blogged for a while, I have a pile of books that Panda bought (Panda unilaterally does the buying, I get the leftovers, Panda is mad educated), and I’m thinking through a large piece of fiction I’m writing of which books like this are extremely pertinent. It’s the kind of book I say, “Read it if you can, then find and read the comparable books from where you live,” keeping in mind my own global history as a product and result of colonialism.
There’s so much I have on my list of “Shit to Steal from Museums.” So much. And while I applaud the thieves who broke into Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’sHistorisches Grünes Gewölbe for their commitment to stacking mad cash, their commitment to aesthetics is lacking, and I do not approve. Unless it’s for reparations.
If I was to hit Residenzschloss, I’d go straight to Neues Grünes Gewölbe, having cased out all the museums in mid-2017, and lift the alien madness of Daphne as a Drinking Vessel. And smash Tequila from it (’sup Vass?). And the Basilisk Drinking Vessel. Which would be my German Whip.
Seriously, though? The video of the thieves hacking at the display case with an axe is deeply upsetting both for its relentless violence, and for how fucking incompetent they were.
Last Thursday at the press conference for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s new exhibition in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Fighting for Visibility – Women Artists in the Nationalgalerie before 1919. Best thing: free entry and waved through with my fancy ‘Presse’ sticker on my left boob, also leisurely photographing of Art. Not so good thing: real journalists have a ‘Press’ card — like everything in Germany, authenticity through official validation — I have a blog. Much hilarity ensured trying to get to the press table. Not great at all: an exhibition on women artists, and the panel was two men who talked for almost half an hour before letting the sole woman, who was the curator, have a word. She reclaimed her time, was heaps more relevant, and let’s pretend I didn’t notice the menz not paying attention to her.
It’s been a while since I went to a museum. I got burnt out on editing too many images, and from July last year was working 60+ hours a week (which, had I not been getting paid 70% of what men do, could have worked 42 hours for the same euros — actually I was getting paid even less, keeping the narrative simple here), and been in slow time recovery since June, so … art. It’s a thing I remember.
I have a lot of issues with this exhibition. I want to be all cheerleading from the sidelines, buuut … problems. Problems I think are structural in the museum and SMB and Germany, which, had I seen this same exhibition in London or Melbourne or New York, would have been twenty or thirty years ago in its current context and appearance, or a contemporary version that had built on three decades of representation that Germany’s national museums have yet to have. As it was, it felt hella anachronistic and patronisingly “something for the ladies also #MeToo”.
None of that is a criticism of curator Yvette Deseyve, however. What is a criticism though (which may or may not have been covered in the catalogue, but bitch here is poor and isn’t throwing around 30€ right now) is structural intersections of gender, femininity, heteronormativity, class, whiteness, racism, colonialism, imperialism, which were well in play by the time even the youngest artists were born, and shaped all of them across the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a missed opportunity, and one I continually question whether white, heteronormative feminism is ever going to recognise. This really struck me with the replacement of one of my favourite works in the museum, Osman Hamdi Bey’s Der Wunderbrunnen (Ab-ı Hayat Çeşmesi) with Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Kniende Mutter mit Kind an der Brust. Choosing a painting of a naked white woman nursing a baby as the figurehead of the exhibition in the entrance hall, without critically engaging (again, outside of whatever is in the catalogue) with Germany’s history of motherhood, family, race, and religion reads as a tacit condoning or passive acceptance of this cultural history, as well as one of those, ‘this wouldn’t have happened if there was real, working diversity in the room’ type situations. And seeing how many young women were working around the exhibition … yeah, awkward.
Go and see it? If it’s included in the ticket price for the whole Alte Nationalgalerie, then yeah but don’t expect to be blown away. But if you gotta pay extra to see women artists who should be hanging in the permanent collection since — at the latest — the early ’90s, when the previous two decades’ demands for representation had filtered into these big, old, slow institutions and there was no valid excuse for them not being there besides entrenched misogyny? Fuck that noise. Let’s have 100 years of only women artists in the SMB museums and 100 years of men getting paid 30% of what women get. Also let’s have a conversation about what ‘woman’ denotes in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and now.
When I was in Krakow a few winters ago, I went to Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie and was slapped for pointing a camera at the paintings in the Olga Boznańska exhibition. I was thinking of that when I walked through this one, and the previous large one I saw in the same place, which took up the whole floor instead of what felt like a few side rooms and one main room, Alte Nationalgalerie: Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende. The Olga Boznańska exhibition took up about the same space as Impressionismus – Expressionismus. For one woman.
Anyway, art. Art I liked (and some I didn’t but here we are), art I could photograph, art it transpired I’d photographed adequately enough to be able to edit into something passable.
This was pretty crucial for me, after 10 years living in Berlin, to see this row of people — trans women, feminine, Travesti, Khawaja Sera, non-binary, masculine … but especially the women and feminine ones, and especially the Muslim ones. And them saying “We don’t accept these words like trans, we have our own words,” yeah, was like belonging here for an instant. Onyx said Ahi Wi-Hongi was going to be there as well, but last-minute couldn’t make it. Onyx should have been on the panel though, especially after giving a decade to this city.
Continuing with this amended way of blogging about what I’m reading, another small pile of books I picked up a couple of weeks ago and am currently getting through.
