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The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes
Before I ever stepped foot in a 'proper' gallery or museum, I was already accustomed to how them spaces are set up and function, even though bare of these institutions never particularly had me or my experiences in mind upon their inception. Being a black working class woman, I exist on the peripheries, in the shadows of British society. It's scarily likely that you might not see me or my experiences portrayed at all, let alone wholesomely in our visual culture or art history. Me and my kind have been here making noise for a minute now though. I was born and raised in London, amongst an entire network of established art spaces – similar to how the Tate is a 'family' of four buildings dedicated to one central artistic vision. I'll focus on our capital city's working class landscapes though, as I tell you how black homes were the first galleries I knew.
Every Afro-Caribbean family probably has a pile of photo albums stacked somewhere nondescript, but these objects are special. As our official archives, these collections of amateur point-and-shoot pictures, taken for us and by us, represent our individual and collective histories in Britain more accurately, sensitively and tangibly than anything else. I remember going through all these rectangular film photos with my mother and aunties and cousins as a yute – I still do now – seeing where they lived when they first come over; what so and so looked like way back when; who their friends and neighbours was; how people used to dress day to day or on the way to functions like all-dayers and hall parties. Our makeshift archives were always accessible – never obscure or out of reach.
Beyond a biro scrawl of a year and location on the back of some photos, the only detailed information we got about how we came to be British kids by way of 'back home' came from our relatives-cumarchivists. They always entertained our curiosity, lest we forget who we are, indulging in pensive reminiscence upon our bombarding inquisitions like 'Who took this?' and 'How old were you then?' and 'What's this and that person's name?' We must've given them headaches, but oral history is ingrained in myriad African and diasporic cultures. We learnt to vocalise our thoughts about visual media long before we started stepping in white cube galleries, wondering why nobody laughs out loud or runs their mouths in there. I learnt about the intimacy and necessity of capturing and telling history as it is made, in black homes. I learnt how to curate a solid ontological narrative in order to stand up tall in my knowledge of self, in black homes.
My first galleries are evolving though, in accordance with developments in technology and social media. My upbringing was recorded on camcorders and VHS tapes, which the family watched gathered around lo-fi TVs. These days, flickers of my little cousins' first milestones get consumed in the vortexes of Facebook feeds and Snapchat stories. Front cameras rather than film photos shall affirm their visibility now and forever, since the future is literally in their hands, in the rectangular shapes of smartphones and tablets. The Internet is an Access All Areas pass into bare different worlds now, exposing and transforming how people see themselves and each other. This is an incredible power to take advantage of to challenge and affect social issues, especially when they intersect.
Tania Nwachukwu and Jojo Sonubi are two young Londoners who clocked this, so they founded a submission-based online archive called Black In The Day in July 2016. People upload scanned pictures from their family albums online, proving that Black Britons have existed all over this land, from Southwark to Scunthorpe for time, and our experiences are not monolithic. Black In The Day's social, educational and political impacts unfold with every move they make, from projecting images from their ever-growing archive on Tate Britain's walls; to speaking about the project with the artist Ashley Holmes at Site Gallery in Sheffield; to hosting #ScanningSocials at East London's black-owned chocolate shop Dark Sugars and galleries including the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), where people socialise and dance as the Black In The Day team scan your family photos. This is part of what the artist Jacob V Joyce identified in their 2017 Ted Talk as a cultural renaissance currently occurring in Britain. There is a movement of individuals and collectives building a solid bridge across the gaping gap between black communities and arts institutions, so that when we work in or visit these typically white, middle class spaces, we won't always have to jump across it only to stick out like a unslicked baby hair.
Alienation fully occurs when you touch a exhibition for whatever reason, only to feel eyes all on you like say you was mounted on them white walls yourself. How we look and how we are seen and received and othered as working class people can induce anxiety you know. When we feel cool and comfortable and creative, you call us 'ghetto' and 'chavvy'. Tracksuits and headscarves and big badgyal earrings don't always mean trouble you know, but they get read as intimidating if you also wear the double burden of being black and proletariat. Apparently, art was never meant to be a privilege reserved for our fiscal or temporal indulgence.
Capitalism would rather we remain preoccupied with our superficial image. But little does it know, as we stack and line our Adidas and Nike shoeboxes in our bedrooms, little working class kids with arguably low aspirations, ah so it go, are, essentially, unknowingly experimenting with sculptural forms. We might turn to illegal moneymaking methods and stash pink and purple paper in these cardboard boxes, attracting unprepared-for group visits by legions of feds, who are hungry to acquire such objects for their private collection. Without warning, they performatively run up and buss your front door to make unnecessarily noizy arrests. Off-site light installations of flashing, fluorescent, familiar red and blue soon ensue, communicating in code what working class life can be. Bodies become exhibits in prison cells like zoos, in exchange for their freedom to be visually, mentally stimulated, which they probably wasn't anyways if they hailed from industrial, bleak gutters like mine.
