Breaking the Silence: Art’s Rebellion Against Cultural Amnesia

A Journey with Dr Vali Mahlouji and Mo Laudi: Nurturing Dialogue and Empathy to Combat Societal Polarization

It is a sunny and clear November morning. I can see further distances and finer details, my eyes caught by the movement of a yellow leaf falling from a tree. I decide to pay attention to it, watching as it glides towards the pavement. It twists and changes its trajectory slightly, influenced by an imperceptible wind. It ends its flight on a carpet of other leaves, still wet with the rain that lulled me to sleep the night before. I just returned home after travelling across Europe to explore art fairs, visit new museum exhibitions, and attend gallery openings and auction sales. While nature began to surrender its lush greenery, I was immersed in an intensive tour of some of the most recent proposals of human creativity. Perspective and idea, sensitivity and expression. Thinking of it, I feel almost tickled by the vibrations of a dispersed and lively diverse art community. It seems to me that in this hyper-connected world, artists, like the antennae of a theremin, perceive presence without even needing physical contact, and translate it into audible sounds for us to listen to. We are the unaware hand playing the theremin for the remaining time of our gig in the sky.

My day started with inspiration and ended with commitment. With due respect and gratitude for the intense traveling I’ve experienced, I decided instead to focus my article on what has happened today. Within a few hours I was able to speak on the phone with two inspiring human beings. The first was Dr Vali Mahlouji, art curator, founder of the non-profit platform Archaeology of the Final Decade (AOTFD) and director of Kaveh Golestan Estate. The second was Mo Laudi (Ntshepe tsekere Bopape), a multi-disciplinary artist, DJ, curator, and Stellenbosch University research fellow, founder of Globalisto and a key contributor to Afro-Electronic music. In my opinion, both of them operate at the very edges of utopia, a point where utopia brushes against our visible world, and yet remains unseen. These gardeners of our aspirations dedicate their life to exploring time, disciplines, places, and dreams.

Dr. Vali Mahlouji

Mahlouji strikes me as an intensely curious human being, an explorer of the world of possibilities, keen to learn from both ancient and contemporary ideas that echo and nourish each other. In 2010 he founded Archaeology Of the Final Decade (AOTFD), a non-profit curatorial platform dedicated to recovering erased histories. Mahlouji’s platform ‘identifies, excavates and re-circulates significant cultural and artistic materials that remain obscure, under-exposed, endangered, banned or in some instances destroyed. Through Archaeology Of the Final Decade, Mahlouji endeavors to retrace and reintegrate his findings into cultural memory and discourse, aiming to counteract the damages of censorship and systemic erasures, and to fill gaps in historical and art historical narratives’.

With his latest project, ‘Cultural Atlas: An Archaeology of Ideas’, Mahlouji has created what he describes as a ‘panorama of the intellectual history of the twentieth century.’ This Atlas reflects upon utopian and emancipatory intellectual, artistic, political, ethical, and spiritual international networks, revisiting the intersection of modernism, art, and revolution through the radical aspirations of the century. During our call, Mahlouji emphasized the importance of relating to civilization in a cyclical manner. He believes that ideas are not bound by time or geography; they travel, re-emerge, and continually pose fundamental questions about justice, beauty, and love.

Cultural Atlas is an evolving project. Currently, it’s presented as a two-dimensional wall piece of variable dimensions, offering a multidisciplinary exploration of ideas ranging from Indian poets to the Cuban and Algerian revolutions, and from Sri Aurobindo to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Mahlouji plans to transform the Atlas into an interactive, expandable platform, akin to a Google Earth of ideas, where connections between concepts, images, dance, films, and music can be explored and expanded upon. “Right now, if you wanted to highlight all connections between the ideas of Cultural Atlas, you would have a black wall made of connecting lines,” Mahlouji explains, emphasizing the interconnectedness of ideas and the fallacy of a singular origin. He aims to dismantle the myth of the single origin of ideas, which he believes leads to a hegemonic perspective. By avoiding codification and classification that create hierarchies, Mahlouji’s approach challenges the legacy of Western colonialism. Cultural Atlas, therefore, emerges not only as a tool to mitigate anger and polarization but also as an essential instrument for promoting confrontation, local and global civic responsibility, and the creation of international networks of solidarity. Mahlouji’s work extends through exhibitions, publications, public programming, talks, university lecturing, and the creation of online archives accessible to the public.

