“We Plot to Undo the World”

“We Plot to Undo the World”

“It is now urgent to dare to know oneself, to confess to oneself what one is, to ask oneself what one wants to be.”

—Suzanne Césaire, Tropiques


When I was a child, I never had much to say about a Sunday church service, except that I didn’t want to be there. Enduring the dragging hours and unadorned Southern heat, I tried to avoid the redolent church ladies with satyr faces who scowled at anyone who didn’t praise their Lord as they deemed fit. On and off for 12 years, like many other children in our congregation, I read the Bible in French, sang the hymns in Creole, and spoke rebelliously in English.

Luckily, by my own will, this all came to an end, mostly because I was too precocious for my good, constantly questioning the world around me and shedding any belief that there was a God to begin with. So, I stopped going to church at 13 and with that, lost access to a weekly gathering of Black people who were committed to singing, dancing, and dressing their best.

My rejection of Christianity as a spiritual practice is something my mother—though not my agnostic father—continues to criticize me for today. This is mainly because I tipped the spiritual divide in our home toward the heathens; on one side stood the pious, my mother and sister, and on the other stood the unbelievers, my father, my brother, and me.

The things that I missed, which I was too proud to admit to my mother, were the fashion shows and sitting in a large room with Black folk, among the gratuitous display of wheezy-haired dames and the improvisational musicians who could make everybody’s grandma stir. Songs shielded the roar of unadulterated gossiping from echoing through the room. On the whole, the church was where we poured our heart into showing up for the holy: with a complete aesthetic engagement.

I attended Simone Leigh’s Loophole of Retreat in October. An extension of Simone Leigh’s US Pavilion exhibit at the Venice Biennale, the retreat gathered artists, activists, and scholars from all over the world. Curator Rashida Bumbray, along with Professors Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman, probed attendees to focus on Black women’s creative and intellectual labor. The event evoked something I had not felt since I was 13: the feelings of the African diaspora being conjured in a place that was not intended for them. I witnessed that art is more than the individual act of seeing; it is a collective act of doing, a tradition that newly emancipated enslaved African Americans carried out.

In 1861, Harriet Jacobs was the first known African woman to publish her narrative about her enslavement. That year, at the outset of the US Civil War, nearly 4 million people were enslaved. Rhetorical abolitionist efforts by people such as Harriet Jacobs show that her biography alone could not set those people free. Rather, it revealed—through text—precisely why they needed to be free.

Then and now, art and scholarship, on their own, cannot and will not solve the problems we have inherited. But we don’t have much at all if we deny ourselves the possibility to create new visions of the world we want through text and (moving) images. Speaking with filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary, curator Legacy Russell asked, “How do we care for Black women in the frame?”

The Loophole of Retreat’s origin comes from Harriet Jacobs, who lived in a space bearing that name after her self-manumission. Escape is the trigger, and the scheme is simple: when Black Americans come together, we must reflect on, as Toni Morrison queried, those for whom we are responsible. Like Jacobs’s, Morrison’s ghost floated above us during this retreat, especially as curator Negarra A. Kudumu reminded us, citing Morrison, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”

I was honored to be one of the Black women invited to Leigh’s retreat, held on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the former site of a monastery established in the tenth century. The hourly chimes of the church bells reminded us that we were on holy ground, rendering Leigh’s extension of the Pavilion into an artistic and scholarly communion.

It’s fitting that the scene replicated the elements I most adored about a Black church: people were dressed to the nines, with waist-long braids, multicolored locks, and a whiff of shea butter. As I sat in a crowd with hundreds of others, the person in the pulpit guided the audience through call and response. Bumbray led us into the three-day symposium through song and tambourine; in another presentation, cultural anthropologist Aimee Meredith Cox guided us through group meditation. Our bodies shifted in our chairs, our voices carried through the stone hall, and we discovered the wonder of what it meant to be alive and insightful.

Much different from a museum, where we view an art piece in isolation, perhaps with only the curator’s terse remark, this was an artistic pilgrimage where emerging and seasoned creatives were present. Most of us do not have the opportunity to meet our intellectual muses or to sit in a pew with other admirers, solely for the purpose of reflecting with gratitude.

The gathering was carved out of Black women in their full beauty and form, how the monuments—and, by extension, Black women—were made to resist society’s prejudices. But it went beyond that. This was a series of intellectual sermons directed by Black women, who, in different ways, were grieving, strategizing, and loving and wanted a community to accept them. But more than at a church, as scholar Saidiya Hartman remarked at the pulpit, “When Black women gather, we plot to undo the world.”

Art is more than the individual act of seeing; it is a collective act of doing, a tradition that newly emancipated enslaved African Americans carried out.

What was present at the retreat was feminist solidarity. The gathering was made possible by a historic event: in 2022, Simone Leigh was the first African American woman to represent the US Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. Her international recognition is unwavering, given that she is an avid artist who steadfastly puts community into her projects. That is to say, her production is not just a visual choice but is grounded on collaborating with intellectual powerhouses, most notably Black women scholars who move beyond the respectable and make space for wayward lives. Simone opened the door for Black women—including me—to be patrons of the Venice Biennale during a period when Black resistance also provided an intellectual imagination.

Leigh’s reverence for gathering Black women moves into different contexts, communities, and art practices outside the commercial art world. Her works were exhibited in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, and for a Guggenheim conference that year, she included African American scholars Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt among her co-conspirators. The Loophole of Retreat provided another iteration of their collaboration. In short, echoing the intellectual labor of Black feminists, the Loophole offered critical and caring lexicons that were not solely relegated to Black Americans. Contributions also came from the African diaspora, such as a reading by Ethiopian American writer Maaza Mengiste from her novel The Shadow King and clips presented by Brazilian film scholar Janaína Oliveira from Colectivo Mulheres de Pedra, an Afro-Brazilian collective whose work touches on the afterlife of enslavement.

