Category Archives: Portraits

“The immigrant body is a gendered body” – The full interview with Flavia Dzodan

Flavia Dzodan is a business developer, writer and public speaker, currently residing in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian’s CIF, xoJane and on Gender Across Borders. She also frequently blogs at Tiger Beatdown and on her own blog Red Light Politics. Her main interest lies in the intersections of race, class and gender in a European context. Flavia was born in Argentina and came to the Netherlands in her twenties, where she has lived ever since. I spoke to her about immigration in Europe, the role of the political parties, and her own experiences and projects. An edited version of this interview was previously published on Gender Across Borders for a series on women and migration.

Henrike Dessaules: How did your own experience of coming to Europe influence your writing and activism?

Flavia Dzodan: For me the biggest shock was to go from being totally unaware of how certain immigration issues play out in Europe, and then to be here and to be labeled by the state as the “Other”. That was my starting point: to try to understand what was going on. A lot of what I write stems from that need to understand and unpack that structure that we see in place across the entire EU. What I’m interested in is unpacking a system where we have one group of dominant culture, which is white (for all intents and purposes, this is a system of whiteness), and you have a system of “Other”, which is the immigrant, the foreigner, the alien. What is happening in the EU since 2001 is that this “Other” is almost always invariably coded as Muslim. This is nonsense, because immigration is not just Muslim, but in order to actually get away without accusations of racism, they use this code word of immigrant, when actually what they mean is Muslim.

HD: Have you noticed a particular change in that over the most recent years?

FD: Very much so. I see it escalating. Every election cycle in Europe this escalates and gets worse, with more aggressive rhetoric, with more outlandish ideas of how immigrants should be treated, and there’s also this obscuring of what really goes on. You probably saw what I wrote about the internment camps where immigrants are kept. Well, all of this is obscured in the media. You don’t get to hear that there are these blatant human rights abuses. So, on the one hand the rhetoric increases, and that is the visible aspect, but in the background the policies that make these human rights abuses legitimate are enacted and passed as legislation. Of course, there is an increase. I would say it started around 2001, but it has only gotten progressively worse. And these people have more legitimacy as well. More mainstream legitimacy. What in the nineties would have been unthinkable, for someone like Jean Marie Le Pen, say, or Geert Wilders, now is a matter of daily occurrence in the media.

HD: How do you think it plays out in particular in the Netherlands?

FD: Well, in the Netherlands we have Geert Wilders. He was one of the pioneers of this movement. He has a genealogy of politicians that came before him, that also peddled his ideas since the late nineties, but he’s the most visible and he was the first across the EU to come up with this rhetoric of hatred and racialized politics. It would be absurd to call him names or to call his supporters names. People usually are very simplistic; they say: ‘These people are dumb and that’s why they follow him.’ That, I’m afraid to say, is very simplistic and not a nuanced analysis. These people have legitimate reasons to feel disenfranchised and to feel left out, and to feel that the system has failed them. Wilders exploits this very legitimate anger by giving them lies. But people are not stupid. It’s not that they believe him because they’re uneducated or they don’t know better. They believe him because for years they haven’t been addressed. Nobody has actually taken the time to listen to what are very legitimate complaints against globalization, against the growth of capitalism, in every sphere of our lives. And how they feel left behind because they cannot consume at the pace that society tells us; that in order to be a full subject, you need to consume: fashion, culture, etc. And his supporters come in general from areas with legitimate poverty indexes, with struggles to find jobs, and that with a model of every-day social life that is no longer what it used to be twenty years ago.

HD: Ironically, I’ve read that the supporters of Marine Le Pen, for example, are primarily from the areas that are further outside of the cities, so where actually there are not that many immigrants at all.

FD: It’s the same with Wilders, exactly the same.

HD: And one argument that always comes up in the immigration debate is this sort of the-boat-is-full rhetoric, that we just can’t have everyone coming. What would you reply to that?

