Adelaide Damoah's Into the Mind of the Coloniser

29 September 2019

Damoah stands reading behind a desk. Stacks of printed pages to her left and fewer scattered to her right, where she lays the page down following a solemn declamation of the words in front of her. She reads from pages written by colonial administrators between 1649 to 1920 that are no longer in print. Their colonial attitudes supported by religious, nationalist and royalist sentiments, quake and break under Damoah's unshaking diction. Not shattering but laid to rest. 


After a reading of several pages, Damoah pauses. Reaching in front of her, she covers herself in the shea butter set in a small wooden bowl. She spreads red paint across her hands, using her left to press a red imprint on the pages she has exhausted.  


Moving from behind the table, Damoah steps forward, large, heavy scissors in hand. Hands outstretched, without a word, hands the first audience member the scissors, who proceeds to cut Damoah's Ghanaian funeral clothes up the front to her waist. The scissors are handed into another grasp, some making neat cuts between jagged intersections, others taking a courser approach.  


As this collective performance unfolds, it seems intuitive to pass the scissors onto the next set of hands. After many several pairs have their way with Damoah's clothes, she extends her open hand for the scissors. However, they pass through several more hands before anyone realises that they were to hand them back to the instigator and the narrator of the performance. Focused on the clothes, the audience separates the person inside. The audience seems a determined, awkward collective focused on the destruction for//of healing at the detriment to Damoah. 


When describing this section of the performance Damoah references Yoko Ono's Cut Piece, the primary similarity being the physical action of the work. The audience not given instructions and Damoah's piece is preceded by a charged reading, placing Damoah's scene in a fore-structured context and thought of decolonialism. The foregrounding is intrinsic to the audience’s positioning as one cannot avoid trying to place yourself in relation to the texts being written. My position as a white person whose ancestors would likely have played a role in Britain’s colonial endeavours causes me to question my own place in this narrative, particularly when I get handed the scissors. 


It is here that I struggle to, but eventually do, move forward to cut Damoah’s clothes. Is cutting them not a form of a attack on her being and her space? And although she stretched out her hand with the scissors, cutting her clothes was never explicitly stated or requested. I struggled hugely to understand why Damoah would put herself through, what I would feel to be, even if having consented, an assault, especially when the scissors are not handed back when requested. 


Damoah spreads shea butter and red paint across her exposed limbs and corseted torso then spreads large copies of the texts she has been reading in front of her. Slowly she then lays on top of them, covering the words with a red print of her body. It is here that the removal of the clothes is seen as necessary. 


In reference to this performance, Damoah briefly mentions Kenyan writer Ngūgī wa Thiong’o who speaks of the importance of language and fiction in decolonising the mind, particularly for contemporary writers from the continent (Decolonising the Mind by Thiong’o is a must read for everyone). However, he does not look at what should be done with colonial texts, such as the ones used by Damoah. What role does colonial literature play in decolonising the mind or dealing with the traumas of colonialism and its present residual inflictions. Seemingly contradictory, but important to reflect on in relation to Damoah’s performance. I feel Damoah has found an avenue for both dismantling the power of these texts and their destructive words and cultivating her own power and healing at the same time. With every print she made you could feel this power in her grow, the collective audience around her having assisted in this journey.  

Into the Mind of the Coloniser was performed by Adelaide Damoah on 28 March 2019 as a part of Open Space Forum: Of Hosts and Guests at Mary Ward House. Curated by Katherine Finerty with Open Space Contemporary.