19 December 2016

Jean Fisher, 1942-2016

by Omar Kholeif

I build my language with rocks
-Édouard Glissant, L’Intention Poétique (1997)

It was Jean Fisher that encouraged me to write. It was Jean Fisher that introduced me to Glissant and who liberated me from the sense of confusion that I had growing up – the shame of being a non-located person, neither Egyptian (where I was born), nor a Westerner (where I lived in exile). Being queer was not being doubly exiled, she believed, but a release into a community. She taught me that creolization was a way to unshackle our thinking, that every stumbling block was also a building block. She explained to me that withdrawing into an imaginary, dimensionless place was a kind of liberation. She encouraged me to think of ourselves as rhizomatic, to believe that we could create our own routes to the people and places that we wanted to love and live with.

Jean Fisher was of course referencing Glissant and Deleuze and Guattari, yet her interest was never in stereotypical subjects. She was obsessed with trickster travellers, something that led to her deep friendship with, and love of, the artist Jimmie Durham. It also informed her affection for other political tricksters such as Francis Alÿs and Emily Jacir, whose work untangles the inherent political structures in their immediate geographies.

This deep-seated interest in art’s relationship to the political in an age of globalization was also manifest in a lifelong practice that was as much activism as it was a form of pedagogical practice – manifest in teaching, her beautiful writing in numerous books,  and in her work as an editor of the post-colonial journal Third Text. Her writings on Ireland led to deep relationships with, and profound literature about, the artists James Coleman and Willie Doherty.

Always conscientious of the polemics of where she located her discourse, Jean constantly questioned the authority of the power structures from which she spoke. In her introduction to Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, Jean queried the codification of information in an era of accelerating social and political change, critiquing the commodification of previously marginalized narratives, which were becoming subsumed into the newly capitalized art world. She evaluated the concept of multiculturalism and the potent tendency that had emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s of marginalized cultures becoming tokentistically included into the art world narrative. This is of course something that has become all the more relevant today.

Consistently, she begged for the revision of positions. It was this quest for revision that propelled me to study art. I fondly remember sitting on the floor of her office while I would pull dusty books from her library. We talked about Benjamin, about repositories of white and black knowledge, about dust, about auras, about Fanon and duality, about Du Bois and WJT Mitchell, about the construction of race. We cried over the failings of theory to change the world. We cried every time Beirut or Gaza was bombed. We cried. But never was she helpless. She would write emails and letters, and start petitions. Jean Fisher embodied a style of radical will that extended beyond the limits of her physical health, which plagued much of her later life.

Fisher once told me, invoking one of her favorite troubadours, Michel Serres, I do not seek, I find – and only write if I find! Excavate and extrapolate, Fisher always did. She loved Jean Genet and Mahmoud Darwish – after all, she was a prisoner of love, someone who was bound to save all of us from the limits of our own troubled imaginations.

I met Fisher as a student. She took me under her wing immediately. I was lost; I was about to drop out of college because my conservative family had wanted me to study in the field of the sciences. Jean refused to let this happen. She would email me almost every day, asking to read my writings. As she did, I read all of her words, which penetrated the corners of my mind, informing me that art need not simply be a language for the bourgeoisie.

Indeed, in her 2002 essay, "Towards a Metaphysics of Shit," written for Documenta 11, Jean asked: "Can art function as an effective mediator of change or resistance to hegemonic power, or is it doomed to be a decorative and irrelevant footnote to forces more powerful than its capacity to confront?"

This question plagued and propelled me. Over time, she became one of my closest friends. She was my Auntie Jean, and I her nephew, but in reality, she was the mother figure who had always been absent.

Near the end of her life, she informed me that she would like to pack up and move to Hastings to live by the sea, so that she may think and read, free of the burdens of the city. When our friend, the Palestinian artist and writer Kamal Boulata, last visited London, she joked that they would be running away to the Southeast Coast with his wife Lily Farhoud. A life by the sea, I wondered, could only be a metaphor for the cherished writings of Darwish, who would speak of "impatiently waiting for the sea" to return home to his native Palestine, or perhaps of the great poet and painter Etel Adnan who, in her collected writings, informed us that "To look at the sea is to become what one is."

Jean Fisher was a figure who touched us all. She left this world too soon, but in her words and teaching we must find strength to fight and to allow those less fortunate than us the voice and agency to be heard and seen.

Dr. Omar Kholeif is a writer and the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Jean Fisher's website is jeanfisher.com.

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