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An oeuvre made up of traces
Pauline Buisson, Henriette Alexander, Tilo Frey, the Treffpunkt Schwarzer Frauen (meeting place of Black women). I am starting off this portrait of Jovita dos Santos Pinto with the names of other women – individuals, and a collective. What do these women have in common? Pauline Buisson lived a life as an enslaved, between Saint-Domingue and Yverdon, in the 18th century. Henriette Alexander performed in shows dressed as an “African woman” during the 19th century in Basel. Tilo Frey, from Neuchâtel, was one of the first women elected to the National Council in 1971. The Treffpunkt Schwarzer Frauen was a women’s association in Zurich in the late 1980s. Among its most notable guests was Audre Lorde, an Afro-American poetess, mother and lesbian who often visited Switzerland at that time. All of these women were Black. Their lives resonated with the history of racism and colonialism in Switzerland. And it is largely thanks to Jovita dos Santos Pinto that we can retrace these lives. Dos Santos Pinto, herself of African descent, was born in the 1980s in the canton of Zurich. She conducts research at the intersection of history and cultural studies and works at the Institute of Gender Studies at the University of Bern.
Jovita dos Santos Pinto takes on the uncatchable in history writing. She questions the silences, the absences, the elusive strategies that were worked out in order to resist the oppressive concert of race, class and gender. The historian works at dismantling the dominant framework of writing about the past, which is based on Black people being objects and never subjects of representations. Through a scrupulous and inventive reading of the archives, she breaks with the traditional, linear writing of history, centred on great men and major events, and reimagines what history can make. Bodies, emotions and places such as the hairdresser’s salon – all of these are heard in her flagship essay, “Spuren; Eine Geschichte Schwarzer Frauen in der Schweiz” (Traces; A History of Black Women in Switzerland). Jovita dos Santos Pinto is rethinking the way we write history down to the smallest detail: in contrast to sensationalist visual representations of Black people, she draws portraits of women in pencil and publishes them on the website histnoire.ch, which she founded in 2018.
Jovita dos Santos Pinto’s stories fill us with knowledge about ourselves – all those of us whose bodies continue to be subjected to violence and exoticised. Her stories make us measure the extent to which we, in the present, are living out the legacy of what the historian calls the “(s)exotic spectacle of the other”, exemplified by the human zoos that were very popular in Switzerland. Reminding us that the exhibited were endowed with a capacity to act, particularly to write, as Henriette Alexander’s diary testifies, dos Santos Pinto’s research gets our very lungs infused, it enables us to breathe more freely, as we get a true sense of our place and of our futures in Swiss society.
Through her anti-racist and feminist activism and thanks to her multi-lingualism as well, Jovita dos Santos Pinto traces hyphens. She is the co-founder of Bla*sh, a network for Black women in German-speaking Switzerland. For almost two decades now, she has co-organised cultural and political events dedicated to minoritised. She has spoken tirelessly in public to articulate racism and sexism, forcing Swiss feminist movements to come to terms with Afro-feminist knowledge and demands.
Jovita recently told me that she had learned how to tattoo. Astonished at first, I soon realised that her new skill made perfect sense: Jovita dos Santos Pinto strives to retrace the narratives that were removed from the past, and to trace the history of Black women in indelible ink.
Noémi Michel is a researcher and lecturer, activist and anti-racist and feminist cultural worker. She is a member of the European Race and Imagery Foundation (ERIF) and the ‘Faites des Vagues’ Collective, and is currently a senior Lecturer and Researcher in Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Geneva. Her work highlights critical perspectives on race and post-coloniality, focusing on Black feminist diasporic thinking. At present, she is exploring, on the one hand, the conflicting grammars of anti-racism in public discourses and institutions in Europe and, on the other, the Black feminist theorising of political voice.