text by Keely Shinners
images by Tabita Rezaire
Tabita Rezaire could call herself many things––a Berlin-Biennale-exhibiting new media artist, a young polemicist, a Kemetic yoga teacher. Instead, Rezaire prefers to call herself a “healer-warrior.” Walking into her Yeoville flat, high on a sacred hill on the eastern side of Johannesburg, she offers me tea from her impressive apothecary of herbs, spices, and dried flowers. We sit down on her straight-from-2002 pink fuzzy love seat, chatting, listening to the new Frank Ocean album. She offers me Carmex for my chapped lips (Johannesburg is drying out my skin), and when she begins to talk about her artistic process as a process of healing, that powerful word, “healer,” lives up to the artist who utters it. Not in the exotifying sense of the "benevolent medicine woman," but clever, powerful, and without exoneration.
As we converse, Tabita is paying attention to my every word. She calls me out when I ask about “postcolonial digital space,” the flippant amnesia of such a loaded prefix. She questions why I would call her work “futuristic,” as if passing over the history and the cultural exigence that informs her art towards some vague, utopian “imagination of the future.” And she’s right. She’s a warrior. “You have to fight, fight, fight…” she insists, in order to “spread love and light.”
She says, “My work is a diagnostic.” Rezaire is in the business of identifying sicknesses we carry within us everywhere we go—our histories, our implicit and explicit prejudices, our language. She is able to see through the veils of the “free, open Internet” to its capitalist underbellies, using the very tools of the Internet to undermine it. Rezaire is calling us out on the spread of colonial viruses—on our computers, in our history books, in our words.
KEELY SHINNERS: So the info on your website says you are a “new media artist, intersectional preacher, health practitioner, tech-politics researcher, and Kemetic/Kundalini Yoga teacher. Can you tell me more about those practices and how they relate to each other?
TABITA REZAIRE: They are just different tools to serve the same mission on different plains: emotional, mental, spiritual, historical, political and technological. My work/life/purpose is searching for technologies to help us thrive and walk towards a state of soundness. It’s about healing.
SHINNERS: So you would say you’re more of a healer than an artist?
REZAIRE: That’s the same for me (maybe not in general). Both deal with feelings as raw material: their own, those of their people and those of their times. For a healer must be able to go through the wounds, their own first, and from that place surface with the powerful knowledge of pain, and grow out of/from it, then guide others to do so. It is transforming a state of unbalance into a more sustainable place, or maybe finding balance in discomfort. Both move energy, and can be truly transformative if the person, community, and times are ready. Ready to do the work it demands. I’ve used the term “healer-warrior,” cause healing is a battle with yourself and the world, you have to fight, fight, fight, to be able to love, love, love. Love yourself unconditionally and fight all that keeps you from loving yourself. Once you love yourself you can start loving, respecting and caring for people, for communities, for life.
SHINNERS: On the question of health, do you see art as healing? In what way? Is it therapeutic for you, the audience, or both?
REZAIRE: To be honest, it sometimes gives me more anxiety than anything else. I guess that’s because of the industry, not the practice itself. My art practice is about sharing my own healing journey, spiritually and politically; trying to figure out shit or why I feel like shit. To heal, you first need to understand where it hurts and why. How to carry what must be carried. I guess that’s what I’m interested in. As you heal yourself, you heal generations before you and generations to come.
SHINNERS: So it stems from an illness?
REZAIRE: We are all dis-eased, and rightly so, as we’re children of toxic environments.
SHINNERS: What is E-Colonialism? Colonialism is centuries, centuries old, but the Internet is a whole new realm of possibility. How do the temporalities and functions of colonialism and the Internet overlap?
REZAIRE: I don’t think it is different temporalities. If we’re not living under colonialism per se, we’re living in its legacies, which are still omnipresent. The politics and architecture of the Internet came from the same heart; it’s the same narrative of exploitation being written over and over again, with the same people being exploited and the same people benefiting from it all. There’s this quote I love from Sardar who said back in 1995 “The West desperately needs new places to conquer. When they do not actually exist, they must be created. Enter cyberspace.” That‘s so deep. It’s not a domination based on land – which still exist for all the people whose lands are still occupied and plundered – but one based on people’s dependency and conditioning through the use of digital technologies. The Internet is molding us into global subjects, which reads to me as a newly designed colonial subject.
SHINNERS: Or a capitalist subject.
REZAIRE: Same story, the colonial enterprise is a capitalist one. E-colonialism controls our minds through our consumerist desires. We don’t realize we’re being manipulated, controlled, watched, monitored and exploited. We’ve become so trustful of demonic powers. Even if we know, we don’t care - or not enough to let go of the comfort and benefits it grants us (some of us). We accept, and worse, enjoy an abusive framework they’ve created for us. It’s scary.
SHINNERS: If you could rid of those powers, the Internet as a means of communicating globally could be a useful tool. Do you see a possibility of postcolonial digital space?
REZAIRE: I’m still waiting for that postcolonial life, as postcolonial societies have integrated ‘colonial’ hierarchies into their orders. Maybe the term decolonial offers more space, it’s a different practice, one that tries to unlink and disengage from Western authority. It asks: how do you become your own center? as opposed to existing within a “minority,” “periphery,” or “3rd world” rhetoric.
