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The location of power in four Acts

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Abdul Abdullah, Journey to the West, 2017, digital print, 75cm x 130cm. Courtesy the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

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Act I: Journey to the West

In his work titled Journey to the West, Abdul Abdullah reflects upon the 16th century Chinese novel of a Buddhist monk who journeys with his three disciples to Central Asia. The Monkey King, as it is known in the English language, is a story that has permeated East Asia in various different forms over the centuries, Abdullah reinvents this ancient narrative to describe and document the current experience of the ‘other’:

“I am the Monkey King sitting alone; a monstrosity surrounded by opulence, contemplating the journey that awaits me. ‘The West’ in this work is capitalised and refers to the current politicised definition. I sit in the richness of a culture anticipating venturing into a place that will only see me as something ugly and ultimately bad.”

Journey to the West reflects several key messages, the self-portrait contains within it moment captured by Abdullah; he is the ‘other’ anticipating the peril of entering the West, a ‘white’ space; by donning the ape mask, Abdullah is reflecting back to the audience how the non-white Muslim body is normally conceived. He is doing so within the awareness of the way in which these spaces disfigure, disarm and dismiss the histories of the ‘others’. And despite the opulence and beauty surrounding him, what Abdullah is revealing in this image is the ugliness of the human condition that will transform his beauty into the monstrosity projected by the observer. The theatre of Abdullah’s work speaks to the multifaceted systems of power yielded through the colonisation of language, visual culture and physical spaces, and enacted as the long standing and orchestrated performance of ‘whiteness’ that humankind has been (con)scripted into.

Act II: Epistemic disobedience

In the essay Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-Colonial Freedom, semiotician and de-colonial theorist Walter Mignolo speaks of ‘situated knowledges’ in terms of the ‘geo-and-body-politics’ of knowing. When we think about power, and the (often) invisible structures from which certain privileges are afforded we rarely consider the long history of racism in term of the colonisation of knowledge and how those systems continue to operate in the present. Eurocentric and Western epistemologies operate from the deliberately constructed geographies, where Europe presents itself as neutral, and as the centre point, or as Mignolo points out, “from what Columbian philosopher Santiago Castro-Gomez describes as the hubris of zero point”. This is a point from which all other knowledges are ranked and measured. Therefore, power is not only situated within the geography and body, but also within the systems of knowledge, or epistemologies, themselves. Mignolo goes on to state:  

“…geohistorical and bio-graphic loci of enunciation have been located by and through the making and transformation of the colonial matrix of power: a racial system of social classification that invented Occidentalism (e.g. Indias Occidentales), that created the conditions for Orientalism; distinguished the South of Europe from its center (Hegel) and, on that long history, remapped the world as first, second and third during the Cold War. Places of non-thought (of myth, non-western religions, folklore, underdevelopment involving regions and people) today have been waking up from the long process of westernisation.” (1)

With that, Mignolo argues for epistemic disobedience, and calls for the “definitive rejection of ‘being told’ from epistemic privileges of the zero point what ‘we’ are” (2). This colonisation of geography and knowledges also extends to the colonisation of space. Once again, this is enacted as a type of silent or invisible racism that forges itself into the very spaces we live through the body.

Act III: Orientation devices

Colonialism makes the world ‘white’, which is of course a world ‘ready’ for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach. Bodies remember such histories, even when we forget them. ⁠ — Sara Ahmed

Cultural and feminist theorist Sara Ahmed speaks of this experience in terms of ‘whiteness’, more precisely she speaks of the phenomenology of whiteness, or the “experiences of inhabiting a white world as a non-white body” (3). Ahmed goes on to state:

“Spaces acquire the ‘skin’ of the bodies that inhabit them. What is important to note here is that it is not just bodies that are orientated. Spaces also take shape by being orientated around some bodies, more than others. We can also consider ‘institutions’ as orientation devices, which take the shape of ‘what’ resides within them. After all, institutions provide collective or public spaces.” (4)

This includes the public institutions and spaces where our society is educated and socialised, and where many artists from non-white backgrounds struggle to be present. These are the spaces, the museums and galleries where most artists generally rely on for the visibility and success of their practice and connections with a broad public audience. This ‘power’ is essentially operating within, and throughout our public spaces and the cultural landscape. In view of public space as an “orientation device”, we can now begin to think of space in both its materiality and invisibility, and as a social and cultural space where relations happen.

Act IV: The geography of power

Space, according to feminist geographer Doreen Masey, is in fact “a geography which is in a sense is the geography of power”.(5) This power infects the imagining and bodily experiences of space; by squeezing it, dominating it and terrorising it with an exclusionary, hegemonic narrative directly affects how access to that space is determined. Within such spaces Ahmed speaks of the discomfort of the non-white body because the “spaces we occupy do not ‘extend’ to the surfaces of our bodies”, she goes on to state, “when the arrival of some bodies is noticed, when an arrival is noticeable, it generates disorientation in how things are arranged”.(6) Ahmed once again points us back to the phenomenology of whiteness, as it “helps us to notice institutional habits; it brings what is behind to the surface in a certain way”.(7)

The perils which emerge from the narrative in Abdullah’s Journey to the West are no metaphor, they are a lived reality for many. And for the many, there is something almost radical in the way in which both Mignolo and Ahmed excite the senses with the notion of disobeying Eurocentric knowledge systems, and of enacting ones presence in the spaces in which one can begin to reveal and disorientate the devices of power. When considering the various structures of power and the ways in which we can collectively intervene, this is not just an action for the present moment, rather, it is a sustained effort, one that does not forget the histories that our bodies remember and draws on the radical disobedience of those who have come before us; and one that is geared towards the future (in the history we are making now), and the ways in which we can and should smash these power structures for ourselves, and for each other.