In Conversation with Nana Adusei-Poku
When I interviewed Nana Adusei-Poku for the SIEGESSAEULE in April 2018, she was curating a symposium entitled Colonial Repercussions: Performances of No-thingness, the second in a three-part series on the remnants of Germany's colonial past at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. The symposium featured workshops, lectures, performances, and discussions led and authored entirely by POC. It was a few weeks away when we spoke.
Adusei-Poku, an independent curator, scholar, and writer who works internationally, was in New York at the time of this interview. She sat at her desk with a lit cigarette, perhaps by a window as the room was filled with light. We talked about black ontology, care work, and centering black queer perspectives.
RH: What do you hope people take away from the symposium, “Performances of No-thingness” particularly with reference to queer bodies?
NAP: I have a lot of questions - I’m not proposing answers at all. It’s usually the synergy of the people who participate that give insight into the questions that are posed, and maybe some answers. But predominantly, I hope they will pose more questions to the audience. I’m perfectly fine with creating some kind of confusion. There is a queer approach, intersectionality is at play, and there is engagement with Germany’s colonial past, so I think it will be pretty confusing. I think confusion is great.
RH: What do you mean?
The audience doesn’t necessarily know what’s happening, and that’s something that I always go for when I curate. I want people to do the work, I want them to become curious. I want them to read and really get immersed in the subject matter, because that’s where accountability starts. Every person in the room is, in a way, politically accountable for what is happening in Germany and beyond, and so they have to do the work *laughter* and I don’t know how to translate that properly but I hope you get what I’m saying with doing the work, the emotional work, to deal with their confusion. And of course I would love for people to shift their perspective and think, “this does something to me. What can I take away from this?”
For POC people, I want the symposium to be inspiring and I want to open up space for the imaginary. There are so many limitations in conservative institutions for queer people of colour, and seldom are there experiences that we can take away with us and feel empowered, or feel as part of something that could potentially grow beyond us. So I have different audiences in mind, strategically. One person may be confused, while the other feels affirmed and inspired to push their own practice in another direction or think differently about their own gender performance.
There are very limited ideas about what queer aesthetics can be. SIEGESSAEULE is a very good example of that, right? It’s a magazine where a very specific queer aesthetic is present, and in New York you have the same thing. The artists that I have invited, who situate their own practice in a queer tradition, entirely dismiss this aesthetic in favor of something very different. They show that there’s more to queerness than what’s mediated.
RH: How did you come about the concept for this symposium?
NAP: I had been in conversation with AdK programme director Johannes Odenthal about the fact that Germans are not very well-versed in their own colonial history. So when the Akademie der Künste approached me, it was something that I had already been thinking about. My entire work had been on colonial histories and histories of enslavement, but now I’m trying to use this concept to open the conversation up. To tackle the colonial idea of imperialism, you have to think about gender.
No-thingness really arrives from a text that I have been immerse in by Fred Moten. The text is called Blackness and Nothingness: Mysticism in the Flesh. For Moten, blackness is in this in-between state of having and not having an ontology [a theory of being]. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Frantz Fanon’s work but he also says the black subject doesn’t have an ontology.
RH: Does he write this in Black Skins White Masks?
NAP: Yeah, other thinkers like Édouard Glissant talk about relationality, the idea that we exist always in exchange with each other, that our existence is intrinsically interdependent. When I began my research, I looked at questions of black performativities and the notion of black performance. We are constantly performing in some sort of way, whether it’s self-guarding ourselves or being in a public space and knowing exactly how you have to act. When you think about the way black people are coming over the Mediterranean, with many being left to die - all these forms of systemic violence on black bodies were very present for me when I started conceptualising this event.
Black queer performers challenge normativity at its core. They break the forms in which the black body was conceptualized. So this is why, in the concept of the symposium, these two factors are really centered. I was really adamant about the programming being a completely black event. The Akademie der Künste on Pariser Platz 4 is such a historically charged venue and I really want to challenge the space in itself. Most people are so overwhelmed when black subjectivity is centered, when it is not in the periphery, when it is not a spectacle.
I don’t know if you have read Christina Sharp’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being?
RH: I haven't I'm afraid.
NAP: She has opened up this notion of wake work. Her book deals with being a black person in the world and being constantly confronted with the historical presence of dead black people, whether it's the middle passage or that person of African descent who recently drowned in Venice, for example. Tourists and locals were filming this person drowning before their eyes! And so [as a black person] you are in a constant state of mourning and grief and that demands a particular type of care, and I take that notion of care quite seriously. It isn’t going to be a safe space - there are no safe spaces - but that’s where I see my responsibility - I completely wandered off from your questions.
RH: No it’s lovely just listening to you verbalize a lot of thoughts and feelings I’ve had, as well as add to my understanding. Thank you.
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