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Citation — Replay - LBR #5

Translated by Anna Knight

Interview with Po B. K. Lomami

by Marie Bechetoille

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Po B. K. Lomami is a programmer, coordinator of socioartistic projects, performer, writer, musician, zine creator, and activist of Congolese descent (RDC) based in Belgium. Her anticolonialist, afrofeminist, and anticapitalist engagement combines militant actions and artistic forms, notably performances. Through the prism of her background as an activist, she shares her critical view of the art world, the paradoxes of these institutions in their discourse, programming, and organisation, in relation to the practical concerns of emancipatory struggles, but she also presents the potential of art to develop understanding and shared languages.

Marie Bechetoille: Your story begins with various experiences within LGBTQI+ associations and sexual health in Belgium. Alongside your commitment as an activist, you started working on cultural and artistic events and within institutions such as the Maison de la création in Brussels or 29 Nord 6 Est – FRAC Lorraine. Currently, you are the administrative coordinator of La Centrale – Galerie Powerhouse in Montreal, a self-managed feminist art centre. How did you progressively evolve towards artistic milieus and practices?

Po B. K. Lomami: It wasn’t planned at all. I spent a large part of my childhood and adolescence at the Mons Academy of Music where I grew up, but the conservatoire was not an option. I found myself at the University of Namur for studies in Business Engineering in 2007. There, I started my queer and feminist activism, which was solidified in 2012 when I co-created the CHEFF,1 an LGBTQI+ student federation. During my academic cursus in Belgium, there was no Gender Studies or Postcolonial Studies programme. That was why I went to Tampere, Finland, on an Erasmus exchange, and that gave me an incredible space for academic, political, and personal development… I was supported by the Gender Studies department and Vattu,2 a student association where I met queer, trans, punk, ecologist, anticapitalist feminists… The luck of the Erasmus draw led me to meet Laura Nsafou, Mrs Roots,3 now an afrofeminist auteure.4 We subsequently collaborated, with for instance the blog Au bout des lèvres.5 Once back in Belgium, I also became involved in sexual health and after an internship, I joined Sida’sos through on-the-job immersion.6 I was working more than fulltime, often overtime, in poor conditions and for a ridiculous salary, which completely exhausted me. But this got my foot in the door to join advisory committees for the National Plan to Fight HIV 2014–2019 and the European meetings of IGLYO, ILGA, and UNAIDS. This experience followed years of the unpaid physical, intellectual, and emotional overload that activism can represent: I was burnt out. Over the course of all those years, I was exploring strategies of lobbying, developing discourse, and research on proposals on the subject of life histories that are not taken into consideration. I was almost always the only black person, with all that that implies in terms of invisibilisation, tokenisation, gaslighting, etc. I was far from the art world and I had done nothing related to it at that point besides a few texts, my involvement in the mobilisation against the Exhibit B project in 20147 and my participation in Amandine Gay’s documentary Ouvrir la voix,8 which had identified me as a Belgian afrofeminist via my old blog9 and social networks. One event defined my activism priorities and changed my relationship to art. On 8 March 2015, I found myself on a racially homogenous march organised by mostly left-wing feminist groups in Brussels. On this march, there were few people of colour but there was a woman in black face who explained that it was her artistic work, cited Olympe de Gouges, said that it was to support black people, that it would allow her “to know what it feels like to be black”. I had intervened to say “I am the real black woman in the room” and explain why this kind of statement and position is not possible… Black face is part of Belgian folklore… The story continued on social networks. This woman received a lot of support from well-known feminists, including academics. I was presented as a lost young black woman who understood nothing about art and she was the political artist in a major feminist association… I saw the shield that separated me from white feminism and institutions’ positions against intersectionality. That day, I decided to stop investing my time in predominantly white militant environments and that a priority on my political agenda would be that non-black women could no longer take advantage or entertain themselves with the suffering of black people. That was my relationship to the artistic milieu… After this business, I distanced myself and I started writing about what was stuck in my craw. Then I was contacted by the Warrior Poets collective who were organising an evening of performances within the framework of Massimadi Bruxelles,10 a festival of LGBT films from Africa and its diasporas. I presented my first performance entitled Consultation d’une afro-ratée. I explained through my texts my background as a young black queer disabled woman from the projects in Belgium, confronting power dynamics in the abstract environment of a medical centre, a place that I had often frequented since childhood. Afro mothers of queer children of my generation came to talk to me to tell me that they’d understood me. I took that as a blessing and I was able to start thinking about art through activism, in pursuit of redress.

