One Day, Freedom Will Be


In conversation with Maddalena Fragnito and Marco Baravalle, decolonial feminist thinker Françoise Vergès charts the intersecting frameworks and rhetorics of art and its institutions, coloniality and the ongoing project of decolonization, and rapid climate breakdown. This is the first in a series of texts published in the publication Art for Radical Ecologies (Manifesto).

Les enfants, mettez le feu, mettez le feu!
Mettez le feu pour mettre de l’ordre
Mettez le feu, mettez le désordre
Mettez le désordre pour mettre de l’ordre

– Pebouchfini feminist group, 20181

1. Dis-Order

Palestine is a lens through which to examine decolonization processes within Western institutions. Despite ongoing discussions about art and the decolonization of cultural and artistic institutions, these entities often struggle to address the issue’s root causes. The challenge lies in confronting the foundations of liberal democracies, such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which present themselves as benevolent humanitarian regimes advocating for women’s and children’s rights, freedom, and equality. Therefore, the concept of democracy is entwined with genocidal violence, land theft and object looting to populate the prestigious collections of Western museums. On the one hand, democracy is portrayed as the pinnacle of global human rights protection, justifying further exploitation of energy, land and objects. On the other hand, it is an ongoing struggle for social, gender and racial justice against imperialism and racial and patriarchal capitalism. Cultural and artistic institutions should start addressing this evident contradiction, which is intentionally avoided in the failed processes of decolonizing Western institutions.

Let’s be clear: the term ‘Western’ is frequently employed, but it requires clarification. In this context, it refers to the West constructed by colonial modernity, colonization and the establishment of racial hierarchies. This process necessitated the erasure of marginalized people, such as nomads and prisoners, along with their Indigenous communities and linguistic diversity, to build monolingual nation-states. I draw upon Cedric Robinson’s theory of Racial Capitalism to underscore the construction of racialization processes on Western soil. From this perspective, Palestine holds a crucial role as the Israeli nation-state epitomizes the systematic, murderous and brutal violence inherent in the concept of liberal-imperial democracy. This process results in a government that seizes everything: life, land, culture and memory.

Despite facing an unmistakable situation – an ongoing genocide – cultural and artistic institutions hesitate to denounce and address the core issue at hand. Instead, they adeptly conceal it due to their evident complicity with an idea of ‘democracy’ that avoids confronting its association with the colonial-racial regime. This same reason makes me doubt the feasibility of decolonizing Western cultural and artistic institutions. This scepticism does not negate ongoing struggles, such as demands for restitution, reparations, improved working conditions, an end to sexual and racial violence, and fair pay for often overlooked workers like cleaners, guards and technicians. However, I believe it is urgent and crucial to channel energy into envisioning new institutions. Nevertheless, this is no easy feat given the entrenched nature of traditional institutions over two centuries (the nineteenth and twentieth), with their profound impact, influence and power. Breaking free from the traditional institutional mindset poses a significant challenge. It is difficult to assert that these institutions are failures, especially considering the unprecedented number of people visiting museums and cultural institutions today. We cannot simply claim that these institutions ‘do not work’; they undeniably exert an attraction that merits analysis. Therefore, it becomes crucial to explore what makes them so appealing.

At the core of this fascination is the idea that these spaces represent freedom, beauty, harmony and universal dialogue more than other spaces like academia or unions. Cultural and artistic institutions are often regarded as primary arenas for freedom of thought and criticism. However, the belief that these spaces are the exclusive domains for natural critical thinking and imagination is illusory. In reality, spaces of freedom and critical thinking exist everywhere – in Indigenous struggles against land theft, among striking workers, in migrant struggles for water and within refugee camps. These spaces challenge existing norms and serve as platforms where new institutions are envisioned not as something entirely novel but as transformative processes that fundamentally reconsider the foundations of these institutions.

Therefore, while the decolonization framework has become pervasive in museums, integrated into seminars, exhibitions and meetings, activating decolonizing processes that extend beyond aesthetics to structural changes faces hesitation, incomplete implementation, or outright censorship within institutions. There is a reluctance to challenge the foundational aspects of capitalism, particularly the capitalist structure of labour and the relationship between the worker and the extraction of their labour, including the extraction of ideas and forms. Consequently, the proliferation of debates and decolonial exhibitions that do not address the material conditions of the institutional production system can be seen as another façade for extracting the labour force. After all, the machinery of production must continue to generate commodities daily.

