Presented at The What Should White Culture Do? Art, Politics, Race symposium, Royal College of Art, Saturday 11 November 2017, 12:30pm
Dear friends, let us remember Glissants words “Every time an individual or community attempts to define its place in it, even if this place is disputed, it helps blow the usual way of thinking off course, driving out the now weary rules of former classicisms, making new “follow-throughs” to chaos-monde possible”.
Understanding that the question What Should White Culture Do limits, negates, responsibility and accountability through the word SHOULD, I will speak about iterations of The Rainbow Tribe project, as a project that moves towards giving voice to a more democratic aesthetic, as an affectionate demand to address What Will White Culture Have To Do? I don’t want you thinking that my being here as your white Culture representative can alleviate the urgency of action. I want you to change the world. We need to start thinking exceptionally, as Stephanie Baptist said to me on Wednesday.
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]”https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
Alcoff in her article “What Should White People do?” is clear, suggesting there must be the “will to make significant sacrifices toward the eradication of white privilege”, adding “Part of white privilege has been precisely white’s ability to ignore the ways white racial identity has benefitted them.” In accordance with that sentiment Junot Diaz asserts that “it’ll take a lot to awaken those that have feasted well on our hegemonic structures.”
What collective strategies might we implement in resistance to structural racism and oppression? Morgan Quaintance in his e-flux article suggests refusal. How do we build to ensure our survival for refusal to work? In that case we need to consider collective refusal towards a level of joy. So where are our allies? Sandro Mezzadra suggests that “refusal is the origin of any politics of transformation.” The “No Surprise” letter suggests that we are solid, galvanized feminists, but for the letter to impact our real and daily situations we require real structural change, and that too has to be done collectively. Alcoff cites Gloria joseph who “also argues that white women are both tools and benefactors of racism, and that feminists must recognize and address white women’s social position as both oppressors and oppressed.” I continue to operate under the normalised structures that the letter describes. I am reliant on my body being objectified in ways that blur the personal and professional environment to a point that my sanity is tested beyond limits. As Claudia Rankine poetically recognizes in Citizen “The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much to you.“
As Joseph Beuys pointed out “The next phase will involve the whole of mankind in the process of education.” We require an overhaul of our national curriculum. I was sent a link yesterday to a petition calling for black history to be taught in schools, in contrast to the histories told by the victors, the histories that have been undermined, silenced and buried, these histories require unleashing, shaking out.
I learnt nothing of our colonial and imperial histories at school. Richard Appingnanesi posits “…art history workshops should be programmed to acquaint the young with the culturally diverse knowledge production embedded in art history. We cannot stress enough how important it is to begin at the earliest age with a culturally inclusive view of society, with a wide horizon of knowledge, and a basic philosophy that can embrace the world with open-minded wonder. This is not simply ‘art appreciation’ but a profoundly invested exercise in civic imagination.”
My school experiences were many and I was labelled a school refuser. From this outsider position I could observe varying principles and ethos upheld by these guiding institutions, I could compare curricular in terms of their religiosity and moralising or absence of, begin noticing what a later learnt was an ethics of conduct; I attended Methodist, High Church of England and secular private and public schools.
Connecting the school experience was the isolating, exoticising fact of my presence, and whilst this could antagonise pupils and teachers through non adherence to their systems of hierarchical categorisation and expected subordination that supported a sense of belonging through totalising taxonomies, there was never a condescension towards either placing my body within a history of imperialist expansion or a recognition of contemporary black lived realities.
I lived conveniently in a white bubble, the “racialized legitimation of “Western civilisation” and the purported superiority of all things European”. We require an overhaul of our art historical canon. Glissant notes in Poetics of Relation that “Standardisation of taste is “managed” by the industrial powers.”
At Courtauld where I studied art history I was a self-proclaimed token and the art history taught there, skewered to the point of erasing anything other than a white male European perspective of history, allowed a personal disavowal of an identity that would have benefitted from seeing and hearing from a multiplicity of voices. Instead the course reinforced a fractured, vulnerable identity already indoctrinated by a white male gaze.
