Critical Thoughts, Post-Colonial Discourse
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A Time in Bloomington, Indiana and a note on the Dialectics of the Future.

It was a long flight. The longest since the lockdown. Nine hours from Berlin to Newark. Four hours layover and another three hours to Indianapolis. It was raining, although it was 24 degrees Celsius. Passing through immigration was a breeze. And soon, I was in the Limo that would drive me to Bloomington, a one-hour drive away.

The weather felt like it preserved itself at a sweet spot between bouts of capriciousness. Not too cold, yet not warm. I was tired but relieved. Every time my plane lands, I say a silent prayer of thanksgiving. I have come quite far and close to my “I am” in the past months. A presence intrinsically tied to consciousness. A heightened awareness is foregrounded by a sense of personal rhythm. Grounded, yet swinging and floating. There is, of course, the temptation to covet this state of being. Make it mine and mine alone. That’s dangerous because nothing is meant to be possessed but put in relation. It yearns for this relation. This newness isn’t about being new. This newness unforcefully distances itself from deadness.

Bloomington is uncanny. At the heart of it is Indiana University. I say “heart” emphatically because there is no Bloomington without the University. While this statement isn’t pinpoint factual, it holds its own conceptually and metaphorically. One will have to peel themselves off the recurrent referral to the University to find a Bloomington beyond it.

Indiana University is a reputable American learning institution. Built-in the late 19th century, it is the quintessential embodiment of the Mid-West American character. Indiana, as I have come to learn, is known for their limestones and pork. However, the reference to pork is less evident than the limestone out of which most main campus buildings are constructed. In addition, the architecture is somewhat baroque (I need to double-check my knowledge about the history of architectural style).

The school is nestled in an expanse of lush greens. It’s as if the buildings, pathways, and pond-like rivers were carved out of a sprawling park or forest. It’s the end of the summer. The trees and flowers seem reluctant to answer the call of the fall, during which they are prompted to shed their buoyancy. Walking around the campus, your vision and sense of orientation are mitigated by happy flowers, freshly-green plants, meadows, and blossoms. They bloom as if to stay faithful with its assonance in the name of the city: Bloomington. Is there a historical correlation here? I am yet to ask.

The people of Bloomington (students and faculty included) glide, not walk. There is a measure in their pace that one might, for lack of a better word, liken to gracefulness. That would be a quick jump to a conclusion. It is more of a swinging with the rhythm of the place. Feet do not thump on the ground. Conversations are quieter and more intimate than they are expressive. Of course, all that descended into a dishevelled frenzy as the week approached Friday. The students became students in all senses of the word.

At this point, I also realised that there are gradations of spatial demarcations between the grads, undergrads, and faculty. They don’t necessarily mingle outside the formalities of the classrooms. Even the restaurants at the Student Union building on the campus maintain this sense of exclusivity. Yet, there is conviviality. Everyone knows their place.

It was my first time in Indiana – often called the fly-by state since it is in the middle of America. I had never experienced this sort of America – not in all my travels (mainly the coastal metropolis such as New York and San Francisco) nor the barrage of Hollywood movies. So it was quite a culture shock to see Americans reserved yet genuinely gracious with what I nicknamed “the Big Mac” smile. Yes, virtually everyone in Bloomington meets you with a generous, gaping smile the moment they spot you, regardless of the distance between you and them. The smile and “hello, how are you?” ring and fill the chasm between close encounters. Not that such gestural openness is new to me. It’s the same in New York, for instance. Only in Bloomington smiles feel genuine, like a people’s disposition without further incentive. In New York, however, it feels more like an imposed assertiveness. This threatening openness seeks to take up the other person’s space or take something away in an environment where handshakes and hugs presuppose a power-play.

I adjusted well into Bloomington. I would come to learn that although Indiana is a conservative red state, Bloomington is a blue town. By the end of my stay, I had nicknamed it the “blue heaven”. Cheesiness aside, though, it could rightfully be called a “blue bubble”. At a dinner with Osamu James Nakagawa, the Distinguished Professor of Photography at Indiana University, he told me, “Emeka, let me take you 20 miles outside of Bloomington so that you see for yourself”. What he meant by that is: as a Black person, all the reveries of beauty and conviviality dealt a shocking hand at the border of the Bloomington ring. Beyond is a different reality – a reflection of Donald Trump’s America. Tomoko Nakagawa, James’s wife, narrated a painful experience that took place a long time ago when she was yelled at by some white supremacist Americans to “go back to her country”. Contemplating the kind of violence such hate, cocooned in ignorance, could spew is indeed traumatic. So when she said, “it was horrible, I was so scared”, I could relate.

