Rania Lee Khalil questions the Eurocentrism built into artistic research and ecological thinking

Originally trained in dance, somatic movement and butoh, artist Rania Lee Khalil makes performances and moving image for live audiences. Khalil’s doctoral research The Third World Ecology Trilogy: Postcoloniality, Embodiment and Ecology will be examined on 9 February 2024. Read our interview with Khalil about the themes of her research.

What is your research about?

My artistic research centers on interrelated themes of postcoloniality and ecological justice. I developed it through the making of a moving image performance entitled The Third World Ecology Trilogy. My research findings are concerned with the widespread omission of histories of colonialism in relation to environmental crisis. Academia, artists and mainstream environmental movements alike, too often erase the violence of indigenous human dispossession from their lands, focusing only on the animals or trees of these areas, and ignoring their own very generalized, naturalized and internalized white supremacy in their proposals to better the earth and or to (re)connect with “nature”.  

Interesting. Your thesis consists of three video works, tell us more about them.

The Third World Ecology Trilogy contains three interconnected video works for live audiences, the first being Palestinian Wildlife Series, which meditates on links between loss of Palestinian human and plant life, and extinction and loss of habitat in African animal life. This video work began when I was visiting the family home of a Palestinian friend in Jerusalem, which had recently been broken into by Israeli settlers who tried to claim it for their own. Alone in this home one night, afraid of their possible return, I watched a nature documentary on television, and began filming images directly from the tv, as links between endangered animals and occupied Palestine became viscerally clear to me. I did years of artistic research to better understand settler colonialism and ecological injustice in this context, as well as into my kinesthetic relationship with these moving images. I wanted to better understand how my empathic and embodied relationship with these moving images might differently inform the way I edited them. I used my practice as a somatic dancer to investigate these questions across the three moving image projects in my trilogy.  

The second artistic research in this trilogy began from a set of photos I inherited from my grandmother. She was a women’s rights organizer in Cairo in the 1960’s and 70’s, and cofounded a women’s organization with a dear colleague of hers from Conakry, Guinea. My slide projector performance The Pan African Asian Women’s Organization, Cairo to Conakry, 1960- 1965 has a scene which centers on images that are of this organization hosting two Algerian revolutionaries in 1962. These women, Djamilla Bouhired and Zohra Drif, are in fact quite famous, yet I knew so little about them prior to my artistic research! The erasures of these histories of feminist anticolonial resistance even within my own family thus became the primary thrust of that project. I researched Algeria’s anticolonial revolution, in relation to wider revolutions taking place across Africa and the third world in that time period, which was very exciting. The courage of revolutionaries and collectivity of the masses against injustice in that era is very inspiring. If it were not for French intellectuals finally deciding to oppose their own government’s 130-year colonization of Algeria (and the death of literally millions of Algerians) Algeria might not have become free, which is very instructive for indigenous movements as well the power of artists and intellectuals in the present. This research linked with my first project in Palestine, which exists today as both an example of active settler colonialism and the criminalization of indigenous resistance and mobilization in the 21st century. 

In my third piece called Sinai, a story i tell my daughter, i conducted embodied research while swimming in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, waters which contain the detritus of war and tourism. The text for this video came from a poem I wrote for my daughter about a parallel dimension of earth in which the tragedies on earth never happened.

How did you end up doing research on your topic? What drew you to the subject? 

I arrived to the Theatre Academy from Cairo, Egypt, where my parents were born and had since permanently returned, as the 2011 revolution and “Arab Spring” continued to unfold. I was very energized and eager to conduct the postcolonial research with which I had applied to the program, yet upon arriving found myself the only person of color among the students and faculty of the doctoral program. I found myself quite drawn to the ecological work of the artists surrounding me, yet puzzled by the absence of postcolonial thought from conversations about phenomena like the anthropocene. So I set out to include perspectives of people like me within conversations of the “posthuman” and ecology.

What do you hope that audiences who acquaint themselves with your research will learn?

I hope that my research will allow its audiences to more deeply grapple with the fact that earth harming conditions including fossil fuel extraction, industrialization, clear cutting, monoculture and pollution began with colonialism, and that out of respect for the complex ecosystems which existed prior to it, which include indigenous human beings, we are obligated to consider these histories when speculating on ways to to moving forward. Colonialism includes not only violence, killing and dispossession across human, plant, animal, marine and mineral species. It is also at its core a harmful set of systems and ideas that continue to provide the descendants of colonizers with feelings of entitlement over lands and interspecies habitats that never belonged to them.  This shows up unconsciously in lots of ecological thought.

I believe that it is difficult for Western Europeans and their diaspora in settler colonies including the United States, Canada, Australia and Israel to really take in the extent to which their standard of living  depends on harm to the earth and its indigenous peoples / species, and how their wealth relies on the poverty, and sadly the obliteration, of others. The world is so upside down, and I hope that in engaging with research like mine, people in Western societies can learn to more deeply question at whose expense their own “democracies” and “freedom” takes place. 

What does artistic research mean to you?

Artistic research means many things to me, yet mainly I believe it a space of perhaps unrealized potential in the power of artists to engage, over long and supported periods of time, in acts of self-definition and world building. Artistic research has the capacity to turn artists into scholars, curators and mediators of our own works, and this shift to less hierarchical and more poetic forms of power is something I think very important in the 21st century.

Public examination on 9 February 2024

Rania Lee Khalil’s doctoral research The Third World Ecology Trilogy: Postcoloniality, Embodiment and Ecology will be examined at Uniarts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy on 9 February 2024 (Auditorium 1, Haapaniemenkatu 6, Helsinki). The opponent of the event is Dr. Barbara Asante, and the Chair is PhD, docent Hanna Järvinen. The occasion is in English.

Rania Lee Khalil’s doctoral research is available in the University of the Arts Helsinki publication archive Taju.