Our freedom must be taken: Lola Olufemi

Lola Olufemi’s book, Feminism Interrupted, is out now. Here, she talks to our editor Soma Ghosh about looking beyond the law, uncontrollable art and collective ‘deviancy’ that is rooted in getting free.

DG: Lola, discussing your early personal encounters with feminism in Feminism, Interrupted, you say, “feminism allowed me to be wayward, the wrong kind of woman, deviant.” What kind of ‘wrongness’ is useful for black womxn to practise?

I find Saidiya Hartman’s concept of waywardness really useful in articulating how black social life, especially its emphasis on survival at specific political junctures, has always complicated and transgressed “the acceptable” “the right” and “the good.” For me, the deviancy that feminism offered was the ability to deliberately go the wrong way, trusting in the epistemological value and personal freedom that came from that decision. It meant claiming what I shouldn’t have (queerness, collectivism, disdain for capitalism and so on) and in the process having my entire understanding of the world transformed. It’s important to remember that personal freedom doesn’t necessarily translate materially, so deviancy or “wrongness” also has to be rooted in getting free, that is, ensuring that all chains of exploitation are broken.

I think the wrongness that is worth practising is a rejection of this world in favour of the truly just ones we could build together; this requires the abolition of all prevailing systems of violence.

DG: I was struck by your account of the YES vote in Ireland (to legalise abortion). Public awareness was raised partly by the high-profile death (or, one might say, murder by institution) of Savita Halappanavar and the inhumane treatment – detention & force-feeding – of Miss Y, a young woman who discovered she was 8 weeks pregnant after being beaten and raped in her home country and seeking refuge in Eire.

You write, “women of colour become hyper visible only at the point where their bodies are incapacitated. They are easily turned into symbols when they are grieving, suffering, or dead.”

How does mainstream culture make womxn of colour invisible and how would you like to see womxn of colour become more visible?

I think the goal is not necessarily visibility; I do not want my pain to be more visible, I want the things that cause me pain to end. That’s a way to say being included in representational economies is not a radical position. What’s necessary is retraining our eyes on the systems that make it possible for women of colour to be used in discussions but materially excluded from demands made of the state.

Black and brown migrants in direct provision and working class people will not have the same access to abortion as others despite decriminalisation. This shows us the limits of a law. The law is not crafted with all of us in mind, so what does it mean to utilise the stories of women of colour in the demands of decriminalisation whilst they are the least likely to materially benefit from it because of class, geographical location and so on?

“We must look beyond the law.” Photo of Olive Morris, feminist and community activist, 1970s London.

We need to look beyond the law and understand that our freedom will never be legislated; it must be taken. We can use the law strategically to widen access but first we need, as Sophie Lewis argues, to begin to think about how to win radically; beyond the boundaries the state sets for this issue.

 

DG: You write about thinking creatively, even artistically, in order to build a new world. When you say that art demands a witness, I recall Martin Luther King praising Rosa Park’s “creative witness”, in an inscription to a book he gave to her. What moves me most is your statement that, “Art is threatening because when produced under the right conditions, it cannot be controlled.”

What conditions might create uncontrollable art?

An end to capitalism and with it the destruction of the idea of the “singular artist”. I think an end to wage labour would free us all up to make. I think art is truly uncontrollable when we understand it as a collective impulse. What would it mean if all the necessary equipment/resources to make art were freely available and there were local areas for sharing your work with others outside of official gallery spaces?

By Frank Bowling.

 

Uncontrollable art only comes with the abolition of systems of cultural gatekeeping. If we all viewed ourselves as capable of making art or contributing to creative processes then the hierarchies established by art institutions would crumble. I think of art as a means of articulation, as a way of thinking through and a sign of our political commitments. On the way to total abolition, committing ourselves to using art strategically to make a case for another way of living is also a step to ensuring that what we make can never neatly be contained by those who want to profit from the things we make.

 

DG: Everything you’ve said to us points to the dismantling of structures. In our cult of individualism, visibility is hyped – and at one level, it’s emotionally useful for us to see ourselves reflected in the world. But I agree that there’s little liberation in stories and images of womxn of colour, without seeing the need for structural change.

Which of today’s artists, or forms – visual, film, literary, spoken word, music, or installation – do you feel help us to “retrain our eyes” on the lived experience of womxn of colour?

When I think of people making interesting work or making work from their political commitments, I think of poets like Wendy Trevino, June Jordan, Jackie Wang, Jay Bernard Canisia Lubrin. I think of writers like Zarina Muhammad, Zoe Samudzi, Christina Sharpe. Artists like Hannah Black, Lubaina Hamid, Imani Robinson, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Juliana Huxtable. I think of organising groups like SWARM, CAPE & Sisters Uncut whose organising work is always already artistic.

Photo taken at a rally by Sisters Uncut.

 

Lola Olufemi was in conversation with Soma Ghosh.

Images selected by Lola Olufemi. Main image of Lola by Abeera Khan.

Follow Lola on Twitter @lolaolufemi; Soma on Twitter @calcourtesan.

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