‘We’re Constantly Both Dancing and Fighting’: Keyna Eleison on Decolonizing Brazilian Institutions

The new co-artistic director of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro discusses her Afro-centred curatorial practice, the importance of translation, and writing as a form of dance

BY Fernanda Brenner AND Keyna Eleison in Interviews | 18 SEP 20

Fernanda Brenner: Your bio mentions your heritage as a griot and shaman in addition to your professional credentials. Is there a parallel between the figure of the griot and the curator, in the sense that they are both guardians and mediators of cultural heritage, as well as agents of interchange between different people and contexts?

Keyna Eleison: I use the terms shaman and griot as a way of messing around with the way my work was instantly feminized and racialized by others when I first started working professionally as a curator. I introduced the idea of the griot and the shaman as an attempt to add a layer of humour to that experience. When I use shaman – a term derived from European anthropology – I am also talking about an indigenous heritage that has been incorporated by European epistemology. I place myself alongside people who hold and propagate languages and bodies of knowledge that cover multiple generations and backgrounds. As a body, I am constantly translating and being translated, and this state of being in translation also relates to the colonized body.

My generation did not have access to Afro-centred knowledge in school or university. Now, curricula have been changing, particularly after the introduction of quota policies in 2012, which led to a significant increase in the number of Black people in public universities in Brazil, but back then it was struggle to access Afro-centred thought and practices. My personal research was already pointing in that direction, but my education was very focused on European values and on the autonomy of art as a discipline. By defining myself as a griot and a shaman, I am aligning myself with different intellectual frameworks, levelling them with the knowledge I acquired in formal training.  

FB: Your identity as a Black Brazilian woman is a constant marker and you are often perceived as a spokesperson for a specific context or kind of artistic production. Could you tell me about the strategies you use to present your work and ideas in all their complexity, which we will now be able to follow at Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM), where you have just been appointed artistic director?

Keyna Eleison
Keyna Eleison. Photograph: Fabio Souza

KE: People look at me and automatically see someone who understands Afro-diasporic art, sometimes in a stereotypical way, but I have used this to my advantage. Rather than feel offended or resentful, I understand this language and freely incorporate it into other research repertoires. Nothing is ever just one thing. Look, even though we are going through an extremely difficult political moment in Brazil, where reactionary forces have gained strong momentum, one of the biggest museums in the country will be led not only by a duo, but by a man and a woman, and the woman is Black. This fact reflects a strong social desire to widen the upper reaches of cultural institutions.

FB: I think it is important to highlight that your selection was based on an open and transparent application process, which brought together a diverse and specialized group of experts in the Brazilian visual arts. The format, which is still very rare in Brazil, should be celebrated as institutional policy. What was it like applying with Pablo Lafuente, and what was your original motivation to share the position?

KE: We need to shake the foundations from time to time in order to have more diversity at all levels of an institution. With regards to the selection process at MAM, the museum’s new management was already very open to listening. They are keen to rethink the presence of the museum in the city and its link to the public. When the open call was announced, lots of people messaged me suggesting that I apply. One of these messages came from Pablo. I was, and still am, working towards eliminating solitary elements of heroism from my practice. In the last few years I have been prioritising collective efforts, drawing on my research into Afro-centred practices, in which working together is fundamental for survival, just as it is in Indigenous cultures. Pablo is someone I admire both personally and professionally, and we have a long history of collaboration. We then began to think about how to write the proposal together, but remotely, due to the pandemic; the first time we met in person was on our first day as co-directors. 

FB: Can you tell me more about the proposal you presented to the museum?

KE: When MAM was founded in 1948, it was aimed at building a future based on modernist ideals of emancipation and the defence of individual subjectivities, closely linked to a belief in the fundamental role of art and culture as tools in this process. With this in mind, we took into account not only the museum collection but also its expanded space that includes the adjoining Flamengo Park. The surroundings and the people who use the grounds are part of the institution: you arrive at MAM the moment you step into the park and you are in the park the moment you enter the museum. We are incorporating people, bodies, names and intellects that were outside the programme. Modernity can only emancipate if it is conceived as a project of diversification.

Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro
Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Fabio Souza

FB: How do you intend to articulate the museum’s collection?

