- ART ROOM
BLACK SPECTERS *
The work of Jeannette Ehlers circles around the return of a phantasmagorical image: the image of the black slave as a revenant, as an abject specter whipping our smoothly postcolonial imagination with its non-presence. Turned into a shadow memory, the elusive image of the black revolution is recuperated by the lucid eye of this artist, born in Copenhagen and projected into the walls of the White Cube. Focused primarily on the way in which the Danish culture systematically represses its involvement with the transatlantic trade of black bodies, luxury commodities, and human labor, Ehlers’s installations galvanize our senses, inviting a cinematic revolt against collective oblivion.
Tracing the colonial wounds inflicted by the transatlantic diaspora in the oral memories of her own father, a Trinidadian descendant of enslaved Africans, her installations could be described as a video-vodou invocation of the Haitian revolution. Echoing the phantasmagorical return of communism alluded by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx, her work invokes the specters of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the struggle to the death between history and new forms of visual racism.
In the following I will approach Ehlers’s work from the point of view of hauntology, a concept coined by Derrida during the conferences that gave name to the abovementioned book. More specifically, I will elaborate on the cinematic strategies used by Ehlers in order to expand hauntology, that is, to rethink its scope as a mere academic discourse. In a nutshell, this introduction contends that the significance of Jeannette Ehlers’s installations rests upon her attempt to make visible a ghost fully neglected, or at least systematically overlooked, by deconstructionist hauntologers: the black slave as damné, as the radical non-being alluded to by Frantz Fanon in his major books Black Skin, White Masks (Peau noire, masques blancs) and The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre). As we will see, Ehlers performs her own invisibility, dancing like a ghost with a variety of specters.
The work of Jeannette Ehlers explores the site-specific screen as the sensible house of the revenant. In her work, the screen has a double meaning: it is the stage for representation, the place in which phantasms and eidolons dwell, as much as the collective skin in which the black slave acquires visual presence and corporeal density. Rather than a general approach to the history of ghosts, her work elaborates on the return of a very specific kind of alterity: the radical Other and the ‘non-being’ described in first person by Frantz Fanon. In my view, her work hosts the black specter not as a mere conceptual form but rather as the sensible presence of an absence. Her screens are inhabited by the silence of Hegel on the Haitian revolution and, subsequently, by this silence that haunts Stirner, haunts Marx, haunts Derrida, etcetera.
Emerging from the darker side of capitalism as much as from the internal contradictions of the enlightened colonial world, the figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the betrayed alter ego of Napoleon Bonaparte, reappears together with hauntology as an archetypal black specter. L’Ouverture the revenant haunts the postcolonial museum as much as the official history of slavery, alliterating and expanding the specters of Marx. The silence surrounding the Code Noir, the written but ‘never spoken law’ of the transatlantic slave trade is nothing but a symptom bridging the dark side of modernity with our postcolonial imaginaries. Fully aware of this bridge, scholars such as Louis Sala-Molins have connected the silence of French enlightened philosophers such as Condorcet on topics related to Haiti, L’Ouverture, and the Code Noir, with the 1989 monumentalizing postcolonial commemorations of the French revolution. In his own words:
Contortions needed […] to better cover up the official silence on that other sad end, the one that in Fort-de-Joux swept away Toussaint Louverture into nothingness. [O]ur very Republican leaders gave proof ‘before the country,’ in the most dazzling of feasts, in the most prestigious of places— the Jeu de Paume and the Pantheon— that they can, in the most democratic way possible, hurt the liberty of a people and its basic right to know by manipulating memory and erasing ‘awkward facts from history.’ Like his minister in the Pantheon, the president succeeded in narrating, in the Jeu de Paume, the real end of slavery, well after the death of the Enlightenment, without once mentioning either the revolt in Saint-Domingue or Toussaint Louverture’s name, but that of France alone! [Sala-Molins 2006, 147-48].
