The Center for Mission, in collaboration with Art and Art History, Center for Women, Global Studies J-1 Scholars Program, MIPS and the Department of Sociology, hosted Mihret Kebede for a two-week residency September 18–October 3. Through class visits, formal and informal conversations, a public talk and performance, Mihret engaged faculty, staff, students and friends of St. Catherine University to explore the multi-faceted roles of silence in social change and pedagogy.
By Hui Wilcox
Mihret Kebede is an artist who defies disciplinary boundaries. Originally trained as a visual artist, she is also a poet and a performance artist. In her performance art practice, she investigates contemporary Ethiopian and transnational politics by deploying and juxtaposing ordinary bodies (including her own) in public spaces in unexpected and uncanny ways.
Mihret likes to say “We met on stage.” This is true. We met during Crossing Boundaries Festival, in Addis Ababa in September 2015, where I had the good fortune to perform as a member of Ananya Dance Theatre. The energy in the Ethiopian National Theater had already been hyped up by the convergence of many artists on stage; each group or individual artist self-introduced by offering a short performance or a speech, greeted by enthusiastic responses from a full house of audience. Then I saw this human, accented by a multi-color vest, who burst to the very edge of the stage. I watched in awe while fast and furious guttural syllables gushed out this singular body, into the space to captivate a house of 1200 people.
My time in Addis was brief, a whirlwind of rehearsals, workshops, and performances. In the weeks and months that followed, I learned more about Mihret’s work in poetry, visual art and performance art through what she shared on Facebook. When she sent her portfolio at the beginning of 2017, I was fully convinced that Mihret had much to offer to the St. Kate’s community. It was ironic that she proposed to investigate silence during her residency, as all I remembered about her was the sound that she projected into the vast space of Ethiopian National Theater. When Carol Chase and I picked her up from the airport on September 18, I had expected a loud person, based on my memory of her performance. But Mihret was soft-spoken, hesitant, and vulnerable, weary from a long flight from Berlin to Minneapolis. This was her very first trip to the United States, her first personal crossing of the Atlantic. Mihret’s face lit up when we presented her a bouquet of flowers.
Two weeks flew by. Every day was filled with class visits, work to prepare for her public keynote and performance, conversations with faculty, staff, and students. Mihret spoke softly, except when she performed poetry. But for her performance A Reciprocal of John Cage’s 4’33”, she did not speak at all. Because of the “silence” on stage, our attention was drawn to the bare space of the stage, and her body in the space. In-between the silent “movements” (in Western musical terms), Mihret slowly peeled off her somber black suit and shoes, to reveal a “loud” floral shirt, pastel pink pants, and powder blue socks with rainbow decorations. Her cropped afro and the rest of her body remained the same. Or did they? Did the change of costumes change something else as well?
While the audience in the Recital Hall was not sure how to respond to Mihret’s “silent” performance, trying hard to suppress coughs, hiccups, and fidgets, the video preceding the performance elicited bouts of laughter. Mihret, in her signature vest that I remember from Ethiopian National Theatre, produced a “conversation” between John Cage and herself. She projected the video of John Cage talking on the left of the screen, followed by a video of herself talking on the right. The footage of Mihret is saturated with bright colors, not only of her vest, but also of the backdrop, contrasting the grainy, nearly black-and-white Cage footage. She repeated Cage’s sentences during an interview about sound, replacing his utterances of the word “sound” with the word “color.” When Cage cited Emanuel Kant about sound, Mihret cited Martin Luther King, Jr. about color. Not only did Mihret repeat Cage’s words, but she also changed the inflections of her speech to match up with those of Cage, and she inserted her own laughter when Cage laughed.
The effect of mimicking was among questions that came up during the question-and-answer session, and something a few of my students wrote about in their reflection on the experience of Mihret’s performance. Cage is an older white man who has much cultural clout in the West; Mihret is a young woman from Ethiopia (read as a woman of color and Black woman in the U.S.) who is studying for her Ph.D. I take this opportunity to interpret Mihret’s performance through the lens of mimicry as conceptualized by Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture as “one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge” when it springs from “the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.” Bhabha’s theory also urges us to see that particularities of bodies matter a great deal in colonial and post-colonial struggles for humanity. Although mimicry of language and culture was a colonial mandate to begin with, its meanings become ambivalent when the colonized bodies take it on as a strategy of survival, or that of resistance.
