The Complexities of Exile – Self-Marginalisation, Exclusion & Inclusion

ART AFRICA, issue 07. Guest Edited by Kendell Geers.

 A Dialogue between Carlos Capelán and Gavin Jantjes

Gavin Jantjes, from A South African Colouring Book, 1974. Image courtesy of the artist. SA Colouring Book is a folder of eleven screen prints.

Carlos Capelán (CC): I would like to propose approaching the notion of exile in terms of inclusion/exclusion and self-marginalisation. Let’s consider, for instance, that the Mediterranean acts as a wall that aims to hinder or stop the migration flows into Europe. The proposed wall between Mexico and the US, would serve the same purpose (I am writing this the day after the Trump triumph).

These walls coexist with a more horizontal exchange between regions, the circulation of cultural products, the free market trades, and so on. I would see these situations as mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion. But, also self-marginalisation (whether individual or collective) as a well established tool for defining identities, should be taken into account, I think. It seems to me that these processes of exclusion, inclusion and self- marginalisation, overlap, interlace and activate each other.

Gavin, from your vast experience as a cultural worker across continents, and from your personal art practice, how would you relate to this phenomenon?

Gavin Jantjes (GJ): It is true that you and I have both experienced exile for the greater part of our lives and that it has shaped our identities as artists and members of civil society. The mechanisms of inclusion, exclusion and self-marginalisation certainly structure how we have experienced our respective exiles. You once said that exile is similar to being jet-lagged: a sense of being in two or more places at once and constantly ahead or behind the time in those different locations. It’s a good analogy of how the displacement of time makes one aware of having a foot in a different world and trying to walk with out falling over. It’s also another way of interpreting the often quoted Igbo proverb, “Anaghi a no n’otu ebe e kili mmonwu” (You cannot stand in only one place to watch a masquerade). The trajectory of exile is more a shifting concept that looks different from every view point. Its goal may be to return to a point of departure but the journey to that point is a meandering and convoluted one. To be an exile is to become conscious of barriers that exclude. To be willing to get beyond those barriers and to act in a creative manner that forces inclusion to be discussed, considered and practiced by those who once wanted to exclude you. Exiles start the discourse of inclusion from the position of self- marginalisation. They stand at the edge of civil society so to speak, in the space that marks the boarder, the space that begins on the inside of whatever barrier is created to keep them out. One becomes an exile after scaling the wall and every step one takes away from that wall and into society, is an engagement with new sets of cultural norms that challenge the exiles notion of him or herself. I have often said that the exile moves forward looking into the rear view mirror. The past is a constant reference as one moves in the present toward the future. And ahead, the barriers don’t necessarily disappear either. They are no longer clear physical obstacles but subtle, mostly invisible, constructions of society. Cultural conventions that an exile has to learn to see. You can call this learning assimilation or integration. Its a process of defending what you think belongs to you and should be respected and what you are willing to suspend or give up in order to sustain a trajectory forward. It means that others have to learn to recognise themselves as “others” and not to use that definition to discriminate against exiles. In the contexts of the US election, and the idea of a wall, the Citizens of the US need to consider themselves as another other in their home country. A very difficult thing to do.

But I want to return to the Igbo proverb and your analogy of jet lag. I want to shift my understanding from a physical notion to an intellectual, or philosophical one. For me they both have something to do with the gaze and the imagination triggered by the gaze. I do this because I want to bring this conversation into the realm of the visual experience. How does inclusion and exclusion shape the visual expression of exiles, keeping in mind that El Greco, Carravaggio, Pablo Picasso, Wifredo Lam, Piet Mondriaan, Willem deKooning, Ernest Mancoba, Gerard Sekoto, Alfredo Jaar, Marlene Dumas, Tania Bruguera et al, have not only shaped their identities and contributed to art’s history, as exiles. I can include yourself and myself in this and it is perhaps strange to some that I don’t call myself an “exile artist.” And that none of those I’ve mentioned do so either. We are shaped by exile yet we deny it as an identity.