Akala came up in my Twit feed a while ago, I watched him utterly destroy at least one idiot white British politician on TV, decided he fitted into where I’m reading at the moment in combinations of UK / London / Colonialism / Black / Grime history, realised he’s the brother of the deadly Ms. Dynamite, laid into it at the same time I was reading Dan Hancox’s Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime. Pretty much highly recommend Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, even though he’s kinda weak on the feminism / queer side of things — bit of a cishet male bias there, mate — but he’s talking from his own experience growing up as a black boy and man in London, and it’s grim shit we need to hear and read.
Small aside, I went on a Giggs binge last night. First time I heard him was JME’s and his Man Don’t Care. Dasniya said she liked his voice more, something kinda menacing and slow but also “cinnamon tea”. He was live at Roundhouse earlier this year, and closed with Whippin’ Excursion, just watch the crowd fucking lose it when the bass drops, it’s a madness. Then go back to Talkin’ da Hardest in 2007 or even further, 2003, dejavu FM pirate radio and the Conflict DVD. That’s where grime came from, the rooftops of council housing tower-blocks (yeah I know Giggs isn’t grime, but he works with a lot of grime artists, so, keeping it simple here), rough as guts and dead end and set up to fail and go down or die. So belabouring a point here, the political and social significance of someone like Giggs filling the Roundhouse and having a packed crowd go the fuck off … gives me shivers. Good, deep, world-changing shivers.
I haven’t read Charlie Jane Anders’ Six Months, Three Days, Five Others yet. But I’ll always read her. The more of my sisters in this game, the better.
Corinne Duyvis’ On the Edge of Gone I probably heard of from the usual places, io9, or someone in my Twit feed. Reasons for reading: it’s sci-fi, she’s queer, lives in Amsterdam, is autistic. I’m not sold on the ‘science’ part of the science-fiction yet, set in 2035 and interstellar generation ships are a somewhat mature technology — this might be a ruse, but still, large-scale ships for hundreds or thousands of people, able to launch from Schiphol Airport seems improbable for 17 years from now. Maybe I’m reading that part wrong. Nonetheless, an autistic main character — and you all know my love of Feersum Endjinn and Whit. (I’m not even going to tell you about my own neurofuckery and my spreadsheet which I use to remember people I’ve met.)
Obviously I bought Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space for the title. I’m still kinda on the whole, “I don’t really read menz” thing, for so long it’s not even a thing, it’s more of a “I read women authors and non-binary authors on the feminine side of things,” because obviously I want to see my people represented and that means all my people and their people and their people’s people. So sometimes I read a book by a guy. I have this habit, where I read an author’s acknowledgements and count the names and divide them into male-ish, female-ish, and I dunno. Pretty reliably, male author’s female-ish names count tops out around 30%, ’cos we all know 1/3 female feels like half or more than half in the real world. It means I tend to read male authors with suspicion, it’s a question of do they really genuinely care about and practice what we currently call intersectionality, or are they fortunate enough (truly though, I mean impoverished) to not have to make it a necessary part of their lives. So far, then — I’ve only read the first dozen pages — Nigerians in Space is a hilarious sci-fi thriller of straight men making really, really bad irreversible decisions.
Lucky last, Nuraliah Norasid’s The Gatekeeper. This one via JY Yang and / or various Twit mentions (I’m taking a long pause from the Twit, ’cos it’s not good for my moodiness or neurofuckery), and / or a bunch of South-East Asian blogs in my feed. I dunno what’s happening over Singapore way, but the sci-fi fantasy spec-fic stuff I’ve been reading is on fire. This is her first novel, and reminded me of Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories (or maybe more A Stranger in Olondria). There’s a lot I love in this, but some poor narrative decisions that seem more about manufacturing drama leading to an uncomfortable conclusion where the main character is incarcerated and pregnant and we know her children will be taken away from her to be experimented on. Which is an ongoing reality for colonised indigenous peoples, but here it was more in the vein of the awful Joss Whedon Black Widow trauma porn backstory. There’s a much tighter, more cogent story here that doesn’t rely on weak tropes, and which finesses out the cataclysmic acts of the main character and her sister (I’m ignoring the rich boy, ’cos he could be dropped and the story would only grow). First novel though, another author I’ll read again.
It’s International Museum Day in Germany. And I’ve spent much of it in die grüne Hölle, ’cos this weekend it’s 24 Hours Nürburgring. Which is also art. And there’s the ring°werk museum there, so we’re sorted for museums.
But MedievalPOC has been Twitting some of my photographs from 4 ½ years of museum-ing and I’m kinda shocked at how much art I saw and photographed (and the hours I spent in Photoshop prepping, hours spent blogging), and how much I’ve forgotten until I’m reminded again. And embarrassed by my earlier photographs, so many of which I wish I could go back and retake.
Hans Baldung Grien’s Der Dreikönigsaltar was one of the very first works I saw, four years ago on my first visit to Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and returned to many times. The best photos I took of it was in 2015, in Gemäldegalerie — St Mauritius and Companions, which was for MedievalPOC, and I said, “This is for @mediavalpoc. I look at art far more closely because of them.” I look at the world far more closely because of her.
One last thing: I’ve never photographed the exterior wings of this altarpiece. St Katharina is on one, she who is the patron saint of scholars, spinsters, and knife sharpeners, and who has appeared alongside St Mauritius all the way back to the earliest extant work of him, the sculptures in Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina.