In her work, Magali Dougoud is interested in dismantling dominant narratives to allow an emancipatory feminine imaginary to surface. Water as a constitutive element is central to this reimagining, embodying a liquid state that flows through all bodies, human and non-human, de-hierarchizing knowledge and power systems. During her residency in Kinshasa, Magali developed her project Aquatic Narratives, which explores intersecting themes of history, the environment and feminism. In this interview she reflects that “[residencies] give the possibility to confront one’s vision and work with a reality that can be extremely different, which enriches any practice more or less deeply and can transform it.”
Please tell us about your interest in water as a subject and theme in your work.
In my work, I am interested in water as a constitutive element of both human and non-human bodies and of the planet, since we are all made of about 70% of it. This water connects us all and is itself already made up of other bodies, so we are together flows of archives, history and politics. My work is inspired by hydrofeminism (Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology), the idea that we are all Bodies of Water and that this water is in perpetual circulation within us and between us. This liquidity that runs through us de-hierarchizes knowledge and narratives and redefines a temporality through which the elements are perpetually transformed. Water contains both our aquatic pasts and our submerged becoming. Elaine Morgan, in her book The Descent of Woman, evokes the theory of the aquatic ape that speaks about the potentiality that our primate ancestors would have once joined the rivers to live there. This would have induced a certain number of physiological changes in terms of evolution that we still share with many aquatic species such as our subcutaneous fat, the loss of our hair and our lachrymal system. Our bipedalism would also result from this. A similar future seems to await us since the upcoming rise of the water level – due to global warming – confronts us with our oceanic becoming, with a return to water which is also what constitutes us. Water as a community good and a fundamental right is also a question that I develop in my work. Since access to drinking water increases social inequalities and the lack of it is one of the main causes of mortality in the world. The planetary fresh water reserves are in fact very scarce and its consumption is at least 15 times more important in Western countries (according to the Geneva Water Hub), which is a form of environmental racism.
I have developed a series of radio podcasts called Womxn Waves (FR/ENG, 60mn), which evoke this relationship to water in my work, in a both theoretical and poetic way. You can listen to it here.
Can you tell us more about the ways in which your work engages with the intersecting topics of history, the environment and feminism?
My work is interested in dismantling dominant narratives by proposing an emancipatory feminist imaginary. History is seen as a sequence of events, real facts, and states marking the evolution of a human group. But the question remains about who decides what is important or not. While each narrative traces a new potentiality that allows other bodies to exist. With all these alterities, History as it is written and told can only exist as the subjectivity of a dominant political body. This priviliged narrative imposes its power by annihilating the very possibility of allowing other voices and other types of narratives to be heard, notably those of feminine or invisibilized bodies. The environment is the set of elements that surround us, some of which contribute directly to our needs, like water for example. Our relation to it is then very powerful since it means that we are constituted inside by a great part of what contains us, as a perpetual transcorporeal movement. In the same way, we are inhabited by the stories of our future ancestors that cross generations through the liquidity that flows in us in a cyclic movement. If we evoke the question of environmental destruction – in the era of the Plantationocene, described by Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing- I have, with my work, developed a specific relationship to the experience of the aquatic state – as a potential ritual of connection – as I float into these waters. The questions of its nature, the other bodies that inhabit it (human, non-human, living and dead), its pollution, and the problems of its access are therefore at the very heart of this experience. In my video work it is through effects of overexposure and visual blur that I seek to show this opaque and troubled bath, which brings to the surface multiple, incomplete and diffracted identities and narratives.
Paradoxically, we evolve in a liquid economic society, but this one imposes transparency and surveillance of beings and, by extension, of behaviours which I try to displace by filming murky, dirty, opaque, oozing waters. I don’t look for them, that’s how they are for the most part in reality. This system of governance develops politics of extraction inscribed at the very heart of relations between individuals and a violence that is found at the centre of the narrative of our Western societies. Thus, the questions of history, environment and feminism are intrinsically linked since we think of an intersectional feminism, in which all dominant systems (racist, classist and gendered) constitute a complex framework.
In what ways has your time in Kinshasa influenced, enriched, altered your understanding of water in relation to your work?
Water has a very special meaning in Kinshasa, first of all because many parts of the city have no direct access to it. Our dependence to this resource was a relatively abstract idea until then, and suddenly it became very concrete. I saw women crossing the city with basins on their heads collecting water, and realized that it would take them several trips gather enough water for cleaning, cooking, drinking, laundry and ablutions. So, water is an issue and a daily burden/need. These women (and also children), carrying water brought to mind the essay by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, and her idea that a basket would have been the first cultural tool used by early humans, to contain, collect, preserve, rather than a sharpened stick or weapon to destroy and kill. These vessels then contain the narratives and fictions of a part of the societies they preserve.
