The Grammar of Decolonisation by Carlos Garrido Castellano

The Grammar of Decolonisation: On Daniela Ortiz’s They Will Burn with the Flame of the Mother’s Torment and in Ashes Transform

Carlos Garrido Castellano

The practice of Daniela Ortiz has consistently explored the potential of art in the configuration of decolonial societies. Ortiz was previously based in Barcelona, Catalonia, part of Spain, where the legacy of colonialism is still uncritically celebrated and mobilized to justify an image of the country as modern and cosmopolitan. In this context, Ortiz has systematized the ways in which such uncritical and celebratory image affects and excludes racialised bodies from public debates.

In landmark collaborative projects such as The ABC of Racist Europe (2017), Ortiz highlights the interconnectedness of experiences of exclusion and systemic marginalization. Subverting one of the most pervasive tools for socialization, the abecedary, which paves the ground for any future linguistic and social articulation by associating each letter with “known words”, Ortiz built up a parallel abecedary, one that demonstrates that the grammar of everyday racism is largely dependent on its naturalization. By virtue of this process, exclusionary ideologies are embedded into regular behaviour by becoming habit, by being turned invisible and omnipresent.

Ortiz’s exhibition at SIRIUS, “They Will Burn with the Flame of the Mother’s Torment and in Ashes Transform”, expands on this work, reconfiguring decolonization as a flexible and subversive grammar. Languages are structured, fixed entities that condition processes of individual definition and collective socialization. The set of rules that is summarized in any grammar is intended to be normative, which is to say that it is intended to function as a marker of belonging and proficiency, as a conditioning element. Ortiz’s most recent work calls for an urgent movement of decolonization, one that celebrates the subversive potential of the creative traditions violently silenced and made invisible by exclusionary grammars, by the coloniality of being socialized in ways that render specific bodies, knowledges and beliefs invisible, unreadable, unthinkable.

Projects such as They Will Burn with the Flame of the Mother’s Torment and in Ashes Transform force us to look again, to look anew, in search for a flexibilisation of the norm. The emphasis on the transmission of knowledge and expertise among women in the series urges for a reconsideration of the effects and the limitations of authoritative grammars, revealing that codes are often put into practice in subversive ways, through iterations that challenge the norm.

They Will Burn with the Flame of the Mother’s Torment and in Ashes Transform also engages with a much-needed debate about race and racism in postcolonial Ireland. In particular, this series of banners refers to sites of systemic violence (such as the Magdalene Laundries) that bring together religious authoritarianism and selected gender abuse. By tapping into Renaissance and Baroque iconography, Ortiz achieves to portray the historical dimension of these processes of abuse while addressing their long-lasting impact. At the same time, the inclusion of specific detention centres and asylums from Ireland, the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas clearly highlights the global dimension of the processes of violence against racialised women. The resource to iconography arises here as a clever way of connecting the norm and its subversion: as with grammar, religious iconography normalize a particular representation, generating a code shared by those who are “in the know”, in this case through religious education.

Daniela Ortiz, Risk Factors, 2019, inkjet prints, dimensions variable; photograph by Brian Mac Domhnaill; courtesy the artist and SIRIUS (detail)

Spanish colonialism relied on iconography to impulse religious conversion in the Americas, thus acting as a tool for governability. The history of creativity in the continent, however, clearly demonstrates that iconography always acted as an open door calling for transgressive images and subversive representations. Quite often, these images and representations were, in fact, the result of collective action. They provided the ground for a radical socialization, one that borrows from the code of official iconography in order to connect symbols and presences anew.

Something similar happens in the series of banners that Ortiz presents now at SIRIUS, which appropriates religious banners from a feminist and decolonial perspective, one that achieves to confront the systemic violence that makes specific individuals and communities more vulnerable to processes of incarceration, dispossession and exclusion. In this work, Ortiz places dispossession as part of the long-term history of coloniality and the long-lasting consequences of the intricate project of governance that brings together Eurocentrism and heteropatriarchal normativity.

Carlos Garrido Castellano is a Lecturer at University College Cork. He is co-convenor of the MA in Global Cultures and Languages and coordinator of the BA in Portuguese Studies. Currently he also acts as department’s research officer. His research examines issues of creative agency, cultural activism and cultural labour in relation to processes of decolonisation. He is the author of Beyond Representation in Contemporary Caribbean Art (Rutgers University Press, 2019), Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future (State University of New York, 2021) and Literary Fictions of the Contemporary Art System (forthcoming 2022 with Routledge).  

They Will Burn with the Flame of the Mother’s Torment and in Ashes Transform by Daniela Ortiz, November 03, 2021–February 19, 2022 at SIRIUS Arts Centre.

Daniela Ortiz, They Will Burn with the Flame of the Mother’s Torment and in Ashes Transform, 2021, Oil on canvas and mixed media, dimensions variable; photograph by Brian Mac Domhnaill; courtesy the artist and SIRIUS (wall installation view)

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