Friday, 31 July 2015

The bar the books and reflections on power

“...the change was adjustment without improvement.”
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

The past few weeks have been at once inspiring, confusing and frustrating. There’s something prodding around inside like that mysterious toxin for which we used to be given a ‘wash out’ when I was a child. I’m hoping this shout will adequately expel it without sullying my integrity.

No colour bar opens
Eric Huntley made a comment that stuck with me at the preopening of the No Colour Bar exhibition a few weeks ago. He remarked that it was an irony that the exhibition was being held at the Guildhall, part of the City of London – a distinct corporation built from the profits of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. It was a subtle, but powerful point, illustrating how far and where to Africans have come in our struggles; indeed to dismantle the imposing, racist colour bar. He linked the installation of the former Bogle L’Ouverture bookshop, a central feature of the exhibition to the silk cotton tree, a symbol of our struggle, and from which the City of London Corporation acquired its status.

The exhibition, fully titled ‘No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990’ (which lasts until January 2015) is a collaboration between Friends of the Huntley Archives at the London Metropolitan Archives (FHALMA), The Guildhall art Gallery (GAG) and London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). It is impressive; the location of the Guildhall art Gallery couldn’t fail to do this. There’s a curious interplay between old and new on entering the building; the gallery is itself relatively new (opened in 1999); the discovery of Roman ruins in the Ampitheatre adds a remarkable feature to this interplay between old and new. By old I also mean that in the Guildhall area, let alone the gallery itself one observes the embodiment of something well preserved or the uncontested permanence of privilege. By new, I refer to the fact that Africans were there, somewhat superimposed or sort of on the surface, but there never the less and proud to be to celebrate the opening of the No Colour Bar. This pride was expressed in beaming smiles and those faces people pull when words won’t work momentarily to say – ‘not bad, eh?’

There was something else about the ‘newness.’ Bogle L’Ouverture books were in the ‘Shop’ as you enter the gallery to the right. Eric Huntley had seen to it that a range of books, including my Elijah, by African authors were represented. Downstairs, in the basement the stunning exhibition opens, which includes exhibits from over 70 artists and activists. Protest is the theme – as reflected in the No Colour Bar title; protest about art being also about ‘action’ and decanting the marginalisation of African people, not only in the UK.

You know how much went into organising the exhibition; a lot of hard, voluntary hours for which one must tip hat and charmingly nod at the organisers for their wonderful efforts. You get the sense too that lots of love went into the careful selection of those exhibits to say what needs to be said about art and activism during the period displayed. You know too, that the selection process couldn’t have been easy, with so much to choose from. Sonia Boyce, Paul Dash, Errol Lloyd, Aubrey Williams, Keith Piper, Ronald Moody are a few of the artists whose works are on display. There’s a remarkable sculpture by Sokari Douglas Camp downstairs of a Nigerian woman going to market or doing shopping (the full title escapes). It’s made of stainless steel, each bit of imagined fabric (to make the dress) carefully linked to give a 3d impression of a woman inside the sculpture. You’ll have to go see it to fully appreciate.

One of my favourite pieces is the bust of Jessica Huntley, by George Kelly (Fowokan). Carefully positioned at pride of place as you enter the exhibition, her vision and version of ‘overseeing’ is an unmistakable statement. They said not to take photos. Some ignored the order, just to be snapped beside her, lapping her legacy and strength. I was mesmerised by this bust, as though trying to ‘read’ what she was mediating in this moment, made in hers and Eric Huntley’s honour. Accabre, their daughter drew me from the moment – asking – ‘what do you think she’d be saying?’ I thought she might be wondering, what next – asking if ‘da is it?’ she might also ask; ‘wheh we own deh?’ Meaning, where’s our actual art gallery – preserved, real and lasting. It may be nice to sup at the master’s table but we want more than this. We deserve and demand it.

