I’m writing this as a way to communicate some of the magic that was present in the air of the various University of Central Lancashire rooms, where we gathered on the 16th and 17th of January 2020. We were there to celebrate the dedication of your life to art. Thirty-five years of making, curating, creating conversations, teaching, archiving, sculpting. It feels absurd that you were the first Black woman to win the Turner Prize for Art.
I noticed you’re a lover of letters, as am I. Celebrating your achievements was, of course, not just about celebrating you. I feel like I got only a glimpse into your network of Black womxn artists, some of whose paths I had crossed in my own little life, some whose works were new to me.
Introduced by Professor Alan Rice, you set the tone for the following days by Navigating Madness, Activating Change through painting and reading. It was a most tender moment; you and a pile of books. You shared some of the most influential fiction from your bookshelf with us. You told us how in poetry, plays and novels, you had searched for a way to ‘explain who I am, how to behave and how to feel’, you call them your ‘comfort blanket’. From Maupassant to May Sarton via Essex Hemphill and Toni Cade Bambara: words that had helped me find my own misplaced power had also done the same for you, and I added even more books to my never ending to-read list.
You’ve created space for Christine Eyene’s curatorial work Making Histories Visible: the George Hallet Project, for her to archive the photographer’s documentation of apartheid exile. She showed us how his photos of forgotten poets and District 6 were mythologised in graphics, literature and music. In her search for the people in the pictures, I thought of your Naming the Money, where each cutout has a voice to speak their real name, where ‘each one is able to say who they really are and what they used to do’. We are all aware how often this is still not always the case when it comes to Black History and Black Art; we scramble to put the pieces together in the only ways we know.
The hunt to know who they really were, and the truth of their lives, continues for Marlene Smith. She referenced a portrait by Brenda Agard that she used in one of her works and wasn’t afraid to ask the room: ‘can anyone tell me who the subject is?’. This cycle began long before us; Toni Morrison’s inspiration for the main character in Jazz was from a photo she saw in the Harlem Book of the Dead that was also missing identifying information about its subject.
‘Words are very musical
Did you hear that. Do you feel that
Getting louder. Can you hear that
Can you feel that, Getting louder’
-‘There is the Word, the Sound of the Voice’, an Ingrid Pollard soundscape
I deal in words, written and spoken. During her revisiting of the texts that have influenced her practice, Marlene Smith said ‘[visual] works always begin with the written word’. As a writer, I’d previously failed to reflect on the ways words could influence and inspire work that is inherently visual, though I had myself been inspired many times by visual art to pick up a pen. It thrills me to know the photo from Marlene’s performance ‘A Dress Rehearsal’ will always be known to be a photo of her, even if her face is missing.
A big part of the joy in simply existing in the space of the symposium was being face to face with Black womxn whose lifelong commitment to art I was in awe of, seeing my contemporaries sharing that space amongst yourself and the likes of Ingrid Pollard brought the importance of coexisting into a clear light. Celebrating you means celebrating those who came before, during and after you began your practice.
When you and Jackie Kay sat down and invited us to join you and Zoe Whitley in a conversation about Black Art and Literature, I saw a fondness and familiarity that sometimes lacks during an ‘in conversation’. CBE meant Critic of the British Empire. You talked about what ‘home’ means to you both – with Jackie sharing that she ‘doesn’t feel at home anywhere at the moment’ and how it feels watching her parents ‘getting older and stripped of their identity and home’. You reflected on how ‘even after thirty years, [you] still say lunch not dinner’ – Zanzibar is still your home.
Each of us
Do the impossible
As long as we convince ourselves
That it has been done before’
– Octavia Butler
You told us that your work is ‘not about enjoyment: it’s about who I am, how I live, who I love, how I love and trying to make something work’. I thought about this a lot in relation to a question asked during Evan Ifekoya, Ingrid Pollard and Jade Montserrat’s panel. When will Black work exist outside of trauma? I pictured Ifekoya walking through the gardens of Octavia Butler’s archives and being faced with a colonial presence. Claudette Johnson’s words echoed in my head:‘I’m interested in giving space to Black women’s presence, in our humanity, our feelings and our politics; some things which have been neglected’.
I’ve always adored the fact that Ifekoya’s work comes from a place of abundance, instead of scarcity. In their ‘Letter to a future younger self’, Ifekoya talks to themself about you and Ingrid’s works, about the struggle to find a copy of Passion: Discourses on Black Women’s Creativity. We can count the number of copies left on our fingers. I felt the weight of what it meant to hold the copy in your archive. In the packed space, I could picture Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski in Making Histories Visible by herself, seeking respite and resolve in the archive.
Zoe Whitley’s ‘WE > me: sisterhood in Black British contemporary art practice’ put the spotlight on ways young artists are creating space for themselves in today’s art world. The BBZ. BLK. BK. Graduate Show, and Phoebe Boswell’s Collective Intimacy (Showroom, 2019) are a continuation of the work begun by collectives like the BLK Art Group, because trying to fit into institutions that were not built with our existence in mind is not the most abundant place for makers to start out or thrive in. Ifekoya says being both a Black student and Black teacher in art school is ‘lonely’. They gathered with their contemporaries to create ‘Surviving Art School: An artist of colour toolkit’. The doors might be open, but the environment can still be unwelcoming. Whitley’s talk was a celebration of my contemporaries – Shadi Al-Atallah, Sade Mica and Miranda Forrester – demonstrating that art is a constant collective effort.
During panels, I noted a few questions about what the gazes of whiteness and academia mean when we discuss the archiving of Black womxn’s works. I think Griselda Pollock answered best when she said that if she does not teach Black womxn’s history, she ‘will have conspired to keep something invisible’.
I see you in Jade Montserrat digging through Yorkshire’s clay, and in my own sense of unbelonging.
Until we meet again,
Creative Conversations: Black Women Artists Making and Doing (Influences and Inspirations of Literature and Language on Black Women’s Creativity) took place at the University of Central Lancashire on 16-17 January 2020
This feature is supported by the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at the University of Central Lancashire.