Postcolonial Africa is the key theme of Anawana Haloba’s art. For her new exhibition, opening at SKMU Sørlandets Kunstmuseum this weekend, she has produced two new films that include a portrayal of a fictitious African dictator who seeks to explain himself. She also addresses China’s contribution to the infrastructure of her native Zambia. The different stories demonstrate how nation-building projects that were originally based on heroic figures and good intentions can eventually sour and go off track, creating insurmountable problems that persist for decades.
Haloba arrived in Oslo in 2002 and is one of the few African artists who have established an international career while based in Norway. Her CV includes numerous prestigious exhibitions: the Sharjah biennial, Manifesta, the Sydney biennial and the Venice biennial, all in the late 2000s. In the works presented at these exhibitions, Haloba worked with questions pertaining to globalisation, often in the form of performative film where she lends her own face and voice to those she wishes to speak about. One example is the work Can you see, can you hear (2007–08): here, we as spectators stand in a darkened space and become immersed in audio recordings of women and children who poignantly relate traumatic experiences from war-torn areas. The result is an intense sense of intimacy and closeness that makes it impossible to maintain a divide between “us” and “them”. The works help build a global, ethical horizon.
Haloba has built a significant international career before being given her first major exhibition at an art institution in her new country. She believes that the Norwegian art scene should increasingly and actively seek out other cultures, and that the best way to achieve a truly diverse society is by having all us become nomads.
Can you tell us a little bit about the exhibition in Kristiansand and the works you will be presenting?
The exhibition explores post-independence development in Africa from the 1960s to the 1980s. This includes the rise and failure of African Socialism and the social and economic exploitation that lead to a number of countries becoming dictatorships. It also explores China’s presence in Africa, taking into consideration the country’s first grand aid venture in Africa: the TAZARA-railway which connects landlocked Zambia to the coastline of Tanzania.
The main project, Confessions of a delusional dictator and a museum of guilt, involves a safety bunker containing a marble confessional box in which a two-way video work is presented. In the film the titular character gives his confession to a priestess. The work also features memorabilia from victims of torture and merchandise confiscated from oppositional groups. The second project, A Dragon King in Sleepy Pride Rock, is an animated satirical video on China’s presence in Africa and Zambia, the first in a series of my personal research project Reconstructing Histories: China in Africa, Myths and Facts.
What made you decide to create this fictional universe rather than to focus on documentary material and real historical figures?
It’s always complicated with leaders like Gaddafi, Mugabe or Kenneth Kaunda, who was the first president of Zambia. A lot of people in the country still think of him as a hero. Many of the early fathers of pan-African independence started out with good intentions, but they turned into dictators, in part because they went into government without any real experience. They often went from being revolutionary leaders to associating the revolution too closely with themselves as individuals. This in turn made them paranoid and then authoritarian. So the work is largely about Africa dealing with the pitfalls of independence. This is easier when you fictionalize because you can try getting into the mind of the individual. If I were to deal with actual dictators, immediately I would have to take sides, but now I can explore the psychology, which makes it more complex. What goes on inside the mind of a dictator?
As part of Skulpturlandskap Nordland, last year you presented a new work at Træna. It is a group of islands situated halfway out in the Atlantic. How did you approach such a challenging task?
Being asked to make this sculpture was such a great honour. After my first visit there I knew I had to reference Træna’s almost 9000 years of history. Being interested in history, I wanted to include references to Peter Dass and to the idea of Træna as a living fossil. The material of the sculpture will age with time, leaving only the strong voice of the woman on the soundtrack and the light, which is in the shape of a 9000- year-old hook made from bone.
Your works are often accompanied by poetry and texts. How do these elements relate to your visual work?
I view the texts and written fragments as interrelated with the images or sculptures. I believe the poems reach a certain point where they stop being words and turn into images. The text grows into a sculpture, or a moving image.
Your work has been presented more widely abroad than in Norway. What is your impression of the Norwegian art world when it comes to integration?
I feel I have been integrated, probably not fully but to an extent that I am able to function. Having said that it is important to mention that the Norwegian art world has a tendency of looking inwards. An immigrant artist with a museum exhibition in Europe or America may not receive the same attention as a Norwegian artist at Kunstnerforbundet. During grant application selection processes, the latter is also likely to be given preference over the former.
Secondly, the lack of diversity in the big institutions is troubling. One wonders whether there is a mandate that when showcasing art from the Norwegian art world it must be 100% Norwegian. Of course they should not try to solve this problem by creating a museum for “immigrant art”. There are important exceptions; institutions like Litteraturhuset and OCA present diverse programs that can be conducive to further integration.
Are there any experiences you, as a migrant, have found enlightening, or even useful, in the development of your work?
I would like to quote a Nigerian-American artist and thinker, Olu Oguibe, from his 2003 essay Exile and the Creative Imagination: “Engaging with exile is a technology of the self.” When you live in a different country your strangeness becomes more pronounced. You spend every day trying to understand everything and also explain it to yourself. Your days are filled with questions. These questions make the mind more creative because it has to work so much. So the noise of migration is good for the creative imagination. You ask yourself what you are becoming and who you can become.
Norway is generally considered a fairly integrated society. At the moment, however, it feels like some important rights we used to take for granted are under attack. What are your thoughts on the current political climate of this country?
In 2014 I was invited to be part of a panel discussion at Nasjonalmuseet with the title “Has racism made a comeback?” It is a paradox that Norway’s image and view of itself and its liberal goodness around the world can be a hindrance towards dealing with the real situation at home. Norway could avoid the panic around the influx of Syrian refugees to Europe. The level of integration and diversity in a society depends on how it deals with its existing notions of xenophobia. If we always ask tiny questions the fear will gradually go away.
What are some of the issues concerning the artist’s role as a political subject?
I never see my artist role as a political subject, but I did have a political awareness from a very tender age. My mother was very involved with the trade union movement, but my parents never held the same political beliefs. I’m from a family with four different branches of religion, so I’m used to diversity and I don’t want to be an activist.
You received your art education partially with the “Art Academy Without Walls”, which was realized in Zambia by members of the staff of the Oslo Art Academy. Do you think projects like this are important and should be expanded upon?
While in college I had already participated in workshops by AAWW, which was run by Michael O’Donnell, and in 2002 I received a scholarship to study at the Oslo Art Academy. So for me it worked. I was curious to see something new and different. It would have been interesting to also have students from Oslo coming to Zambia for exchange.
I think knowledge and exchange is very important and there are people around the world that it would be interesting for young Norwegian students to meet, and vice versa. Cultural difference should be sought out; we should not just wait for it to come to us. We should all become nomads. That’s how we are going to be able to diversify. As human beings we don’t have just one story.