Contradictions of Travel
by Maykson Cardoso, presentation text for the exhibition "Footnotes to triangular cartographies", 2020
These “Footnotes to Triangular Cartographies” derive from notes that Ana Hupe made on journeys to Salvador (Brazil), Havana (Cuba) and sacred cities in Yorubaland (Nigeria). They are the product, therefore, of observations and reflections on possible points of intersection between these three sites and make up a first sense of “triangulation”, by which the artist creates what she calls “cartographies”. From each place, she brings us signs to embody a series of “texts” that arise from or reveal the violence that to a great extent form the bedrock of their common ethos; a violence that is none other than that of the metropolis towards its colonies, that of the colonisers towards the colonised. One that can equally be called extractivism, slavery, exploitation or today “progress”, capitalism, necroliberalism (I borrow the term used by Achille Mbembe in an interview with the Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo. The philosopher speaks of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and criticises how neoliberals treat people’s lives by reducing them to a number in statistics. Thus, he links his already widespread concept of “necropolitics”—roughly, the government policies that determine who can live and who should die—to the economic model of “necroliberalism”, which puts the economy above everything and everyone. https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/amp/mundo/2020/03/pandemia-democratizou-poder-de-matar-diz-autor-da-teoria-da-necropolitica.shtml)…
The artist’s insistence on “triangulation”, in the form of the cartographic method and in the shape of the triangle, acquires a new, critical layer of meaning. It is more than a mere exercise to seek connections between travel destinations: both method and shape can be directly linked to the Triangular Trade that laid the foundations of colonial geopolitics whose traumatic effects are still felt today in these places, however repressed they may be.
As such, it is necessary to interrogate these works for indications of conflict, of contradiction. For example: on the one hand, the artist recounts stories of pioneering female travellers to claim the possibility of travelling and working — an activity once reserved exclusively for men — for women. These same women are, on the other hand, implicated in the violent project of colonial enterprise in the “New World”, and in its continuance in plans to dominate of outer space.
Similarly, in the work “Das Kapital”, the artist ironically brings us a piggy bank of Karl Marx’s bust, a gesture that desecrates the image of the philosopher that appear on murals in Havana as a kind of sacred image. She juxtaposes this with two phrases taken from Havana’s urban graffiti: “Trincheras de ideas valen más que trincheras de piedras” (Trenches of ideas are worth more than stone trenches) and “Brillamos con luz propia” (We shine with our own light). The first is a phrase by José Martí, founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and a leader of Cuba’s War of Independence at the end of the 19th century. The second is a line from Pablo Milanés’ “Canción por la Unidad Latinoamericana” (Song for Latin America Unity), whose final verses recall the Latin American revolutionary leaders, Simón Bolívar, José Martí himself and Fidel Castro, in order to call for the unity of the continent:
What shines with its own light no one can extinguish
Its brightness can reach the darkness of other shores
What will pay this regret for the time was lost
Of the lives it cost, of the lives it may cost
Bolivar launched a star that shone with Martí
Fidel dignified her to walk on these lands
Bolivar launched a star that shone with Martí
Fidel dignified her to walk on these lands
(Translated to English from the Original: Lo que brilla con luz propia nadie lo puede apagar I Su brillo puede alcanzar la oscuridad de otras costas I Qué pagará este pesar del tiempo que se perdió I De las vidas que costó, de las que puede costar […] Bolívar lanzó una estrella que junto a Martí brilló I Fidel la dignificó para andar por estas tierras I Bolívar lanzó una estrella que junto a Martí brilló I Fidel la dignificó para andar por estas tierras)
But if the utopian ideals that launched the revolution in that country are quoted in this work, in another Ana Hupe offers us an image of utopia ripped apart. The artist takes Thomas More’s Utopia, a book published in the 16th century that tells of a fictitious “ideal society”, and rips off its cover, shredding its pages and arranges them in a pile on the floor. At first glance, this might seem a gesture that rejects of “utopian idealism” and surrenders to the melancholy of the world, but at the same time it is an act that recognises the insufficiency of this utopia: it needs to be torn apart, not to dispose of it, but to seek new ways of thinking about and rebuilding it.
In “Biografía de una isla”, the artist presents excerpts from the book of the same name by Emil Ludwig. In this book, she tells us, the author begins with “one of the origin myths of Cuba, narrated by an indigenous man who was locked in a museum in downtown Havana for 500 years. He suddenly wakes up and starts to analyse the changes since colonisation began.” Perhaps this possibility of rethinking and rebuilding our broken utopias comes from a perspective that is no longer just that of a European man; that is to say, no longer guided just by the writings of Thomas More, of Karl Marx and so on, but that also let themselves be guided by an indigenous voice that is foregrounded to narrate the very colonial violence that violated him.
