BY SAKHILE MATLHARE ’10
Following the death of George Floyd, people in more than 60 countries and across continents gathered to protest against racial injustice. Sakhile Matlhare was one of them. She is the co-founder and art director of Sakhile&Me, a contemporary art gallery in Frankfurt, Germany, that focuses on Africa and her diasporas. Born in Botswana, she came to the United States following her high school education in 2005 and spent a year at The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut before enrolling at Hamilton. Matlhare earned her Master of Arts degree at The University of Sydney and a doctorate in sociology at Northwestern University in 2017.
In the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 9, 2016, after watching Donald Trump win the presidential election, a friend was driving me home on a misty, dark Chicago morning. Just as she was pulling up to my place, floodlights filled the car as an unmarked vehicle approached us. The two white males inside, although not in uniform, claimed they were police officers and asked us what we were doing in a no-parking zone. It was clear we were not parked. The engine was still running, and my friend’s brake lights were on. I explained that she was dropping me off. I got out of the car and waited until she drove away. The two men, smiling, turned off their floodlights and drove off. Once I entered my home, I cried, shaken and believing my life had been in danger. At 29 years old, I wrote the first draft of a will that morning.
If you never have had to wonder whether you can trust the police with your life — even when you are not breaking any law — this incident may seem odd but, nonetheless, innocent. But to me it was not. I had felt threatened by people many turn to for protection. At the time, I was in my fourth year of pursuing a Ph.D. at Northwestern University. I was so disturbed by this experience that I finished my program within the next six months, graduating a year earlier than I had planned. I was determined to leave America under Trump as soon as possible but also acutely aware that this option was a kind of privilege.
Four years later, this time watching the election from Frankfurt, Germany, I saw that same president, who had stoked racial tensions throughout his presidency and emboldened white supremacists, come close to winning again. Trump received more than 74 million votes, the most by any incumbent U.S. president. Nearly 47 percent of the country voted to keep him in office.
I had moved to Frankfurt to live with my partner, Daniel Hagemeier ’11. We had met a decade earlier at Hamilton, two international students from two worlds colliding on the Hill. After Hamilton, we studied together in Sydney before Daniel returned to Germany to work with his father, whose gallery specializes in German Expressionist and Classical Modern art. When I finished my studies at Northwestern, we decided to lean into each other’s strengths and, in 2018, founded Sakhile&Me, a gallery for international contemporary art with a focus on Africa and her diasporas.
The decision to open an art space that prioritizes people of African descent was in part inspired by my own background. I grew up in Botswana, a country with a majority Black population that, when it comes to racism, some might say had a relatively peaceful transition from colonial occupation to independence. However, throughout the course of my travel and studies, I came to realize that no matter where I landed or lived, I would always find myself dealing with the same questions of structural inequality, institutional racism, and power imbalances. I felt the need to address these proactively, which ultimately led me to co-founding Sakhile&Me.
“ I believe cultural institutions are not apolitical spaces, because cultural production often speaks to issues of access and the production and circulation of resources and power.
I believe cultural institutions are not apolitical spaces, because cultural production often speaks to issues of access and the production and circulation of resources and power. Many of the people I have known as educators on the power of history, language, visual literacy, and mental liberation have been artists. Within and beyond the arts, individuals and groups have often employed art as protest — depicting the raised fist long a sign of resistance, using the Pan-African colors of red, green, and black, and creating public portraits and murals that memorialize Black and Brown people killed around the world.
Not all artists we work with at Sakhile&Me see their work as overtly political along the mainstream definitions of “political action” and activism. But we attempt to demonstrate how each of them, through a conceptual thread they are following or in the aesthetic of their work, opens opportunities for audiences to interact with their work and engage with each other. The artists create a chance to see things in a new way or think through difficult — yet empowering — everyday experiences. I am aware that visitors to the gallery sometimes just want to enjoy the aesthetics and beauty of the artists’ work. However, even though art is often viewed subjectively and hierarchically, in conversations with most of our visitors there is an understanding that, on some level, the personal is political.
During an exhibition tour I gave at our gallery space last summer, I pointed out to my audience that what sets 2020 apart is that we faced — and still face — two pandemics. One is a highly infectious virus and the other is racism, or specifically, anti-Blackness. In the midst of COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police led to a resurgence of Black Lives Matter and caused a global ripple effect and demand for justice for people who have died and continue to die at the hands of police and other forms of state-sanctioned violence and discrimination.
People from more than 60 countries across the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia demonstrated, decrying Floyd’s death and the death of many others and raising awareness about injustice and police brutality abroad and closer to home. Groups such as ISD (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland or Initiative for Black People in Germany), Be Heard, and Youth Against Racism, who have been actively calling out racism in Germany, organized marches and demonstrations, sometimes going on for several weeks, to educate, support each other, and demand action and tangible anti-racism policies. I attended some of these demonstrations in Frankfurt with their crowds growing as more and more people committed to the cause. The groups organizing and working together to do antiracism work within their communities do so with the heightened awareness that they are part of a larger movement.
On its own, racism itself is a multifaceted pandemic. Therefore, it makes sense that there are a multitude of ways to address it. What unites them is the understanding that none of what is happening is new. The violence is not new. The outrage is not new. It is long overdue that the masses of those who are fed up with the short-lived reactionary shock step away from the sidelines and are proactive in demanding justice, coordinating with each other, and repurposing the existing platforms and building alternative spaces.
Our collective determination was relevant before 2020, and it will continue to be relevant after we stop marching in the streets and posting #BlackLivesMatter on placards and social media pages. Those who believe that asserting value to Black and Brown lives means denying value to the lives of others do not understand that the very existence of this global movement, this demand, is to point out the many ways that our lives have been historically and continue to be maligned. We demand this course be set right.
“ The artists create a chance to see things in a new way or think through difficult — yet empowering — everyday experiences.