'Place is more...'
‘Place is more than area. A place surrounds something. A place is the extension of a presence or the consequence of an action. A place is the opposite of an empty space. A place is where an event has or is taking place […]. When a place is found it is found somewhere on the frontier between nature and art. It is like a hollow in the sand within which the frontier has been wiped out. The place of the painting begins in this hollow. Begins with a practice, with something done by the hands, and the hands then seeking the approval of the eye, until the whole body is involved in the hollow.’
John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket (2001: 28 – 29)
So, I was doing some research to help develop and evolve my work. The first thing that came to mind was Phoebe Boswell’s The Space Between Things that I saw at Autograph earlier this year. I really liked how Boswell drew on the walls of the studio. She basically occupied the white walls with her likeness and her pain. On the second floor was a video of surgery on her right eye which stood out to me. She wasn’t coddling us with her work. She was making it very clear that this was what she was going through:
‘There is peace there in the space between things / Take me to the lighthouse / I can rage there / In the space between things’
I appreciated that she made us uncomfortable. I think when it comes to marginalised artists, there’s this common theme of “Trauma Porn”, where we’re almost expected to chastise ourselves for a voyeuristic audience. It happens in art, in film, in literature. This constant bombardment of sadness and struggle, but not so much that it stays with people afterwards. Roy Wood Jr did a stand-up performance about Selma and other Black “struggle films”, and how there are now tropes associated with them. But at the end of these films, or at the end of these pieces is often the suggestion or implication that things are not like this anymore.
At no point did Phoebe’s work turn around and say and then they all lived happily ever after, or the real Space Between Things was the friends we made along the way. It left us to sit with it and make sense of it for ourselves. It was left to disturb and intrigue us and it didn’t apologise for it. You came to see her, and she has shown you the parts of her that she wants to show us, not the parts we want to see. I loved it.
Of course, my idea is influenced by ideas around hegemony and representation that I looked at in my dissertation. Though my dissertation was looking at Black Women in television, much of the research I found was relevant to Black people as a whole. [Relevant info here].
And of course, there’s the famous quote from Berger’s Ways of Seeing: ‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it speaks’ (Berger et al, 1972: 7). I’d argue that it’s not just children. Often times, academia finds ways to articulate things that people are already very much aware of. Safe spaces, othering, hegemony, and representation are all things Black people are aware of in their lives, even if they don’t use these specific words to describe them. Sometimes things feel so normalised that they don’t seem to warrant articulating. It’s like saying ‘water is wet’; it’s obvious and borderline-pointless to say it when anyone with working nerves has been aware of this a long time ago. Also, I find it quite patronising to explain to someone what they’re going through, especially in what often sounds like convoluted, jargonistic language (I say this knowing that many words in academia are necessary and don’t quite have a colloquial equivalent). This is why – to me – it’s even more important to try and get this across through seeing.
In Fifty Key Writers on Photography, Mark Durden says that ‘Photography both documents what is real and creates and image of what is possible,’ (2013: 48). I’m hoping that the simple nature of the portraits, combined with what I do to the eyes will be able to document what is real: Black people in Britain are marginalised as a racial group and we are often grouped together in underfunded communities; and creates an image of what is possible: Black people have so much talent and innovation existing within us (our soul, essence). It is valuable and important, and tends to be how we withstand everything attacking us. It must be protected.
Looking beyond Tajfel & Turner’s Social Identity Theory, Ellemers et al shed some light on a study Baltesen conducted in 2000, where employees at a Netherlands IT company had a strong social identification amongst each other due to all coming from a very religious community. Subsequently, when the company became financially unstable, the employees held daily prayers to try and save Baan from bankruptcy, instead of leaving. This suggests that people can often feel strongly committed to groups that ‘confer a negative identity upon them’ (Ellemers et al, 2016).
As stated before, Black people in Britain are living in a white, anti-black space. Consequently, being Black will come with negative connotations. In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race, she lists all the ways Black people (including children) are assumed to be deviant. And many Black people feel strongly committed to being Black, in spite of all of these things.
Also, yes, Blackness is a social construct created with the intention to oppress, but I feel this is often a pointless observation. It’s not as if I, a Black Woman can just decide one day to shed my Blackness and exist as a Woman of Jamaican descent, or a British Citizen, or some other part of my identity. I could isolate myself and convince myself that I am a British Citizen only, or only a woman, or only this identity or that identity, the second I step back out into the real world, I will be quickly reminded that I am Black. Social construct it may be, I cannot escape it.
To see my idea in the space, I’ll be using “found” photos – photographs from photographers I admire, as well as some photographs of myself and loved ones and celebrities, and posters. I have already arranged some on my wall at home, and will be adding some to my wall at the studio.
The collage display in my room made from found photos
I’ve also stumbled upon Denisse Pérez’s work on Instagram, namely Albinism, Albinism. What I’ve noticed is that she enjoys obscuring the eyes in her work. In every collection I’ve seen, she obscures the eyes in at least one photograph, whether with props or other objects in the shot, with the limbs of the subject, or through the positioning of the camera. I like the way that it takes away the individuality of the model. Like, it takes away from their emotion. It feels like we know less about them, and that’s what I want to do with my work.
From Denisse Pérez's Albinism, Albinism
As for my work more practically, I’ve started reaching out via social media for models/subjects. I haven’t completed my DSLR training yet, and this prevents me from using certain aspects of the studios on both Margaret Street and Parkside. Until then, I’m considering taking a selfie on my smartphone and testing out the aesthetics of my idea.