Alesa Herero is an Italian artist-activist, based in Lisbon. She was a co-founder of the feminist, intersectional, anti-racist organisation INMUNE – O Instituto da Mulher Negra em Portugal (Institute of the Black Woman in Portugal), and currently works at Teatro Griot for the project Slate: Black: Arts: World, a new transnational partnership to promote the visibility and mobility of Black artists and professionals across Europe. She is interviewed in Lisbon by Licia Cianetti, a politics researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, currently conducting a research on “What Happened to the Multicultural City? Effects of Nativism and Austerity”. As part of this project, Licia is developing a dialogue–collaboration with four artists (Galas Mbengue, Farwa Moledina, Andrejs Strokins, and Alexandre Francisco “Diaphra”) in Turin, Birmingham, Riga and Lisbon. The work-in-progress, multimedia web-book that grows from this collaboration can be accessed at www.multiculturalcities.com
A note about this interview and the politics of language: As Alesa explains beautifully in her interview, language is not neutral and there is a personal and social politics to language that cannot be neglected, especially when we talk about borders. For this reason, this interview is “language-fluid”: Alesa and Licia spoke in Italian, English and Alesa tried some Portuguese words that sometimes they had to google-translate for Licia to get the point. The audio is in its original language-fluid version. The transcription below is the English translation of the Italian sections of the dialogue, starting from the beginning of the recording.
[L] I think it’d be interesting to start from the linguistic choice that we were discussing off record. So we’ll do this interview in Italian, then if you want to use Portuguese I might or might not understand you but surely others will understand…so perhaps you can tell me why you think this is better [than doing it straight in English].
[A] Let’s say that I have a conflictual relationship with languages. When I left Italy…and I left Italy because of racism, I’m not going to hide it; I had had enough of living in a context where, although we are talking today of a “racism emergency”, for me racism had been the background music of my existence. I’m 35 and I don’t see any emergency. Simply, within existing political agendas it is somewhat more useful to think that it is an emergency and politically use the current situation. So, when I moved to Portugal, I had a rather long period of language rejection: as soon as I felt a bit more confident in Portuguese, as soon as I felt that Portuguese was becoming somewhat mine, for years I left Italian to the side. I stopped writing in Italian –I’d always been writing poems and disconnected thoughts before, but suddenly I stopped doing it in Italian, as I also stopped writing songs in Italian.
Then I realised that I had needed time to let sarar as feridas [Portuguese for “heal the wounds”], and so I didn’t know anything anymore about Italy and the language had somewhat disappeared. In recent years, in the past one and a half years, I started getting closer to the Italian activist movement (then we can also talk about this, there is a Black movement that is very, very, very, very, very emerging, in the sense that there is still a lot of work to do) and this obliged me to make peace with the Italian language. Once peace was made, or partially made, it has been some time that I have started writing in Italian again. And I’ve even been invited by Igiaba Scego – not sure you know her, she’s an Italian writer of Somali origin – with the publisher FQ, alongside other Afrodescendant women, to participate in an anthology entitled Future [N.B. This title has a double meaning, if you read it in Italian or in English], where we talk about the future from a feminine and Afrodescendant perspective.
This was a very interesting experience, because of course I had to write in Italian. First of all, I’d never written a short story, and more than that it obliged me to write exclusively in this language that I had eliminated for some time, also realising that the language had not grown with me. I have been away for 10 years, and obviously in 10 years I grew a lot at many levels, but the language had not grown with me! So I found myself having this style that I wouldn’t call “teenager” but almost. But this was interesting for me also from the perspective of thinking about the reader, who should identify with what we are writing, and here once again there is the question of the language. Within the languages that we speak there are levels, and in specific contexts – activism, academia – language tends to be closed within the group that debates certain questions. So a young person – and I talk about Afro youth, because that’s been the central theme in my path as an activist and artist – who doesn’t yet have instruments to reflect about their own identity with the language that we have constructed, how can they find themselves? So I was also happy that the short story came out in this let’s say simple style.
And, on top of this, the language, Italian, also became a political choice. Why? Because before coming here I didn’t use to say that I’m Italian. Having always been followed by the famous question “where are you from?”, my answer used to be “I was born in Rome, my mother is Cape Verdean and my father is Angolan, which actually doesn’t answer the question about who I am and also contributes to the rejection – at the time I thought in Italy, but I now consider it a European issue – by governments to recognise other identities beyond white identities as part of the social and political reality. So, never answering “I am Italian”, put me always in a peripheral position in the Italian social and political structure. So eventually, to the question “where are you from?”, my answer became “I am Italian” – not so much because of an attachment to Italy, but more as a political affirmation. And the same goes for the use of the Italian language: today, for me, it is a political affirmation.
In a performance I did on the 4th of July at the opening of the Afroeuropeans conference, I brought the question of the language, with a performance in three languages: starting in Portuguese, switching to Italian, and then going through Creole, too. This is because this performance conveys the generational experience of my grandmother, my mother, and myself, which traces borders that are territorial, of identity, historical and political. In my performance I reflected about what language my body would have spoken if I hadn’t had a language imposed on me.