This moves me to consider the major part of the exhibition. The installation of the Huntleys’ bookshop – described in the brochure as ‘a multi-sensory, interactive installation’ which for me extends the impression of ‘newness’ is a remarkable recreation of the original bookshop. It includes material from the Huntleys’ extensive archives (now lodged at the LMA), and an enormous map showing the reach and range of black bookshops and organisations that used to be across the UK. Most of these are now gone. And I wondered about that – the installation, a black bookshop featuring as a museum piece in place of an actual one we need. You see we’re still writing and publishing our books, maybe even more so with the advent of self-publishing. But marginalisation persists. So we have an adjustment, in truth. It would have been inconceivable at one time that such an exhibition would be at the Guildhall. Improvement is another stage and I know Jessica Huntley’s presence in our hearts and minds will straighten our focus so we know how to position our gaze for posterity and prosperity.

BCA Bogle Book Fair
Bogle L’Ouverture Publications (BLP) in continuing to create opportunities to empower us through the word collaborated with Black Cultural Archives (BCA) to host a Book Fair on Saturday 18th July. A few of us are involved in trying to keep BLP’s legacy alive. There is a large back stock of books, titles I think have relevancy today: Groundings with my brothers (Walter Rodney), Ackee, Breadfruit and Callaloo (a creole alphabet book, by Valerie Bloom), In the Trickster Tradition (anancy stories, Peter Nazareth), Easter Monday Blues (Accabre Huntley on growing up as first generation African Caribbean in London), Roots of Black History (Robin Walker), Pulling on Punches (a newer publication, on domestic violence, by Luke Daniels). And many more that give a picture of the struggles, experiences, contributions and aspirations of African peoples in the UK and internationally. A book fair was thus organised.

It aimed to (re)emphasise the power of books, the printed word, since we know we’re competing with technology and the advent of print on demand, mega corporate Amazon. A book fair, and one organised by BCA and Bogle would remind us that we are not idly accepting the closures of black bookshops/organisations; that we are still writing and publishing and seeking to master distribution of our books and bringing it to the people. Collaborating, combining our resources is a progressive approach to make it happen.

These photos are by Eddie Ossei

We hoped for a good, sunny day and positive turn out. It was indeed, as called for, a beautiful day. The bookstalls included were: African Musical Instruments (selling children’s colour and story books and musical instruments), Black Book Swap (both new and second hand books – they organise an annual book swap linked to interviews with contemporary writers), Black Women in the Arts (promotes new and elder writers and artists, especially retired nurses), JJBola writes (introducing his new collection of poems – Word; his reading/spoken word of a few of the pieces was a real treat), Jacaranda (with founder Valerie Brandes and their new releases, Butterfly Fish, From Pasta to Pigfoot both in WH Smiths), Maat Books (Pepukayi’s amazing selection of books), Narrative Eye (their brilliant book titled Blackamoores in Tudor England), Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and Way Wive Wordz, as well as cards/gifts and prints from Alvin Kofi and Ken McKalla.

We were in the beautiful BCA court yard. Talks had been organised to take place in meeting rooms, along with a creative writing workshop inside the BCA, but numbers meant we could do everything in the courtyard. There was a fantastic vibe that I can only imagine (with elevated expectations) might have reached fever pitch with more people being made aware of the event. Next time, I’m told. Next time it will be bigger/better. And reason and patience should supersede my incomprehension that this time there was a missed opportunity to market the event better, make the most of the wandering Brixtonians on such a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, many of them heading to the buzzing Lambeth Country Show. I fancied that those wanderers could have sauntered into the book fair on their way to the Show.

We had relied on the BCA to market the event to its list of contacts as Bogle doesn’t have such a list. So the less than potential turn out indeed means we must look forward the ‘next time.’ In the process, however, we learn something valuable. We need each other now more than ever; that collaborations like the example that has afforded the successful No Colour Bar exhibition require unified, commitment. That we cannot annihilate our own efforts; if anything we must strengthen our alliances, learn from and teach each other how to build our institutions. Last weekend marked the 1st anniversary of the opening of the BCA. The cruel, poignancy of hindsight makes me ponder whether the book fair and the anniversary might have been organised together to thereby maximise attendance and participation. I am confident this would have demonstrated the BCA’s commitment, as stated on its website of being a ‘welcoming space for everyone to learn, explore and become inspired by Black British heritage and history.’ As for BLP, it would have reflected its mission to empower through books and celebrate our collective, cultural legacies. We live and learn so the focus for next time is clearer.

