Jeannette Ehlers: Archives in the Tongue: A Litany of Freedoms
On ViewKunsthal Charlottenborg
Archives in the Tongue: A Litany of Freedoms
June 11–August 7, 2022
Inside the magnificent Charlottenborg Palace of Copenhagen, Moko Jumbie is waiting. Projected onto a towering screen, the mythical figure of Afro-Caribbean folklore is stalking the streets and waterways of the city. Moko Jumbie is dressed in shimmering gold and purple, and teetering on stilts. The West African god was said to have crossed the Atlantic to protect and heal the enslaved who had faced the same journey over the seas. Jeannette Ehlers entreats Moko Jumbie to travel to Denmark for her exhibition at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg and bring their powers of healing to a country that was once one of the greatest slave-trading nations in the world. Moko Jumbie dutifully arrives in the city before daybreak, and as the sun rises, their rhythmic, ritualistic movements seem to exorcize Copenhagen of its demons. Is Moko Jumbie surprised by the splendor of a city built on the legacy of colonialism? Has the residue of slavery truly been expunged?
From the altar of Moko Jumbie, a meditative aura hangs in the air over Ehlers’s exhibition, which intertwines history with myth and memory, and the traditions of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Ehlers’s own reckoning with Danish colonialism was sparked by a trip to Ghana in 2008, when she was confronted by a history often forgotten in the liberal landscape of Denmark today. The Danish-Trinidadian artist, whose grandfather was one of the Windrush generation that traveled to Britain in the early 1950s, was overwhelmed by the tales of enslaved Africans transported in the thousands to the Danish West Indies. History, after all, is written by the victor. Ehlers illuminates an African proverb in pink neon at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, which had been scrawled on the wall of a Danish prison in Ghana: “Until the lion has their historian, the hunter will always be a hero.”
Relics of the African diaspora appear throughout the galleries. In one moment, these are the fearsome remnants of colonialism and in others, they are objects of joy and renewal. The whip made of rope, fabric, hair, and banana leaves which dangles from the wall is both a weapon of the slave masters and a tool of spiritual enlightenment for the carnival performers of the Caribbean. An installation of stilts titled Jumbie Tree: The Flesh of Tree. The Flesh of Skin (2022), conjures Moko Jumbie and the traditions of carnival, as well as the timber of transatlantic boats. Ehlers’s exhibition is filled with such nuances and exchanges of meaning.
Braids also recur through the Charlottenborg Palace and speak to the cultural and political role of hair in the Black community, as well as its historic means to map the routes to freedom for slaves, mask secret messages, and hide rice and seeds. In the wondrous installation We’re Magic. We’re Real #3 (Channeling Re-existence into Hallowed Grounds of Healing) (2022), braids fill an entire room like a spider’s web that feeds into vats of bubbling black liquid, the kind that might be used to fix the hull of a ship. In a performance during the show, braids erupted from the walls of the palace and linked the architecture to individual performers, revealing how the body is intimately connected to its surroundings and the legacy of the past.
An installation created specifically for the Kunsthal Charlottenborg takes its inspiration from the spiritual mafa ceremony of the African diaspora performed to honor one's ancestors. Foil thermal blankets cover the ground and evoke the perilous journeys of refugees across land and ocean, while the bright screens of mobile phones are the votive candles of the ritual, streaming videos of fires burning during protests throughout history.
Ehlers’s practice is equally rooted in the exchange of words, recalling how stories were passed down orally by slaves, and voices were raised in song during the trials of hard labor. An excerpt from Hans Christian Andersen’s play The Mulatto (1840) emerges from a wall and recounts the scene when a runaway slave urges “the mulatto,” Horatio, to burn the plantations to the ground, only for Horatio to refuse. Written some thirty years before slavery was abolished in Denmark, Andersen’s story remains hauntingly prescient and calls to mind the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement ignited by the death of George Floyd in 2020 as well as those of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Close by, Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice can be heard warning, “There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people in that society who feel that they have no stake in it.”
Ehlers’s exhibition gives voice to those who historically lacked such a stake and whose stories continue to be little heard in Denmark. But Ehlers does not exert influence on the stories they tell. In a conversation inscribed on a scroll, the rappers Tupac Shakur and Kendrick Lamar consider the value of voice, quoting Lamar’s 2015 song Mortal Man: “Because it’s spirits, we ain't even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.” Lamar and Tupac join the cacophony of voices that rise in the Charlottenborg Palace as the living, the dead, and the spirit of Moko Jumbie grapple with the residue of history.