by Nina Ferrante and Francesca De Rosa
Nina Ferrante is a trans-feminist queer southern Italian scholar and activist, she deals with anglophone world cultural studies and postcolonial and feminist epistemology.
Francesca De Rosa teacher, researcher e author, she deals with visual studies and construction of alterity in the Portuguese speaking ex African colonies.
July 20th, 2020, and the images of a woman soon to be nicknamed “Naked Athena” begin spreading out from a Twitter profile. Protests in Portland had flared up again for a few days, although in reality they had been ongoing almost relentlessly since the death of George Floyd in May. Not only do those seeking justice for him want those responsible for the crime identified and prosecuted, but they call into question the whole issue of defunding the police, which to them is the armed right hand of a racist state. For them this money is better invested in schools and health as well as in the removal of all causes of structural inequality between whites and blacks in the United States. During this time, military units are used for the first time, which literally attempt to arrest at gunpoint a young generation of black people determined to show the possibilities for a new history of the United States and the West overall. But for newspapers and social media the latter wasn’t the main event: it was her, masked, sitting on the ground, legs wide open, in front of the police. However, what her presence really represents is deflected as we gaze upon this grammatically perfect image, one that is simultaneously respectful to all the rules covering nudity on social media. We do not know her identity, we do not know her backstory, but what we do see very clearly from even casual observation of this backview is that she is white. It is important to stress that this is just an assumption of her identity, but what it does, and especially in Italy, is to make the image unambiguously read “Them and Us”, in an opposition that is not necessarily oppositional, but is also an unnuanced juxtaposition of allegiance with racialized women, who in our imagination are very directly ‘The Others’.
Naked Athena crosses the Atlantic and reaches us: but the further her image moves away from the fiery asphalt of protest, the whiter she becomes, the image loses its nuances and solidifies, it becomes imaginary, finally settling in the comfortable confines of rebel iconography and of what still has the power to universally defeat everything else, a whirlwind on the podium.
It’s a July night, it’s Monday. I just wanna live.
The violent rhythm of angry shots coalesces with the words and thoughts of Keedron Bryant, beams of light from pepper balls slow but do not cease, Naked Athena makes her appearance; but the black woman sitting next to her during the first few minutes of the drama, and who leaves only in order to escape the brutal gunfire, is lost to the situation and will not make the news.
The image describes an event and one that factually usurps the protest, the claims, any police violence and resistance. The fact that we are reporting here, however does not imply that we are reporting the truth, searching for identity and thus the reasons for such a gesture. For us, the fact is a performance-like gesture that produces consequences, a diffusion of the imagination in our social resources, as well as the captions that accompany it, and reading it as an icon of a protest that is not there. This reasoning starts from the power to solidify a body and its gesture as a symbol cut from its context and thus opens us up to observe what is hidden even before what is shown.
Athena-monolith dominates the squares of cities and university towns. According to a legend, a student is not allowed to look at her until graduation day. She is the goddess of wisdom, of art and war. Fascism told a homogeneous story of how all knowledge was generated by the womb of classical culture and how a mission was necessary to bring our civilisation beyond all borders, thus including epistemology in an Imperial mission. Few traces are left of faceless Baubo, who speaks to us through her other lips, all vulva with legs spread. Goddess of the obscene, that is, of everything that remains outside the framework of representation. Baubo is the protagonist of Ana-Suromain gesture, the uplifted skirt, a provocative and irreverent gesture of defiance.
DESTRUCTION AND REASSURANCE
From the start of the protests, demonstrators have requested the removal of racist and colonial symbols of violence on which the States and US society are structured. From there, a movement grew that spread throughout the world, identifying and demystifying the scars of colonial violence that founded the Western world. First to fall were the pillars of the old Confederacy. Christopher Columbus, the pioneer of Native American genocide, still hailed in these parts as a national hero, soon followed. Representations of slavers from every country met the same fate, or as in the case of Winston Churchill’s statue outside London’s Parliament were covered in coffin-like wooded boards. Most spectacular of all was the fate that befell the statue of Bristolian benefactor and/or slave trader Edward Colston – pulled from his plinth and rolled into a river. Only a few decades too late the statue of Theodor Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by Native American and African men on foot, is coming down. In Italy there are those who whiningly defend a Fascist rapist of girls like Indro Montanelli, imploring us to accept the still contemporary practices of sexism and colonialism as somehow merely contextual. For now his statue has only suffered two cans of paint, one fuchsia and one red in two separate acts, though they effectively lifted the Veil of Maya off “Italians good people”. In 2018 instead of the usual March 8th collective strike, female artists and workers from the world of feminist culture lifted their skirts against identifiable symbols of patriarchy and Fascism and showed us their hairy cunts, alerting us to what is still written about the Fascism in our cities and that creeps into the folds of everyday habit. The obscene showcases what is usually not seen. This is the destabilising result of exposing the cunt. We miss out everything that the cover photo conceals from Naked Athena. But the photo is on our social networks and on the covers of newspapers reluctant to tell us about the Movement; it tells us that despite statues are falling, the Caucasian body is still standing and it comes with new reformed values. Yet it remains the sole body of civilisation able to narrate that which is considered beautiful, desirable or a symbol of progress. This body, readable as white, can still fill the holes of what has collapsed, without worrying about the rubble. Meanwhile a body, not necessarily white, but readable as such, clearly feminine, desirable, can still reassure us as to what will be written in history, in contemporary imagination, and to what will remain obscene, outside the framework of representation.
