FOCUS: Artistic and Intellectual Hospitality

FOCUS: Artistic and Intellectual Hospitality

Yasmin Gunaratnam and Fataneh Farahani 

As we write in July 2020, our everyday lives have been shaken by the mimetic entwining of two public health emergencies: COVID-19 and structural racism. “I know, as many do, that I’ve been living a pandemic all my life” Dionne Brand writes, “it is structural rather than viral; it is the global state of emergency of antiblackness”. With Black and poor communities across the globe hit the hardest, the coronavirus pandemic has peeled away any veneer of equality, exposing long shadows of dispossession.

In North America, the fatal killing of Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of white supremacists and the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd ignited global Black Lives Matter protests. In the midst of the pandemic and lockdown, protestors of all backgrounds and ages took to the streets, demanding an end to racist violence. Demonstrations spread to over 150 North American cities in the week following Floyd’s murder. In her poem Weather, Claudia Rankine animates the terms of the pandemic of anti-Blackness and racism: “Social distancing? Six feet under for underlying conditions./ Black….Whatever/ contracts keep us social compel us now/ to disorder the disorder. Peace. We’re out/ to repair the future.”

The imperative to “repair the future” has lent energy and urgency to more longstanding intersectional justice campaigns, from those demanding the removal of statues commemorating slave owners and colonialists to the contested meanings of the call for universities to decolonise. Taking account of the proliferation of numerous types of hostility, violence and enclosure, as well as mutual aid and new organised political resistance, our authors join us in exploring the many faces and tensions of hospitality in their work and lives as scholars, artists and activists. Their contributions extend earlier discussions of intellectual and artistic hospitality in the wake of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1998 and subsequent initiatives to provide residency programmes and cities of sanctuary to shelter persecuted writers and exiles.

Each essay recognises and works with the tensions in relationships of hospitality, including how welcome is often provisional; rooted in conditions that can pivot into hostility. For example, residency programmes for exiles can be a life-line. At the same time, the capacity to offer refuge is itself constituted by huge economic disparities, as well as differences in political histories and social and epistemic infrastructures for those in flight and those received. While offering temporary (conditional) asylum, the extent to which residency programmes can shake-up or breakaway from epistemic violence and ignorance is more uncertain. In “My Castle is Your Castle”, Dominika Blachnicka-Ciacek and Ika Sienkiewicz-Nowacka reflect on these challenges through a decade-long residency programme at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. Describing their evolving practice of “curating residency”, Blachnicka-Ciacek and Sienkiewicz-Nowacka show how the categories of “host” and “guest” were subverted by artists and curators, including through relationships with Sally Abu Bakr, director of the Ramallah Cultural Office. Supporting Abu Bakr in developing a residency program in Palestine, led to a reversing of hosting relationships, with Polish and European artists and curators being hosted in Ramallah, opening up small pockets of hospitality within the bigger injustices of settler colonialism.

And yet, we must remain vigilant as to how such relationships might continue to harbour colonial asymmetries. As we come to terms with the longue durée of colonialism, not least in how Euro-North American funding streams now actively call for collaboration across regions, do artists and scholars in the Global North need subaltern partners in order to survive? Arrogance and an implicit ‘we can learn nothing from you’ attitude, as South African playwright Mike van Graan has put it, flows beneath many transnational collaborations. Collaboration by itself therefore can be alive with struggles of value. Such struggles underpin the methodological reflections of Mahmoud Keshavarz on his research with border transgressors In Europe. Keshavarz dissects his relative privileges of movement while questioning how he will host the narratives of his research participants throughout his fieldwork, writing and scholarly performances. To undo existing power relations and support border transgressors, a researcher must cultivate attentiveness beyond dominant practices of empirical listening: giving time and space to unheard or less heard narratives, while avoiding remaking the enforced storytelling that is a part of the slow violence of border regimes. Perhaps the most far-reaching of provocations is that posed by Behrouz, one of Keshavarz’s interlocutors, in questioning the role of migration research. It is one of those profound “Whose side are you on?” questions. “This is not a good research and that is why I do not believe or trust you” Behrouz asserts. “A good research is not the one that shows how I cross the border but rather tells me how I can cross it”.

