"It's about trespassing, and words. Trespassing words."
I hear these words uttered by artist and filmmaker Laure Provost in conversation in New York City, 6 September 2023. This is approximately 3 weeks after having visited the fourth iteration of the artist and publisher Jessica Willams' ongoing project (be)longing. As I'm in the early stages of gathering the ruminations I've had since then, Provosts' words coalesce to bookend the impressions I'm left with by the publications and corresponding artworks in the fourth part of (be) longing by Marina Dubia, Makda Embaie and Shaon M:
Is the opposite of belonging trespassing?
Between being and longing is a demand to be allowed to exist, both free of place and connected to place. A demand for the resistance inherent in actions of self-determination, whether this be a demand formulated by an individual, a community or a people, and in some instances even a nation-state.
In Marina, Makda and Shaon's works, words act as both the reflexive nervous and immune systems of a body which trembles with unsaid acts done both to them and which they long to enact. It's a hesitation familiar to those who have witnessed or who have been brought up in a genealogy which passes on the knowledge that the too often punishing cost of relieving oneself of the physical, emotional and mental burden of (in)difference is to reveal oneself as a trespasser. To trespass is an act which—especially in Norway and Scandinavia—is perceived superficially as an annoyance, but which is really strictly policed because it threatens to reveal the furtive xenophobia of bureaucratic structures and everyday conversations. This will in turn challenge the cultural exceptionalism which allows us to continue our exploitation of the "natural" and "third" worlds we have separated ourselves from, as we claim our past and present positions as neutral in relation to both European colonialism and American imperialism.
Before addressing the artists' works I wish to be transparent about my own perspective, which I inevitably bring into these encounters as it is embedded within my own processes of identification. If you wish to skip ahead, you can do so guided by the next dotted line:
I moved from abroad to Norway as a 10 year old, as a child of two Norwegian parents who spent the majority of years after my birth abroad. Since then I've been caught in an internal struggle with a culture which would claim me as its own. It is, as most struggles with alienation, a struggle of my own construction, but not of my own volition. It is a language which is forced upon me in which I will never be fluent, as it pertains to an understanding and will related to hegemony, not grammar.
I was of course already at that age latently queer, but primarily understood my personhood and my sense of belonging, up through then, having grown up in international environments with no concept of a "majority population" or monoculture. Privilege was something I was aware of, and the enforcement of class on social relations was visible to me, but cultural binaries related to gender, language, and cultural exchange were not. Until I moved to Norway.
Unexposed to the gendering of both friendships, activities and expectations to interests and behaviours, I became quickly conscious of the way that adults seemed to enforce social norms by way of selectively supporting creative, sports, or social activities. Cheering from the sideline of a football field was, if anything, more of an act of monitoring the environment surrounding your child as it was to pay attention to your child's development. This encounter with the "schoolyard politics" which seemed to spill over into adult life, made me quickly develop a coping mechanism of hiding within my own shield of language and kinship, primarily through books and film. I preferred this kinship to any friendships at school, which I at that point viewed as transactional for the sake of social survival. I of course didn't reflect on any of this and the effect it had on my character and self-perception until I, in my 20s, moved out of Norway again, and in the context of London began to develop a keener awareness of being in light of my reimmersion in cultural plurality, especially pertaining to my latent queerness. By my 30s, I have become less concerned with self-preservation through masking and more concerned with the collective giving of permission to unmask, both to myself and those around me.
Today, I realise that the central tenet of my adolescent experiences of loneliness and "unbelonging" was the encounter with a monoculture which not only communicated but actively enforced binary notions of gender, and binary notions of belonging or "unbelonging" based in not only the identifiable lacking protection of governing institutions, but most forcibly through the policing of gender norms in children and adolescents in everyday life and venues. Parents take on the role of authoritarians to police trespassing through vitriolic language and social sanctions, which they pass on to their children. In 2022, the highest number of hate crimes towards LGBTQIA+ people in Norway was reported, ever, and research provided tragic numbers for young queer peoples' quality of life including employment, mental health and social inclusion and participation.1 2
Invited to respond as a writer to the fourth edition of the exhibition and publication series (be)longing, by artist and publisher Jessica Williams at House of Foundation —an artist-run house of culture in Moss, Norway—I find myself in the light of three artistic practices in which a common thread runs much like the formerly poisonous river outside. It's not only the threads which hold the physical spines of their books, but one which allows the reader to follow and interweave diverse artistic strategies with the common ambition to address, to correlate, and to confront the complex matrix of language(s) which both oppress and allow such demands to be formulated.
