The One Murder of Rana Hamadeh or Somebody Almost Ran Off Wid Alla My Stuff

somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
like a kleptomaniac workin hard & forgettin while stealin
this is mine!
this aint yr stuff

somebody almost ran off wid alla my stuff. (Ntozake Shange, For Coloured Girls…)

In late July 2017, some six (6) weeks before the opening of her show, The Ten Murders of Josephine, (TTMoJ), Rana Hamadeh wrote asking me for “blessings and permission to mention Zong! and point towards it” in an art installation at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam (WdW).  Zong!, she wrote, had become “a major influence and reference… a daily ritual that grew slowly throughout (her) working process into becoming an important theoretical and affective scaffolding within the work.”  Hamadeh also proposed “using Zong!’s typography as a logic… constructing part of the sound’s rhythmic/percussive structure, taking Zong!’s pages’ layout and the way the layout builds its intensity throughout the book as (her)reference.”  Hamadeh also describes building an Organ Book Reader which would produce an ‘organ book’ based on the typography of Zong!.  In other words, it was clear that Hamadeh intended to use Zong!’s historic, aesthetic, and formal material as a basis for her own work.

I was not entirely happy with what Hamadeh was proposing but, more significantly, my sister was terminally ill at the time of Hamadeh’s request and I was about to leave to visit her and not in a position to engage with her request for “blessings and permission” or my concerns about how the work was being used.  I informed Hamadeh accordingly.  

I heard nothing more from Hamadeh or about the show until several months later when a colleague, who knew nothing of this exchange, told me that she had seen a show in Rotterdam in the Fall of 2017 that had used Zong!.  This was Rana Hamadeh’s show (TTMoJ), one version of which won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 2017.

Despite what Hamadeh had written to me above about the significant role Zong! played in the construction of her show and how she intended to use it, her references to Zong! and myself as author in written material related to the show were surprisingly brief.  Zong! was merely mentioned as “phonic substance.” In a letter she describes it as a “dear bibliographical reference.”

Hamadeh’s actions raise many issues, legal and otherwise; among them is Hamadeh’s startlingly egregious and, to my mind, unethical severing and subsequent wresting of Gregson vs. Gilbert from Zong!, where it sits as the foundational document.  She uses the case and talks about it in her work without any reference to Zong!, its influence on her, its authorship, where she “found” it, or the central role of the entire work in her installation.  Equally troubling is that many of her comments in interviews about TTMoJ disturbingly echo some of the central ideas raised in the “Notanda” section of Zong!.

I have hesitated to “go public” with this matter hoping that it could be resolved through negotiations, but that has not been the case to date.  Since finding out about Hamadeh’s unauthorised use of Zong!, the publisher, Wesleyan University Press (WUP), has been in communication with WdW gallery and Hamadeh, seeking clarification on how Zong! was used as well as proper acknowledgement, which has not been successful to date.  Hamadeh’s responses have been contradictory to say the least, and can best be summed up as a Steve-Urkel-did-I-do-that kind of response.  I am presently seeking an opinion from the Authors’ Guild. Having, however, a deep understanding of how poorly the law has served the victims caught up in the Zong massacre, and knowing how poorly it continues to serve Black and racialized groups, I am as profoundly distrustful of the law as I am of language, although we escape neither.  

Zong! began in the fracturing and fragmentation of Community and communities and so it seems that this new fracturing of the text (and therefore the experience) deserves to be shared with those who know the text.  The annual collective readings of Zong!, now in their seventh year, as well as the many instances of audiences collectively reading from “pieces of Zong!”(all a part of the afterlife of the book), attempt an unfragmenting; these readings underscore the idea that the work exists in and embraces a community of readers.  These soundings, for that is what they are, allow for the noise and music of us collectively reading, not necessarily in unison but together; they build, even if temporarily, a community of collective sound that echoes through time.  It is the sound of resistance, survival, joy and even flourishing, no matter how transitory. It is the S/Zong! that is a shout to the pastFuture and futurePast that is simultaneously Presence.  Of the present. Here. Now. What it most certainly is not, is mere “phonic substance.”

