Below is a detailed description, including correspondence and links, of the situation between M. NourbeSe Philip and Rana Hamadeh concerning the latter’s unauthorised use of the former’s work, Zong!, as of July 20th, 2018.
Rana Hamadeh’s unauthorized use of M. NourbeSe Philip’s work, Zong!
Below is an outline of the situation between M. NourbeSe Philip and Rana Hamadeh concerning the unauthorised use of the former’s work, Zong!.
All exhibits, a list of which appears at the end of this document are linked through this site or through Google docs.
NourbeSe Philip (MNP) is a former lawyer as well as a poet, writer, essayist and playwright. MNP is the author of the book Zong!, a book-length poem, published by Wesleyan University Press in 2008.
Zong! relies entirely on a two-page court report, Gregson vs. Gilbert, which grants a new trial to the ship’s owners, the Gregsons. Founded on insurance law, the case report recounts the murder by drowning of some 130 enslaved Africans on board the eponymous slave ship Zong in 1781.
The story behind it is the drowning in 1781 of some one hundred and fifty enslaved Africans on board the eponymous slave ship, Zong. by the captain of a slave ship because under insurance law at that time he believed destroying some of property or cargo as the enslaved were perceived would allow the owners to collect on the very enslaved Africans that he had had destroyed.
The insurance company, owned by the Gilberts, refused to pay for the destroyed “property” which led to the ship’s owners,the Gregsons, suing them for damages. At the first trial the insurance company was ordered to pay the Gregsons for the murder of the enslaved Africans., which judgment the former appealed.
Gregson v. Gilbert is the case report pertaining to that appeal. It is brief, as case reports often are, and recounts the fact situation regarding the massacre by drowning of the enslaved Africans, as well as the reasons of the sitting justices.
Zong!, the poem, is a formally innovative conceptual work, which uses only the words and their components of the case report Gregson vs. Gilbert to compose the poetry. Gregson vs. Gilbert is the mother document of Zong!— the nucleus and word store. It is the sine qua non of Zong! Without Gregson vs. Gilbert there is no Zong!. The case report, Gregson vs. Gilbert, appears on page 120 of the book, Zong!.
Also appearing in the published work Zong! is a long, theoretical essay, Notanda, p. 189, that sets out the ideas and theoretical underpinnings of the poem. Among the ideas discussed are the story that cannot be told yet must be told; the untold and the untellable; fragmentation; violence; erasure; the power and ability of the law to create, destroy and exclude; the persistence and continuity of sound and, in particular, the sound of the drowned.
The poem Zong! is a formal expression and display of the ideas that are described in the accompanying essay, Notanda. It is fragmented, disjunctive and coded with a multitude of voices. It is refracted through the unnamed voice of one of the perpetrators of the massacre of the enslaved on board the slave ship Zong and told through the voice of the Ancestors represented by Setaey Adamu Boateng whose name appears as co-author on the book.
Zong!, the poem, is both rooted in and springs from the experience of enslaved Africans forcibly removed from their homelands and brought to the Americas and the Caribbean through the transatlantic slave trade, the Maafa.
Zong! is enmeshed in the idea of the archive in three ways: the legal archive of Gregson vs. Gilbert, the case report mentioned above; the liquid and sound archive of the Atlantic ocean and, most importantly, the genealogical and spiritual archive of the Ancestors.
During the 7-year process of composing the work MNP sought permission of the Ancestors by visiting Ghana, departure point of the slave ship Zong, and speaking with traditional elders and spiritual leaders. She also visited Liverpool, where the Ancestors of the crew would have come from, to pay respect to those people.
While Zong! has been critically received as an experimental, conceptual work, it is also work that is rooted deeply in the spirituality of African Ancestors, which manifests itself in the stated authorship of the work: “Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng.” On the cover of Zong! it states that “Setaey Adamu Boateng is the voice of the ancestors revealing the submerged voices of all who were on board the Zong.”
Indeed, authorship of the work can be said to reside not solely in MNP, but also the ancestors and the dead. In Notanda MNP writes: “ even claiming to author the text through my own name is challenged by the way the text has shaped itself. The way it `untells’ itself.