MB: Why did you orientate yourself professionally towards artistic and cultural institutions? What do you observe in terms of similarities and differences between the milieu of activism and that of art?

PBKL: In 2015, my activist profile closed doors to me in the militant and associative milieu. The only responses coming from the cultural milieu were for unpaid internships. Then I launched my own socio-art project EXTRACT in Sweden before being recruited by 49 Nord 6 Est – FRAC Lorraine11 and La Centrale.12 I would never have applied for the FRAC on a temporary contract in cultural programming13 had I not been encouraged by my friend and researcher Peggy Pierrot.14 It was my first paid experience in an institution and I was twenty-seven. The habit of being precarious, of working for next to nothing and the inaccessibility of cultural institutions for people like me creates a context in which you don’t even consider applying. Once inside these institutions, I wondered why I had been chosen for my activist background despite the fact that I was limited in terms of actions. It’s like wanting a shiny object to put it in a box… There is a huge disconnect; we often don’t have the same priorities and urgencies. In the activist milieu, there are lots of things that don’t work but social change is at the heart of the missions. In the artistic milieu, while we sometimes share the same language, often we don’t have the same understanding. So, I wondered what I could learn for myself, to open up other doors for myself…

MB: Within institutions, a considerable amount of meditation work and pedagogy through art is undertaken. It seems to me that these actions are sometimes not thought of as highly as they could be, since they enable young audiences in particular to discover other codes, other formats, other stories…

PBKL: Within institutions, there are key figures who make things possible. For instance, the work of Mikaela Assolent, who was the public relations coordinator at FRAC Lorraine, enlightened me as to the construction of cultural programming with respect to the local public. In our discussions, we linked up questions of social engagement and artistic content. This connection helped to provide me with inroads as to how to bring values into exhibitions and performances. The question of access is essential. The contemporary art presented in art centres and museums was very often far from what I was experiencing in activism. There is this idea of an inaccessible bubble that means that when you are a kid with my background, it makes no sense. Also, when I was working at the Maison de la création,15 the programme related to a vocabulary of “encounters with Otherness”. International artists from Iraq and Haiti were invited… But further along on the same street there was a youth centre with a lot of people of colour, who never came to see the projects. At least, during team meetings we were wondering how to get them to come. In reality, I wouldn’t have come either if I hadn’t been working there… I questioned myself about my relationship to institutions. I don’t know whether institutions truly question themselves as well. Often in so-called “politically committed” places I hear universalist discourses, that this will change society and people’s lives to go see this exhibition or that show… I am surprised about this conviction that does not know how many walls are present before entering an artistic or cultural venue, how many barriers there are to break down before certain audiences will come to such a place without feeling uncomfortable… At the FRAC, I didn’t feel like I was in my place even though I was on the payroll.

MB: Today, some people have the impression that feminist, decolonialist themes are everywhere in exhibitions and institutions… while others are well aware of the great lag that exists, particularly in France, with respect to these subjects. Conversely, we are also observing a rise in the use of keywords such as “diversity”, “post-colonialism”, and “queer”, which sometimes seem to be a bit superficial in the art world… What do you think of this desire to integrate militant lines of questioning within art projects?