Mihret’s desire for human connections across differences is evident in one of her earlier performance art project Imagination of the Nation from Another Nation, which exposes the “Othering” process as myopic and de-humanizing. When we first started talking about her residency at St. Kate’s, I informed her of our student body in terms of its diversity of race/ethnicity, nationality and religion. She said, “They are all human beings to me.” We went on to have many Facebook exchanges about racial politics and LGBTQ movement in the U.S. Shortly before she arrived in Minnesota, she was the one who asked, “What’s your student body like?”
For her performance at St. Kate’s, she insists on only placing performers of color on stage. What does it mean for Mihret to imitate Cage and elicit laughter from the audience? As someone from an African nation that has never been “officially colonized,” but has certainly been subjugated to various forms of colonial ambition and exploitation, Mihret’s body has much more proximity to the location of colonial subjects than that of colonial power. What does it mean for the colonized to deploy the strategy of mimicry? What if we consider Bhabha again: “The authority of that mode of colonial discourse that I have called mimicry is therefore stricken by an indeterminancy: mimicry emerges as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowal.” Is mimicry a strategy for Mihret, to represent a difference, to disavowal the “original” (colonial power), or to simply draw attention to the slippage and ambivalence of categories such as “sound” and “color”? Or all of the above at once?
Do sound and color have inherent meanings? In the video, according to Cage’s and Mihret’s words, the answer is “No.” That “color” should not matter might have caused dissonance and perhaps disorientation among a U.S., mostly “progressive” audience, as we have been working against colorblind racism for a while now. But is that really what Mihret meant to say, in this act of mimicry? Bhabha tells us, “The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.” Can Mihret’s mimicking of Cage be seen as articulating “those disturbances of cultural, racial and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority”? Bhabha goes on to say, “Mimicry does not merely destroy narcissistic authority through the repetitious slippage of difference and desire. It is the process of the fixation of the colonial as a form of cross-classificatory, discriminatory knowledge…, and therefore necessarily raises the question of the authorization of colonial representations…” To put it in a much more crude way, while laughing at Mihret’s act of mimicking Cage, I felt satisfied that a white man of tremendous cultural capital is being temporarily subject to Mihret’s playful gaze and framing, or “fixation.”
The last line of Mihret’s video “You know that, don’t you?” made people laugh, as Mihret imitated and exaggerated Cage’s lilting white American English (Isn’t this exactly how we learned English in the so-called Third World?). Laughter also erupted as she produced a white stuffed dog, looked into its eyes, and gave it a gentle pet. In the original video, Cage spoke to a slinky black cat. While laughing hard at this point, I wondered who the “you” might be, besides the black cat by the side of Cage and the white stuffed dog petted by Mihret? To whom do they each speak? Who chooses to listen to each of them, and who turns a deaf ear towards them like the live cat and the stuffed dog? Who has the responsibility of answering their rhetorical question, “You know that, don’t you?”
I had many questions of my own that I didn’t get to ask Mihret during the question-and-answer following the performance, and even during the two weeks of residency. I feel that seeking answers to my questions sometimes defeats the purpose of Mihret’s expressions. Questions don’t always have to have answers. Identities don’t always have to have names. Meanings can remain hidden between the lines. The gold is there, beneath the wax.
Mihret taught us about Ethiopia’s wax-and-gold poetry, where “the literal and superficial layer of ‘wax’ conceals a core of ‘gold’ with meanings intentionally enshrouded in word games, metaphors and ambiguities. The poetic coding demands an active engagement with a second, unspoken message. Though the lyrical tradition has its roots in the ancient Ge’ez language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it informs secular verse and even everyday Amharic conversation, also being used to address sensitive or controversial issues.” In Addis Ababa, Mihret led the group that founded the poetic jazz tradition that combined poetry reading and jazz music. She continues to lead these monthly poetry reading events that draw up to 1000 people each time. The poets perform poems that critique the political system using the wax-and-gold method; and the audiences understand. Mihret and colleagues make this happen regularly in one of the most censored societies. This generation of Ethiopians are not silenced. They may claim there is silence about controversial issues in their poems when being scrutinized. Silence is slippery. Silence is a strategy.
