Into the Mind of the Coloniser. 28 March 2019

Interest in Decolonisation and Introduction to Concept

I have an interest in the theme of decolonisation as a reasonably politically-engaged citizen who is also the daughter of people who were alive when present-day Ghana was a British ‘possession’. We live in a society which is still shaped by imperial power structures. I am referring to society as a whole when talking about decolonising culture. Is culture not the distillation of the customs, ideas, knowledge, and social norms of a people? The art world is a part of that. When we talk about decolonising in the context of the art world, we are often referring to the inclusion of stories about the “other,” and about issues of representation – the importance of seeing oneself and others represented in popular culture.

But I am also talking about decolonising the human mind (the title of Wa Thiong’o’s book which was the catalyst for much thought and published work on the decolonisation of the African mind). Gaining  knowledge of oneself (whatever your identity is) and understanding of our colonial past so that we can understand our present. The “de” in decolonising is about achieving knowledge and understanding so that past mistakes are not repeated, while at the same time including multiple perspectives that are relevant to where we are today. It is about placing multiple perspectives in a dialogue with each other while simultaneously gaining knowledge and understanding the past and its impact on our present and potential futures.

As the daughter of Ghanaian parents, I have always had a particular interest in colonial history and knew that eventually I would explore the relationship between Ghana and Britain in my work. In 2016, I went to Ghana looking for old photographs from the colonial era of my family. I found a very powerful image of my maternal great grandmother (Ama) which was taken in 1920 when Ghana was called the British Gold Coast. I knew that I had to use this image in my artwork as the beginning of a new life.

I started by using various image transfer techniques onto body prints and combining both images and prints with text – with no certainty as to where the use of the image would lead – in works such as Great Angel Mother (2016) Great Angel Golden Mother (2016), You Should Learn to Speak the Language (2017), My Dad thinks I am Honest (2017) and most recently The Rebirth of Ama (2018).

The artwork for my ‘Genesis’ exhibition marked the beginning of deeper research into the general history of the British Empire.  In the process, I came across a large archive of out of print books dated from 1649 to around 1920 on the subject. Among these texts are historical accounts written from the perspective of self-described colonisers and colonial administrators. I immediately knew that I wanted to incorporate these works into my performance practice to highlight the mentality of those actively engaged in colonial rule. This work is a further development of my  ‘Bible Page’ series (which I produced for ‘Genesis’) where I used black pigment and 24 carat gold leaf to produce hand and face prints on the pages of a bible dating from the 1800’s as part of my exploration of the religious/colonial history between Ghana, my family and the UK.

In January 2019, I was approached by Open Space Contemporary with a brief for an exciting project which touched on colonialism and the concept of being a host a host or a guest. Into the Mind of the Coloniser was born out of brainstorming for this project.

Into the Mind of the Coloniser (March 2019)

Open Space Forum: Of Hosts and Guests. Curated by Katherine Finerty

During this performance I functioned as the channel by which the mind of the coloniser begins as unknown, becomes uncannily known, and finally unknown again, thereby temporarily re-birthing the recorded history of the coloniser as a shadow figure using the ritual of the Ghanaian funeral.

I also consciously channel the image and spirit of my great grandmother Ama in all of my performances. This was especially important for this performance as I was paying my respects to the past. Dressed in Ghanaian funeral attire which is reminiscent of the colonial era in its appearance, (whilst simultaneously being traditional and hence precolonial) I read aloud from the selected texts. My hands were coated in what looked like dried blood (paint and food dye) and in between reading, I coated my hands in shea butter from Ghana to activate the paint and printed my hands onto the papers I had read aloud.

At later points in the performance, I invited the audience to cut off my clothes (referencing Yoko Ono’s 1965 Cut Piece) and they continued to cut until pieces of the cloth were piled on the floor and my apparently blood stained skin and underwear was exposed. I reactivated the dried paint with shea butter and proceeded to print my body onto large sheets of printed texts which were spread on the floor, leaving a shadow of the past on the present.

As the site of colonial violence, the body has the power to recall past traumas and heal old wounds, to represent one’s ancestry and anticipate one’s legacy.  

[T]he African… establishes a continuum between the worlds of the living, of the ancestor and the unborn… The animist [life of] grace is… rooted in the rituals and observances of African societies… [it] lies at the heart of artistic intuitions and… [is a] pantheistic resolution of all spiritual urgings… [this] animism… [includes attempts] to penetrate beneath [physical material] reality to extract an [metaphysical spiritual] other- reality that is interwoven with the physical and opens itself to a pantheistic universalism. (Wole Soyinka)

“There is nothing more fearful and uncanny in…man than his mnemotechnics. ‘If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory’ … Man could never do without blood, torture and sacrifices when he felt the need to create a memory for himself; the most dreadful sacrifices… the most repulsive mutilations… the cruelest rites of all the religious cults… has its origin in the instinct which realised that pain is the most powerful aid to mnemonics. ( Frederich Nietzche )


Performance images by Ben Peter Catchpole And courtesy of Open Space Contemporary.  Special thanks to Huma Kabakci, founder of Open Space, Halime Ozdemir- Public Relations manager at Open Space and Katherine Finerty Forum guest curator.

Promo images by Jennifer Moyes.