Jean Fisher (1942-2016): A Tribute
by Dr 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 not only Glissant but also philosophers including Deleuze and Guattari, yet her interest was never in your stereotypical everyday subject. She was obsessed with trickster travellers, something that led to her deep friendship and love of the artist Jimmie Durham. It also informed affection with other political tricksters from Francis Alÿs to 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 life long practice that was as much activism as it was a form of pedagogical practice – manifest in teaching and her beautiful writing in numerous books and in her work as an editor of the post-colonial journal, Third Text. Her writing surrounding Ireland and Northern Ireland led to deep relationships and profound literature on the artists, James Coleman and Willie Doherty.
Always conscientious of the polemics of where she located her discourse, Fisher constantly questioned the authority of the power structures from which she spoke. In her introduction toGlobal Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, Fisher 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 circumscribed into the art world narrative. This is of course something that has become all the more relevant today.
Consistently, she called and begged for the revision of positions. And it was this quest for revision that propelled me to study art. I remember fondly 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, and the construction of race; and we cried over the failings of theory to change the world. We cried every time Beirut or Gaza was bombed. We cried. But helpless she was never, she would write emails, 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 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 – for 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 urging 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 be a language simply for a bourgeoisie.
Indeed in her 2002 essay, ‘Towards a Metaphysics of Shit’ 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 in 2014 informed us that ‘To look at the see 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.