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Gloria Oyarzabal

November 12 / 2021

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Photographer, filmmaker and educator Gloria Oyarzabal explores the permeation of colonial gender norms in Yoruba and other African cultures. Her project sets out to decolonise feminism, questioning the Eurocentric theoretical frameworks that construct gender categories.

 

Q >Tell us about the themes you pursue and why?

A >In general, my inputs come from self-questioning, from the need to understand how I have arrived at certain situations that “squeak” me, that challenge me from an imbalance. To question the normative, the “politically correct”, to review my own convictions and to know where they come from and why, to recognise my privileges. Who grants agency to talk about other societies or collectives? Who is the creator of knowledge? Who is the possessor of absolute truth? Nigerian writer Chimamanda Nogozie Adichie speaks of “The Danger of the Single Story”. I like to deactivate archive images and question the supposed veracity of photography.

Q >What’s the most satisfying part of the creative and research process?

A >To stand in front of a mirror and question yourself, to get excited when you find poetry between the seams of History, the excitement of experimentation, the challenges both discursive and formal, to use different means of expression. And above all to find answers! When you suspect that something is not right, you study, you research, you immerse yourself in a study of infinite branches realising that you are just scratching the surface; it is both frustrating and exciting. Personally I have to be thankful for having understood many things about the unbalanced world order in the last past 10 years that have pushed me to continue creating, each time with more daring and at the same time with more respect.

Q >Tell us about journeys and places which have triggered memorable emotions.

A >Travels are transits of places that run the risk of being creators of stereotyped images. Places deserve a long time of observation and listening so that the experiences, the analyses that emerge and the conclusions have certain solidity. Returning to these places is important because both you and they change. Places are containers of memory, both collective and individual, and have the power to define identities.

My life experience has given me the privilege of knowing many places on the planet and each experience in them has built me as a creator. I could emphasise my years in Bamako [Mali’s capital] where I began to open a door that invited me to a methodology of study and life experience that transformed me profoundly. When I arrived, during the process of adaptation with my partner and my children, I realised that I could no longer use the camera as before: I was no longer a visitor. So I spent months reflecting on my attitude towards my environment, reading and beginning to understand: I should not, I could not make images that would reinforce the imaginary created towards the African continent, the unbalanced “idea of Africa”. I am not a photojournalist; I come from a fine arts background, and I was not comfortable replicating the stereotypes: smiling children with swollen bellies, beautiful women in colourful fabrics, exotic landscapes… Now, when I go back to Mali, I feel a very special bond with that place that continues to give me so much. Resilience as a process of community and cultural bathing, which responds to three transitions: compensate, protect and challenge. Pure empathy.

We are accountable for the images we take, bring back home and put out into the world as imaginary builders. And yet, today, in many cases photography replicates racism by subliminally distributing its ideology worldwide. In our act of looking at the world, it is important to have the perspectives of those inside and outside — although reality tells us that those on the inside are almost always ignored. Who is responsible for providing agency to address other communities? When we speak as outsiders, it is imperative that we are aware of our privileged outlook and position. What gives me privilege? My skin colour? My passport? My gender? My social status? My religion? My age? My language?

Q >Could you give us an overview of your project “WOMAN GO NO’GREE”, and tell us which reactions, questions or perception-shifts did you hope to raise in the viewer?

A >This project questions the effect of colonialism on the concept of woman, of how [the] imaginary has been constructed in such a Machiavellian way towards the African woman through stereotypes and clichés that [obscure] self-identities, on how knowledge building affects gender issues… Can we assume social relations in all societies are organised around biological sexual difference? Is the male body in African societies seen as normative and therefore a channel for the exercise of power? My goal would be to bring out discussions and dialogues around the possible strategies in order to decolonise feminism questioning the Eurocentric rational theoretical frameworks that construct gender categories in a universalistic manner. Recognise each of us the privileges innate to our condition on the basis of class, gender, race, health, citizenship, geographic location…

The development of the chapters shows not so much the voices of the rich and varied African feminisms, the structural racism on knowledge construction or the positioning of the African woman — I would not dare talk on their behalf — but rather about the [conclusion] of why it is necessary not to universalise mainstream feminist speeches. Starting with imperialisms, and how the colonisation of the concept of woman was achieved through the mind manipulation, the effect of the generalisation of these speeches that perpetuate the same models of structural supremacy that any oppressive system exerts (imperialism, colonialism or patriarchy), to end up understanding the relevance and urgency of this discourse’s decolonisation; starting first with our self-decolonisation. Are you willing to de-centre yourself?

