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Artwork by Kandis Williams
Artwork by Kandis Williams

Artist Kandis Williams Presents New Work Exploring Primitivism

In an exclusive essay accompanying a new body of work, Kandis Williams unpacks the colonial legacy of ‘primitivism’ in Western art history, and her desire to “deconstruct and reconfigure the spaces of representation”

Lead ImageArtwork by Kandis Williams

This story is taken from the Summer/Autumn issue of Another Man

Primitivism, as delineated within the lexicon of colonial art, encapsulates a Western art movement characterised by its appropriation of visual forms from non-Western or prehistoric societies, predicated on the presumption of these cultures’ inherent simplicity or developmental inferiority. This cursory interpretation belies the profound historical and ideological complexities primitivism harbours, especially in its colonial manifestations. 

Susan Buck-Morss’s seminal work, Hegel and Haiti, serves as a pivotal critique, rigorously interrogating Hegel’s master-slave dialectic against the backdrop of the Haitian Revolution. Buck-Morss challenges the Enlightenment’s bifurcation of epistemology from material reality, addressing the scholarly neglect of the slave trade during the Dutch Golden Age. Her critical redirection towards the visual arts employs image-making and perception as potent tools for historical critique and reconstitution. 

Primitivism is unveiled as a deeply entrenched racial-colonial framework, facilitating a logic of evisceration through fetishisation, imagery, dissonance, and replacement. This process, which simultaneously fixates and vacates content pivotal to colonial subjects, perpetuates Western ontological primitivism, actively engaging in practices of capture, acquisition, archiving, and ‘preservation’ that significantly shape the distribution and sequestration of knowledge through archival channels. This logic of evisceration, critically analysed by Dylan Rodriguez in his discussions on racialised violence and systemic devaluation, further compounds the complexities of disentangling from primitivism’s grasp. 

Central to the operation of Western ontological primitivism is its role in sculpting the necropolitical imaginary, as delineated by Achille Mbembe. This theoretical framework posits a sovereign power delineating who may live and who must die, relegating specific populations to the margins of livability. Primitivism not only predicates but also perpetuates the necropolitical, where life’s valuation and devaluation are contingent upon adherence to Western constructs of humanity and civilisation. 

Within this paradigm, Black existence is perpetually construed as anterior, subaltern, or foundational to its human dimension, engendering a narrative that marginalises and otherises, thereby rationalising ongoing forms of exploitation, violence, and erasure. This historiographical relegation, challenging Black life to contest narratives that seek to diminish its contemporaneity and agency, underscores the profound impact of primitivism. 

In my practice, I aim to dissect the constructs and residual impacts of primitivism within Western ontology and societal structures, unravelling the complex narratives surrounding race, gender, and power dynamics entrenched in primitivism. Through a messy multidisciplinary approach grounded in textual analysis, I let myself meander through and get fucked up by the challenge to deconstruct the systemic frameworks of Western ontological primitivism and its mechanisms of cultural capture, acquisition, archiving, and ‘preservation’. 

My work critically engages with the harmful scopic regimes underpinning Western ontological and political formations, including white supremacy and the logic of evisceration, while probing the internalisation of ontological terror. Integrating contemporary dance and performance, I illuminate the embodiment and performative expression of this internalised terror, offering a counter-narrative to the dehumanising narratives sustained by primitivist logic. 

Through my work in film, theatre, dance, and collage, I expose primitivism’s foundational role in constructing the necropolitical imaginary. I posit that contesting these ontological and epistemological frameworks transcends intellectual discourse, manifesting profoundly in the corporeal and performative realms. Through my work, I not only aim to deconstruct but also to reconfigure the spaces of representation, challenging entrenched systems of thought and offering new paradigms of perception and mythologisation. 

This story features in the Summer/Autumn issue of Another Man, which is on sale internationally from April 25, 2024. Pre-order here