1-54 Forum Marrakech: Narcissus and Echo

12 April 2018

Part of 1-54’s Forum programme, Always Decolonise! was a showing of Grada Kilomba’s Illusions (2008, 32’) followed by a Q&A session led by Omar Berrada. This particular event instigated some really interesting responses that I wanted to elaborate on… 


Illusions, a video by Grada Kilomba, a Portuguese writer and artist living in Berlin, recounts the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo. Kilomba takes the role of a Griot (storyteller) to reference several long-standing traditions of storytelling and knowledge production across Africa. The character of Narcissus is used as a metaphor for a society that has not faced its colonial history and is obsessed with its own image, meanwhile Echo, ‘the other’, unceasingly repeats Narcissus’ words. Following the telling of the myth Kilomba elaborates on the metaphor, strengthening the connections between the characters and society. Kilomba ultimately asks how the colonial and patriarchal framework can be disrupted. This minimalist film ensures the focus is on the actors and the few objects, making the analogy as clear as possible.


Two responses caught my attention in the Q&A session that followed. The first was a thought (57:00),  voiced by a woman living in Italy, on decolonising the myth of Narcissus and how it was changed by Freud and white philosophers into the myth of narcissism that it is today. An interesting complication on what I know about the myth, and the way stories and their use change through history. One reason why Kilomba uses the myth of Narcissus and Echo is because the way it is taught in schools implies that it is ‘universal knowledge’ (40:22). Kilomba’s take, is of course, another avenue in which the myth is reinterpreted. The lady’s thought avoids the point Kilomba’s film makes, but it is interesting nevertheless and Kilomba gave a pertinent reply, arguing that she is not here to defend the myth but to use is to understand her reality and why she is where she is today. 


The second was a question (01:04:00) asked by a woman living in Bristol. She first expressed that she wanted to use the film as a tool to educate Bristol and following on she asked, “In terms of audience, who is most important to you right now, is it people of African descent or is it audiences who occupy whiteness?” Having lived in the South of England for the past 9 years I immediately related with the need to discuss topics of race and decolonisation in the area and how difficult it is to instigate these much needed discussions. Kilomba replied, saying that for a long time the audience of her work was a topic that was important to her, but now she makes work for herself. Kilomba gave an anecdote to justify her position. Others disagreed with her stance, arguing that the piece was clearly too simplistic and obvious for an audience of African descent and therefore it was for an audience occupying whiteness. I agree, the ultimate exploration of the piece was a point that a lot of people of African descent live and recognise because colonial structures have not changed. I could see how this influential piece of work would be useful as a tool for educating that particular audience on issues of race and decolonisation. The piece carries the weight of an enormous topic all too often ignored by a lot of people occupying whiteness if presented too harshly. Therefore the film provides an interesting portal for thought and discussion and thereby education. I really hope Illusions comes to Bristol… 


A recording of the 1-54 Forum talk can be found here: Grada Kilomba: Narcissus and Echo

The first couple of minutes of Illusions can be watched on Grada Kilomba's Facebook page here: Grada Kilomba Illusions Part 1