In the English language, a matrix in which identity, class, race, gender, and both the identification and representation of these, has been developed through centuries of oppressive state and colonising practices. Primarily based upon an "othering" of anything, anyplace or anyone who is situated outside of, or in opposition to inherently racist, classist, misogynistic classifications and state-sanctioned actions of violence and oppression, it continues to be the matrix to which individuals, communities, and artists both willingly and unwillingly continue to respond to this day.
Practices which aim to "decolonise" themselves and provide the tools to construct a different matrix of language and self-determination are relatively new in English-speaking art and culture. But when acted upon, can pull upon decades and centuries worth of thinkers, writers, artists, activists and individuals and communities which have created and preserved a genealogy of non-violent resistance and manuals on self- preservation:
I've always found my father's insistence in asking me how many black kids studied at my school a paranoia of his. 3
To address takes on a quite literal meaning in the work of Marina Dubia where the starting point for the work is an uncovered email to a friend, written but never sent. The artist finds it preserved since 2015 as a time capsule of a moment of doubt and hesitancy whether an email addressing her observations on race were something which could be shared, even in such a private correspondence. From what the unsent email is describing, one can gauge that to a certain extent, the dismissal of the harassment she was experiencing for the first time as a Brazilian exchange student in Portugal would lead to Dubia not hitting the 'send' button. Her father's concern about how the colour of her skin would come to affect her is a central conduit in the email, as it illustrates her own shift in perspective, from regarding it as her father's own, individual paranoia to a righteous indignation and concern shared between them.
When I complained about the number of incidents that happened to me in just a couple of months to the lady responsible for exchange students, she treated it with normalcy and guaranteed the harassment would stop once winter arrived, and I had to put on a coat outside. Half joking, half serious. Mostly serious. 3
Since I encountered the work Other Artists by Lisa Tan in 2019, the transparency and sharing of correspondence and the genealogy of ideas and relationships like this can produce and has served as an antidote to the lack of transparency surrounding art production and its global movement. This can equally be applied, in my experience, to the difference between discussing contemporary social issues and conflicts with a group of people, however disparate in opinion, to engaging in these issues in news and social media, where especially the latter has morphed from a helpful tool to an exhaustive source of virtue signalling, especially from white people and Western institutions.
In an astonishing feat of printmaking and the aesthetically and formally corresponding artworks in the exhibition space—which I am inclined to denote an exhibition sanctuary—Dubia quite literally pokes holes to abstract faces which in addition mimics the paper waste which can be both associated with the leftover traces of demonstrations and street protests, but also with the grey cubicle office landscapes in which the bureaucratic structures which can uphold racial discrimination and related class divides innocuously through it's utter intransparency of language.
To correlate consists of gathering many social and political dimensions and inter-human connections in Makda Embaie's Breaking Bread And Language, a work and a book which she offers as a facilitator in her absence.
Inspired by a series of workshops held in Tigrinya presenting prompts and methods to untangle the specific circumstances of her own language, and of the willing reader. Living in Sweden, not learning to read or write in her mother tongue as a consequence of xenophobic educational politics, Embaie came to learn instead that what she thought was her "mother tongue" was indeed a product of decades of complications of language and colonisation of her parents homeland Eritrea. From this, she maps out a journey through personal anecdotes and offers hope in light of the perhaps heartbreaking realisation that your feeling of fragmentation is in fact true, and that it rests in your mouth, the prime interlocutor of self-expression in a verbally driven world.
Translating together, sharing each other's languages turns the pain from violence into action – it responds to what has been lost instead of formulating why it is important in relation to how subjects usually are addressed – pressured to "speak of your pain". 4
Embaie also tethers language to private, intimate social practices, attributing anecdotes and memories to family members and friends. She credits them with imbuing her not only with the importance of speech not primarily in regards to articulating yourself in your surroundings, but with retaining a strong sense of selfhood:
ABREHET (...) With you, I learnt that the beat of chopping an onion is a shield. And within that shield, anything can be said. 4
Finally, to confront imbues itself in the work of Shaon M in the entrance to the exhibition space, where xer installation meets you in the doorway and complicates the movement of entering the exhibition space, as one must move around it. When faced forward, it's an enticing shape reminiscent of a sex swing, but from the sides it could quite possibly also be a canopy, an object to gather and protect whoever resides under it from rainwater, perhaps even imbuing the water with a promise of renewal. This object, suspended in space from the roof, remains ambiguous in its citation and possible functions, much because of its material: a form of linen or burlap.
