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  • Writer's pictureJaz

'... the possibility of agency'

So I was busy procrastinating (the perfect antidote to stress-related illnesses, lol), and I stumbled across a conversation between Rianna Jade Parker and Carrie Mae Weems. In the conversation, Weems mentioned that she was reading Aretha Franklin's biography, a book that was quite a feat because of how private Franklin was.

Weems: There's a section of the biography where the writer, I can't think of his name at the moment, goes to speak with [Aretha's] sisters and brothers. They say, 'We're really hoping that maybe she might open use to you, because she's never spoken to anyone about her life, including her sisters and brothers.'

Parker: Very interesting, she was exercising her right to opacity.

Man, did I like that term - the Right to Opacity. I think it encompasses what I'm trying to get across in my work.

- Black people wanting to be respected for who we are, not for our creative output or recounts of oppression.

- Black people wanting to go about their lives without having to prove their innocence for a crime that hasn't even been committed.

- Black people being allowed to be mediocre without it posing a risk to their lives

- Black people being able to keep to themselves (the safe space) without it drawing suspicion.

If I never did anything innovative or creative in my life, I should still be treated with respect and empathy; I shouldn't be Othered for it. I shouldn't have to be exceptional to be seen on the same level as a "regular" white person.

But until I am treated as such; until I can be seen as a human at face value in this country, I will keep to myself and reside within my safe space. It may be viewed as sus, or deviant, but I'm merely exercising my Right to Opacity.

'Even in the worse circumstances of domination, the ability to manipulate one's gaze in the face of structures of domination that would contain it, opens up the possibility of agency.'

- bell hooks (1992: 116)

As part of my procrastination, I was on Instagram and happened upon Temi Coker's work. He's more known for his graphic design than for his photography, but I really like how he alters the photographs he works with. Often, he'll be working with black and white photographs, and then will add bright paint-like (it's all digital) colours to them to provide new dynamics. They're beautiful.

- Temi Coker's 'Picasso' (2018)

Once I scrolled through his catalogue, it kinda kicked me back into gear to continue my own work.

I went back to one of my original photography faves, Vanley Burke. 'By the Rivers of Birminam' is like a Bible for Black Brummie Environmental Portraits if you ask me. It takes you back to a time that - when you think about it - isn't that much different from today. There was a lot of unrest in places like Handsworth due to over-policing in the area. The Handsworth Riots of 1981 were a testament to that.

Uncle Vanley's work provided a voice to a group of people who were marginalised, stereotyped, and constantly provoked by an anti-black institution. But it also documents the good bits too. The triumphs, the celebrations, the togetherness and community. I appreciate his balanced approach because sometimes as an artist, I feel like I have to explore only the good bits.

- Out-riders head the African Liberation Day rally (1977)

Pic bangs severely. Top 2 and it ain't 2.

Also taken on Rookery Road, where I used to live between 2012 - 2013.

It is emotionally draining to experience all of these things because of the colour of your skin. Imagine reliving it all for the sake of your work? Whether it's art, media, or writing, I don't always find it cathartic. Most of the time it puts me in a strange, existential place. But these things have contributed to who I have become, and even if they hadn't, they deserve to be documented. The hostility that Black people in Britain (and beyond) have had to endure for hundreds of years shouldn't be forgotten because it can leave me jaded. But that doesn't make it any easier.

And then there's the other side of the spectrum, where all some artists want to document are the bad bits, the struggles, the hostile environment. Yes, these stories need to be told, but how can we ignore all of the good things at the same time? I can't think of a time I've watched anything about Black British history and heard about all the funny things the Windrush Generation hadn't considered when they first came to Britain. I mean, I was born here, and I find this country free-eezing. I know my grandparents didn't come here with the right clothes, I just know it, lol. Why are those little anecdotes not told?

I don't fully blame the artists for doing this though. Black culture isn't often given its props outside of the community when the stuff is nice. Think about the connotations attached to blues and jazz and even gospel and reggae (to an extent, but that's another conversation). Then think about dancehall and afrobeats. Grime is slowly on its way to critical acclaim too, especially the albums that talk in detail about that life and end on the note don't end up like me. Don't do what I did. It gets lapped up. Black trauma is popular.

I started looking at some other artists recommended to me. I like how John Stezaker almost splices(?) images onto other images. It reminds me a bit of glitch art. Once again, there's this obscuring of the eyes and the removing of identity, but instead of producing this during his shoots (Like Denisse Pérez), he adds to "found" images in post, ultimately giving them a new life, or altering their 'to be looked-at-ness'

And there's Annegret Soltau, who does this same obscuring, but with self portraits. She uses the female body to explore belonging and identity, and her work can sometimes look unnerving, which I welcome. My favourite works of hers are Permanent demonstration am (1976) and Selbst (1975) respectively. Once again, they're in black and white. The black yarn wrapped around her face is, frankly, quite disturbing to look at, but I struggle to look away. It's captivating, it looks claustrophobic, it reminds me a little of bodily possession.

- Annegret Soltau

Yinka Shonibare's another one. He's more of a sculptor, but he does other things too. Being of Nigerian descent, Shonibare looks at the legacy of European colonial anti-blackness on African contemporary identity. And guess what? HEADLESS MANNEQUINS!

Once again, there's this removing of identity - Shonibare refers to it as bringing back the guillotines. His work strikes me as ironic. It has a way of winking at the audience. His decision to accept an MBE was viewed through a similar lens.

Essentially, I think his sculptures capture his beautiful irreverence towards colonialism, gentry, and the systems and conventions that upheld, maintained, and passively allowed colonialism (and its legacy) to be what it was.

- Yinka Shonibare's 'How to Blow up Two Heads at Once (Ladies)'. (2006)

- 'Gallantry and Criminal Conversation (Parasol)'. (2002)

- 'Scramble for Africa' (2003)

I should be completing the second draft soon. Because I don't have studio training yet, I'll be keeping it simple and focusing on the post production value more than anything. If everything goes well, I'll have four samples.

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