2. De-Constructing

Art is a realm where ‘beauty’, the Western construction of beauty, is often used to justify various actions. In this context, economic corruption associated with pursuing beauty does not tend to provoke scandal. In this confusing context, artists seeking representation in collections and exhibitions, such as advocating for 50 percent representation among displayed works, can sometimes clash with denunciations of extraction – when does representation become fair, and when does it become extraction? In other words, if the desire for representation does not fuel the denunciation of extraction, there may be a need to redirect this desire toward a more fundamental desire for transformative change. Accordingly, this distinction needs clarification, which can sometimes be blurry. In fact, there is a prevailing notion that art should exist above and outside the market, but this clashes with the increasingly prevalent extraction occurring in the art world. The financialization of art warrants more vigorous denunciation or acknowledgement of what it truly is: pure financial speculation. Once again, the art market thrives on the perception of being exceptional and different from other markets, for instance, the market for commodities such as cobalt. Consequently, it does not provoke scandal as speculative activities and extractivism in the cobalt market might be. Demonstrating the extraction of ideas and artworks is not as straightforward as showcasing the extraction of resources.

Moreover, the collaboration with these institutions often stems from the precarious conditions in which artists find themselves and the illusion that museums represent a unique community. Nevertheless, despite the precarious nature of the art sector, artists harbour a strong desire to be accepted and integrated into these institutions. Consequently, a significant movement for the decolonization of cultural and artistic institutions in western Europe, extending beyond calls for increased representation, has to materialize. From this perspective, a crucial practice is exemplified by Decolonize This Place, which involves occupying museums to expose their complicity with colonial history, the arms industry, or the occupation of Palestine. This approach distinguishes itself from efforts merely seeking representation. Instead, it sheds light on the foundational aspects of museum institutions. The act of occupying museums, as exemplified by Decolonize This Place, should be replicated and evolve into a broader movement.

3. In-Visibility

The process of decolonizing artistic institutions necessitates an examination of their structural and material conditions. Where is the institution situated, and in which neighbourhood? The reasons behind its location and the architecture – whether a modern building or a palace – all play a role. Accessibility is another crucial factor. Who comprises the institution’s workforce, and under what conditions do they work? Understanding gender dynamics and racial division of labour within art institutions is essential.

Considering all these aspects beyond the cultural and artistic program is crucial. For instance, knowing the individuals responsible for cleaning the spaces and the kitchen is as important as understanding what is taught and by whom. Questioning the disparity in salaries between curators and cleaners is essential – why should curators earn more? Acknowledging that without cleaners, there would be no curation nor curator activity, challenges the conventional equation. Within this framework, exploring the social value of labour becomes imperative. Examining the economy generated by cultural and artistic institutions breaking free from patriarchal and colonial exploitation is essential. From a materialistic standpoint, it is crucial to delve into how these institutions would function and the financial resources they would require.

If we do not start from these foundational questions but only focus on programming, the undertaken process can result in something akin to pink or black ‘quotas’. On the other hand, by starting with these questions encouraging imagining anew, we may paradoxically discover that certain elements from ‘old’ institutions could still be valuable. The crucial aspect is envisioning something from scratch, starting with foundations that do not yet exist – a process we must embark upon collectively. However, as previously mentioned, this process is challenging because we are not accustomed to imagining. In other words, we struggle to detach ourselves from the existing models. While we can criticize traditional models, the courage to experiment with the unknown is required for imagining and building a decolonial institution. Thus, we need to retrain our imagination by learning to observe not just designated cultural and art spaces but also those less scrutinized – other institutions and diverse spaces, such as marginal schools and dreams. Amílcar Cabral provides an interesting example in this context, emphasizing pedagogy as a process of liberation and decolonization. Unfortunately, much of the work he did in Guinea-Bissau is largely forgotten. The desire to learn from the marginalized and the ignored must be rediscovered. Indeed, a decolonial institution is a collective experiment in knowledge, doing things differently and reshaping our learning and educational paths. For this reason, a decolonial institution can be rightfully defined not just as cultural and artistic but as social.

Moreover, decolonial and social institutions should pay attention to global events, such as the rise of fascist movements, climate disasters and how neoliberalism and authoritarianism shape an increasingly uninhabitable world for billions. Therefore, the main characteristics of a decolonial institution involve a complex exercise of imagination – one of the most urgent tasks in our current reality.

4. Un-Liveable

Every struggle concerning land, water, food, air, and the right to inhabit is inherently revolutionary. It fundamentally opposes the technological ‘solutionism’ employed by green capitalism to define and address the climate disaster. For instance, discussing the right to clean water shows how many people have already lost this essential, vital right for survival. It is no coincidence that the first thing the State of Israel did was to cut off water to Gaza and deprive the Palestinians in the West Bank of water resources for years. Historically, water has been used as a weapon of war, rewarding victors and punishing the defeated.