A Cultural Atlas, copyright Vali Mahlouji, Courtesy of Archaeology of the Final Decade

As my call with Mahlouji concludes, I find myself enveloped in a sense of journey that rivals my physical travels. I brew a cup of rooibos, its distinct South African flavor gently suffusing my senses, preparing me for the next leg of my journey: a conversation with Mo Laudi. His friendly and calming voice greets me, setting a soothing rhythm for our discussion and hinting at the themes we are about to explore.

Mo Laudi(Ntshepe tsekere Bopape)’s artistic endeavors encompass a broad spectrum of expressions, each serving as a channel for his ‘Globalisto’ philosophy, impacting his life and those around him. His work spans events, performances, club nights, artist talks, and exhibition curation. A significant aspect of his practice involves exploring the history and significance of the club as a space for radical hospitality. During our call, Laudi shared how growing up in South Africa during apartheid shaped him profoundly. Experiencing both familial love and state oppression, he developed a ‘DIY spirit.’ “Making sculptures on the river, cars out of found objects, music, choir singing, and dancing were integral to my childhood,” he reflects. “Creative expression feels necessary for me; it’s like breathing. Initially, it seems like self-healing, but soon you realize you’re transferring your emotions for others to use. Beyond that, creative expression makes you not afraid of who and what is in front of you. In choir, for example, singing together creates a sense of harmony and spiritual connection.” He recounted a poignant memory from his youth in South Africa: “Once, when we were at home, the army came to search the house for sensitive material, which was banned during apartheid. I felt like a hero. We grew up protesting against the police, toyi-toyi-ing. They didn’t want us to sing, but for us, it was a cry for freedom”.

Mo Laudi, ph. credit Jean Picon

Reflecting on the end of apartheid, Mo Laudi recounts a significant shift in his family’s life: “After living in a township, we moved to an area where we were the only black family”. He recalls instances of racism, like white kids throwing eggs at their door, and how his father, a mathematician who wrote South Africa’s Mathematics curriculum and founded a national association for black and white mathematicians spreading across the whole country, instilled in him a sense of hope. “He saw those episodes of violence and racism as the last kicks of a dying horse,” Laudi shares, attributing his calm and caring nature to his father’s influence.

This perspective was further shaped when Mo Laudi moved to London in the 1980s. “I was struck by the contrast between the dignified portrayal of black people in London and the vilification we faced in South Africa,” he explains. This experience led him to deeply question societal norms and the power of indoctrination. “How can we create a world where we listen more to each other? How can we unite people and shape new ways of thinking, beyond stereotypes?” These reflections were the genesis of Globalisto. Drawing inspiration from Achille Mbembe’s concept of ‘The Idea of a Borderless World’ and the Ubuntu Philosophy, Mo Laudi sees Globalisto as more than just a concept – it’s a way of life. “It embodies gratitude, care for each other, and a commitment to ongoing learning and listening. It’s both my aspiration and my inspiration,” Mo Laudi concludes.

Mo Laudi playing during a Globalisto event, credits Flavien LARCADE - Radio Nova

In a strikingly insightful statement about today’s complex and animated debate on “cancel culture”, Mo Laudi, proposes a shift towards a “console culture”. “How can we console each other to create a space for dialogue? How do we resolve the conflict within society in the past and present?” In Laudi’s theory empathy is central to the idea of consoling and fostering dialogue. While listening to his words I imagine myself as the spectator who sees the heroine Empathy entering an empty stage open arms, to give legitimacy to the desperate Dialogue, the rag-to-riches that she will help to emerge from obscurity to significance, and accompany in a journey of transformation to show his once hidden multifaceted and nuanced nature, who can help people build bridges, rather than allowing them to eliminate their adversaries.

My day, like many others, usually ends at night, but this time it extends over many nights, culminating in these last phrases of an article about two nurturers of progressive and forward-thinking ideas. Hopefully, thanks to their inspiring effort, we will be a more aware hand between their theremin antennae and together we will create harmonious music, ‘without fear of who or what is in front of us’, and that will be our ‘cry for freedom’.

Neri Torcello
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