Barby Asante is an artist, curator and researcher based in London. LADA has invited Barby to be Unbound’s Guest Editor for September as part of her work as the recipient of the first annual Library of Performing Rights Commission, where she developed Declaration of Independence, bringing together women of colour in a collective and discursive performance to explore issues of independence and social justice.
A Declaration of Independence: A Right to Performance
“We are disruption and consent to disruption. We preserve upheaval. Sent to fulfill by abolishing, to renew by unsettling, to open the enclosure whose immeasurable venality is inversely proportionate to its actual area, we got politics surrounded. We cannot represent ourselves. We can’t be represented.” -- Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons (Minor Composition 2013, p20)
I have been thinking a lot about moments of visibility and invisibility. Of mis-recognitions and being hyper-visible. I’ve been thinking of moments of presence, being and articulation. I’ve been thinking of how you make that space and how you own that space and how in this time of increasing antagonism to “others”, how when you are still living a life as an “other” in the place where you were born, when you are still perceived to be living in a place of “minority” status, when in fact you are part of the non-white “global majority.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot! How do you speak from this place? How do you declare yourself? Your presence? Your right to life? As Dr. Amit S. Rai proposes: “How do I claim my Right to Performance”?
In 2014, I started working with the sorryyoufeeluncomfortable collective on Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded and Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded II. Drawing its content from an excavation of the work of James Baldwin, through Horace Ove’s 1969 film, Baldwin’s Nigger, the project was an exploration of the speech Baldwin delivered the evening of the filming at the West Indian Student Centre in London, 1968. As record or document I think for me it was also important to note the context in which the speech was given and how the contexts of racism, American imperialism, war and more, intersected with the experiences of young Caribbean migrants living in London at that time. When there is an opportunity for the audience to ask questions, there is a provocative and speculative question to “Mr. Baldwin” from a woman who asks, “Where do you think the black man will be in 50 years or so?” 2014 was close to that 50 years and I suppose for me this felt like a good time to reflect on this question, and the film provided great material to think about where we were at as black and brown people, in the UK, in 2014. To ask questions of the institutions that were built to serve us. The country in which we live where people are no longer arriving, but settled, born here, two, three, even four generations removed from motherlands. So the film and the speech presented many questions and the work that came out of this questioning was what I would describe as a performative, collective study in the way that Fred Moten and Stefano Harney would think about ‘study’ as what you do with other people.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the things we do with other people as this forms a big part of my practice and I’d like to go to a moment in the speech given by Baldwin, where he describes his arrival as a visitor to Britain. He tells us of a visit to the British Museum, where he is asked where he's from by one of the West Indians working there. At the time of making the work, the newly formed sorryyoufeeluncomfortable were very struck by this repetition of the “Where are you from?” question, as they felt that they were often confronted with it. In fact this question very much informed the naming of the collective, having to deal with being asked to qualify who they were and to justify their presence, the discomfort of others at their presence being here despite the contentious relationship that Britain has with so many places in the world which in many ways informed their presence here. And after 50, even more, years this question is still asked, there is still a need for you to ask me my story of how I got here, but it's unbelievable to you that you have anything to do with my presence. "We are here, because you were there!" This is one of my most favourite quotes from the novelist and Emeritus Director of the Institute of Race Relations, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, who died earlier this year. It succinctly describes the deeply embedded relationship of my presence to yours.
Yup, I'm writing this with the assumption that most of the people that will read this blog post will be white. And in this country and in this field of art and performance, working locally and internationally, within arts institutions, festivals, biennales, wherever; in both public and private spaces I can almost always assume that my audience will be mostly white! And boy do I have some stories! An example back in 2002, when I took my Wig Therapy project to the City of Women in Ljubljana. I left my house at 4am to catch a 7am flight and almost as soon as I landed I was asked to give a talk about my work at the hairdressing school that loaned me the wig stands and other hair related things for my performance. There were no students at this talk. They weren't invited! It was just teaching and technical staff. It wasn't an easy talk. It was the first time I was giving a talk that was translated into a language I didn't have a vague sense of, and it was very hard to read the audience. In fact I would say most were bored! When it came to questions, I received my own very provocative and speculative question. "How did you get your hair to be like that?" .........................
That was quite a moment.
"I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found out I was an object in the midst of other objects." -- Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (Pluto Classics P.82)
So with all this grappling with visibility, invisibility and object positioning, how do you/me/I, claim my right to performance? I love this line from Dr Amit Rai's writings as he attempts to grapple with ideas of performance and rights. "A Right to Performance would engage the body's capacity to affect politics and sense the political." And being the recipient of the 2018 Library of Performing Rights Commission, I really appreciated the space afforded by this commission to contend with ".....radical politics in both space and method." That's me quoting Amit again. (I'm losing the formalities LOL.) Because actually, performance troubles me, particularly when, as in the moment in Ljubljana, I am often required to perform myself. In the arts, a supposed liberal space. 50 years after Horace Ove filmed James Baldwin in the West Indian Student Centre, at an event hosted by the Caribbean Artists Movement an interdisciplinary group of artists formed in 1966 to support each other as artists, to navigate this new environment, develop practice, discuss issues pertaining to their work, the context, times and society they were living and working in and generating knowledge not just of their practices but also the conditions in which these practices had been formed. They worked hard to presence themselves, as did those who came after and now we have the Creative Case for Diversity doing the job of making us hyper-visible and invisible all at once, because it can only contend with the representational fact of our visibility, hence reducing anyone who is not white, straight and male to object, as Fanon describes.