There are of course different conditions out of which hospitality can be assembled in art and in scholarship, which also rest on the(de)valuation of who is (un)recognised as having “the right” credentials. Racialised intellectuals, scholars and artists who actively work against Eurocentric discourses can be confronted with epistemic ignorance, confusion and hostility. Or they are used as existential and political props when dominant political and cultural schemes are under duress. “Black voices have often felt like guests in UK literature” Kadish Morris has observed, “despite being routinely summoned during political events”.

Here, in giving priority to dissident voices from the Global South and marginalised communities in the Global North, we highlight work that reflects on and moves towards confronting and unravelling numerous privileges. For us, intellectual and artistic hospitality are not separable. Art can certainly be more attuned to affect, non-linear time and to ambiguity; it is also a vital part of the life of the mind. For Engin Isin (2019), the modern European understanding of the “intellectual” as a political subject, addressing both the dominating and the dominated, comes from the early twentieth century renegotiation of the position of European empires to former colonies. What characterises an intellectual in these circumstances, Isin suggests, is their “understanding of their location in knowledge-power regimes” (p. xiii). Post-colonial intellectuals Isin believes are necessarily “always crossing borders and orders, constituting solidarities, networks and connections” (p.xiii).

Opening thoughts and feeling
In questioning which kinds of knowledge are valued and whose voices are heard, anticolonial, feminist and queer movements have done the most work to radically shift understanding of intellectual and artistic hospitality. Rather than the urge to find common ground with others, the demand is to recognise and dismantle hierarchies of knowledge-power, including extractive relationships to human and natural resources.

Grappling with the constraints of intellectual hospitality in this vein, invites us to re-engage with and re-imagine the everyday sway of some of our most taken-for-granted ideas. How do they gain legitimacy? What do they exclude? How are they sustained? Andréa Gill centres this queering of normative political discourses, investigating the meanings of democracy in Brazil and offering responses from public intellectuals and LGBTQ+ artists to the global rise of the right. Through the work of indigenous leader Ailton Krenak and an art exhibition at Galpão, Bela Maré (Transcendências – Transcendences), Gill offers propositions for rethinking what might follow the more blatant hollowing out of the façade of democratic principles under Brazil’s current authoritarian regime. Might claims to the right to opacity and the right to idleness be a start?

As exhaustion and burnout become a more common feature of neoliberal economies, the subversive power of rest and doing nothing offers a rich incitement. Yet, as the conversation between artist Kirumira Rose Namubiru and scholar Suruchi Thapar-Björkert suggests, play as the opposite of work is not necessarily a politically neutral or recuperative space. Namubiru’s installation Akakyala, based on the board game Omweso, destabiliises and puts into question the gendered structures of the game that are suffused with the spiritual and cultural history of Buganda. Namubiru describes her art as existing at the meeting points of artistic and intellectual hospitality, creating troubling eddies of thought and feeling where a restaging of gendered value systems can be surfaced and reflected upon.

And yet art cannot do the work of social transformation by itself. The organisational structures of art worlds must also play a role in making way for change. Can cultural spaces become more caring sites of meaningful interconnectedness? Can they challenge injustices and promote human rights? These are concerns that Ali Eisa poses in his reflections on a recent programme of work at Autographa Black visual arts charity based in London. Eisa discusses the EXPLORERS programme of collaboration between disabled people, artists, social care providers and cultural organisations. Drawing insights from the collaboration, we learn how a rights-focused approach critically shaped Autograph’s engagement with people with complex needs, with participatory work at every level, driving personal and systemic change.

As the arts face devastating cuts with the coronavirus pandemic, questions arise as to how participation, as foundational to hospitality, might be imagined anew under pandemic conditions, which Arundhati Roy has thought of as offering a portal to new ways of living. Indeed the pandemic has birthed many innovations to engage differently with audiences across the isolation and anxieties of lockdown. Some artists have chosen to exhibit their work and host visitors, free from state-imposed restrictions and with different degrees of visibility in pop-up exhibitions in private apartments and underground basements. The rapid shift to creative digital forums— webinars, art exhibitions and concerts—has democratised certain cultural and intellectual resources at an unprecedented scale and rate. Greater global exchange and connectedness, with a crossing of disciplinary borders, has suddenly become more possible, at least for those with access to technology.