Photos by Eddie Ossei

Reflections of power
One of the wisdoms I value from Toni Morrison is her view that the ‘black is beautiful’ slogan had/has in it both paradox and power. Power because it instilled confidence and self-belief where there was little or none, at a time of heightened political activism in the 1960s (not only in the US but globally, sparked by such as Marcus Garvey a long time before then); paradox because it bound us to behaving or responding in a particular way to the white (‘man’s’) gaze. We said we were beautiful, not because we knew it intrinsically/unapologetically (as Morrison means when she says ‘who you telling, me?…I know I’m beautiful…’) but because we wanted to shout the proof of it. You see Morrison knew that when white people wrote their books (which she studied) they never apologised, or explained or skirted around issues. They spoke/wrote their truth. Most of their truth avoided (marginalised) us (as is the theme of her book Whiteness and the Literary Imagination - the erasing of Africans in America in literature by white writers). When we speak to white people I sometimes feel there’s a tendency to ‘cater’ to their limited understanding of ‘us’ and our struggles, or we curb our tongue as though we ‘feel it for them’ that they wont ‘get where we’re coming from’ or be hurt by our truth (in which they are by contrast, due largely to the inhuman institutionalising of racism, always present).

This was the feeling creeping over me as I listened to the conversation between Eddie Chambers and Errol Lloyd, at one of the No Colour Bar’s series of mini events inserted into the whole exhibition. The conversation was called ‘Framing Black Visual Artists’ chaired by Sonia Dyer. A tight, restrictive dialogue was exchanged between the artists and chair, mostly about marginalisation of black artists, especially in terms of more commercial spaces and opportunities for exhibitions. The speakers weren’t in agreement that things hadn’t changed in this regard; after all we were at the Guildhall. But from the basic title of their conversation, which includes the qualification despised by Toni Morrison ‘black’… visual artists’ it can be said that the conversation was being directed to the Other (in other words not to Africans?) in conveying our presence. The conversation seemed framed in an artificial way, I couldn’t help thinking it subconsciously imposed a bar(rier) that prevented comfortable/natural dialogue. I wondered whether this was due to being at the Guildhall, with the prestige it carried. Eddie Chambers seemed to want to say something more than he felt he should or could. I sensed he was holding back; struggling with his own niggling integrity. I hope I’ve misread the moment because I think the power of free expression is the artist’s most precious tool and indeed should rise above - if not set their own bar. Yet contrasting this tightness in his throat is his enormous canvass denouncing Apartheid and profits earned therefrom by complicit UK corporations.

If we’re stumped by circumstance then we’re playing up to the master, a symbol of oppression, playing to their tune, which will bamboozle our efforts to take on the master. We cannot assume that because the No Colour Bar demonstrates an adjustment, that the opportunity would automatically render our marginalisation defunct. So when we’re given the chance I think we can be bold about how we feel about our oppression and move on to transformative action. Our empowerment is about our will to consciously act. When we accept the master’s invitation to dinner what good is it to choke on the meal or be amazed by the glittering crockery? Knowing there may not be another chance, no ‘next time,’ we should make each moment matter. Be grateful for the concession but demand more. The dynamic between us and the master is power. We should not see the opportunity merely as an instance to ‘wrestle’ power from the master but make plain that the inequalities are abhorrent; they exist because of their whip, musket and feats of inhumanity that keep us baying for opportunities, not for some of us but for all. We take that fine dining moment to demand, not a satiable adjustment but a seismic improvement.

So at the Framing Visual Artists event, an audience member wanted the conversation to focus a bit on the work/the art itself, as opposed to the ‘racism’ that overshadows (even as it inspires) it. I couldn’t help but wonder why the large screen didn’t feature some of the work, but instead looped a publication that used to be in circulation. Another audience member mentioned the work of Ken McKalla and Alvin Kofi who exhibit from their homes - I’ve visited both these ‘open house’ exhibitions, in South London, they are wonderful. The point is of course that in this way they need no invitation to the master’s table or house but the exposure would matter a great deal. A good point was made that we should invest in purchasing original works by our artists, lest some conspiracy is afoot to profit from their death and by which they are deliberately denied wider acclaim in their lifetimes.

