Barby Asante’s Declaration of Independence at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art invites audiences into a space of dialogue and critical reflection: on issues of place, identity, belonging and how to create and occupy space. Utilising performance, social ritual and collective thinking, Asante’s work examines marginalised histories, political structures and social justice. Co-opting the structure of a conference hall – where treaties, trade deals and manifestos are negotiated and produced – visitors sit on pews arranged in concentric circles of royal blue. From television monitors, Asante chairs a summit of ‘delegates’: womxn of colour (an inclusive term used by the artist to foreground experiences of trans women and non-binary people) who one by one share their personal stories – often expressed in poetry, song or performance – on living, loving and resisting.
Corridor8 writer Katy Bentham visited the exhibition with North East-based artist Rene McBrearty. Afterwards they discussed how Asante’s work resonated with McBrearty’s own artistic practice as a woman of colour working in sculpture, video and performance to examine personal experience and structures of power.
Katy Bentham: Have you seen other work like [Asante’s] in a major institution? At the BALTIC or somewhere on a par?
Rene McBrearty: There was the Lorna Simpson exhibition a couple of years ago and that felt quite exciting because I was still studying at the university and it felt like I didn’t have access. Learning art history in a very like, “this is a Gauguin!” kind of way [laughs]… The majority of the course was quite Eurocentric and I was starting to try and figure out my place in that… Then there was the BALTIC Artists’ Award 2017, Shen Xin. That was amazing. There was The Claudia Jones Space Station (CJSS) (2017) [The Newbridge Project & BALTIC]. I can’t remember the artist’s name but that was held as a workshop [CJSS was initiated by the …And Beyond Institute for Future Research, a think tank led by artist Sonya Dyer]. It still feels like quite small numbers. I mean it’s good that there have been more artists who are women of colour [exhibiting in the North East] but there’s always more that can be done.
KB: Yeah. I imagine it means a lot. When you have diversity, you allow for people, maybe younger women of colour coming to a show like this, suddenly they see themselves reflected in contemporary art. It’s a less quantifiable thing but that’s something that can affect people’s lives and their decision to pursue certain goals.
RM: Yeah it can be really lasting.
KB: I did wonder, [seeing] people coming in, if they knew what it was, how they were supposed to interact with it. Suddenly you’re met with this work that is demanding, you give it your time. Quietly demanding.
RM: I think it was really generous as well. All the delegates sort of having their responses of how to survive, not just survive, but how to live well. Asante was talking about ‘the meeting of joy and suffering’ – kind of acknowledging that, creating truth and they were all speaking from that. Either about their foremothers and forefathers or about their children, about how they felt now. Acknowledging the past and the future but rooted in the present. It was a healthy environment, which felt quite kind, nurturing. Because sometimes, especially when you’re thinking about the legacy of Colonialism, Imperialism and what it’s done; women of colour, their bodies and relationships to themselves and with each other and the past and even thinking of the future, it can be really damaging. I liked as well that one of the [performances] was a meditation. It was like they were bringing you back into yourself and into the room. Kind of grounding you amongst all this stuff. All the things they were talking about, that’s all the work you’re having to do like, constantly, just reminding yourself, ‘It’s ok. You’ve got this’. So, I thought the exhibition was quite, for me anyway, it felt like it was quite literally saying that to you, or giving that to you… You’ve got a community. That’s what the importance of community is.
KB: I was wondering if there’s anything that you saw in it that resonated with your own art practice and how you function as an artist?
RM: I’ve been thinking more and more, say when I made [‘How to Remove a Single Strand Knot’ (2018)] of the importance of community. A lot of my work comes from things in the past that are problematic or quite sad but then I’ve been thinking about how to flip it on its head. It felt like sometimes I was making work about trauma, the psychological impact of that, how black women’s bodies are viewed or how my own body is viewed or like observed or touched or something. I was always making work about that. Sometimes it was quite direct, or my language was quite violent. I thought that was quite a hard way to write because then sometimes, in performing it or reading it myself, let alone the audience, I was like stressed, you know, anxious or unwell or something. So, I’d been thinking about changing the language I use… [how to] take responsibility for your language as an artist, caring for yourself and for the audience as well.
KB: And maybe being wary about re-inhabiting that violence?
RM: Yeah, definitely. Especially when that’s what you’re talking about. That’s the last thing you want for yourself but also for anyone in your audience, your viewers or anyone – to be like triggered or something. You don’t need that! You get that all the time! So, in the film [I was] thinking about how you move forward… ways we nurture each other or support each other.
KB: Having worked with actors, are you interested in collaborative approaches?
RM: Yeah, there were three actresses. I hadn’t met them before. One is an actress – Shiro [Wanjiru Mugo]. All of them were interested in the arts but Hanabiell [Sanders] and Jola [Olafimihan] hadn’t necessarily acted before. But they were all incredible and amazing and doing like boss ass things every day and so inspiring. Even the act of putting the film together, all of us being in a room together, just like, talking about stuff, talking about our experiences and how we feel and things that happen every day – it was all completely jovial. Really serious things but cracking jokes, crying with laughter! I was getting them to do quite weird things like wash their hands with lemon for like forty-five minutes [laughs] and then do it again for another forty-five minutes! And then just bash clay. There wasn’t necessarily a point to it but since then I’ve kind of understood it’s like anti-work… I’ve had it from Jola, Hanabiell and Jiru, they said it was quite relaxing. Because there wasn’t necessarily a point to it – just playing with clay – there wasn’t a goal… We were, over the course of the three days, just chatting and laughing, getting to know each other. Just a really nice environment and I felt so grateful for getting to meet them… It felt collaborative in terms of the performers and me, but then also I was working a lot with friends. Matt [Pickering] was helping me film and he did the camera work and then Janina [Sabaliauskaite] was taking photos. I’d been thinking about this for a while: support and communities and how we build each other up and support each other through it all. So, I wanted to work with friends to make it. That’s something I’d like to carry forward and then seeing this show today it’s just like, “yeah, of course, that’s the way! That’s the strategy!”
KB: And why be this autonomous art-making individual, which isn’t possible anyway, when you can have meaningful relationships.
RM: I think with this exhibition as well, it’s kind of saying that that’s what women of colour have been doing for generations and generations and generations – giving credit to that and the absolute importance of having that ‘collaborative-ness’. I feel like calling it something else, I feel like ‘collaborative-ness’ isn’t the right word.
KB: I guess they provided a good word: ‘Interdependent’. I kept writing that word down. The final text that was recited, [Gail Lewis] kind of summed it up. She was hesitant to align herself with this idea of ‘Independence’. That was a word from oppressors, in a way… [So] let’s redefine this as something else, that incorporates her experience, the experience of communality. I thought that was really powerful.
RM: Definitely. It’s like the words don’t sit right… It’s like there’s another language that we have to invent or has been invented by our ancestors and it’s like relearning that.
Barby Asante: Declaration of Independence is on show at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead until 6 May 2019.
Find out more about Rene McBrearty’s work on The Newbridge Project’s website.
Katy Bentham is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.