Zong! fragments, reconfigures and distorts the words of the Gregson vs. Gilbert case report and the concepts of the compositional process are unique to the work, for example the narrative, such as it is, being refracted through the voice of the perpetrator.
Zong!, the poem, is internationally known and taught widely at universities in North America and Europe. It is extensively written about, anthologised and the subject of many Ph.D. theses.
MNP performs this work regularly and there exist online many recorded performances of this work. For the last six (6) years MNP has hosted a collective reading, international in scope, in which she and an audience read the work together on the anniversary of the event, November 29, 1781. Indeed, Zong! has become one of the myriad ways that the descendants of the Maafa (the slave trade and slavery), African and African descended peoples, have designed to survive and manage the historical trauma of the Maafa and its legacies, such as racism and marginalization.
On July 25, 2017, Omar Berrada (OB) wrote to MNP informing her that he had recommended her work Zong! to the artist Rana Hamadeh (RH) who was a friend of his. In that email OB wrote that “reading Zong! (had) become for (RH) a daily ritual, and a guide in some way.”
Attached to that email was a description of RH’s work, The Ten Murders of Josephine, (TMoJ) commissioned by Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (WdW). It is unclear when this description was written but it makes no mention of MNP (or her work Zong!) among the writers mentioned and it may therefore be safe to conclude that it was written before RH began using Zong! as a “guide in some way.”
On July 31, 2017, some six (6) weeks before the opening of her show at the WdeW, RH wrote to MNP asking for “blessings and permission to mention Zong! and point towards it.” RH also states in that email that Zong! had become “a major influence and reference; in fact a daily ritual that grew slowly throughout my working process into becoming an important theoretical and affective scaffolding within the work.” RH proposed “using Zong!’s typography as a logic. I am 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 my reference.” RH describes building an Organ Book Reader which would produce an ‘organ book’.
On August 1, 2017, MNP responded to RH that she was busy editing a ms and that she would respond as soon as possible.
On a quick perusal of the letter and the link contained within it, MNP was not particularly happy with the way in which RH had used the work but because of the stress of MNP’s sister’s illness was not able to analyse fully why she didn’t like RH’s use of her work. On September 1, 2017, MNP once again wrote to RH explaining that because of the stress of the terminal illness of her sister whom she was about to visit in the US, she was “unable to respond intellectually to (her) engagement with and queries about using Zong!.”
MNP has never received a response to that email, however on March 22, 2018. She received a letter from RH inviting her to participate in a conversation in Paris at gallery La Fayette Anticipations. (See Ex.16 below)
On or about January 27, 2018, MNP became aware that RH had used Zong! in her work (TMoJ) when a colleague who had no knowledge of the previous email exchange between RH and MNP informed her that she had seen the exhibit in the Fall of 2017 in Rotterdam. The notes attached as Exhibit #7 below recount the writer’s thoughts and responses on seeing the exhibit since at that time she was contemplating writing an article about the show. In particular, the second and fourth paragraphs:
The Rome prize winner RH…recently tool (sic) up and engaged with the ideas and creative poetry work of…M. NourbeSe Philip, particularly her poem Zong!
Amongst others Hamadeh focuses particularly on the Gilbert and X case and it’s (sic) significance. She looks to M. NourbeSe Philip’s long (experiential (sic)poem Zong! And its methodology and cues as PHONIC SUBSTANCE.
Exhibit #7 — Yaniya’s notes (Please note that these are very preliminary notes made in anticipation of an article.)
There appear to be three exhibitions/installations under the name the Ten Murders of Josephine: the WdW exhibit; a theatrical work/opera presented at Theatre Rotterdam; as well as a work made for the Prix de Rome with the subtitle (The Tongue Twister).
The work made for the Prix de Rome, The Ten Murders of Josephine (The Tongue Twister), presented at Kunsthall in Rotterdam was awarded the Prix de Rome with a cash prize of 40,000 euros.
TMoJ ran from September 8, 2018 – December 31, 2018, at the WdeW in Rotterdam.