Osman Özel, a Turkish fashion photographer, was quarantined in Başakşehir (a suburb of İstanbul) with around 3300 people, when he arrived in Istanbul from Paris on 17th March 2020. Özel documented the government imposed quarantine in a short poetic black and white film ‘Quarantined. Unable to communicate directly with other people in the dorm, Özel shared his simultaneous feelings of isolation and of communing with distant but felt others through social media: “One of the messages I remember and have been thinking about in quarantine is: if I’m a link in the chain, what do I have to communicate to the other links I’m in contact with?”

This matter of the contact zones made possible by art is central to Apostolos Lampropoulos’ essay which draws on selected artworks to examine what is risked in the hospitality created and shared through art. Exhibited two years before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lampropoulos’ description of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Vicious Circular Breathing is almost unthinkable today. The installation consisted of a hermetically sealed glass room into which new visitors enter and breathe in air exhaled by others. Lampropoulos tells us, “For Lozano-Hemmer, hospitality was an attempt to merge with and become exposed to the danger of the other; receiving and being received was both accepting risk and inflicting risk; the risk here being that of contamination by the most unwanted parts of the other”. That artistic hospitality can sometimes feel like a perverse horror story is unavoidable Lampropoulos implies, but art can also unsettle such idealisations, luring our attention and senses to, while rendering strange, what is close by.

The proximity of the strange and strangerness infuses Dheeman Bhattacharyya’s exploration of the complexity of indigenousness in India. Bhattacharyya draws on narratives from the Chhara community in Ahmedabad, the Kheria Sabars and other nomadic/semi-nomadic peoples in the district of West Bengal. Backgrounded by billowing historical and contemporary injustices, Bhattacharyya points to the limitations of a contorted hospitality through which indigenous peoples have been denied the right of ownership of their land. Bhattacharyya has found that theatre provides vital affirmation of testimonials as well as cultural practices for these communities. Theatre, he believes opens opportunities to reclaim voice and outside systems of caste, which for Bhattacharyya have never reflected the multiple schemes of contact that have been fabricated within Indian societies.

The South African actor and activist Daniel Mpilo Richards also believes in the transformative power of theatre in enabling difficult and painful conversations. Richards’ experience is with criminalised youth surrounded by the lure of gang culture in Cape Town, South Africa. “Imagine the scene”, Mpilo Richards writes, “rival gang leaders in an Art therapy session – perplexed by what colour crayon to use and clearly frustrated by the containment of their picture to an A1 size piece of paper as they ran out of space to tell their story in picture format”. The interaction directly speaks to the potential and constraints of such artistic projects. When space and time for marginalised lives are limited, does art reflect, replace or radically reorder dominant constraints? Developing a play from his on-going work with gang leaders, Mpilo Richards questions more directly whether art can change gangsterism. His response? “Possibly not. But at the very least, it is a safe (and profound) medium through which to communicate that change is possible”.

As we know safety has many layers. While the medium of art can prise open space to draw out and hold difficult emotions, the circumstances in which art is practiced can be risky and dangerous. Writing at a time of the first Mexican census (March 2020) to recognise and count Afro-Mexicans as a distinct social group, Ulises Moreno-Tabarez introduces the work of poet Aleida Violeta Vazquez Cisneros. Vazquez has been using poetry to support census awareness campaigns by civil society groups, while also confronting the shame produced by regional anti-Blackness. Within a regional context marked by femicide and political murders—to which Black and indigenous women are especially vulnerable—Vazquez temporarily withdrew from performing her poetry, following the assassination of Afro-Mexican activist Acosta Genchi. Within this setting, Moreno-Tabarez reads Vazquez’s poetry as a political and psychic presencing, countering multiple forms of disappearing, “necessitating a constant negotiation with the historical record, where bodies like hers have been made to disappear, both figuratively and literally”.

