'Britain is a white space'
I thought it would be worthwhile using a blog to keep track of the project I’ll be working on between now and the end of the year. Currently, it’s unnamed, but we’ll call it ‘Eyes’, because I feel it will heavily invoke motifs of sight, censorship, and imagination. And also because it’s a great song by The Cosmics.
Ultimately, I’m going to be elaborating on a lot of the stuff I was looking at for my dissertation: Black identity, representation and ‘otherness’, but now I want to apply that to human geography and safe spaces.
As some context, I was having a conversation with my best friend about not being able to wash my hair – someone broke the showerhead in my bathroom. He suggested going to the local swimming baths to wash my hair if it was so urgent. I didn’t want to do this, and when he asked why, I said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want the microaggressions, thanks.’ I didn’t want to catch the bus to and from, and wash my hair in a “white space”. I didn’t want the questions, the thinly veiled jokes, or any other microaggressive acts of othering in those spaces. My friend matter-of-factly rebut that, ‘Britain is a white space.’
He’s right. A country that is approximately 80% white (2011 census) is a white space. Now imagine Britain not only being mainly white, but living off the spoils of colonisation and slavery. This same country that barely pays any mind to it’s legacy, not wanting to genuinely discuss figures like Winston Churchill, Cecil Rhodes, Joseph Chamberlain, and SO MANY others. Not wanting to address it’s racist treatment of Black Women like Dianne Abbott, nor the racist hot-takes of Boris Johnson. Already forgetting the Black and White Minstrel Show; the Sus Laws of the 80s; Stephen Lawrence’s murder (followed by a disgusting trial and a decision to have undercover police infiltrate his family); the “lawful” murder of Mark Duggan by the police; the subsequent riots that ensued, and the “Black Muggers” image evolving into the “Black Rioters”; the harrowing deportations (by both Labour and Conservative governments) of the Windrush Generation – a people who were considered British citizens when they were asked to come here and restore Britain; and the greed and neglect behind the burning down of Grenfell, with an investigation that pathetically blamed the service workers, and Conservative MP Rees-Mogg blaming the victims who died for not using their common sense. And these examples are only from off the top of my head.
Britain is absolutely a white space.
Yet somehow, Black people haven’t gone mad. How?
I began questioning where Black people are able to find respite in a white space. Are we ever able to feel truly comfortable or safe? Can we ever just be?
Yes, there are our own homes, and food places, and hair places, community centres, and places of worship, but all of these things can be contested. Churches and mosques have a reputation of being anti-black – both Christians (Transatlantic Slave Trade) and Muslims (Arab Slave Trade) have enslaved Black people, using their faith to justify such acts. As for homes – with council housing and tower blocks being questionably safe spaces (i.e. Grenfell), there is also gentrification to account for.
This was an incredibly saddening realisation for me. Black people living in the Occident are not guaranteed a physical safe space. And so I want to explore spaces that may not necessarily be physical. Maybe to find respite, we had to look inward.
Looking inward brought up connotations of the soul, the imagination, thoughts, the spirit/essence, etc. That was what drew me to the ‘Eyes’. I want to make something that obscures the eyes because our soul/thoughts/imagination can sometimes be the only thing we do have. In obscuring it, it can be protected.
I’m thinking about having a collage of portraits of Black people. All of the eyes are obscured somehow (scratched/edited/blotted) to represent the audience (who in this instance is a kind of voyeur) not being allowed into the safe space.
The eyes are the window to the soul, and you are not allowed inside.
I’ve never had a physical exhibition before, where I arrange my work on the walls and stuff, so this is new ground for me. I’m thinking to have the collage clustered into one thick black line across a white wall. From a distance, it should be able to represent the ‘othered’ or ‘monolithic Black space’, touching on what I was saying about white flight and marginalisation. But as the viewer comes closer, they’ll realise that it’s made up of individual Black people, all who look and pose differently, and have their own safe spaces. I’m not 100% sure yet, but this is what I’ve got so far.
I’d also like to incorporate some sound into it as well, but to what capacity yet, I’m unsure. Also, I haven’t done anything with sound too tough before, so it could add an interesting dynamic to the work. I’m thinking UK Rap and Gospel music, as music can often be a safe space for Black people, especially these two.
My original draft, drawn on some scrap paper at the pub.
With genres like jazz and blues, musical instruments are often required, and as a result, the existence of Black people in these genres has decreased. If the people who sell and make the instruments decide to make them more expensive, Black people, who tend to be disadvantaged (due to living in a white space with an anti-black history [and present]), will no longer be able to afford them, and so the genre will be appropriated by those who can afford them. This doesn’t happen in the same way with Gospel and Rap, because ultimately, you don’t need instruments, just your voice.
I know a few church choirs and corrals who may be interested in recording a hymn in the Creative Commons, and a few Birmingham-based rappers who might lend their music too. But even as I type, it does feel a little complicated for a project with a quick turnaround.
As for the portraits, I’ll probably use my nifty-fifty and some arris, and take the pictures in a studio with a blank black wall (further representing the Black space). I don’t really want to use flash heads because I am the entire crew, and I don’t want to keep adjusting the shot blindly. I also don’t want to just leave the flash heads on cause I might mash them up. The arris will heat up quickly, but otherwise, I prefer them.
I’m hoping it’ll look a bit like ‘Existentialism’.