We face the fact that our cultural and educational institutions are echo chambers for the white middle classes. Barby Asante, I understand from reading facebook, describes culture as a weapon, stating that “if it wasn’t a weapon we would all have access to it.”
bel hooks reinforces this in “Black Looks” “…control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination….for black people, the pain of learning that we cannot control our images, how we see ourselves (if our vision is not decolonized), or how we are seen is so intense that it rends us. It rips us and tears at the seams of our efforts to construct self and identity. Often it leaves us ravaged by repressed rage, feeling weary, dispirited, and sometimes just plain broken-hearted. These are the gaps in our psyche that are the spaces where mindless complicity, self-destructive rage, hatred and paralyzing despair enter.” Griselda Pollock advocates a shift in the language promulgated within our cultural institutions and organisations and asks “Why are we still merely ‘correcting’ such radical imbalance with token additions? Do we need to grapple more profoundly with the structural racism and sexism of our culture and the way our cultural institutions performatively maintain whiteness and masculinity as norms?”
We require institutions, galleries, organisations, universities to embed care packages including racial justice training within their structures as standard, incorporating a code of conduct that with immediate effect brings about new equitable working environments, gender parity, racial equality, access. In a quote taken from Third Text’s Case For Diversity In Britain “It cannot be denied that art is embroiled in the ‘culture industry’ shaped by the twinning of market forces and state policy, the very essence of neoliberal capitalism, bonded to Private Public Partnerships” Richard Appingnanesi in the same document goes on to say “Artistic labour does not have a productive price that can be measured by an industrial output of marketable goods with a per unit profit. The artist has no control on the market price of artworks, insanely high for some, little or nothing for others, because artworks are not strictly commodities, and the artist has no wage-bargaining power that unions can use to negotiate with employers. Art has no use value, in Marx’s terms, but is a purely imaginary deposit of surplus value realisable only in cultural evolution.” Which reminds me to look at the organisation WAGE – a US model, the acronym standing for Working Artists in the Greater Economy.
As anxiety takes a hold, and we face an increase of violence, white-supremacist rhetoric, a patriarchy that won’t let go, heads of states that don’t recognise the humanity of difference, I’d like to quickly point out that the watercolour that was used to publicise the symposium, I’d always be sure, is of a white man who is haunted by the violence that ensued as a consequence of his educating at a youth camp organised by the youth league of the governing social democratic Labour Party. These are the eyes of the man whose lips are illustrated on the poster. On 22nd July 2011 Anders Breivick massacred 77 people, mostly teenage socialists, on an island in Norway. His actions were “the result of the political mainstreaming of pernicious racist and Islamophobic discourses.” (Sindre Bangstad) These Watercolours are of surviving teacher, Erik Pedersen.
What else will white Culture have to do? We require an emphasis on making clear and visible the circuits between energy source and our use of energy, as we face environmental catastrophe. The earth is vulnerable. This performance to camera filmed by Webb-Ellis called Clay is about humans gouging the earth, humans being gouged from the earth, about rebuilding and the vulnerability we face in attempting to do this in isolation. What will white culture have to do? Listen and act on what it is hearing. My understanding is that our plurality, our shared responsibility outweighs an emphasis on individualism that is a pervasive societal norm. I can recommend Reni Eddo Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” because it speaks clearly about the deflecting responsibility of structural oppression back onto the oppressed.
This year I have worked with 8 artists on a programme called Holding Space, where we come together every month for two days, where I began to expand my knowledge of colonial administrative processes, which this programme emphasises at its core. After each session I re-entered my all white spaces, including the semi personal professional ones alluded to above, attempted to speak about decolonisation and I am subsequently still recovering from the explosions that ensued and the punishment that continues from speaking about this taboo subjects. Reni Eddo lodge thinks “that it is quite easy for people to wriggle out of institutional racism because they’re like ‘well, it’s nothing to do with me’. But structures really are made out of people. We are all are participating in it. Its embedded in institutions and small organisations like our families and friendship groups that then reproduce racism on a massive scale.” What this book has the potential to do is allow reflection writ large. We must all share the politics of representation.
