(Re) Remembering Ourselves: Performing Identity Through Memory and History Towards a Fantastic Future

 

 

(Re) Remembering Ourselves:  Performing Identity Through Memory and History Towards a Fantastic Future

 

 

 

 

 

 

Human beings perform their identities.  In turn, our identities are also performed to us by others. Expanding on Hegel, Jean-Paul Sartre states that “the Other penetrates me to the heart.  I cannot doubt him without doubting myself since ‘self consciousness is real only in so far as it recognizes its echo (and its reflection) in another.’”[1]  Years later, Franz Fanon further complicates this by introducing the concept of a triple consciousness.  Of performing one’s self and being incredibly aware of the selves created for one through the conceptions of others.  Most of these conceptions are based in history as prejudices are created from a pre-compounded epistemology.  Aside from external identifications, personal performances of identity are also heavily historic; American-born people of African descent sometimes wear traditional African garb and colors to perform their blackness; youth wear black, chains, tattoos, studs (and other historic labels of goth culture) to perform their goth-ness, and on and on. 

In short, the performance of Identity is a daily one that incorporates history and memory with desire and fantasy.  In Homi Bhabha’s assessment of Edward Saïd’s writings on Orientalism, Bhabha states that the concept of ‘Orientalism’ is the attempt to compile volumes of knowledge based on “learning, discovery, practice (as well as) dreams, images, fantasies, myths, obsessions, and requirements.”[2]  My thesis is that identity is performed, and although history is the main source for identification, it is, and must be, supplemented with fantasy, myth, and desire to unlock what history could be and is not, and to fantastically open up the future.

            From Greek mythologies and fairytales, to the Jali of Gambia and National Public Radio’s This American Life, the performance of history is a lasting one.  In all the modes of it, run tenuous veins of myth and fantasy that allows for audience interaction and revision, and explodes the concept of time and empowers the present.  This vein is evident in the performance of history by Gambian Jali.  ‘Jali’ is a term used in Gambia to identify practitioners of Jaliwa – a collection and reiteration of memory and history.  As oral historians, the Jali do not merely memorize history, they ‘perform’ it as a live changing event.  In the listening of these histories, others ‘experience’ it for themselves and so build their own parallel emotional landscapes around these ideas.  Professor and historian Paulla Ebron spent time in Gambia researching and interviewing the Jali.  She wrote extensively about this experience in her book Performing Africa.

In the section The Value of a Few Words Ebron discusses frustrations surrounding financial negotiations of payments for Jali interviews.  In these interactions, Ebron is forced to confront her own performance of being a ‘scholar’ with her other undeniable identity of being a financially secure patron willing to pay for ‘culture’.  In transcribed history, it is easy for the culturally trained scholar (fully learned in power dynamics, and self-aware enough to attempt to keep them at bay) to write, delete, edit and perfect history and identity to a socially acceptable and stable structure – the book – a literary sculpture of sorts.  But in the dynamic of interacting with a live performed history, the interviewer is suddenly forced to encounter all idiosyncrasies of her own performance of historian, researcher and comprehensively, her performance of her own identity.

“Even when payment was agreed upon, some Jali would be insulted if they felt they were being offered a fixed sum.  After all, Jaliya is intimately tied to a range of practices that trace their legitimacy from the age of empire through the present.”[3]

Ruptures such as these in Ebron’s experience allow for many new ideas about the realization of identity and its intoxicating tie to history, memory and performance to rise to the surface.  The collection of historical information and its elaborate and epic re-remembering and performance are a method of identity formation that keeps true to its undeniable and accepted character as performative metafiction.  This process of history formation is a conscious one.  Therefore, payment for said performances must also be a consciously changing one dependent on specific reiterations.  Distinctly, in the textual form of history, it can be easily denied that history and identity are in fact formed, repeated, edited, regurgitated, and literarily sculpted when one is looking at the accepted visual language of historical text.

