Resistance and Rebirth – patricia kaersenhout: The Third Dimension
Until November 20th, Centrum Beeldende Kunst Zuidoost (CBK) in the Bijlmer presents a new film by patricia kaersenhout in the context of an installation of her other work. The film Le retour des femmes colibris focuses on the forgotten and unheard voices of five women of colour: Josephine Baker, Suzanne Césaire, Frida Kahlo, Paulette and Jeanne Nardal. Laetitia Lai pays a visit to patricia kaersenhout: The Third Dimension, to hear the voices of the unheard.
“We collected insults, words filled with hate and contempt, and we transformed them into diamonds.” – Suzanne Césaire in Le retour des femmes colibris by patricia kaersenhout, 2022
Pieces of purple Vlisco wrapped around lamp posts in Bullewijk, (Amsterdam South-East) guide the way to patricia kaersenhout’s latest solo exhibition The Third Dimension, organized in collaboration with the Centrum Beeldende Kunst Zuidoost. Upon entering the transformed office space, the maker’s vision of The Third Dimension becomes tangible in two parts: while kaersenhout’s new work, the film Le retour des femmes colibris (2022) is screened in a room behind dark curtains, the entrance to the second space is marked by a tunnel flooded with purple light.
I was immediately drawn to the tunnel and what lay behind. A selection of sixty works from eleven series spanning over twelve years of creative output by the maker are displayed, all corresponding to the theme of the film shown next door. Deep purple light permanently engulfs the large factory-like space and reflects off several hanging installations such as mixed media portraits of the Black scholars Andaiye, Hermina Huiswoud and Jamaica Kincaid in Food For Thought (2021). Individual works are only momentarily lit up for closer view by smaller lights responding to motion. The room holds an impressive but not overwhelming selection placed in a room representing kaersenhout’s vision of The Third Dimension, a space dedicated to those who were and are deemed less relevant throughout history. This concept leans on the notion of the “third space” discussed by artist and writer Grada Kilomba in her book Plantation Memories (2008). kaersenhout reclaims and shapes the ambiguous space of being Black but not male and female but not white, by filling it with formerly untold stories, social commentary, and expressions of her personal positioning. The continuous presence of the colour purple challenges traditional white cube modes of display.
kaersenhout reclaims and shapes the ambiguous space of being Black but not male and female but not white, by filling it with formerly untold stories, social commentary, and expressions of her personal positioning
kaersenhout’s strong and direct visual language, traversed by symbolism that needs little framing to be comprehended, offers more freedom to explore each work and to discover new details the longer you look. One example is the collage Your History Makes Me So Horny (2011), based on photographs of Black women in a hardcore contemporary porn magazine. They are combined with Eurocentric historical imagery and patterned Vlisco textile – a reoccurring medium. Already visible on the walk to the exhibition and present in several other works, the Vlisco textile represents a continuous connection to the Dutch colonial legacy, which the maker often reflects on critically, connecting local to global issues. Of Palimpsests & Erasure (2021) focuses on an eighteenth-century publication on plants and insects in Surinam by Maria Sibylla Merian, who took advantage of the knowledge of enslaved women, while the photographs adapted in Your History Makes Me So Horny (2011), were sourced from a contemporary magazine. The presence of both historic and contemporary materials highlights the perpetual existence of a dimension in which the presence and knowledge of Black women are rendered invisible while their bodies and intellectual property were purposefully extracted and appropriated in often violent manners over centuries. kaersenhout’s personal struggle to belong in spaces that are made to exclude Black women is expressed in Entangled (2011), a series visualizing her escape from an unsafe reality. Once you step closer to each work, the ornate black shapes reveal intricate twirls and patterns interwoven with bodies twisting and turning on the paper, offering a view into her imagination – the only place where she felt no boundaries were placed on her mind and body unwillingly.
Once you step closer to each work, the ornate black shapes reveal intricate twirls and patterns interwoven with bodies twisting and turning on the paper, offering a view into her imagination – the only place where she felt no boundaries were placed on her mind and body unwillingly
The omnipresence of the colour purple is not solely meant to communicate a feeling of entering a different dimension. In a public conversation with journalist Nicole Terborg and producer Ida Does, she connects the colour purple to Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple (1982), but also to American singer-songwriter Prince, who is one of her favourites. Personal interests and extensive research are also key elements in the film Le retour des femmes colibris. In the seventeen-and-a-half minute video in the style of a film noir, five women from history are featured: Josephine Baker (1906-1975), Suzanne Césaire (1916-1966), Paulette Nardal (1896-1985), Jeanne Nardal (1900-1993) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). The point of departure is The First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists, which took place at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1956 and was co-organized by women who never received appropriate recognition for their contribution and were not granted space among the speakers. According to kaersenhout, Josephine Baker, the sisters Paulette and Jeanne Nardal as well as Suzanne Césaire were directly involved in the making of the congress but their names are rarely mentioned alongside their male collaborators in historiography. The title of the film is connected to the theme of restoration which is also addressed in a poem by Aimé Césaire. The poem cited in the beginning of the work leans on a folktale of a hummingbird – a story of sacrifice and rebirth. Aimé was married to Suzanne Césaire and is known as one of the key figures behind the Négritude movement. The film, which is mostly in French with Dutch subtitles, ends with the voice of Christiane Diop, who co-founded the publishing house Présence Africaine in 1947.
In a fictional retelling of the congress, kaersenhout depicts the five women as bystanders in empty rooms of what is meant to be the Sorbonne. In short but intense dialogues, they discuss their involvement in the fight against systemic oppression in the colonies and beyond. Sometimes restlessly pacing and sometimes seated in a circle, the five women criticize their exclusion and the hypocrisy of the men within the Négritude movement, who they argue are striving for the power of the white man while perpetuating the silencing of Black women.
“We collected insults, words filled with hate and contempt, and transformed them into diamonds”
This striking statement by Suzanne Césaire in Le retour des femmes colibris, describes the power of the women turning moments of precarity into valuable and lasting acts of resistance. In my perception, the intimate conversations between the characters emphasize elements of care and vulnerability not as weaknesses or as uniquely feminine, but as essential factors of the movement.
Nevertheless, one aspect of the film was more confusing to me: Why Frida Kahlo? She is the only woman dressed in a more distinctive and recognizable manner, wearing flowers in her hair and an embroidered blouse. She is portrayed as less familiar with the francophone anti-colonial language but is connected to the French surrealist André Breton, a supporter and close friend of Aimé Césaire. This is how kaersenhout argues for Kahlo’s inclusion in Le retour des femmes colibris, loosely tying her to the congress via the entanglements of Surrealism and Négritude. It remains unclear to me what her intentions were, but it may simply remind the viewer that the film is a piece of fiction only leaning on historical events to pursue the overarching message of colonized women being silenced on a global scale.
kaersenhout has the talent to extract and mediate issues from the past and the present in a unique and accessible manner, where complex bodies of theory and archival sources are translated into her creative language in a variety of mediums. The addition of Frida Kahlo in Le retour des femmes colibris served as a reminder to me that she is in control of her own narrative, blurring fact and fiction and emphasizing how her personal experiences are interwoven with histories of underexposure as well as resilience.
The exhibition patricia kaersenhout: The Third Dimension in CBK Zuidoost, Amsterdam is still open for visit until November 20th, 2022.
is cultural historian