Zong! is a profoundly generative text that erupts from the merciless, rule-bound and at times hideous arena of the law, as alien to prohibition as it is generous to all who approach and, to be sure, very many artists and creators have used Zong!’s material and spirit responsibly.  But generosity should not and never be mistaken for licence.  It is a work very much at ease within a conceptual framework while remaining grounded in, perhaps even guarded by, the protocols of permission, particularly as they relate to the Ancestors and the traumatic events of the Maafa (the transatlantic slave trade).  This is clearly advertised on the book’s cover by the reference to Setaey Adamu Boateng, identified as “the voice of the ancestors revealing the submerged stories of all who were on board the Zong,” and for whom I am but the amanuensis.   Zong!’s work is grief work — the work of unmemory and unforgetting as it attempts and tempts meaning.  In an apparently meaningless universe. In its many tongues it has no tongue as it tries and untries the name of one. Lost.  And the many. Found. At last. It comes from the abyss, what Glissant names the unname able.

Had Hamadeh understood the inherent generosity of Zong! she could have allowed herself to receive its gifts, and allowed it to point her towards her own history —  the equally violent history of the Arab slave trade, which predated and outlived the transatlantic trade. After all, one of the ideas at play in the work is the idea of contamination of the reader by their relationship to the untelling of the story which cannot, yet must, be told; in turn, this signals the loss or or absence of innocence of each of us. Indeed, we are, none of us, innocent or absolved of our contamination. What if, for instance, Hamadeh had put Gregson vs. Gilbert in conversation with an equivalent case or situation extracted from the extensive legal archives of the Arab world?  Had she followed in the wake of Zong! she might have come upon the late 17th century official Register of Slaves instituted by Sultan Mawlay Isma’il of Morocco, which decreed slave status for every black-skinned person regardless of whether they were free (like the Haratin) or enslaved.  Not surprisingly, at the time this was seen as a controversial act for many reasons, not least of which was that it was in breach of Islamic law forbidding Muslims from enslaving other Muslims. If Hamadeh didn’t want to turn to history, she didn’t have to look any further than the egregious abuse against Africans taking place in Lebanon (and other Arab countries) today.  In 2012, for instance, Alem Dechasa, an Ethiopian domestic worker, was filmed being severely physically abused by her employer in public; Alem Dechasa would subsequently hang herself. What remedies do these modern-day slaves, because that is, indeed, what they are, have in Lebanese law today? Hamadeh professes interest in the “testimonial subject” and their erasure. Is there a more erased “testimonial subject” that Alem Dechasa?  Why the silence about the history of slavery in the Arab world and its more contemporary manifestations?

I am not interested in laying claim to Gregson vs. Gilbert: as I have written in “Notanda,” it is the only publicly extant document related to the massacre.  However, in wresting Gregson vs. Gilbert from Zong!, Hamadeh desecrates the one monument to those unnamed Africans thrown overboard, beginning on November 29th, 1781, and ending ten days later.  In so doing, she carries out an act of triple erasure: the first is her silence about the history of slavery in the Arab world, which has resulted in the long-standing and still current anti-Black racism by Arabs towards sub-Saharan Africans.  The second is her erasure (or is it banishment?) of Zong! from Gregson vs. Gilbert to which, for better or worse, it is now irrevocably linked, even as she simultaneously denies her actions.  Her third and final act of erasure is that of erasing her own acts of violence in these strategies of seizure and appropriation, which have a long genealogy, if not pedigree:  “I have no hesitation,” Picasso is quoted as saying, “if one shows me a box of old drawings to take from them anything I want.” Hamadeh’s erasures are the legacies of the logic of the colonial project and slavery which underpin the modernist art movement; they are all to be found in the wake of the Zong.

Hamadeh claims (in correspondence) that her work is not about Gregson vs. Gilbert; that it is the Dutch media that raise the case because they know more about that case and are more interested in it rather than the “Quranic tesimonial paradigm.”  So much for the power of the artist to bring unknown issues to the forefront. Before her engagement with Zong!, Hamadeh’s work was “inherited from the genre of legal spectacle”; her project drew on the work of Sadiya Hartman and Fred Moten, on Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Kafka’s Josephine.  Her public profile has no doubt been enlarged by her winning the 2017 Prix de Rome, but her actions reveal lazy scholarship and an eagerness to ride on the coat-tails of Black scholarship which she utilises in service of a system that bankrupted itself morally when it initiated and carried out the global European project of alienating peoples from their lands, cultures and languages, which we are all trying to recover and heal from, if ever.  The result is work that confuses busyness with complexity and that does not understand that being theoretical does not perforce exclude or erase the human or the embodied. Her responses and explanations to reasonable questions from Wesleyan have been obfuscations, denials, and a specious disingenuousness that pretends to innocence.