KE: Something that will feature quite frequently in the programme is the idea of ‘listening’, which I see as a radical exercise. Nowadays, a diverse museum must also mean a sustainable museum, and I see the pursuit of sustainability ultimately as a process of healing. It means acting with respect for the environment in order to guarantee continuity. It is not a synonym for permanence, as there is a constant need to change, to recover and to adapt.

FB: This discussion is part of an active deprogramming of ideas and concepts that stem from the history of colonial violence. There is still an asymmetry between decolonial thought from a more discursive, academic viewpoint and decolonial practices within institutions. How do you see this imbalance?

KE: It’s very important that we actively dismantle hierarchies, although total horizontality is not yet an option. It is key to see feminized bodies in positions of power. An institution is smarter when it has a more diverse team. The greater range of perspectives we include, the more we can overcome the limitations of our knowledge and communication. And when we apply the term ‘decolonial’ to our work – which is a European term – we must maintain a good sense of humour and listen to each other, so we can avoid self-indulgent or flippant perspectives regarding the complex effects of colonization.

FB: Major social, political or artistic change almost always starts with a change in language. Each word we use is tied to layers of history and sometimes loaded with violent processes we are not aware of. The way we use words matters as much as their meaning. The written word is a key element of your practice, too.

KE: Yes, I am indeed interested in matters of language and idiomatic racism. We are slowly becoming aware of the violence of commonplace words: ‘universal’, ‘normality’, ‘discovery’, ‘clarity’, ‘undeveloped’ … I studied philosophy and have recently been considering not only the meaning but the origin of such words, and am always trying to find alternatives that are less loaded with violence. I believe this constant exercise can trigger a very productive discomfort. I also have been studying a non-European language. I am good with languages but I only speak European languages.

FB: Which language is that?

KE: Xhosa, a South African language with click consonants. It has three different clicks performed by the throat. In order to speak it, your body and voice must perform differently. Since I am a body in translation, I believe that learning another language is also a way of expanding my own frontiers and bodies of knowledge. Going back to your question about writing, I often write as a way of dissolving classifications, the same way I try to dissolve dichotomies in my curatorial practice. I see writing as a physical exercise that gives me a firmer footing in my curatorial work and enables me to dance, or help other people to move their hips more fluidly, if needed. In that sense, I am very much interested in the concept of ginga, a word that literally means to rock back and forth in capoeira but that encompasses a whole quality of movement and attitude. The ginga performed by Brazilian bodies is simultaneously a dance and a fight, yet at the same time cannot be defined as either.

FB: You’re a member of 0101, a platform dedicated to rethinking the way institutions construct and manage contemporary art collections by drawing on African and Afro-diasporic practices. Can you tell us more about the project, which includes the sale of artworks, educational courses and artist residencies?

KE: 0101 consists of a group of people striving to bring Afro-centred practices to the art market. 0101 is the date that marks the end of the Haitian Revolution (1 January 1804). I think it is interesting to take the endpoint of a revolutionary process to think about creating dynamics that are still to a certain extent revolutionary. The platform seeks to create the conditions for Black artists and curators to make a living out of their practices and also pursues new forms of equalization across multiple professional contexts.

FB: In Brazil, under the current and former right-wing administrations, cultural policies that were already substandard have been politicized and actively dismantled. How will this impact your day-to-day work in the museum and the way the content you generate will be received by the public?

KE: It is extremely important for museum staff to think of ourselves as a collective, bringing together our personal experiences in political engagement. MAM’s executive director Fabio Schwarczwald has a long history of resistance, including his role at Parque Lage, where he fought hard to host the 2018 exhibition ‘Queer Museum’, which had been censored in Porto Alegre. He appointed Lucimara Letelier as institutional director; MAM’s leadership now consists of four people who are constantly thinking of ways to bring together processes that can keep us afloat. We want to do a lot of things, but we are very aware of our position in Rio de Janeiro in 2020, amidst convergent political, economic and now public health crises. Our work will demand a massive dose of humour, a lot of vitality and ginga. We’ll constantly be both dancing and fighting.

Main image: Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Fabio Souza

Fernanda Brenner is the founder and Artistic Director of Pivô, an independent non-profit art space in São Paulo, and a contributing editor of frieze

Keyna Eleison is a curator, writer, researcher, heiress griot and shaman, narrator, singer and ancient chronicler. She is a regular contributor to Contemporary&, Professor of the Free Learning Program at Parque Lage School of Visual Arts, Rio de Janeiro and co-Artistic Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro with Pablo Lafuente. She lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.