CC: I agree that we are shaped by the experience of exile even before we have suffered it with our body. As a consequence of colonialism, many parts of the world have been perceived, and still see themselves, as located outside the map. However, while masses of citizens are excluded both within and outside their contexts, some of the symbolic products that are produced from within those frames of exclusion, move with a forcefulness which they do not have in their original society.

Or in other words, the artists that you mention come from specific places where exclusion happens daily, but their products cross over borders. Sometimes they project better “outside” than “inside”. In that sense they are good examples of how the mechanisms of inclusion-exclusion can act upon one single subject.

I think that the idea of an “inside” and an “outside” is merely one point of departure for examining more complex relations. In that sense, self-marginalisation as an alternative becomes interesting when it allows for more mobility in terms of identity, and as opposed to traditional narratives of exile. Let’s say that one can choose to stand at the margin of certain instances and participate in others.

It would seem that societies generally have problems with perceiving themselves as total integrators. On the one hand, they exist under authoritarian and fundamentalist proposals, and on the other, they carry the flag of diversity.

Many social sectors, when facing both these proposals, prefer to situate themselves at the margin of both these discourses. Personally, I think I perceive that all this also happens in all the various art worlds and worlds of culture.

If exile is defined by those who exclude and by the pain of the excluded, don’t you think that the ability to operate efficiently in both fields or the decision to practice self-marginalisation in one or the other – or even in both – is a real option that we are actually able to witness?

GJ: Yes, it is exactly this fact that the exile is a witness which gives him or her this opportunity to shape an alternative mode of practice that both criticises or complements, even advances the idea of a democratic society. The self-exile, with a foot in each world, has the distinct advantage of looking and acting at the interstice of inside and outside. That place where these realities rub up against the other and to choose how to act; how to create an identity that cuts across both worlds. And perhaps to choose not to have a national identity at all, but to simply claim citizenship to humanity, to all of humankind. Not to become the global citizen, I hate the term global. It is such a capitalist trope. But lay a claim to being an entity on the planet that makes life better for everyone.

Gavin Jantjes, from A South African Colouring Book, 1974. Image courtesy of the artist. SA Colouring Book is a folder of eleven screen prints.

I once curated an exhibition for the Norwegian Refugee Council (the nation that started UNHCR) and you were involved in it. But what was revealing in the process was how surprised they, and later the audience, were by my curatorial proposal. Instead of telling how bad life was for refugees, I looked at the positive outcomes and successes of refugee artists and artists who responded to the notion of exile and self-exile.

I want to return to Kendell [Geers]’ idea of an African philosophy, a specific set of ideas that construct the body and soul of works of art emerging from Africa or by African artists living and working in other parts of the world. Can the self-marginalised artist contribute to this, or is there a repudiation of philosophies? A relinquishing of traditions for the sake of prosperity as a professional artist? This is perhaps rhetorical in light of what I have said about self-marginalisation, but what do you think?

CC: To be honest, I am not in a position where I can come up with general ideas about African made art, although I do try to keep myself informed about the topic. As an artist with roots in Latin-America who has had the opportunity to work in several regions of the globe, perhaps my function in this dialogue is to be “another” circumstantial mirror.

It is clear that if the person who moves along a trail of exile does not become forever broken and can overcome the separation, he or she can eventually achieve other, more complex readings of the world that may transcend his or her original version. This is a narrative that we find at the root of every shamanic experience.

When I mention self-marginalisation, I do not refer to the attributes of the classical outsider – that romanticised paradigm, the official “other” – of modernism and postmodernism (I distrust this notion because of the danger for it to be part of the expansive pit of a mainstream which always tends to find new ways to keep expanding. I’d also say that in that context, the outsider works as a kind of port of landing for a certain kind of cultural colonialism which lives off the slave trade).

Rather, when I say self-marginalisation I refer to a social practice where one can participate or not participate in a larger environment. Both in the domain of politics, in the construction of identities and in cultural production, I tend to see strategies that situate themselves as alternating between the inclusion, the exclusion and self marginalisation. These strategies can be motivated by opportunism, cynicism, mere survival or by ethical positioning.

