WHEN YOU REALISED YOU WERE: WHITE. EUROPEAN. MALE.
Credits:Essay published for the catalogue of the Mauritius Pavillion of the Venice Biennial (2015)
I will always be elsewhere than in my own self.
In the morning I am the first to leave, walking to the canal in search of a ferry. I wander through the empty alley, with the light in the state of becoming that feels like being in the theatre. The odour of the Laguna brings me back to reality. The water is calm and the breeze is, too. Just the sound of a single engine on the empty canal. You start talking immediately – as if you needed to confess it all right there and then: It changed your life, you said, when you realised you were: White. European. Male.
The pieces in this exhibition come from artists living with different cultural and aesthetic canons. There is a ceaseless discourse of contradictions between the artefacts, which are related by an invisible but permanent trace. Difference is what these works have in common. They are all separate artefacts, each one born from a disparate set of realities, values, imaginings and fantasies. The dialogue between these works resists resolution, and yields instead a set of agreeing and disagreeing singularities that define and re-define each other. Their shared space is a space of mutation, a space that is perpetually decolonized by asking: How much can we stretch our limitations, realizing and dismantling our habitualised aesthetic perspective, and comprehend the other’s point of view?
To achieve full awareness of the very familiar seems an impossible aspiration. In The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism, Vilém Flusser, quoting Heidegger writes: “I don’t perceive my home, but I do sense it dimly, and this dim sensation is called pretty, pleasant, or nice in aesthetics. All people have that sense of their own home because they are used to them.”
Being habituated means being unable to see what it is you are looking at. Habituation is to let the new become familiar. Habituation is old consciousness, is unconsciousness. In the same way, if we don’t recognise our aesthetic as a perspective conditioned by our own habitat, then we will be unable to understand the other’s perspective formed from different habitus. Vilém Flusser says that “(people) are enmeshed in their heimat, and so they are unable to transform the ugliness that approaches or touches them into something that is perhaps beautiful. Patriotism is symptomatic of a diseased aesthetic.”’
Patriotism is to be habituated to one’s geographical destiny without questioning it. We do not choose where and to whom we are born, so if we accept it and label it as ‘beautiful’ without challenging this habitualised perspective, we are certainly looking through a distorted lens. This is the reason why patriotism is symptomatic of a ‘diseased aesthetic’.
The person that does not have a fixed home, such as the migrant, understands the nebulousness surrounding the aesthetic of habituation to a certain home – but she/he is not tethered to it. Instead her/his sense of home is created by many different people and places that are gained and lost over time. Quoting the Mauritian poet Khal Torabully: “For I am a Creole by my rigging, an Indian by my mast, a European by my foreyard, a Mauritian by my quest and French by my exile. I will always be elsewhere than in my own self. I can but imagine my native land, my native lands?”
Migrants have the potential to awaken the habituated aesthetic of the settled people and to try to let them see that something that appears to be ugly is instead beautiful. Migrants experience life in a way that allows a detachment from prejudgments. Confronted with a reality vastly different from that to which they were habituated, they gain the opportunity to become conscious of the opaqueness of their previous aesthetic of life. Therefore migrants might be the figure that represents alterity as well as awareness.
Mary Shelly, the British writer, published Frankenstein, or ‘the modern Prometheus’, between 1816 and 1817. During the same years Mauritius was colonised by the British and changed its name from Isle de France to Mauritius (which was the previous name before the French colonization).
Mary Shelly published Frankenstein in 1818 anonymously. In 1822 Frankenstein was republished under Mary Shelly’s proper name.
After the re-conquest of the Mauritius by the British, French traditions were maintained in the island. In 1835 slavery was abolished in the British Empire.
At some point in life – if we are lucky – we can choose, soon enough, whether to accept a given single truth or rather to challenge the latter to embrace the constellation of truths that surround us. In this case the question would be: What responsibility do we have in the ‘bringing forth’ and find a way to share our truths? At the end of the day we still need a point of continuity in the vision of life, even if the continuity is made by discontinuous patterns. But, if I say that the Mafia is beautiful because I am habituated to it I am committing a crime. So the challenge for ‘bringing forth’ truths is also ethical.
