The Eleventh Island: Activating Silent Histories through Video
Video Essay
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by Janilda Bartolomeu

Video has the ability to imbue us with the power to change the dominant filter through which we perceive our environment, making space to create a world in the image of our subjective experience. It can switch those dominant and default lenses with which we engage, view and subsequently live and create within our environment, and society at large. In recent years, while developing my video and filmmaking practice, I discovered a fascination with this idea of metaphorical lenses. This fascination coincided with my research into the Cape Verde Islands’ largely undocumented histories.

By cultural default, Cape Verde’s histories were a silent mystery to me when I was growing up. Whenever I was asked particular questions about its language, its history, I always shrugged. I was not sure. I distinctly remember a Dutch classmate asking about my ancestry, since he had found out that he had some nobility in his family, and I had no notes to compare with his. Whenever I did remember to put these questions to my elders, I was routinely met with similar responses: disclaimers and uncertainties. This did not bother me or make me think any less of them. They had troubles in the “real world” to worry about and worked long, hard hours, with short breaks before leaving for their other jobs. In my recent research and observation, I have found that this is a common experience among the Cape Verdean community here in Rotterdam, and I suspect that this condition runs like a red thread through most of us who are dispersed around the globe.

In that sense, silence is a characteristic that seems to permeate the Cape Verdean people’s lived experience. This is possibly what won us the nickname of “the silent immigrants” here in the city of Rotterdam. This term has been used as a compliment to our elders for their ability to keep their heads down and just work, survive and not make trouble. The Dutch Cape Verdean immigrants’ own version of the model minority stereotype, but one that is its own complex can of worms. This “silence”, and the subject of Cape Verde’s undocumented histories, has become an obsession of my filmmaking practice and I have therefore attempted to create various strategies to engage with these intangible and transitory conditions. One of my most surprising research findings was that a portion of the archipelago’s undocumented histories has always lived inconspicuously in the city of Rotterdam. This is perhaps why Rotterdam is playfully referred to as “the Eleventh Island” of Cape Verde by people within our community. Eventually I developed my own video-making strategy which I called “The Creole Lens”, and which now allows me to engage with these undocumented histories. With this essay, I briefly explain how video and its ability to switch our day-to-day lenses allowed me to activate these silent local histories.  

The Importance of Switching Lenses

My metaphorical approach to lenses started when looking at the social and communal implications of “documented histories” versus “undocumented histories”, and the value given to one and not the other by Western society. I particularly looked at the Western context since the Cape Verde Islands’ histories are intertwined with Portugal’s history due to its colonial rule over them, which lasted from 1462 to 1975. I found that, from the Western perspective, transparency is one of the conditions that is most valued: matters that are documented, linear histories as well as root identities, which signify entitlement to certain territories. This approach is largely reliant on proven “legitimacy” which takes shape in archives and history books, as well as monuments. From that perspective, I found that Cape Verdean histories and Creole identity formation were likely to seem chaotic in their lack of documentation. This lack of physical documentation is even carried over to the Creole language we speak among each other “unofficially”, that is, unwritten.

Cape Verdean people often attempt to engage in the Western practice of legitimacy and documentation. A concrete example of this are the attempts to pin down the Cape Verdeans’ Creole language (Criolo or Kriolu or Crioulo) in order to create dictionaries. However, how do we accurately pinpoint a language which varies for each of the islands of the archipelago, from little shifts in accents to completely different dialects? These Western tools largely do not apply to the Cape Verdean condition. My research started to revolve around the development of tools and strategies that would apply to our specific condition.

This required a shift in perspective, and the first steps towards this were found in Caribbean Creole philosophy where I found my footing in eventually developing my own video strategies. My first step towards the metaphor of lenses came from Jean Bernabe, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphael Confiant’s Éloge de la Créolité, in which they described Creoleness from their Martinican perspective: “We are fundamentally stricken with exteriority. This from a long time ago to present day. We have seen the world through the filter of Western values, and our foundation was “exoticised” by the French vision we had to adopt ... caught in the trick of cultural dependence, we were deported out of ourselves at every moment of our scriptural history.”

This remained in the back of my head throughout my research. Philosophers such as Édouard Glissant made me realise that Creole identity formation and its histories relied on the fact that our predecessors lost their original language, culture and customs in the opaque source that is the sea, during their passage on the ships during their enslavement. However, just because all of this knowledge was left in that opaque source, and is illegible due to its lack of documentation, does not mean that it is not there. It is exactly this perspective that drew me to the subversive possibilities that the video format might have. 

I thought about the Cape Verdean identity formation and its histories, and how it was built upon the practical means of survival, a culture created for survival. I thought about this archipelago, which was the very first European colony in the “Age of Discovery”, and was previously described as uninhabited. How various people from different tribes were forced to Creolise, to put together the traces of the languages and the cultures they had left after their forced journeys, (together with Portuguese language and customs), in order to move forward, to build community, in order to survive.

The more I considered these findings and started remixing my use of the video format with these ideas of exteriority and illegibility, the more I became aware of the metaphor of the lens. A Creole lens, which could be forged into a video language, to adequately communicate the ephemeral nature of Cape Verdean Creole histories and identity formation.

In the creation of this lens, I was fuelled by the perspective that undocumented histories do not signify a void of information but rather a major, opaque source of information, which is merely illegible, oversimplified and unable to be reached through the lens of Western documentation and legitimacy. 

