Encounters with the Danish Colonial Archive: Affect, Labour and Spaces of Care
(School of Communication and Culture, Aarhus University)
What spaces of care and respect does anger generate in the archive?1 I approach this question through the lens of my ongoing project Archival Encounters, which I initiated in the aftermath of the digitisation of the archives documenting Danish colonial rule in the former Danish West Indies, today United States Virgin Islands. A substantial portion of the archived history of these islands has been stored in Denmark for more than a hundred years, far removed from their source communities, ever since Denmark sold the islands to the U.S. in 1917.2 A variety of collections were digitised and became digitally accessible in 2017, at a moment of centennial commemoration that brought to light painful histories and enduring colonial erasures.3
As a visual culture researcher resident in Denmark, an outsider to this history but now implicated in it through my role as a researcher, educator and collaborator, I was struck by how the digitisation of these records (including photographic records) was seemingly removed from considerations about the coloniality of vision, power relations and ethics of representation. It was as if digitisation, conceived as a neutral technical process, overwrote the “scenes of unbearable historical weight” (Enwezor 33) documented in the files. Even if unacknowledged, these scenes were nevertheless there, and they haunted these repositories and the conversations surrounding them. In the words of Mette Kia Krabbe Meyer and Temi Odumosu, more than scanning and releasing data, digitisation is “a process of implication, a graphic exposure to documents that evidence the seen and unseen of the colonial world, and therefore a haunting” (41). As I joined and facilitated activities that dealt with the digital release of these archives, I was (and continue to be) reminded of the incredible material and affective labour that artists, researchers, cultural mediators, librarians, activists and educators undertake to surface questions of power and the enduring presence of coloniality—efforts often and continuously met with resistance and hostility but also supported by joyous collaboration.4
Drawing on Ann Cvetkovich, archival scholar Marika Cifor posits that archival records are “repositories of feeling and emotions” (Cvetkovich 7), meaning that they have affects encoded within their content in meaningful ways. In addition, Cifor notes, records are also repositories of the “affective practices that surround their production and reception” (14). Extending Cifor, one could add that colonial archives are also repositories of the emotional labour required to grapple with them, both the “tough and troubling” (Isenia and Steinbock 10) work of wrestling with and tending to these archives, and the public mediation of this archival engagement.
In this writing, I offer a tentative reflection on ‘spaces of care’ and emotions in the archive, elaborating further on my presentation and the ensuing conversation between my co-panellists Teresa Cisneros, Amal Alhaag, Julie Métais and organisers Alana Osbourne and Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken. The conversation challenged and encouraged me to further grapple with the emotional density of working with these archives.
I would now like to bring in a companion, an artwork that has inspired me to consider these questions. Black Is a Beautiful Word. I & I (Encountering the Danish Colonial Archive) (2019) is an installation by Danish-Trinidadian artist Jeannette Ehlers that directly addresses a photograph from the Danish colonial archives.
Jeannette Ehlers, Black is a Beautiful Word. I & I, film still. Voice and words by Lesley-Ann Brown, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
Through a monologue written and voiced by Trinidadian-American writer and educator Lesley-Ann Brown, the installation addresses a Black woman pictured in a photograph from around 1900, who is described as “Sarah in a ball gown (housemaid)” in an album by Alfred Paludan-Muller, a Danish pharmacist and prolific amateur photographer who lived on the island of St. Croix between 1870 and 1904. In this album, the photograph shows Sarah sitting in a chair on the porch of a house in St. Croix, wearing a white gown and facing the camera. Throughout the many albums created by this amateur photographer, many other Afro-Caribbean women (presumably servants to the Danish colonising class) surface in similar compositions.
In Ehlers’ installation, a print of the photograph is carefully framed and lit and hung on the wall of the exhibition space. A video work is projected on the adjacent wall on a much larger scale. Described by Ehlers as a “floating portrait”, the video features a series of portraits of white-clad Black women, including the artist herself and her close collaborator-friends, their individual moving portraits flowing into and overlapping one another.
In a section of the five-minute monologue voiced by Lesley-Ann Brown, we hear the following words, addressing Sarah:
How did you get there?
