By Sandra Niessen
We are in the midst of the countdown. 4 November will soon be upon us. Erica de Greef has arrived from South Africa and has hit the ground running: meeting people in preparation for the conversations on 4 November and already sharing her research and experiences with the other residents in the Van Eyck.
Yesterday in the Van Eyck restaurant, we had a kind of revolving-door set of serial meetings. Elisa van Joolen became one of our lunch companions and I was thankful because it will be my job to co-ordinate the conversation around her artwork and I wanted to talk with her about it. Her work, entitled ‘Portal’, was first made and displayed by State of Fashion in Arnhem’s ‘Searching for the New Luxury’ exhibition two summers ago (https://stateoffashion.org/nl/meet/fashion-design-better-world-elisa-van-joolen/). It has lived on vigorously in various iterations since then, and we are delighted to be able to share it again at the Van Eyck where the artist is now in residence.
The work offers a window onto the complex relationships that people have with their own clothing. Elisa has been able to tailor the artwork to reflect the different kinds of people who participate to produce the work, whether children or senior citizens. Each participant removes a piece of clothing of their choice and draws its outline on a large piece of white paper-like material. He or she then responds to questions about the item, questions related to price, origins and personal affinity to the piece. Pieces with comparable themes are then connected by lines of a particular colour. The result is a colour-coded pictorial display of a group’s relationships to their clothing.
Given the theme of 4 November, I wondered out loud whether this ‘Portal’ could display (de)coloniality? What it reveals specifically is how we, in the West, relate to clothing. Can it reveal how we don’t relate to clothing? Can we see absences in this portal? Don’t we just find precisely our own mentalities reflected back to us? One of the characteristics of both colonialism and capitalism is the convenient ‘forgetting’ of Other peoples: ones who are removed from their land by extraction activities; ones whose clothing traditions disappear because they cannot compete in the global economic climate; ones whose producers of exquisite indigenous pieces are deskilled by working stupid, repetitive jobs in factories. In the words of G.T. Reyes, these people are made invisible. How could such a Portal bring out what is unknown and almost never thought about? Can it be made a theme of comparison and thus earn its own set of colourful connective lines?
Femke de Vries, thoughtful designer and analyst of clothing, was also present at our lunch table. “Decoloniality is also about self-awareness,” she pointed out. “It is a process. It is about finding meaning. In this Portal has enormous impact. It encourages people to think about their relationship to clothing.”
I had to think of the evening before, when Erica de Greef presented unusual, artistic and highly fashion films from South Africa. Femke’s insights on that occasion also gave pause. “When you sketch the context to these films, it allows me to see them in a new light, ” she explained to Erica and the other viewers. “I don’t know anything about this South African context. When you provide background explanations, I am thrown back on myself, and I perceive that I must unlearn my ‘usual’ responses and newly learn according to the new information. This is humbling and it makes me careful. It is another culture and deserves respect.”
I had been re-reading G.T. Reyes that morning, and what Femke de Vries said then also brought his words to mind:
“Coloniality does not only operate systemically; it also functions at the personal level. Engagement in praxis must then also be intimate and mindful, starting with the self. It questions the construction of one’s entire being: Why am I how I am? Why do I think what I think? Why do I do what I do? At minimum, such questioning is uncomfortable, but discomfort can be temporary. What is of importance in this process of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is developing the tools to be radically mindful in the moment of experiencing discomfort. Radical mindfulness moves beyond traditional purposes of mindfulness that intend for individuals to become more aware of their inner experience and how they interact with the world around them. Radical mindfulness particularly assists peoples impacted by coloniality to navigate the compounding and cumulative ways that systems of oppression impact mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Actively working through discomfort in critical and humanizing ways opens up transformative possibilities. Without doing so, people remain unaware or complicit in the colonial project and therefore reproduce it. Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable requires visibilizing and critically examining of the underlying sociohistorical reasons that cause the discomfort in the first place.”
I looked at Femke and thanked her. “What you have just experienced this evening, while watching Erica de Greef’s films, and what you have expressed, is precisely what we hope to achieve on 4 November. This must be one of the most fundamental goals of our event; it has the power to be transformative into the future.”