FD: I’d say that it’s a very historically flawed way of looking at what has happened between Europe and the global South for the past 500 years. I mean, let’s not forget the very long, painful and brutal history of colonization of Europe in the countries where all these immigrants come from. So you have a continent that, with very few exceptions, went to these countries and ravaged resources, created a system of dependency, created a system of oppression for entire populations, and these have been perpetrated until not so long ago. In the last 50 to 100 years Europe has decolonized. And now they have these populations who have no access to resources, who have no access to funds, and Europe does not take any responsibility in the creation of these systems, so yes, sure, Europe is full. I’m not going to debate that because I’m not a demographer. […] So let’s grant these arguments some validity. Even if that was true, how do we address this system of inequalities that Europe created in the countries where these people come from? We created a welfare system in the EU across the entire continent on the back of the colonized countries. And now, when these people 50 or 100 years later say “Hey, we also deserve a portion of this pie”, we tell them “Oh, but it’s full”.

HD: So what do you think would need to happen in the near future? What do you think are the most pressing issues at the moment?

FD: I think that the racism in the EU must be addressed. Unless it’s tackled and actually fixed from the root, it’s only going to lead to more problems. I’m not even talking about a comprehensive immigration policy that contemplates all of these issues, which is another necessity. But even before that, I’m talking about something that is urgent and immediate, and that is to address the system of institutionalized racism. I give you another example from the Netherlands: When you look at the statistics of unemployment rates for under 25-year-olds in the Netherlands, for Dutch white natives the rate is at something like 5%. For Moroccan natives under 25 years old, the unemployment rate is at 25%. And for males under 25 of Surinamese origin, which is a former Dutch colony, and it’s mostly an Afro-Caribbean population of mixed heritage, the unemployment rate is at 27%. So when we look at these inequalities, I’m sorry, the only possible explanation is that system of institutionalized racist practices. Unless we address this, unless we tackle the mentality that makes these unemployment statistics possible, I don’t see us fixing anything in the near future.

HD: That’s really interesting, that you mention the unemployment rates for young men. I think, usually migrant women tend to suffer less from unemployment, but they are also in more precarious jobs. Do you think that immigration affects women differently from men?

FD: Of course I do. Especially in Europe there is this sexualization of the immigrant. The immigrant body is a gendered body. The immigrant woman in her visible difference becomes a threat. And of course, because she is the child-bearer, she’s also the one that’s going to bear the brunt of the racist hatred. She gives birth to these children that are taking over “our” society. She is the one that wears the markers of difference, and that is most visible in the case of the Muslim immigrant woman. She obviously doesn’t look like us, and she doesn’t speak like us. So she becomes this embodied threat that the system presents as someone that needs to be saved constantly. And how do European governments treat the immigrant woman? As someone that needs to be rescued from the perils of her own culture. You have the burka debate, you have the birth rates around immigrant families… There is a whole set of coded “issues”, and I say “issues” with huge quotation marks, that are ascribed to immigrant women specifically. They do have another whole set of real issues, of course, I’m not denying that. But, you know, it’s always the woman who carries the burden, because we have to deal with a white savior complex as well. The burka debate is all code to save these women from themselves.

HD: Yes, definitely, and I think that these kinds of arguments are also used more and more these days by the so-called political left, by pandering to ideas about women’s rights and the rights of homosexuals, and by saying that certain immigrant groups reject the ideals of our Western society. Do you think that there is a swing to the left as well with anti-immigrant sentiments?

FD: I want to be completely honest with you: My biggest disappointment in European politics comes from the left. My biggest disappointment. Because from the right I come to expect nothing different. I don’t expect them to change the tune of what they have been saying for the past 60 years, you know. […] But the left, I blame the left collectively. And I put myself in this as well. I’m not pointing fingers, as if I’m not part of the system. We all are. We all live in this society. At the beginning, in the late nineties and early 2000s, especially after the World Trade Center debacle, what the left did was at first not pay attention, so as not to legitimate this racist xenophobia, so they dismissed it as a fad, as something that would eventually go away. That silence actually was counter-productive, because they didn’t resist with the emphasis that is required to oppose these ideologies. These ideologies were left to grow and develop and become more nuanced and more legitimate, and eventually when the left reacted to this, it was too late. So now what do we do? The left  jumps on that bandwagon, to try to steal voters from the right. We don’t have an emphatic and clear opposition from the left, to people like Wilders, to people like Le Pen, or to the variety of xenophobes. The left opposes in principle the very caricature-like expressions of racism, like the neo-Nazis. They are like cartoon characters. It’s easy to oppose them. Who wouldn’t oppose them? And they are also for me the least dangerous threat, because they are so obvious and so blatant, that we can see them coming. And the left opposes that. I’m sorry, that serves little purpose for a structural change in those unemployment rates, in the mentality, in the institutionalized practices of hiring and human resources. And the left does nothing to oppose all of that with a clear and very strict rhetoric of standing against it. And I’m very, very disappointed. I vote here in the Netherlands, of course, and I struggle every election to find a party that represents me.