As you can see, the bicentennial ‘commemoration’ of the French revolution consisted not only in ‘pantheonizing’ Condorcet, but also in spectralizing L’Ouverture in an attempt to obliterate the whole debate about the existence of the written but unspoken law regulating black slavery. The pantheon, the place for all Gods, becomes a phantom –the apparition of something having the form, but not the substance, of a real thing. Digging out the Code Noir, the work of Jeannette Ehlers revolves around the cinematic emergence of Toussaint L’Ouverture as a black specter—a specter disrupting and to a certain extent supplementing deconstructionist hauntology.
The most tangible presence of L’Ouverture in Ehlers’s work is a series of black-and-white videos: The March, Black Bullets, and Off the Pig. Conceived as a multi-channel installation, these videos work well as autonomous video-projections. In The March (2012) the idea of the Haitian revolution as a cognitive map ramifies and becomes physical. This work is about the offspring and permanency of the revolution across time, represented through a suspended tree, apparently immobile in space, in a never-ending development of new branches and new roots. This tree is in fact a digitally manipulated moving image of Jeannette Ehlers’s own brain, scanned and modeled in 3D. In the background we see a walking multitude of insurgent ghosts.
Ehlers used historical shooting from the Voting Rights Movement in Alabama to create this juxtaposition. The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery is turned in this way into a timeless demonstration, collapsing the insurgent disruptions of the 18th Century in Haiti with the 60s civil rights movements in the US. Rather than a historical event located in the past, the ‘march’ is presented as a never-ending approach to our contemporary screen, identifying the past of the revolution as a historical event with our time-now as spectators situated at the other side of the visual representation. Everything in this piece seems to deal thus with the time-space of the revolution: the revolt occurring in some specific place and the revolt inhabiting multiple temporalities; the embodied idea of the revolution.
Extending this idea of the time-now of the revolution, Black Bullets (2012) depicts a line of young black students appearing and disappearing in the sky. The video was filmed in Haiti, at the emblematic local fortress known as Citadel, the protective symbol of the revolution. Avoiding any sort of traditional renaissance perspectivism, the line of black bodies dematerializes horizontally, as if the bodies were subsumed under themselves as they walk. Paradoxically, the origin of the revolution seems to be located before their eyes, in the direction of their steps. A possible reading of the piece has to do again with disavowing Hegel’s lordship/bondage scheme: the existence of these bodies (the multitude of the black revolution) does not require any master in order to be recognized as real subjects, objects, or specters; they appear and disappear, indifferent, in front of our eyes.
Off the Pig (2012) completes this triptych. The video registers another icon of the black revolution, the so-called creole pig, a species indigenous to Haiti. Despite controversies on the subject matter, several anthropologists and historians support the idea that the blood of this pig has been traditionally offered to Ezili Dantor, the dark skinned vodou female spirit, and used in Haiti in different ritualized insurgencies against colonial oppression [Laguerre 1989, Menneson-Rigaud 1958, Pluchon 1987, Thylefors 2009]. The foundational myth of the correlation between the pig and the revolution has in fact place and time: the area of Bois-Caiman (Haiti) in 1791 during the so-called Bwa Kayiman ceremony. Stressing the division between myth and history, it is easy to notice that, for the popular political Haitian imagination the revolts in Saint-Domingue gained momentum as a result of the ingestion the blood of this animal.
The video consists of a series of statements by and about Toussaint L’Ouverture, juxtaposed with direct shootings of Haitian creole pigs. The subtext of the video is precisely the opening (l’ouverture) of the revolution: the trigger for the insurrection. Here, Toussaint L’Ouverture appears at the same time as a historical figure and as a specter of the black revolution as such. It is not a coincidence that the first public statement in which Toussaint Bréda calls himself Toussaint L’Ouverture opens with the invocation of a ghost, the martyr Vincent Ogé.
