No matter how hard some artists, and particularly Black female artists, aim to transcend the time and place in which they were born, they are often anchored to it by societal subjection. Recovering her history as a woman of color, artist and writer Grada Kilomba transgresses stereotypes that would only ever hold her back.
Born and raised in Lisbon, Portugal with Angolan, Sao Toman, and Portuguese roots, Berlin-based artist and writer Grada Kilomba finds it conflicting to say that she belongs to any specific place. In fact, she condemns patriotic notions of identity and nationality. To her, they solely promote a “very old and dangerous concept linked to conservative politics,” a notion she is not interested in cultivating or belonging to.
Over a late breakfast at her cozy Kreuzberg home, a place she shares with her life and work partner, actor and musician Moses Leo, and their two children, Kilomba tells me that she feels like she belongs everywhere, which informs her rather futuristic notion of identity, equipping her with respectful thinking towards humanity. Kilomba’s artistic output, too, is invariably imbued with a progressive nature. She conveys her thoughts on the social injustices related to postcolonialism through writing, theater, dance, and reading. Her film and performance trilogy, A World of Illusions, which encompasses her adaptations of three Greek myths—Narcissus and Echo, Oedipus, and Antigone—and which she has shown internationally from Germany and Sweden to Japan, garnered critical acclaim for its candid depiction of institutionalized racism and exploiter dynamics. More so, Kilomba’s inclusive body of work vanquishes tired notions of selfhood with a sense of compassion and candor, giving life to projects in which narratives of the past are finally nuanced and three-dimensional. Formally, Kilomba liberates herself from rigid structures, building her works up from writing to performance to installation and narration in a way where each discipline transcends the other, forming a new, holistic approach to interdisciplinary art.
Gazing around her living room, which includes her office space and is adjacent to a spacious children’s room, I read some of Kilomba’s writing printed to the wall: ‘I hate when people touch my hair,’ reads the first line. It stems from Hair Politics, a chapter from her acclaimed book, Plantation Memories, a short-story collection of everyday racism in Germany as a physiological reality, which was published in 2008. Dressed in a black cotton jumpsuit, wearing her long braids tied back and a radiant smile on her face, Kilomba exudes warmth and speaks with a resonance about topics that can be unnerving. As an artist, Kilomba uses writing to understand who she is, examining her pains, her concerns, and her questions. In Narcissus and Echo, the first installment of A World of Illusions, and her adaptation of the Ovidian mythology of the same name, Kilomba describes her feelings of living in a timeless space where the past interrupts her present, and where the present is experienced as if she was in the past.
A few weeks after my visit, the world is dealing with a global health crisis. Collecting Kilomba’s thoughts and activism on the social injustices that prevail in global society, ideas that are always universally relevant, feel even more apt at this moment in time. The Covid-19 pandemic may be a leveler in some contexts—knowing no socioeconomic boundaries, it has plunged everyone, rich or poor, into some level of turmoil. And yet, as we navigate this “new normal” it’s hard to ignore that those most vulnerable in society bear the disproportionate risk of getting infected.
Kilomba defines colonialism as a crime against humanity that has been at the center of global politics for over five centuries. She calls it an ongoing wound that, if we don’t nurse it properly, will continue to haunt us in the form of conservative speech and right-wing politics. Why is it so crucial to openly address postcolonial issues today, I ask? “[Colonial history] has never been treated or documented properly; it has been glorified and romanticized. We tend to look at it as something from the past, and therefore treat it as something we don’t need to look at anymore.” Kilomba sees racism, besides oppression, exploitation, and patriarchy, to name but a few, as continuous implications of colonialism, with movements such as #metoo and Black Lives Matter stepping in “to properly name things.”
“[…] Narcissistic is this white patriarchal society in which we all live. That is fixated in itself, and in the reproduction of its own image, making all the others invisible. I, I am surrounded by images which do not mirror my body. Images of white bodies, with perfect smiles, always gazing at themselves and reproducing themselves as the ideal object of love.”
– Grada Kilomba, Illusions Volume I, Narcissus and Echo (2017)
In its original context, Narcissus and Echo is a tale of unrequited and self-love—of the mountain nymph Echo whose love for Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty, is rejected. Narcissus, cursed by the goddess Hera and therefore incapable of loving anyone but himself, falls in love with his own reflection in a lake. He eventually dies from thirst as he would not leave or touch the water for fear of losing sight of the image. During the piece’s first presentation, commissioned by the 32nd Sao Paulo Biennal, Kilomba fluidly transits between a scholar and an artist, acting as both the griot, the African version of a storyteller, reciting her version of the story next to the screened film, and playing one of the other nymphs. Her husband plays the role of Narcissus, dressed in a checked suit with a matching Panama hat. The actors are performing and dancing silently; drum beats accompany individual scenes. Kilomba starts and finishes the story with the exact same words: “I was invited to come here today, but I feel there is nothing new I can say. I do often have the feeling that everything was already said. And I often feel that we all know everything already, we just tend to forget it.” Kilomba is frustrated at the way dominant narratives have depicted minorities as the “otherness” for forever, leaving whiteness as an aesthetic ideal. But that’s exactly what seems to get her going. Her concept of poetic disobedience is to find her own images, symbols, and vocabulary in order to perpetuate her history and trauma with misrepresentation and invisibility. “Most things out there have a very patriarchal and colonial perspective of what life is,” she says about creating missing platforms. “It’s not about imposing, but about understanding, which is a necessary perspective of what art is,” she adds.
