Kukily—pronounced coo-clay—is a word that means “all of us” in the language of the Kpelle people from Liberia. The name was given to the collective by Colleen’s mother who formed the group together with Lina, Julia and Jasmín. We spoke with them about what it means for the Afro-descendant community to create in Argentina and beyond its national borders.
Kukily Collective, Photo of the performance "Bustos" (Busts) at the event Maratón LODO, 2018, Buenos Aires, Argentina. There are the four members of the collective: Colleen Ndemeh Fitzgerald, Jasmin Sanchez, Julia Cohen Ribeiro, Lina Lasso. Photo: Sabia Vargas.
Kukily Collective, “Negra, negra, negra soy” (Black, Black, Black I am), Hardfort, CT, USA, 2022. Photo: Maza Rey.
Photo of the work in progress "XTRÆNCESTRAL" 2019, Casa Cultural Sofia in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There are two members of the collective: Julia Cohen Ribeiro and Lina Lasso; and our collaborators Florencia Gomes, Ngwazile Rissonga Ndama, Aylee Ibañez, Sol Ramos, and Oxana. Photo by Tom/Manon.
C& América Latina: I am interested in thinking beyond your individual creation, that’s why I’d like to know more about your collective process and for you to take advantage of this space to tell us a little about what you are doing.
Colleen: Our collective processes are something very powerful and important in two senses; first, in the sense that we are the collective: Collen, Julia, Jasmín, and Lina, but also that the collective work we do is with other Afro-descendant artists as well as the members of our community who are not necessarily artists. So, our art is also political, and we are interested in talking about those processes in that sense.
Jasmín: We are currently working remotely, and we are in different countries. I am in Brazil, Colleen in the United States, and Julia and Lina are in Argentina. At one time we were all together in Argentina, and although we are all on different paths in our lives, we have remained a tight-knit group. Long before we were forced to work remotely in the pandemic, we had already begun the process because of changing countries. What surprised me, since I was already working with other groups, was the way we managed to maintain our non-hierarchical, very horizontal configuration, even remotely. For example, we had the opportunity to lead an artistic residency, even though the four of us were not in the same place as where the residency was. Over the past few years, we have been learning how to make this collective work, bringing together the experiences and cultures of the places where we are, with a very unique place which in my case is a diasporic space, to a virtual quilombo, not in the technological sense, but in the spatio-temporal sense. And that is something that surprised me as someone who works with art, that everything happened so naturally.
C&AL: Conceiving of that spatio-temporal instance as a quilombo or palenque, as you describe it, is worth delving into. In the Americas, work like yours and your approach, helps to understand the dimensions of diaspora and to strengthen the very concept of it.
Julia: I feel that the diaspora, the Afro-diaspora comes as an extension of the path that has led us to get to know each other as we’ve moved through this country. We met at the national women’s meeting that takes place here in Argentina. It is a very big, feminist meeting that is really like a pilgrimage to a city in Argentina where many people meet. And there is also that element of diversity, of meeting and recognizing each other, and starting to work from there, always very much in the spirit of that collective march. So, I feel that the Afro-diaspora nourishes us from the beginning. The different voices, the different shapes, the different stories.
Jasmín: And before we met in Rosario, which was the city where we were at that first meeting, we also had our own migration experiences in our personal lives, which are moves that, for example, Lina makes when she goes from Colombia to Argentina, Julia and I from Brazil to Argentina, Colleen from the United States to Argentina—along with all her prior experience of having gone from Liberia to the United States. So, we have had movement in our lives that has made us find ourselves in that space where we bring our experiences, which are those of black women on the move across the continent.
So, therein lies the question: What does it mean to be a black woman in the Americas? When you move, you have beautiful experiences and also very ugly ones, you form and share an identity. And that is what I understand about diasporic movements in Latin America: the places that we, black bodies, occupy, the movements of groups who migrate, who meet and come together as quilombo communities in order to keep their culture alive. That is what diaspora is to me, and it is something I only recently got to know as an adult. I did not hear that term when I was a child.
