City Dramaturge Kristin Rogghe on Decolonisation

Next season, we shall be restaging two KVS classics that zoom in on episodes from Belgian colonial history: Missie and Het leven en de werken van Leopold II. But we are only too aware that it is not sufficient to examine only the white side of the colonial enterprise. We are also co-producing Kuzikiliza, an experimental performance by Pitcho Womba Konga centred on a speech by Patrice Lumumba, and we shall be presenting Fractured Memory, for which Ogutu Muraya takes inspiration from James Baldwin’s report of the first congress of black writers and artists in 1956. Those are two productions which, in their study of a complex legacy, at the same time renew artistic codes. And – even more importantly – they incorporate the awareness that colonialism is not something from a dusty past, not a closed chapter of history, but something that is still alive and kicking.

The colonial heritage not only shapes the street scene, but also lies between our ears. Just as Malcolm X made clear that the abolition of slavery in the US did not end the impact of that system on the American consciousness and society, the declaration of independence by such countries as the Congo did not signal the end of colonialism. The mental infrastructure on which colonisation was founded is after all still maintained today. And as long as it remains unconscious and unnamed, it will have a strong hold on our society and the prevailing balance of power between people. This is expressed in the way we deal with refugees and minorities, in the image and representation of diversity in the media, in our economic relations with the southern hemisphere, in ideals of beauty and in spectres, in police violence and checks on yougsters of colour ... and also in the arts.

This is why it is essential to decolonise: to decolonise our minds and habits, our public space and universities, and our arts. To decolonise is a verb: everyone can put it into practice in their own field. It is a process of realisation that leads to other ways of thinking and acting.

What it comes down to is gaining an insight into the profound impact of colonial thinking on our everyday lives, so as to be able to liberate ourselves and present a counterbalance. For us at the KVS this is a major motivation in our programming for the new season and the quest for relevant artistic voices and stories, but equally in our selfreflection as an organisation in the arts sector.

There is a French collective that calls itself 'Décoloniser les arts' [Decolonize the arts] that has drawn up a very pertinent questionnaire for managers of public cultural institutions. Among other things, the questionnaire probes the presence of non-whites in the organization. And it is not just about skin color, but also the positions people of color can be found in. Do you know a director, male or female, of a public cultural institution who is a person of color? If you work with non-white people, are they to be found in subordinate, or rather in executive positions? If there are non-white artists on stage, are they natives or do they come from abroad? Are they cast in dance and music - areas that are easily attributed to blacks in the colonial imagination, 'that's what they're good at'- or in theater - the art of the word, of intellect, of reason? Are the stories told on stage also about immigration, slave trade, colonialism, foreign policy, minorities, and the contemporary lives of people who experience such stories? And if so, by whom are these stories written, directed and narrated: by white or non-white people? Can culture really bring us together, across our differences, to get to know each other? Is a culture that excludes part of its population also not responsible when these people turn in on themselves, withdraw into their own identities? And finally, after these and other questions: does this questionnaire feel like a reproach or rather like a request from part of the population not to be forgotten?

A small, seemingly insignificant symptom in the field of the arts is the following remarkable phenomenon: artists from other origins are, regardless of their actual age, remarkably often referred to as 'young' creators. In reviews or feedback on their work, the prevailing tone is mostly one that points to their interesting or promising ‘potential’, which has yet to reach its full development. They are often praised for their 'raw energy', but it is equally often pointed out that their art or craft still needs to grow, is not 'accomplished' or 'mature' yet. Such criticism is often well intended, but what is missing is a sense of self-criticism. This is because of the implicitly operative (neo) colonial conceptual framework: 'we' are the standard, the measure of civilization; 'the other' is somewhat behind in his development, is still immature, still has much to learn, but is 'well on his way' to become as mature, as developed as we are. It is reminiscent of the category of the 'évolués' in colonial times.

Another symptom is the fact that there is very little color to be found in the cultural world, especially if one looks at positions of power, responsibility and control. This not only applies to the cultural field.
By this I mean: the idea of superiority and the civilizing mission used to justify the subjugation of other peoples, the ideal of linear progress according to which only enlightened Western modernity provided a beatific model others had to strive for no matter what, and the extreme racial imaging that dehumanized, rendered invisible or caricaturized the other- whereby colonial domination and violence would widely be regarded as 'normal' and acceptable ...How can decolonization succeed, if not only the economic inequality and exploitation persist, but also the foundations of colonial thinking remain untouched? 

It is also interesting to place the colonial mind-set in the broader theoretical framework of modernity. With Descartes to the fore, Western thinking divided reality into dualist categories in order to understand and control them better. Mind vs. body. Subject vs. object. Today, the perception of their inseparable connection and interdependence is growing once again, but in the paradigm of modernity they are played out against each other. In these pairs of binary concepts, the first is after all systematically considered higher than the second. The second is systematically diminished and only has any worth insofar as it is of service to the first. It thus seems logical and reasonable that the one should dominate and control the other. The paradigm of modernity turned out to be a fertile basis for progress in science and technology. But the Western campaigns of conquest, the slave trade and colonisation were also enjoying their heyday. Other peoples were viewed as objects. The colonial mind reduced them to something less than human, a thing. In this way they could be killed or subjected on a large scale in the name of civilisation, or used for profit. Us vs. them – whereby the dominant position goes to the first party. Our alarm bells should start ringing whenever an image is formed that dehumanises groups of people or reduces them to silenced clichés.

And this is precisely why we have to engage in decolonisation: if we have no notion of the weight of history, how can we learn from it? If we do not face up to our past and do not see that we bear its marks, how can we avoid blindly making the same errors, and commit the same physical and psychological violence? 

Decolonisation is not a story of crime and punishment, but of healing and recovery. Of looking at what we have lost along the way. Of learning to see again – or learning to see more, beyond the binary categories.