During colonial periods and wars, military occupation was intricately linked to the weaponization, theft and privatization of water, like the exploitative practices in plantations during slavery (where in Haiti, for instance, sugar cane, coffee and cotton required a lot of water, and incredible infrastructures were built to plunder water from the river and direct it to the plantations). Water, like land and air, has always been a critical resource, gaining significance, especially in a world where it is increasingly privatized. The issue of the climate disaster brings us back to central themes that have sparked revolts, insurrections, and revolutions throughout history – struggles for habitable land, clean water and fresh air. These struggles have always meant, and increasingly mean, dealing with the conditions of life itself – in other words, the very possibility of life. Without these essential elements, there is no human life, and much of nonhuman life would not survive either.

Fighting against the conditions of the climate disaster stands at the core of twenty-first-century decolonizing movements. This centrality is evident in the struggles of Indigenous peoples for land and migrants for freedom of movement. Although coloniality has evolved since the nineteenth century, its afterlives persist, manifesting in the lack of breathable air and clean water and in the erosion of resources that render parts of the world uninhabitable. In the current era of racist, patriarchal neoliberal capitalism, colonization employs both traditional and sophisticated weapons – laws, guns, contamination, genocides and massacres, alongside advanced tools like artificial intelligence, techno-nationalism and far-right ideologies. New technologies have amplified and disseminated these ideologies, contributing to the resurgence of fascist virilism.

This resurgence reflects the fear generated by the growing power of Indigenous, anti-racist, and transfeminist movements. I see these movements promising the present and future for life for human and nonhuman species that do not need to embrace posthumanism. Indeed, while posthumanism questions the white, imperialist, masculinist version of the human, the constitution of the category of the human itself, and the human/nonhuman separation; and while it looks at hybrid formations and the liberatory potential of bioengineered mechanistic futures, it has limitations. Posthumanism entered the debate as an academic conversation that ignored how Indigenous communities and non-Western theories long challenged human/nonhuman separation. Additionally, it inadequately addresses the dismantling of the racial patriarchal capitalist economy of extraction, dispossession and exploitation and the abolition of the afterlives of slavery and colonization. In contrast, abolition theory appears to offer more comprehensive possibilities.

5. Pragmatic Utopias

The invention of a division between lives that matter (humans and nonhumans) has created a dystopic world for most lives. Since the fifteenth century, colonization has introduced a dystopian temporality. For those who have benefited from this dystopia, it becomes easy to underestimate utopia as a horizon. What is termed as utopia by some is indeed their dystopia. In Western literature, emancipatory utopias often end badly, reinforcing the belief that ‘human nature’ poses a natural obstacle to peaceful coexistence and that violence is unavoidable and uncontrollable.

Despite this narrative, emancipatory utopias have frequently inspired practices of solidarity. Instances of solidarity have always existed, even within Fortress Europe, where aiding migrants is criminalized. People reject becoming agents of dehumanization and criminalization and, despite facing challenges, extend basic but vital help: a glass of water, a roof, a lift, a bed, without expecting anything in return. This solidarity challenges the state and market’s narrative of ‘protection’ and redefines it as radical care, requiring contact, shared existence and a political community. It opposes egotistic individualism, revealing our vulnerabilities and interdependencies. We are not alone; we need each other.

In our discussions on decolonization and emancipation, we often consider ourselves as if we were born already adults, young, valid and in good health. Yet, we were all born as babies and children; we will all age and may be deemed ‘non-valid’. In other words, we are more vulnerable than when we conceive what liberation is. Recognizing this exposure changes how we think about radical care and the possibility of building emancipatory utopias. The fragility and vulnerability of a child, the need for physical care in the sense of touch and recognition, as the requirements of elderly or sick individuals – all emphasize our shared fragility: vulnerability in the sense of being free together.

From this perspective, emancipatory utopias dare to think that the world, the world in which we live, must end, which is not the same thing as saying the ‘end of the world’. This is not meant in an apocalyptic sense, but to pave the way to build a future that allows us to imagine that we will all be free one day. Not all ends of the world are tragic, as Robyn Maynard said. The end of this world can be a non-apocalyptic moment. The struggle will be long and complex but also filled with joy. It took four centuries to abolish the criminal system of colonial slavery, yet the enslaved never ceased fighting for the emancipatory utopia, claiming: ‘One day, we will be free.’ Yes, one day, we will be free! One day, there will be freedom for all.

For me, the future holds the promise that one day, this world will cease to exist. It must cease to exist.


Amílcar Cabral, Politics and Culture in African Emancipatory Thought, Québec: Daraja Press, 2021.

Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Rehearsals for Living, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022.

Cedric J. Robinson, On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance, London: Pluto Press, 2019.

Image from homepage: courtesy of Emanuele Braga

‘Children, set it on fire, set it on fire!
Start a fire to bring order
Start a fire, create disorder
Create disorder to put things in order’

The views and opinions published here mirror the principles of academic freedom and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the L'Internationale confederation and its members.

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