The reason I love this book so much is that it speaks from a uk context. An enlightening conversation with Jack Tan made clear that our histories, our black British histories are distinct from our African American comrades. The worrying thing with the homogenisation of American culture is that by attempting to challenge racism in the uk by focusing on the African American experience we miss the particular British white racism and addressing it in a bespoke way. The risk is our whites adopting or performing US white racism. Our challenge is to look at our Imperial history and the economic rationale for maintaining structural racism. Eddo-Lodge points out that the Black British story is“starved of oxygen”, a story eclipsed, a deliberate attempt at keeping people ignorant about our colonial and imperial histories and the implications these have on culture and politics today. “What this does to the subjugated is distort our sense of reality.”
I have spent all my life 9 miles West of Scarborough town: in a house with generated electricity, it’s own spring, gas lights, not a neighbour in sight. I came to live here through my mother’s marriage to a local solicitor and country farmer whose family had bought the land without knowing the properties on it existed. The land was used by him and his brother, an international arms-dealer as a playground to blow and shoot shit up. Following divorce my mother retained a house and attempts to maintain it as a sort of home. It is an island amidst territory. For 23 years I lived under the care of this man who had grown up on the outskirts of Leeds, completed his law degree at Leeds University, and acted as duty solicitor at West Yorkshire Police, at the time that Jimmy Saville, also living in Scarborough and Leeds was, to the knowledge of the whole town in the case of Scarborough, allowed to abuse his status and was celebrated for it. I am the bastard child of dual heritage, not yet having met my biological father, who was incarcerated during my mother’s pregnancy. My Mothers ex husband (who died last year) would reserve fearful stories of class, gender and racial marginalisation and inequalities for my ears alone. One of the haunting stories he would retell might be thought of as in parallel with Rasheed Araeen’s “For Oluwale”. I cite this work because these cultural histories, painfully memorialised through art making, need to be made center stage. We need a Soul Of A Nation from a British context, we need exhibitions by our British Museum, our British Library our Tate Britain on our imperial and colonial histories, the legacies, curated by and focusing on those that speak from the margins. Back to the story, my mother’s ex-husband would refer to a young black man who was taken to the cells at West Yorkshire Police station whilst he was on duty. He described to me, always in private, how this young black man was beaten fatally, with all traces of his arrest and death consequently erased. Whether this account was true or not remains contested. My idea stemming from this story is to create a collective work, looking to the work of Rasheed Araeen and his ideas for a futurity, that envisions a collectivity inserting guerrilla memorialisation, breaking down barriers of participation within an institutional context. Rather than attempting to uncover truths behind this violent image of black death and the very clear message that black lives are disposable, implanted at a very early age, the idea is to discuss incarceration in its most expansive sense in terms of racism, imperialism and institutional domination, evasions, excuses and cover-ups, trauma and collective memory from personal experience and accounts, and translating them into actions for innovation, creativity and productivity. How might the question posed by Stuart Hall “From where does he/she speak?” expand the methodological role and function of culture? “For Oluwale” is a four panel work made after Araeen learnt about the death of the Nigerian migrant David Oluwale, who drowned in the River Aire in Leeds following continual police harassment. A subsequent criminal investigation resulted in the first-ever police prosecution of British police officers in relation to the death of a black person. Today we must remember Sarah Reed and the very many others killed by the same structures that are supposed to be protecting. We must act towards shaping a society that does not profit by the relentless policing of our Black communities.
“…it is justice that turns memory into a project, and it is this same project of justice that gives the form of the future and of the imperative to the duty of memory.” Paul Ricoeur
One iteration of The Rainbow Tribe Project which began collaboratively with Ria Hartley is The Rainbow Tribe: Affectionate Movement The workshop was initiated by the exclusively online enquiry of what “affectionate movement” has the potential to be within existing systems and movements.
An iteration that has branched off from this is a project entitled From A Creative Case To An Ecology of Care, in collaboration with Daniella Valz Gen, Alberta Whittle, Noa Carjaval and nicholas Tee. Following three public facing outcomes to this research in practice project what has been highlighted are the difficulties in establishing dialogues when the go-to discourse is highly individualized. We feel an imperative to centre care and are currently navigating the difficulties around that while holding the complexities that we face as artists making work.
