In this essay, author and historian Edna Bonhomme takes a look back at “Radical Mutation: On the Ruins of Rising Suns”. The festival, curated by Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, Saskia Köbschall and Tmnit Zere for HAU Hebbel am Ufer, took place from the 23 September to the 4 October at HAU1 and online at HAU4 – in the fall of a year defined by not just the Coronavirus but also increasingly obvious social inequalities and racism. By giving visibility to queer and BIPoC narratives, “Radical Mutation” evoked the collective spirit of resistance under an artistic guise.
Last year, everyone regained an interest in biology. Suddenly, mRNA, genomes, and viruses were part of everyday vocabulary. For the curious, understanding how diseases spread and the conditions that made certain people susceptible weighed heavy on so many people’s minds. All of this happened in the wake of a global pandemic and the presence of the novel coronavirus. Everyone is not only searching for the ways to understand the origin of the disease but to apprehend the changes that it undergoes, the mutations, which form the genetic footprint of the virus. The word mutation emerges from Latin “mutatus”, past participle of “mutare”, “to change.” Today, it carries new weight given the various coronavirus strains that were first detected in Great Britain, South Africa, and Brazil. One turning point was when the virus mutated, causing even more alarm in a world that had been exhausted by the most common strain. Viral mutations are common. In fact, they mutate and undergo a change of state or condition for their survival, especially when the environment has not been hospitable for their growth.
The events of 2020 have caused a set of changes that have gone from global pause to global unrest. That unrest came from two angles – Covid-19 and police brutality. Scholars, writers, and scientists reflected on racial inequalities by writing about social discomforts. The African-American Princeton University historian, Keeanga Yahmatta Taylor, noted in her New Yorkeressay, “Black Death”, that, “this macabre role call reflects the fact that African-Americans are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions that make the coronavirus particularly deadly.” These inequalities were further sketched out by the novelist Zadie Smith in “Intimations”, a 2020 book which addresses the perennial nature of death in Black America. She writes: “Death has come to America. It was always here, albeit obscured and denied, but now everybody can see it.” What Zadie Smith is pointing to, is how the death of Black, indigenous, and other people of colour were hastened and intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic, mirroring the hierarchies that pre-existed. But these events are not unique to the United States.