PBKL: For me there is violence in using words, vocabularies, without wanting to understand them, without understanding that they are connected to lives, to concrete realities. When a venue calls itself “anti-racist” and then it isn’t, that has a real impact. Words can inform as much as they can misinform about intentions and actions. I write and I come from activism, therefore I have a strong sensitivity to this subject. I see that a lot of places are struggling with three dimensions that they want to bring into harmonious cohabitation: managerial for the notion of efficacy, artistic for the prestige, and social for political commitment. I often observe a strong correlation between the managerial and the artistic, but the political commitment remains a figurehead, on the surface. This creates tensions because there is a difference in terms of the understanding or motivations around this commitment. When the commitment is not structural, it gets stuck in a rut and the results are catastrophic. Sometimes, we see a managerial and social dynamic with less room for the art… And finally, a few venues with the artistic and the activism dimensions, but that often have major funding concerns…

MB: Do you have any examples of places where these three dynamics – managerial, artistic, and social commitment – work together?

PBKL: That’s what I’m currently investigating. There is no perfect place and there are as many experiences as there are people. I question the absence of consideration for some of them and its social impact on audiences, communities, and artists. For several months now, I’ve belonged to the board of directors of articule.16 This venue has a long history, it has changed a lot and things are still changing. It is a self-managed, non-hierarchical art centre dedicated to the presentation of a wide range of artistic practices that support experimentation, artistic rigour, social commitment, and risk-taking. The direct participation of the members in the organisation and programming, especially by the committees, is possible thanks to a rather open and flexible structure. For several years now a great deal of work has been done by the Fabuleux17 committee to offer a basis of unity that has been approved by all of the members with a view to developing and implementing strategies in order to tend towards an anti-oppressive centre, with particular attention paid to racial, autonomous, and marginalised communities. Added to this is the work of training and education, under the guidance of artist Kama La Mackerel18 and projects like Montréal Monochrome,19 which broach underrepresentation of people from these communities within the Montreal contemporary art scene. We are developing a shared language and understanding. It is interesting to witness this ongoing transformation, in terms of inclusion and equity both at the level of the artists programmed and within the internal structure – that is, the team, the board of directors, and the members.

MB: What does your background contribute in terms of analyses and suggestions to change artistic and cultural institutions?

PBKL: Collectives and organisations are working on tools to help with the change. Following problematics of oppression and equity, restructuring initiated by the board has recently begun at La Centrale.20 Among the tools and resources that this process draws on, there was an equity audit performed by Hirut Melaku Eyob21 who is a member of the Third Eye Collective,22 a collective of black feminists notably specialising in institutional violence, transformative justice, and community responsibility. There is also support from the Centre des Organismes Communautaires23 that does research into systemic oppression in professional environments, among other things. For me, drawing on militant and community expertise makes total sense. An institution shouldn’t be a stopped clock, since it’s made up of individuals, their ideas, behaviour, and actions. Also, institutions love to think of themselves as communities. Touching an institution can be difficult, but if internally a structural shift is truly desired then it’s possible. You have to think about how to make the necessary changes malleable and how to strengthen them in times of turmoil. One of the main effective tools of activism in my opinion is also agency: in short, you can’t claim to contribute something for people if they are not there to make decisions. Working from grass roots impacts activities over the long term, as does the perception of audiences or the selection of art projects.

MB: You presented at La Centrale in June 2018, along with Claire Obscure,24 also an artist and activist, the project BLACK MÉDECINE: a consultation,25 a participatory performance and installation. In the roles of doctors Batamu and Voldenoire, you analyse questionnaires and discussions with white patients in order to make a diagnosis regarding their ordinary racist behaviour. What does this performance produce that non-artistic actions couldn’t achieve? How do you combine art and activism?