In the end, what I am trying to say is that exile, as a situation, exists in a world where the “inside” and the “outside” require more detailed analyses if we are to understand its dynamics and meanings. Don’t you think that inclusion, exclusion and self-marginalisation are not mutually exclusive – that they are phenomena that do not hold qualities that are per se “good” or “bad”, but that through their interrelation, they make the idea of exile as well as any ethical assignments, more complex?

GJ: That these positions are considered as mutually exclusive and rather simple is often the cause of conflict. There is a lot of overlapping, a grey area in which this complexity shows itself. But instead of addressing this complexity, the identity of the artist and his or her production is positioned in the domain of one or the other. The world of art that postulates a ‘Global art’ or a geologic/continental category for production such as ‘African, Pacific, Middle Eastern’ etc, use patterns of thought that avoid complexity. The intricacy of a complex alternative is left to philosophy. And how many people in the art world read philosophy?

Artists from Africa who are forced into exile or choose self-exile and then produce work that contradicts not only the traditions from which they originate but also those of their new cultural environment, appear as an abomination. Conventional reading of their production presents an almost unfathomable set of contradictions because the reader arrives at the heart of the artists self-marginalisation. Because the art work has broken both sets of conventions, the easy interpretation is to move the work and the artist to the margins. At best, the historian and the confused critic (often too lazy to grasp the artist’s output as an act of creativity), writes it off as survival or opportunism.

When I made A South African Colouring Book (1974) the Germans understood it as a political criticism of Apartheid and only that, not realising that I made it primarily for them, my fellow student artists (I was in exile in Hamburg, Germany at the time). They were quite surprised when I said that the work was an example of how contemporary German culture excluded while claiming to include. How its social structures maintained traditions that stifled inclusion (The apartheid thesis was written by Henrik Verwoerd at Hamburg University in 1936. He learnt to theorise it there with Facist support and brought it home to South Africa). And their (the German) museum and gallery directors were intrigued that I had the audacity to use, or miss-use techniques of Pop art and culture; to claim Western European conventions of cultural practice. It appeared to them that I had sacrificed my identity, turned my back on my traditions what ever that was supposed to be. They did not know. They consumed the generalisation that Africans crafted images in wood, painted images of life onto rocks and designs onto cloth. And today, over 30 years later, the complexity of the Colouring Book is still being revealed by younger historians and scholars. Issues that were missed, overlooked, even ignored, have become lines of visual investigation. It is considered as an early example of art and archive and its technicalities of print making and print construction remarkable for its time. This is the complexity I think of and I wondered if you have a concrete example that shows the complexity you mention?

Carlos Capelán, Maps and landscapes (the living-room), 2002, Tilflukt-Refuge, Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo, Norway Image courtesy of Carlos Capelán

CC: Yes, of course there are plenty of examples that confirm the complexity of these issues, and it is probably within practices of symbolic production that other models for action may become visible. It seems, then, that belonging or not belonging, is not a binomial of absolute contradictions. Although it may seem strange, it is possible that the exiles, once the breaches that they involve have been overcome, end up stimulating paradoxical instances of inclusion.

For instance, to act in spite of everything, has helped us to deepen, not to diminish our sense of belonging. To perform freedom from a place of exile or exclusion, shows that what would appear to be absence is in fact belonging; what would appear to be defeat is encounter; and where punishment was proposed, power is actually exerted.

In other words, if we stop defining ourselves only as dissidents versus authority, from the moment that we assume that we are the centre of our own actions and purposes, we stop being peripheral in relation to ourselves. Then we stop being exiled from ourselves.

Well, what I have just said, is only a reminder that the old geographies that determine centres and peripheries, have today made room for other narratives within which we are entangled…

Gavin Jantjes is a painter and printmaker. He has worked as a curator in Europe and South Africa and has written and lectured extensively on contemporary art. He  lives and works in Oslo and Cape Town.

Carlos Capelán (1948 Montevideo, Uruguay) is a resident of different places at the same time (Sweden, Costa Rica, Norway, Spain or Montevideo), with long, regular stays in diverse countries. Capelán belongs to what has been denominated “post-conceptualist artists”, working with idea structures and insisting in the material and formal diversity of their approaches.

© the artist Carlos Capelan and Gavin Jantjes 2016