Bodies of Knowledge: An Introduction by Emma Dabiri

by Emma Dabiri on 22 July 2022

The author, academic and broadcaster reflects on the video proposals made by international contributors responding to a brief to create a new body of knowledge systems.

The author, academic and broadcaster reflects on the video proposals made by international contributors responding to a brief to create a new body of knowledge systems.

I am in awe at the ways this dream list of 50 plus international contributors have responded to the brief, demonstrating the scope, innovation, imagination and plurality that exists amongst people of African descent across the world. Having worked on Bodies of Knowledge over a period that has spanned two years, I’m truly so excited for this body of work to be seen. It is not only a powerful repudiation of reductive notions of blackness, it is also beautiful, challenging, moving, humorous, and incredibly inspiring.

When I was first invited to work on this project with Nick Knight, addressing the absence, misrepresentation and fetishisation of the black body in visual culture and fashion, I immediately felt that it was necessary to problematise this idea of the 'black body' in the first place. In order to do so, I wanted to expand beyond the realm of the physical body, to attend to the metaphysical, intellectual and spiritual domain - which the reduction of black people to 'black bodies', a process that has its origins in the infrastructure of the transatlantic slave trade, attempted to deny we had rights, or even access to. 

The title Bodies of Knowledge was chosen very specifically to highlight intellectual and epistemological traditions, referencing the canons of knowledge that have been created by people of African descent for millennia, in clear contradiction of racist narratives that sought to deny that we were capable of philosophy, and that our sole value was to be found in our bodies and their commodification and consumption by Europeans. Bodies of Knowledge offers instead a new constellation of alternative knowledge systems. 

Nonetheless, in highlighting the cerebral, we also reject the type of dualism (that is the legacy of Rene Descartes 'mind-body' 'culture- nature' division) which posits a separation between the mind and the body, and the superiority of the former over the latter, recognising instead the innate interconnectivity of the body and the mind. This understanding is expressed by the Ebinum Brothers in their stunning short film for the spine, where the narrator informs us that 'I acknowledge my body and its connection to the mind – the spine is the centre of that connection, without the spine, we wouldn’t be speaking.'

I am interested in the spaces beyond rigid identarian notions of blackness, in working with concepts like fugitivity. According to the critic Fred Moten, blackness is something 'fugitive'; it is an ongoing refusal of standards imposed from elsewhere. In his book Stolen Life, he writes, 'Fugitivity, then, is a desire for and a spirit of escape and transgression of the proper and the proposed. It’s a desire for the outside, for a playing or being outside, an outlaw edge proper to the now always already improper voice or instrument'. The Nigerian philosopher and post-activist Bayo Akomolafe talks about blackness as freedom, ‘a roaming principle’ as he calls it, with the power to shift, mutate, adapt and be responsive. 

Many of these works are infused with that spirit of fugitivity. From British artist and academic Jade Montserrat who explicitly explores the concept in her short on the feet, to the visionary Willy Ndatira who worked with Xavier Scott Marshall to subvert narratives of 'origin' and 'birth', and reframe the very notion of origins, in Thigh the Origin of The World this 'desire for and a spirit of escape and transgression of the proper and the proposed' is apparent.

The various textures that co-exist between these films complement each other so beautifully, from the chills I got listening to Rukayah Sarumi narrating her essay To Be Human Is To Endure And To Create Is To Express The Human Experience – An Ode to Black Women’s Art, to the shift in gears as we experience Shayne Oliver’s fantastically frenetic Hollywood Meltdown - while also demonstrating the expansiveness that is blackness, throughout. 

From Canadian digital creator Sy Blake’s soothingly meditative film on the arm, accompanied by the powerful poetry of Ezi Odozor, and music from The Way of The Orishas: The Yoruba Drums of Trinidad performing Obatala (the Yoruba Sky Father and creator of human bodies according to Yoruba cosmology) which feels like a prayer, ancient and futuristic simultaneously - the essence of Afrofuturism! - to British Kenyan artist Phoebe Boswell’s abstract short film on the hip, where we are presented with brown hips and thighs, visible on a flowery eiderdown with a soundtrack that is comprised from a rich tapestry of African American voices interwoven with each other, riffing on everything from the meaning of 'hip', to 'origins'; theories from black consciousness, to snatches of references of painful histories of Jim Crow and segregation, to the DIY YouTube leftist aesthetic of Mettamodernist’s offering, Bodies of Knowledge offers an alternative way of thinking about 'black bodies' that is located within the anti-captivity practices of the black radical tradition. I hope you find inspiration and joy from it. 

Finally, I gotta shout out Nick Knight for his knowledge, generosity, curiosity and sense of adventure. It’s been an immense pleasure to work together on this project 

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