When I decided to come to live here, I hadn’t exactly understood that as a descendent of Cape Verdean and Angolans I have a direct ligação [Portuguese for “connection”] with Portugal and with a language I didn’t speak but that had been imposed…that in some way was mine. I never met my father, but I had all these letters that he wrote to my mother in Portuguese – which at the beginning was a language I didn’t understand. My mother would also tell me that when she was growing up in a boarding school run by Portuguese nuns, if she and her friends were found speaking Creole, they’d be punished and would have to spend the day standing facing the wall and repeating “We are being punished because we don’t want to speak Portuguese”. This, by the way, is how my performance begins: Estamos de castigo por não querer falar Português.
So, I speak to my daughter in Italian, because after all it’s my language. My real name is Alessandra – Alesa is a name I gave myself. And it’s a very Italian name, that for a long time produced disappointment in the eyes of those who had heard me speak only on the phone and expected an “Alessandra” and instead I showed up, with a body that projects everything but this “Italianness” that is still thought of as white, within a boot-shaped territory that is white north to south, with maybe different shades of white but still white. And the same happens with Portuguese. Even though, even more than Italy given Italy’s smaller colonial experience, the Portuguese language has crossed the ocean and was imposed in the Americas, in various African countries, and in some places in Asia, it still thinks of itself as exclusively belonging to a white body. And from this comes the necessity for me to express myself also in this language: it was imposed on me, but through this imposition it became mine.
Paradoxically, today I can express myself better in Portuguese or Italian, rather than in Creole, which I would instead like to become my language of resistance. Although Creoles are languages that use as their basis the coloniser’s language, they still maintain that smell of, that flavour of other identity that tries to survive against the imposition, that starts with language and extends to everything else.
[L] Great. So, in your work as an activist and an artist…
[A] Let’s say that my work as an artist is still very recent, I’m still at the beginning.
[L] So how did you get from activism to art? Were those paths connected or were they separate paths?
[A] They are connected. Let’s say that I was always interested in art since I was a child, but coming from a socio-economic background that wasn’t easy, my mother never considered it to be an option that could have given me something to live with. And here again, success is measured through a Western path, whereby you go to university, get married…and even when you choose your university you can’t take just any course…the children of immigration are told that they have to follow this route, to do…
[L] …more and better than the others…
[A] Exactly. Constantly. So art was something I had given up on. Within activism, a year ago I took part in creating the Institute of the Black Woman in Portugal (INMUNE) of which I am currently not part of, which had a strong artistic component as the vice-director is the director of Teatro Griot [Zia Soares]. Our official presentation was a performance, called Gestuário I, where we – instead of doing a conference-like presentation, explaining why the institute, how, etc. – decided to do a performance in super-central spaces, like the Cordoaria Nacional – an important gallery set in an old workshop where they used to make the ropes for the ships that contributed to the “great Portuguese commerce” – and bring our bodies of black women in spaces that do not contemplate the presence of our bodies. So we simply moved our bodies in those spaces, with repetitive movements and sounds that eventually came to an esgotamento [long guessing game to find the Italian translation, eventually having to use Google Translate. It means “exhaustion”].
In preparing this performance, Zia Soares made us reflect about our bodies, our bodies of black women. She made us think about how simple things like the way we walk along the street, our tendency to move away when we encounter that normative, white, male body. It was for me a foundational experience, to reflect on everything that has to do with having a black woman body, which is always hypersexualised, and comes with a series of stereotypes about what it means to be a “real” African woman. So you have to have a certain kind of bottom, if you don’t have it you are not African enough, if you do have it then you don’t fit within the Western models of beauty, so in any case you never fit [in English].
After that, we took part in the Art Biennial in Lisbon and Porto, with another performance: Gestuário II, where we brought the issue of funeral rites and the role of women in African funeral rites. In building the performance, each of us performers shared memories of deaths and funerals we had been present to in African and diasporic contexts. Gestuário II was the moment when I understood that all those poems closed in my drawer, and the need to express issues about my queer and black identity, my gender, my body, needed to come out through a language that couldn’t be my everyday language. Also as an activist I was often asked to write something, but I realised that I do activism starting from myself. Of course I recognise the necessity for a collective, for a common denominator, but the need to do activism is a personal need. So also in my development as an artist, what I do today is to piece myself together, all the bits that compose my identity, from the roots I never had a chance to know, through the memories that come from my mum, and encounters that I’m lucky to have. And doing this through performance, music, poetry, gives you the possibility to express yourself outside of a set language. So in academia you must write and express yourself in a certain way, but in art you can be just you.
