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I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe
I was not offended
For I knew I had to rise above it all
Or drown in my own shit.
1
—“Maggot Brain,” Funkadelic

By the time I became acquainted with Amartey Golding’s video work Chainmail 3 (2018), I was already fixated on ideas around survival and self-actualization for members of the Black diaspora. It is important for us to have spaces to find ourselves and re-engineer our collective identities. But displacement is invasive and destructive, forcing its victims to continuously engage in acts of resistance on the margins of society. This “liminal state” can inhibit our access to space; as a result, connections to the self and others can be lost. 2 This liminal state can also be ascribed to the erasure of cultural rites and the rise of neoliberalism. Consequently, many Black Brits, including me, are unequipped to work through their baggage, reflect on the ways they show up in our communities and the country at large, and define who they are or want to be in the world. Where does one go
to find themselves when they do not belong?

 

On view as part of In the comfort of embers, Golding’s exhibition at The Power Plant, Toronto (on view from February 3 to May 14, 2023), Chainmail 3 explores Black British life in the Imperial Core, addressing the complex relationship between Golding’s Rastafarian upbringing and his brother’s enlistment in the British Army. These ideologies clash, casting a light on the precariousness and legacy of so-called Britishness. The nature of the Black British identity is similar to how British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983) defined liminality: “essentially ambiguous, unsettled, and unsettling.” 3 However, this primordial experience of liminality has morphological potential, “striving after new forms and structures [and exposing] the basic building blocks of culture.” 4 The motif of fire—appearing across Golding’s video works exhibited at The Power Plant—represents this well. Connoting temporariness and transformation, passion and power, the fire refines the space for what British multidisciplinary artist Heather Agyepong calls the “reclaiming of our own gaze.” 5

 

Chainmail 3 depicts a 166 kg chain-mail suit, designed in the style of a puffer jacket. It is situated in Golding’s living room, reflecting his inability to protect his brother who is stationed in Afghanistan. Bathed in the light of the outside world, the suit remains—rather helplessly—on an elaborate stand. On display at The Power Plant is a smaller suit that resembles a vest, titled Chainmail Garment 3 (Puffer Jacket), which is suspended from the ceiling. Audiences may notice the fraying at the shoulders, implying the garment cannot sustainably hold itself together. What, then, is the purpose of the Puffer Jacket if it cannot be worn? The protection on offer—that of the suit, but also of assimilation into the British imagination—is allusive, yet pressure to conform is palpable. As British Jamaican multidisciplinary artist Exodus Crooks said, “we as Black people have been gaslit to expect an experience here that depends upon our ability to earn this nation’s love through good behaviour.” 6 

 

But a coat made from chains is a coat made from chains is a coat made from chains. Like migrating to the imperial core from the Global South or joining the British Army, the indecision surrounding the suit highlights poignant attempts to find safety in what our ancestors associated with bondage. Even then, I don’t think “safety” is the correct word. Chainmail 3 shows an anonymous, shirtless character submerging into and emerging from the suit with the help of another. As the figure submerges, we see distorted close-ups of the chain mail’s flame-like tendrils. He emerges with similar indentations on his body; a short-term side effect of trying to hold such weight. In this way, the suit is a macabre embodiment of existing Black British rites to survival.


A value is placed on strength in Black communities when it comes to discourse around survival. Naturally, this will have a bearing on how we show up in the world and how we respond to systemic factors. To be strong is often to be athletic, resourceful, intimidating, stoic, objective. Strength is also associated with endurance and has manifested within the world of Chainmail 3 as the suit. The characters attempt to interact with the protective armour, to wear it and acquire its strength—a strength so strong it is counterproductive and can barely withstand itself. Each failed attempt is followed by a break, where no new methods are visibly employed to tackle the suit. In the meantime, the fireplace burns in between the men, its flames acting as an ominous timer. Fire—when free—can be seen as a hazard, primarily because of the difficulty in controlling it. But once controlled and contained, the flames can only endure for a time.

Black people make up approximately three per cent of the UK population, and we do not occupy Britain’s ensemble of relations. 7 Subsequently, our public image is dictated by others, meaning we are often represented in public discourse by politicians and celebrities who have platforms they wish to access and something they wish to sell. A lot of the time we are portrayed as a threat to be contained. It is no wonder, then, that the government claimed discriminatory laws against Black people (and Travellers) are “objectively justified.” 8 If bigoted notions are viewed as objective, then systemic roadblocks will be considered necessary controls. In this vein, the suit is not designed to protect the wearer, but to bind. To distract, as American novelist Toni Morrison suggests, with contradictions. 9 Black people cannot endure systemic discrimination with an assimilation tool kit; at some point, like the chain-mail armour hanging in The Power Plant, we begin to undo.