This is where that whole eye of the beholder thing comes through, though. The textures and sounds and colour palettes of the interiors and environs of many black homes in Britain are actually wicked stimuli you know. Samuel Ross is a multidisciplinary creative director, designer and filmmaker who's gone clear. His urban luxury label A-Cold-Wall has been referencing working class experiences and culture in Britain through fabric, ideas and semiotics since its inception. It gets more nuanced with every collection and their accompanying installations in the shops they are stocked in, from high end Harvey Nichols in London and Barneys in New York, to niche lickle shops in Tokyo and Rotterdam. Wherever he goes, Sam don't forget his upbringing as a poor black boy from ends and I love that. Growing up in-between London and Northampton, he was uniformly blacked out in Nike all day, listening to the grimiest music made by people not unlike him. He went from getting up to no good as well as being on the brutal end of a skinhead's boot, to graduating from university in the Midlands, like bare black kids are doing these days – some of whom credit him as a role model. Ain't it a madness how my man's gone from getting charged for grievous bodily harm to being dubbed by Dazed and Confused as 'British fashion's next working class hero'? Samuel Ross embodies the concept that black homes are galleries from whence one can go forth and tun the badness them experience or succumb to, in or around there, into something glorious.
When I look at A-Cold-Wall's clothes, I see the colours and textures of the blue plastic bags bossman gives me at the cornershop. I take them home and stuff them in my kitchen cupboard and tie them round my head when it rains and I don't got an umbrella. The electric blue polystyrene ends up entangled and blown about in the branches of bony trees, eye-level outside my second-floor flat window. A-Cold-Wall references Aunty Anna's white lace curtains that billowed in the breeze when I'd go stay at hers in the summer holidays to give Mummy a break too. A-Cold-Wall is coloured by concrete, pebble dash walls and spray-paint graffiti, translating it all into grandeur somehow. The campaigns are always shot so striking, with their gully futurism. The posture and positioning of the models, who are beautiful in Samuel's way rather than the industry's, remind me of objects and images displayed in the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, black homes. Samuel Ross has spoken about 'dusty glassware and crowded china – that shit you could never touch' that rarely comes outta them glass cabinets at the back of the front room. 'Do not touch the items on display' is always a tempting sign in galleries, but we are used to such rules from the days when we woulda got duppied by our mothers if they caught us even looking at that crockery too long.
My family is very much matriarchal. I am used to women's presence being acknowledged and exalted in the imagery around me. Colourful wall hangings and wooden carvings detail the long necks and saggy breasts and big bums of African women like the ones I come from, assigned the precious status they were crafted with when displayed and arranged with pride. Meanwhile, 'borrowed' artefacts from all over the continent live in limbo in the public and private collections of our European colonisers. In the homes we came to occupy here, we have had to visually and materially cultivate manifestations of our values, at times in line with and at others in resistance to the colonial ideas which essentially led to us ever becoming 'British'.
Gold frames adorn my nana's corridor, bedrooms and sitting room, but there is a distinction between the pictures in black and white and those in colour, simply down to where and when they was taken. The former ones got posed for in studios in Uganda, as was common practice all over 20th century Africa. A trilogy of them flew with the grace of Ugandan cranes to a wall in Nana's living room to communicate the beginnings of her life as a mother. First comes a photo of her wearing clogs and a pretty dress in 1977, heavily pregnant and standing alone except for a vase of tulips on a plinth. Not long after, the middle picture was captured of her and her younger sister, standing on either side of my seated great-grandmother who everyone called Ayaa, in whose arms are these two babies bathed in blankets who you can barely see. In the last frame, the twins are able to stand now. Their light skin looks so different next to Nana's northern Ugandan darkness, and my Pakistani granddad was never in the picture for anyone to see my mum and her brother's likeness to him.
I was raised in a network of art spaces. That's why the fourth picture in this sequence is on display in the corner of my mum's living room. She and her brother and her cousin are standing by their seated nanny, who they came to think was their mother, since Nana was busy working and raving and living in neighbouring countries in exile for most of their childhood. By the end of the next decade though, Nana and her twins came to England as political refugees, as a result of historical British interference in Ugandan affairs. They first shared a room with an Eritrean family in a similar predicament in a hostel, then viewed different flats around the South London borough of Lambeth, until settling for a fourth floor flat in Kennington. Current affairs will tell you how hostile and precarious immigrant experiences of Britain can be, so to secure a home is a mad milestone. Almost automatically you gotta adopt a working class life, whether you had one or not back home, in order to maintain what you have so graciously been granted – so it's only right that you then beautify your house until it is a home, with whatever means you have. Nana's flat was barely furnished when she first came here with her kids, but 30 years later it looks as lived in as it has been. Visual reminders of where the family comes from and how to carry ourselves stand firm on display in the galleries we have to make of our homes, lest we assimilate so much we disappear.
