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#Vulnerable Observers

Imaginations of Care

Curator Keyna Eleison making a case for expanding knowledges.

Imaginations of Care

With the rise and prominence of the “Move fast and break things” mindset, coupled with the “hustle culture” that has been perpetuated by industries and media, we have been indoctrinated into the capitalist ideology that care is for the weak. Even if this hasn’t been blatantly communicated, the constant promotion of assumptions that women are the main caretakers and sole beneficiary of care indicates this. We’re aghast at the many times when women and predominantly Black women have had that responsibility dropped at our feet with the expectation that we would carry it. Care in this limited view purports that the laborious and unpaid emotional work of care in its various forms—parental care, child-rearing, self-reparenting and advocating for all—is the job of women.

Since the early 1980s and in recent years, the concept of care has been studied ad nauseam, expanding research from feminist theorists into industries with care as its core function, such as advocacy groups, NGOs operating in nations that have been stripped of their resources to benefit other countries, healthcare, and other sectors researching care. Care is now being infiltrated by another academic discipline: design. What does this new form of co-opting signal to the rise or demise of care? We took some time to speak with Brazilian curator, the co-Artistic Director of Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, writer, researcher, and educator, Keyna Eleison on the concepts and imaginations of care in today’s culture and society.


Traditionally the burden of care has fallen on the shoulders of women, and especially women of color. How can care expand beyond the borders of gender? How do you define and implement care?

Historically, the concepts associated with care are violent. Care, as understood in Eurocentrism, relates to the responsibility for something or someone that is smaller, lower or weaker. A caretaker is usually someone who takes responsibility of, or cares for, someone who is unable to care for themselves. The core of this violence stems from the understanding of Eurocentric love. This love, in the case of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, acted in the name of the love for humanity, slaughtering them for the land and the spread of knowledge. This love rendered us, as non-Westernized societies, the “other,” and thereby invisible. This love labelled us—women—weaker. However, being weak isn’t something negative, but therein lies the problem—in your understanding, care is reserved for and should be done by persons who fit these criteria.

“Many times care is limited to women and girls because we choose to believe that care is only for the weak, and in turn weakness requires care. [...] Knowledge around care can and should go beyond the borders of traditional gender to include transgender and non-binary bodies, men and nature.”

Many times care is limited to women and girls because we choose to believe that care is only for the weak, and in turn weakness requires care. I, however, refuse the limits of this word. I choose to understand that care can be more. The concepts and applications of care are limited, and we need to expand the concept of care. Knowledge around care can and should go beyond the borders of traditional gender to include transgender and non-binary bodies, men and nature. I consider myself as nature, and have no desire to be man or woman, in the Eurocentric way of thinking; as nature, I can be truly free.

In my practice and research about love, care is deeply intertwined. It sheds light on what is invisible—what this word made us forgive and forget. We need to acknowledge the erasure that occurred when Eurocentric knowledge was implemented and forced upon us. We the many were made to forget our indigenous intelligences. Historically our knowledge taught us the connection with our bodies, communities and nature were stolen and sometimes eradicated, but within those indigenous ways of thinking, the secrets of care are preserved.

In the Afrocentric way of doing, care is centered around how we build the society, the community and the family. It is rooted in notions of equity, with a focus on how we can equalize our differences. If one person is stronger, they would be better suited to do the work. Someone else that is able to cook well would be able to provide food to remain strong enough to continue working. It is focused on community and the collective, not about individuality. Care is part of the African philosophy of Ubuntu: “I am, because we are.”

As a curator, but also as the Artistic Co-director of the Museum of Modern Art, what are you actively trying to unmake right now?

Sometimes our bodies in silence unmake things. I like to smile when I say that I’m a curator, and my smile is bigger when I say that I’m the Artistic Director of MAM, which is the largest museum in Rio, and one of the largest in Brazil and Latin America. Because, of course, I don’t look like an artistic director, but I am! I need to understand that I can speak; I can be a body that makes a difference, and sometimes that unmakes difference, in a space. But I need to understand even more, when I choose to be in silence and when, structurally, I cannot speak or be heard.

“I need to understand [...], when I choose to be in silence and when, structurally, I cannot speak or be heard.”

I’m understanding when I can do things alone, and when it’s good to be together. I, along with a friend Pablo Lafuente, are the co-Art Directors at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM Rio). We applied together for the position, and now we work collaboratively. I love and need to bring others together. Of course, individual achievement is very important. Sometimes I want things only for me, like chocolate or champagne with orange! But if I have this with my friends, maybe we will finish it sooner, but it was so much better and more fun! I prefer a very good and short orgy, to a long, orgasmic experience alone! We need to understand the pleasure of our own bodies, but we also need to understand that when someone can touch us, we become more together. This kind of unmaking movement that I do is not being alone.

Your use of language and choice of words are very sensual, connecting to the body and food. Where does this emanate from?