There is a notable masculine presence in Golding’s Chainmail series (2016–18). He employs stereotypical motifs associated with Black men to comment on survival and address their public image. Golding connects stereotypical behaviours—namely, the expectation to provide and homophobia— to environmental factors. At first, these behaviours—in addition to becoming a British Officer—seem quite disconnected, but they can be traced back to patriarchal expectations. On a surface level, to provide by any means necessary is to be resourceful and independent, and to be homophobic is an act of in-group self-preservation at the expense of another marginalized group. The act of joining the British Army amalgamates them by compensating citizens for furthering imperial goals abroad, validating identities through a loose association with citizenship and masculinity (read: violence), and blurring the lines between the oppressed and the oppressor. This isn’t just seen in the military. We see it when Black people join carceral forces to naively “create change from the inside” and end up becoming institutionalized; for example, when Black bailiffs contribute uncritically to
gentrification, or when Black teachers and community workers practise carceral behaviour, exposing Black youth to violence.


Prince Philip’s death in 2021 prompted author Bernardine Evaristo to tweet condolences, belittle “Le Revolution” to her subsequent critics, 10 and then delete the tweets to “remove that which feeds their knee-jerk, simplistic, incompassionate, cowardly, morally superior outrage.” 11 It is telling when more nuance and compassion is afforded to a dead bigot than to victims of the British imperialism. The contemporary puffer-jacket-style may cause us to feel that the suit was made for us, but the medieval chain mail stands as a reminder of its proximity to whiteness. Its impracticality makes it feel inauthentic, a replacement for the erased histories of Black people in Britain and its former empire. Although Chainmail 3 focuses on men, attempts at survival through assimilation can be perpetuated by any of us—British MP Kemi Badenoch’s “Inclusive Britain” propaganda is a recent example. 12 Ideas on how to survive in the UK involve motifs of strength and the assimilation into the British oxymoron of civilized violence. To exist in this way is to be appropriately bridled; to exist in any other way is to be deemed a threat.


A crooner provides the dream-like backdrop to Chainmail 3, situating the characters’ repetitive movements in a rehearsal of some kind. The repetition seems subconscious, influenced by the tradition of previous generations. Our elders and ancestors come to mind, many of whom fought proudly on behalf of Britain in the World Wars, in spite of the bigoted treatment they received. 13 Golding’s brother is part of this legacy. Our belonging is often tied to our willingness to sacrifice pieces of ourselves for a greater good that we’ll never experience. Those from former Commonwealth nations—specifically countries in the Caribbean and Africa—have since lost their inherent “naturalized” status; 14 and many who settled in Britain have been rounded up and displaced after the government destroyed their landing cards. 15 Their sacrifice did not make them British, but it did tie them to Britain’s imperialist legacy.


The following questions underpin Chainmail 3: What does it mean to join the British Army and bring harm to the Global South as a Black person? Does our insidious relationship with Britain excuse us from any responsibility to other marginalized groups? To each other? Whether motivated by apathy or self-preservation, many Black Brits are quicker to make justifications than reflect on the vicious circles we can get caught up in.


The uncredited singer in Chainmail 3, whose voice is reminiscent of both Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong, drones on in a repetition of their own. The music functions like an act of intercession, cyclically cleansing and re-preparing the space for all who enter. When viewing Chainmail 3 at Eastside Projects, Birmingham, in March 2023 (for film night Liminal People), I noticed how the bassy voice leapt out from the video, assuming its own identity within the gallery. Even if you couldn’t see the video, you could feel it. Viewers were transported to Golding’s living room and presented with an opportunity for reflection. This strikes me as Afro-spiritual. Golding’s work is self-implicating, turning personal milestones into rituals for shadow work. Acts of authentic vulnerability like these are vital in bringing communities together to work through cognitive dissonances.


With the diminishment of Black community spaces in the UK due to poverty and police harassment, I believe it is important to examine our group identity and consciously look toward liminal spaces. We’ve technically already started, with Black hymns and spirituals and talk of returning “home” to abstract and otherworldly places. But if we were to see self-actualization as our destination, how would we prepare ourselves and equip others for the journey?


How can we reclaim the heterotopias we have been discarded into—even if only temporarily? What is currently at our disposal? Golding returned to his living room—a place associated with the British Caribbean decadence of previous generations—giving emphasis to their space. Just as they occupied their living rooms, elevating them into sacred spaces, the video’s slowed, black-and-white visual renders Chainmail 3 its own pocket universe, set apart from the rest of the world and its existing connotations. Curator Renée Mussai from Autograph, London, referred to such spaces as speculative places “of re/creation, of rest and refuge ... both fictive and real.” 16 Tangible, even if temporary, for the reclaiming of ourselves. The video provides a site where new futures can be negotiated.


In Chainmail 3, the men sit, wait, and perform their parallel rituals before occasionally interacting with each other. Golding’s cycles of waiting are sandwiched by failed attempts to utilize the suit. Stillness has a sobering effect, enabling us to make clarifications. We are not living in a context identical to that of our ancestors, thus our self-actualizing rituals should also adjust in tandem with our material reality. This is an active process that takes time—Chainmail 3 doesn’t depict the characters overcoming the suit. There’s no shortcut when doing necessary work. If we want to bring in our desired collective futures, we must imagine, experiment, model, and manifest it together, continuously. 17 A quote by Lou Cornum, Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at New York University, comes to mind: “there is no pre-apocalypse or post-apocalypse, only perpetual revelation.” 18 There is this feeling of self- and group- actualization happening in the work. Though personhood is seen as individual, there is a need for relational processes. It makes sense; we live in an ecosystem, not a vacuum. It is important to clarify the connections we have to the past and to each other to give context to our present circumstance. 