Q >Surprising contradictions — tell us about things that conflict you and inspire you at the same time.

A >Almost all of my projects arise from exactly these encounters of surprise/indignation vs. excitement. Historical research plays an important role in my work, usually as a starting point. By sometimes working with archival images, I allow myself to wander in directions of possible relational (un)balances, and thread towards the present to understand these relational errors, not always conscious, which can lead to supremacist discourses and further reinforce a negative, exclusionary imaginary.

Nowadays, surprisingly we still can find an insistent reinforcement of Africans presented as passive and defenceless people in deplorable conditions, and the person who takes the photo or is in it, as the “hero” who comes to save them: apparently innocent photos that prolong the idea that only Western aid will save Africa from misery, what is known as the “white saviour complex”, a term linked to the colonial era according to which Europeans had the mission of “civilising” the African continent. This has a brutal large-scale impact! It affects the paternalistic relationship in terms of economy, spirituality, canons of beauty, concepts of modernity… This could be an example of something that irritates me and at the same time pushes me irremediably to smash those prejudices, those denigrating stereotypes. We also could talk about the concept of “race”, created by one culture in order to justify its power over another. Colonialism developed racism to justify such exercise of power.

Q >Which things do you think the people around you often take for granted?

A >EVERYTHING!!! We are not educated to recognise our privileges. At best there is a certain misguided “Christian mercy” that continues to infantilise the most vulnerable. Although I admit that I tend to surround myself with people who work to identify their place and their advantages in everyday life, who start from an activism that is intrinsic to any civic action in terms of care and accompaniment. But sadly in the West most narratives are biased: the creation of knowledge arises from power and history has shown us that it is certainly unbalanced. One consequence of Eurocentrism is the radicalisation of knowledge: Europe is represented as the source of knowledge and Europeans, therefore, as thinkers. Moreover, male privilege as an essential part of the European ethos is implicit in the culture of modernity. What if new models of modernity lead us to a new vision of the “Other”?

There is an enormous, colossal goal ahead of us: to change — or at the very least to identify and question — codes and models of representation of what is denigratingly constructed in our imaginary with vitiated and Machiavellian tendency discourses: the inhabitants of the African continent, feminisms, the universal condition of women, the non-identities, the non-places, the non-histories…

Q >Opening conversations around taboos — which topics should we be discussing more?

A >So many! The tendency to universalise the meanings and contents of the concepts of emancipation and regulation in an ethnocentric way, for example. It is accurate to say that Western discourses — and much less feminist ones — are not representative of all the inhabitants of the planet, therefore an effort should be made to develop research tactics that allow observing the variety of studies made by people about their own cultures, to listen to other stories, other voices.

Imperialism and colonisation shaped the current national identities of Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands — and they continue to play a key role in the psychological makeup, and political and cultural outlook of Africa. The old European empires have been replaced by a new empire, a hyperpower that wants to rule and shape the world in line with its own image. Racism, in both its most blatant and incipient forms, is the foundation of walled Fortress Europe, as is so evident in the resurgence of the extreme right, and in the discourse towards refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers. Direct colonial rule may have disappeared but colonialism, in its many guises of economic, cultural, political oppression and knowledge creation remains latent.

Ignorance can perpetuate a privilege. Are we, white people, aware of how we silence dialogue without being aware of doing it or meaning to? Are we perpetually going to keep insisting on using ourselves and our experiences as the benchmark against which everyone is to be measured? Is our definition of “appropriate” conversation and communication universal? Keeping our manners and language central is also a sign of our privilege. But action does not follow automatically from understanding or theorising, action requires aspiration and desire. Having thought, we must prepare to act.

Q >Do you have any other specific projects you are working on these days?

A >Since 2019 I’ve been working on a project which mixes the creation of knowledge (anthropological museums) and the creation of the imaginary towards African women in Western art that we find in our museums.

The concept of a museum was born more than 300 years ago, when the collections of certain monarchs, kings or emperors were opened to the public, being since then institutions that give identity and define a nation. But if the origin of these spaces is colonialist, history, collective memory, universal rights and ethics come into conflict. A review of the relationship between anthropology and museum collections from a largely plundering colonial past, their historicity and their historiography, excused after a restlessness of discovery and expeditions almost always in a “saving” spirit, leads to the conclusion that they have exercised for decades a function of reinforcing exoticism and distinction, which is intrinsically related to supreme discourses. Museums as creators of imaginaries: it should be clear that the museum as an institution is not and has never been a mere neutral or beneficial holder and exhibitor of objects and artefacts: they are a powerful tool to inculcate respect, change prejudices and review history. Or perhaps dangerously, the effect may be exactly the opposite.

