A conversation with Walter Mignolo

“Decolonial aesthetics/aesthesis has become a connector across the continents”

C& talks to Walter Mignolo, scholar at Duke University, touching upon the concept of decolonial aesthetics.

Jeannette Ehlers, WAVES, installation shot, Nikolaj Kunsthal, 2014

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C&: Decolonial aesthetics is a concept you have developed in the process of your reflections and work. How did this come about?

Walter Mignolo: First of all, this one, as any concept of the modernity/coloniality/decoloniality collective project, is a consequence of collective conversations. It was introduced in the conversation by Adolfo Alban Achinte, perhaps toward 2003, when he was still a PhD candidate at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador. It came out of conversations on the colonial matrix of power: what is the place of aesthetics in the colonial matrix? We have been talking about coloniality of knowledge and coloniality of being, political and economic coloniality, or coloniality of religion trapping spirituality, coloniality of gender and sexuality, coloniality of ethnicity (from which racism sprung). But we had not yet touched aesthetics. And the reason was that none of us up to that point were artists or art historians or art critics. But Adolfo was, being an artist and activist, from the Colombian Pacific, Afro-Colombian.

It was in the summer of 2009 that the issue exploded. At that point Adolfo was already the assistant to the director of the program, Catherine Walsh. I have been a professor and collaborator of Catherine Walsh since the beginning of the PhD program. Pedro Pablo Gómez, from the School of Fine Arts in Bogotá, was working on his PhD but was also the general editor of a new publication, CALLE 14. revista de investigacion en el campo del arte (“STREET 14. journal of investigation in the field of art”). He invited me to write an article for the journal. The article “Aesthesis Decolonial” was published in March of 2010. But, while the article was in production (I finished it in the fall of 2009) Pedro Pablo suggested to co-curate an exhibit-cum-workshop with the title “Estéticas Descoloniales” (“Decolonial Aesthetics”). The subtitle became, in the process “Sentir, pensar y hacer en Abya-Yala” (“Sensing, thinking,g and doing in Abya Yala”). We emphasized “sensing, thinking and doing”, breaking away from the European eighteenth-century distinction and hierarchy between “knowing, rationality” and “sensing, emotions.” Meanwhile, Adolfo was in Argentina participating in a workshop organized by Zulma Palermo, in Salta, a member of the collective. Zulma was also working with some of her colleagues and students on the question of an aesthetics/aesthesis.

What is crucial to keep in mind is that “coloniality” and all the concepts we have introduced since then are concepts whose point of origination is not in Europe but in “the Third World.” That means that all these concepts emerge from the experience of coloniality in the Americas. Entangled with modernity to be sure, but no longer “applying” European-born categories to “understand” colonial legacies. On the contrary, we have converted Europe into a domain of analysis rather than a provider of “cultural and epistemic resources.”

Inaugural event in Bogota, Nov 2010

Inaugural event in Bogota, November 2010

C&: In terms of looking closer at its foundations, to which movements and thinkers in the past can this concept be traced back? What are actually the point of origins, specifically when contextualized in Africa and in the diasporas?

WM: Thanks for this question that allows me to reinforce my last point. The historical foundations are not to be searched for in Europe. The profuse use of “decolonization” is remarkable after WWII, with the processes of decolonization in Asia and Africa. However, the institutional turning point for me was the Bandung Conference of 1955. It was, to be sure, a state-oriented and -managed conference. But the message was clear: neither capitalism nor communism but decolonization. And the first sentence of Sukarno’s inaugural speech was, more or less, “this is the first time in the history of humankind that an international conference of people of color takes place.” As it is known, 29 Asian and African states attended, including China which was under Mao and certainly in a somewhat uncomfortable situation. “People of color” meant also people of non-Christian religions. States with a majority or significant Muslim population had a significant presence at the conference.  Now, these principles were somewhat denaturalized when Bandung mutated into “non-aligned countries” whose first meeting was in Belgrade, under Marshal Tito, in 1961.

Now, since Bandung and the struggle for decolonization in Asia and Africa, during the Cold War, and the works of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, mainly, the concept of “decolonization” gained currency, and it is today used in different projects from decolonizing religion and gender/sexuality, to decolonizing the state and the economy, to decolonizing aesthetics and scholarship, knowledge and subjectivity, the academy, the university, etc.

C&: In this respect, how would you define Fanon’s legacies analyzing the “coloniality of power” as a point of reference?

WM: Fanon’s legacy is and has been crucial for “decoloniality” at large. And more specific in our project, the work of Nelson Maldonado-Torres at the intersection of Fanonian’s legacies and the decolonial project of the collective I mentioned did already make two crucial moves: one is the anatomy of “coloniality of being,” and the other is to move from Levinas’s intervention in continental philosophy through his Jewish experience and knowledge, to Dussel (an Argentine of German descent and founder of philosophy of liberation, where he confronts Levinas based on the local and colonial histories of the Americas) to finally Fanon. This doesn’t mean that we, in the collective, are the owners of Fanon. There are many others who take on Fanon’s decolonial legacies, and all are welcomed. I would highlight, however, the project of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, founded by Jamaican Philosopher Lewis Gordon. I mention this because there has been since its inception a fruitful, full, and convivial conversation between modernity/coloniality and the philosophical association. We share the lived experiences (yes I know, experiences are “constructed,” which doesn´t mean that they are not “lived experiences”) of Continental South and Central America and the Caribbean. The anchors of those experiences differ and at the same time are complementary. For Afro-Caribbeans, the anchors are the histories of the middle passage. For us, in the collective modernity/coloniality, it is the histories of our European ancestors (Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, Germans) who invaded, appropriated, and expropriated the land and made themselves at home, disregarding the native population and the great civilizations of the “New World.” And committed one of the largest crimes of humanity, by hunting down and enslaving people from Africa.


