We look at how Selina Thompson, Zinzi Minott, Abdou Rahman, Bonnie Hardy and Barby Asante use the arts in terms of performance, representation and conversation to dismantle racism.
Text Storm Thompson
Imagine being told that your son, brother or friend has been strangled, kicked and put in a coma by the same people that are meant to protect your community. Rashan Charles, Darren Cumberbatch and Edson Da Costa are only some of the black folks in the UK who lost their lives in police custody last year. Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaigns against violence and systematic racism have been held internationally since 2013. While the media focus has been mainly on BLM relations in America its easy to forget to look at it from a British lens.
Selina Thompson is a Leeds based performance artist. She makes work about the politics of identity and how this defines and shapes our bodies, lives and environment. Race Cards was a project Selina produced as part of her wider research project called As Wide And As Deep As The Sea. Selina dedicated 12 hours to writing questions around race on postcards to spark conversation and thought around institutional racism.
Selina said “Definitely some of questions in Race Cards was influenced by BLM and also what it is to be constantly bombarded with violent images all the time. When death happens on our shores they are swallowed like the death of Da Costa from south Bermondsey for example. We are used to the framework of white American police killing black men but we are not used to seeing British police killing British men so my intentions of this piece of work was to force viewers to face up to looking at BLM through a British lens”
Many other creatives in the British art world like fashion designer Davounte Williams are interested in not hiding a way from the BLM reality here in the UK, this highlights the idea that we might be putting to much emphasis on what’s going on in America whilst being in denial about what’s going on here.
It was only last year that the police watchdog launched an investigation after an officer pulled over a DJ driving a Bentley in central London and told him that black people driving in “gangster-style clothing” are more likely to be stopped.
Dancer Zinzi Minott creates work that centres a relationship between dance and politics. She said “I want my work and what I do to be have a relevant impact on my life and the lives of other people in my community. I’m not interested in making work that doesn’t do that. I’m not interested in contributing towards things that will make the community that i’m from further away from some representation of freedom and progress and progress to that freedom. Zinzi’s views highlights how the BLM climate has influenced the intentions of her work. Although, she does recognise a flaw in the BLM movement and argues that “it as a resistance to the older generation because it’s tailored to millennials through social media culture like the use of the BLM hashtag.”
She goes on to explaining that the movement is something she remains very critical of until she finds a way to keep the politic relevant to everybody and not just 19-35 year olds.
However for south-London based artist, curator and educator Barby Asante, a community that is self-reliant not only requires visibility and fair representation but also sustainability in the art world. She sheds light on the view that “with the creative case of diversity that we are seeing now, all these institutions are inviting people, and we have so much here especially in London, so many exhibitions that are concerned with race that are inviting black artists over? It looks good right? But I just wonder if this is sustainable. The thing is it’s not just about us being visible for a very long time, it’s about being able to be around for a long time which actually refers to living and not surviving.”
When Barby started out as an artist in the late 80s she noticed there was a moment where there was an initiative of some kind to make sure black British art was visible. She takes us on a trip back in the past “It made me really lucky to be able to see exhibitions like The Other Story, to organisations like Inova and Romany Contempory Arts. And then things quietened down and then there was another organisation called Deciebel, loads of money in that. Loads of people got grants, there was visibility and then it quietened down again because they think we’re all okay, and then in 2011 Mark Doughan gets killed and the cycle continues.”
Barby’s experience of witnessing how the government has supported black visibility over the years has flagged up concerns about their level of consistency.
Barby says “I want to be able to speak about race.I want to have conversations about it because I experienced racism from a very young age. I lived and went to school around the corner from where Stephen Lawrence got killed. I used to stand at that same bus stop. The national front used to stand outside my school and I was regularly called names.”
She and many other artists demonstrate a clear desire to have long-lasting structures that provide a space to have needed conversations about these issues.
Leeds based visual and performance artist Selina Thompson said she has “no idea how the future looks in regards to the 2020 arts councils creative case for diversity. She explains that “in 2020 the money will all be finished. My interest and priority is that artists and organisers will have built structures to sustain ourselves. Will diversity still be a priority, that’s what keeps me up at night, I’m neither pessimistic nor optimistic, I’m curious. If we look at the case for black artists we know there have been tims they just put money in a pot and run off. We need to create something continuous.”