Myriam Mihindou, Rituals of care
Texte publié dans "Creativity Under Confinement", Ed. About Time, Cape Town, 2021.
She enters the room stumbling on her tiptoes. Slowly, trying to keep her balance, she moves towards a yet unknown destination. On her face we read the hardness of the endeavour. It is not played, it is felt. The body trembles. She stops as she arrives in front a low plinth where are laid several threads of copper, a pair of pliers and scissors. She faces the audience, takes one thread and curves it. One by one she braids them onto her hair. The action is arduous and presumably hurtful. When she has weaved all the threads, she takes the scissors, brings them to the roots of her hair and cuts one braid, letting go of one copper thread and the hair that was tied to it. She puts down the piece on the plinth, walks to one person in the audience and hands him/her the scissors. Another braid is taken down. She repeats the process until they are all off. She then gathers the braids with the remaining threads and assembles them into a sculpture.
Entitled Polarisation – L’en-corps, this performance by French-Gabonese artist Myriam Mihindou took place in September 2019 at Centre Pompidou (Paris) as part of the “Ernest Mancoba” exhibition curated by Alicia Knock. To this day, whenever I think of this performance, I feel it. Beyond the emotional shock, it resonates in a singular way with uninterrupted interrogations I have regarding the ways in which racial, sexist and capitalist systems had and still operate – the body as both a language and a memorial space – how art manifests as a space of resistance and care with an interest on the audience’s experience. It seemed interesting to me to return to this experience dating back several months already in that it provides, I believe, ways to apprehend the context in which we find ourselves. If the confinement affects in many ways the (art)world, one of its most perceptible social effect is how it prevents people’s gathering (around artworks). Another of its consequences is to have made inaccessible a certain number of objects, classified as nonessential thus redifining from the time being our consumption and production modes. We are materially limited to what is necessary for our survival, what is essential to the preservation of our society. As cultural workers, we cannot refrain from questioning the forms of what we produce, their modes of production and diffusion. It appears that the economic impact of this health crisis has made necessary for art world, institutions and actors to rethink the meaning and the forms of our work. Myriam Mihindou’s performance seems particularly interesting to me in this context because it deploys an ecology of forms and it is informed by an approach to artistic practice that echos these questions.
Not a word was spoken during the whole performance which besides reinforcing the physical reception of it, evokes a plurality of the use of silence. The silence in which the performance took place stirs up past and present strategies employed by dominant forces to maintain oppression on subjects. Moreover, it affirms the body as a space of memory, a means of expression and suggests introspection as a way to engage with oneself and the world. There, I believe, lies one of the strengths of the performance. Whispered by its title that likely refers to the coexistence of two antithetic forces in the “en-corps”, this “en-corps”, in consideration of Lacan’s then Soler’s psychanalytic, can be understood as both the begetting of body through language and the identity use of the body. The inherent contradiction is to be found in the body as well as it produces the speaking-body, a body that speaks through symptoms when the inconscient manifests. The artist embodied at once the oppressor and the one that bears the assault. She furthermore portrays the subject that has incorporated the values of the dominant culture and forces herself into them. This auto-ingestion of beliefs and treatments imposed by the oppressors, is what Fanon demonstrated in his eminent Peau noire, masques blancs.
It is without words that she recalls the history of silence that was forced upon black people - during and after slavery – and with more tools and virulence on black women.
Silence imposed through torture of the flesh and mind, silence institutionalized in social structures, silence lived as the only way to survive. A culture of secrecy that while “protecting” black women, also protected their abusers allowing them to perpetrate with impunity racial and sexist crimes. A culture of silence. A shared silence between victims and oppressors, taught and passed on from generation to generation. A history of silencing that arise as the artist is speaking up from a silent space also to be understood as a regenerative space. It is there, in that verbal distance with the world, that one can meet its unruly interiority, find his/her own ontology. Free from material and social injunctions one enters a place where he/she whether encounters or produces emancipatory ways and strength to engage with his/her environment. A silence that allows the voice of the body to be heard. A memory, a knowledge, an experience of the world detained by the body.