That it is Emil Ludwig, another European man, who recovers the Caribbean island’s origin myth, is just another one of the contradictions that appear in the artist’s works; something that she seems to mark by using the photo-transfer technique, that consists of transferring the content of pages of books, newspapers or photographs, by gluing them with a special product onto a wooden surface. The transferred content is fixed, but is inverted and mirrored, looking like an old fresco, a peeling wall or a billboard forgotten and worn away. In the case of texts, this technique makes them more difficult, if not impossible to read; and what could be seen as merely a formal detail acquires the sense of a disruptive act, on a par with shredding the pages of Utopia. If the text resists, it resists as a remnant; and the form presented to us is also the result of this process of destroying without discarding, because there is no possibility other than to work with what remains.
Transfer is also the technique used in “Brides of Bloodthirsty Gods”, a work in which the artist brings to light a newspaper article from 1951 in the Brazilian newspaper “O Cruzeiro”. This somewhat sensationalist title is directly taken from that of the article: the first journalistic account of initiation rituals in the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé. The article caused controversy as it exposed a ritual restricted to a few initiates. The ambiguity of this title has women as brides of violent gods, a representation that goes beyond contempt and misrepresents the orishas worshipped in Brazilian religions of African origin. Aware of this, Ana Hupe recovers pages of the magazine where the article was published, cuts out the photographs, transfers them to wood, shreds and reassembles them, conserving the gaps between the strips. If she does show us these pages, it is to perform the same gesture: she does not deny the existence of such a document, nor the violence of its content; she accuses its existences and marks it with her own rejection of it.
In this game of contradictions, images become a “dialectical image”, or “critical image”, after Walter Benjamin’s concept which in Brazil has been consistently taken up following on from Didi-Huberman’s point of view. One can think of this image as one that is simultaneously itself and its opposite. When we look at them, they confront us, observing and also questioning us. If Ana Hupe presents such images, it shows that hers is no naive understanding of culture; every monument to culture, as Benjamin warned us, is also a monument to barbarism. To refuse to see the inherent interplay between culture and violence, especially in terms of domination, is to sweep the trauma under the carpet, repressing it to avoid overcoming it. Confronting history may be difficult, but there is no other way forward than accounting for our past. It is from this position that the contradiction gains a positive value: it marks the point where “elaboration” is necessary.
In “Hegel and Haiti”, the American philosopher Susan Buck-Morss takes up the well-known master-slave dialectic to demonstrate the likelihood that, based on the historical context, Hegel had formulated this concept based on the events of the Haitian Revolution. Although Hegel never references Haiti, by analysing the evidence that leads him to build this hypothesis, Buck-Morss asks:
“Either Hegel was the blindest of the blind philosophers of freedom in Enlightenment Europe, outdoing Locke and Rousseau in his ability to deny the reality under his nose [...], or Hegel knew — of real slaves who were victorious in their revolt against real masters — and deliberately elaborated the master-slave dialectic within its contemporary context.”
This hypothesis demonstrates the distance from the freedom proclaimed by the European Enlightenment (Aufklärung), one of the ideals underpinning the French Revolution, to the “universality” it aspired to. When the Haitian Revolution aspired to these same ideals to free itself from its condition as a French colony, Napoleon sent troops to prevent its independence. The so-called universality of these values was, therefore, restricted.
We must remember that Ana Hupe is a Brazilian woman currently working in Germany and that her “footnotes” appeared first as an answer to this context. They are equally part of a strategy to make a little more understandable what still remains either ignored or unknown by the spirit forged in the European Aufklärung: ways of thinking about or making the world that are often still read through the lens of the “exotic” or the “eccentric”.
Unlike colonies, which have experienced the violence of colonisation and in spite of their independence are still dealing with its effects today, Europe still lacks robust viewpoints that question its hegemony and could destabilise the calm of its domination from within; that is to say, by bringing in elements from the outside, including the epistemological domain, which as Buck-Morss demonstrates, is still the substrate for a European Union constructed on “universal values”. These footnotes, a paratext in common with the most complex texts, under no circumstances lead to a fixed reading of the text/work; with them, the artist simply wishes to ensure a minimum level of intelligibility.