Exhibition of Interest
‘Our fantasies are like beautiful nightmares’
with Teresa Kutala Firmino
A document processing ethereal downloads, Teresa Kutala Firmino’s practice has, so far, invited its spectators to value the mythological, theological, ancestral, biological and psychological as equals that work together to make the plane we collectively exist in. In this week’s ______Of Interest we consider this assertion in the context of the exhibition Owners of the Earth Vol III: Owelema, currently exhibited at Galerie Nagel Draxler in Berlin.
With a practice governed by magic realism, as much as it is by speculative fiction, multidisciplinary artist Teresa Kutala Firmino examines the construction of dominant histories. To challenge these widely accepted understandings of the human experience, she spends time assessing the gaps they present.
In 2022, artist Teresa Kutala Firmino began an ongoing investigation into Black femme survival. She called it Owners of the Earth.
“I think from a very young age I’ve always been interested in escapism,” says Kutala Firmino. Walking to school, the artist would make her way through affluent neighbourhoods that she would imagine herself existing in. In every house was an opportunity, a new plot where she could pretend to be someone far from who she was. However, more recently, the artist’s interest peaked after a difficult pregnancy. “I had preeclampsia and had a really traumatic experience when I was giving birth,” she sighs. “They say it’s from inherited trauma.”
Tracing the trauma by looking at the women who came before her, Kutala Firmino happened upon her grandmother who fled Congo with her three sons when the civil war broke out. During her escape, making her way through the Congo forest, her grandmother encountered apparitions that were so tall she couldn’t see their heads and so light she couldn’t hear their footsteps. “Sometimes, in order for people to disassociate from their pain, they create other worlds outside of them… Our fantasies are like beautiful nightmares.”
Confronting the intricacies of Black women’s generational, almost genetically embedded, grief, the artist has endeavoured into subversive territories. Here, hallucinations generate hope, dissociation offers rest and delusions revive self-love. In the first act, titled Vissaquelo, the protagonist awakens; peaking through the veil that has filtered her understanding. Reaching its peak, the awareness mutates into consuming rage in the second act titled Beyond victims, villains and vixens. Fatigued, the narrator sobers to find herself in the third and currently unfolding act: Owelema. An Umbundu word referring to darkness, the act unpacks the part of grief characterised by shame.
An alternative to self-deprecation, Owelema shelters the protagonist in delusions. As the exhibition text says, darkness is positioned as an old friend. Pleasant, but familiar “the menacing terrain does not conjure fear. Instead it’s consuming weight offers an opportunity to avoid. A welcomed distraction to the grieving process, Owelema depicts the beauty of stagnance triggered by a shame so gripping, it distracts from opportunities of accountability. It’s easier to be absorbed by Owelema than to confront grief.”
How else are black women to endure?