From tangible mixed-media work to performance art, the artworks were richly exhilarated and undergirded by the spectacular. What we encountered at the Loophole was a collective praxis committed to remembering, reconstructing, and reconvening, with the goal of centering our elders.

For example, Annette Lane Harrison Richter, the great-great-granddaughter of Annetta M. Lane, one of the founders of the United Order of Tents, spoke about her ancestral lineage. Founded in 1867, the society was mainly composed of Black American women nurses who provided care to everyone, irrespective of racial background. As Lane Harrison Richter spoke, she portrayed Black women not solely as aggrieved objects plunged into despair but as unbounded majestic subjects exercising freedom. Artist Jessica Lynne and curator Oluremi Onabanjo crisply presented visual grammar for remembering. They showed us through performative oral collaboration that we can do so through photographs to show how the diaspora moves. From Lagos to Virginia, they created a map of their ancestors and illustrated how Black women are not just objects of photography but also archivists. Our stories move, even if we don’t. There is, as they noted, “an artistic task of monumentality.”

Black writers such as Toni Morrison, Lorraine Hansberry, Suzanne Césaire, and Zora Neale Hurston were cited and circulated precisely because they’ve had a towering presence in Black literature. They were passionate about capturing the lives of Black people and rendering them fully, with a taste of unapologetic honesty about Black beauty. They played with the languages they felt familiar with—from the French language to the Black American vernacular—with an acute sensibility. The message in their work is that they refused to be cowed by people who expressed shallow critiques of their work.

Occasionally, granular tears flowed toward people’s cheeks, on account of raw honesty from the pulpit. Some people wept when Vanessa Agard-Jones discussed her aunt, an elder who went from being an active writer to enduring bodily disintegration. Agard-Jones articulated a theory for what was happening: her aunt was going into the ground. A tussle between laughter and whimpering was cast when Sandra Jackson-Dumont discussed her mother, a confident Black woman who not only believed that she was the “bad bitch” but also turned her home into a curatorial enterprise—surrounding herself with the people who mattered most to her.

I cried, and not only because of the emotional layer that was activated. I cried because of the beauty in seeing Black feminist philosophy as a polysyllabic enterprise that was sedimented into every aspect of their lives.

Art can impart insight, displace anxiety, and redirect the eye from the mundane to the spectacle of life. For many good reasons, aesthetic vocations can also be founded in rebellion; likewise, they can be aligned with the elite. For the Afro-Italians I briefly spoke to, the trip to Loophole of Retreat was not a financial strain; however, those coming from South America or the African continent had to pull resources from universities and institutions to make it to Venice.

Art indulges, intermittently and imperfectly, a psychological desire to move beyond the arbitrary boundaries of life, and the questions around class, privilege, and access to these spaces reveal that Black people are not cut from the same cloth. Nevertheless, the Loophole of Retreat, as a symposium and art pilgrimage, showed everyone’s willingness to expand the notions of beauty and center people who have been historically overlooked.

Leigh has been applauded by the upper echelon of the art world, and her work invariably ends up speaking directly to her muses—Black women. Of course, the work can and should talk to other people, and the political statements, the history, and the aesthetic choices have the potential to move many souls. Many of the invited artists illustrated in real time that their scholarship and performance, in their complexity and beauty, can unfurl the restrictions that are often placed on Black women’s bodies. There is a global feminist art making that is conjuring freedom as an aesthetic practice. As the filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich asked, “How do we create something that is not immediately valuable to capital?” That might mean demanding visibility for people who are often overlooked and offering them the opportunity to occupy spaces that were not designed for them, but doing so collectively. As the British writer Gail Lewis put it, “There is no end to coloniality and captivity, but there is a life after.” With hundreds of Black women and nonbinary people gathered at the Loophole of Retreat, what did that precisely mean?

The Fondazione Giorgio Cini in the former San Giorgio monastery, site of the retreat, is named for the son of Vittorio Cini, a late Italian industrialist who was a minister of communications, one of the wealthiest industrialists of his time, and deeply embroiled in the Italian fascist party during Benito Mussolini’s reign. As I write, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party leads a coalition in the Italian government, with far-right politicians holding power for the first time since World War II. When people conjured their ancestors, I was reminded that fascist and crypto-fascist elements of the Italian state have little to no respect for the Black people living in Italy or those risking their lives by crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach it.

Shortly after returning to Berlin, where I live, I chatted with many of the Black women I knew, sharing what I felt that weekend and receiving compassion from Black women friends I have known for years and collaborated with through art and writing. Sharing my elation with a Nigerian American artist friend, I texted, “I’m flowing in Black feminist bliss. I love us. I love the compassion people were radiating. I loved having my soul filled about how I felt seen.” She replied, “I’m not surprised at all; a space for Black women at that scale and intellectual depth just hits different.” I quickly responded, with enthusiasm, “That’s it; when we get to dictate the terms on how we love each other and show up for each other, a weight is lifted, and our spirit can fly.”

These are the dialogues that I have been having for years, through texts, at dance parties in the early morning—mostly with friends and co-conspirators, people who dare to be part of a broader Black congregation. We get to determine who we want to be.


This article was commissioned by Tao Leigh Goffe. icon

Featured image: Installation view of Brick House by Simone Leigh at La Biennale di Venezia 2022. Photograph by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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