Part of my mum's permanent collection is a hand-hammered copper sculpture from Congo, gifted from the same don who gave her three kids but couldn't maintain a constant presence in their lives. Her curation has hung a lickle instrument she brought home from a trip to Uganda over one corner of it, and positioned the object next to the collection of CDs and DVDs of Congolese music my parents built together. It tells you about how they first met at a Congolese concert in London in the mid-'90s, as well as my own relationship with this man who toggled between physically absent and toxically present in my childhood. I remember him fucking off to Congo for a few years while I was in primary school yeah. When he come back now, he's brought this bronze-coloured copper ting of a topless man walking through his village with a knife and some sort of pouch on him like some any road yute, except he's got some fish hanging off some rod over his shoulder init. He's stood next to me now telling me it's him, and I just accept it as fact yeah, forgetting he lies, but all I could wonder was why my man looked so sad. My dad's from a place in Congo called Bandundu where the people apparently fish for tilapia.
One night, we was talking for time while my mother and brothers slept. Sky Sports mumbled in the background as he told me folk tales about the famous Queen Nzinga, and how people used to use this drum called a lokole to spread news through a specific sound system from town to town. It was so different to the regular rowdy and drunken discussions the uncles hilariously have at any given family link up, going round and round and nowhere about African politics and presidents and religion, until the sky goes blacker than us. I felt like I'd walked into a programmed talk at a Friday Late event at some next gallery about my heritage by accident. Just listening, I sat on the sofa of my black home which has been a haven for all kinds of conversations and performance pieces, mediating my identity as a Black British girl and a African one in a way I'd never had the headspace to before. My normal Clore Learning Studios are the bedrooms and kitchens and balconies where I laugh and gossip and see all kinds of madness and sweetness and nothingness with my aunties, my bredrins, my cousins. The first galleries I knew were black homes, big man ting.
Don't insult us with the label of culturally deprived because of the financial state of our communities here. We dun know already about art and heritage and all them things there, you get me? The art world is still set up way too elitist, bare moving like say race and class maladies ain't indelibly, historically ingrained in British culture and society. We haffi mash it up, then collectively build it back badder and better from the debris, whichever side of its white walls we're posted on – then we can gwan paint the ting rosy red, black art an' done.
'IT IS A STRIDE ALONG THE ROAD TO "SOMBODYNESS" FOR THE BLACK COMMUNITY.'
– Black Art An' Done Exhibition Handout, June 1981.CHAPTER 2
The Pleasure Button: Low Income Food Inequality
Treats, when I was growing up, were true to the word. It's only now, as an adult with my own disposable income, I can overindulge in them, and render what was once rare and special, routine.
A hole in the wall pizza place in a neighbouring town was a particular joy metered out on uneven paydays. My mum would drive up to it and order. She'd have a pizza, loaded with mushrooms and ham, peculiar with pineapple, but I'd get a crisp baked potato to suit my plainer palate. The cardboard box and polystyrene container that emerged steaming from the counter, with a little round tub for the cheese and its matching little round opaque lid, contained riches of butter and salt. Memory mixes the taste of the food with the papery smell of the card and plastic packaging, and the feel of picking up food from inside it with salt-grained, grease-licked fingers. Taking it home, we might sit cross-legged on the floor to eat it: a small party.
Similarly, tea from a polystyrene cup meant being on holiday, buying one from the counter of a sizzling burger van, usually parked on a tarmac car park near a sodden beach, whilst en route to a caravan to listen to the same rain patter on the roof. Or, sometimes, not always, having the coins in my pocket to buy a hot drink from the canteen in the arcade market where, at 14 years old, I sold hair scrunchies, three garish ones for a pound (often picked as local football colours and worn stacked one atop the other, an earnest '90s/'00s scheme style now adopted by insouciant middle class art school kids. I, a council estate goth, stuck to solitary red velvet, which better matched a concrete backdrop not yet popularised by this decade's resurgence of think pieces on Brutalism). I'd bite circles into the foamy edges like overlapping flower petals with stupid sugary glee, and my grandfather would tell me not to eat the cup too whilst he fixed watch batteries nearby.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Know Your Place"
Copyright © 2017 Nathan Connolly.
Excerpted by permission of Cinder House Publishing Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes Abondance Matanda,
The Pleasure Button Laura Waddell,
More Than Just a Dream Land Yvonne Singh,
The Death of a Pub Dominic Grace,
Britain's Invisible Black Middle Class Sylvia Arthur,
An Open Invitation Kit de Waal,
Navigating Space Durre Shahwar Mughal,
The Benefit Cuts Sam Mills,
One of Us Andrew McMillan,
Glass Windows and Glass Ceilings Wally Jiagoo,
Heroes Catherine O'Flynn,
Disguised Malicious Murder Rebecca Winson,
Where There's Shit, There's Gold Ben Gwalchmai,
The Housework Issue Cath Bore,
Living on an Estate Gave me a Community I Never Knew I Needed Gena-mour Barrett,
Hop Picking: Forging a Path on the Edgelands of Fiction Lee Rourke,
Reclaiming the Vulgar Kath McKay,
The Wrong Frequency Kate Fox,
The Immigrant of Narborough Road Alexandros Plasatis,
Education, Education, Education Peter Sutton,
Growing Up Outside Class Sian Norris,
What Colour is a Chameleon? Rym Kechacha,
You're Not Working Class Nathan Connolly,