Sharlene Khan: Nervous Conditions

Khan 1

To read this essay in full link to the catalogue here 

 “when I felt like I just wasn’t being heard”: Sharlene Khan’s Nervous Conditions

What then did you expect when you unbound the gag that had muted those black mouths? That they would chant your praises? Did you think that when those heads that our fathers had forcibly bowed down to the ground were raised again, you would find adoration in their eyes?  (Jean-Paul Sartre, Orphée Noir). [1]

When my half-closed eyes slid open and my ears popped open what did you think my mouth would say? [Third screen overlay: Thank you, thank you, thank you]. Did you think that I would sing your praises? Did you expect me to thank you for knowing you fucked me over? (Sharlene Khan, Nervous Conditions). [2]

A woman (not fully visible) rubs her hands together without pause. Her hands (their repetitive action) registers, and then performs, psychic unsettlement. There are temporal displacements as the phantom traces of hands (their movements) linger. Sometimes it seems as though a hand detaches from the body to which it belongs. As I look, I hear a woman’s voice and background noise reminiscent of analogue radio and television static (white noise). The woman speaks as if on the telephone. We neither see nor hear her interlocutor. Sometimes her speech trails off or breaks before the completion of a sentence or a thought. She begins: “Yeah so I’m not sure the meeting went very well [pause]. Well she doesn’t like the direction I’m taking.” A formal conversation is implied: a mode of address familiar to institutional environments: “I understand, but I really don’t think we share a common, you know, kind of methodological or conceptual approach. It’s just, you know, we’re different people.” A conversation about university pedagogy perhaps. Spoken words, phrases and sentences (how these are delivered) suggest the anxieties attached to the precarious position of speaking critically, and forcefully, to an institutional power.


The work offers no closure or resolution. The anger it performs is the political and historical rage of voices still fighting to be heard despite the theoretical work, and social and political activism of innumerable twentieth century figures who responded with such critical insight and force to the historical conditions that slavery, colonialism and apartheid produced. Khan’s performed narrative reiterates this important work, literary and scholarly (a critical strategy that underpins the performed traumatised talking-back). Figures to whom she refers include Frantz Fanon, bell hooks, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Toni Morrison, Mahmood Mamdani and Chinua Achebe.

Nervous Conditions speaks to political and personal exhaustion and the traumatic aftermath of historical monoliths founded on the assumption of racial and epistemological superiority: “I have centuries of anger in me and you want me to sit down and talk to you about it?” Khan’s Nervous Conditions draws affect, performance, memory, and the devices of narrating the self, into a relationship with history. The questions which it leaves us with are the ones to which we should, ideally, at least, remain alert. The political subjectivity which Khan brings into view through her own memories and her performances speak to the violence of erasure, and invite further, self-reflexive and  engaged inquiry: “What do you hear? Can you hear? Can you? Can you hear us speak? Haven’t we always been speaking? Here. And here. What do you hear? Listen. What do you hear? What did you expect to hear? Did you think I would sing your praises when last I opened my mouth?”


[1] This extract is cited in Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin. White Masks (transl. Charles Lam Markman), 1967, 29. First published as Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, 1952. The citation accompanies Nervous Conditions on Khan’s website and speaks both to the themes of the work and its scripted narrative which makes reference to significant figures, and theoretical work, subsumed under the category postcolonial. The nervous conditions invoked in the work’s title and Khan’s staging suggests the post-traumatic temporal collapse of this historical periodisation.

[2] Extract from Sharlene Khan’s script written for Nervous Conditions (Part 1).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s