C&:  Can you elaborate on the term “delinking” that you coined?

WM: First of all, I did not coin “delinking.” It was the Egyptian Marxist sociologist Samir Amin, who introduced it in 1982 in a book published in Paris. The title was La déconnexion, translated into English as “delinking.” Amin’s proposal was to delink from capitalism, that is, he argued for an economic delinking.

What I did was to re-cast the term to talk about “delinking from the colonial matrix of power,” which is larger than delinking from capitalism. And delinking not to socialism but to transmodernity and pluriversality, where there is no room for any abstract universal. So socialism is an option, as are many others looking to delink from the frame of mind we are in today. But cannot be the option, that is, the only way “to delink to.”  In the process of sorting out and delinking from the two options derived from the European enlightenment, either (neo-)liberalism or (neo-)socialism, I came to understand the current world order in terms of re-Westernization, de-Westernization and decoloniality.

C&: In the light of decoloniality, to what extent could you say that the biennale as such is a structure that generally carries the basis of hegemonic knowledge systems, i.e. by creating some forms of exclusion along the lines of gender, border, and migration? In this context how do you perceive Dak’Art, the biennale in Dakar that focuses on artists and artistic productions from the continent – including Sub-Saharan and North Africa and the diasporas? 

WM: There are two directions or options in which delinking (or détournement) is taking place in the sphere of art, museums, biennials, or triennials. The question consists of “reading” the project that propels and motivates the events or the enactment of archives (e.g., museums). One is de-Westernization. I have already written some pieces on this, apropos of the Sharjah Biennial 11 and on the Museums of Islamic Art in Doha and the Asian Civilizations Museums in Singapore.

Dak’Art is for me more difficult to read. On the one hand, it started clearly inscribed in the philosophy and sensibility of African variegated processes of decolonization. It seems to me Dak’Art is halfway between the legacies of European modernity and the history of decolonization in Africa. What makes for instance the de-Westernization of the Sharjah Biennial radical is that it is supported by financial capital. And here is the catch-22 that makes “cultural” de-Westernization difficult to understand: it is “thanks” to impressive economic growth that cultural de-Westernization is possible. And it is the lack of strong financial autonomy that makes Dak’Art navigate between the legacies of European modernity and the motivation for decolonization. Dak’Art can bring the Third World and Europe to the ex-Third World. I see Dak’Art as a site to promote and enhance Pan-Africanism in the art sphere. And Pan-Africanism could be decolonial but it may not necessarily be.

Dak’Art could run parallel to Sharjah Biennials, an institution that not only promotes and supports African artists but set up a clear and radical project of re-emergence. That is, that re-inscribes in the cultural sphere the spirit of Bandung and the spirit of African decolonization as we find it in Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, and Walter Rodney if we would like to bring the African diaspora into the picture.

Taus Makhacheva, Delinking, 2011, three color photographs, installation view Sharjah Biennial 11, courtesy of the artist and Laura Bulian Gallery, image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

Taus Makhacheva, Delinking, 2011, three color photographs, installation view Sharjah Biennial 11, courtesy of the artist and Laura Bulian Gallery, image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

C&: Could you name any artists and artistic productions in African as well as Afro-diasporic contexts that follow a decolonial trajectory? In which way? 

WM: I have been working with Afro-diasporic artists, curators, critiques etc. And all of them, the ones I work with, are fully engaged in decolonial talks, exhibits, workshops, and the like. I’ll mention three examples:

Patrice Naiambana, from Sierra Leone. He created Tribal Soul in 1992. He has become globally known through his spectacular tour de force solo show, The Man Who Committed Thought. I met him in 2011 at the Middelburg Decolonial Summer School. He performed The Man as part of the Summer School. His father was involved in the struggle for decolonization in Sierra Leone, so nothing new to him there. His storytelling (that is how we agreed on describing what he does) is clearly decolonial. His thoughts are a continuation of his performance as you could see here in this interview in Middelburg, in the summer of 2011.

A second case is Jeannette Elhers. Born in Denmark to a Trinidian father and a Danish mother, Jeannette embodies the stories of empire and the Atlantic. Storytelling such as Invisible Empires (2010), where her father is the narrator, and Atlantic (2009-2010), where she digs into sounds and images to make sense of the horror of the slave trade, or the magnificent Black Bullets (2012) imagined after the Haitian Revolution, are also magnificent achievements enacting decolonial aesthetics. You can see all of this on Jeannette’s web page.

A third example is the work that Alanna Lockward, an Afro-Dominican residing in Berlin, has been doing through Be.Bop: Black Europe-Body Politics, with editions in 2012, 2013 and 2014 in Berlin and Copenhagen. I bring up Alanna here because it is not just a question of artists/storytellers, whether visual, verbal, or written, dance or sounds, videos or movies, documentary or fiction; it is also the importance of curators who have the possibility of bringing decoloniality in many strands.

But I cannot close this session without mentioning Le malentendu colonial (2004) by Jean Marie Téno. I have been using this movie in my classes introducing decolonial thinking, doing, sensing, and believing. Decolonial aesthetics/aesthesis has become a connector across the continents.

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Walter Mignolo is an Argentinian semiotician, writer, researcher and professor at Duke University, Durham, and Director of the Center for Global Studies and the Humanities.

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Interview by Aïcha Diallo