When you don’t fit the world, you make your own way.
A collection of thoughts from the Brazilian curator Keyna Eleison.
by: uma ramiah
You can’t really contain Keyna, in words or otherwise, so I won’t try. I met the curator and professor in Rio, connected by another new friend. It was smack in the middle of Carnival, and she walked into the cafe still covered in glitter. Keyna describes herself as a griot of shamanic heritage, a narrator, a singer, an ancestor chronicler. By way of earthly background, she’s a prolific museum, gallery and street art curator and educator with degrees in Philosophy and Art History. She’s got a mile long CV, having taught and curated across North and South America. She’s growing in profile. Keep watching for her.
We talked for hours, sparkling wine our third wheel, and I tried to collect as much as I could. Here’s my best attempt at translating her powerful streams of consciousness on paper, but it’ll do her no justice. So she’ll just do it herself.
On who she is:
I am a product of my mother and father who told me: I can do anything. My mother was a nurse, on her way to being a doctor before she died, and my father was a mathematician and engineer. My mother didn’t know any black women who were doctors. Her mother said: since we don’t know anyone who’s done this, you probably can’t do it either. My father was told the same. Even people you love will tell you that you can’t do things, because of the concepts of identity the world gives them. But my parents didn’t listen. Black people are like water: we break the rocks that are put in our way just by being as fluid as we always have been.
I am an astronaut. The world is not enough. We’ve are told the world is everything, but everything is not enough. So I always wanted to be an astronaut. My mother passed away when I was young. Suffering is not necessary, but it happens. As a black woman, the world tells me I need to be intelligent, kind, polite, lady-like, beautiful, not too beautiful, not too big, not too loud. I know things because of who I am. If you’re born in Rio and you’re black and you’re a woman, you know things. You learn things you shouldn’t have to. But there’s truth and power in it.
I was always a curator. I was telling myself I wasn’t, because of internalized racism and sexism, but that’s what I am.
We are all in a house that the system has constructed for us, and put us in. So we just need to learn and know and understand who put this brick here, who placed this door here. Why they did it. Why they wanted us contained here. And then, when I know the foundations, I can open a window. And then I can leave. And then I can make my own bricks, and build my own houses.
I read all the philosophers: the Greeks, the German, the French. They were telling me things that did not fit in my body. But the academy says that these are the only truths. The only facts. The writings of white men. Bu those truths are complicated by other views. So I kept studying. Singing, dancing, eating are all ways of studying. I kept looking the bricks. I looked at pedagogy of art, at how art is taught. I started coordinating for museums, thinking about how you should move around and think about an exhibition. I became a storyteller for Brazilian museums. I came from a traditional, oral way of communicating: so this came easy. Writing systems are relatively new, no? It’s for so long been only white people writing down and telling their stories. Talk is older. It’s fundamental. It’s the starting way to get to the truth. Before you write, you talk. Now I talk.
On working in the art world:
It’s hard now that I’m working in these formal systems. People don’t picture my body when they look at my CV. But I’m not angry because I understand it’s the way it works. I’m from the North of Rio. And it’s people from the south, from the privilege, who control the art here, and the money.
The art world sees me as an object. I like to use this. If it offends me, I can use it. It’s a way of fighting. I can use clothing and appearance and sex appeal to talk about epistemology. And with what’s happening in the world, on social media, I’m suddenly in fashion. In demand. I know I make these places better, but the places will never actually be better. I’m there, but I’m not enough because I’m still just exotic. And I’m usually the only one. The world thinks it owns my body. But I have ways to prove that it doesn’t. Laughter. Research. Dance. Community.
I would like you to understand that every move that I make of self-declaration, or self-disclosure, carries a great deal of struggle on account of the machismo and racism that don’t allow me (nor any black woman) to present ourselves with ease. But that makes our self-declaration that much more important.
Now I’m a professor with the School of Visual Art in Parque Lage. We have more than 200 students in school, but the Free Program started last year with me, with 25 students. This year we have two classes in this program, 25 each - and I am teaching one of them. The free program course is called Displacements. The other course, White Is Not a Color, starts in August. I created the course to talk about the truths of power dynamics for artists and critics.
On working in the streets:
If I really want to leave the house, the systematic construction, I have to go to the street. I’m working with the Afro-Grafiteras Collective, run by the NGO Rede Nami, in the Catete neighborhood. It’s a favela that’s created and evolved its own dialect, one they now use to evade the violence of Brazilian police. The last class I did there for the girls, I just spent hours showing them black women working in art. I teach them once a month. We’ll have a final exhibit at the end of the year. They’re a cooperative of young female street artists with the manifesto that says they want to stay, and live, in the art world, despite its whiteness and masculinity.
We are in a masculine world. It was easier for Basquiat then it was for the black woman artists of his time. How many women artists have never been seen? But when things are hard, we need to get bigger. Things are hard because we’re stuck in the construction.
I am also doing a project to build an Open Museum in the Maré favela, curating groups of racialized (non-white) women artists. And I was asked by the director to create a course on afro-intellectualization for the Bolivian Biennal this year, at the Museo Nacional de Arte in La Paz Bolivia. In Bolívia, black people are invisible. It’s like they never existed in Bolivian history.
The art world needs to change, not us. We have the tools. We don’t need singular heroes. We need collectives. We can only leave the earth, we can only be astronauts, with a team behind us. With support.
Follow Keyna on Instagram here.
Header image: Lis Kogan
Side image: Keyna Eleison