The study starts from the idea of how the creation of [the] imaginary is an innate responsibility of the returnee. If this information is institutionalised, shown as an exotic rarity, the effect is the opposite of the desired one: instead of bringing us closer to the “Other”, it becomes increasingly strange, more distant and, possibly, more primitive. And, as we have known for centuries, primitive is lower on the ladder of theories — backward, obsolete and, almost always, racist and supremacist — of evolution. In today’s globalised world, provoking this cycle of misreading is an urgent matter for improvement.

 

Gloria Oyarzabal obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Complutense University in Madrid (1998) and a Master’s in Creation & Development of Photographic Projects at Blankpaper School of Photography (Madrid, 2014–2015). Since 1996, she has been working in the cinema world taking care of artistic direction and photography of experimental short films & documentaries. She was the co-founder and programmer at the independent cinema La Enana Marrón in Madrid (1999–2009), dedicated to the diffusion of author, experimental and alternative cinema.

She lived in Bamako, Mali, from 2009 to 2012, researching on the construction of the Idea of Africa, processes of colonisation/decolonisation, new tactics of colonialism and the diversity around the different voices of the African Feminisms. In 2017 she was selected for the artist residence Ranchito Matadero Nigeria / South Africa between Madrid and Art House Foundation Lagos (Nigeria) which enabled her to develop her research around the colonisation of the concept of woman. In 2020 she was invited as resident artist at Gibellina Photoroad (Sicily, Italy).

She taught the analysis of architectural forms at IADE from 2001–2010.

 

Images courtesy of the artist © Gloria Oyarzabal
WOMAN GO NO’GREE book (Winner of the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook of the Year award 2020)

POINTING HAND, from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. Objectualisation, forced primitivism, white hand pointing inquisitively. The gaze towards the "Other". One consequence of Eurocentrism is the racialisation of knowledge: Europe is represented as the source of knowledge and Europeans, therefore, as thinkers. ‘Le Bon Sauvage’, the noble savage as a literary stock character who embodies the concept of the indigene, outsider, wild human.

PINK GIRL / STRIPES (ON EXOTIZATION, HIPERSEXUALATION, VICTIMIZATION AND OTHER -ZATIONS), from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. Infantilisation of women was also exported with the colonisation of the mind, as part of a Western patriarchal system based on an enormous mistrust of women's autonomy and rationality, with a paternalistic guardianship. Beauty circulates as a form of commodity with social, economic and cultural value. However, these norms are often measured with Eurocentric values, with white beauty narratives (thinness, youth and whiteness) and ideals of beauty being strongly racialised. Whiteness is reinforced at the same time as the norm, while "otherness" becomes fetish and something "exotic". Colonialism came with Victorian Christianity, with the terrible, white idea of the subjugation of women, with the concept that her place is in the kitchen and bedroom.

COLONIZATION OF THE MIND (RED HAND), from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. To colonise means "To occupy a territory far from its borders in order to exploit it and dominate it administratively, militarily and economically”. New borders are created, and there's also the colonisation of the mind through language, manipulation of the thinking, privacy invasion... Empires, by their very nature, embody and institutionalise difference, both between metropolis/colony and colonial subjects. Imperial imaginary, for good or bad, floods popular culture.

MOTHERHOOD / STAND UP, from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. The three central concepts that have been the pillars of Western feminism – women, gender and sisterhood – are only understood with a careful attention to the patriarchal nuclear family from which they have emerged, a familiar form that is far from being universal. The Yoruba concept of WOMEN examines the different "head ties" that adorn the word, namely as mothers, wives, and as a spiritual entity called IYAMIS. Women leadership roles and independence are part of an African cultural pattern that began millennia ago and continued into recent times. Christianity and Islamism arrived with their masculine patriarchal structure implanting family units, whose characteristics on private property, inheritance, women presence in society, differed widely from the local spirituality. Under Colonial Christianity, the modern nuclear family is founded on the somewhat concealed taming of the wife through the concept of the Victorian woman: the one that should stay in the private domain and leave the “real work” to men. The model of Victorian society was introduced through the indoctrination of elites in Christian schools, identifying, once again, superiority with “white education”, reinforcing difference by extrapolating. So, subtly, women were excluded from the new religious, political, and socioeconomic systems.

