WHO ARE YOU… Tabita Rezaire, a committed artist-film maker
Flitting between languages and continents, Tabita Rezaire is the perfect incarnation of the citizen of the world wanting discover the origin of this world without borders. Using her videos and websites as tools, this artists isn’t (just) there for the WTF side to her productions. Above all she wants to send a message.
Who are you?
I don’t know. I make documentaries. It’s a difficult question, nothing is fixed in stone. Let’s just say I’m an artist and film maker, twerker, documentarist and researcher. It’s difficult to define as my activities are constantly evolving, but my main medium is video.
What is your background?
I’m part-French, part-Guyanese, part-Danish, and I’ve lived in Johannesburg for eight months. I grew up in Paris, then studied between Paris, Copenhagen and London. After finishing my Masters at Central Saint Martins, I went back to Paris, then spent some time in Mozambique before arriving in South Africa.
When did you launch your Tumblr?
I must have launched it a few years ago, but I change it every three months or so, introducing a new concept. This current one, with a collection of screenshots from my computer screen, must have been around for about four months.
My blog doesn’t really represent my work, it’s really my website that shows my projects. My work is really in video, in leading workshops and conferences. On my Tumblr, I only include things I find on the Internet – I’m always on Google Images – to make collages of my cyber explorations. It’s really more of a playground, and even if it’s part of my work it’s less serious, despite the committed, political side to it.
At the moment I’m really interested in the policies structuring the world of the Internet and cyberspace. I’m trying to contribute to the decolonisation of the Internet. I’m working on representation policies on the web, and the marginalisation of certain identities, practices and stories. The form of my creations, videos, screenshots and websites and YouTube channels reflects the subjects I’m exploring. I’m looking to deconstruct the things we think we know, or that are presented to us as sole legitimate fact, in order to provide alternatives to our social and cultural references which defy western hegemony.
The design of your working tools are fairly baroque… Are you looking to take an opposite stance to western websites?
With regard to form, it’s not really a response, it’s an aesthetic created by the Internet and an online culture. It responds to this culture. There are lots of subcultures on the Internet, and this website is part of a whole aesthetic trend. But what I’m trying to do is combine my interests with this aesthetic and create a dialogue. I wondered if the aesthetic of the Internet was really worldwide. We are always saying that the Internet has no geographical borders, and I’ve seen these aesthetics used by South Africans. I wanted to know if it was the universality of the Internet, or rather the reproduction of a western aesthetic by the rest of the world.
The appearance of your websites is reminiscent of the IT golden era in the 90s.
That’s kind of the definition of lots of movements and Internet subcultures that rake back elements of nostalgic visual culture from the start of the web. But even if I’m making references to all of that, I use these trends ironically. I try and provide cultural diversity that doesn’t exist in these subcultures.
Are you affiliated with a particular category?
No. All of these trends have been very important in bringing young people into cyberspace. They’ve created their own visual language. At the start, most of these movements started as jokes, a tweet or a Facebook page. They’re a little like the aesthetics of “LOL”. What I’m interested in is leading a political and socially engaged discourse in Tumblr culture.
By who, or what, do you feel influenced in how you create?
Certain subjects are the things that influence me the most: sexual identity, gender normativity, racial politics, white supremacy and their respective consequences… It’s what I call geo-body-politics; the way in which the difference environments we’re faced with (institutions, dominant culture, cyber reality and histories – because there is not just one history, and it is neither linear nor objective) influence and control both our bodies and minds. So I wondered how we can use the screen, the thing we interact with every day, to confront this western hegemony that is broadcast on these same screens.
What was the catalyst for you taking such a stance? Films? Something in particular?
It really comes from personal experiences. I’m mixed-race, I grew up in Paris and I spent my teenage years straightening my hair and thinking my bum was too big. When you move around to lots of different places you put your experiences into a different context. I understood that it was the consequences of my assimilation into a French society that puts its citizens into a hierarchy. Today I’m proud of my booty! Arriving in South Africa amplified these questions. The environment is difficult and you can’t not notice the social dynamics. We’re constantly faced with racial and class division. Cyberspace has become a sort of refuge, even though the Internet reproduces the structures of exploitation and exclusion.
So you decided to act outside of the web?
Of course, I give “lectures” in universities and at conferences, and I lead awareness workshops. It’s as important to do it in “real life” as it is online. The two complement each other. I also show videos in the street and in cybercafés to distance myself from the elitism associated with art, so I avoid limiting myself to art galleries.