HD: And after all these years, do you feel like you’re a bit Dutch now, or do you still feel Argentinian?

FD: First and foremost, I’m Hispanic and Latina, and my struggle in terms of my immigration status, in terms of my status as “Other”, is the same as everyone’s from Latin America. We have to bear this burden of a racialized system, where we are constantly “Othered”. I am Argentinian, of course I am. That goes without saying, but I also look at what that means pan-regionally. I write about politics, about policies of immigration, and for me the interesting thing is how the EU creates patterns to racialize and to “Other” groups of people. This is not something I have any hand in, but I am coded as Latin American. And I’m fine with that, I mean, that’s what I am, after all. Am I Dutch? No, no. I love this place; this is home, and this where I live. But I’m never going to be Dutch. This has nothing to do with how I feel. When the state hands me my documents, I am a special category. Even if I acquire the Dutch citizenship, I am coded as foreigner and my children, if they are born, they are also foreigners. And this is a state category. This is not something that I choose. I don’t “Other” myself. The state does that for me. It doesn’t matter how I feel. The state tells me I’m not Dutch. So how I feel is irrelevant here.
[…]

HD: What’s your next big project going to be?

FD: Actually, I’m writing a book about anger. Political anger, to be more precise. Because as women and as feminists, especially when you’re not white in a very white environment, anger is a very scary emotion. You are constantly told that anger is not the way to engage politically. I believe this is counter-productive. There is a whole set of women who have come before me, who have written about this, like Audre Lorde or Sara Ahmed, people who are way more knowledgeable than me on this. I’m not pretending that I am original here. What I’m trying to do, is to write about it in a European context. Because a lot of the things that we have are very much American-centric. And I’m fine with that. I believe that this work that all these women have done before us is very useful as a reference, but we don’t have a history of racialized Europeans within feminism. […] European feminism presents itself as pretty much white. Let me rephrase that: non-racialized. Which, you know, means that it’s white by default. That’s a disservice, because that’s not the reality of what we live or what’s going on. And my approach in the book is to write about anger, and anger in relation to this European way of looking at politics and the politics of engagement.

[…]
HD: Thank you so much.

Portrait: Sibylle Ruppert (1942-2011)

How strange that I had to read an American book about the incest theme, published in 1987, to discover the German artist Sibylle Ruppert, even though she passed away just this year. Perhaps her death did not generate much attention because she lived very much in seclusion during the last years of her life. Perhaps her art, which I would describe as mix of Hieronymus Bosch and HR Giger (the creator of the original Alien) doesn’t feel very contemporary anymore in an age where art has become either a lot more abstract or a lot more literal.

"la décadence"

I could only find very little information about her online. She doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia page (a future project perhaps?). She was born in Frankfurt in 1942 during the height of the 2nd World War and grew up to become an extremely talented artist with a dark soul (the first image she ever drew, at age six, was a fist striking the middle of a face).

She learned ballet in Paris, became a revue dancer barnstorming all over France, but she never turned her back on art. She found inspiration in the great French writers of the morbid and the obscene, creating visual interpretations of the works of de Sade, Bataille, and Artaud, and she dedicated her paintings “Black Light on White Shadow” (see below) to Austrian enfant terrible Thomas Bernhard.

x

Her style and themes can be described as traditionally “masculine” as her influences, in that they are grandiose, violent and nauseating. But she also reminds me of the taboo-breaking postmodern literature of Kathy Acker, dealing with sado-masochism and female desire.

"hit something" 1977

You can find the most comprehensive information about her here.

Portrait: Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002)

I was first introduced to Niki de Saint Phalle through my art teacher back in high school, who was a big fan of those “voluptuous feminine qualities” of the artist’s well-known Nana figures. She showed us a documentary about Saint Phalle’s life which, I believe, everyone found rather boring, too esoteric perhaps, or too feminist. I, however, was fascinated, not so much by the brightly coloured, round sculptures my teacher loved so much, but by those wicked collages, the so-called “Shooting Paintings”. Tir à volonté, she called the series from 1960-1963, “Fire at will”.

