Jeannette Ehlers is a Danish-Trinidadian artist working experimentally across mediums to address questions of memory, race, and colonialism. For our commissioning project Amplify – Stranger in the Village: Afro European Matters, Ehlers created the third chapter of her trilogy We're Magic. We're Real, a poetic metaphor for the relationship between culture and nature, body and landscape, history and the present, using hair as an important marker of identity across communities of African descent.
Autograph’s senior curator Renée Mussai spoke with the artist about this new work, exploring interconnectedness of Afrodiasporic identities, notions of collective resistance and practising freedom.
Renée Mussai (RM): Thanks so much Jeannette for working with us on this commission and creating such a generous body of work.
Jeannette Ehlers (JE): Thank you so much for inviting me. I feel honoured and privileged to be included in the Autograph collection and very grateful to be working with you again.
RM: To begin with, might you be able to share some insights on the series’ title, We’re magic. We’re real # 3, which as I understand forms part of a trilogy?
JE: This commission gave me a great opportunity to follow up, explore and expand some of my most recent ideas and projects. The title is taken from [American actor] Jesse Williams’s powerful 2016 BET Awards speech on race and police brutality, in which he ended with the words ‘just because we’re magic, does not mean we’re not real’. This phrase resonated deeply with me, as it speaks to the immense influences black people have had on modernity that have been erased from history. I ended up using it for a multifaceted body of work in progress: the first piece in this trilogy was made in relation to the exhibition Face to Face – Thorvaldsen and Portraiture at Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen, which honours the famous Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844). The show’s aim was to present Thorvaldsens’s marble portraits. Thorvaldsen was supported by one of the most significant Danish plantation and slave owners, Ernst Heinrich von Schimmelmann (1747-1831). In order to highlight this history of exploitation and the fact that there is no sign of black existence in the museum, I filled an exhibition space with real black hair, creating a collective portrait across time and space of a people dehumanised and unrecognised in terms of their contributions towards the wealth of the Western world, then and now.
RM: Do all the chapters in the trilogy foreground black hair as an important signifier – and connector – of Afrodiasporic identities?
JE: Yes, all of the projects in the trilogy use hair as a significant marker of identity within the African diaspora. In the piece made for Autograph’s collection, the black and brown women in the pictures are linked through long braids: the joined hair points to a shared existence, and the location in the forest refers to spirituality, to ancestral connectivity within the African diaspora, as well as pointing towards maroon life outside the plantation systems in a literal and figurative manner. Hair plays a very important role within the African diaspora: it is deeply political, and historically demeaned and policed by the oppressor in order to retain power. It is also a marker of resistance and integrity, then and now, and was used as a survival strategy by our people during slavery. By centring hair, I am able to actualise this loaded ancestral history and at the same time generate connectivity within the African diaspora.
"Hair plays a very important role within the African diaspora: it is deeply political, and historically demeaned and policed by the oppressor in order to retain power."
RM: This sense of generative connectivity becomes very potent in these photographs. How might this reflect the different and varying experiences in relation to our conditions of existence as Afrodiasporic subjects in contemporary Europe, often still marginalised, yet also hypervisible at the same time, at this particular juncture?
JE: I think we live in a moment in time in which black identity is being given more attention than ever, at least in Europe. However, in my experience black identity politics are still very challenged, and since it is a rather new focus in Europe, there is no strong tradition for speaking about racial issues, unlike in the USA, South Africa or in other parts of the world where Europeans have executed centuries of settler colonialism. We are still trying to find ways to manifest our Afropean existence, to position ourselves. We are living in the cradle of colonial construction, and at the same time living within a culture that is very much in denial of its colonial legacy and its impact on today’s society. My project We’re magic. We’re real is a way to create a space for grappling with this schism, a way to highlight Afrocentric/Afropean perspectives within a Eurocentric culture.
RM: I hear you on this sense of becoming and manifesting: a delayed or prolonged ‘becoming’ that is so much more amplified in other parts of Europe. The subtitle of the series from ‘from sunrise to sunset’ also resonates beautifully with the performance staged in the forest, the way that the light changes and that feeling of transformation captured in the photographs: a kind of anticipation and a serenity.
JE: I chose this title because it suggests a long stretch of time, indicating the ongoing nature, and longevity, of the experience. I really loved the idea of the quietness of that time, the safety – the forest is a symbol of a safe space – both a place of connectivity for the figures in the frame, and one in which to practise our connection to nature. I find this particularly important at this moment in time when we are too detached from everything. For too long, we have been putting humans at the centre of everything, starting with the Renaissance period and into colonial eras. It also speaks to new beginnings: to start afresh, to begin something new.
"We are still trying to find ways to manifest our Afropean existence, to position ourselves. We are living in the cradle of colonial construction, and at the same time living within a culture that is very much in denial of its colonial legacy and its impact on today’s society."
RM: The forest appears almost as another performer in the project, in communion with the performers, rather than merely a fertile backdrop. As living, breathing matter, – a conscious, and symbiotic relationship between the forest and the figures in the trees … it reflects, perhaps, a decolonial ecofeminist mode of linking and sensing and feeling with the space and in the space.
