A ceremony for decolonial justice
Smoke and the scent of copal fill the room. My body remembers other moments of cleansing and healing. The salutations and conversations of those entering the room mingle with tropical birdsong. Two altars are being erected, one facing the other. Humans, non-human beings and more-than-humans are present in this room, I think. Amanda Piña welcomes her ancestor Clemencia Piña, whose photo stands on one of the altars, toasts her, then looks at us and invites us to join in. I take a small hematite from my pocket and put it into my left hand. I close my eyes and let myself be guided by Piña’s voice to invite my ancestors into this room. We are present.
The dance as spectacle is transformed into a ritual dance in which we are all asked to participate. It’s a radically decolonial proposal. Decolonial aesthetics starts with what Western art and aesthetics implicitly conceal: the colonial wound.
Modern Western culture fragments life experiences, knowledge, feelings, and separates into dichotomies: nature and culture, self and other, science and art, life and death. But in many other cultures, interconnectivity is perpetually present, so art and dance are part of life and death, of the way that reciprocal relationships with other living beings are established and a collective memory is created.
In Exótica, we are part of a ritual that brings the Ancestors of Color of European dance back to life, who were obliterated by the colonial construction of its history. During this process of collective remembrance, we begin to heal the colonial wound that is being reproduced in the world of contemporary dance, where both the rules of artistic practice and the rules of searching for meaning are constructed from the same perspective that dreams of universality. This colonial point of view keeps reproducing the same movements and unconnected relationships, dictating the same themes. Viewed from this angle, other forms of dance, other (hi)stories, other bodies, other dances continue to be discounted.
Clemencia Piña “La Sarabia”, Nyota Inyoka, François “Féral” Benga and Leila Bederkhan become present through the medium of the dancers’ bodies and connect us with forms of resistance in deeply racist contexts. These artists, who gained fame in the 1920s, were living in Europe, where “human zoos” were displayed at the time. Under this colonial gaze, which constructed “the other” as subjugated, inferior and savage, the bodies of our ancestors and their dances were classified as exotic. This representation was used by white people to construct their own image of the aesthetics of dance, and, as a result, the dances created by BIPoC artists did not fit the canon.
The subversiveness of these artists amid the prevailing racism lay in appropriating the exotic gaze for themselves. They did so by creating alter egos, avatars, that allowed them to develop their artistic practices. This made it possible to connect with other ways of being, seeing, knowing and feeling the world.
To the sounds of a flute, the twisting arms of Nyota Inyoka play with the “Princess of the East” stereotype imposed on her, embodying the images she discovers in her dreams through movements inspired by Indian dances. “Nyota” “Inyoka”, meaning “star” and “snake” in Swahili, is the avatar carefully created by the artist, dancer and choreographer.
The mystical manifestation of François “Féral” Benga connects me with the joy of dancing, my body begins to move to the sound of the drums, ancient sounds of past and present resistance resound in the room. Images of beings who are more-than-human emerge. Described by the press as “black Mercury”, “beautiful black Adonis”, “black star”, Benga embraces the objectification of the white gaze that forces him to represent Africa, and calls himself “Féral”, i.e. “feral, savage”. Just like the “Maricas” in Latin America today in their decolonial struggle to counteract the homophobic and stereotypical discourses about their bodies. Considered an embodiment of the avant-garde, a gay, dance and fashion icon, this artist, choreographer, anthropologist, actor and poet finds a way to liberate his art amid racial oppression.
My body is moving with the cumbia sounds, while “La Sarabia” catches the eye with flamenco-inspired dance. I think/feel that I carry the legacy of the colonised and the colonisers with me. While Ángela Muñoz Martínez and Amanda Piña thank the presence of Clemencia Piña in the room, I take the time to connect with my ancestors to thank and to forgive.
In this state, the vulnerable tenderness of iSaAc reaches me, and through it Leila Bederkhan, the artist, the femme, the seductress, feels closer. Bederkhan, too, plays with the colonising gaze, presenting herself as a princess, a role in which she develops transgressive dance practices.
Ángela Muñoz Martínez, Zora Snake, Venuri Perera, iSaAc Espinoza Hidrobo and Amanda Piña allow us to be in the presence of the dancing ancestors whom we honour this evening. On another level, they let us listen to the intimate conversations they are having with each other. We discover how the colonial continuities are always present in these dialogues, in the experience of Brown bodies in a European context, in the exoticising gaze of the white audience, in racist experiences in everyday life, in stereotypically assigned roles. The relationships of friendship, reciprocity, gratitude and love that the dancers establish with their ancestors intersect with these commonalities. The particular practices they each develop to present sounds and movements on a contemporary stage destabilise the narrow framework of monocultural analysis and challenge the white gaze that exoticises them.
We conclude this ceremonial dance collectively, we participate in a trance in which the dancers, guided by a song created and sung by Amanda Piña, invoke the more-than-human ancestors, Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent. Piña invites us to expand our perception like the snake. I move my eyes from one side to the other, I feel my gaze expanding.
I move my tongue back and forth, I feel my perception expanding.
A final prayer for healing:
“[…] Goddess of the serpent of all rivers,
free us from unbridled capitalism
and allow us to resist it,
transform it, transform us,
change our skin, change our skin.
Heal the brothers and sisters who have been racialised,
who are being persecuted, displaced,
by those who racialise them, who remove them,
institutional violence of death,
that eats the bodies alive,
and expels them depleted.
Let us not be expelled,
give us life, give us dance […]”
At the end, I and my colleagues in decolonial activism, ia Kastiyo-Spinósa, Imayna Cáceres and Cara Bobadilla, look at each other, enthused. Our applause of gratitude joins in the applause of the entire hall, which appears not to want to leave this room, in which we have been part of an act of profound transgression, an act of justice and reparation, a practice of collective healing of the colonial wound through the “orgasmically pleasurable resistance of feeling”.
Susana Ojeda is a Colombian anthropologist, filmmaker and activist living in Vienna. She has been making independent short films and visual documentaries of artistic projects, activism and social processes with her production company estudio elgozo since 2011. She has been a board member of the Austrian Association of Women Artists (VBKÖ) since 2023.