… speaking bodies
Similar to numerous contemporary artists, Myriam Mihindou’s practice takes many forms. Sculpture, photography, performance are the mediums through which the artist develops a research that is both memorial and physical. Her work is informed by the multiple identities of her being and stems from a syncretism of the knowledges, beliefs and practices of the different geographic and cultural spaces she experienced (Egypt, France, Marocco, Reunion, Gabon, Uganda…). Drawing upon personal experiences and those of marginalized subjects, she investigates traumas generated by past and present power struggles with a strong attachment to the sacred, visible and invisible forces and to cultural heritages denied or forgotten. History, language, narratives and body constitute the different and intertwined fields on which she constructs a space for resistance and care. In her performances, her body, that endures various type of ordeals, is a tool and a vehicle through which histories are being shared and trauma transcended. In this regard, Myriam Mihindou’s practice is part of a repertoire of artists whose works are thought and exist as a cathartic space. A space where aesthetics forms, care practices, rituals staging and objects meets to explore the interiority of the human condition, unpack the violence of power structures and provide means of recovery of both the mental and physical.
Rituals constitute universal social facts through which societies organize and regulate themselves, resolve conflicts, reinforce their cultural specificities and thus the feeling of belonging of its members. As so, they act as a cement of human groups setting up a cultural frame that defines and affect social and spiritual life. Staging and representation of the human body are central in most rituals which distinguishes them from purely linguistic forms of communication. Rituals achieve their symbolic efficiency as they generate psychic and social ties while the body becomes the main vehicle through which subjects interact. They create moments where societies tell and write themselves in the bodies.
Mihindou’s performance affirms both this corporal expressivity of the ritual and its power to federate the community around a social matter. It is a ritual through which the artist addresses women’s oppression and stages the need for the entire community to tackle this issue. It thus contradicts the stereotype of the “strong” black women that, as Bell Hooks highlights, was used by white feminists to minimize and delegitimize the struggles of black women against racism and sexism in the United States. In a nut shell, it points out that women’s oppression, and specifically the oppression of black women is not a (black) women’s problem but in fact, a societal problem. Mihindou, as she engages the audience to help her free herself from the copper thread seems to point out the need for society as a hole to simultaneously contribute in recognizing the violence circumstances women exist in, and participate in breaking down this circle of violence. The ritual leads the artist in embodying violence as a strategy to critique a patriarchal system in an act that resembles a spiritual atonement then shifts towards the liberation from the tools of oppression. This performance resonates with the photographs serie Déchoucaj (2004) that the artist realized in Haiti while she was participating in a silent collective trance held after traumatic events witnessed by the participants: the social tensions and violence that followed the overthrow of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The improvised ritual was staging a true catharsis where the silent bodies through unexpected postures remembered and expressed, all together, in a real communion, what they experienced. “Déchoucage” is an Haitian term that refers to the action of digging up the stump of a tree that has just fallen. With Polarisation – L’en-corps, Myriam Mihindou performs a ritual that leads the audience to a space of remembrance and collective resistance. She makes an offering of her body which becomes a political tool, a canal of transmission and social transformation. The performance’s narrative shows a body moving from vulnerability to a state of empowerment; a body that stands for a symbolic representation of the politics that are inherently inscribed it in.
Mihindou’s performance was an experience through which the artist and audience merged into a space of recovery. The performance did not allow the audience to experience it as a passive, contemplative viewer; rather, the artist created a space of relation and of shared responsibility. This participation of the audience has different consequences in regard to the reception of the work and how it operates as a cathartic space. If we observe it from the perspective of the use and representation of the black body by power structures throughout time, Mihindou’s performance, in the way it engaged the audience, echoes how black visual artists challenge the nature of performance and most largely the notion of spectacle. In the catalogue of the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, curator Valerie Cassel Oliver quotes historian and critic Harvey Young about the meaning of the black body in Americas: “The experience of racial (mis)recognition plays a determining role within the formation of phenomenal blackness. The black body, whether on the auction block, the American plantation, hanged from a light pole as part of lynching ritual, attacked by police dogs within the Civil Rights era, or stage as a “criminal body” by contemporary law enforcement and judicial systems is a body that has been forced into the public spotlight and given a compulsory visibility. It has been made to be given to be seen. Its condition, as Du Bois famously observed, is a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” This awareness of one’s status as the seen/scene structures behavior”. It has led, as Valerie Cassel Oliver explains, black visual artist to create performances that defy the historical status of the audience and doing so, blur the line between art and life. Indeed, the ritual dimension that characterizes Mihindou’s performance, is part of a practice that articulates aesthetics and politics in an attempt to achieve a therapeutical role of art. She engaged with the audience in a way that allowed the co-building of a shared experience where intersubjectivity is mediated by the body. There, the audience cannot be present as a passive viewer. The tension generated by the narrative of the performance, the ritual, call for an active and ethic gaze. As the writer Rosemarie Garland Thomson writes, the viewers “become ethical starters by being conscious in the presence of something that compels our intense attention. What gives such attractions power in these formulations in their capacity to vivify human empathy". From an observer, a silent accomplice of the violence, the audience/participants become the accomplice of an act of liberation. Its double status, but rather its transition, mirrors the one of the artist that embodied the oppressor and the oppressed. The political and social commentary of the work, its healing abilities, lie not only in the final gesture of the artist but lodge itself in the role that is given to the audience. Involving all the participants, the ritual constitutes a moment of social cohesion, a space-time that seeks and allows collective healing. It is inscribed both in the aesthetic and social realm. Thinking performances as ritual as Myriam Mihindou does underlines the role of art in shaping social and political life. The healing of individual and collective wounds is the approach through which the artist activates the role she wants art to play in society. Engaging with social crisis, she produces art with an ethical awareness, spiritual and civil substance.