INCLUSIVITY / EMPOWERMENT, from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. Inclusivity is important if women are to gain ground in policy changes: working with men on everyday life aspects has become a necessity. Men’s role in the construction of more fair societies, maternity and family life models, strategies to achieve equality, the support or absence of white feminism in the fight against patriarchy are some of the points most widely discussed in nowadays African feminist movements. Many racialised feminists believe that mainstream feminism has acted as another invisible ballast on their backs, showing itself traditionally paternalistic and exclusive with other realities that don’t fit Western model, adopting it as an universal mantra, setting an agenda that doesn’t correspond to the concerns of non-white world, speaking for the rest of the women of the planet. African social networks also boil with current debates, such as that of gender roles, which is structured around women who, avoiding the label of "feminist" understood as Western, proclaim themselves successful professionals with a differentiated role inside and outside the home.

SORORITY, from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. Women's needs, reality, oppression and empowerment are best addressed by having an inclusive and accommodating understanding of the generic and more general issues as well as the peculiarities and group attitude to self-definition as women in everyday life. We have to take into consideration issues such as class, race, age, gender, and even health, as being fundamental to the female experience. The erotic, sexuality, sisterhood, motherhood, marriage, tradition, domestication… all these aspects, nuances, with its own lights and shades in each society should come out on the same level in order to compare.

UPSIDE DOWN BLUE PINK / PINK HAIR (ON EXOTIZATION, HIPERSEXUALATION, VICTIMIZATION AND OTHER -ZATIONS), from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. Can we assume that social relations in all societies are organised around biological sexual difference? Is the male body in African societies seen as normative, therefore a channel for the exercise of power? In many traditional African societies, the principle of double sex in social organisation and language without gender connotations, facilitated the normalisation of "traditionally" feminine roles among men and vice versa, without stigmatising or punishing those who observed this behaviour.

WHITE PRIVILEGE / WILD (ON EXOTIZATION, HIPERSEXUALATION, VICTIMIZATION AND OTHER -ZATIONS), from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. Socially and politically constructed, whiteness is not simply referring to skin colour but is an ideology that reinforces power at the expense of others and strengthens systems of oppression. White privilege is the ability to make decisions that affect everyone without taking 'the other' into consideration; it is about assuming that one can live without knowing anything or little about the others, even though 'the other' must acknowledge the lives of the white; it is about the obligation to read the system of those that rule; it is about having a greater access to power and resources; having the right to assume the universality of one's own experiences, marking “the Other” different or exceptional, perceiving oneself as normal.

AMBIGUITIES, from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. In 1987, as queer theory was gaining prominence and reasserting itself in Western thought, Nigerian writer Ifi Amadiume wrote "Male Daughters, Female Husbands," in which she examines the structures of African society, primarily her own Igbo-nobi sociocultural system, establishing that among the Nobi, sexual duality was mediated by a flexible gender system of culture and traditional language. He asserts that biological sex does not always coincide with ideological gender; roles were not rigidly masculinised or feminised and, consequently, there was no stigma in breaking away from them. The position of "husband" is thus detached from its link to manhood and other attributes of masculinity. Sex, gender and sexual orientation are dislocated. Can a daughter be considered as a son or vice versa in terms of social and family roles? Can a woman take another woman as a wife, openly fulfilling all the requirements that the marriage tradition imposes on the groom?

PHANTOM RIOT, from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. There is enough support by different academics who claim thesis on how colonialism eroded the political position of African women and how the structuring of African democracies along Western lines may continue to restrict women's representation in government and decision-making environments as gender discourses related to empowerment run counter to colonial representations of women's access to equality. We can understand that African women and Western women are related to power and political participation in different ways and would require different modes of democratic participation and empowerment in modern political systems. Maybe understanding History we’ll be able to overcome the social and symbolic ascription only by the difference of sex and open the range to other factors for the construction of identity.

PIM PAM PUM, from the series Woman Go No’Gree, 2019. The title "Woman Go No'Gree" is the chorus of the song ‘Lady’ by Fela Kuti (1938-1997), creator of the Afrobeat musical genre, symbol of resistance and activist in the ’70s and ’80s during the dictatorship in Nigeria. ‘Lady’ came out in 1972 on the ‘Shakara’ LP. A parallel discussion about African women becoming westernised was taking place. It’s an ambiguous song that raises the question of the emancipation of African women without following Western models.