Niki in action

These works consisted of assembled things, seemingly random artifacts, that hid pockets filled with different-color pigments. The artist then would position them, so that they could be shot at with a rifle. The bullet would explode the pockets, causing the paint to splatter and run all over the collage. Saint Phalle would later describe her motivation as follows:

“In 1961 I shot at daddy, all men, small men, large men, important men, fat men, men, my brother, society, the Church, the convent, the school, my family, my mother, all men, daddy, myself, men. I shot because it was fun and gave me a great feeling. I shot because I was fascinated to see the painting bleed and die. I shot for the sake of this magical moment. It was a moment of scorpion-like truth. White purity. Victim. Ready! Take aim! Fire! Red, yellow, blue, the painting weeps, the painting is dead. I have killed the painting. It has been reborn. War without victims.” (Kempel, Ulrich: The Political Universe in the Art of Niki de Saint Phalle)

Not only is this the statement of a visionary artist, it is also the testimony of a woman, a woman who had to deal with and overcome immense restrictions and suffering at the hands of the men in her life, as well as her health, her faith…

Nike de Saint Phalle was born in 1930 close to Paris and grew up in New York. She got married at the tender age of eighteen and had two children. The marriage was a happy one as long as it lasted, according to her former husband Harry Mathews, but recurring illnesses turned her into an invalid for long periods of time. She suffered a nervous breakdown and underwent electroshock therapy, and she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism in the late 1950’s, all of which affected her marriage as well as her artistic development. She and Mathews separated in the early 1960’s, around the same time as she started firing at canvases.

Harry Mathews in an interview from 2008:

“During all that period of illness I had to take over everything. I thus developed a habit of trying to run her life for her – something that, when she was healthy again, she didn’t need or like. The subsequent hostility towards men, and me, began expressing itself at this point, and it manifested itself in her work […].”

While Mathews can tell only his side of the story, I see a certain truth at the core of his statement: the artist’s frustration about her lack of agency, which was certainly heightened by her state of illness. At the same time, however, one needs to take into account the constraints placed on her by the society of the 1950s, her conservative family and her catholic upbringing and education, followed by the difficulties of being a female artist at a time that was not at all welcoming towards women’s endeavors outside the home, artistic or otherwise. Later in her life, Saint Phalle also came out about the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her own father.

Niki as an icon of female empowerment

In order to attain her empowerment, she seized a powerful tool: a weapon with the ability to kill all of what was holding her down. However, she did not resort to brute violence, appropriating “the militaristic tools of the patriarchy”; instead she “shot” a painting which only came alive after being shot. The aim of the shootings thus became not only a symbol of her oppression, but also a stand-in for the artist herself who, in the liberating act of shooting, killed herself only to be revived in the process: the (re-)birth of an artist. Her majestic, larger-than-life Nanas can be seen as the result of a successful healing process, generated by the power of creation and destruction, the assertive act of reclaiming agency.

Portrait: Louise Michel (1830-1905)

Louise Michel, a French anarchist and militant revolutionary, was one of the central figures of the Paris Commune, a government which ruled Paris for two months in 1871, before being violently shut down by the French army.

Louise Michel was brought up in a very liberal environment, which led to her becoming a rather unconventional school teacher and a poet. Upon her arrival in Paris in 1856, she soon became acquainted with the city’s poor and outcast citizens; an experience which prompted her to write her most well-known lines:

I have seen criminals and whores
And spoken with them. Now I inquire
If you believe them made as now they are
To drag their rags in blood and mire
Preordained, an evil race?

You to whom all men are prey
Have made them what they are today.

In 1871, the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War led to a brief political vacuum in the city of Paris. The National Guard, an armed citizen’s militia, seized their chance and quickly assumed power over the city. They established the Paris Commune, which was governed by workers, professionals and political activists alike and adopted a number of social measures. During that time, Michel worked as an ambulance nurse who treated the injured soldiers:

She was in charge of recruiting women to serve in the ambulance corps, and welcomed all women, especially the prostitutes who were ostracized by the male officials of the Commune. “Who has more right than these women, the saddest victims of the old world, to offer their lives to the new?” she demanded.

Richardson

At the same time, she also fought on the barricades herself, like many women of the movement, and gave encouraging speeches to the insurgents.