What will remain
As we question the role and means of art in the context we are facing, we cannot dismiss the fact that the health crisis has only made more visible the ideologies on which are built our political, economic and social infrastructures and the inequalities resulting from them. As visual artist Jonas Staal notes: “all of this [health and economic measures taken by government to deal with the crisis] exemplifies a preexisting mentality, a preexisting propagation: every day, tens of thousands of people die because of poverty, exploitation, and warfare. Such people are now additionally confronted with this virus, and for them, regulations such as “social distancing,” regular handwashing with soap and water, and working from home sound absolutely absurd—consider just that 25 percent of the world population already does not have access to adequate sanitation. ». In a pre-pandemic context, where artistic production is driven by market forces, culture and art lose their symbolic and social value to the benefit of the spectacularization of art exemplified by an overemphasis on material, artists are pushed to over produce and created bigger and flashy artworks for the eyes of the visitor/consumer/collector, Myriam Mihindou’s performance illustrates practices that offer entries to think of what art can do in mutilated societies. Polarisation – L’en corps is a performance that rely on a minimalistic yet powerful artistic gesture that raise fundamental issues of our contemporary times. While requiring simple material and shapes that one could assimilate to arte povera, Mihindou’s work results in a longterm research through which she feeds herself with knowledge, beliefs and practices from individuals, places and resources that her investigations led her to. Resulting of a syncretism of knowledges, the performance focuses on the trans-emotional characteristic of the artwork. Positioning herself on the margins of an artistic approach dictated by market forces and in a critical perspective of dominant discourses; she suggests ways to engage with the world and others that is to be found in one’s own interiority. A place of silence that allows to listen more carefully to both the speaking body and the external world; where we find and redefine what makes us and what binds us to the world and to others.
Engaging with art as a space of care, her practice is rooted in her attention to population that are oppressed and rendered vulnerable by different forms of domination. She thus contributes to a long and ongoing reflection about the means and capacities of art to affect individuals and societies’ life. Due to its global impact, the lockdown forces us to question the way we live albeit its temporary nature. The otherwise persistence of power structures that put nature and humans’ lifes at risk, compels us to expand our reflection from creativity under confinement
to creativity after confinement. How will theses weeks, that have shaken the world while only accentuated the disastrous consequences of the conditions in which we live impact the way we think and make art? What will/should change? What will/should remain? What does/will our societies need? Following philosopher Isabelle Stengers advocacy for “slow research” in social science, curator Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez in her article For Slow Institutions offers an insight on “how institutions of contemporary art can counter the imperative of late capitalism and neoliberal progress driven modes of living and thinking”. In a context where, as cultural workers, we are forced to slow down, but wonder how to remain productive, Myriam Mihindou’s way of engaging with art can nourish our thoughts on how we experience this assigned pause and what may come out of it.
 Bell Hooks, Ne suis-je pas une femme ? Femmes noires et féminisme, Éditions Cambourakis, 2015 ; Gloria Atkins, 1981.
 November 17, 2012 - February 16, 2013, Brown Foundation Gallery, Houston, US
 Harvey Young, Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 2010), p.12. Quoted by Valerie Cassel Oliver in her essay “Putting the body on the line: Endurance in Black Performance” in Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, (Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, 2013) p.15.
 Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 186. Quoted by Frieda Ekotto in her essay “Body Talk and Toughts on Power" in Body Talk, Feminism, Sexuality and the Body in the Work of Six African Women Artists, Edited by Koyo Kouoh, (RAW Material, WIELS, & Motto Books, 2016), p.105.
 Jonas Staal, “Coronavirus Propagations”, e-flux, March 17, 2020, https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/coronavirus-propagations-by-jonas-staal/9671
Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, For Slow Institutions, e-flux, October, 2017, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/85/155520/for-slow-institutions/