The Exhibition Guide for TMoJ contains one reference to M. NourbeSe Philip and her work, Zong!:
Drawing broadly on historian Saidiya Hartman and poets NourbeSe Philip and Fred Moten’s writings, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, Kafka’s Josephine, Quranic exegesis and Arabic prosody, among other interlocutors, the project suggests the testimonial as a catalyst that sets up the conditions for vacating our legally constituted bodies; a medium for provincializing citizenship.
The following paragraph also appears in the Exhibition Guide with no reference to the source, MNP’s Zong!.
One of Hamadeh’s cues is the Gregson vs. Gilbert legal case of 1783, the only surviving record of the massacre in which the captain of the Zong slave ship ordered the drowning of 133 enslaved Africans in order to claim insurance over the ship’s loss of ‘cargo’. During the case, the owners of the Zong came up against their insurers, disputing whether or not the drowning of the slaves was a ‘genuine act of jettison or a fraud’. For Hamadeh, this benchmark case does not only point to the blood-chilling jurisprudential logic of the slavery system, but, further, continues to inform and underpin our current legal understanding of ‘valid speech’; for, the only audible testimony that can be accessed through the document is that which is written in the murderer’s voice and in the voice of the legal system that had legitimated the murder. The materiality of the testimonial, thus, for Hamadeh, points to the archive of horror that subsists within the documental voice – not as a trace of the massacre, but within and despite the trace.
How does Josephine, who is loosely based on Kafka’s mouse songstress, then fit into an engagement with historical cases such as the Gregson vs. Gilbert and the Zong massacre?
- There is no mention of the source of her information on the Zong massacre. There is no mention of Zong! that became the “theoretical and affective scaffolding” within her work and whose form was her “reference.”
Exhibit #10 — Program: http://www.wdw.nl/en/our_program/exhibitions/rana_hamadeh_the_ten_murders_of_josephine
On March 22, 2018, Suzanna Tamminen, Director and Editor-in-Chief of Wesleyan University Press (WUP), wrote to WdW stating their concerns — that RH’s use and appropriation of Zong! was “unprofessional, unethical and even academically dishonest” and constituted “an adaptation of Zong!”… “made without the permission of the author.” This letter was copied to RH as well as the office of the Prix de Rome Jury.
WUP’s letter raised the following issues:
— did the gallery ask to see permissions and “if there were no permissions, why did (the gallery) go ahead?”
— were pages of Zong! used in the installation as described by RH in her July 31, 2018 letter. (Exhibit #3 above);
— that the WdW provide a written apology to MNP and place said apology on the WdW website and in all instances where the project appears with the credit line: This work was inspired by the book Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip. The book was a major influence and reference, forming an important theoretical and affective scaffolding within the work. Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, was published in 2011 by Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, US; copyright is held by M. NourbeSe Philip.
— that copies of the project’s libretto and book be mailed to the Press;
— that until all of the above actions have been taken, WdW should not exhibit the work again and that it be removed from the website (http://www.wdw.nl/en/our_program/exhibitions/rana_hamadeh_the_ten_murders_of_josephine);
— that there be a discussion on a reasonable fee for use of the material.
- MNP and WUP are unaware as to whether the individual Jury members have actually received copies of the letter, since there has been no acknowledgement of receipt of the above letter from the Jury of the Prix de Rome.
- On March 22, 2018, Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy, current director of WdW, replied on behalf of the gallery by email and informed WUP that the curator of the show that RH has participated in was no longer at the WdW and that she, Ms Chong Cuy, would look into the matter.
On March 22, 2018, almost simultaneous with WUP’s letter to WdW, RH wrote to MNP inviting her to participate in an event at La Fayette Anticipations, a gallery in Paris. This was the first communication by RH with MNP since her July 31, 2017 request for “blessings and permission.”
In this letter RH invites MNP to “resume conversation.” There has never been a conversation between RH and MNP beyond the query for “blessings and permission” and MNP’s response that she was unable to respond at that time, so there was no conversation to resume.