Your expression. Defiance without words.
Your surroundings are not worthy of you, your people and your labour.
Who took this picture?
Your eyes do not waiver.
She staggers of disgust and sadness.
Yours is not a head that bows.
What is it that your eyes see?
What have they seen?
Firstly I would like to speak about the sadness.
It is the sadness of being ripped from land.
It is the sadness of having land ripped from you.
Our bodies, our countries etched in our blood.
The sadness of that stiff dress of whiteness.
Its material itches, scratches your soft flesh into submission.
Your eyes. What do they see?
In Danish they call it dræberblik.
In English we say, “If looks could kill”.
Some will say it is anger that your eyes transmit.
I understand that anger.
Your eyes tell of what you would do if you could truly do what you wanted.
Upon viewing the installation, I was particularly moved by how Ehlers culls Sarah from the original album to offer her the company of kinship. In this recontextualisation of Sarah’s photograph, Black is a Beautiful Word. I & I invites viewers into a meditation that critically speculates on the injurious conditions in which the photograph might have been taken, making room to address the pain and anger inscribed in and elicited by the photographic record. At the same time, in placing the photograph in the “still-moving” company of kinship, the installation also creates a space of loving enclosure, an embrace that holds Sarah, so that the pain and anger inscribed in the image and voiced in the monologue are carefully cushioned by the floating portrait.
But while directly addressing Sarah, the monologue also indirectly addresses viewers, calling each one into a space where anger, defiance, sadness, love and kinship are given expression. While Sarah’s photograph is displayed on the wall of the exhibition space, the thoughtful spatial arrangement places viewership at the centre of the installation. In this composition, it is our own work of reckoning that is on display. As viewers, we are looked at by the portrayed women and are called on to consider, reprising Saidiya Hartman (“Delia’s Hand” 522): “Why look at these images again?”, “What are the ethics of looking?”, “What claims are articulated by these images, and what is it that they demand of me?”
Upon viewing the piece, I felt both welcomed and challenged, as if generously invited to a difficult reckoning that does not begin and end in the exhibition space but is ongoing. In my own work with these archives, I am often hesitant to look at these images and to contribute to the cycle of exposure they have been subjected to, knowing that images such as these were created and meant to be seen by a white European viewership. South African poet and scholar Gabeba Baderoon has asked, in relation to Sarah Baartman, “How can we look at a figure that has been looked at too much?” (65). Navigating these archives feels inadequate and fraught, and most acute now that I engage with these archives mostly online, leaving behind traces that add to the images’ unpredictable, algorithmically curated digital trail. But it is precisely because these images inhabit a digital afterlife on an unprecedented scale that they call for ‘spaces of care’, alternative spaces of encounter where histories of seeing and being seen can be queried and countered with more considerate ways of making the past sensible.
Black is a Beautiful Word. I & I curates a space of encounter where viewership can be queried without neglecting the care and loving embrace that the image calls for. More than centring viewership, Black is a Beautiful Word. I & I invites viewers to witness an encounter (the one voiced by Lesley-Ann Brown) and to create and inhabit our own encounter with the images. In that embodied encounter that each viewer co-creates, we are invited to do the “poethic” (Campt, A Black Gaze 167) work of connecting with these haunting presences beyond the colonial terms of address, without denying the enduring power of those terms of address and our own implications in them. While cradled by the hospitable space of the installation, this “poethic” work is not devoid of tension; it asks viewers to look inward and outward: to deeply examine their own emotions, implications and complicities at all levels; and through that, to cultivate relation and possibility.
In other words, Black is a Beautiful Word. I & I foregrounds labour: the labour of caring for these archives and “the presences that they conjure” (Odumosu, “Response” 110); the labour of creating a space of “affective reckoning” with the past (Thomas 220), of grappling with “scenes of unbearable historical weight”(Enwezor 33); the labour of reckoning with our own implication in infrastructures of colonial harm; the labour of being affected and working through inadequacy; the labour of sustaining relationships and being accountable to them. The space of care modelled in Black is a Beautiful Word. I & I is another form of archive, one that offers hospitality to grapple with the extant one; and through that, to assemble other kinds of archives that support possibility and transformation.