- “Darkness is the degree to which the state can have their way with you”: A Conversation between Artist, Curator, and Writer Christopher Cozier and Sean Metzger
The special issue of Theatre Journal on “shootings” prompted consideration of the recently reinvigorated Black Lives Matter protests at a transnational scale. These events revealed current as well as historical tensions between actual shootings and the various media platforms that show them to or conceal them from the larger world. What lexicons are available to express the relationships between state-sanctioned violence and its representations? Whose voices do we hear and whose voices remain silenced? What echoes from the past inform the present discussions around anti-Black violence?
These questions brought me to artist, curator, and writer Christopher Cozier, whose remarkable oeuvre, including drawing, installation, painting, and printmaking, offers an ever-evolving formal vocabulary for thinking through Black life within the fluid dimensions of past and present. In this manner, his work performs a response to social, political, and economic developments that have rendered certain bodies silent not only in his native Trinidad (which has, per capita, one of the highest murder and kidnapping rates in the world), but across and beyond the Caribbean. Cozier’s art [End Page E-31] creates dialogues across geographies and temporalities that might reconfigure how we understand some of the critical idioms of the moment.
The re-energized Black Lives Matter movement has returned focus to anti-Black violence. Perhaps we could start with that phenomenon and think about the impact of that movement in Trinidad and/or other spaces. What histories does the current moment activate for you in terms of violence?
Well, I think it’s really a hemispheric concern. It has implications for Europe, but I think it’s a hemispheric problem related to social and economic history in terms of how African and Asian people ended up on this side of the planet and became Black. We were brought here to work. We came as property to create wealth in Europe and in the colonies. And I think in some ways there is violence around that presence, in terms of trying to corral people into those conditions. There’s this kind of weird Romantic notion of the slave as an innocent Adam-like entity,1 as opposed to the slave being an aware person who has been conscripted into this narrative, into this economic engine, where they have no other life or other social reality. When you visit different parts of the world, you see how the Black presence is understood. For me, growing up in the Caribbean in the sixties, I saw two kinds of violence: there was the self-violence, of us trying to break ourselves to continue the process of “civilizing” ourselves, and then through the post-independence education system, bending ourselves into useful citizens. And in fact, when I was growing up, it was a kind of nationalist propaganda. They would show us images of people in the United States getting beaten and lynched. And then they would show us images from South Africa with bearded men with guns and make us feel that we were lucky to be in the Caribbean, reiterating that our new leaders protected us and that they had created this sort of social environment where we would find dignity and social transformation. But not everyone benefited. And then, of course, came the late sixties and early seventies when a younger generation produced by this same narrative started to question it. The falling out of Eric Williams and C. L. R. James in ’66: like everywhere else in the world, there was a generational conflict, whether it was the school of ’68 in Paris or the civil rights movement in the US.
In the Caribbean, in Trinidad in particular, there was the Black Power movement, and some people spoke exclusively about African values and things like that. But it takes a wider imagination to understand it as a generational war about people looking at other options, to look beyond the industrial capitalistic model. That’s when violence comes about yet again...