PBKL: I didn’t want to take a pedagogical approach anymore and I was tired because wherever I go, things repeat. I keep saying to people “racism is not my passion!” [laughs]. I was asked to present a workshop on feminism before a general assembly of La Centrale. I immediately thought of Claire Obscure, an afrofeminist artist and member of the Mwasi Collective,26 who had also recently arrived in Montreal. I thought it would be a good idea to perform what it is to be a black activist… This pedagogical and emotional labour that is invisible, you can make it visible through performance.
We transformed the space into a medical centre, we created an installation that included the responsibility of activism and elements from our lives, for instance photos of our mothers and protests. The soundtrack featured punk and hard-core hip-hop played by invisibilised, politicised black bands and the voice of politician Maxine Waters who repeats “reclaiming my time” whenever she gets sick of others speaking on her behalf. We invite black artists who represent medical staff and can participate in the consultation sessions. And that gives rise to a different power dynamic than being a group of black artists in a white cube full of white people. Since it’s a performance, it isn’t a violent confrontation. You interact as an artist and you are listened to, there is some respect: it’s a stark contrast with everyday life… This arrangement enables white people to question themselves about behaviour like whitesplaining, white saviourism, reverse racism, derailing, “not all white people”, or colourblindness. They question themselves rather than questioning our lived experiences. Often you give, you hold a workshop, an unpaid presentation on racism and you get nothing in return. That was a large part of my activism… With this project, I don’t get the sense of being sucked dry and exploited and the decolonialist, antiracist element is also part of that: we are not her to “repair”, because racism isn’t a pathology; we take care of ourselves, even within an institution.

MB: Who is this project addressed to? Who were the “patients”?

PBKL: The public who came were above all those out and about on the Boulevard Saint-Laurent which was pedestrianised for the Murals festival. We had put a sign outside: “Black Médecine: Do you experience systematic discomfort as soon as oppression crops up in conversation? Come and get your diagnosis” with a photo of Claire and I as doctors. Many people came out of curiosity. I wasn’t expecting it. With an activist action, I would never have had so much feedback and such large audiences. However, the members of La Centrale didn’t join in. We didn’t affect the art centre’s audiences, most people were passers-by and also black people who had heard about it through word-of-mouth on social networks. They brought along their colleagues, partners, and friends, because in the context of a performance, white people were more attentive and it took a weight of them because we were doing this work for them. A real public service.

MB: In your opinion, how can we avoid institutional instrumentalization of the people concerned by emancipatory struggles?

PBKL: Often associations and institutions have a single project that will touch on a political theme and then that’s it. It is important to pass from the occasional “project” dimension and get to the heart of the struggle, to encourage longer, structural transformations, which change the standards and normalise. Institutional instrumentalization sets in if none of the people concerned by the issues participate in the decision making. In that case, the only positive thing is when these people question the institution in reaction, which will then either put up its walls and refuse any discussion, or it will be able to think about itself and work on making some profound changes… Sometimes, by focusing on representation, people are marginalised in relation to a comfortable and respectable norm. You can be perceived as “trendy” instead of being considered competent. Our profiles are much lower, we are eventually invited for a given artistic moment, but not to belong to institutions. I see the difference in places when people are not sorry to be there and feel good, so that contributes to the decolonisation of art. If you can name the communities that you want to reach out to, you can name who has to work within the organisation. Different profiles need to be recruited across the board – programming, administration, and human resources – in order to have different understandings, different perspectives. We have to start with the principle that the artistic and cultural milieu is not perceived as a fact for us, people of colour, and that proactive work in terms of recruitment needs to be undertaken so that the job offers circulate within broader circles. The same applies if you’re looking to recruit disabled employees, as there are huge barriers. Within a project comprising a team of two hundred people, we were the only two black people, while the local population had a diverse mix of mainly Moroccan, Algerian, and Congolese people. Now that I’m living in Montreal, I have to question my relationship to the native communities and their land, which was stolen from them (“unceded”) and on which I find myself. Reflecting on my trajectory as a Congolese (RDC) national whose parents immigrated to Belgium, the coloniser country, to then immigrate in turn to Quebec thanks to agreements between French-speaking countries. And then winding up in Canada, in this country that has major mining interests and huge responsibilities in terms of what is currently going on in RDC… My maternal family either lives in or comes from Goma, in Kivu province, where the reality of the exploitation, expropriation, and destruction of populations and land is particularly present, violent, and long-term. The displacement of black bodies within these colonial, racist, and capitalist continuities is a subject that is even more personal for me today.

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