I was invited to Bloomington to share my thoughts and methodology of art-making. I appreciated that the curators who invited me – Elliot Josephine Reichert and Allison J. Martino – immediately recognised that my artistic practice has matured beyond the confines of specific mediums and discipline. But most importantly, they must have picked up one salient point: although I straddle different mediums and think in a somewhat digressional manner, the conversation is one and holistic across all modes of expression. Throughout my life (and I say this, thanks to the benefit of hindsight), I have been preoccupied with the concept of “being and motion”. That is the central theme, not just of my artistic practice but also of my disposition as a human being.

In one of those faculty dinners, a professor asked me, “Emeka, do you think you have always been on a journey all your life”. My response was contemplative: “yes, I have. And you know what? I feel like this notion of being on the move preceded my birth – like it stretches into a past life.”

Those days at Bloomington offered me enough disembodiment to reflect on two decades of a journey through an artistic consciousness. It opened up, or rather, “unknotted” many strands of thoughts leading to newly discovered tributaries. Some of those would eventually form the subject of my lecture at the Eskenazi Museum – the highlight of my visit to Indiana University.

As of the time of writing the later paragraph of this article, many months have passed since my visit to Bloomington. This has allowed me more space in that necessary process of distillation. So pardon me if, from here on, everything sounds like a digression. 

I have an uncanny relationship with time. Often, I hear people say, “time is an illusion”. While I totally agree, we mustn’t take the brevity of such a quote as a given. Of utmost importance is to recognise the space which opens up when paired with another counterpart: “time is a tangible social construct”. I believe we swing back and forth, like a pendulum, at the interstices of these two proclamations. As a result, time is relative in ways that we have yet to conceive and apply to everyday life’s expanse.

As an entry point to my talk, I chose the affirmation by Herbie Hancock of the idea of being a “human being”. Hancock is a multivalent artist – a jazz musician and composer, But he is also many other things beyond the discipline he is primarily known for. He is an educator, an activist and a Buddhist. He talked about how much of what he does is related to the grand story and objective of being human. This resonates with me a great deal. It speaks to me because we often tend to think that because we exist, the work of being human is a foregone conclusion. We say, “oh well, we are human”, to cut ourselves some slack. Yet, while the human project is not about being perfect, it has never been more urgent, proactive and deliberate than in our time.

Much of my life and those of my contemporary is what I call “evidence of the postcolonial predicament”. Yet, for a long time, this has meant those stuck in the never-ending loop of reactionary regurgitations – an Inertia which induces an illusion of progress. All of that changed when I started delving deeper into the work of Frantz Fanon and Edouard Glissant. These two thinkers have been very instrumental in elongating my field of view. I have always read them disparately, but the magic happened when I started reading them intersectionally. Their thoughts, when they cross paths (or waves, given that they were both thinkers of Caribbean origins speaking out of the vibrations of the archipelagos), collide but also give hopeful forms to what Glissant calls “the Chaos-world” of the future.

As a result, my work is future-oriented. Here is what I mean by this:

The 21st century is a huge turning point. I remember, as a child, all the religious predictions and secular speculations surrounding the notion of the millennium. I conjured many frightful imaginaries of the world changing as soon as the year clocks 2000. Well, nothing of the sort happened except that Hollywood graced us with such paradigm-shifting movies as The Matrix. Yet, in such films, we see the needle movement of a drastically changing era. The century ushered us into what we now call a postmodernist era. But It is instead the emergence of the postcolonial into a planetary reality. For a long time, the West has stood safely “outside” the self-transforming (and self-transposing) currents of postcoloniality. At the same time, thinkers from the non-West toiled to articulate the psyche nature of the era. Over 50 years ago, Frantz Fanon predicted and articulated the double-bind predicament between the coloniser and the colonised. Today, this reality has taken different forms. And because it is imbued with the force of life, thus regenerative, it bore offspring. Barack Obama is one of the myriad examples of the tentacular forms such double-binds take.

Today, our world is proliferating into Glissant’s premonition of the Chaos-World. Chaos, in this context, does not equate to disorder. On the contrary, the chaos-world of the future will be one where the markers of differences are divested of their attributes of violence. Racism is a justification for White privilege (an indivisible privilege). But it projects itself unto the world as violence, more so at those crevices where motion is delineated by differences. When Steve Jobs decided to settle on the famous “Think Different” as a marketing tagline for his Apple products, he may have sensed he was tapping into the disposition of the future. I would argue that Job’s slogan is much more effective than “Humanité, Egalité, Fraternité“, of the French revolution where this infers a valourisation of the “Wealth of Difference” and a move away from the flattening tendencies of homogeneity.

Only when the markers of difference (the semantics and symbolics) are stripped of their violent attributes can we manifest the atmosphere for the harmonious power of difference. Such a world will insist on new dialectics of the future. My work, as with many of my contemporaries, is oriented towards this disposition: to give form to new dialectics of the future. A future where difference is recognised, acknowledged and respected as the premise of any fruitful encounter.

In a follow-up essay, I will delve deeper into this topic.

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