Hamadeh writes that reading Zong! became a “daily ritual” for her.  Zong! is ritual.  Writ on water.  She clearly understood an aspect of a work that I  and many others continue to learn from. What she fails to understand, however, is that it is also about co-creation, In the spaces. Left by the One.  And the Other. And their relation. In the spaces allowed for breath. It is about us today breathing for those who could no longer breathe; us breathing into those who could no longer breathe; us breathing still with those whose breaths were abbreviated, cut short, becoming ga(s)ps in the unending prayer of dark water — black water.   Breathing tog(a)ther. What it is not is about is `I came up with these ideas all myself’, which is what Hamadeh attempts in her bold-faced attempt to run off “wid alla (our) stuff,” when she “describes Zong! as merely a “dear bibliographical reference,” after detailing how it influenced her and how she intended to (ab)use it.  

Many a time in in the small, dark hours of a morning I have wakened wondering about Hamadeh’s initial approach to me — the questions pull and tug at me: if my sister hadn’t been dying; if I hadn’t been stressed at trying to find a flight into the hurricane-stricken Miami airport to visit her; if only I had been able to pay more attention— if, if, if; would I have been able to stop her using the work in the way she had already decided to?  Why was she asking for “blessings and permission”? Being neither shaman nor holy woman, I still wonder at the use of the word `blessings’. The art world, in which Hamadeh appears firmly ensconced, does not work on the basis of blessings, fuelled as it is by money. Why did Hamadeh not query whether or not I would require a permission fee? Was it because I was an African-descended, Black woman? Would she have approached a white, male poet whom she did not know in the same way?  Why this assumption of intimacy and absence even of art world protocol? Why did she only approach me for permission some six weeks before the show was due to open, when it would have been well nigh impossible to make substantial changes? Why? Why? Why? Why am I even bothering to pursue this with a crushing load of other tasks I need to complete? These questions haunt until the relief of sleep takes over again.

Rana Hamadeh’s actions regarding Zong!, which she reduces to “phonic substance,” violate the sacred, unwritten protocols of the Maafa: sacred because that which cannot, yet must be named, was for us, descendants of the Maafa, an initiatory rite, being birthed for a second time from the belly of the ship, into what we, emissaries of the Ancestors and ancestral memory, still don’t fully know.  Who knew what we would or could create? Other than life. Unwritten, because the palimpsest of the Maafa is the “sea (which) is history.” Our protocols are tidal, breaths shape shifting to meet the intransigent, always seeking the space in and between the wor(l)ds that seek always to drown that which is un~necessary and so necessarily un~beautiful.   Hamadeh’s actions also raise a number of other issues: ethics and research; ethical art practices on the part of artists and galleries; protocols, permissions and archives; the exploitation of the work of Black artists and creatives, and in particular Black women artists and thinkers; and whether any of these issues have any meaning in an art world whose practices can only be described as consumptive.  More than anything else, Hamadeh’s brazen act of simultaneously appropriating and erasing Zong! in the way she has, betrays the lives at the heart of this work and profoundly belies any understanding of what the work is about.  Her behaviour and her subsequent obfuscations illustrate the current commodification of Black artistic practice and scholarship in ways that, more times than not, subvert and deny the very intent of that work by Black artist and scholar creators.  

When the moderns confronted what would eventually come to be mislabelled African art, they were primarily interested in form and its commodification, not with the wisdoms or spiritual energies that lay behind the object.  All these years later, Hamadeh repeats those initiatory acts of violence and aggression against Zong! in her erasure of the context and circumstances around which she “found” Gregson vs. Gilbert, not to mention the erasure of the memory of all the lives exaquaed and un~drowned through the practices and protocols around Zong!.   In her accumulative and acquisitive practices — the severing of what she considers form from what lies behind, she continues a destructive practice whose roots lie deep in the colonial project, which must be named, exposed and challenged.

This is The One Murder of Rana Hamadeh who almost ran off wid alla my stuff.

1 Pablo Picasso, Silvia Loretti, Tate Introductions, Picasso, Tate Publishing, 2018, London, England.

2 Derek Walcott, “The Sea is History.” The Star-Apple Kingdom, Farrar, Strauss Giroux, New York, 1979, p.25.