Wanderings, with text by Noor Bhangu
by Anna Binta Diallo
Twenty-two years ago, Gayatri Spivak largely denounced postcolonial theory, citing its stagnating effect on the work of its celebrated practitioners. Despite its failures, however, she maintained that by using it, we could opt for an ethics of alterity rather than a politics of identity to make our way through the climate of cultural polarization—seeing identity politics as an awkward tool that uses identities to account for histories, and forgoes multiplicity in the process. An ethics of alterity does not necessarily smooth out identity politics’ shortcomings but instead merges it with the sharing of time, space, and experiences with others; it is on the side of relations and linkages. Since encountering these theoretical positions, I have been consumed by locating this call for an ethics of alterity in the local and global art worlds that are, in many ways, still reel- ing from rigid identity politics of the late 20th century. More specifically, I am interested in seeing how an ethics of alterity can be used to better reflect composite and overlapping histories.
Anna Binta Diallo is one of many artists in recent years to use the archive to explore how identity has become history, to investigate the relationship between image and knowledge production, and to radically disorient histories that have been falsely presented as complete. In more ways than one, her work embodies a move toward relationality that is vital for creating pathways to a less divided future. Upon encountering Diallo’s work, there is a clear message that identity is not singular but dispersed.
Seeing herself as a devout collector of images, the artist approaches the abundance of the materials using the specific framework of folk tales. Beginning with her experience as a new mother in 2019, folk tales became a curious site in which to examine the oversimplification of race, origins, and meanings. Wanderings is an ongoing series that started by exploring archetypes and folk tales drawn from her own mixed ancestry, including references to West African, Franco-Canadian, and Métis traditions. To be sure, these narratives are only a starting point for Diallo to create visual constellations; the culmination of these exercises remains ambiguous and open for interpretation. The figures are also not limited to these roots but rhizomatically involve other cultures and histories that have shared or could speculatively share space with her own. It is no coincidence, then, that collage is the chosen medium here, through which diverse histories can be brought together to visualize the intimate possibilities, tensions, and mutualities.
In this iteration for C Magazine, for instance, Diallo engages with my own South Asian cultural background through the story of the snake charmer—an epitome of the artist’s porousness and sensitivity to the contexts she creates work within. Crystallized in the West on the cover of Edward Said’s canonical book, Orientalism, featuring Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painted work Snake Charmer, this ancient, heavily orientalized myth is explored amid research into the appearance of the snake in other cultures, such as Meso-American, Egyptian, Chinese, and Hopi traditions. While composing the life stories of these new characters, she reflected on the dialogues we’ve had in the last few months—just as she’s done with other collaborators, curators, and writers in this series. The artist at once honours our collaboration and broadens the possible readings of this myth; these “charming” acts obscure orientalist fantasies to instead focus on relationships between human beings and other species, signalling yet another layer of her commitment to disavowing singular identity in favour of ethical relations.
Despite the specificity of Diallo’s compositional choices, the figures in Wanderings are left open to interpretation. Another way of saying this might be that they are shrouded by opacity—which, continuous with an ethics of alterity, abandons identity as the primary political concern. We see the figures in all their detail, but their many intersections—charged, curious, playful— are never fully transparent. I think here of Prairie Girl, a body that is reiterated throughout Diallo’s oeuvre and defined by its duality. The bottom of the silhouette is filled with a map of the world and the chest carries a Prairie heart. Like blood vessels, the waterways of the Prairies provide familiar, life-giving texture to the Prairie Girl and set her in fluvial relation to the bigger world. Prairie Girl carries two stories: one that embodies the artist’s personal relationship to the land, and the second for the viewers to write on their own.
Wanderings holds space for the critique of colonial- ism and its culture of representation from multiple and ever-expanding vantage points: Diallo’s, my own, and all those who have become entwined in this series. In this, the artist is consciously visualizing the process of linking, creating bonds across difference, which might finally allow us to access the power of postcolonial critique, reduced and eventually deserted by the think- ers critiqued by Spivak. It is a difficult task to pursue the rhizome while committing oneself to opacity, yet Wanderings takes this on as part of a responsibility, in this contemporary moment, to explore relations be- yond one’s own boundaries while protecting our com- munities from the breach of the colonial gaze, which has been destructive to our ways of life.
Noor Bhangu is an emerging curator and scholar of South Asian descent, based between Treaty 1/ Winnipeg and Tkaronto/Toronto. In her recent work, she employs archives and exhibition histories to explore notions of aesthetics and race.
Anna Binta Diallo is a Canadian multidisciplinary visual artist who investigates memory and nostalgia to create unexpected narratives surrounding identity. She was born in Dakar (Senegal, 1983) and raised in Saint-Boniface, Winnipeg, on the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation.
The Artist Project is supported in part by Partners in Art.