Interview by Adi Berardini
Currently based in Berlin, Elia Fushi Bekene is an African/French Queer-Feminist artist. Using a range of visual and audio approaches, their projects— including a podcast and a newsletter— are combined under ‘Self Love Tribute.’ Through their practice, Elia focuses on the strength that lies behind vulnerability and the power of radical self-care to counter the forces designed to oppress individuals based on race, gender, class, and power.
Bekene’s work explores the intersectionality of LGBTQ2IA+ communities, intimacy and vulnerability between women of colour, and how home relates to identity. Bekene is artistically driven by people and the psychological complexities of everyday interactions—reaffirming that emotions are not something to hide away but embrace and work through. Their work ranges from portraiture and video, to audio exploring topics such as decolonization, dating, and spirituality. Currently, in the midst of the intersecting crises of a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, Bekene explains that although everyone has a role in the revolution, it’s time to center the Black women and femmes who have been doing the work for years.
I was wondering if you could speak more about how the Self Love Tribute Project started and the project itself?
It started in a funny way—I believe in signs or at least in my story. I moved to Berlin from France three and a half years ago now. I was working as a business analyst in a company and I hated my job at the time. I was also in a relationship that was not really serving me. Even in terms of relationships, and patterns and emotions, I felt like I was always doing circles. I was worried since I was meeting the same patterns over and over and I thought that it must be me since I am the common denominator in all of this.
When I went home after my job, I would take classes [about] feelings since I realize I don’t come from a family where feelings were explained, we just didn’t sit down at the table and talk about things like that. So, I thought that I would learn what those feelings mean, just on Google and I would Youtube what those feelings mean. Like what is jealousy, what is anger, what is hurt, all of the feelings that I felt at the moment? I would write down what would resonate for me. After a while, I [had] a book of just my thoughts. I would read it to a very close friend of mine, and he told me that I should publish it since it actually really helped [him]. I was telling a friend that I was hating my job, and she asked me, “Well what do you want to do?” And I said, “I don’t really know but I know that I want to help people.” Then she said, “Well what is it that you want to do?” And I said, “I love writing.” My first memory in my whole life was writing. I would ask my mom to write down “Maman” so that I could write, even before I knew what “M” was or “A” was, I just wanted to write.
The next day, my friend told me to publish my feelings, and it was just an email that I would send out every Monday. It would be just a newsletter, basically. I called it a Tribute to Self-Love since I realized I just didn’t love myself enough and I was on a quest to love myself more and understand myself more. I started this email sent from firstname.lastname@example.org and it’s still the same up until now. I just asked 10 friends [if they could] be in my newsletter and they were like okay, whatever. Then I started to send a Tribute to Self-Love every Monday. It’s still going on now, I think it’s been almost two years—tomorrow I will be sending my 130th tribute to self-love—[that] I was fired on that same day. At that time, when I went out of this building, I knew it was a sign telling me that this is my new career, but more than a career, a path. It’s exactly what I’m meant to do. And of course, I am involved in a lot of things, doing photography, audio work and a podcast and everything. The essence of what I want to do is self-healing and sharing my ideas to the world and hoping it will resonate and help others with their quest to also love themselves more.
Your work explores the concept of home, and you discuss how colonization fractures home and culture through displacement in your audio piece “Decolonizing Myself from You.” Could you speak more about the significance of home to you and your practice?
I think it’s also a thing that comes back in my practice without me noticing because it’s just so part of my identity. Like so many people, I think that when you’re a Black person living in a white society it’s something that you always come back to since you question whether you belong here—people always make you question your belonging. The whole notion of having a home is a privilege, since so many people are refused a home or have to leave their home since people try to make other people’s home, their home.
It’s always this thing that I think is very personal and very political and very global especially now, with borders and all of that stuff. It’s something that comes up in the collective conscious but also personally being Black and [through] my mixed identity. I think being mixed is feeling like I’m always in the middle. White people tell you that you’re Black, and Black people tell you that you’re white. I think being mixed race, especially being mixed with white, is almost like a weapon against anti-blackness since it’s also light-skinned people who can be centered in Black Lives Matter movements. I think reconstructing the mixed identity is important especially when dismantling anti-Blackness.
It was always something I came back to, even when I went to Ghana. I wanted to document this whole thing around the 400th anniversary of when the first African people were taken off the shores of Africa to be slaves. I went there since I knew there’d be so many things about those topics. Then I found myself having so many feelings and documenting what I feel is home. When you travel geographically, you also travel within. I found myself asking—what does having a home mean? It’s something I think about even if I don’t really want to. I think it’s also in the collective consciousness, it’s on a lot of people’s minds, where is my home, where do I feel most at home and who is my home?
I found your video ‘dating in berlin’ to be hilarious but also heartbreaking when you explain how the queer community loves to hate and divide each other. I was wondering if you could speak more about the video and your process of creating it?
I feel like the more I learn about humans I realize the more we recreate our circles of oppression. I think there’s this sociologist who described it as “close domination.” She gave the example of white women who dominate women of colour in order to have close proximity to white men. [They have] the same hurdles as other women, but at the same time, they still dominate other women because of race.
At first, I just give my tea to everything and everyone in the community around me, but then in the second part of the video, I talk about how everyone wants to recreate their circles of oppression. I think like that’s what hurts me the most, colourism in the Black community. I’m a light-skinned person here in Berlin, I see how people just don’t want to understand their light-skin fragility or their light-skin privilege. For me, it’s so hard to understand that they don’t get it, it’s just so easy for me to get that we may be Black, but we don’t live the same Blackness. We don’t live the same oppressions based on our gender, how we look, if we’re able or not, if we’re older. There are so many things you can think about and I find it so disappointing when a person knows what it’s like to be discriminated against, but they cannot understand their own oppressive ways or that they have certain privileges.