This poetic method of resistance resonates with Bhabha’s theorization of mimicry: “the visibility of mimicry is always produced at the site of interdiction. It is a form of colonial discourse that is uttered inter dicta: a discourse at the crossroads of what is known and permissible and that which though known must be kept concealed; a discourse uttered between the lines and as such both against the rules and within them” (p. 128). As with her poetry that has to be read “between the lines,” Mihret’s visual art, public performances, and her way of being in the world, are also of the wax-and-gold methodology, “both against the rules and within them.”
As she avoids “literal” interpretations of her poetry, Mihret also refuses literal signification of her identity, because she needs to play within the rules of her society, even as she resists them every single minute. There are serious risks involved in the seemingly simple “Questions-and-Answers” format so taken for granted in our context. But towards the end of the residency, Mihret trusted the community of St. Catherine University enough to take the risk. The two of us staged an interview in front of an audience of about two dozen — faculty, staff, students, and community members — for the brownbag discussion at Center for Women. I had our conversation video recorded, and transcribed the interview myself. I listened hard to her soft voices and watched the multiple bodies on my computer screen: my colleagues and students at St. Kate’s, Mihret and myself. Together we inhabit a space that is familiar to us, but made unfamiliar by Mihret’s body, temporary in residency but permanent in its effect.
Hui: Let’s begin with the title of your residency, “Between Silence and Noise.” In the last two weeks, we’ve focused on silence a lot, and learned about the potency and productivity of silence, as pedagogy, as protest, as oppression, as opportunities for reflection. Today I want to focus more on “noise,” and perhaps even more on the “between.” What kinds of noises do you have in mind when you come up with this title? And what is between silence and noise? What’s there for you? What’s there for us?
Mihret: When I came up with “Between Silence and Noise,” I was not going to provide you with what’s in-between, but I am interested in what’s happening in-between. I don’t know if you are familiar with my silence project, how I came to the idea of it. Just to give you a background, we (in Ethiopia) had an emperor in the late 19th century, Menelik. He sent his secret police to investigate what was going on among the people. When people were in complete silence, and when there were no verbal complaints, Menelik said, “Now it’s the real danger.” And he started negotiating with the people. I’m referring to that, and also the silence that we are experiencing in our country now, at this very moment. Because we are in complete silence. But the silence is a forced silence, people are not allowed to speak out; there is no freedom of speech. I was trying to compare that historical silence to the silence of my generation. Do we need to add more silence to bring change, or do we need to add more noise?
So that’s the question I’m interested in. And I’m also interested in what’s happening on this side (of the globe), because there are a lot of noises that are happening. Hui wants me to talk about noise. People are protesting on the street about different issues. I’ve heard a lot about Black Lives Matter here. There are a lot of noises here. But there are still problems here. When there is silence, there is a problem; when there are noises, there is a problem. What do we need to do to bring change for a better life for all of us?
Hui: Is poetry a kind of noise? I’m asking this because in addition to talking about and performing about silence, you also read poetry, such beautiful noises that you make.
Mihret: Ah the noise that is poetry. My colleagues and I have been running a poetic jazz program; we found it in 2008. It’s been running every month for some years now. It’s a very popular event. Every time over 1000 people come to attend. We start our program at six and people come at three to buy tickets. We have a diversified audience: scholars, officials, students, journalists, artists. We have all these people from different walks of life. It’s a very crucial stage for the community. It’s a kind of a breathing stage for everyone. Officials come to spy on our programs. Our programs have been banned three times. Once they came to record our two-hour program straight through. They just suddenly appeared and recorded us. We had to improvise our presentation and change the content of the entire program. Thanks to God we’re artists and musicians! We know how to improvise. We are always able to find a way to escape, to create, to find another kind of expression to resist.
Hui: So your generation is not completely silenced.
Mihret: Yeah, I know. But … the noise I was talking about is an art form. We are not going out to the public to protest, but we’re trying to find a way to be heard. That’s jazz and poetry. And we have a very unique form of expression in our poetry, that’s called kene. Wax and gold expressions are very deep. The main meaning is covered by the immediate meaning; the wax is the first meaning that you get when you listen to the poem, but there is also another layer of meaning. You have to listen between the lines, to the irony.