*** Dear white people, yes: things fall apart.
It is advisable to lower those eyebrows raised by annoyance. Because they will not stop the collapse of those monumental stories erected on the pain felt by the bodies of black people. And unlike what we are led to imagine, destruction is not, has not been and will not be the result of senseless unreasonableness. Anger forcefully pumps blood to the eyes. For a long time now, these undesired bodies have trodden the painful paths of memory while asking for justice. Bodies that have had to dig deep and feed like woodworm on the pulp of perfection, consuming its rhetoric of linear completeness.
In her 2013 series ‘The White Shoes’ artist Nona Faustine depicts the history of slavery in New York through self-portraits taken in former locations significant to the slave trade; violent places that spoke of the enslavement, sale, exploitation and killing of black bodies. She wears only white shoes, her body is naked in memory of how black women and men were sold for auction, remembering the dehumanising exploitation inflicted on black women.
Majestic, proudly black and undressed – which for the average viewer reads as obese, obscene and inappropriate – the artist gives us back that part of the story which has been removed, of those bodies that built the Big Apple and the great American dream to the sound of lashes and violence.
Nona Faustine challenges the norms of black body whitening imposed by patriarchy and white supremacy. Her body challenges reassuring images and canons of beauty in a celebration of the imperfect. In 2016 ‘Lobbying the Gods For A Miracle’ brings back the painful history of her place of birth including a beautiful eulogy to runaway slaves. Her body is wrapped in white, a belt is made up of shoes recalling those poor creatures forced to become merchandise, breasts uncovered and a firearm in her hand: Nona Faustine, in memory of fugitives and as a figure of resistance, waits leaning against a tree for the passage of her ‘masters’, appealing to the Gods for a miracle, seeking revenge.
Nona Faustine, Lobbying the Gods for a Miracle, Brooklyn, 2016
THE ICONOGRAPHY OF OTHER BODIES
Statues recount deeds beyond space and time, they are marble and bronze historical delivery systems. The gesture, meanwhile, is archived only in the body, but the recording of the gesture implies the opportunity to talk about the event. Eventually this can be translated into an icon, thus becoming history. Basically, once the means have changed, only those who respect the rule of what can be visible enter the regime of visibility, because they tell the right story, or because in some way it is tolerable. The circulation of Naked Athena also reassures; it attests to the possibility that the white western body is still capable of being essential, of framing the boundaries of representation, and all because the power to tell and the means to do so have not changed.
Yet in social movements, like BLM, bodies acquire such power that they can blow all covers and other stories, biographies and bodies impose new horizons to look to, and to imagine other stories for futures yet to be written.
THE REASON WHY CITIES BURN
Images of Black Athena run parallel to the discourse built on the dichotomy peace vs violence which is always on hand to frame a movement in a certain way (a typical Italian habit), even though its meaning goes beyond the aforementioned dichotomy.
This linearity of narrative – of so-called thugs, revolutionaries, looters and destroyers so dear to the playbook of white, privileged critics – falls down.
Tamika Mallory said it clearly last June. Her statements, which managed to reach even the Italian national media, burn like buildings because the constant and brutal articulation of structural racism cannot be exemplified as isolated episodes, because too much is too much. Because if we have to talk about looting, then it is important to name and shame the attacks on Native Americans in a society steeped in systemic racism for 400 years.
Burn Baby Burn.
Public spaces release a collective force, one that is reinvigorated precisely via a powerful union of many souls who advance and communicate in lockstep. When judged closely, the masculising narratives that emerge to contest this do not match what images offer up to us: women, the unexpected, their essence very often excluded from the narratives and history delivered to us, breaking through the lens by escaping their standard female categorisation and enriching the feminine. It is never too much to underline this continuous process of self-determination, one which crumbles masculine rhetoric in search of leaders who spread and give a feminist, trans-feminist, non-binary imprint to practices and languages.
Perhaps it’s obvious but we’ll remind you all the same. It is not Black Athena that conjures up a performance or dance, but the dance itself that is the consolidated and undisputed expression, claim and action of BLM protests. Being alive also means imposing one’s body in motion, showing it with all its pain, scars and wounds and also as it explodes with joy and anger. Dancing bodies contain in their movement a memory of those who have been there already, of the suffering bodies of those who are no longer there. They speak the language of solidarity that overlaps the bodies of blacks, trans, non-binary and all those who resist.