The Creole Lens and the Silent Histories of Rotterdam

The video format offered The Creole Lens a free space and the means to be translated into a language and to engage with Cape Verde’s undocumented histories, which we still carry on opaquely in our day-to-day lives. I found that video not only provides a space of creative freedom, but also imbues its creator with certain powers. One inherits the ability to be the creator of a vision, of a world, created in the image of one’s own existence and experiences. The video format was used in similar ways for The Creole Lens, where editing gave me the power to travel space-time by engaging in different time zones, as more Cape Verdeans are scattered around the world than reside on the actual archipelago. It allowed me to engage in these dimensions in non-linear ways, to find a strategy of “working with the traces” like my ancestors did and weaving this speculative sail, in order to move forward rather than wasting time by looking for a clear-cut and transparent history.

Video allows for a space and freedom of subversion and speculation, where the world can be created in the image of the Cape Verdean community and its subjective lived experiences. However, I had to take care to not fall into the “trap” of documentation, as the video format is traditionally reserved for such purposes. Rather than documentation, the focus was projection – the projection of our transformative visions into the world in order to move forward. Rather than documenting grand and historical events, the focus was on collecting material, in order to re-create with it. Rather than providing monuments and history books, the language that the video format allowed The Creole Lens to have is one that is constantly changing and that can be re-edited according to our (in flux) Cape Verdean condition, language and customs. This video language allows the freedom of speculatively working with existing and collected traces, which are not fixed and are allowed to evolve through time and need, just as the other dimensions in our culture and identity formation do and have done. 

It is a lens that is as much in flux as our largely undocumented histories and unwritten language – a strategy that is able to transpose the whole opaque scope of our histories and subsequent identity formation. This strategy is not necessarily about great events but revolves around the way we honour Cape Verdean histories, customs and rituals in our day-to-day lives. For me, The Creole Lens truly came to life when I heard the Cape Verdean oral histories about the city of Rotterdam, in  particular how it provided a haven during Cape Verde’s fight for independence from the Portuguese in the 1960s and 1970s. With The Creole Lens, I personally managed to lay bare and activate the silent histories of my people, which I had walked through on a daily basis without even realising it.

I spent over a year collecting traces of the Cape Verdean community’s silent histories in Rotterdam. At first and for the most part this happened unnoticed. I just carried a camera and small audio recorder everywhere I went, as I could barely find any information online. I took to the streets of Rotterdam. By asking questions and being referred to various places, I met with different people who provided me with snippets. I was eventually introduced to my main guide in my search, Jorge Oliveira Lizardo, a walking source of Cape Verde’s oral histories in Rotterdam. A historian in his own right, who through the years has collected various traces of Cape Verde’s histories, which have usually been passed down to him by other people; verbally, through recorded poetry or music and the odd photograph here and there.

Through him, I learned about his great-uncle João Silva, who in an act of resistance against the Portuguese colonial government (which forbade Cape Verdean music), came to Rotterdam and later set up the first Cape Verdean record label, Morabeza Records,[[ref, r=1] in the mid 1960s. He was tasked by Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the independence struggle for Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, to preserve and create records to safeguard Cape Verde’s cultural heritage – a heritage which was carried through music and poetry, the economical and practical means by which our oral histories were transposed. He paved the way for other Cape Verdeans, here in the city, to the point that it gained its nickname, the Eleventh Island. There was also the exiled poet Ovídio Martins, who found refuge in Rotterdam during his critical work during Portugal’s colonial oppression. I was told the address where he used to live, however it has slipped my mind, which is a side-effect of oral histories. The point is that the house, this piece of crucial Cape Verdean history, is now inhabited by people who are completely oblivious to its historical and revolutionary significance. (When you know, you know). 

As I learned more, I also became aware that I have passed these places that constitute my own history of being here, without even noticing. For instance, going to the Schiedamseweg to do grocery shopping with my mother on Saturdays, I always passed one of the pensions which sheltered the Cape Verdean seafarers who once worked in the harbour of Rotterdam. Just as I regularly passed the street where Morabeza Records used to be, as well as other places such as Heemraadsplein, or Ovídio Martin’s former home, without being aware of their influence on my current lived experiences.

It was therefore logical to continuously carry my own recording devices to collect my own traces, as well as borrow other people’s traces in order to create with and activate these histories within my video practice, just as our ancestors negotiated with their traces to create something new with a forward vision. Video allowed me the opportunity of subjectively representing these histories, the way I experienced them, using editing and sound to convey the experiences connected to them, rather than just informing others about them through documentation. I use these ephemeral traces to create a strategy to engage with our lived experience and histories in a way that applies to us and allows us to move forward, rather than retrieve “legitimate” histories to no avail. To conclude, this practice is not about the retrieval of a fixed origin, but rather about the creation of a way of engaging, a strategy. The strategy of The Creole Lens is thus a means of projection, of forward vision, and allows me to work with these traces, much as Glissant encouraged, and weave together my own sail, just as my ancestors did. 

ANNOTATIONS ADD ANNOTATION
  1. Morabeza Records, een Kaapverdiaans platenlabel uit Rotterdam is a 34-minute documentary which follows Morabeza Records’ collection being placed the city archive, as well as João Silva chronicling his journey to Rotterdam and setting up Morabeza Records. Watch the film at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEdMIzwWrzo or see the online collection at https://www.muziekweb.nl/en/Muziekweb/Collecties/Morabeza

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