JE: Yes, I would relate to that, intuitively. For me, the project overall embeds a decolonial mode of working and thinking towards creating a counter-narrative to the colonial vision, which is built for and by white males, by formulating an alternative image vision and a sense of connectivity.
RM: What you are describing appears as both individual and collective resistance, to climate colonialism as much as a response to Europe’s colonial pasts and patriarchy: the women in the forest represent a defiance and an invitation. There is a sense of practising freedom together, with one another and with nature, I suppose.
JE: Definitely. I must be honest, I am very much a ‘city girl’ myself, yet during the pandemic, I rediscovered how much I enjoy nature. I began thinking deeper about how the destruction of nature is a result of the colonial project and how we need to be more in tune with the planet, to be closer to nature, to care for the planet, to decentre ourselves and to be more connected with each other instead of living these individual lifestyles. For me, personally, it is a new way of connecting to the African diaspora and culture in Europe, especially growing up in Denmark where communities are more disparate than in many other places in the Global South. For me, this is also about both manifesting, and insisting upon, a sense of community.
RM: A community of kin, an extended Afrodiasporic family, which you are very much part of, including appearing in the photographs themselves. I wanted to ask you about your role as performer as well as choreographer and conductor in the series, and your relationship to the other participants.
JE: The women in the performance are people from my network: some I dance with, others I have engaged with in various cultural events or previous projects. Some are close friends. Being part of the project and appearing in the series myself is important in the sense of being personally connected to the story, to what I want to express. The photographs are linked to a series of performances I staged in the city recently, where we were all connected to historical, ivy-covered buildings with our braids, and thus doubly entangled with Copenhagen’s history of colonialism.
RM: A collective embodiment?
JE: Yes, I wanted to show the black female body in solidarity because of these systems that have oppressed us for so long, and how our bodies are very much connected to nature, which is especially relevant to demonstrate in this time of climate crisis and planetary disasters. It was important for me to locate our bodies, firmly.
RM: And yet the photographs are geographically situated in this space of ambiguity: the forest could be in the Caribbean or elsewhere. Was this indefinability – both temporal and spatial – deliberate?
JE: I do think it is important that one cannot see exactly where it is, yes. But if you look closely, the types of native trees, for instance, offer clues about us performing in a Scandinavian Forest. And I wanted to create a visual manifestation here in this region, of our existence – we are here and we have been here for a long time – and not only in the Global South, because of a reason connected to history and colonialism. So, for me it is also a way of taking space, a reclaiming of that space and cementing our presence visually.
RM: Would you agree that the series is both activist and spiritual? To me, there is something deeply spiritual about the ritualistic staging of this performance in the forest, which is reflected in the uniform white sartorial palette that at first reminded me of Yoruba traditions.
JE: Yes, it makes a lot of sense to look at it like that. Creating work is always spiritual for me because it allows me to connect, and to find my way or place in this world: to reflect on my existence, as part of a wider diaspora history. In terms of the dress, it has links with different African traditions or religious ceremonies in which white is seen as a sacred colour, associated with cleansing. Yet I was also mindful to not imitate the style traditionally used in, for instance, Haitian rituals; hence I asked the performers to bring their own everyday white clothing to the shoot, whatever they had available.
RM: Are their individual identities within the group also expressed in the multicoloured conjoined braids, perhaps alluding not only to the five performers’ shared existence, reflecting the shared cultural heritage of communities of colour at large, but also, I wonder, to a shared difference?
JE: Absolutely. All of us are from the African diaspora, yet we do of course have different mixed ancestries. My father is from the Caribbean, my mother is Danish. Hence the complexion of my skin is light, in common with a few of the performers in the project who are also of mixed heritage. It was important to reflect this in the project, to visually represent the diversity within the African diaspora in Europe. Some of the performers are from the Continent but emigrated to Europe.
"Creating work is always spiritual for me because it allows me to connect, and to find my way or place in this world"
RM: How much of the performance was scripted in advance and how much was improvised?
JE: It was very much a space of improvisation. I had my ideas to begin with, of course, in terms of location and staging, but I was also open to the performance evolving organically in collaboration with the women, and in response to the location. The work was made near the northern coast of Zealand, an hour’s drive north of Copenhagen. We first arrived late at night, around 9pm, and spent three hours there, went back to the bungalow, rested and then returned for another three hours around 4am in the morning. The atmosphere was different, between morning and night, from the shifting temperatures to sounds and light, and subtle changes in the environment, such as the formation of dew on the surfaces of the trees. It was very special and intense to experience the forest together in this way.
RM: Would you say that this sentiment of togetherness was amplified by the impact of Covid-19, given that the work was made during the pandemic and a time of isolation? To me, the photographs also express a deep sense of not just being but also labouring together.
JE: Yes, I think you could definitely say that. We’re magic. We’re real is a project about solidarity, connectivity and collective healing, especially the healing of the colonial wound. And confronting colonial legacies is always labour, both physical and emotional. It is embedded in and shapes every single aspect of our lives, and the process of trying to dismantle these systems [of oppression] that have manifested in different forms for centuries is an ongoing, lifelong project.
RM: Thanks so much, Jeannette, for taking the time to talk, and for making the work.
JE: It was great talking to you; I am so excited about this project.
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