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JAZ MORRISON | spring 2023
first featured in art magazine 'sluice: specificity' (2023, sluice)

‘Tragedy flows around and there’s no place to run,

Till it’s done.

Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon.

Where do we belong? Where do we come from?’

- From D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s Till It’s Done (Tutu)

 

Growing up, I was passively influenced by the culture-building of African Americans and Jamaicans. My childhood was consumed by reggae covers; African American gospel; home-cooked ackee & saltfish and Jamaican Toto; and gifts from family who had holidayed or lived abroad. Our shared roots essentially built my foundational sense of self. But in my adolescence, it became clear I could not appropriate cultures that have been formed in very different contexts.

Many children of the diaspora can likely attest to this feeling of liminality. A sense of Otherness when engaging with our heritage as well as the nation in which we live. Sometimes this is because we are actively discouraged from doing so – Elders offering warnings not to go back, and those back home deeming us “foreigners”. But it is also worth noting that American, Jamaican, and English cultures were not designed with Black Brits in mind. 

The toolkits we construct for navigating a British context – particularly as marginalised people – will require a foundational understanding of where we come from, and a foundational understanding of our present context. Knowing this will clarify the resources we have to craft a culture that serves us. 

The Right to Opacity (TRTO) was an attempt at using portraiture to explore the capacity for non-physical spaces to aid in self- and group-actualisation. In 2019 I’d been reflecting on the lack of Black community spaces in Birmingham, as well as the lack of robust networks to organise or share information. Much of this has been exacerbated by the pandemic, economic recession, and Britain’s hostile political environment. At the time, I had concluded that much of the space available to Black Brits were essentially Heterotopias – housing for “deviants” and “undesirables”. Stepping out of neglected boroughs into publicly-funded infrastructure can present bureaucratic and financial roadblocks. I was mortified to learn on a site visit that certain organisations will notify the police when they have Black community programming. I discovered Birmingham City Council’s reputation as “a mafia” amongst many small freelancers and entrepreneurs. And I learned from social practitioners the impossibility of accessing space within the private sector due to an influx of phantom landlords. This is an intentionally hostile environment, and a reminder that Britain’s neoliberal culture is incompatible with community aims.

While her show Some Are Born to Endless Night: Dark Matter was at Autograph in 2019, British-Liberian Artist Lina Iris Viktor mentioned how artists are discouraged from using black in their work, and how this prompted her to question the black-averse culture she was being educated in. The Right to Opacity took inspiration from this, bathing the subjects in desaturated darkness. Golden borders obscure the eyes, blocking the windows to the soul. Each portrait in TRTO is named after the subject’s “safe space”: a non-physical space they can freely occupy without judgement or curfew. Blackness in this context is the substance of the universe: dark matter. A primordial cosmic slop with morphological potential.

‘The African American perspective highlights the pervasiveness of apocalypse but pulls back from asserting its inescapability; hope vies with pessimism. [...] There are attempts to approach the apocalypse in terms of endurance and escape. There is a need to, on the one hand, weather the hostility of the current social order to Black life and, on the other, stake out a path of development that is partially autonomous from the cycle of apocalyptic endings.’ 

- From Davidson & da Silva’s Fear of a Black Planet: Climate Apocalypse, Anthropocene Futures, and Black Social Thought, pp 531 – 532

In retrospect, this idea has followed me throughout my practice. Of course, a non-space is not land justice. But the British “self-made” ideal will always be in conflict with group-actualisation. Existing neoliberal, entrepreneurial responses are unsustainable. Black Business™ will always prioritise profit over people because that’s what capitalism necessitates. This does not mean we cannot use these current sites for experimentation. Maroon Survivalism is baked into the shared Black Tradition: like those who came before us and those abroad, we too can build robust communities with rituals able to withstand the ‘apocalyptic processes unleashed by the Middle Passage’.

During my time at artist-run multiverse Eastside Projects, I curated GOD-POCKET, a temporary pocket universe for Othered and marginalised people. Exhibiting artists Tesha Murrain-Hernandez, Yusuf Dongo, Trixiebella Suen, and Neoliberalizard utilised spiritual influences from their respective heritages, and laced them with psychedelic UV colours. The Path of Sankofa, Murrain-Hernandez’s guided meditation, invites visitors on a journey of self-excavation. More tangible than The Right To Opacity’s safe spaces, this hybrid, liminal meeting point offers space for reflection on the past and present. 

The gallery space; the rented hall; the lecture theatre; the Black Business™ are conditional spaces for experimental use. True land justice will be contingent on informed and intentional communities. The Black Tradition considers personhood to be a relational process, implying that self-actualisation and group-actualisation are connected. It is plausible that once people define themselves and their convictions, they will be better equipped to identify, cultivate, and receive from their communities.

In the song I initially quoted, D’Angelo croons:

‘Clock tickin’ backwards on things we’ve already built [...]
Question ain’t, do we have the resources to rebuild?
It’s, do we have the will?’ 

 

We can push back against this creeping apathy – as we always have – with the strengthening of community awareness and rites, and we can explore these ideas now, while we are still in heterotopias, safe spaces, and conditional spaces. This is a long-term commitment as our contexts will continue to evolve, but we will not be journeying alone. We have shared roots and a Black Tradition; all that is needed is the individual will to begin.

Till it's done.

REFERENCES

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