Copenhagen

Jeannette Ehlers, Moko Is Future, 2022, 4K video, color, sound, 12 minutes.

Jeannette Ehlers, Moko Is Future, 2022, 4K video, color, sound, 12 minutes.

Jeannette Ehlers

A few years ago, Jeannette Ehlers and La Vaughn Belle erected I Am Queen Mary, 2018, a towering monument of a Black woman seated in a throne-like chair in front of the West Indian Warehouse in Copenhagen. The sculpture, which was a proposal for a permanent installation at the site, commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the sale and transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States. The installation’s impact on general awareness of the country’s colonial history in today’s Denmark, dominated as it is by the discourse of liberal nationalism, cannot be underestimated.

It is with the reverberations of this recent project in mind that I entered Ehlers’s exhibition “Archives in the Tongue: A Litany of Freedoms,” which comprised eleven works—installations, videos, and sculptures—alongside a series of performances and a film program. Curated by Awa Konaté and Lotte Løvholm, the exhibition elucidated how Ehlers’s probingly poetic work explores the boomerang effects and multilayered contradictions of colonial modernity. Rather than attempting to abolish the concepts, monuments, and institutions of art that have served colonialist interests, she used the material and imaginary space of art to draw attention to, heal, and reform a Danish historical present. This approach is most evident but also most challenging in the video installation Moko Is Future, 2022, which opened the exhibition. The work is based on the carnivals first organized by enslaved people in the Caribbean in the eighteenth century, inspired by the colonists’ masquerade balls. In the center of the large gallery space, a vertical projection showed Moko Jumbie (Healer Spirit), masked and dancing around on stilts through Copenhagen’s streets and squares and among its historical buildings and statues. The character appears at once fragile, strong, and caring. But given that today’s Denmark is a faltering welfare state with rock-hard immigration policies, and that the show itself was mounted in a palace built with the spoils of the country’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, the piece left me with little sense of exuberance.

“People who have stake in their society protect that society, but when they don’t have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.” So ends the excerpt from a speech by Martin Luther King that makes up the soundtrack to the nineteen-second-long video work There Is Nothing More Dangerous, 2015. In Coil: The Sensuous Ways of Knowing, 2022, two different types of video footage played simultaneously. A monitor showed a close-up of hair being carefully braided, while a voice-over told a story about how enslaved women used their cornrows to encrypt information and hide rice and grains. Close by, YouTube clips of uprisings from streets around the world were displayed on iPhones attached to selfie sticks. If the art space can be a tool for violence and domination, what secret acts of care and resistance might it nevertheless conceal?

The neon wall work Until the Lion, 2021, which illuminated the room in its pink glow, reads UNTIL THE LION HAS THEIR HISTORIAN, THE HUNTER WILL ALWAYS BE A HERO—a sentence the artist saw written on the wall of a fort in Ghana that belonged to Denmark during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The meaning behind this deceptively simple found poem gradually opens up: Might the artist be the hunter, the lion, and the historian, all at once?