Intimate Strangers
Making presence felt is an urgent struggle for survival in conditions of settler colonialism. Troubling the global and national self-image of Canada as a humanitarian and multicultural region, Taina Maki Chahal reflects on the historical wounds, as well as the ongoing racism of a settler colonial state built on the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Engaging past as well as recent hostilities in Thunder Bay, a settler city built on the traditional territories of the Anishinaabe, Chahal shows how poetry in the region has been a vehicle for racism as well as being a potent weapon against it. Poetry for Chahal has been an encoding device of sexism and white supremacy. It has wounded listeners/readers whose identities and histories have been distorted. Using poetry, Northern Feminisms—a collective of feminists, Indigenous and racialised people and settler allies—initiated a two-week walkable outdoor poetry action called Poetry Against Racism. As a decolonising feminist intervention into historically rooted systemic racism that made the city hostile to Indigenous people, the group used poetry as a form of resistance and connection, while also calling for social and political transformation. Poetry in such circumstances is also a methodology. Using face-offs, poetry stacks and duels Chahal describes how poems can have the last word, overwriting colonial histories and contemporary racisms.

Settler colonialism and migration journeys are the settings for artist Gita Hashemi’s compelling ”Ley Lines and Declarations” essay. Between 2015 and 2016, Hashemi’s two-part project Declarations sought to bring attention to the meanings and implementation of human rights. Exploring freedom of movement, in part I, On the Move, Hashemi travelled along the so-called Balkan route used by the exiles making their way to Europe. But Heshemi’s journey was in reverse. She set off from Germany and Austria (destination countries) through Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece (stepping stones) to Turkey (a common port of departure). Throughout, she encountered migrants and refugees, as well as artists and activists who supported freedom of movement and refugee rights. In part II, On the Land, Hashemi explored the right to land, facilitating a series of workshops for 4th-year visual arts students at Dar al-Kalimah university in Bethlehem. Here, Hashemi stages a procession through Wadi al-Makhrour, a 3000-year-old terraced agricultural area in Palestine under direct Israeli military control. As Heshemi shows us, hospitality and hostility are often and inextricably interwoven.

Another method of attending to the entanglements of hospitality and hostility is offered by Redi Koobaka and Suruchi Thapar-Björkert, who discuss the Tallinn-based artist Kristina Norman’s work on asylum seekers in Estonia. In her piece Common Ground, Norman juxtaposes the narratives of contemporary asylum seekers in Estonia in 2013 with the stories of Estonians who fled to Sweden in 1944. Being able to pass as white Swedes/ European, the Estonian-Swedes are grateful for the welcoming care they received upon their arrival in Sweden. Now asylum seekers in Estonia articulate a sense of being estranged, relegated to the margins of society and cultural consciousness. Avoiding drawing equivalences between Estonian Swedes and contemporary refugees in Estonia, the authors convey artistic attempts to illuminate how cultural memory exceeds the boundaries between nations and countries and how open, if ambivalent, collaborative remembering can spawn novel dialogue on the shifting meanings of welcome in national imaginaries.

The upheaval of hospitality
In this issue of Discover Society we have brought together stories and experiments that chronicle how space for others and otherness is being mobilised in the mode of Isin’s “crossing borders and orders, constituting solidarities, networks and connections”. With and through their differences of location, the contributors all seem to regard hospitality as a peeling-open of time and space for others and otherness; the latter so often symbolised by the stranger. These openings somehow bring unplanned and unpredictable intimacies they suggest, that by their very nature catch us off guard. As a surprising, feral opening, hospitality must be continually reimagined and renewed. And no matter how much we plan, prescribe and anticipate, moments and flashes of self-assembling otherness launch new demands and antagonisms. Hospitality, it seems, always comes with some sort of upheaval, not least in the artifice and paradoxes of who and what is endowed.

This themed issue on Artistic and Intellectual Hospitality has been developed from Fataneh Farahani’s project “Cartographies of Hospitality” funded by Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. The project has benefited from a residency period at STIAS, The Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, South Africa. We would like to recognise Suruchi Thapar-Björkert’s contributions to the initial framing of the proposal for this issue and her role in liaising with and responding to editorial comments on the two articles in which she is a joint author.


Yasmin Gunaratnam is a Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths (University of London). She tweets @YasminGun. Fataneh Farahani is a Wallenberg Fellow and Associate professor in Ethnology at Stockholm University.

Image Credit: GoToVan from Vancouver, Canada – Black Lives Matter, Anti-racism rally at Vancouver Art Gallery, CC BY 2.0