Other pieces, such as The Invisible Empire (2010), explore the disconnection between oral and visual ontologies. The Invisible Empire is a black-and-white, single channel installation in which Roy Clement Pollard, the father of Jeannette Ehlers, narrates a series of dramatic stories collected from a variety of victims of human trafficking. Missing people, fractured memories, and vanished familial archives are the ingredients of this video. The absent relatives alluded to in the ethnographic accounts appear as ghosts, embodied in the voice of the narrator. Voice, body, and memory are out of joint in this video. Saturated with light, the phantasmagorical image of Roy Clement Pollard coats these anonymous stories with the atmosphere of the slave trade.
The Images of Me (2012) is the result of her extended collaboration with Patricia Kaersenhout, a Dutch artist with whom Ehlers shared an artistic residency at OAZO-Air in Amsterdam in 2011. The Images of Me uses a stop-motion video technique to portray two women, one black and one white. Using as a plot the poem “Lord, Why did you make me black?” by RuNett Nia Ebo, both women experience a racial centrifuge process, acquiring as a result the exactly opposite color. This video calls into question Westernized ideas of female beauty and rejects deterministic views on racialized ontology.
Atlantic is a complex project composed of four different video installations and a series of digitally manipulated photographs. In conjunction, the project offers a sort of cinematic counter-cartography of the triangular transatlantic slave trade. Taking as a starting point the role of Denmark in the articulation of the colonial world, this project reconnects three emblematic points across the Atlantic: the Danish West Indies (Fort Frederick, St Croix), the African Gold Cost (Fort Prinzenstein, Ghana), and Marienborg (Copenhagen). In addition, the project gives an important place to the Atlantic itself. By displaying a three-channel surrounding projection, Waves is an eight-minute video loop depicting a moving image of the ocean—the immense liquid screen inhabited by millions of black slave diasporic specters.
Part of Atlantic is Three Steps of Story, a single-channel video of three minutes, 38 seconds. This video registers a performance by Ehlers in which her own dance evokes the presence of the first former black slaves invited in the mid-19th century by Peter von Scholte to waltz in the Mirror Hall of Fort Frederick, St Croix (today the U.S. Virgin Islands). Haunted by the specters of the Caribbean slave trade, the empty dancing saloon feels however saturated by memory shadows. Ehlers’s ghostly waltz appears in fact alliterated by the mirrors, emphasizing the spectrality of the colonial architecture. Filmed in St Croix and also part of Atlantic, Speed Up That Day is a fixed shot documenting the passage of time from sunrise to sunset at the façade of Fort Frederick, the place where Peter von Scholte proclaimed the emancipation of slaves in 1848.
In addition to two series of photographs—Atlantic: Endless Row (2009), which depicts shadows of spectral slaves without body, and Gate of No Return (2009), which depicts traces of vodou ceremonies haunting the walls of the Fort Prinzenstein in Ghana—Atlantic includes another piece: Black Magic at the White House (2009), a three minute, 46 second single-channel video filmed in Marienborg, Copenhagen. Constructed in 1745, this White House still serves as the official residence of Denmark’s prime minister.
Presenting herself as a female sorcerer performing a vodou dance ceremony, Black Magic at the White House examines the interplays between slave trade, economic wealth, and the spectral value of artworks as commodities. The White House in which this vodou ceremony takes place alludes in fact to another White Cube, the aseptic museum. Furthermore, the Afro-Caribbean syncretic scratches mocking the bourgeois adornments on floors and walls recall the Eurocentric history of painting, as well as the colonization of the senses. The ceremony is thus an exorcism of the aesthetic spirits of coloniality.
Let me conclude by asserting the following: if Derrida evokes the spirit of Hamlet the father, embodied as a suit of armor and encouraging Hamlet the prince to take action, Black Magic at the White House seems to evoke Sycorax, the Algerian-born black magic sorcerer, the mother of Caliban, and the most invisible presence in what probably is the last play ever written by Shakespeare, The Tempest. From this point of view, Sycorax could be properly described as the racialized alter ego of Hamlet and the articulating figure of ghosthetics. Liberated by the forceful rhythm of the African drums and the cathartic invocation of black magic, Sycorax, the female specter, haunts the White Cube, in particular, as much as art history, in general.
