Turn Your Back on the Grand Narrative
Lola Olufemi
Essay | 2022

The map presumes ontological security. It purports to tell a story in its entirety, imbuing space with meaning via topography. Space becomes what the map tells it to. In the map we see: multiple routes and directions, the outer corners of the city, spatial patterns and renderings; if we look closer we see… the arrangement of power. We yield to the map’s totality when we concede that it does indeed represent the real order of things.

What we come to believe about the shape of the world, the flow of goods and materials, the basis of artwork and artefacts are all connected to the fictive mapping of space/time/bodies trapped by borders. The function of the map then, is not only to order space but to regulate engagement with it. The map has quite a literal function; to tell us where we are going. It is a container bound together by a grand narrative. This lie extends outwards, birthing other attempts at structural order. The eventual consequence of the map is the museum and the state archive. What are these institutions, other than storehouses for stolen goods? Hall tells us, ‘no archive arises out of thin air’1 and Mbembe that, ‘the historian and the archivist occupy a strategic position in the production of an instituting imaginary.’2 Both roles have long been useful to the state for this reason; the museum and the state archive protect the map.

The museum? A treasure box that promises to transport its audience back to Classical antiquity or back further if we are lucky. A vehicle for public education, perhaps one of the few remaining public spaces where one might wander in and linger for free. The museum is good at hiding; it will never tell us what we do not want to know. A bastion of the national culture, it comes to symbolise the moral authority of one nation when compared to another. A place where the spoils of Empire are proudly displayed. The museum does not ask how things came to be, rather it proudly declares: this is how it has always been. It encourages us to think of art only as a kind of mimetic beauty, easier to ignore the conditions of its creation. The museum is a space of polite desecration, always looking desperately to be rescued from its purpose. The museum tells us please do not touch, these artifacts have been carefully selected. Their presence places us in a history that is not quite ours, related to a time unlike this time, unconnected to the drawn out present. The archive and the museum, as markers of culture, desire a dialogic function but their very presence in a world defined by exploitation negates this.

Art history legitimises the museum via its study of the forms, textures, and processes that mark the creation of art made in the context of violent history. The discipline intends to discipline the imagination. What is the relationship between the promise of totality and culture? What is culture? always moving. Culture becomes a stand-in for the nation’s ambitions. In order for that ambition to be fortified, order must be established. Culture serves the grand narrative of linear progressive moments, the state-sanctioned museum and archive become the empty vessels through which culture moves freely to be disseminated to the masses. To give up on the promise of totality means an embrace of the chaotic notion that no building or institutional archive is capable or indeed equipped to contend with a history of dispossession. There is no container that can hold the sea or the plantation or track the feelings of an entire diaspora. Glissant writes that the sea is a beginning:

In actual fact the abyss is a tautology: the entire ocean, the entire sea gently collapsing in the end into the pleasures of sand, make one vast beginning, but a beginning whose time is marked by these balls and chains gone green.3

The map shows us only bodies of water, not what they are made up of. The promise of totality is anything but. A different orientation to the museum or the archive requires us to relinquish the grand narrative. If this possibility feels inchoate, it is. What can Gilroy’s theorisation of the Black Atlantic teach us about art institutions? That the commodity (the black body) speaks back and in doing so, disrupts the flow of capital and singular culture. If the sea is only a beginning, we can never know the full story. There is no culture that is also not bound up with others whether through extraction or cooperation.  We are made up of each other. There can be no amicable relationship with institutions that seek to contain and narritavise, to tell us the version of history that hides complicity. Christina Sharpe tells us:

I am interested in ways of seeing and imagining responses to the terror visited on Black life and the ways we inhabit it, are inhabited by it, and refuse it. I am interested in the ways we live in and despite that terror. 4

The only ethical relationship to institutions that seek to contain this terror lies in their withering and disappearance. To kill them, we have to meet the liars with something that resembles the truth, what we cannot and do not know.

Break Open the Cultural Repository

By ‘‘time binds,’’ I mean something beyond the obvious point that people find themselves with less time than they need. Instead, I mean that naked flesh is bound into socially meaningful embodiment through temporal regulation: binding is what turns mere existence into a form of mastery in a process I’ll refer to as chrononormativity, or the use of time to organize individual human bodies toward maximum productivity.5

– Elizabeth Freeman

Rubbing the past against the present might cause a spark. We should expect to feel heat, we should expect that heat to melt the cultural repository. The repository is a static object: it is intended to stop what it contains spilling out over its edges. In order to embrace a radical, indeed abolitionist approach to the cultural sphere, we must first ask what the purpose of the cultural container is.

