'Why can't he help children in Britain? Not exotic enough is it?' | Influences and Developments
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
So I've finally had the opportunity to go to the Birmingham Revolutions Exhibition. I went on the 26th February because there was a tour happening that day. Looking at the artefacts of resistance in Birmingham was quite strange. I'd heard about things like the General Strike of 1926, or Black Lives Matter UK - and the Handsworth Riots obviously - but I don't think I quite realised that the city could begin to claim resistance as part of its contemporary makeup. It gives me hope that with [overt] racism and bigotry on the rise all over the world, little pockets in Birmingham will stay true to these roots. And don't worry, I know I'm being optimistic.
I went primarily to see Vanley Burke's work, but the presence of Benjamin Zephaniah and John Akomfrah made me smile. Zephaniah's work in Birmingham has practically branded him a legend in the city. Personal highlights include learning about him in my primary AND secondary school syllabus; reading Gangsta Rap and being introduced to Tupac's music; and when a country that once looked down on him for having locs, being Jamaican, and being outspoken, turned around and tried to give him one of those awards from the Queen (I call them Blue Peter badges for adults). The cognitive dissonance in this country is always a sight to behold.
And then there's John Akomfrah, the director of Handsworth Songs and that iconic image of a boy running away from the police. I can't tell you how many times that image has accidentally inspired me. I say accidentally because I haven't actually watched the film yet - I know. But I have a friend who used to run a Handsworth Community Film Night, and she once screened the film. I'm planning on reaching out to her to see if she has a copy I can borrow, or at least point me in the right direction.
Anyway, as I've said, I went to see Vanley Burke's photography. Looking at a very Black Handsworth, even in the face of institutional racism was magnificent. But the image that stayed with me was a horde of police, clustered together like a pack of dogs waiting to be unleashed. It was so haunting, and I instantly thought of my mother and her peers living through that time, even though they were quite young when it happened. But I can imagine the consequences other Black people faced because the Handsworth borough retaliated against police brutality. Just look at what happened in 2011, when the swine-phillic Prime Minister David Cameron was threatening single mums living in council housing, even though everyone and their grandmother was rioting (Gilpin, 2012). The 2011 Riots, though very racial in its origins, featured people of every colour and creed smashing shop windows and stealing everything from flatscreen televisions to basmati rice. Black and poor people were still the ones attacked and punished for it. So yes, the police absolutely look ominous in that image. I want that feeling in my work, and I want those who maintain bigoted status quos to feel that feeling. Unsettling. It might be worth looking into art and the uncanny.
But also, as I've been working on my sketches, two films have come to mind: Attack the Block (2011), and Us (2019). Below are spoilers of both films.
Attack the Block came out the same year as the 2011 UK Riots - national public vandalism and looting sparked by the "lawful" killing of Mark Duggan by the police. The beauty of this film is that is isn't subtle at all. It definitely has its flaws, and I talk about that in my essay, but being this film was made by a white, middle-class man, it had a lot to say, and it lays it on thick. At the beginning of the film, Sam (played by Jodie Whittaker) is robbed by a group of teenagers. When being consoled, her neighbour calls the boys 'fucking monsters', a perfect segue into the real monsters of the film - aliens from out of space.
Now, whether Director Joe Cornish realised it or not, the comparisons between the aliens and Black people in Britain are strong. Not to insult his intelligence or skill, but the pathetic journalism surrounding the film can make one dubious. For example, one question Jodie Whittaker and co-star John Boyega were asked was 'what's your favourite sandwich?', a blatant attempt to bury the important and timely subject matter in the film. Even Joe himself never decides to offer up an explanation for his decisions.
Black 'monsters' versus black monsters
1. The real "antagonists" were aliens from out of space, resembling how Black people have constantly been made out to be not quite human for hundreds of years.
2. The aliens all looked the same (no eyes either lol), resembling how Black people constantly get mistaken for each other, and meaning that if one of us is a threat, all of us are.
3. They're black, which is self-explanatory. I find it interesting how Cornish used black monsters to humanise Black 'monsters'. Even Pest, who is the only white person amongst the teenagers, uses Patois, smokes cannabis, and incorporates other stereotypes associated with Black teenagers into his personality (the quote in the title is from him). Thankfully, he doesn't use any racial slurs.
4. The aliens are protozoans (spores, parasites). Similarly, Black people are constantly reported to have such behaviours and characteristics, whether it is African and West Indian immigrants "taking all the jobs" (whilst simultaneously "all being on benefits and in prison" - magical negro?); the way the media talks about knife crime, single parenthood, drugs, and even interracial relationships.
5. The real antagonists were Black aliens from out of space. To "win", the teenage boys had to either send them back to where they came from, or kill them. Do I really need to contextualise this one?
Joe Cornish uses black monsters to subvert Black "monsters". Likewise, I wish to use shadows and darkness and blackness as good and liberating, rather than what it has come to be connoted as.
Us is far more recent than the previous film, and is the second film directed by Jordan Peele. What stood out to me in the film was this idea of an underground people. The film begins with theories and musings surrounding actual Americans potentially living in tunnels underground, the context that inspired the movie. But the underground people in the film are called the "tethered", almost a Mr Hyde version of ourselves living right beneath us with no free will. The Tethered are subject to the whims of the humans they're involuntarily joined to, so you can begin to picture the trauma there. I want to incorporate that into my work - this idea of an exploited demographic rising up and killing their oppressors, or at the very least, fighting back.
They buried us, but didn't know we were seeds. The rose that grew through concrete and all that jazz.
I want to capture this imagery of resistance. A people breaking through the concrete to free themselves from this oppressive tethering, by any means necessary.
As I'll likely be taking self-portraits for ease sake (or at least for my earlier drafts), there will of course be connotations of Blackness and womanhood. In fact, I think with my work there will always be connotations of at least one of these. Many of my frameworks and inspirations are Black Women, and theories around race, gender and, sexuality. However, it's not because I'm trying to make a comment on something specific about Black Women or race or gender. In The Right to Opacity, even though my models were Black, and a lot of my research surrounded race, I wasn't commenting on just race. My comments on Foucault's Heterotopia, for example, can also apply to the LGBTQ+ community, or the Muslim community, or Womxn, or disabled people, and so on and so forth. I simply used one of my own identifiers to try and communicate this, and that's what I'm doing again in this project.
And though I want it to feel unsettling for certain people, I want the people I'm representing - the resistors - to embrace such imagery, and feel their struggle represented in some way.
I will say that I like the idea of masks in Us's marketing - this idea that beneath the surface, anyone is capable of anything. It really adds to the unsettling nature of the film and its plot twist (side note: Lupita should've won all the awards for her performance, but we move). The mask can serve as what we show society, but also what society has forced on us (they made a demon out of me, then they put a cross through my flesh). It's an interesting concept, though I'm not sure how it would apply to my work yet, if at all.
That's it for now. Still trying to amass the research that will inform my output. I want to plan my time extensively when conducting my archival research because I know too much travelling will be both time-consuming and draining (these projects aren't the only things I'm working on. I'm juggling about three or four jobs too). I'm hoping that if I start with online archives and creative commons platforms for this month (just to ease in), and then move towards physical archives nearer to April, I'll find this whole process less intimidating.
As for making anything, I guess I'll just have to start experimenting. I did buy some white thread yesterday, so I'll likely experiment with that.