This is very important because it starts as violence against my body. As a feminized and racialized body, I am a sexed object. When you see a Black woman, your first thought might be that she is good in bed—maybe she can cook, maybe she can sing, but you probably never think that she is going to be your boss. And I’m very bossy!

When some say to me that my use of language is very sensual, for me, this is a wonderful compliment because I prefer if my words can touch someone more than just being heard. We can choose how to use our bodies and be sexy; to write sexy, think sexy. We must understand that sexuality is something that is not connected only with Freud’s thinking—Freud was important, but we can think beyond what science has taught us. In Eurocentric theories about sex, we connect with the kind of sexuality that brings us sickness, whereas I want to connect with sexuality in a healthy way. I work hard to try to unmake the idea that sexuality is something that is only connected with sex organs—the largest sexual part of our bodies is our skin. But now with the pandemic and social distancing, maybe it is our eyes. This can be very sexy. Maybe we can exchange the skin for the eye, and maybe things that we don’t see can be sexier!

Historically, when we talk about understanding and talking about the body, the prevailing thought is Eurocentric, which sees the mind split from the body. As beings socialized and educated in Eurocentric ways, we are indoctrinated that we need a soulmate, and we are beings with separate entities of body and soul. But the first university on the planet was on the African continent—the University of al-Qarawinyyin in Fez, Morocco—and in its teachings, there was an understanding of the body as a complete and full being. The epistemologies around traditional and cultural African and native ways of thinking are very, very intellectual. I can understand this as a Brazilian person, speaking Portuguese, but also as someone who uses many African languages, native and indigenous languages for eating, doing and thinking. I understand the complexity of the indigenous, and other ways of knowing, no longer need to be minimized but embraced.

Could you talk about your understanding of these other systems of knowledge and ways of knowing as they relate to technology?

We are starting to understand that maybe this difficult time of the global pandemic is a time to stop, slow down and learn from the knowledge of others. I have been learning more and having conversations around Yoruba and Orisha deities in African spirituality. There is an Orisha that is called Omolu, which is the Orisha for sickness and health. Some daughters and sons of Omolu are saying that we are in a very important moment. We need to understand we are using a lot of forces and power of other Orishas to make our work, our living together. In African spirituality, we always use the word “downloading” around receiving messages from the Orisha. We were already uploading, syncing and downloading before computers. It was only in recent generations that the word “downloading” started being used in the scientific way, with the emergence and advancements of technology. We were already doing this as human beings for centuries.

We are all connected with one or many Orishas, at any given moment. Because of Eshu, the Orisha of all communication, we are able to communicate in a way like never before. Together with Ogun, the Orisha of technology, we are connected through new modes of communication. Their gift of knowledge makes it possible to be connected to any part of the world, with translations for almost all languages. But we prefer to not talk about the forces and the intellectuality of the Orishas, and talk about bytes, downloading, bits and websites.

“Let’s use corn as an example that came to us from the indigenous peoples of the Americas. [..] They worked and understood that with time and hard work, we could turn something that was inedible into something that we eat regularly. This is technology.”

If we use life as a case study, we get used to understanding the way we interpret the application of technology. Let’s use corn as an example that came to us from the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It took almost a millennia (approximately 7,000–9,000 years) of labor to bring us what we now know as maize. Today, we don’t think of the work that went into its research, development and production; it is not considered. This knowledge is more than what can be taught in a university; it’s more than intellectuality, more than technology that changed one inedible seed. They worked and understood that with time and hard work, we could turn something that was inedible into something that we eat regularly. This is technology.

Can you elaborate on the idea of the pursuit of sustainability as a process of healing, as it relates to sensuality and sexuality?

It’s completely connected! Our vocabulary was expanded and we got new words like “sustainability,” but these new words can make us very sick. We are always trying to be better, stronger, and more intelligent—always more, more, more. We need to always be more than we are, but there are so many wonderful things that we don’t pay attention to or see. The movement to understand the structure and its violence can sometimes be stronger than fighting that structure directly. Sometimes pointing at it, bringing definition, is stronger than trying to kill that thing.

“We are always trying to be better, stronger, and more intelligent—always more, more, more. We need to always be more than we are, but there are so many wonderful things that we don’t pay attention to or see.”

When I say with a smile that I’m a curator, I can understand that I am smiling sometimes for something that struggles against me as a Black, female body. I know that, I like to smile about that, because I’m still healthy, making connections and working hard! I have more imagination about that, and understand the limits  the word gave me. When I say that I’m a curator with a smile, I choose to break the dominant idea of being a curator. When I’m talking about healing, I’m saying that art is a system that can make us sick. I prefer not to fight against art—I prefer to embrace it and make it better. There are popular ideas that say: “we struggle in order to stop struggling.” Through African and indigenous systems of knowledge, I accept that we sometimes need to understand the sickness and be inside of sickness, but I prefer to be healthy, to see the sickness and understand that sometimes, I can choose to be at peace with that and breathe inside of that.