Writer Lauren Dei comments that, in Britain, “realities of past, present and future attempt to both coexist and overthrow each other.” 19 It is overwhelming trying to address internal community issues when Britain’s ensemble of relations are constantly attacking from the outside. Amartey Golding has offered a framework for navigating displacement through the lens of liminality, preparing a pocket universe forged by fire, music, and ritual. Chainmail 3 marries social practice and speculative Blackness, demonstrating that we are all capable of preparing abstract, figurative, and hybrid spaces to define cultural rites. Liminality situates us between time and space, in between identities, and in between conclusions. There is huge morphological potential here for building a culture and community that steadfastly serves us.

REFERENCES

Barradale, Greg. 2021. “Plans to Remove British Citizenship without Notice ‘Would Repeat Windrush Mistakes.’” The Big Issue. November 18, 2021. (https://bit.ly/3mlzPrR.) 


Cobain, Ian.; Bowcott, Owen.; Norton-Taylor, Richard. 2012. “Britain Destroyed Records of Colonial Crimes.” The Guardian. April 17, 2012. (https://bit.ly/3mfMr3L.)


Cornum, Lou. 2022. “Who Belongs to the Land?” Triple Canopy. March 17, 2022. (https://bit.ly/3nRFXIF.)


Dearden, Lizzie. 2021. “Government Says Discrimination against Black People and Travellers ‘Justified.’” The Independent. September 13, 2021. (https://bit.ly/40R8Kff.)


Dei, Lauren. 2021a. “In Reality, These Things Need to Be Said.” Black Blossoms. August 13, 2021. (https://bit.ly/40Pk0IQ.)

———. 2021b. “I Grew More and More Interested in Recovery and Healing, Which Led Me to Movement Practice as a Form of Release.” Black Blossoms. October 28, 2021. (https://bit.ly/3ZNkQV7.)


Eastside Projects. 2023. “Liminal People: Screenings & Guided Meditation.” Eastside Projects. March 3, 2023. (https://bit.ly/3o0W0Uv.)

 

Golding, Amartey. 2018. “Chainmail 3.” Amarteygolding.com. 2018. (https://bit.ly/3UnlLdK.)
———. 2023. “In the Comfort of Embers.” The Power Plant. 2023. (https://bit.ly/417JrWt.)

GOV UK. 2022. “Inclusive Britain: Government Response to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.” GOV.UK. March 17, 2022. (https://bit.ly/414CTHK.)

Lee, Georgina. 2018. “FactCheck: Who Destroyed the Windrush Landing Cards?” Channel 4 News. April 24, 2018. (https://bit.ly/43idoUV.)

 

Miranda, Mónica de, and Mussai, Renée. 2022. “Ecologies of Care – Birthing Afrodiasporic Ecofeminist Futures.” Autograph. September 15, 2022. (https://bit.ly/3UkB8Um.)

Morrison, Jaz. 2021–2. “In Loving Memory of Errol.” Ikon Gallery. 2022. (https://bit.ly/43uiuxN.)

O’Neill, Aaron. 2023. “United Kingdom - Ethnic Groups.” Statista. 2023. (https://bit.ly/2HvFDWL.)

Shadijanova, Diyora. 2021. “RIP to Prince Philip and That but Our Relationship with the Royals Is Absurd.” Gal-Dem. April 13, 2021. (https://bit.ly/3KlghMb.)

 

Talking Humanities. 2018. “Used, Abused and Forgotten? The First World War’s Caribbean Heroes.” Talking Humanities. November 2, 2018. (https://bit.ly/3Kp8Svv.)

The National Archives. “Naturalisation, registration and British citizenship” National Archives UK. (https://bit.ly/43idWtX.)

The Voice. 2022. “Lest We Forget the Black War Effort.” Voice Online. November 11, 2022. (https://bit.ly/3MsHz5T.)

Torrington, Arthur, and Imperial War Museums. n.d. “The Story of the British West Indies Regiment in the First World War.” Imperial War Museums. (https://bit.ly/2N1Xd6V.)

 

Turner, Victor. 1974. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. 1st ed. Cornell University Press, 2018.

 

Wayback Machine. 2021. “Bernardine Evaristo (@BernardineEvari) | Twitter.” Web.archive.org. April 17, 2021. (https://bit.ly/3miDIhb.)
 

Willett, Jeffrey. & Deegan, Mary Jo. 2001. “Liminality and Disability: Rites of Passage and Community in Hypermodern Society.” Disability Studies Quarterly 21(3). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v21i3.300.


Wolf-Meyer, Matthew J. 2019. Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology. Minneapolis University Of Minnesota Press, 2019.

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