Then of course…the West puts rules everywhere, everything has a rule, a style. But I’m lucky that I’m starting my development as an artist in this period in which there is a terrible need to decolonise everything. So for example in writing my short stories I had big discussions with the editor because I also use expressive forms that are not typical of the short story form, and he would say “you’re not a famous writer who can afford this”. But that’s exactly the reason. And if the objective is to talk about the future from a perspective that is “other”, my body, my hands, talk this way. So if we have to decolonise, let’s do it!
[L] The form is also substance…
[A] Yes! It doesn’t make sense to decolonise only the contents, but also – and I’d say, especially – the structure, because it’s the colonial structure that oppresses us at all levels. So this is what art does for me.
[L] Are you now working on something, a new performance?
[A] Now I’m working on two performances, and I’d like to devote my year 2020 to this. So, officially I’m working for Teatro Griot. I do some production work for them and then I take part in a project funded by Creative Europe, called Slate, which is a partnership project between three theatres: Teatro Griot here a Lisboa, Eclipse theatre in Sheffield, who are the leading partner, and another theatre in Amsterdam – the Meervaart, who are linked to a dance company called ICK. Within this partnership, the goal is to create a European network of black artists [in English]. Here, however, we have two different positions about the concept of black. For Eclipse theatre, in the British context, they refer to black, considering every marginalised groups…
[The audio is in English – and thus not transcribed – from 26:52 to 37:40]
…so I’m happy I’m here, and I’m happy my mum – however she came out – is here, but [switching to Italian] at a more figurative level, the act of abortion is refusing an imposition. So, my performance wants to explore the possibility of abortion as a refusal against an imposition that invades my body, my language, my existence, everything. So, yes, abortion as a moment of empowerment, especially in this historical moment when in many countries democracy seems not to be an option any more…
[L]…and abortion is always the first to be…
[A] …yes, to be put under discussion. So, absolutely yes, abortion as a moment of empowerment. So, yes, my objective for 2019-2020 is to disappear a bit to devote myself to this and bring out these two performances that start from a very individual perspective, both of them are linked to the history of my family and so of mine.
[Here Alesa and Licia started a long chat about Lisbon, looking at a map, that was cut from the audio]
[L] My last question is about this: the world of art but also my own world, academia, usually inhabits spaces that are often central. And even when the black body, immigrant, woman…enters that space, it enters but is not central to that space, enters sometimes as a token, sometimes in more constructive manners, but those spaces are rarely decentralised. Maybe there is the project that goes to certain peripheral spaces, but then goes away and the periphery stays periphery. So, do you think there is a way for art, for your artistic practice to decentralise, not only by going and seeing people who live beyond certain borders, but to do and to stay there?
[A] This is for me the positive aspect of working with Teatro Griot, because Teatro Griot does exactly this. Although its headquarters are in the centre of Lisbon, in Santos, and often shows are in the Teatro do Bairro that is also central, there is also a lot of work that Teatro Griot does in spaces that are not considered central. For example, soon there’ll be the celebration of 10 years of Teatro Griot and it’ll be in Vale da Amoreira, on the other side of the river, in a space that is interesting because many communities of so-called PALOP live there. PALOP are the African countries of Portuguese language, so you find Guineenses, Angolanos, Cape Verdeans. While in other neighbourhood you have a predominance of Angolans or of Cape Verdeans etc, Vale da Amoreira is interesting because you have different communities together. So, for me, the great opportunity of working with Teatro Griot is exactly this, because they have as one of their objectives exactly this decentralisation of artistic production and of the production of knowledge, of where we produce our thinking and who produces it. So this is the great thing about Teatro Griot, that has as its goal a centre that is not this [pointing to central Lisbon on the map].
In reality, my big objective is to get out of this territoriality that is Europe. Obviously as a queer person, Africa, which is my final objective, is not at the moment the space more “safe” [in English], because unfortunately there is a lot to deconstruct on questions of gender and sexual orientation in many African countries. But I’m looking a lot at opportunities for artistic residencies outside of the European space, because that’s where I’m interested in creating.
So, yes, there is definitely a willingness not only of “working with” but also to stay there. Because, both artistically and from the point of view of activism, at the moment I’m stuck on this reflection: that we’re doing a lot, reflecting a lot, producing a lot, but always within a [European] space that is the one that establishes the legitimacy of our discourse and our production, which becomes legitimate only when the Norm decides to let it through. So this as a process of decolonisation is very, very relative, because we don’t really go against the big structure. So, for me, this doesn’t make sense. For me, the process of decolonisation must start from different spaces. Because if we continue doing it here… yes, there will be bodies like mine that have the privilege of staying, being recognised, and having contacts and access – because I don’t consider myself a privileged person, but I have the privilege of access, which is not obvious for black people to have – but surely there should be other spaces, and first of all different spaces that we ourselves aspire to, overcoming the “anthropological interest” that we bring with us there. So, we, before everybody else, should recognise that our centre is a different one, and if we don’t move the centre the process of decolonisation will never happen.
Featured image credits: Alesa Herero. Image by Sofia Berberan (cropped)