In her quest to study a Jali – the genuine African subject – Ebron was forced to face its unapologetic recognition of the fictive and performative nature of identity.  “Indeed, the repetition of facts I heard suggested that Jali were often telling me what they thought foreigners expected to hear.”[4]  Ebron’s identity as the ‘foreigner’ is unable to be separated from that of the ‘authentic’ African subject in what Dellueze and Guattari would refer to as the Rhizome.  In the living Rhizome, Ebron’s identity as a westerner preceded Ebron’s existence as Gambians hold a memory of westerners that defined the person before s/he is ever met.  To the Gambian, Ebron is just as exotic a player in the identities game.  Her license as a scholar and researcher do not exempt her from her role of privilege.  It just becomes more apparent when history is performed.

            During the presentation of this essay in Jordana Saggese and Tina Takemoto’s Identities Symposium Fall 2009, I performed history by offering a photograph to the audience with the caption reading “Photo by Nanci Ikejimba”.  Next, I offered the same photo with a different caption “Photo by:  A White European Woman”.  I then showed the same image with a final caption of “Photo by: Leni Riefenstahl” all the while being very attentive to the reception of the image by the audience.  As expected, the reaction in the room went from mild interest, to raised eyebrows, and finally audible gasps as Riefenstahl, the true photographer is a known Nazi and the image is of sexualized black bodies.

 

            The reception and meaning behind the photograph changes drastically when the producer’s race and history changes:  The image exists.  The image exists in a world of other images and as a platform for comparison with other images.  Triply, the image exists as an inseparable embodiment of a historical construct based on previous knowledge about its producer.  The history of the image, as soon as it unfolded, overpowered the image itself.

In the summer of 2009, I collected oral histories from political refugees in Sweden.  One of the women I met was Zdenka Kalisky.  Kalisky had a turbulent history that began in the Czech Republic, stormed through Nepal, settled in Zimbabwe, and ended in Sweden.  When asked of her ethnicity, Kalisky said ‘African’ as she had spent most of her life – 30 years – living in various countries on the continent, mostly Zimbabwe.  Kalisky had fled the Russian invasion of Czech Republic as a youth, and then fled Chinese persecution of Tibetans in Nepal before settling in Zimbabwe where she felt most at home with the native Zimbabweans.  Kalisky was ostracized from the white community, as she and her family were not rich enough, and therefore, not white enough, to associate with the elite white landowners.  But when the Cultural Revolution in Zimbabwe happened, she was not differentiated from the other pale-skinned people.  Her 30 years and the life she had built in Zimbabwe meant nothing.  She was expelled despite the efforts of her black Zimbabwean friends and family.

Kalisky gave me a dress she had originally made for herself that physically represented her identity as a hybrid.  In the dress are pieces of fabric with prints from all the places she had lived.  The prints resonated with me as I immediately recognize many of them as patterns I grew up figuratively and literally wrapped in.  These same patterns are also Dutch, Zimbabwean, and Nepalese.  When wearing the dress, I am often asked if it is a Nigerian dress.  To this, I answer depending on my mood, “Yes.” or “No.  It is______ (either Zimbabwean, Nepalese or Dutch).” 

I wonder, if history is removed and we are purely present in the now, would there be a difference between Kalisky and I wearing the hybrid dress? Currently, she is scorned for wearing ‘tribal’ prints as she is identified as white and therefore, non-tribal.  Whereas, I am praised for its beauty when I don it.  How do we escape the cyclical nature of master versus slave narratives of ‘otherness’ if history and the epidermis remain the primary forms of identification?