On March 29, 2018, Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy responded more fully informing Suzanna Tamminen of that:
— they had spoken with the curator of the installation, (TMoJ), Defne Ayas, and with “several team members of WdW who were involved in the production of Hamadeh’s project”;
— she had “met several times with RH who lives in Rotterdam”;
— WdW had invited RH to participate in its program in 2016;
— “preceding the installation and opera was a study group conceptualized by RH and held at WdW from November 3, 2016 to June 29, 2017”;
— in Summer 2017, WdW advised RH to request permission from MNP for using“the typography of Zong! to create a musical score for one of the components of the Ten Murders of Josephine (TMoJ)”;
— this request came five (5) weeks before the opening of RH’s show, on July 31, 2018; in it RH requested from MNP “blessings and permission to mention Zong! and to point to it”;
— by September 2, 2017, RH “reconsidered her initial idea and did not materialize her artwork as it was initially proposed or described to MNP”;
— RH did not include pages of Zong! in the installation;
— WdW was willing to comply with the request for a credit line but with “slight edits” as follow:
The Ten Murders of Josephine by Rana Hamadeh was inspired and informed by several historical, literary and cinematic works. Among these is the book Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, which according to Rana Hamadeh “helped form an important theoretical and affective scaffolding within the work.” Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, was published in 2011 by Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, US;copyright is held by M. NourbeSe Philip.
- The suggested change is unacceptable and more than a slight edit.
- Given that RH used the pages of Zong!’s layout and “ the way the layout built its intensity throughout the book as (her) reference,” what were the changes she made so that she did “not materialize her artwork as it was initially proposed or described to MNP in the short time before the opening of her show?”
- (Ex. #16)
- WdW has not responded to WUP’s request for an apology or stated whether they are willing to pay a fee for use of the work.
- Why did RH ask for “blessings”? (Ex. #3)
- Why wasn’t there a query about permission fees?
- What is WdW’s responsibility re permission fees and why did they only suggest she ask for permission 5 weeks before the opening of the exhibit?
- WdW at no time states that RH believed she had permission although theymet with her “several times.”
- Although the gallery states that RH did not use pages of Zong! in her exhibit,we do not know whether pages of Zong! were, in fact, used in the installation, since RH publicly states at her February 25, 2018, lecture at Sonic Arts Academy in Amsterdam that she did use them. She explains this by saying that she believed she “had (MNP’s) blessing anyway.” (Ex. #s 19, 20 & 23)
On March 29, 2018, RH wrote to MNP stating that she would be sending MNP a letter “with further explanation” and that she did not intend to “erase (MNP) or (her) important work.”
On April 6, 2018, RH once again wrote to MNP: she apologises for “upsetting” MNP; she also attempts to “clarify that (she) did not use the poetry and intellectual work from the book Zong!” in TMoJ. She writes that “Zong! is a very dear bibliographical reference – among many others.”
- Cf. RH’s July 31, 2017, letter to MNP that Zong! had become a “major influence and reference…that grew slowly throughout my working process into becoming an important theoretical and affective scaffolding within the work.”
Among RH’s explanations are the following:
— she changed the work TMoJ in and around September, 2017, because she realized she was asking for permission too late;
—she thought that she had MNP’s permission. This contradicts what WdW states in their March 29, 2018, letter to WUP. They write that they had several conversations with RH; the letter makes no mention of RH believing that she had permission. Indeed, based on their conversations with her, they state that she changed the work because she realized that there wasn’t enough time;
— she believes that when she mentions Gregson vs. Gilbert, she has to mention Zong!;
—although she claimed she changed the organ book, (Ex. #s 17,19& 20) she misled the audience at a talk at the Sonic Acts Academy in Amsterdam on February 25, 2018, in which she talked of Zong! and the organ book, which she had earlier claimed was not a part of the WdW exhibition: “Since I thought I had your blessing anyways (sic), I didn’t think it was a problem to explain things in that manner.” (Ex. #s 19 & 20)
RH’s letter states in the paragraph subtitled Prix de Rome that there was mention of Gregson vs. Gilbert in this exhibit with “spots blackened out on these three pages in the way I had suggested in my original email to you.” In the same letter she writes that she “credits me in the first lines of (her) text that directly follows…”
Neither MNP or WUP has seen this document and neither knows to what extent Zong! was used in the Prix de Rome installation.
The April 6, 2018, letter is dense and often overwhelms with detail. Attached as Exhibit #20 is the same letter as appears in Exhibit # 19 with highlights and MNP’s responses to the points made in the margins.