Setting the bar
My frustrations were borne of assumptions I need to adjust. I thought that when we talk about ‘struggle’ we were speaking for all ‘Africans.’ When we talk about ‘our experiences’ and ‘our community’ and ‘collectivism’ and ‘unity’ these meant for ‘all Africans.’ Naively, I forgot class contradictions always play a meddling part in any effort for collective actions. The ‘collective’ has limitations; the ‘people’ naturally pose problems relating to socio-economic differences; some of these prevail as a consequence of our education. Yet burrowing my head in sand like a fickle ostrich won’t make the nagging feeling go away. I’ve come to realise that we Africans are caught up in the quagmire of individualistic capitalism we’re in danger of losing consciousness/focus. If we are still fighting against a simple call to be ‘unified’ and embed our psyche with a vision for our collective empowerment we are culpable in perpetuating our own marginalisation. In all spheres of our doing, being and thinking how difficult might it be to aspire fully to our collective improvement.

I had ended this shout at that last paragraph. But I couldn’t leave it there without paying homage to the powerful presentation by Fowokan last Saturday on his work featured at the Guildhall. His presentation was a refreshing contrast to the Framing Black Visual artists’ conversation with Errol Lloyd, Sonia Dyer and Eddie Chambers. It may be because he was actually taking us on a journey of how he developed those stunning sculptures. It was an unprogrammed event but who ever had the idea to do it must be commended. You see we were given a window into the artist’s imagination and motivation; it was wonderful to hear his inspiration to create the pieces. Take as example the sculpture of Olokun, the goddess of the deep ocean, an orisa, ‘emissaries of Oludumare,’ he told us. At the time of developing this piece Fowokan had come across the Zong slave ship massacre. Enslaved Africans were being shipped across the Atlantic, a number of them were falling ill, (caused by potable water shortage) and thus losing their value. The ship was owned by the Gregson Slave Trading Syndicate whose crew members decided to throw the 142 enslaved Africans overboard and claim insurance from them (as they were cargo, valued in the same way as any other business investment). Fowokan told us he was seriously affected by this horrific event, one of many in the holocaust of slavery, he came up with the Olokun sculpture. He visualised her as guardian, gatherer, comforter of those Africans captured and drowned by capitalist murderers. The venom you may perceive is sparked by the screening in this same period of Britain’s forgotten Slave Owners – 46,000 men/women profiting not only from the trade in humans but barbarically from the abolition of the trade. That 17billion the programme emphasised they claimed as compensation does not go anywhere near the billions they were making and continue to make for the very corporation the No Colour Bar exhibition is housed in. Tomorrow, August 1st was the day allotted our emancipation. There has never been an apology for slavery by Britain/Europe. Our presence in the belly marks some kind of change but reparations must come for there to be anything like the improvement that might satiate the terror our ancestors endured. Until then, they might well be the cause of what’s prodding around my insides.

An unmistakable spiritual power is invested in Fowokan’s work. He envisions their permanence – which for me expresses the foundation for his own uncompromising power. His work will be a legacy that will keep the traditions of our ancestors alive. Those two busts on the right and left are guardians seated at the entrance to the exhibition – emissaries indeed. Jessica Huntley is in the centre of the trinity as you enter. As for the inspiration behind the development of this bronze bust of Jessica Huntley Fowokan expanded our consciousness by revealing why and how ordinary people who do extraordinary things within their lifetimes become immortalised, become divine. This power is embodied in the bust of Jessica Huntley. Usually behind the camera, it was delightful to have Fowokan at centre. He recharged my spirit that sunny Saturday morning by showing that the artist activist won’t be satisfied with simply removing the bar but they will actively set their own. And thankfully that bar won’t be coloured by restrictions and limited states of consciousness.

Shout out