I am especially interested in this because I was introduced to slavery and racism late in life.  At age 11, I was very conscious of this new ‘third me’ and she demanded to be worn.  She was reflected to me in department store mirrors by the shadows that followed me around.  She gyrated to me in music videos, glared back at me in the daily news, and avoided my eyes in the face of strangers.  But does this mean that Kalisky cannot ‘own’ images of African origin?  If not, is it because historically Kalisky is Caucasian?  If so, does that mean, as an African-now-American, I also hold no ownership to American images?  If so, who does and where do we draw the line?  Although our histories are important and must not be forgotten, our performances of ourselves are just as prevalent and must also be contended with, as history is fickle.

Jaliwa acknowledge and embody identity formation through performance.  They believe in not only embodying – so as to transform – images of ourselves created by others, but also in actively creating and re-creating ourselves.  West African, and especially Nigerian-Igbo oral and performative history is based on the concept of history as one that is non-linear.  History, instead, is alive and can change drastically at any moment by the discovery of a new ‘truth’.  There is a metaphor of walking to the stream, tripping on a stone, and falling facedown unto the grave of an ancestor. 

“Imagine I stand before you then, as did Kafka’s character, to speak about an experience that falls somewhere between truth and fiction.  What follows are my reflections on performing the role of a noble savage behind the bars of a golden cage.”[5]

            During Saggese and Takemoto’s Identities Symposium 2009, I also performed myself.  By introducing the audience to Nwamaka Amaka Nnenne Chika Ikejimba, the Nigerian native living in The United States of America.  Speaking with a Nigerian accent, she voiced her concern for the disdain imposed on rural African cultures by theorists, historians, and even non-rural Africans.

“As a person who grew up in a rural village in Nigeria, I am constantly conflicted by the negative portrayals of ‘savages’ by photographers such as Leni Riefenstahl but also by theorists and artists who mean well.  Although I am forced to look through the eyes of a Nazi at the photographs of natives, I am less bothered when I see these images than I am by the acceptance of them as NEGATIVE by theorists, historians, and even Africans.”[6]

In Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto she states that “Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true... At the center of my ironic faith, my blasphemy, is the image of the cyborg.”[7]  As an Igbo, I believe strongly in metaphors and Haraway’s cyborg is a metaphor for performed Identity.  It is one that acknowledges and embraces its rhizomatic qualities.  It selectively pulls from history toward a fantastic future.  It is an identity that exists in a state of desire.  Not only internally  - as in my performance of myself - but also externally – as in the fact that in performing myself doubly, I disrupted impressions of me as an academic classmate, fusing it by force with the problematized image of traditional rural African cultures.  The conscious nature of this triple identity opened up possibilities to all the things I might have been, am now, and could be in the future.

            During a recent TED speech, Chris Abani spoke of the Igbo tradition of creating gods for their needs. “But, if the god became unruly…the Igbos would destroy the god.  They would knock down the shrine, and they would stop saying the god’s name.  This is how they came to reclaim their humanity.”[8]   We all perform our identities.  History and Others impose an identity unto us.  When dreams and myths are allowed in the performance, time is exploded, the present is empowered and the future is fantastic.  Importantly, it is in the remembering and re-remembering of our identities that we continue to be.

 

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Look” in Being and Nothingness (), 287.

 

 

[2] Homi Bhabha, "The Other Question: The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse." inVisual Culture: The Reader, (1999/2005), 372.

 

 

[3] Paulla Ebron, Performing Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 137.

 

 

[4] Paulla Ebron, Performing Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 136.

 

 

[5] Coco Fusco, “The Other History of Intercultural Performance” in English Is Broken Here Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas, (New York City: The New Press, 1995), 37.

 

 

[6] Nwamaka Amaka NneNne Chika Ikejimba, “Princess Amaka’s visit to America” (Re)Remembering Ourselves: Performing Identity Through Memory and History Towards a Fantastic Future, Performed at VCS Identities Symposium, California College of the Arts December 7th 2009.

 

 

[7] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (New York City: Routledge, 1991), 149.

 

 

[8] Chris Abani, Untitled Talk, TED Talks. February 2008 http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/chris_abani_muses_on_humanity.html (Accessed January 2010).