A Wor(l)d to Confuse

Picture yourself entering an exhibition space in a European city. There are large bay windows and the white walls reflect the flows of daylight. Sculptures, videos on screens and wall texts quietly inhabit the rooms where the discreet ballet of visitors produces little more noise than soles glissando on the grey floor. Yet, after a few steps inside, something stops you. Something, a sound. No, music. A rough, insolent, at times discordant music. At second thought, it is a music you could dance on were you not in an exhibition space. It is rousing without being joyful. A man sings but you cannot distinguish the lyrics. You walk closer to the black curtain that separates you from the source of the music. The music stops. A man speaks in a highly excited voice, surrounded by street noise. You don’t understand what he’s saying, perhaps he speaks a foreign language although you can at times pick up some English and, oh, some Spanish, words. You enter the room.

Do Mix Meh Up was shot by Sharelly Emanuelson in 2014 during the Carnival of Aruba, a 179 km2 Caribbean island and one of the four constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, alongside its neighbor islands Curaçao and Siint Maarten and, naturally, the Netherlands. For those who may not be familiar with the history of the so-called Dutch Caribbeans, islands like Curaçao and Aruba were alternatively colonized by the British, the French and the Dutch, passing several times between the hands of the different European powers before the Kingdom of the Netherlands gained possession of the islands and turned Curaçao into an epicenter of slaves trade. Up until today, inhabitants from Curaçao, Aruba and Siint Maarten are Dutch citizens, despite the fact that Aruba, for instance, gained its autonomy from the Netherlands Antilles in 1986 (the year Sharelly Emanuelson was born). In 1990 however, the transition towards full independence was indefinitely suspended.

Your movement is stopped by the back of the screen hanging from the ceiling right in front of you. You saw it before the curtain waned again, plunging the room into pitch darkness. Poised male voices discuss something about Calypso and an Afro-Caribbean perspective. You walk around the screen, trying to grasp the meaning of their conversation. On the dark fabric of the screen, dozen of moving, scintillating dots of color lights compose a mesmerizing ballet.

Widely spread imagery of the Dutch Caribbeans shows an unsettling mix of curaçao-blue sea and traditional Dutch buildings pasted over with bright, exotic colors (a quite disturbing examples of architectural acculturation). It is worth mentioning that the local population mostly spoke Papiamentu (a local Creole language) and Spanish until the early 20th century, when Dutch was imposed as the sole official language for administration and education. It is only in the mid-80s that Papiamentu was reintroduced in the school system and became the second official language. Still today, a wide majority of young Arubans leaves the island after high school to attend university in the Netherlands, encouraged by the Kingdom. And while they all grew up as Dutch, many suddenly find themselves transported into an Other category once they set foot in the “homeland”. A projected Other reverberating imagery of curaçao-blue sea, colorful architecture and some darker stereotypes not foreign to those ferociously addressed by Frantz Fanon in Black Skins, White Masks a little more than 60 years ago.

Your eyes are caught by the dancing lights on the screen but you cannot really tell what they are. It almost seems, at first, like an animation. Most of the screen is black, most of the time. You are trying to make sense of the flashes of lights, of these constellations of green, red and blue dots that advance from right to left on the screen, like a defile of ancient phosphorescent fishes in the deepest waters, surrounded by a cacophony of voices and sounds that never seem to concur with the speed of the images. Until, suddenly, the soundtrack and the image attune: street music, a carnival and the myriads of lights reveal the silhouettes of swaying bodies that you still cannot distinguish on the pitch dark background.

Such stereotypes were widely spread by cinema and documentary films, the Caribbean having long served “as a resource for foreign productions which exploited the natural/physical endowments of the tropical islands and invented other endowments to manufacture an image of the Caribbean radically at odds with the reality of the people of the Caribbean”, according to the words of scholar Mbye Cham in Shape and Shaping of Caribbean Cinema, Cinemas of the Black Diaspora (1995) – a central work to Sharelly Emanuelson’s research. Cham also employed the lenses of film to grapple with the conflicted relationship between “official history and popular memory” in the elaboration and circulation of identities and representations. When it comes to Aruba, according to Emanuelson, these positions seem unresolved and multiple: contradictory narratives cohabit in a cacophony of voices, stories and bodies that crystallizes at the time of Carnival. Indeed, the history of Carnival itself is a conflicted one, different parts of the island claiming their role in its transplant from Trinidad, or Brazil, or other roots with various identity implications. The variety of musical styles that compete every year during carnival, chief among them Calypso, reflect these changing polarities, oscillating between the bourgeois, glamorous heritage of Brasilian carnival and the protest songs born in the streets from the makeshift instruments of the slaves.

“All yu / is a word we use / All yu / a word to confuse / Sometimes / when I hear all yu / wonder / who they talkin to”, sings a male voice while his words appear on screen karaoke-style, like an invitation to sing along. The rhythm of the music is rousing, it is also an invitation to dance, but the lyrics and the tone of the voice have something arresting that elicit a more complex connection.

Do Mix Meh Up borrows its title from a song by calypso musician The Mighty Shadow (a name that strangely resonates with the film itself), which waves through the film as a common thread. The lyrics – sang in a creolized English – express a refusal of identity amalgams by debunking the common expression “all y[o]u” and its generalizing and objectifying effect. After Caribbean theoretician Gregory Richardson, with whom she has been in close conversation in the course of shooting the film, Sharelly Emanuelson insists on the role Calypso songs play in Aruba or Curaçao, serving as a medium for the local population to appropriate and share their history and their struggles, in opposition to the written (or filmic) history of the “winner”. 