HUSBANDS OF MY DEAR COUNTRY
by Mihret Kebede
Let me have a polite conversation with my country
Let me write a poem to benefit my country
even if I’m not able to write a poem for my country like the wise poets write
even if I’m not the legal husband of my country or a leader
let me still water the dry land with planted sweat
let me slip in by the fence as a lover
By the front by the top by the upper upper door
they closed the gate but the gate never fits
it never fitted you probably it never properly
fit the bowl
[and the opening doesn’t open and doesn’t let anyone in
through the place where things don’t fit anyway an opening
either way either way…]
I don’t want to ask you to marry … Instead let me write you a poem
Let me fit a poem … to benefit my country
My writing of poetry will never stop … my writing of poetry will never cease
collecting the hill of words
The poetry of the people … is the melody of the people
until I grow vines I will … fit you with my poetry
until I twist lines here I will … build a rhyming house here for you
Because the lid doesn’t fit and the leaders don’t fit
and they always leave the door open
and they always leave the lid of the pot open
so people can scoop things out and scoop things out and scoop things out…
transl. by Eric Ellingsen, Jorga Mesfin and Uljana Wolf
Hui: So who are the husbands of your country?
Mihret: We’re getting literal here. Let them enjoy the poem. I think there are people on top who are not fit, and who do not benefit us. When I talk about marriage in relation to my country, I really want to ask my country for a chance to contribute, because in my country it’s very difficult for my generation to get involved in the development process, what they call the transformation process. People who are involved in this process are people who are close to the political system. It’s very unproductive. So my generation is standing aside and watching what’s going on. I’m asking to be part of this process so that we can contribute. So that’s the kind of call I’m trying to make. Let me slip in as a lover by the backdoor, just to contribute something.
Hui: I met you in Ethiopia two years ago and now had the privilege to get to know you a bit more. I’ve heard you say a number of times, and I’ve observed you do this, too: “just being” is an art of resistance. I want to talk more about that. To me, your life itself is an art of resistance. I say resistance because you disrupt society’s expectations every day, just by being yourself. You do not want to be labeled, and we talked about how labeling and naming are a category of noise as well, that is necessary at times, but not always. And your work is about resistance. And I say art of resistance not only because of your use of art — poetry, paintings, performance art — for change, but also because of the joy and vibrant energy you emit while doing this difficult, even dangerous work. I wonder how you do it. I loved it when you said “I love to make my mother laugh.” This reminds me of what I heard in Atlanta a week ago, at the Women’s College Coalition conference, from Pearl Cleage, a noted African American author. She said, “There is still the need for magic in our age of momentum,” and the last line of her presentation was “Imagine, the sound of my laughter.” I want you to talk about the relationship between being and doing. How do you make this work? How do you stay alive, and remain a whole human being while doing this work of resistance?
Mihret: For me, being and doing are similar, because what I’m doing is based on my being, what I’m feeling. What I think I want to share. I don’t want to separate them. I grew up like that. My father was very supportive of whatever I came up with. I usually didn’t want to stay at home for long. I did whatever there is for me to do at home; after that, I went out and played soccer. I used to love to go to the forest. I didn’t like the city. My dad was very much supportive of what I wanted to do. That freedom helped me a lot, to be myself. That’s the kind of energy that’s involved here. I never did anything that I didn’t like to do. I feel that I’m productive because what I’m doing is what I like doing. I’m very happy with the work that I do, with the things that I’m engaged in.
I used to make shoes. I grew up in another city, not in Addis Ababa. After high school, I came to Addis Ababa to join the Arts School. Before joining the arts school, I was studying at private art schools. But since my relatives in Addis Ababa are engaged in business, shoe factories and shoe shops, I went there and for two years, I studied how to make shoes. So I know how to make shoes. Many people are connecting that history with the work I’m doing with shoelaces now. I love working with shoelaces. I can show you pictures of my studio so you can understand what I’m talking about.
Hui: So you are given freedom by your family to do what you’d like to?
Mihret: Yes, my brothers and my sisters are all very supportive of me, to be whoever I want to.
Hui: Because we’re at a women’s university, sitting in the Center for Women, and I’m the Mission Chair for Women’s Education, I am going to ask you some “women”-related questions. You’ve travelled a lot. You worked in Ethiopia, in Germany, Scotland, Austria and many countries in Africa. What does it mean to you to be a woman in these different places? How do women negotiate different spaces—social, political, and cultural—in Ethiopia and elsewhere?
Mihret: I think it’s an alternative way of expression for us. We give it much attention when problems arise. When something happens to me, when I encounter something, and I start to think of me as a woman, but I occupy this world as a human being first. And then when I see things happen, I start to think “being a woman” as opposed to someone being a man. The problem we’re facing as human beings, makes us recognize who we are. It’s not just being a woman, but also being raised in Ethiopia, in a very conservative culture, a religious family, all these coming together. I don’t want to say more about being a woman, we all know whether here or there, being a woman is difficult. Because this world is made of and for men.