I also realized the privilege that I had to have learned how to swim, like a practice, a ritual, in the rivers and lakes that cross cities, specifically in Switzerland and in relatively clean water. To swim in the rivers in the DRC and in Kinshasa is less carefree, since first the flow rate is higher and most people have not learned how – except the fishermen and fisherwomen who live around the water. Secondly, the depths are believed to be inhabited by spirits, notably the Mami Watas. It is therefore necessary to perform a number of rites to obtain permission from these entities to enter the water and, particularly, re-emerge from the currents safely.
Another elements that marked my stay was the discovery of all these plastic bottled waters, ready for consumption. Interestingly, most of these have brand names of foreign nation-states: Swissta, American Water, Canadian Pure, etc… These brands express for me a whole part of the post-colonialist extraction policy of multinationals helped by European and Western governments. We then find, in an infernal cycle, these same empty plastic bottles littering and polluting rivers and streams of the same neighbourhoods where they are consumed.
What is your project Aquatic Narratives about?
The project Aquatic Narratives that I have developed is a work in progress, for now constituted by a series of three video installations with mermaid tails, basins, seashells and water. This piece focuses on the multiple rivers that cross the city of Kinshasa and the DRC. This country, the richest in water in Africa, is paradoxically one of those where access to water is the most difficult. Women bear the brunt of this problem, since they generally responsible for crossing the streets, sometimes over great distances, to collect water to bring back to their homes. Among other things, they are exposed to violence on the long journeys and to very tiring physical work. But this task also contains the possibility of creating new narratives, in particular around the basin object, which echoes the story by Ursula K. Le Guin (which I have already mentioned above). This new narrative tells us about the creation of the very first cultural tool used by humans, which would have been a basket to collect, contain and preserve. These water carriers with filled basins, when seen from above, circulate continuously along the narrow streets of the capital like as many passages towards a skein of relation (Barbara Glowczewski, Réveiller les esprits de la terre, Dehors, Bellevaux), and inscribe their trajectory into the ground. They also symbolize larger geopolitical issues around water as a commodity. To think from the water, I immersed myself with my camera in the turbid currents of the Congo and the Makelele Rivers and the Kwilu and Kwenge Rivers (in Bandundu). Carried away in this liquid drift, ambiguous and hybrid aqueous creatures emerged. Figures of Mati Wata – a combination of Mami and Tati Wata (equivalent of mermaids) – emerge to the surface of the river. These entities mix powerful voices of women, recounting mourning and loss and transformation through texts and music chanted or sung. The space is also itself covered by water like an overflowing skin which is reflecting everything around. The new narratives that are woven tries to resist the normativity imposed on bodies and stories in liquid society. Where capital is the only one to circulate without constraint. In this paradigm necro-liberal politics decides which bodies are certifiable or not, exhausting beings, lands and oceans in an extractivist, violent policy.
What were your initial impressions of Kinshasa, and what has been your experience working and collaborating with local artists and performers?
Kinshasa is joyful, full of music and surprise, bustling and contains a form of madness and lightness at the same time. The city almost never sleeps and the flow of horns punctuates the day as well as a good part of the night. One of my first observations was of the inequality between different neighbourhoods. They differ greatly: some are rich and have privileged access to water and electricity, transportation, and quiet, while others face daily shortages. What was perturbing also was to find myself surrounded by white Swiss crosses: from Swissmart (supermarket) to Swissta water (one of the main brands of water sold in DRC) through gas stations. This observation made me wonder about the post-colonial policies in which Switzerland is engaged and about my own complicity.
The video medium offers the quality of needing to be surrounded by other people. So I found partners to work with by meeting and exchanging with other artist and performer. This experience was mostly about creating links and sharing different vision, first about life, different ways of making art, also totally different economic realities, and lack of visibility for women artists and queer communities/artists. It was super important to not impose my point of view, but let myself be permeated by others’ views. I also discovered the amazing performance scene, which is organizing itself in the street in a very powerful way. I also met some incredible singers and musicians, with who I decide to work very spontaneously after discovering their work. I tried to find a balance between what was possible to do and with what means and time. Also what kind of exchanges could I put in place to create a system of trust – with of course some failures and also some successes. But mainly I am very grateful for all the people I found on my way and helped me so open-mindedly to make this project happen. And also for all those who welcomed me with great warmth.
What benefits do you think residencies provide for artists in terms of their work and careers?
Residencies allow different things that are quite extensible and obviously depend on each person’s desires. In particular, they give the possibility to confront one’s vision and work with a reality that can be extremely different, which enriches any practice more or less deeply and can transform it. I think that they make certainties waver and open up gaps in time and understanding. They give different tools and the opportunity to work with unknown material. They also offer the possibility to establish a much wider network, through meetings and connections with other potential partners and collaborators, and to develop projects in long therm. Residencies also offer multiple connections to different practices linked to the cultural landscape of the specific place.