Johannesburg-based 'cyber warrior’ Tabita Rezaire on her work challenging e-colonialism
Tabitha Rezaire, Afro Cyber Resistance, 2014.
Tabita Rezaire wants to teach us how to decolonize our diets.
The 26-year-old digital artist’s recent piece, Peaceful Warrior, is an instructional “healing tutorial” video about transitioning from an angry warrior to a peaceful warrior. The installation was commissioned as part of New York-based conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas’ Nina Simone-inspired Young, Gifted and Black exhibition at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery.
Rezaire’s work is political, informative and clever. The artist, who holds a Master in Artist Moving Image from Central Saint Martins College in London, channels her 90s collage aesthetic into websites and videos that challenge the notion of "cyber-colonialism." Offline, Rezaire holds workshops on technology and “booty politics,” and co-runs the art studio Malaxa and the decolonial tech health agency NTU. She’s also a member of the afro-feminist collective MWASI.
In the email exchange below, we speak with Rezaire about her work challenging internet colonialism.
Yatta Zoker for Okayafrica: You’ve previously said you’re interested in the internet for “its possibilities, not yet realised.” What are some internet possibilities you dream of, but have yet to realize?
Tabita Rezaire: I just want the internet to be safe. The internet is exploitative, oppressive, exclusionary, classist, patriarchal, racist, homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, coercive and manipulative. The internet reproduces IRL fuck ups i.e. western racial, economical, political, and cultural domination, legitimized behind the idea of modernity and technological advancement. It promotes occidental hegemony; brainwashes its users, whitewashes information, and is an active tool of surveillance, propaganda, censorship and control.
We’re constantly tracked; our data and metadata are collected, stored and sold without us knowing anything about it. We consent to terms and conditions we don’t even read and give away ownership of our stuff just to use any web platform that is making $$$ on our backs. It’s free labor! Exploitation!
The internet is such a violent and oppressive space and we have to cope with it. Well, those who have access to it, so just about 50 percent of worldwide population. It’s so classist and excluding—if you can’t pay for a connection, too bad. If you can’t afford the premium account, too bad!
In terms of surveillance it is very dangerous. If you do anything governments deemed suspicious then you’re spied on. And being suspicious is basically being against the white-supremacist-patriarchal-heteronormative capitalist order! It makes online activism very fragile.
Our techno utopian dream reproduces structures of oppressions but it’s not surprising as it was first built as a US military network. What is scary is that we are now dependent on this technology they built to control not land—as is the colonial days—but to influence and monitor our minds, desires, beliefs, lifestyles and consumer behaviors. This is called electronic colonialism. E-colonialism is also the dependent relationship of some part of the Global South on the West, because of the importation of communication hardware and software, technicians and protocols. Those imported foreign norms, values, alter local cultures, languages and behaviors.
It’s not the globalization of culture but the westernization. We’ve become cyber slaves!
Your piece commissioned for Young, Gifted and Black is a video installation called Peaceful Warrior. What were you hoping to accomplish with this piece? What does it mean to you to be a “peaceful warrior”?
It’s a healing tutorial. It’s about transitioning from an angry warrior to a peaceful warrior. Navigating oppressive cis-tems is hard especially for the QTPOC community and it often results in feelings of anger, frustration, pain or mental illness due to traumatic survival. Although I believe anger is fair and necessary, it can be very consuming. Sometimes it feels like I don’t put my energy in the right place. I’ve been trying to care for myself better lately to deal with anxiety. I changed my lifestyle: getting off the pill, practicing yoga and meditation, doing crystal healing, eating vegan, caring for what my body consumes by making my own skin and hair care products and tapping into plant based healing. It helped me a lot to ease my headspace. This video is me spreading some decolonial self care advice. How to become a peaceful warrior in 6 steps: connect with ancestral knowledge, practice Kemetic yoga, meditate, decolonize your diet, pull off your power outfit and nurture radical self love. Queen Audre Lorde preached: ‘caring for myself is an act of political warfare!’
What is the process of translating your online work to IRL [in real life] exhibitions? Do you feel as if something is lost?
Most often the work I publish online is video work, so when shown IRL I try to create an environment for those videos. It becomes almost a different work. It’s a different process. I don’t think anything is lost, quite the opposite. I guess the cost comes in terms of audience because the URL and IRL audience can be quite different. The art world being predominantly white, sometimes gallery spaces don’t feel as empowering.
What do you think is the connection between your screen-based art and healing?
Healing is resistance. My video work is about healing our body-mind-spirit connection and also the technology we are using, as our connected lives are also spaces of oppressions. Yet, it can become a safe space for support and self care. We need to decolonize and heal our technologies. Healing for me is about understanding our pain, not only emotionally but politically, economically, racially, sexually, spiritually and genetically. Once you understand the history of power dynamics and institutionalized oppressions, you can start to unlearn the toxic mechanisms that we’ve internalized, try not to perpetuate them, and then contribute to dismantling them. I hope my work can contribute to that journey somehow.
Tabitha Rezaire, Duck face smartlife.
What piece of work has felt most empowering to you?
All have for different reasons. My works help me process feelings and information, they reflect my own journey so have all contributed to make me learn and grow. I’m still decolonizing myself and my work is part of that process. I guess the most empowering part is when someone comes up to me or sends me a message to say my work has helped them somehow in their own lives. The feeling of building support community through what I do is the best feeling.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I don’t really think about this. I’ll keep doing my work after I transition as a spirit. I’ll send love to our next generation of warrior-healers and mess with anyone trying to fuck with my descendents.
What role does fashion play in your art making and activism?
Dressing up is LYF! It gives me so much power and confidence. It’s about self-agency, self-definition, pride and radical self-love. When I put on a power outfit, I’m like yesss. I feel hot and fierce. I can make it through the world. It’s like a protective shield, I feel safe in bright colors and sparkles! SHINE BRIGHT LIKE A DIAMOND is also a political strategy because fashion carries so much colonial burdens. It’s very gender-normative and tied to respectability politics. So much shaming—people would say you’re superficial and shallow—no you’re celebrating yourself being a magical being!
What African artists inspire you at the moment?
Many. I’m actually in the process of starting an online platform/gallery/space for African & Afro descendent artists who contribute to the mind-body-spirit-tech harmony. There are lots of peeps in my radar. It’s about solidarity and building community.
Screengrab: The homepage of tabitarezaire.com.
What is Kemetic yoga? How did you get involved?
Kemetic yoga is the African science of yoga practiced in Kemet, a name for ancient Egypt. It is a healing and spiritual system of self-actualization dependent on our connection to the spirit of our ancestors and our understanding of nature and its cosmic force. It dates back to thousands of years BC, but has consistently been erased from the history of yoga and misinterpreted by Egyptologists.
It has given me LYF. A friend introduced me to Kemetic yoga in Johannesburg at a time when I was crying a lot and feeling I was losing it. It felt so right! I had done yoga before but never really felt comfortable in those spaces. Kemetic yoga is a decolonial yoga practice, a healing science and a technology for spirituality. That’s why it feels so good! It’s a gift from our ancestors that we need to nurture.