What I usually say is “please don’t stand in our way, so that we can do the work.” As a woman, I always say, “Don’t stand in my way. Let me do my work, as a person, you know.” … I know how to do things. I grew up in a supportive family. In the fine arts school, I was the only woman in the painting department. And I was the only one who graduated with distinction from my department. I was the cultural and social officer of the University student affairs. Right after my graduation, we found our arts collective. There were eleven of us, I was the only woman in the group, and I was also the director of the collective. I was the one who created the idea of combining poetry and jazz in 2008. I was the founding manager of that group. I believe in myself; I believe in doing things, if no one is standing in my way.
Hui: But you’re navigating a very male space in your work.
Mihret: Yes of course.
Hui: So how do you deal with that? The men you work with, they’re probably not used to being bossed around by a woman.
Mihret: Oh, there are stories! Yes! Yeah, sometimes they just don’t believe it, you know. But I’m giving myself the freedom of being myself, and believing in my power since high school, from my family. I would do whatever I like to do outside. I used to carry wood, chop wood, all kinds of things. I used to play football for my university. I have a gold medal and a silver medal. I did all kinds of things. So I learned from my experience, that things are possible, if no one is standing in my way. I have trust in that.
Carol Chase: I’m kind of curious because you say you came from a conventional family, or conservative I should say. When did the switch turn on to find your own way, and not just choose your family’s way? You know some artists are misfits and have very independent ways of thinking. I’m kind of curious if that happens in art school or before that, or is it just your personality?
Mihret: I think I was born as a resistance. So I just let that happen to my life. And during my childhood, I was very resistant to what my mom told me to do as a woman. I know it was out of caring, because she wants me to follow all the disciplines, in a very good way. I know from the bottom of her heart she is caring for me. I understand that; I love my family, I love my mom, very much. As I grew up, I was always resisting. But in high school, I was into art. I think I started doing sketches since I was two. I always had a pen or pencil in my hand. Whenever I wanted to communicate with my dad, to ask for something to buy, like a bike, I would draw it and put it in his room. After high school, when I said I wanted to study art, nobody complained, because they’d seen me doing it all my life.
I want to share one particular project with you, that I created in 2009. This is not paint, this is my menstrual blood. For two years I painted and sketched every month. Finally I submitted this to the modern art museum in Addis Ababa, as an installation. As you can see, I always have a date and a signature on the sketch. This is an image of crucifixion. I usually do this kind of controversial thing. This is big – 4 meters diameter. A kitchen bowl. It’s a way of using something we all think expired, as an art form, in the museum so that people can interact with it. I want to give it life, and communicate through something that’s always ignored.
In my society, having menstrual blood and going to church is not allowed. I don’t know how it works here. Women are not allowed to go into church if you’re having your period. Since I grew up in the church I know the teachings. The women are not allowed to go into the church because the only blood inside the church is that of Jesus Christ. And the teaching is if a deacon or a priest cut their hand, they also have to go. So there is a misunderstanding; people usually think that it’s only women with period who are not allowed. Also culturally, menstrual blood is considered to be something dirty. But it’s such a beautiful part of us that gives us life. Scientifically it’s part of the process for a baby to be born. The placenta is built in our womb, in our uterus. When the baby is not happening, that all comes out. …So there is nothing wrong with it. I just want to make a statement and create space for resistance. It was a very controversial piece. It was on TV. Some of my own artist friends were really shocked. I remember one artist say, “Did you shake her hand?” To that extent.
The images have symbols of life and fertility. I only selected nine paintings to refer to the nine months of pregnancy. You can see the other side are eggs. And the soil is also symbolic of the possibility of life. On the other side is wood chips. Along with menstrual blood, already “expired.” So I’m just bringing all these forms together. We have many ideas, but we don’t have the chance to express them. I’m sure as you’re in this university, you have many good ideas to contribute, to bring change. Some systems might not allow you to be more productive, but I would say it’s always nice to give new ideas a chance. As a creative person, as an artist, there is always a chance to bring change, or to collaborate. We are not in the era of “isms.” We don’t have to follow Picasso, the Impressionists, you know. Art is an expression of whatever is happening in this world. You need to be wise enough to select the materials from this world and give it back to the world.
