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Billet de blog 7 juin 2022

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Reconfiguring Resistance: Acts of Worldmaking and Aesthetics of Extractive Solidarity

From the very beginning, anti-capitalist struggles in the Global South have been accompanied by the question of how the experience of exploitation, shared across borders, can be turned into shared politics of resistance and emancipation. Impulses for this can be found not least in artistic contributions, as Christine Okoth argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”

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Ce blog est personnel, la rédaction n’est pas à l’origine de ses contenus.

In a 1991 interview with Melanie Anne Herzog, the African American visual artist Elizabeth Catlett recounts witnessing a protest as part of an ongoing miners’ strike in her adopted home of Mexico City. The strike had begun in late 1950 when the coal miners of Nueva Rosita withdrew their labor to protest the implementation of a so-called modernization plan. They did so without the official support of a union; organized labor during the years of the PRI dictatorship was often ineffectual and dominated by regime-friendly figures who did not represent workers’ interests. Because the strike was officially deemed illegal and was met with massive opposition, the miners eventually undertook a gruelling march to Mexico City in the hopes of convincing the country’s rulers of their plight.

With Leopoldo Mendez, and Pablo O’Higgins – two other members of the artist collective Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) – Catlett produced a silkscreen print of ‘a mother and a dead child’ to express support for the striking miners. Another of Catlett’s linocuts entitled Descanso depicts a group of miners resting on the ground with a small sign in the background noting the distance of 970 km from Nueva Rosita to Mexico City. Both artworks see figures kneeling or bent over, weighed down by emotional and physical suffering with faces entirely hidden or obscured.

Countering the colonial, extractive gaze

This brief sketch of Catlett and the TGP’s attempts at supporting the striking miners of Nueva Rosita is one reminder that solidarity between exploited and oppressed peoples across the world is a necessary precondition of political resistance against extractive regimes in our past and what is being envisioned as our ‘sustainable’ future. We can trace such political trajectories throughout the work of Black writers, artists, and scientists. Moments like Richard Wright’s account of the Bandung conference or Amiri Baraka’s political awakening in 1960s Cuba, which he recounts in the essay “Cuba Libre” are examples of what Adom Getachew calls practices of political ‘worldmaking’ in that they imagine maps of political affiliation which unite anti-capitalist struggles across the Global South.

In the case of the TGP’s production of activist materials, the particular act of worldmaking emerges from the condition of bearing witness to acts of resistance against an extractive and dictatorial regime. The artworks with which this intervention opens therefore participate in a particular representational project. Here we can locate the mirror-image of what Jennifer Wenzel calls ‘resource aesthetics’ – not the colonial, extractive gaze but the aesthetics of extractive solidarity that emerge when artists and activists theorize anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist resistance from the literal ground up or, better, from beneath the ground up.

Illustration 1
Artwork: Colnate Group (2022) cc by nc

Developing an aesthetics of extractive solidarity involves recognizing and rejecting easy gestures of geopolitical flattening. For Catlett, who was increasingly restricted from returning to the United States after the rise of anti-“communism,” her chosen home and her identity as a Black American woman were not at odds, at least not from an aesthetic perspective. In fact, as she explains in a 1971 profile in Ebony “My Art Speaks for Both My People”, the two are complementary. For the TGP posters, according to Herzog, Catlett had used printing techniques she had learned in Chicago using ‘the silkscreen [she] had brought with her from the United States.’ She had effectively taken a process of art-making from one milieu of politically committed art into another.

The need for ‘a new imperative’

Twenty years after the Nueva Rosita strike, the poet June Jordan would similarly attempt to reconcile her position as a U.S. citizen with her desire to stand in solidarity with the citizens of Chile in the wake of the 1973 coup. Dedicated to the Chilean poet Myriam Díaz-Diocaretz, Jordan’s ‘Problems of Translation: Problems of Language’ is arranged in 8 numbered sections, the fourth of which consists of one single stanza that reads ‘In your country how / do you say copper / for my country?’ Framed as a linguistic predicament, the problem of copper extraction becomes both an issue of translation as well as one of transportation through the chiastic arrangement of the stanza.

As the raw material moves from the ground (the ‘in’ of one country) to the production lines (the ‘for’ of another country) the poem’s speaker and its addressee are forced into a lopsided confrontation. Though one takes what the other does not willingly give, the decision to formulate this awkward reach across a vast geopolitical rift as a question seeks to undermine the uneven grounds on which the interaction takes place.