I’ve received positive reactions from South Africans, but the people who have access to art are marginal groups. I can’t really speak generally. Here, we have a concept called “coconuts”. If you’re black and you go to university, or you have a car, people will call you “coconut”. There’s no place for intellectual black people, because communities accuse them of wanting to become white people. So if you are black, walking into an art gallery isn’t an innocent act. It means you’re infiltrating somewhere, confronting the history of oppression. Apartheid was only abolished 20 years ago…
You are also committed to defending Twerking…
We have to confront the views of certain feminists and the general public who see twerking as something that devalues and shames women. It comes from ancient African traditional dances and fertility rituals. The knowledge behind these movements were lost during the time of triangular trade, then taken over by bounce culture, hip hop, and now (white) American pop culture. My interest in twerking is to bring back knowledge of the subject. It’s as though everything that comes from “black culture” is considered to be violent, ghetto, disrespectful or over-sexual.
My time at school was spent learning that Malcom X was bad and that Martin Luther King was good. I want to understand why I was brainwashed like that, and I’m trying to “unlearn” it all.
Is this deconstruction needed in France?
There is a real problem in how people describe people as immigrants, playing on the fear of “the other”. After 400 years of slavery and a century of colonisation, during which the supposed inferiority of black people and the violence towards them was institutionalised, independence hasn’t changed everything. We have inherited this system and it is still very present! In South Africa, there is still a hierarchy of colours in every sphere, with the white man at the top, and Arabs, Indians and black people always at the bottom. And it’s the same in the western world. It’s crazy to see, for example, that skin whitening products make up a multi-million dollar business in places like India, and certain regions of Africa and Asia.
But what about Europeans who twerk? Is it an example of taking back this culture?
Completely. Taking back aspects of a culture reflects an inequality of culture, and that’s why it’s a problem. In France, Muslim women aren’t allowed to wear the niqab, and are humiliated and even beaten for wearing the hijab. But you’ll see a model or a pop star wearing a niqab in a magazine because it’s “trendy”. It’s like the fashion of wearing the bindi. No one knows what it represents of means culturally, but some people go to H&M and think it is fun to wear one because it’s fashionable. We’ve also seen that Miley Cyrus sells more albums because she twerks, and it’s a form of cultural exploitation. If you live in the western world, you will be asked to assimilate, to give up your language, your way of eating etc. But it will always be a bit of fun for some white people to use your culture as fancy dress, or an accessory, or to paint themselves black to go to parties. And you know what? It’s not funny.
Are there lots of you following this trend?
There are lots of other people, other artists and activists who are working on these questions. A few “radical babes” who follow Zarina Muhammad, Bogosi Sekhukhuni and FAKA, Cuss group, Fannie Sosa, Alicia Mersy, Isaac Kariuki and Mohini Hewa.
These practices aren’t new, but the mainstream media is now giving more attention to these subject, which want exclusivity for these people. I wonder if it’s not just a trend that fetishizes these practices and has found a way to control them. All of sudden, everyone’s interested in what you’re doing. There’s a sort of “hype”, a certain radicalism, but they want you to change your words, they don’t want you to talk about white supremacy, but rather colonialism. Sometimes you get the impression you’re being turned into an instrument to make it look like institutions and the media have ethics.
What are your plans for the next few months?
I’m a bit stressed, as I’ve got so much to do! First I’m working on a hologram, as sort of “holographic apology from the western world”. I can’t yet say what it’s going to be like, but it’s a way for me to reflect on the concept of apology, with Caribbean countries who are now asking compensation from former colonial powers. It’s also a response to all the apologies that some people are demanding from Muslims in France after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. They don’t have to apologise, they’ve got nothing to with it.
I’m also creating a computer company in South Africa. I want to build our own server, which will host a forum on the deep web for sharing socio-cultural and political information between non-white people. In South Africa some groups have been threatened because they were organising their resistance on Facebook, so we really want to create a secure platform. And there are lots of trolls, hateful commentators on YouTube and on Twitter. I made a compilation of them in a video. There are always ‘haters’ on the Internet. It’s not because I speak about white supremacy that I don’t like white people. It’s tiring to always have to justify yourself.
With my duo MALAXA, we’re also going to publish our videos soon, and we’re getting ready for an exhibition in London for August.
In early 2016 I’m going to launch an online platform for committed art for non-western artists, with a new theme every year. The first will be “Black Masculinities”.
Then in July I’m going to exhibit my work at the Tate Modern in London.
Any final comments?
“Power is coming!”