- It is noteworthy that RH has never thanked MNP for granting her permission if, as she now claims, she believed that she had permission.
- RH uses language such as “point to,” or “refer to” regarding her use of Zong! in an effort to downplay her unauthorised use of the book. This language contradicts her statement made in her July 31, 2017, letter.
In her April 6, 2018, letter RH states that she “kept referring to Zong! as a source of inspiration, because (she) still felt that it was too important a project to ignore in the context of speaking of Gregson and Gilbert case. I say this to make clear that my reference to your work has always been intended as the exact opposite of erasure.” In the articles that follow, one of which is an interview, there is no mention of Zong! by MNP, the “source of inspiration,” in the discussions of Gregson vs. Gilbert.
The following are RH’s words in an interview with interviewer Carolina Rito and published in Mousse magazine above. These are also the words that appear in the Exhibition Guide mentioned in Exhibit #9 above.
One of my main cues is the foundational Gregson vs. Gilbert insurance case of 1783: the only surviving record of the massacre in which the captain of the Zong slave ship ordered the drowning of 150 African slaves in order to claim insurance over the ship’s loss of “cargo.” During the case, the owners of the Zong ship came up against their insurers, who disputed whether or not the murder was a genuine act of jettison or a fraud. For me, this benchmark case does not only point to the horrific jurisprudential logic of the slavery system, but, even further, continues to inform and underpin our current legal understandings of valid speech. The only audible, and thereby valid, testimony that can be accessed through the document is that which is written in the murderer’s voice and in the voice of the legal system that had legitimated the murder.
- RH has carried out a fundamental assault on Zong! by severing Gregson vs. Gilbert from Zong! for her own use, then making unsubstantiated claims about her generosity in mentioning Zong!.
- Is this a breach of MNP’s moral rights as author?
RH’s letter of April 6, 2018 (Ex. #s 19 & 20) describes a lecture she gave on February 25, 2018, at the Sonic Arts Academy (SAA) in which she “showed an image of (her) organ book and said that the perforations were made where the words of Zong! were placed — which is in reality not the case.” (MNP’s emphasis) In other words, RH has been less than honest with her audience at least.
The attached exhibit is a FB page describing the event posted by the Journal of Sonic Studies.
- According to RH she was being less than honest with the audience at the SAA.
- Which of the various versions of the content of her show is accurate?
- Did she, in fact, change her show at WdW which opened on September 8, 2017?
On April 27, 2018, MNP received an email from La Fayette Anticipations, a gallery in Paris inviting her to a public discussion with RH. MNP has not replied to this or any other correspondence from RH.
List of Exhibits
Ex. #1: Gregson vs. Gilbert
Ex. #2: OB’s letter to MNP July 25, 2017
Ex. #3: Description of RH’s work attached to OB’s email
Ex. #4: RH letter to MNP July 31 2017
Ex. #5: MNP’s letter to RH, August 1, 2017
Ex. #6: MNP’s letter to RH, Sep. 2, 2017
Ex. #7: Yaniya’s Notes on Exhibit
Ex. #8: Prix de Rome news report
Ex. #9: Exhibition Guide 03_EN_DEF-spreads
Ex. #9 (a): Excerpt from Exhibiton Guide
Ex. #10: Program for TMoJ at WdW
Ex. #11: Light box map of TMoJ describing Zong! as “phonic substance”
Ex. #12: Gregson vs. Gilbert, part of RH’s exhibit
Ex. #13: Recording related to Gregson vs. Gilbert from TMoJ
Ex. #14: WUP letter to WdeW
Ex. #15: WdW to WUP March 22, 2018
Ex. #16: RH letter to MNP, March 22, 2018
Ex. #17: WdW letter to WUP, March 29, 2018
Ex. #18: RH letter to MNP, March 29, 2018
Ex. #19: RH letter to MNP, April 6, 2018
Ex. #20: RH letter to MNP, April 6, 2018 with margin notes
Ex. #21: Mousse magazine
Ex. #22: Frieze magazine
Ex. #23: FB post, Journal of Sonic studies
Ex.#24: La Fayette Anticipations letter to MNP, April 27, 2018