And thus this homage is sealed in fires, tears of joy, pain and dance, like the traditional dance expressions of Afro-Diasporic communities, ancestral dance, hip hop, electric boogaloo, slam poetry, voguing, twerking, classical dance, single or collective improvisation.
Ava Holloway and Kennedy George are both 14. As soon as they hear that the statue of General Robert E. Lee, an iconic figure in the Confederate history of Charlottesville, Louisiana, is to be removed, they meet and join up with many others, to celebrate. While history is about to be rewritten, they make a start on realising the future to come. The two girls show up in tutus, they replace the black power fist with pointe shoes. However, it’s not the statue that is about to be shattered. It’s the notion of what the black body cannot do: win. Imagination is not only linked to protesting, but the black body has in fact nearly always been excluded from the rigid canons of classical dance, which wants bodies without gravity and shape, that cross the world without leaving a footprint. In the 50s, Angela Bowen’s black body challenged the canons of classical dance, over the years she became a legendary percussive dance teacher by opening a school to teach black girls that their destiny is not written and their body can be an instrument of liberation; she gets to know Audre Lorde, black feminism and lesbianism and she became a passionate, bold civil rights activist. She brought that same passion and boldness to the studies she dedicated herself to until she became a university professor, challenging the Academic elite and the idea of what holds a legitimate place in a university curriculum: also famous was her battle to be able to teach about Nobel Prize winner Tony Morrison. The attacks on her, far from being low key, are at the heart of Western epistemology and what receives the glory of being able to enter the canon of art and culture.
It’s another night in June. Cop cars block the streets. A black girl steps forward, tennis shoes, leotard, fuchsia fabric covering her mouth and nose and a T-shirt screaming that Black Lives Matter. She positions herself right in front of them and starts to dance. Twerking and dancing she points her ass at the cops. A woman approaches, urging her on. The dance steps continue, her back is now on the asphalt, she opens her legs and does the splits, showing and touching her vagina with quick hand movements, then raising her left arm she elongates her middle finger to its highest point. She gets up and continues to twerk, her voice rising against those cars: this is my black ass!
The ass that for centuries has been violated, exploited, tortured, objectified.
Her legs are not canonically graceful, far too open, that pelvic stiffness so far from Western cultural decorum that would define her as dirty and indecent. Not to mention those who, faced with the Twerk, try to articulate an objectification of women in the name of white, respectable feminism. She smiles, she moves her ass freely and that smile is perhaps more immoral than the ass itself because she is fucking free – a dissident claiming her body. Meanwhile, just a meter away, the wheels and lights of the police cars continue to form their wall.
– And you Naked Athena, how you feeling? –
“Wherever I go, it’s as if I am the only yellow flower in a field of red roses, you get me?” says Brianna Noble, whose name will probably tell us little. We could use the image of a Black Lady Godiva but the classic mythology to which we’d be referring to would still be a white veil over the black face of Brianna riding her horse last June on the streets of Oakland.
This time it is her who stands up on the pedestal and dominates the officers on horseback; proud and resolute, fist raised, she defines herself as an Amazon. It is impossible not to notice her, not just a woman, not just a black woman, but one on a larger than the average size horse, in a context in which she has never been allowed to live before. Brianna is not the only one on a horse, she joins the protests with a sign that reminds us that her life matters in the battle against an unfair judicial system.
She too says their names:
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Manuel Ellis, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Dreasjon “Sean” Reed, Botham Jean, Ezell Ford, Michelle Shirley, Redel Jones, Kenney Watkins, Stephon Clark , Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice… and many (too many) others.
[Now we can better understand the case of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave captured near Cincinnati, who killed her daughter and tried to kill herself. She rejoiced at the death of the girl: “At least she won’t know how much a woman suffers as a slave.” And she begged to be sentenced to death: “I would rather sing on the gallows than return to slavery.”
(Aptheker, “The Negro Woman”, cit., P.11. From the feminist stories of Angela Davis in ‘Women, Race and Class’ p.50)
[A pregnant woman who has broken camp rules is forced to lie down in a pit shaped to contain her heavy body, after which she is lashed with a whip or beaten with a perforated handle. A sore forms with each blow. One of my sisters was punished just like this and so violently that she went into labour. Her child was born in the field.]
(Moses Grandy, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy. Late a Slave in the United States of America, Boston 1844, p.18. Again from the feminist stories of Angela Davis p. 35).
[The ruddy puppy staggers nearer, tiny and fat. (…) [Chia] sinks her teeth in. She slams it here and there like a tire she hasn’t bitten enough for Skeetah to take off. Chia’s mouth is covered with blood, her eyes are dazzling, like Medea. Is this what it means to be a mother? I would ask her if she could talk.
(Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward, p.158)
[…] the hour of the sun that comes and goes, of the light that comes from everywhere and nowhere, and everything is gray.
I stay awake there and see nothing but the child, the child I gave shape to in my head, a Black Athena who reaches out to me.
(Back in the blood and beauty of Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward, p. 262)
These bodies tell stories: AIN’T I A BLACK ATHENA? Am I not a Black Athena too?