Decolonial Internet? I don’t know. The Internet is built on violence, literally. I’m currently making a work on the relationship between undersea cable layouts and colonial shipping routes. The history of our connectivity is entrenched in colonial history.
SHINNERS: There’s so much entrenchment.
REZAIRE: Yeah. Under the sea, lie so many traumas. It’s like a graveyard for so much history and loss, yet water is healing. The Internet is reproducing that duality, of erasing non-Western people and histories while providing space and tools for remembrance and celebration.
SHINNERS: How does spirituality relate to your art and healing practice?
REZAIRE: Spirituality is about connection. It’s about remembering how connected we were, we are, and how connected we can be. It nurtures a connection to yourself, your spiritual beings and ancestors, to the earth and the universe and helps build connections to each other in a meaningful way. That’s what spirituality is for me. That’s why it’s related to technology. Digital technology wants to connect us, but it doesn’t do it very well, because it comes from this Western anguish. We had the powers to connect (some still do), through telepathy, communicating with plants and ancestors, and channeling information through dreams or meditation. We have access to everything that has been and everything that will be. But we just shut down because of the way we live, think and feel or have been forced to. We’re disconnected. That’s the diagnostic. That’s the contradiction we live in, disconnection in our ultra-connected world. So, I strive for connection in my spirituality.
SHINNERS: Why do you use self-portraiture in a lot of your work?
REZAIRE: That’s not what I’m doing. Yes I use myself, but I’m just a channel to communicate and share information; a messenger. I’m working on a self-portrait series though…
SHINNERS: I’m really interested in the images you use in your work, like gifs of unicorns and galaxies and shit.
REZAIRE: I never used a unicorn.
SHINNERS: [Laughs.] You’re like, “Oh no, I would never do that.” You pair these images with what I think are really abstract concepts of decolonizing digital space, reimagination new space, architectures of power. Is your aesthetic a means of making your content more accessible?
REZAIRE: These might be abstract concepts for you, but they're very real. In terms of aesthetic, popular culture is also what I consume, so it feeds my imaginary, Im also interested in its function and power. People often ask me if it’s ironic. It’s not, but humorous yes. Well I guess I use the language of the Internet to speak about the Internet so the content led to the form somehow.
SHINNERS: Looking at your stuff online, at first glance, you think, “Oh, this looks dope.” That’s superficial, obviously, but it draws you in. Then you start reading and you’re like, “Ok, now I have to confront my whiteness, my Westerness, here we go.” I didn’t feel like it was ironic. It was pulling you in.
REZAIRE: It’s a strategy, for sure.
SHINNERS: I was introduced to your work by reading A WHITE INSTITUTION’S GUIDE. I showed it to my friend this morning and she said it was like “guerrilla girls but less stale.” It seems like you’re doing the same thing, calling out the art world on its foundation of white heteropatriarchal bullshit. I’m interested in this because you’ve seen a lot of success, being in the Berlin Biennial this year, exhibiting in solo and group shows all over the world. How do you navigate being in that space all the time? Would you call yourself a “guerilla artist,” trying to subvert the institution?
REZAIRE: It’s hard. But I’m trying to move away from that inner conflict of constantly questioning what it means for me to be a part of an industry I despise? Or that despises me even more. Am I selling out? Am I a hypocrite? Does my work become meaningless? Is my mission co-opted? All those questions. At the same time, I need and want to sustain a practice. That’s very real.
SHINNERS: You have to survive.
REZAIRE: Yes, but beyond this, what I want to do and keep doing is making work. That’s my purpose. So, it’s about finding ways to sustain my practice. How will I be able to do what I want to do? Yes, the art world can help. Yes, white-centered institutions can help. Being part of an industry that is problematic as fuck helps me making work that I believe in, that’s the contradiction. For now, it’s about making it work for me, within boundaries that work for me. I spend too much time and energy being like, “I’m not making sense”… no I am making sense, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
Claudia Rankine, said something I liked about institutional recognition, although I may not fully agree with her: “it’s also for me the culture saying: We have an investment in dismantling white dominance in our culture. If you’re trying to do that, we’re going to help you. And that, to me, is encouraging.”
SHINNERS: A lot of your work seems futuristic. Is imagining a future something you’re thinking about in your work?
REZAIRE: What makes you say my work is futuristic?
SHINNERS: That’s a good question. I guess I fall into my own trap of saying that.
REZAIRE: I guess you think of the use of the Internet, but it’s super contemporary, entrenched in our everyday lives. So it’s not futuristic.
I’m working in the present for the restoration of our past, which will guide our future. My work is not about the future, I don’t believe in this type of temporal linearity anyway. The past, present and future are arbitrary; they can be remodeled, repeated, discarded. I’m however interested in the way our past has been constructed and the effects of this construction on our collective consciousness. Similarly, what effects can the rewriting of our past have on our present and futures? The now is fundamental yet irrelevant, it’s always a negotiation between what has/might have/could have been and what could/may/will be? The now is frightening. How do you exist in the world? How can we deal now? How can we love each other now? How can we love ourselves now?
I’m definitely working for a shift that is constantly (re)occurring over and over. I’m part of a wide community of seed planters, I might not see the fruits of my work but the seeds will sprout, maybe not in this lifetime but that’s ok. Planting seeds, that’s what I’m about.