After the defeat of the autonomous Parisian government, Michel was taken prisoner and charged with attempt to overthrow the government, possession and use of weapons, and wearing a military uniform, among other things. Despite her unwillingness to defend herself, she was not sentenced to death but instead was forced to go into exile. She was sent to New Caledonia, where she resisted the harsh living conditions by learning the indigenous language and customs and became an anarchist and anti-colonialist.

After six and a half years of exile, Michel was allowed to return to France but liberty did not last long. Michel was arrested and imprisoned several times more, but she always continued to write and give speeches, supporting workers on strike and promoting anarchism.

The diligent French secret police had to find another way to terrify Louise Michel. A woman who acts in so unwomanly a fashion, they reasoned, is evidently mad. And so Michel was seized and carried to an insane asylum in 1890, a fate we now recognize as all to often being the means of silencing troublesome women.

Richardson

She escaped and continued her work until her death in Marseille in 1905.

Louise Michel is remembered as a fighter for social rights and against monarchy and injustice. Many schools, historical sites and a Paris metro station are named after her. Yet she remains a contradictory personality, at once an altruistic humanist and a charismatic militant, willing to sacrifice her life and others’ for the revolution.

Here are some quotes of her:

Louise Michel in her military uniform

The first thing that must change is the relationship between the sexes. Humanity has two parts, men and women, and we ought to be walking hand in hand; instead there is antagonism, and it will last as long as the ‘stronger’ half controls, or thinks it controls, the ‘weaker’ half. [The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel, 1981]

Without the rule of One, there would be light, there would be truth, there would be justice. The rule of One is a crime. [Louise Michel / 1830-1905 / Extrait d’une Plaidoirie – 22 Juin 1883]

In the convents where the woman hides away, ignorance envelopes her, the rules thrust her into their machinations, grinding her heart and her brain. [Louise Michel / 1830-1905 / Mémoires / 1886]

I am ambitious for humanity: I should like that everyone were an artist, sufficiently poetic that all human vanity would disappear.

If whichsoever power was ever able to do something, it was indeed the Commune, composed of men of intelligence, of courage, of an incredible honesty, and who had performed incontestable feats of devotion and energy. The power annihilated them, leaving them no other implacable desire than that of sacrifice. For power is cursed, that is why I am an anarchist.

The task of teachers, those obscure soldiers of civilization, is to give to the people the intellectual means to revolt. [Louise Michel / 1830-1905 / Mémoires / 1886]

 

Portrait: Vashti Bunyan

For more than thirty years she was only known to music nerds specialized in the 60’s and record collectors who would spend up to 900 pounds for one of the few original pressings of her one and only full-length album Just Another Diamond Day (1970). The last ten years, however, have generated a huge increase in interest concerning her music, largely due to collaborations with indie music’s darlings Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective. Today, Vashti Bunyan is a household name in the alternative and folk music scene.

Born in 1945 in London, she became a typical flower child of the hippie generation with dreams of becoming a pop star. Her dreams seemed to come true when she was discovered by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham who saw her potential and helped to release her first single Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind (1965). Unfortunately stardom did not materialize, as her singles received little attention.

Instead of sticking around and waiting for success, Vashti Bunyan and her boyfriend bought a horse and cart and started travelling across the country for 18 months, hoping to join a hippie commune with fellow folk singer Donovan. By the time they arrived, the commune had almost dissolved but throughout the journey Vashti had given birth to a set of wonderfully calm and pastoral pop songs, which were recorded and released in 1970.

Once again her music failed to impress the audience and, disenchanted, Vashti Bunyan left the city to live in a commune with The Incredible String Band and raise her children. She eventually settled in Ireland with her family and some dogs and horses, and lived in obscurity until her recent rediscovery. Since then she has recorded a new album called Lookaftering (2005) and told her story in the personal and detailed documentary Vashti Bunyan: From Here to Before (2008). Today, she is still not referred to as a pop star. Instead she has become known as the “Grandmother of Freak Folk” and an underground icon.

Besides being a remarkably talented songwriter, she also stands out as a young idealist who truly lived her conviction and philosophy of life. Vashti Bunyan strongly believed in communitarianism and self-sufficiency; in this spirit, her life ‘on the road’ was characterized by producing one’s own goods and relying on the kindness of strangers. Unfortunately I have not been able to find out whether or not she still has these convictions today, but she remains a fascinating personality with an inspiring life story.