This formal representation speaks to a demand articulated in a 1975 essay in which Jordan points to the presence of and need for ‘a new imperative’ in the wake of U.S. involvement in the coup and writes that she can now hear in the songs of Victor Jara, such an imperative to willingly and knowingly join the struggle against U.S. interventionism. But in Jordan’s poem those gaps signified by the raw material copper are never quite overcome. An aesthetic mode of extractive solidarity here relies on both the initial isolation of the raw material and the subsequent attempt to reach across the gaps that such an act of epistemological extraction produces.

Strategy of dissembling for the purpose of rebuilding

In the visual materials of Third World Internationalism, the representational strategy of dissembling for the purpose of rebuilding allows for a visualization of extractive regimes on a global scale. The final pages of the Tricontinental Magazine’s third issue from 1967 includes one of the publication’s famous anti-adverts. The template for this particular iteration is a Ford ad from Time Magazine but the caption reads ‘The U.S. ransacks the Third World and Ford has the better idea.’ Ad copy which showcases the car’s various luxury features has been replaced by a series of arrows pointing at specific components of the car and captioned with the name of the raw material used in the Ford’s production and the countries where these raw materials originate: Zambia alongside Chile as the source of copper, Liberia and Vietnam as the source of rubber, or Cameroon and Brazil as the source of aluminium.

The anti-advert is a representation of both circumstance and strategy. Like a reverse factory, the image takes the assembled commodity apart and creates a new map of anti-capitalist solidarity, one that is organized around exposure to the demands of extractive capitalism. Anne Garland Mahler proposes that the use of “culture-jamming or subvertising” positions “the Ford Motor Company as a vehicle of imperialist exploitation against the Tricontinental’s delegations,” creating a common enemy and, in the same gesture, a common cause. Recent expressions of solidarity between the mining communities of Chile and South Africa through the activist work of the London Mining Network are an example of the continuing necessity for such a grounded and grounding (to invoke the methods of Walter Rodney) politics of solidarity.

The suggestion that mutual exposure to the forces of extractive capitalism unites the various factions represented at the 1966 meeting resonates with the foundational challenge that the conference presented to prior Internationalisms. As Robert Young notes, the conference’s most famous document – Che Guevara’s ‘Message to the Tricontinental’ delivered not in person but sent in written form – moves away from the category of the ‘worker’ to the ‘exploited’ or the ‘dispossessed.’ The term ‘dispossessed’ therefore also functions as an intervention into debates about the central characteristics of capitalism by shifting focus from labor exploitation to foundational acts of theft that reach beyond the wage.

South-South solidarity: From shared exploitation to shared politics

Similarly, as Neelam Srivastava points out, Stokeley Carmichael articulated a theory of internal colonization through the concept of exploitation in the pages of the Tricontinental Magazine, writing that “the same power structure that exploits and oppresses you oppresses us too; it loots our resources in the colony we live in, in the same way that it loots your resources in the external colonies.” Shared exploitation here becomes the basis of a shared politics.

Though the relationships between the Cuban government and the various invited participants of the Tricontinental Conference were often fraught and efforts at uniting against U.S. imperialism faltered, the articulation of political unity that emerges from exposure to the ruinous effects of colonial and neocolonial economic relations continues to appear in the archive of South-South solidarity. Quito J. Swan, for instance, meticulously recounts an environmentalist practice that connected the Caribbean, the United States, East Africa, and the Pacific through the figure of engineer and activist Roosevelt Browne or Pauulu Kamarakafego.

In a March 1976 interview with Gayleatha Cobb for Black World/Negro Digest, Brown describes arranging for the participation of a delegation from Oceania in 1974s Sixth Pan African Congress and the subsequent exchange of strategies for the development of independent industries that would enable a move away from the export economies of the colonial era. Such projects of worldmaking are not fabulations. Instead, the process of reconfiguring the distribution of scientific knowledge is a living history of a potential future after extractivism.

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This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de

Christine Okoth
Christine Okoth is Lecturer in Literatures and Cultures of the Black Atlantic at King’s College London and was previously Research Fellow at the University of Warwick. She is currently writing a manuscript entitled “Race and the Raw Material: Black Aesthetics as Extractive Form.” 

Ce blog est personnel, la rédaction n’est pas à l’origine de ses contenus.

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