C&AL: There is a memory of blackness in the Americas that is increasingly common. This year is the first time Argentina’s census has incorporated this dimension of ethnic Afro-descendant self-recognition. How are you experiencing this aesthetic and political shift in representation?
Colleen: The Argentinian State, on the whole, has a culture budget that promotes art, but as black women working on Afro-descendance we feel a difference: our projects address that, focus on that, and even so, there is very little institutional interest. For five years we have been asking ourselves: Where are we from? Who are we? What are our roots? And now, only recently, there are some public policies, as you see with the census or other cultural areas, that are supporting Afro-artists for the first time, but only in things that interest them, you know? Just acknowledging the existence of Afro-people in Argentina. But when we dare propose the Afrofuturist search for our ancestral roots—bringing them from the future, as well as from the past—, the people who read our proposals—who are the ones who control all the infrastructure—, do not have the slightest idea of what we are talking about.
Julia: Our circle is much smaller here, but we have historical references. Argentina is in that initial process at the country level, but it is true that there is a history of many years of resistance in each province, which has brought us to where we are today. The achievement of the census, for instance, the visibility of María Remedios del Valle, who was an important historical figure, though very hidden. That is what happens. As references, we have very strong women who have dedicated their lives to this, to speaking and teaching us, the youngest generations, many things we did not know about Argentinian history itself. Our community recognizes us and finds in our performances a place to participate, a space to talk about our ancestry more within the community, something that is also important, you know? Where we see and listen to one another.
Jasmín: We started the visibility process because we needed to start thinking about public policies, to talk about the black populations in countries like Argentina, which kept us invisible for a long time. We, as a black community, are talking about the future, about technology, building agency from visibility. Art institutions, museums, expect us to talk about racism or about what they already know about our cultures…
Colleen: That is the evil that comes from whiteness. The expectation that things will come little by little because they are already coming…
Kukily Collective, Photo of the work in progress "XTRÆNCESTRAL" 2022, Buenos Aires, Argentina. The four members of the collective are: Colleen Ndemeh Fitzgerald, Jasmin Sánchez, Julia Cohen Ribeiro, Lina Lasso; and collaborator Florencia Gomes. Photo: Kukily
That is the evil that comes from whiteness. The expectation that things will come little by little because they are already coming…
C&AL: Here, in Colombia, the policy of inclusion, which is advancing little by little, is a liberal project which, yes, is supporting much more art from our communities, there is more money, there are more venues. But we have to ask ourselves: How far are the institutions that are financing our projects willing to go to tell our story? We need to create spaces where it is possible to speak to cross those limits. How does the Lagos Biennial offer this opportunity?
Jasmín: Something that is interesting about the 2023 Lagos Biennial is the theme of refuge, and I think that based on everything we talk about it is clear that our processes address refuge. Talking about that meeting space, that security, to strengthen oneself and to strengthen the community. So, from our other works we take the experience of collecting, of finding what our past is, what is ancestral in what is ours, and we project it toward a utopian future rather than a dystopian one.
Julia: With the concept that we created, of XTRÆNCESTRAL, initially we thought about how we survive in this world. There is something at the core of the collective that keeps us alive and this notion of refuge, as an art installation and performance piece, in some way is an invitation to think from this worldview of African art about our lives, which cannot be reduced to a museum space. It is how we live, how we eat, how we think about ourselves, how we let ourselves go through that artistic experience as a life experience. Which goes beyond the instance of exhibition.
Colleen: The installation is a spaceship. From the beginning the dream was that this ship would travel with us from one Afro-descendant community to another through different parts of the world. For this project we have another collaborator, the Afro-Argentinean architect Florencia Gómez, and for most it is the first time in Africa. One part of the project itself has to do with thinking and dreaming about the future, making futures that are better than the moment we are in. So, this spaceship is going to continue its journey to where it has to go. I’m sure about that.
Kukily is an Afro-feminist artistic collective that creates interdisciplinary works through audiovisual media, installations, performance and cultural management.
Nicolás Vizcaíno Sánchez (1991-) artist, etc. Occasionally writes from the mountains of Colombia.
Translation: Sara Hanaburgh