I'm interested in the fact that no work exists without its context. All work records or responds to its context in some way even that work which claims to be devoid of context. This relates to my trouble with performance. I studied Fine Art and troubled by the privilege of the visual in artistic practice and the discomfort felt about this, I needed to place my body in the frame of my work in order to trouble the passivity of looking. But then this became not enough for me and then the relationship with not just my physicality, but also audiences, people, "how do we relate to each other?" became a question for me, as a facet of my practice developed through working in gallery education and "community" engagement. I developed work with others and became known as an artist whose work was described as "socially engaged". This troubled me more. Socially Engaged? On Tate's website it is described as "...any art form which involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction." Damn, isn't that what we all attempt to do every day! The point of defining a practice as "Socially Engaged" is that the "art" engagement is somehow where the art is! What you might be attempting to explore, critique or explore with others seems a little lost!
But is the art enough? Is performance enough? Perhaps not for me, as over the years of developing my practice I have been thinking about those moments of relating and misunderstandings in the form of mis-recognitions. I've been thinking about place and what it means to be in this place, the journeys and connections that got me here. I am interested in discomforts, in histories, in transformation, visioning, grappling with what we have here in this world in this moment. All the ugliness and beauty. I am indeed, like Fanon, wanting to find out the "meaning of things" and the "source of the world" despite the fact that the world does not always deliver. I don't know if I am as romantic as to think that it's just for the sake of art that I do what I do. And so lately as much as I feel troubled by performance, the potential of performance, inside and outside of the frame, the potential of "space," "method," the political, I will also add time and presence, what Gail Lewis has explored in her article Questions of Presence (Feminist Review 117 2017), the different ways in which black women are visible and invisible, looking at “presence” as performance, “presence” as a holding of the self psychologically and “presence” as decolonial praxis. This is “presence” as political, as interruption, as unpredictable, as consequence, as a marker, as a map, as a document ……………...as a declaration! My Right to Performance!
The books and the video I have chosen for this month’s Unbound recommendations all touch on ideas of presencing, visibility and invisibility, disruptions, mis-recognitions, as transformation, as study as in doing things with other people, questioning the given order of things and more.
A View From Elsewhere
£6 / Original Price £8
I recently met Victoria in their studio and they gifted me this wonderful book that is personal, poetic and political. Exploring how scientific and evolutionary ideas have determined and inscribed ideas onto queer, gendered and racialised bodies, and how these ideas have social affect and hence consequences on personal experience and identification.
William Pope. L: The Friendliest Black Artist in America
Ed. Mark H Bessire
Last copy £21.95
For over 40 years THIS GUY has been messing with things, questioning things, disrupting things! In one of his bio’s, he says his goals for his work are joy, money and uncertainty! I can certainly relate.
The Bodies That Were Not Ours: And Other Writings
£20.24 / Original Price £26.99
I met Coco back in 2002 in Ljubljana. She was there for City of Women too! That year was the year of Women of Colour and along with many other women of colour from around the world we had some experiences! Anyway this collection of essays explore Coco’s writings, performances and more, through critical essays and interviews, with a contribution from my beloved friend and former tutor Jean Fisher.
Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba
£18.74 / Original Price £24.99
Coco again, this time bringing together this wonderful book that looks at performance practices in Cuba. Thinking about this book really connects to the quote I pulled from Amit’s thinking around The Right to Performance - the idea of the body and its political agency.
Exercises for Rebel Artists
Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes
£17.24 / Original Price £22.99
Having worked with and performed with Guillermo in the past, I can’t thank him enough for what this has gifted to my thinking and my practice! As a small gestural nod to this and the fierce work he has been doing exploring other bodies, border politics, pedagogies and more, I choose this book as I have fond memories of some of the crazy exercises we went through in workshops to devise works and explore critical and urgent questions.
In the Break
£12.38 / Original Price £16.50
I began this post with a quote from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons, so it seem right that I should select a book from Fred Moten on this list. Not the easiest of reads but Moten’s thinking that weaves between Black aesthetics through jazz and literature to western philosophical thought, considers the performance of blackness and is definitely a text to consider if you’re interested in black performance theory.
A Contemporary Struggle
Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley
£7.50 / Original Price £10
Jamila and Alexandrina have been doing some great work to push dance practice, as individuals and as collaborators, challenging perceptions of racialised and gendered bodies, exploring the gaze, relationships with audiences and institutions.
Empty Stages, Crowded Flats: Performativity as Curatorial Strategy
Eds. Florian Malzacher and Joanna Warsza
£8.24 / Original Price £10.99
I’ve only just discovered this book but it very much chimes with what I have been thinking about performance or rather performativity and its relationship to sociability. Particularly for someone like me who is really trying to grapple with the definitions applied to my practice. This is useful in examining other ways to critically address strategy, methodology and what is the role of contingency in artistic practice. Well it’s useful for me! It might be helpful for you too! <3