The umbrella project’s title The Rainbow Tribe’s is taken from Josephine Baker’s pivotal 20th-century experiment ‘The Rainbow Tribe’ in which a group of 12 ethnically-diverse children were adopted by Baker. The project explores Baker’s fairytale-like ideas of a modern mixed-race family in the climate of global 21st-century issues surrounding cultural diversity and political freedom within the context of the Imperial movement. Ann Anlin Cheng argues that “”The “Rainbow Tribe”…as a collection of children of different races teeters uneasily between a bold dream of diversity and disquieting repetition of Imperial desire.” Baker’s family experiment was her flawed, solution to a global problem – how to transcend race. This liberal gesture, as identified by Cheng, (for both Baker and since) is not free from imperialist desires. The Rainbow Tribe project defines itself as a “cultural mix of peoples” who are “advocates of free movement”. The Rainbow Tribe project questions our collective agency, responsibility and commitment as global participants on a worldwide stage.
My art practice explores how Baker was appropriated by oppressors as a racialized symbol to serve a paternalistic agenda of apparent sympathy with the plight of the oppressed. This theoretical model, developed by Glissant (through his analysis of the way in which Nelson Mandela was appropriated), situates Baker as a “hero,” in Glissant’s terms, an “écho-monde” in western discourses, likewise therefore, symbolising the causes of oppressive powers: “Oppressive powers know this very well and attempt to incite “heroes”, whether real or mythic, to symbolise their causes. Thus there appear pseudo écho-monde, which Western opinion has apparently become expert at creating.” . Baker’s work was thus admired and applauded by the Peron regime and the French Resistance. Notwithstanding, Baker emerged from colonial and segregation contexts, utilised her celebrity status for humanitarian needs, and was subsequently courted by the Civil Rights Movement. My initial research on Josephine Baker included an enquiry into the balance between how she enabled control of her body and persona, the representations and possible manipulations of her body and an unapologetic quest for equality and freedom.
I have developed a personal interest in Baker as a dislocated self-styled woman longing to make sense of the constructs under which she was born. As a postcolonial subject working from a North Yorkshire town I can draw from a fractured and erased biography; perpetually attempting to define place in community, shaped by experiences of cultural violence, nationalistic chauvinism, racism and xenophobia, coercion, and rejection.
FUN TIMES! 🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈
Dionne Brand captures this liminal, fractured, disjointed space, which also serves to question cultural values, expectations and limitations: “To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction – a creation of empires, and also self creation. It is to be a being living inside and outside of herself. It is to apprehend the sign one makes yet be unable to escape it except in radiant moments of ordinariness made like art.”
The North Yorkshire rural landscape is I understand one scarred by borders, a testimony to territorial ownership; yet, I seek sanctuary within it. The project instigates conversations through practice from this personal understanding of the North Yorkshire rural landscape; and from my indeterminate history of migration stemming from my Irish and Welsh, Chinese and Montserratian ancestry.
The aims of creative work issuing from The Rainbow Tribe lead to investigating the idea of choreographed bodies and bodies in movement: ownership, representations and manipulations of the body; equality and freedom of expression, speech, movement, to actively participate as community, recalling and exploring through creative practice, and this quotation, again by Glissant, articulates this possibility: “This movement allows giving-on-and-with the dialectic among aesthetics.” My praxis is radical praxis which hopes to echo Josephine Baker’s radical praxis. The project straddles the thresholds of race, class, gender and globalisation, recognising that these elements are all in constant movement and flux. The Rainbow Tribe project can respond to the one, my one, point in time, again recognising that all is in flux. My job as a creative practitioner is to feel it, research it and present it. The Rainbow Tribe project is an exchange between the Black Atlantic/Black Diaspora and the North of England and the liminal space that I operate in, creatively. We might think of Josephine Baker’s “Rainbow Tribe” as an orphanage and by extension, through this contemporary project, Black Britain as an orphaned group: Where is my, and by implication where is the Othered body’s, space and place?
As Stuart Hall notes, “‘identity is not in the past to be found, but in the future to be constructed’’ What should white Culture Do? Be ready to construct existing identities anew and create structures that Centre the celebration, care, warmth, and a real understanding of difference.
In the words of Malcolm X “We have to change our own mind….We’ve got to change our own minds about each other. We have to see each other with new eyes. We have to come together with warmth.”