Dr. Frankenstein’s failure is the inability to feel that the creature – that today is interestingly recognised as Frankenstein, which was the name of the doctor – is at the centre of its own being and not an extension of his own. Considering alterity as an integral part of the process that transforms, we can follow Levinas’ ethical explanation of alterity. For Levinas the ‘self’ should ‘desire’ that the other’s differences be respected, therefore naturally placing the other as the centre of her/his own constellation of truths. The Doctor desired to give life to the creature, but failed to desire the respect of its difference.
Can this same failure of desire be one of the elements constituting what has been termed the ‘clash of civilizations’ – the post Cold War attempt to theorize the future form of conflict within a globalised world?
Quoting Rosi Braidotti: “the others are metamorphic creature that have a kaleidoscopic function and they make us aware of the mutation that we are living in this post nuclear-industrial-modern-human era.”
It might make sense to consider that to understand the experience of another and to challenge our aesthetic canons, we should start to work with the most profound of our sensitivities. This might have the power to subvert our approach to a sensible vision of reality. But how can we construct a way forward, a field of vision that exceeds our habituated perspective?
One proposition would be to understand something by considering it through its opposite. For example: What is freedom if not the companion of imprisonment? What are ideals if not the masters of bare reality? What is beauty if not the child of ugliness? Opposites, when considered together, can help us form a new definition of each as interrelated rather than opposite to the other.
In the Seventh Man, John Berger and Jean Mohr wrote: “To try to understand the experience of another it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it, and to reassemble it as seen from his. The subjectivity of another does not simply constitute a different interior attitude to the same exterior facts. The constellation of facts, of which he is the centre, is different.”
To try and understand the other’s subjectivity it is not enough to look at the different choices that they make, but rather the choices they cannot make, those choices that have been denied to them. We understand that several points of view exist and with them a scale of necessities, for what is important changes from individual to individual. Necessities can be fulfilled based on the possibilities that one has. One’s own point of view changes also depending on how much we understand that ‘to choose’, which is what makes humans free, is a possibility that changes for individuals and societies.
So how can we dismantle the world as we see it and reassemble it as seen from someone else’s?
It was in 1953 when Martin Heidegger wrote The Question Concerning Technology. During the same year, Samuel Beckett presents Waiting for Godot at the Théatre Babylon in Paris, transsexual Christine Jorgensen returns to New York after a successful sex reassignment surgery in Denmark, Hussein is crowned Kind of Jordan, Elisabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom and Stalin suffer a stroke after an all night dinner.
“From one citizen you gather [an] idea…”, Mark Twain wrote in his 1896 non-fiction book titled Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World when he visited Mauritius. This is also the title and thematic proposition of the Mauritius Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015 hosted in Palazzo Flangini, a building of Venetian baroque design facing the Grand Canal. And here we are, with our respective identities you, a curator of the Pavilion, and I, a fellow artist, a visitor.
Twain understood that perception differs from citizen to citizen, but it seems to me that the Mauritius Pavilion, today, wants the viewers to feel as refugees.
A mutation has happened in the curatorial perspective, viewing the artefacts within their ‘aesthetic alterity’ whilst at the same time presenting art as a way forward towards a ‘Dialogue Among Civilizations’.
In 2015 the Ancient sites of Nimrud, Hatra, Sharrukin in Iraq and Palmira in Syria are demolished by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. NASA’s Dawn probe enters orbit around Ceres becoming the first spacecraft to visit dwarf planet. The Republic of Ireland votes to legalise same sex marriage (but abortion is still illegal). More the two hundred thousand refugees will disembark in the coasts of Italy. The Mauritius Pavillion participates for the first time at the Venice Biennal.
Berger, J., Mohr, J., Blomberg, S. (2010, second edition) A Seventh Man: a Book of Images and Words about the Experience of Migrant Workers in Europe, London, Verso Publisher.
Braidotti, R. (28 Nov 2014) Alterità in metamorfosi e soggettività nomadi, translated by Angela Balzano. Available from:
Flusser, V. (2003), The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism translated by Kenneth Kroneneberg, Champaign, University of Illinois Press.
Global Debate: Dialogue of Civilization. Avilable from:
Huntington, S.P. (summer 1993) The Clash of Civilizations?, The Foreign Affairs. Available from:
Twain, M. (1913) The writings of Mark Twain: following the equator, a journey around the world. Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York.