In Antigone, originally Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone loses her two brothers in a fight over the throne. King Creon, the protagonist’s father, only allows the burial of his son defending the kingdom. Antigone challenges him on the grounds of every human’s right to a funeral, rebelling against the colonial patriarchal system, which ultimately leads to her own death. Kilomba not only highlights the lack of tombs for oppressed minorities but turns the burial into a political act against the oblivion of names and faces. She also tells the story from a Black feminist perspective: All lead roles are played by Afro-German females from her own ensemble, including King Creon and Antigone’s fiancé Heamon; only two male actors were cast, for the roles of the two brothers, one being Leo. Nevertheless, Kilomba notes that it would be too simple to just challenge formats that used to be dominated by white men; her vision is “to create new languages where we can all be humans.” With colonialism and feminism so intrinsically linked in her work, could she ever consider them as separate entities, I wonder? “Fantasies of the emancipated white woman, of the oppressed black woman, of the sexualized black man, and the racist fantasies of violent Muslim men—they are all built upon and related to constructions of gender and race that were built historically,” she pauses. “One of the biggest failures [was] that we didn’t understand how things are interrelated and that we separated different movements, [thinking] that one thing doesn’t affect the other.”
Kilomba was raised in Lisbon’s periphery, in a small district on Linha Sintra, midway between the Portuguese capital and the village of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site perched on the craggy slopes of the Serra de Sintra mountains. Her district was home to many working-class families of African descent; Kilomba was one of its first women to attend university. A degree in psychology and psychoanalysis from Lisbon’s Institute of Applied Psychology under her belt, she experienced her formative practice, particularly putting the stories of Angolan and Mozambican war survivors into geopolitical and post-colonial contexts, as “explosive moments.” She left Lisbon at the age of 19 to pursue her Ph.D. at Free University Berlin. In early 2020, Kilomba was shortlisted to design the upcoming memorial for African people enslaved by Portuguese colonialism in Lisbon, a city that struggles to “acknowledge the dehumanization and genocide [linked to] its colonial past.” Throughout her body of work, Kilomba has highlighted the role that destiny can play for those living in a system of cyclical oppression. In Oedipus, she overturns the Freudian theory of desire—“a very masculine perspective”—and contextualizes the story, which originally features Oedipus as a tragic hero who accidentally fulfilled a prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother and thereby bringing disaster to his city, from a postcolonial perspective: “[The Oedipus complex] is a competition with the father. And the fear of the father’s aggression is actually performed outside of the family and the patriarchal relation—on other bodies on which violence and aggression can be performed easily,” she argues. Kilomba appears as Sphinx, the monster the city is at mercy with, with “the face of a woman, the body of a lion, and wings, like a bird.” During the two-channel presentation, she again takes on the role of the griot, and, at the very end, reads:
“There are pieces
in our history
that seem quite
there is nothing
than dealing with
the fact that
one cannot apply
to the truth.
But within racism
there is no agreement
at the level of reason.
Everything about it,
[…] There is nothing
I wish more than
to liberate myself
By poetically dismantling these “mythologies that we all think we know, and realizing they speak about a lot of other things that we usually don’t look at,” Kilomba not only reveals the complexities behind the topics she addresses, but delivers an emotive portrait of herself, her personal trauma, and her role as a woman artist of color. Kilomba amplifies misrepresented voices while urging herself to be honest with her work by going to its divine essence and of who she is. Doing what she wants is empowering to her, being able to transform her experiences into art from her home studio, and then delivering it to the world is liberating, she notes. She says that, for her and Leo, quitting their day jobs to collaborate together full-time—Kilomba was a guest professor at Humboldt University and also employed at Berlin’s Gorki Theater; Leo worked as a theater actor at various german theatres, last at Münchner Kammerspiele—was “a beautiful step” for her entire family. It meant to challenge a “very old concept of living as a family, especially when we were very interested in each other’s work, and instead to travel and work and build something together in an organic, flowing way.” She is not afraid to say no. “I never had so much fun and so much peace at the same time,” she says with a smile, adding that while it is her ambition for people to resonate with her work, that doesn’t mean she does it for anyone but herself. “I’m not busy achieving or delivering something; I’m busy with being able to listen to myself, to my questions.”
Grada Kilomba is a transdisciplinary artist, writer, and curator based in Berlin. Dealing with the social implications of colonialism, Kilomba has challenged Western and patriarchal narratives for over ten years, her most prominent works including her acclaimed book Plantation Memories and the film and installation trilogy A World of Illusions. She is also currently exhibiting work as part of an online exhibition at Goodman Gallery titled Heroines, Birds and Monsters. Follow Kilomba for her thoughts and activism on Instagram.