What is the archive or the museum’s relationship to the prison? Ideological. The existence of the former as a state-sanctioned unquestioned container of history helps to legitimise the state’s containment of bodies and its theft of time. The prison structures feeling, transforms the past/present/future into distinct regimes that never meet. The cultural respiratory does its bidding, creating bordered imaginaries  that must be overcome.

In the mess, the overspill, the unstoppable wave, the ideological grip that justifies the existence of violent institutions (be they “cultural” or “political” – a false distinction) shatters. If time is recursive rather than linear, then the objective stance that the museum encourages (a gaze that extends only one way) loses its power. 

The foundations of the cultural repository begin to crumble; when we bend time, we take the cultural object out of its container. We become tactile with the past, disrupting the temporal regulation that gives our bodies substance, we understand our relation to the artwork or the cultural object: our complicity is no longer understated. We are not merely passive spectators in an extended present who gaze upon objects of the past, rather, those objects speak back to us. They make material demands. They are the persistence of the past in the present, they tell us something about the future as it inheres in the present moment. The container loses its function. It breaks.

Freedom is a Place

If we think about this dynamic through the politics of scale, understanding bodies as places, then criminalization transforms individuals into tiny territories primed for extractive activity to unfold—extracting and extracting again time from the territories of selves. This process opens a hole in a life, furthering, perhaps to our surprise, the annihilation of space by time…Abolition Geography starts from the homely premise that freedom is a place.6

 – Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

The kind of geographic reorganization that Gilmore proposes first requires an understanding that racial capitalism’s imperative is the necessity to keep money moving. Cultural institutions do not go untouched by this motive; they are part of ‘scheming, including hard work by elites and their compradors’7 to create and sustain the domination of resources at the expense of that thing that makes life worth living, time. Look at the history of the museum, the gallery, the archive –  its founders and funders. You will not have to search far to find the acts of dispossession and the accumulation of wealth that has made certain endowments and grants possible. That keep money flowing.

Geographic (re)-organisation of relationships and landscapes recognises the potential of place-making.  If freedom is a place, it unfolds, asking for more and more and more.  (re)-organisation requires us to relinquish faith that the histories that constitute us can ever be captured. Cultural institutions are nothing like prisons. Only the prison is the prison. But there is some relation between cultural containment, totality and the logic which underpins as, Gilmore argues, the containment and forced inactivity of people. The prison should not exist. The walls of the museum and the archive burst open and those things inside: histories, stories, cultural objects be released. 

The premise of the appeal toward an abolitionist re-organisation is that we needn’t live this way. That implicit order that the state-sanctioned museum, archive or prison brings to the world is indeed, false. We open up the boundlessness of what has yet to be brought into being when we take the sea, or liberation of the territory of the self as our starting point. That is, it should be impossible to contain bodies. It should be impossible to seek to contain an artwork. What does the cultural institution look like after this premise? Who knows? Who cares! Re-(organisation) asks a different question.

Abolition demands a presencing, it asks us what can be brought about to end the tyranny of the prison right now. Presence is a good place to start. Gail Lewis writes ‘the capacity to generate new meaning is a function of the dynamic tension between presence and absence, and requires symbolic thinking to both facilitate a sense of enduring connection between self and other (object).’8 Let tension animate our search for geographic (re)-organization. Adopting this approach to the museum or the archive means extending space-time, doing away with the storehouse, in order to establish a new relationship with the self, the land and the violent processes through which art is produced and exported. We leave space to reorder, for the landscapes to grow, shift and transform when we refuse to contain cultural objects. When we refuse to foreclose. Geographic (re)-organisation means resistance, class warfare, cleaving open the space for culture to bloom. To keep moving.

  • 1. Stuart Hall, 'Constituting an archive', Third Text, vol. 15, no. 54, 2001, p. 89.
  • 2. Achille Mbembe, 'The Power of the Archive and its Limits', in Carolyn Hamilton et al (ed.), Refiguring the Archive, Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer, Dordrecht, 2002, p. 26
  • 3 .Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997, p. 6.
  • 4. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006, p. 303.
  • 5. Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories , Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, p. 3.
  • 6. Gilmore, Ruth Wilson, 'Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence', Tabula Rasa, no.28, June 2018, p. 299.
  • 7. Ibid, p.298.
  • 8. Gail Lewis, 'Questions of Presence', Feminist Review, vol. 117, no. 1, 2017, p. 3.

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