Her choice to insert the written lyrics on a black screen in between the scenes she shot in the streets of Aruba evokes two quite different dispositifs: that of silent movies, where mute actions or dialogues were transmitted to the viewer through explanatory texts that often brought a humorous or critical distance to the images; and that of karaoke, where the progressive uncoiling of the lyrics is intended to support the viewer’s own singing and (clumsy yet) rejoicing,   empowering appropriation of the words. The literal transcription of non-literary English (“Do mix meh up” translating as “don’t mix me up”, or “don’t include me”) already opens up worlds of linguistic détournement that testify for the artificiality of an essentializing “we” in a context where – like in Emanuelson’s film – multiple languages and modes of communication and being cohabit and infect each other. All the while the music reminds us (and our bodies) of the role of dance and carnival in supporting the non-verbal transmission and exchange of these movements.

A hysterical speaker (you do not understand the language) seems to be addressing people in the street about the event going on. There are music and laughs in the background. A young kid is being interviewed, but the speaker quickly realized that the kid doesn’t understand his language either. “Nederland?”, he asks. Yes, the kid is Dutch. They exchange a few words in that language. How did the speaker confuse a Dutch kid with a local? Perhaps the kid is from some sort of diaspora?

Do Mix Meh Up subtly performs the aforementioned questions through an editorial structure that plays with variations of image speed and types of discourse. Four different sound sources alternate through the film and superimpose onto the images: The Mighty Shadows’ song; a recorded conversation between a group of Caribbean scholars vividly discussing the role of calypso in understanding the local politics (in English and in Papiamentu); an audio commentary borrowed from local TV coverage in Aruba, whose highly excited host speaks a mixture of Papiamentu, English, Spanish and Dutch over a soundscape of street noise, joyful cries and music; and the live recorded sound of the “Parade of Lights” that Sharelly Emanuelson immersed herself into to capture the images of the film. When coming to the scholarly discussion, images slow down, verging into abstraction, producing an almost hypnotic vision that also allows for a better listening concentration. When we hear the TV commentary, bodies seem to vanish from the frame, with only flashes of colored light appearing at the edges of the screen. Then, image and sound synchronize again when the live street recorded music is heard enveloping the ecstatic dancing bodies, arms, shoulders or faces that appear in a glimpse through the flashes of light. These variations of rhythm affect the viewer in turn, whose own body finds itself located at the same level as the bodies depicted on screen, and in a similar position as the artist when she shot the images. The film, or rather the installation as a whole (with the suspended screen and the sound playing from speakers located behind the visitor), powerfully plays with the viewer’s degrees of intellectual and bodily involvement and thus prevents her objectifying gaze.

All yu / come out of meh lips / heavy / like a ton a bricks / All yu / come out of meh mouth / like fingers pointing all about.

Carnival has recently become both an object of study and a medium in contemporary art, from If I Can’t Dance long-term project (Mis)reading Masquerades (leading up to a comprehensive publication in 2010, addressing “questions such as transgression, gender identity and subversion, gesture, the carnivalesque, the construction of subjectivity, authorship, mimesis and alterity) to curator Claire Tancons’ ongoing research that recently manifested through the Up Hill Down Hall program at Tate Modern (2014), “engag[ing] with Carnival as ritual of resistance, festival of otherness and performance art, and with the Notting Hill Carnival specifically as a contested site from which to reflect on notions of public space, performance and participation.” If Sharelly Emanuelson is aware of these inquiries, her work is not strictly considering Carnival as a metaphor through which to reassess artistic or socio-political issues. It rather brings to mind Isaac Julien’s experimental documentary about the Notting Hill carnival, Territories, shot in 1984 before the event was turned into an gentrified party for tourists. Making a similar use of montage bringing together street scenes, found footage and a very powerful use of music, Julien “located the event within the struggle between white authority and black youth, in this case over the contested spaces of the carnival, and reflects on its history as symbolic act of resistance.” Although Sharelly Emanuelson had not seen Julien’s documentary when she made Do Mix Meh Up, both films stand as gestures of protest and empowerment meant to displace the production/transmission of discourse and representations from an external position to an embedded one, through the invention of specific aesthetic means. Both films, although quite different from each other, also happen to be beautiful.

When you finally exit the room, after watching the film twice, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to accommodate to the white walls and the flows of light, over which retinal persistence continues to superimpose dancing, colorful light dots. In your back, the music is starting again. It will pursue you, like the memory of the film, long after you left the exhibition space.

There would be much more to say on Do Mix Meh Up. Choosing carnival as a contested site of representations and relations, the film brings to mind Andrew Hewitt’s theory of social choreography, “in which art does not simply misrepresent, in a palliative manner, an existing social order. Instead, the aesthetic now becomes the realm in which new social orders are produced (rather than represented) and in which the integration of all social members is possible.”[1] At the same time, Sharelly Emanuelson’s play with invisibility, discrepancy and interruption within the fabric of the film dissuades from a generalizing lecture of her work. And the elegant way she shields the bodies she captured through her camera from the viewer’s gaze, rather putting the spectator’s body in a state of equivalence to those hardly decipherable in the game of shadows and lights unfolding through the images, opens up a very rich space of productive (mis)translation and contagion between the viewer’s own time and space and the narratives of the film. At some point in the song, The Mighty Shadow expresses his confusion at the expression “all yu”, accusing it of being “a word to confuse”. Sharelly Emanuelson’s film takes this bittersweet complaint as watchword, producing “a wor(l)d to confuse”, and out of this confusion imagine alternative, creolized modes of relating and being. text

 text by Virginie Bobin

Virginie Bobin is a Paris-based curator and writer. She has notably worked at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers and Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art before joining Bétonsalon – Centre for Art and Research as Associate Curator.