In Shaon M's publication Brown Babbel, of which pages are displaced as single sheets, sometimes fixed with a simple clothespin on the installation, the eeriness of a sense of displacement is enacted through the book's design. The book rarely lets your eyes rest and makes full use of the possibilities of intertextuality, and to that effect recalling the structure of Roland Barthes' seminal A Lover's Discourse, first published in 1977. Here, the similarities between Barthes' and M's matrix of language(s) and their starting points stops, but it is rewarding in the sense that its "paragraphical" structure allows and encourages pauses for thought, much like when the screen dares go blank during an essay film, and one is left to process the flurry of images and coded visual information which has been received by ones retina at 24 or 60 images per second. Xe writes of specific situations in which xer subjectivity is pressurised by social norms and "given truths" manifesting in, amongst other things, racially insensitive make up.
Simultaneously, xe appears across the pages as an observer of xer own thoughts, reclaiming xer subjectivity by taking on the position of observing xer own pain, rather than being stripped of xer subjectivity as microaggressions fundamentally attempt. The installation, which softens yet retains visual signifiers of a sex-related object which uses predicates itself upon more binary roles of dominant and submissive. The soft sculpture somewhat complicates xer submission to the project, but just as much makes me aware of my position as a queer viewer of my own heavily codified language which is possibly sexualising a wholly different form designated for protection or rest. As queer people, we are inclined to read the potential of violence and wilful or non-willful submission into most shapes.
It is a particularly warm experience to witness a project such as (be)longing in a time when Norwegian educational politics have become an obvious, albeit through its own vernacular innocuous, vehicle for xenophobia through the exclusion of non-EU students from Norwegian institutions of knowledge production. These institutions serve as one of few pathways to equal participation in the Norwegian workforce and social life. Proffering even more grounds for alienation, the Norwegian government continues to colonise Samí land and ignore correlating court rulings in favour of the indigenous population, promote doublespeak such as "green oil" internationally5, and attempt to wipe their hands clean with contributions such as the 8,3 billion Norwegian kroner given between 2009-2018 to the international Amazonas Fund6. Meanwhile, we still pretend to not be able to resolve questions of 'integration' and 'diversity' regionally by isolating these conversations to areas of cultural production, labour, and employment. In the latter, trespassers are categorised and isolated based on the colour of their skin, birth name, and/or proficiency in Norwegian rather than their existing level of education, skills, and experience.
As any immigrant to Norway, and I daresay Scandinavia and Europe can attest to, integrating oneself and achieving equal participation is a near impossible feat due to the extent of cultural ethnocentrism and exceptionalism. Hence, speaking a different language too often becomes an act of revealing oneself as a "trespasser", which produces internalised sensations of alienation and rightful anger.
Through the lens of Shaon M, Makda Embaie, Marina Dubia, and Jessica Williams' work, language becomes a self enforcing expression of a struggle against such cultural hegemonies, a series of speech acts which enable us to position ourselves within a paradoxical time in global culture where the matrixes of language are being punctured, broken, and "babbeled" through the social engagement of artists and diasporic peoples and their active allies, while monocultures double down to reenforce their historically (mis)informed dominance.
I would like to thank the artists for their work—both visible and invisible in the exhibition and publications—and to express my appreciation to Jessica for the opportunity to spend time with these artistic practices, the (be)longing programme, and the kinship of its former and future contributors.
New York, October 2023
1 Dramatisk økning i hatkriminalitet mot skeive
2 Dårligere levekår blant ikke-heterofile
3 Dubia, Marina. E Eu Com Isso? - What have I got to do with that? Moss: Hverdag Books. 2023.
4 Embaie, Makda. Breaking Bread and Language. Moss: Hverdag Books. 2023.
5 See Norway's Paradox: Climate Champion and Major Gas Exporter?
6 The Norwegian government support to the international Amazonas fund was temporarily halted between2018 and 2023 due to the Bolsonaro government's environmental policies. Sources: https://www.nrk.no/urix/norge-frigir-milliarder-til-amazonas-1.16240169
This text was commissioned from the writer and curator Håkon Lillegraven on the occasion of the exhibition and launch of three new works and artists' books by Makda Embaie, Marina Dubia and Shaon M. The exhibition, which was the fourth iteration of the year-long experiment by Jessica Williams entitled (be)longing, was up between August 12 and September 30, 2023 at House of Foundation in Moss. All was made possible by support from Arts and Culture Norway, Viken Fylkeskommune, and Billedkunstnernes Vederlagsfond. A special thanks goes out to Håkon for making time to visit the exhibition and meet before leaving for a 3-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York.
Image credit: Jacky Jaan-Yuan Kuo