Hui: How did your feminist friends respond to this? Your Setaweet friends?
Mihret: Setaweet? They love this work, by the way. We have a feminist group, the first feminist group (in Ethiopia). Many people were talking about this group. People even wrote books about it. Some people say that this is something that’s imported from the West. But this is something from your body, it doesn’t come from the West. It’s about your own right, talking about yourself. Asking for the freedom to be yourself. It doesn’t have to come from anywhere. It comes from the need to be yourself.
Hui: But you don’t like the word “feminist”?
Mihret: Ah yeah. No no. It’s not like that. Some people use “feminist” as a way of expressing themselves and communicating with others. Or maybe they want the frame to be stronger. And to come together, and to make sounds for their ideas. Whenever they (Setaweet) have programs, they invite me, and I go there, and I contribute. I also learn many things from them. But some of them want me to be a feminist. I don’t … it’s not something that you can be… I always say, I agree with what they’re saying, what they’re talking about, resistance, and what they come up with, important ideas. But I don’t have to label myself as a feminist, or some kind of frame. But I practice that, and I support that. I’m living that. I don’t need any permission to be myself. I don’t need it. So they say, “Mihret you’re a feminist.” “Do you support this?” “Yes.” “Then you’re a feminist.” But I’m not interested in putting myself in a frame. If you want me, ok. If you are happy with that. But it doesn’t bother me, by the way. I support. At the end of the day, what we contribute, to us, to our world, is what I’m focused on.
Ahn-Hoa: So I was thinking about the opposition situation where people get stuck on one name, right, the idea that you call someone an immigrant and you can see them as other things. For me, it’s deeper than just naming or not naming. … I’m always going back to the power structure, of who gets to create the names, what language we use, who holds those meanings. I agree with you Mihret, but I’d like to live in this world as Anh-Hoa or Hoa myself, but it’s that navigation of how much people want to categorize me, and how I feel that I need to protect myself or position myself in order to move in the world. It’s great that you are able to navigate that space, but I wonder if you were in that art program… I don’t know how you get funding, how you sustain. A lot of these issues revolve around survival. I’m curious about in living this life, how are you able to create that freedom for yourself?
Mihret: What kind of freedom?
Anh-Hoa: To be able to be yourself and do whatever you want.
MIhret: Yeah, there are problems. That’s why I always say “resist, resist.” For example, I never give my art to galleries. I know how to get money by giving my art to galleries. I’ve been doing art for many years. I just wasn’t interested in providing what the gallery owners want. But if someone is interested in the work I do, they can come in my studio, and I can share with them. If they want to buy they can buy. But I always come up with other alternatives to survive. I organize different festivals with my friends, art therapy, courses for children and for people, different kinds of programs. That’s how I support myself. I don’t want to exploit what I do. I don’t know where it came from, I want to keep it, I want to maintain it, I want to be more productive, own it and share it. That’s the kind of approach I’m into.
Sia: This is a curiosity question. What brings you joy?
Mihret: Oh, kindness. I love kindness, in whatever form. I love when somebody is kind enough to share, because we all are not perfect. We’re in an imperfect world. I have many things that I’m not capable of doing, people also have something they want to get from somebody. So I believe in sharing. I think that’s what we do here. That’s what I love the most. I love when someone is being kind. Being kind is also respecting what you feel and what you do. That’s what I expect of myself. And that’s very productive.
Mihret: I can show you my studio. I exchange shoelaces with people. Sometimes people make fun of me for using shoelaces. But I found it very, very bold, to say whatever you want. I don’t need to explain what shoelaces are to people, right? It’s there, out there. The material fixes your artwork to some extent, and you just add on it.
The kind of public performance with shoelaces I did is research-based. People are already having a plan on the street, to go somewhere, to do, and you just come in between, without consulting them, “Here is the change for you.” Some are like: “Ok. Let’s change and just go away.” Some are very resistant, some laugh and go, some want other shoelaces for other shoes at home, some of them want to keep the new and old ones all together. Also, some street kids, they don’t have shoes, but they want shoelaces. I also give them, because they also want to sell and benefit out of it. I also exchange with beggars on the street. So these conversations are recorded, photos were also taken by an Ethiopian photographer. He made a seven-minute video projection out of it. It was part of the 2010 Addis Photo festival. One of my professors is using it at the University’s theater department, to teach performance art.