If we don’t protect the ones that we should protect the most, then that’s problematic. If we don’t make sure that Black Trans women are at the center of everything we do, how can we go any further?
For example, there’s a lot of queerphobia coming from Black people. I just think why would you do that to someone who looks like you? Why are there so many asterisks in your Black liberation? Like “Yeah, I want Black liberation but not for Trans women though.” Why? It just doesn’t make sense. I found it so fascinating but there’s so many “buts” behind liberation. In many ways in Berlin when we get together, there’s so much trauma Olympics, everyone wants to say I’m hurting the most. Of course, not Black Trans women who are actually the most oppressed in our community. It’s not a matter of you not being oppressed, it’s just a deep insecurity of being so rejected outside of this world that we’re just trying to have light when we’re together, so we create this huge amount of pain on top of pain.
Of course, I think the queer community has given me so much, not just here but everywhere. I religiously only listen to Black people or queer people because I find myself so much closer to [them] with politics and spirituality. I just find we can be so destructive when we want to make it personal and not think about the biggest purpose, which is liberation for all. A lot of us personally, we’ve been so rejected, and we didn’t get the space and time to speak. So, when this happens and the ego comes up, on an [intrapersonal], political level it’s interesting to see, but on a personal level, it just feels relentless.
My video was more like, it’s great that we’re all queer and people of colour, but we are still hurting ourselves. If we don’t protect the ones that we should protect the most, then that’s problematic. If we don’t make sure that Black Trans women are at the center of everything we do, how can we go any further? There’s so much racism, there’s so much fatphobia, or femmephobia, or anything, there’s always something. In my videos I give a “Yeah, I’m just done,” since sometimes I really just do feel like that, that humans are just trash since the society is trash. We will never get out of a situation where everyone understands that it’s not about us personally, it’s about the bigger purpose. I’ve also tried to make everything about humour since I know most of the time things are so sad that I try to make people laugh.
The Black Lives Matter movement is currently at the forefront globally after many years of activism. What role do you think art has in social change and how does this intersect in your practice?
I think art is such a powerful practice and I believe that everyone has a role in the revolution. There are people who cannot go to the protest, physically or mentally for different reasons, but they will do something for Instagram to spread ideas, some people will make food for people who go to the protests, some people will be able to console or hold space for others emotionally, some people will heal. I think it’s so important to know what role you want to have in the revolution.
The Black Lives Matter movement is not new for us at all, so for us it’s a new wave of consciousness for other people to understand, and people in power. I am grateful for—well, it’s terrible to say this—but the horrible consequences. I’m glad that people are listening even though they don’t want to listen. People will hold them accountable for not listening.
Anything with human rights, for women, for Trans people, for Black people for anyone—I’ve learnt that compassion is not something everyone gets under capitalism, so we have to teach them. I’m worried that I get so emotionally drained from explaining things that are so obvious. I do this without me knowing, I know a lot of people tell me, “you opened my eyes to this.” It’s great, but I still try to stay selfish in all of this since I am a Black person in a white supremacist system and a queer person on top of this. Prioritizing this is such a “fuck you” to the system. I’m going to log off of social media, I’m not going to talk to people, I’m going to stop talking to my mother if she doesn’t want to understand. Social change and social justice are part of what we do because when you’re a Black and queer person everything that you do or say is political, even though I don’t even think of it as political. White, straight men have so much of the power outside that everything I do looks super horrendous or something when it’s not.
Now, I think that art has been such a powerful way to show people that actually [connects] the human experience, change is the only constant. There are people who are trying to put change and revolution down, but at the end of the day with social media, things spread so fast. People are willing to change, hopefully, and willing to learn. I think it’s beautiful to see. I think art is definitely such a privilege, I realize that when I talk to white people about racism they might have problems or things in the way to understand it, but if I do it as an art piece, they will feel more receptive to it. But now it’s so white-washed, museums are just full of white men.
I think everyone is an artist, really and truly, everyone is creative in their own way, but they just don’t put it outside in the world to judge it. Art is definitely important in the revolution. I think it’s the most comfortable way for me to participate while still having pleasure and that’s very important to me. If I just talk and have a dumbass conversation about race and I’m not having pleasure, then I’m depleting myself from my energies and not [getting] anything back.
It’s great that people are doing work with grassroots organizations, like designing posters or graphics to spread the word on Instagram. It’s so powerful, but at the same time it’s a little bit sad there’s been so many people in these organizations who have been doing the work for years and years, oftentimes Black women, and people don’t give them enough flowers while they can still smell them. At the same time, if you can help the revolution to go somewhere and to be even brighter, I’m all for it. This may be the best way.
Do you have any news to announce or projects coming up that you are working on that you’d like to discuss?
No—I think it’s great for people to see. It’s hard to be an artist in this world, especially when you’re Black and queer. I want people to see that I have nothing coming up. I was just going to apply for grants or residencies but not anymore that things are so up in the air. You’re not tied to your productivity. Of course, the financial part of it is really hard because you need money to pay your rent. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic with so many things happening so it’s really okay that I don’t have anything going on. The world has so many other things to take care of. It’s also good that we take a little time off to reflect. Let’s use 2020 as a time to stay home and reflect on the things we can do better and decolonize ourselves more.