/ 16 October 2022

Grada Kilomba’s World of Illusions flips white-dominated story conventions on their head

1 Heroines, Birds and Monsters Series, Sphinx Act II, 2021

When you walk into Grada Kilomba’s World of Illusions, you are placed at the centre of the storyteller’s world. 

World of Illusions is three filmed performance pieces by the Portuguese artist. 

Kilomba, a visual artist with a degree in psychoanalysis and clinical psychology, and a PhD in philosophy, has restaged three Greek myths — the stories of Narcissus and Echo, Oedipus and Antigone. The filmed performance pieces were created separately over several years and exhibited individually previously. Now the three pieces work together as a trilogy on exhibition at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town.

Thematically, it interrogates just how “universal” the Greek stories are. By retelling these “classic” stories through a black feminist and decolonial lens, Kilomba pokes fun at and dismantles storytelling conventions that privilege white people as historically and enduringly universal characters. 

Ultimately, Kilomba wrestles with the violence of epistemicide or the erasure of language and existence in the archive. This kind of erasure, of looking into the archive of “classics” and literature, and not seeing black and African people anywhere, persists today in the form of AI that doesn’t recognise black faces and algorithms that disappear black people from internet spaces and the digital archive. Her work looks back but finds itself in this very moment.

World of Illusions speaks to what scholar Christina Sharpe dubbed “the wake” — when one is on a boat and looks back at how the boat has created waves and transformed the water. Sharpe understands that wake to be living in the aftermath of enslavement and colonialism. This makes time and space more complicated for black people, where the past is not a position one can occupy. 

Kilomba, in the first volume of the trilogy, Narcissus and Echo, addresses this timelessness and inability to push past something, that being the transformation of the world through enslavement and anti-blackness, that cannot be moved:

“I feel that I live in

a space where the past 

interrupts my present, 

and where the present

is experienced as if

I was in the past.

I live in a space of timelessness.”

The subject matter is research-based and carried out through a unique combination of visual languages. Kilomba’s publication Plantation Memories informs all three pieces, which are about an hour long each. 

In her work, she is contending with how conceptions of human, good and respectability rely on blackness being defined as the opposite; she works to understand how through all realms of society, black, brown and indigenous have been drawn on the outside of those definitions. In retelling these stories, Kilomba takes these frameworks and plays with them in both silly and serious ways. 

Narcissus and Echo is about the dangers of vanity. Through Kilomba’s eyes, the story is about the narcissism of whiteness and the unwavering self-obsession that is required to maintain whiteness as the centre and everyone else as the periphery. 

Illusions Vol. III, Antigone, 2019, Still #10.

Through a playful staging of Narcissus and Echo both as men there is commentary on the nature of ego and patriarchy. Feminist scholars have pointed out the homoerotic nature of male relationships and patriarchy and that, regardless of sexual orientation, men are taught to seek approval, love and respect from other men before any other gender.

The second volume Oedipus is subverted to function as a larger metaphor for the cyclical nature of violence and oppression and how that feels like fate. In the original Greek myth, it is prophesied that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother, and despite the efforts of his parents to prevent this, it happens. 

Throughout the life and death of the characters, a red ribbon is used to wrap and constrict them. And at the end of this piece, a slow-motion shot of each character tearing at the tape and (silently) screaming plays. 

Screaming can be an important means of communication for black artists and conveys what can or cannot be said. Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo ends his film Soleil O with a series of screams from the black protagonist who can no longer bear assimilation, aggression or exclusion from humanity and dignity; a scream captures the reach for that humanity, although it is denied what feels like every minute of every day. 

The third instalment of World of Illusions, Antigone, emphasises the tradition of ritual and mourning. Part of the colonisation process has been the destruction of cultural practices and the domination of imagination. Kilomba interrogates what it means to piece together rituals and how ritual has been, and continues to be, integral to meaning-making for Black and African cultures.

In addition to critically analysing the text of each story and flipping it on its head, Kilomba brings black storytelling conventions into the works. In each of the three pieces, she is pictured in an adjacent screen to the main act, functioning as a griot. The griot, considered to have its origins in West Africa, is an orator, a storyteller, who plays a vital role in maintaining and building the oral archive of a community’s history. 

The physical structure of the exhibition facilitates Kilomba’s griot positioning. The three pieces are projected on three large, landscape rectangular screens angled to form a triangle (trilogy) and, therefore, the screens are back to back as well as around the corner from each other. 

Each large screen has a smaller, vertical screen next to it, which plays a recording of Kilomba narrating the story. Sometimes she is sitting on stairs and other times she is in a director’s chair surrounded by microphones. She gazes towards the other screen, placing herself adjacent and integral to the story, without always acting in it. 

When one walks into World of Illusions, one might hear a mixture of seemingly opposing sounds — Kilomba’s soft narration of each piece, music, drumming, singing, and compositions by Neo Muyanga. However, while the pieces run on loops, once one sits or stands in front of one screen, the focus narrows in. 

Kilomba has noted in past interviews that the choice to create pieces that require the viewer to sit down, watch and listen, for extended amounts of time, can disrupt the routine engagement of art. 

Often black artists’ work is shallowly consumed through gazes that are paternal, colonial or sensational. Poet and educator Nikki Giovanni speaks to this gaze in her poem, Nikki-Rosa:

“… and I really hope no white person ever has cause   

to write about me

because they never understand

Black love is Black wealth and they’ll

probably talk about my hard childhood

and never understand that

all the while I was quite happy”

Guest curator of World of Illusions Marie-Ann Yemsi noted the exhibition placement was important for the work. World of Illusions is opposite the entrance of Norval’s When Rain Clouds Gather, an exhibition that explores black women’s contributions to South African art over the past 100 years. To Yemsi, curating with black women in mind is part of “creating a space of freedom”. 

Creating a space of freedom is curating work in a way that disengages from reducing it to one label or genre, and rather gives it space to live, be engaged with, and give viewers the chance to be active participants rather than passive viewers.

World of Illusions is indeed a study of illusions. Kilomba antagonises the meaning-making process in a white world. She points out the stories are illusions of power and there are other stories that need to be written. 

World of Illusions is on until 9 January at the Norval Foundation. For tickets, visit https://www.norvalfoundation.org/.  More of Grada Kilomba’s work can be found on her website https://gradakilomba.com/