Hui: I’ll ask a wrap-up question. We are very, very fortunate to have you here. You’ve given so much to us, this community. So I’d like to thank you on behalf of the community and myself.
Mihret: Thank you! Thank you for making me think.
Hui: I think we all know that we are learning a lot from you Mihret. But what have you gotten out of this for yourself. Have you received anything from us?
Mihret: Every step on my way is always receiving. From the moment I made the plan to come to the U.S. to learn and study and get some information about the U.S. … Those things for me are what I get, even before I arrive here. And once I arrive here, I communicated with every one of you, I was very much enjoying the environment. How the city is built. The space that I can breathe in. I was telling you how I missed space in my city, because the city that’s being built is a kind of pop-up. It’s like they’re just putting objects in my city. They are not giving respect for the void space, but I was seeing that the void here is part of the city. I was very much enjoying the space, so my eyes can see for a long distance. That’s one important thing I miss in my city, because they’re not involving the architects in designing the city. They’re just bringing some design from China, from Dubai. Every step is a learning process. Every day…when people ask me something, I process my thinking. They make my mind work more. That was part of receiving.
In our conversations, Mihret brought up Olafur Eliasson, who helped her connect with a gallery in New York City. I had never heard of him. So I Googled and found his Ted Talk Playing with Space and Light. The idea that has stayed with me is the social responsibilities of the body in space. He asked, “What consequences does it have when I take a step?” “Does it matter if I am in the world or not?” I thought these are grave, consequential questions. But I was unsettled by hearing a white European man who is highly successful speaking of the body in abstract terms as if it were universal, not unlike John Cage speaking of sounds in abstract ways.
A couple of days later, I read Sara Ahmed’s “Institutional Habit,” recommended to me by my colleague Amy Hamlin. Ahmed’s attention to specificity of the body, following the phenomenological framework, is breathtaking to me. I love that she talks about how particular bodies come up against space, work with space, work itself into space and thus change space. Space can change bodies, too. Bodies can change each other and how we see the world and live in the world. A woman is a woman because she walks around with a feather on her hat and does not break it. The feather as an extension of her body has been incorporated into the space she moves through. This woman’s body belongs in this world, flows into this world, because she does not break the feather.
I am enamored by Sara Ahmed’s musing about how world-making can be a different enterprise if we let ourselves be guided by bodies that don’t have an ease of belonging:
“Phenomenology can help us explore bodies that are not at home in the world. When a category allows us to pass into the world we might not notice that we inhabit that category. When we are stopped, or held up, by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us. We need to rewrite the world from the experience of not being able to pass into the world. I called ... for a phenomenology of 'being stopped,' a description of the world from the point of view of those who do not flow into it. I suggested that if we begin with the body that loses its chair, the world we describe will be quite different. Or perhaps we might begin with a body that breaks the feather; that has not 'felt' the things that are supposed to be part of its horizon.”
Bodies are particular (gendered, raced, classed, with nationalities, sexualities, disabilities, etc.), located in time and space. Bodies are thinking and doing beings, thus they can come together and change the spaces they are in, and even reshape the dimension of time. The questions are: Where do we begin? Whose point of view do we take? What spaces do we choose to inhabit, to disrupt, to shape?
Eliasson said in his talk: “[R]ight in between thinking and doing … there is experience. … Experience is about responsibility. Having an experience is taking part in the world. Taking part in the world is really about sharing responsibility. … It’s about being together.”
When Mihret chose to come to the U.S. to join us at St. Catherine University, she risked an experience; she did not know if she would be at home or not, she did not know if she would be able to “pass into” this world and “flow into it” or not. But she made the journey, with all of her embodied sensibilities and vulnerabilities. Some of us met her, listened to her, and worked with her, through our own embodied sensibilities and vulnerabilities. Together we shared the responsibility of being particular bodies in a particular space, the predominantly white space of St. Catherine University in Minnesota. Amidst the voluminous sharing of ideas, poetry, music, dance, laughter, stress, and food (Ethiopian meals, thyme tea, and peaches, in particular), the space pulsated for two weeks, in between silence and noise. It will not be the same again.
Hui Wilcox, PhD, is the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Women's Education and Director of the Otte Initiative at St. Catherine University. She is an associate professor of Sociology, Women's Studies and Critical Studies of Race/Ethnicity.