Into The Mind Of The Coloniser. Fridman Gallery. New York. 2020
Adelaide Damoah has spent years searching for books, stamps, photos and maps relating to the British Empire. In 2018 she found an archive of out of print books relating to the Empire printed between the mid 17th and mid 19th century. There were 204 in total. Of the books she discovered, Damoah states, “ What I have read so far, with my 21st Century eyes has been a revelation. Not an altogether surprising revelation. However, it has helped me to place our present situation (race, migration, immigration) in context relative to our history.” The discovery of these books has prompted Damoah to deepen her lifelong mission of investigating the history of colonisation and to utilise the texts in her studio and performance practice. She has named the overall project, “Confronting Colonisation.”
“Just think for a moment what it is to have been born an Englishman; think how many millions of men there are in this world to-day who have been born Chinese, or Hindus or Kaffirs; but you were not born any of these, you were born an Englishman.” Ellis T Powell quoting Cecil Rhodes in “The Sheaves of Empire. A light on the Higher Aspects of Imperialsim 1910- one of the books in the found archive. * (Kaffir is the derogatory term used for black people during that time- mostly in South Africa) . Here we see Cecil Rhodes, the father of Apartheid, expressly placing himself and Englishmen above all men.
Of the above passage, Damoah states, “This kind of language and belief system is at the heart of everything I have read so far from this time period. From the mouths of the colonisers themselves- who were mostly the elite. The colonial project simply could not have worked, could not have been justified, had they not ensured that all other races were dehumanised and made subject races. Lesser than.”
Damoah is the channel by which the previously unknown became known again. Bringing history to life. A rebirth via the ritual of the Ghanaian funeral. Bringing the unknown back into the known to become known again as the shadow figure. The imaginative process of the uncanny.
Before each performance, Damoah consciously channels the image and spirit of her great grandmother, Ama. Through this conduit, Ama comes to life. It is of great importance for this performance as Damoah considers it a way of paying her respects to the past. Dressed in Ghanaian funeral attire, reminiscent of the colonial era in its appearance, (whilst simultaneously being traditional and hence precolonial); Damoah read aloud from the selected texts, her hands, coated in what looked like dried blood (paint and food dye.) She then proceeded to envelop her hands in shea butter from Ghana, in order to activate the paint which she then placed on the pieces of the manuscript and continued to read. Further into the performance, Damoah invited the audience to cut away her clothes (referencing Yoko Ono’s 1965 Cut Piece) and they continued to cut until pieces of the cloth were piled on the floor and her apparently blood-stained skin and underwear were exposed. She reactivated the dried paint with shea butter and proceeded to print her body onto large sheets of printed texts which were strewn 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.
This is the third time the artist has performed “Into The Mind Of The Coloniser. After performing in London, Damoah was invited to Oslo at the end of 2019 to perform at Rafiki Arts Festival.
During the London and Oslo performances, the audience followed instructions and the atmosphere was tense, but calm and concentrated. In New York, the audience was different. The atmosphere was tense and stifling. The room was packed and warm. During the cutting part of the performance, one of the audience members cut off a piece of his shirt rather than cut the artists clothes. Another audience member cut the paper she was reading from. Yet another placed the scissors in her waistband and a lady cut a piece of her own hair and dropped it on the floor. Finally, a young man took the scissors and threw it to the back of the room, effectively halting this stage of the performance.
Of the performance, Damoah said,
“ I could not have anticipated the reaction of the audience to the cutting. It was powerful and emotional. It felt like there was a mix of emotions. Anger, sadness, rage… I could not see exactly what the audience members were doing as my attention was focused straight ahead. I was in the zone. The violence of the way the scissors landed at the back of the room brought me back to reality. I almost cried, it was overwhelming. At the end of the performance, I sought out the man who had thrown the scissors to find out if he was okay. He nodded that he was and then burst into tears. He kept repeating that he could not watch them doing that to me… Over and over he repeated it. I hugged him until he calmed down. It was an intense and powerful moment in which I felt seen and loved by a stranger… Protected. I promised to go back and talk to him the next day. I did. We had a short but incredibly deep and moving conversation in which he expressed he felt as though I was sacrificing myself for the message and the work. I had not thought of my work in those terms before, but as soon as he said it, I realised that I was. I am. And I was fine with that. ”
The concept of Sankofa is at the core of all of Damoah’s practice, but especially this body of work- because it so directly references our history. Everything the artist does is an attempt to gain an understanding of our present circumstances. Ultimately, Damoah wants the discourse stimulated by the work to encourage understanding, growth and empathy.