How have you been dealing with the global protest action around racism and calls for institutions and communities to do work around dismantling white supremacy and oppressive structures?

One year before the pandemic, while working with a group of artists here in Brazil, we realized that we needed to understand how to breathe. We need muscles, our brains, our stomachs—we need our whole bodies to breathe. I am referring to anti-ableism, too, but also to anti-racism. We don’t need to know the color of our skin or how much we have in our bank accounts to breathe. We are living thinking that we are so perfect, that we have so much money, that we are so white—and we should be concentrating on breathing. I really, really want a lot of things around capitalism, around this structure that makes me sometimes sick. I know that.

That’s why I’m a curator, and not a shaman or Griot. The two words “shaman” and “Griot” are Eurocentric words. “Griot” is French for the Senegalese way of thinking about storytelling—it means “a school.” A person can be a school—this I knew from my grandmother, my grandfather, and my ancestors, but I really learned this through my Kung Fu professor. “Shaman” is a person who talks about the health of the community. They sometimes choose within a community that maybe it is time to die, or maybe it’s time to live. It’s time to eat or to breathe, because they understand the community. We need to understand that we already can be connected with this kind of intelligence, beyond the Eurocentric way. Indigenous knowledge and spiritual ways are put in a category that is “not from the brain” and is not intellectual. It is not so eloquent, and therefore silenced as it is deemed inferior.

“Sometimes you cannot see. It’s not always about seeing more. Understanding that we cannot see is wonderful, because we don’t need our eyes to look for everything.”

Sometimes that silence is the best way to understand things and to heal places. Sometimes we need to talk a lot, but it’s only to research what you don’t see. I am unmaking the struggle through and with “more things we don’t see.” Sometimes you cannot see. It’s not always about seeing more. Understanding that we cannot see is wonderful, because we don’t need our eyes to look for everything. We’ll have more things. We just need to see it and put it in the same place. This is another unmaking thing. I’m trying hard—not alone—to put these intellectualities in the same place. I don’t want to put them together as one, because they are not one.

Keyna Eleison (she/her) has an MA in Art History and a BA of Philosophy. She is member of the African Heritage Commission for awarding the Valongo Wharf region as a World Heritage Site (UNESCO), and was a curator of the 10th. International Biennial of Art SIART, in Bolivia. Currently, she's a chronicler of Contemporary & Latin America magazine, and Professor of the at the School of Visual Arts at Parque Lage, Rio de Janeiro. She's also Artistic Director of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro in partnership with Pablo Lafuente.

Nina Paim (she/her) is a Brazilian designer, researcher, curator, educator and activist. Her work revolves around notions of directing, supporting, and collaborating with others. She was born in Nova Friburgo 168 years after Swiss settler-colonialists displaced indigenous puris, coroados, and guarus. Love and fate brought her to Basel, where she now seeks to transmute her daily immigrant anger into care practices of making space. She curated the exhibition “Taking a Line for a Walk” at the 2014 Brno Design Biennial, and co-curated “Department of Non-Binaries” at the 2018 Fikra Design Biennial. Nina has served as the program coordinator for the 2018 Swiss Design Network conference “Beyond Change” and she also co-edited its resulting 2021 publication Design Struggles. A two-time recipient of the Swiss Design Award, she is currently a PhD candidate at the Laboratory of Design and Anthropology of Esdi/Uerj, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and director of Futuress.

Cherry-Ann Davis (she/her), a designer, writer, and marketing strategist from the Caribbean twin island of Trinidad and Tobago. A success story from a marginalized and impoverished community, her drive is to inspire other young people, especially girls, to achieve their dreams. Dearly departed from the corporate world of advertising, she is now flexing her design muscle as a visual communications specialist by combining artistic practice, business acumen, and storytelling traditions. A common thread in her design practice is creating Caribbean stories in an authentic Caribbean voice, respecting the past while looking to the future to sustain our stories, and using accessible formats to share these stories.

Several questions of this interview were posed within the framework of Making and Unmaking Exhibitions: Sustainability in Times of Planetary Crisis, a program co-produced by the Centre culturel suisse. Paris and Futuress. The text was transcribed, edited and expanded, and first appeared Alter-Care, a journal edited by Futuress (Cherry-Ann Davis and Nina Paim), on behalf of the Porto Design Biennale. The 2021 edition of the Porto Design Biennale was titled Alter Realities: Designing the Present, and curated by Alastair-Fuad-Luke. Contributors to Alter-Care include Zoy Anastassakis, Marcos Martins, Keyna Eleison and Denilson Baniwa.

Title image: “Mantenha-se viva” (Keep Yourself Alive) by Arcasi.

The title of this vertical, Vulnerable Observers, is an homage to anthropologist and author Ruth Behar and her book “The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart.”