Een gesprek met Muhiba BOTAN
Muhiba Botan is a young Somali-Dutch artist born in 1988. Currently based in Antwerp, she explores in her practice various themes related to the intersection of gender and racial in identity issues. She explores the perception of the other in our society and conducts her research primarily through photography and video. She also has a particular interest in cinema, which is apparent in the many references she integrates in her projects, some subtle, some more explicit. Her work reveals her sensitivity to social, political and cultural issues concerning the African diaspora. Botan examines the provenance of myths about people of African descent and the processes through which they are constructed, and exposes their far-reaching consequences. Her work invites the viewer to join her in this questioning, reinvention even, of society’s imaginary perceptions.
The way in which black people, black experiences, were positioned and subject-ed in the dominant regimes of representation were the effects of a critical exercise of cultural power and normalization. Not only, in Said’s “Orientalist” sense, were we constructed as different and other within the categories of knowledge of the West by those regimes. They had the power to make us se and experience ourselves as “Other.”
Can you talk about your inspirations?
It’s a really large mix of many things. Almost anything that’s art can inspire me. I really admire the way other artists take a concept or a story and then express it through their artwork, in their own way. So I am not just inspired by photographers; it’s not even purely visual. The main thing is that I like the way artists tell a story. When it’s beautiful, interesting and honest, it can be any kind of medium of expression. I really value the story artists tell.
Do you have a project that seems emblematic, representative of your practice?
I would say The Myth of the Other is my most emblematic work. It started with me finding a picture of a little girl in a small enclosed space. Behind the barrier there is a crowd of white people and one white woman in particular is handing the little black girl an apple or something else to eat. That picture seemed preposterous and I wasn’t sure about what was going on. I did a reverse image search on google and discovered the existence of human zoos. I was in shock, seeing how this was not discussed in school, and kept from public knowledge.
Then I did a lot of research about it. One of the things that struck me especially was how for many “ordinary” Europeans this was the first time they were meeting persons from other continents. I found it eye-opening to learn that a lot of the stereotypes that we experience today were born, cemented at that moment. There is also a myth concerning the free will of the participants in these human zoos. Europeans stole those people because they needed them. When we think about the power dynamics that where in place, there is no way that some could have been there willingly, no way that that little girl was there willingly.
The common run of Europeans flocked to the human zoos in large masses to witness this lie. For most of them, this was their first encounter with non-white people and it was presented to them as a way to get to know the “Other”. They pretended to show Europeans how those foreigners lived and what their cultures were, but they never gave a real insight into these cultures because their real goal was to support the colonial enterprise. They constructed an exotic fantasy, rather than coherent cultures; they mixed several things to accentuate the cultural gap. The human zoos were designed to show how much these African people embodied difference, but also how much they themselves, as Europeans, were different. That’s how, for the general public, those kinds of images took root and solidified. It’s really curious to see the longevity of the myth of the Other, even though it was not a fair representation of these people’s culture at all. And so, it is important to witness the way in which things were grounded in falsehood still have an effect on us this day.
I have been particularly impressed by Stuart Hall; his work just makes sense to me. He supports the idea that to interrogates stereotypes is to dismantle them. And when you interrogate those stereotypes created with these human zoos, you immediately see they are based on falsehood. Because they took aspects from each and every culture to make the most exotic culture, even though it was not realistic.
In The Myth of the Other work I wanted to highlight how the other is created, how flimsy those stereotypes are and how unrealistic. I did not want to just reproduce or feed those stereotypes. I wanted to interrogate them by making their artificiality visible. The West had to create an Other to reaffirm their status and justify their actions: “They are different from us, we have to use violence”. They simultaneously created the pinnacle of perfection, the archetype. I thought it would be interesting to use references to pop culture and to films presenting the “all-American dream”, which is also clearly a fantasy. We know when we watch those films that it’s fake, that they are a product exported to justify domination. I found it important to create and confront both these fantasies. The one doesn’t exist without other; you have to have them both. We can feel the fakeness in both. As they are both self-portraits, this raises the question: “Why can’t we read those images for what they are, when we can do this for other images?”.
I also note that there are many layers in your images. Who will be capable to immediately give them a profound reading and relate to them? Who will stick to a superficial reading of what is made explicit?
I refer to my own history, my own family. My father was Minister of Education in Somalia, but when he came to the Netherlands – where I lived before moving in Belgium – the only jobs he could found where cleaning jobs. The older I get, the more horrified I am by this. There is nothing wrong with cleanings jobs, but there is something wrong with having no other option. That someone who was a minister of education didn’t have the opportunity to choose another profession. That this is the only option given to someone who has lost everything in the war. His story isn’t the only one; it’s the story for many of us. All of this has had an impact on my family, and on myself too.
I like the idea of making something that our own community can recognize, that makes them feel something. This influenced my choice of working with those stereotypes rather than others. It’s important to me that Afropeans, members of the diaspora, refugees, would be able to read my work. I had great feedback about my work from my own community; they can get more out of it, and put more into it.
But I really do struggle with how the white audience and institution may interpret my work. Up to this point, my work always been clear to them, even if for them it is not as complex as it is for others, because the artificiality is made very explicit and can be understood by everyone. Nonetheless, I want to remain careful. For example, the picture with the stuffed monkey at the breast: I just refuse to show it, or to sell it, on its own. And on the other hand, it saddens me that I have to think about these things. Black artists deserve to have the same freedom that any other artist would have.