This is also true in Whip It Good (2014), one of the latest performances by Jeannette Ehlers. As in Black Magic at the White House, Whip It Good addresses the spectral coloniality of Western aesthetics. During the performance, Ehlers assumes the role of Sycorax, the vodou sorcerer, and whips a white canvas in the middle of the White Cube. The charcoal rubbed into the whip wounds and marks the whiteness of the surface. The echo of the bang lacerates the whole audience.
Following another well-known book by Derrida, we could say that The Truth in Painting in this piece is the echo of a wound –the artist’s hand mastering the canvas of history. In this way, the ‘Negroid form’ of the childhood consciousness described by Stirner and the monochromatic absolute white of the spirit idealized by Hegel fall to pieces—even more so when Ehlers invites the public to join her in the violent act of whipping the white surface of both the history of painting and the history of slavery.
* This is a short version of an article entitled “Spectres of l’Ouverture. A Ghost Is Haunting Your Museum: The Ghost of Black Copenhagen“, included in Caribbean Rasanblaj, Volume 12, Issue 1, 2015. The interview was produced and edited by the Hemispheric Institute. Jeannette Ehleres, Gina Ulysse, Kerry Whigham, and Marcial Godoy have been wonderful first readers of this essay. I am very grateful to them for their commentaries and intelligent suggestions.
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 This is not the place to elaborate on the concept video-vodou as an artistic practice. In brief, I use this neologism as an invitation to rethink the role of new media as a living syncretic technology. Rather than a mere use of the camera to document religious practices of any kind, a video-vodou artistic strategy would be characterized by the creative acknowledgement that neither the visual spirit of the ritual nor the specters invoked during a vodou ceremony can be properly represented, visualized, or ethographisized. Rather than a mnemonic or scopic device, the video-vudou is understood here in the double sense of the expression medium: as a material surface (the screen) as much as an immaterial bridge inaugurating a time out of joint between present and past, between presence and absence. In sum, the video-vudou as a medium opens the possibility to deal with the Marxist distinction between vetreten and darstellen, between speaking on behalf (of a social class) and making (a historical event or a ghost) present again. Other artists such as Belkis Ayon have been using artistic media (engraving, performance, body art, etcetera) to extend the spatial presence and the affective dimension of syncretic ceremonies. In her case, Ayon was involved in the Abakuá Secret Society, a masculine religious Cuban society organized around the invocation of Sikán, the female African specter. More on the interplays between aesthetics and phantasmagoria can be found below, in the subchapter entitled “From hauntology to ghosthetics”.
 The presence of the whip in art and history museums is not new. Following his critical excavation of museum storages, Fred Wilson displayed in 1992 a whipping post, ‘discovered’ in the dark side of the Museum and the Maryland Historical Society’s collections. Entitled Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960, this installation awaked a variety of shadow memories, confirming to a good extent what we learned in Fanon’s work, that racism lives in the most irrational storage of our collective memory.
Based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Graduated from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 2006. An experimental nature generally characterizes Jeannette Ehlers's work. Her photographic and video-based work often includes image manipulation. On these changeable terms she explores meaning and identity in both a sophisticated and immediate way.
For years she has created cinematic universes that delve into ethnicity and identity, inspired by her own Danish/West Indian background. She challenges and explores the medium of film’s ability to communicate in a visually fascinating and engaging language. Creating imaginative stories with both edge and sharpness, her work still retains broad appeal.
Her pieces revolve around big questions and difficult issues, such as Denmark's role as a slave nation—part of Danish cultural heritage that is often overlooked in the general historiography. In Spring 2014 Jeannette Ehlers had a major solo presentation of her works at Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center.
Her works are also part of the group show CARIBBEAN: Crossroads of the World, Pérez Art Museum Miami, as well as DAK’ART 2014, Biennale of Dakar, Senegal.