Fear no shadows – Sandra Mujinga’s hauntologies

In the dark, chilly night that sets the opening scene of Hamlet, the King of Denmark’s ghost presents itself to three witnesses on the ramparts of Elsinore’s Castle. This apparition also forms the incipit of Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, the “essay in the night” [1] in which the French philosopher coined the term ‘hauntology’ by fusing the words ‘haunting’ and ‘ontology’. For Derrida, hauntology becomes a surrogate for ontology that can better account for the spectral effects of presence: to be and to live is “to live with ghosts”. [2] This focus on forces of absence in defining the visible has had a vast influence in recent years on theories that wish to investigate the lingering residue of racial history in contemporary life.

[1] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, Routledge Classics, 2006, p. xvii.

[2] Ibid.

Sandra Mujinga, Spectral Keepers, installation view at CHART 2021, 2021.

Courtesy of the artist and Croy Nielsen

Strategies of spectrality infuse the work of Sandra Mujinga. In a multimedia practice that encompasses video making, installation, costume design and performance, and that moves seamlessly between the digital and the real world, the artist stresses the political tension between different structures of visibility. Tall, human-like figures covered in oversized garments frequently appear in Mujinga’s exhibitions. These visual vessels for hollow bodies function like the armour that shields the deceased king’s ghost in the cold Shakespearean night. They are both stand-ins for an absent body, a “technical prosthesis” [3] that creates a foreign shell over the spectral body. Furthermore, they prevent the spectator (or witness, in the case of Hamlet) from deliberating on the identity the shell conceals. In his essay, Derrida focuses on the detail of the slit in the armour’s visor, which allows the spirit of Hamlet’s father to see without being seen. Similarly, Mujinga’s figures have heads covered by different types of oversized hoodies that obstruct the visitor’s gaze but allow a potential view from within – see, for example, Spectral Keepers (2021). In this asymmetry between gaze and visibility, Derrida identified the supreme insignia of power.

In some iterations of these humanoid sculptures like Touch-Face 1–3 (2018) and Nkáma, Zómi, Mókó and Libwá (2019), Mujinga elongates their hoodies to the point that they become reminiscent of elephant trunks. This formal gesture is a nod towards the recent discovery that in areas of intense poaching, elephants turn nocturnal to escape human violence. The reduced visibility in darkness provides a way to hide from dominating rule, rebalancing power relations by means of invisibility. Orienting herself towards what Édouard Glissant called ‘opacité’, the artist talks about the potential freedom of “deliberate hiding” [4] of moving through the gloom. As opposed to transparency, opacity delineates the right to escape logics of comprehension, interpreted etymologically by Glissant as appropriation, derived from the vision-centred epistemology of The Enlightenment. Colonial history casts long, dark shadows on that time’s celebration of light as a metaphor for rationality and its power to conceive universal truths.

[3] Ibid, p. 7.

[4] The Nordics: Out of the Shadows Manoeuvring Through the Dark with Sandra Mujinga. Interview in Contemporary And.

Sandra Mujinga, Touch-Face 1–3, 2018

Courtesy of the artist and Croy Nielsen

Sandra Mujinga, Nkáma, Zómi, Mókó and Libwá, 2019

Courtesy of the artist and Croy Nielsen

To look for shades, however, does not merely mean to search for cover in the folds of the visible; it is also a strategy to investigate the paradoxical nature of visibility. Whilst on the one hand, representation can involve social and political acknowledgement, on the other, images are always subject to the inherent violence of control mechanisms from which they cannot escape. This is especially true in a time when ubiquitous digital surveillance exacerbates the asymmetry between gaze and visibility to the point of making the Panopticon look like an obsoletely gentle concept. Furthermore, beyond the issues of our time’s technological hypervisibility, visual representation has a notably brutal history within the construction of blackness. As Frantz Fanon exposed in Black Skin, White Masks, when the white gaze seizes black bodies, acts of seeing and being seen are then implicated in a process of racialised violation. The challenge lies in the obligation to uncover this violence without falling into the trap of reproducing it via the circulation of its image.

In her practice, Mujinga joins forces with a strain of Black Studies that advocates for the disturbance of visibility as an act of political resistance. Her works do not set out to resolve, but rather to inhabit spaces of ambiguity, finding strategies of defiance in the use of tactics that impede sight. Camouflage, as explored in the three-channel video piece Disruptive Pattern (2018), is one such strategy. In the work, a semi-transparent figure is seen dancing in looped sequences, their face merging invisibly with the grey background and their movement obstructed by digital patterns that have been variously super-imposed. In the video installation Throwing Voice (2016), the artist’s avatar moves back and forth against a chroma key background, partly disappearing within it. The images are accompanied by a voiceover of several black women giving beauty advice on YouTube, including how to treat skin to make it fairer, de facto erasing one’s blackness. The power of invisibility in chroma key green is another reappearing feature in Mujinga’s practice. Used profusely in her videos, the green hue often spills into the exhibition spaces, bathing them in an alien-like atmosphere. This formal strategy is used in her current presentation at the Hamburger Banhof, for which she has been awarded the prestigious Preis Der Nationalgalerie 2021.

Sandra Mujinga, Throwing Voice, 2016

Courtesy of the artist and Croy Nielsen

Beyond any digital magic tricks, green is also a colour traditionally associated with ectoplasm: a substance that in Spiritualism is believed to induce the materialisation of spirits. Back to the ghosts that inhabit our present and Mujinga’s work, Avery Gordon has written extensively on haunting as a social phenomenon, focusing on the ingrained presence of the Atlantic slave trade. Gordon disagrees with Derrida on his definition of haunting: while for the latter, the spectre represents the “constitutively unknowable” [5] shaping our existence, for Gordon a “ghost is a real presence that demands its due”. [6] When conceptualised in this more material way, ghosts show up to notify of a wrong that has been repressed, but is nonetheless continuing to shape the present - like Seth’s murdered baby daughter in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In 19th century Spiritualism, ghosts appeared in Victorian living rooms to give space to the marginalised forces of society. Mediums all over the Anglo-Saxon world, primarily women, temporarily surrendered their identities to use their bodies as channels for the manifestation of invisible presences. The medium’s voice became a way to utter the unspeakable, from issues of women’s rights to homosexuality and abolitionism, the ears could reach where the eyes would not. The iconoclastic tendency in Mujinga’s practice is similarly expressed in the artist’s valorisation of the aural over the visual. Working as a DJ and musician, as well as a visual artist, the fluid world of sound is a pervasive feature in her works. This emphasis on music and soundscapes serves not only to escape the visual exploitation of racially marked bodies but could also be read as yet another way to unpack our present through the radical world of ghosts.

[5] Avery Gordon, Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity, borderlands 10:2, 2011, p. 2.

[6] Ibid.

Sandra Mujinga, Disruptive Pattern, 2018

Courtesy of the artist and Croy Nielsen

Francesca Astesani is an independent curator and writer based in Copenhagen. She is one of the directors and funders of curatorial agency South into North, which specialises in art commissions. She holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Milan and one in Contemporary Art theory from Goldsmiths College in London.