Can I call myself an artist now? | Debrief #1
It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to sit down and write for my blog. I’m not gonna lie, this is mainly because my website builder doesn’t seem to be compatible with my laptop.
Thanks to my good friend Rupi, and the Stryx Gallery Team, I did an online residency where I spoke about my work, and the need for community. I’ve never done anything like that before – not talking about my own work anyway – but I hope it didn’t show. Other than a couple of technical difficulties, everything seemed to go well. It was refreshing engaging with artists and producers, and having them take an interest in my research. I know it’s hardly a sob story, but it feels like my whole life I’ve had people complimenting me for my output, but never actually engaging with said output. What exactly are you complimenting?
For me, this residency was a huge deal because it allowed me to explore aspects of my work a little more closely, namely The Fourth Estate. I enjoyed looking directly at journalism and its role in maintaining the status quo, and having the time, resources, and the forum to explore its implications in modern day Britain. It was a little mortifying talking about some of my experiences of racism – I don’t tell them to garner sympathy but to evidence my lived experience, although it isn’t always received that way – but the forum was insightful. Discussing the hegemony of the press enabled me to articulate my feelings in ways that could translate into practice. The feeling of entrapment, and the act of being surrounded by the opinions of others inspired Magsman. I mentioned Sara Ahmed’s work on Affective Economies (2004), where she coins the phrase ‘Sticky Objects’. These are connotations that attach themselves to identities. I remember finding it proper difficult to try and explain this in a way that kids could understand, but thanks to the workshop I had to create, I did.
A screenshot of my Peep@Stryx Artist Talk
Once the residency had finished, and I had completed my project emancipation, I guess, it felt like I’d said everything I wanted to say on that amalgamation of topics. It in fact, felt like the end of a (mini) era. This exploration of social space that began with Foucault’s Heterotopia, and ended with Occupy the Bloodcla*t Space.
I’m looking forward to unveiling my work, including the Magsman project (not to be confused with MAGSMAN, a short film I made with BRMTWN in 2018) I produced during the residency. I even feel like my audience has begun to pivot – The Right to Opacity is a collection that Black people can relate to, but the articulation of Heterotopias as a ‘safe space’ positions my audience as white. Do Black people need to be told that they are seen as ‘deviant’? I think most are well aware. The idea that a ghetto, or council block can qualify as a heterotopia would be more of a shocker to middle class audiences than working class audiences who live in and around them.
Ceilings is a little similar in that sense. This collaged renaissance-style project took direct influence from The Creation of Adam and From the Depths, depicting the act of resistance over four images (or frames). But who the hell is it for? I have to check myself at every turn, because if I’m not careful, my work can become misconstrued or watered down. I think I did make it for Black audiences, by leaning into imagery that ‘Others’ – I mean, several clones with the eyes obscured gives me Agent Smith vibes after all – and as we know, Agent Smith isn’t very human. But I wanted to subvert that Othering with fantastic elements: the gold bonnet to replace the halo; unclear backdrops; and specific lighting choices. I don’t 100% love it, but I do like what I was trying to do – even without the research, there is so much memory bound up in Ceilings. It was a transition from acknowledging that heterotopias cannot be ‘Black spaces’, but rather ‘spaces in which Black people are discarded into’. It’s an out-of-sight-out-of-mind type of space that is actually very violent. Yes, Black people can find solace and kinship in these spaces, but that is because Black people can often make lemonade out of anything, and not because these spaces were designed for us to thrive (I mean, Foucault’s favourite example for anything was a PRISON. I should’ve gotten the hint).
With this in mind, I began thinking about how to resist against the confinements of these heterotopias. The aesthetics used in Ceilings made me begin thinking about what it means for Black to be Other. Because we are Other. Integration with an enemy is a foolish endeavour when one has no resources – exploitation is guaranteed. I wanted to embrace that Othering because I strongly believe we as Black people must see ourselves outside of the lens of whiteness. We are our own people with our own stories to tell. We do not need to be legitimised by the institutions that persecuted our ancestors. That’s why, though a lil chaotic, Ceilings was an important project for me.
For emancipation, I guess, I killed myself. And by that, I mean, I sat on a newspaper-covered table, smeared fake blood on my face, donned a dishevelled costume wig, wrapped myself in an England flag, and played dead. For me, this project spoke to the difficult decision every Black person in this country will have to make. There is no such thing as a fence-sitter in this instance because one either relies on the gatekeepers to change the status quo, or they go and get stuff done. I was speaking of the people who spend their lives trying to get into institutions so they can “change things”, just to become silent witnesses to the discrimination and malpractice, or even worse, contributing to the violence. Black people in law enforcement, the judiciary, housing, education, academia, employment, healthcare, social services, media, and everything in between. People that think they’re called ‘coons’ because they ‘speak well’, or because they see themselves as ‘well off’ (when it’s actually their complicity). They are the dead-me in Wallflower, because they thought that if they humoured a white supremacist system, it would eventually work for them. And sadly, they will die protecting their position. The second piece, called Wallpaper, contained all of the same elements except the corpse. The newspaper in the background had been teared up with blood-covered hands, and a stained England flag is left crumpled on the table.
I want to continue looking at Black as Other, but portraying it in a positive and affirming light. Ceilings in particular toys with divine imagery, as I was trying to evoke mythological aesthetics. Greek and Egyptian mythologies, as well as Jewish and Biblical stories were a big inspiration, as if I were telling a story just as monumental as The Creation of Adam. I would say it worked for this particular project, but I am wary of deifying Black people. We already get deified: Strong Black Women, Magical Negroes, and the Black Madonna come to mind almost instantly. All deification does is dehumanise us, as it implies that we are equipped to live under oppression.
Currently, I’m thinking of the parallels between Black people and aliens, and I think that’ll allow me to pivot into Afrofuturist aesthetics, which I’ve wanted to do all year.
Peep@Stryx was my first ever residency *clink, clink*