A woman, a reincarnated Orpheus: Channeling Touissant L’Ouverture in Kettly Noël’s “Zombification”

Today I will be attending a talk by  Edith Hall, Professor in the Classics Department and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London. Hall is not only an expert on Greek tragedy, but also on the reception of ancient drama through the ages. More recently, her work has focused on Aristotle and the talk she will deliver today, called “Aristotle at the Movies: Learning about Virtue Ethics through Cinema”, is part of a book project that will be released next year called Happiness: Ten Ways Aristotle Can Change Your Life.


In preparation for Hall’s talk, I have been browsing her blog The Edithorial, which, from on blogger to another, is an impressive piece of work, with regular, mostly weekly posts, dating back to 2011.


Many of Hall’s posts are focused on the reception of antiquity through history and one post caught my eye, from August, which was called Spartacus in Haiti and Lancashire.

Here is how Hall begins her post:

23 August is the annual International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. UNESCO chose the date because it marks the beginnings of the momentous 1791 slave rebellion on St Domingue (Haiti). Enslaved Africans spread fire across a thousand plantations. In 1794 the French National Convention voted to abolish slavery throughout all territories of the French Republic. Although Napoleon later repealed this measure, the fact that it had been passed at all was instrumental in the eventual abolition of the European slave trade altogether. The leader of the rebellion was Toussaint L’Ouverture, known as The Black Spartacus. He had been inspired by the portrait of the ancient rebel gladiator Spartacus in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus.

Hall then turns to a discussion of the 1853 biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture by the Lancashire Unitarian minister, Reverend John Relly Beard, an ardent advocate for broadest possible impact of a classical education, teaching of Greek and Latin to all working people.

Beard’s work can be seen in relation to that of another Classicist – C.L.R. James and his 1938 book The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. To this list of classically-minded advocates of the Black Spartacus, you could add the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who delivered an impassioned speech on Toussaint L’Ouverture at Cooper’s Union in 1861. Here is how Phillips ended his speech:

People to night might think him a fanatic, because they read history with their prejudices and not with their eyes. But when some future historian, like TACITUS, comes to write, he will take PHOCION as the noblest model of Greece – BRUTUS, of Rome — HAMPDEN, of England — LAFAYETTE, of France; – WASHINGTON, the brightest star of the last generation, and JOHN BROWN, of Harper’s Ferry, for this – and with a pen dipped in the sunbeam, will write above them all the name of the patriot and martyr – Toussaint L’Ouverture.

This conclusion was quoted in 1912 in astronomer and public intellectual Garrett Putman Serviss‘ book on public speaking Eloquence, Counsel on the Art of Public Speaking, with the following, equally high-flown, analysis:

The throngs who listened to that with hearts aflame, and greeted the swelling periods with thunders of applause, were unaware of any extravagance, for the orator’s thought was their thought, his enthusiasm burned in their hearts. Like him they belonged to their generation with passionate zeal. It was Homer singing the Iliad to Grecian ears, or Orpheus moving rocks and trees with the sympathetic force of music. 

A different kind of eloquence was on display in Athens this year, when at documenta 14, the Haitian artist and choreographer Kettly Noël performed her work Zombification, 2017. While I missed the performance itself, I witnessed its aftermath in the Odeion, comprising a cluster of eerie hanging, stuffed figures.

I looked to the wall text for answers and read at the bottom the following description:

A visual submersion in the shadows of memory, mingling the guedes -Voudoun’s loas (spirits) of death – with the Sonderkommandos of Ebola, evoking at once slavery, lynchings, death camps, the killing fields of Vietnam or Rwanda, massacres past or future, and the blackest faces of our history. Zombification refers to images that ceaselessly haunt contemporary people and that preclude the conception of modern visions. A woman, a reincarnated Orpheus, attempts to survive amidst illusionary corpses in an incessant and absurd ballet of dehumanised bodies, served by enigmatic undertakers – an impossible task that conciliates Haitan surrealism and contemporary art. Zombification, the obliteration of all consciousness and free will, is global. No one will escape. 

The striking image of “a woman, a reincarnated Orpheus” refers, I presume, to the mythical poet’s underworld journey to recover Eurydice. But could it also refer to mythical poet’s eloquence, transposed onto the female artist in how she can embody and vivify the legacies of slavery as ‘dehumanised bodies’, just as Orpheus could move rocks and trees?

While Kettly Noël doesn’t mention the Haitian Revolution and Toussaint L’Ouverture in the wall text, she does allude to it in the documenta 14 catalogue – the daybook – in which she chooses the date of August 14, 1791 to represent her work (all the artists at documenta 14 had to choose an historical or future date that resonated with their work):

Thinking now about Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti and the history of slavery and classicism, in reading Hall’s post, I knew that Kettly Noël’s work belonged to this tradition of living stories that wrestled with the creative appropriation of ancient Greek myths as a means of contemporary protest against the real and tangible legacies of slavery. It is for this reason that I am excited by the work that my OSU Classics colleague, Tom Hawkins, is doing on Haiti and Greek tragedy, especially his focus on Felix Morisseau-Leroy’s Wa Kreyon (Antigone), not only in and of itself, but how it engages his teaching in courses such as Black Cultures and Classical Education this coming Spring.

While The Edithorial shows us the ways in which the traditions of ancient Greek and Roman antiquity come back to life and play leading roles in historical debates about slavery, sexism, imperialism and colonialism, it is my hope that Minus Plato engages and expands these analyses to include the challenging and dynamic work of contemporary artists working withing, against and through the same traditions.

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