BBZ 2019 GRADUATE SHOW: FROM LONELINESS INTO ABUNDANCE
September 16, 2019
“To graduate as a Black, queer artist, is to understand that your educational achievements may not always be celebrated or understood.” – BBZ Alternative Grad Show 2019 exhibition text
By the time I graduated (sort of) from arts school, having studied Contemporary Performance Practice at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland I had been told to make work about my absent Black father, been wrapped up in bandages and carried across the stage “because you know, ancient Egypt,” been mistaken for the only other Black student in the entire college on a daily basis, had to create freeze frames of “what it was like when white soldiers came to my village in Africa to steal me away” and asked to stand on a chair in an all-white class, whilst my peer auctioned me off as a slave. When I questioned any of this, I was told it was my fault, that I was struggling, that I was being difficult, disrespectful and my grades suffered accordingly. By the time I left art school, I had decided never to perform again for an all/majority-white audience. At that time, this meant never performing again.
Seven years later I walk into the Copeland Gallery in the middle of the contentious space that is Bussey Building in the heart of still here/gentrifying/holding on/reclaimed/occupied/white-washed Peckham. I walk into a courtyard full of friends and colleagues and artists I know the name of and have been fangurling for several years; full of strangers who look like family, like kin. I walk into a gallery full of interdisciplinary work that begins to, in slow — at times tentative, at times bold but always unapologetic brush strokes and poems and images and materials spilling out all over the floor — unpack what it is to be a Black queer artist in London in 2019. I think about what is now possible because of organisers like BBZ, and artists like those featured, building on the shoulders of so many amazing QTIBPOC artists who have come and fought and made art before us. Made manifest in Favour J’s “Divinity,” towering like the lineage I wanted to feel when I went to watch Black Panther and we took up three whole rows, like the possibility of an army of Black folx, like the dream of a Black queer futurity, of an inter-species alliance, of a multi-species justice; I feel I am in the presence of ancestors.
Now in its second year, the BBZ Alternative Grad Show with guest curator Deborah Joyce Holman takes up an exquisite amount of space. A gallery that could have taken a group show of twice as many artists all crammed in together, instead breathes thrummingly with a contagious meditation creating pockets of focus around each art work so that even at the opening, where you can rarely see the art anyway, you’re pulled in, seduced, enraptured. Packed and buzzing, bubbles flowing, bodies talking humming and vibrating with presence. Ten years ago I couldn’t imagine being in such a space, graduating into such an environment. I am filled with excitement at what can be catalysed in a space created FUBU, I am filled with anticipation for what these artists might achieve in a still predominantly white commercial art world with this community and validation behind them.
“at first all you did was drift immersed in the space of unknowing” – Ebun Sodipo “in the thick of it” (2019)
The word/lds of Ebun Sodipo sweep me up mid-sentence as soon as I enter the space, so that I am forced to stop my conversation and scan the wall, engrossed. Eyes traverse the non-linear fragments of text, making a sort of imperfect whole. They fill some of the holes inside me, the pieces leftover by violence and love, the pieces I can’t live with or without. The beautifully composed (if perpetually falling apart) red, pink and white newspaper elaborates: “Their [Sodipo’s] work speaks to the loss, despair, frustration and trauma present in the histories of Black, gender and non-confirming bodies living through racial capitalism and the end of the world.” As a science fiction writer, climate change researcher and member of earth’s inhabitants in 2019, these are all concepts as familiar to me as my bones. Rather than the increasingly expensive return to minimalism I’ve seen across the Black art world in response to these times (such as artist Faisal Abdu’Allah’s 24k gold barbershop chair complete with a set of barber’s clippers and a gold-plated bust of himself in an otherwise empty black room), there is a plasticity, an unfettered excess and an unabashed sort of exposure running throughout each of the works.
Take for example two particular favourites: Kengy’s “Heal and Adorn (3)”, and Davinia-Ann Robinson’s “Plasticised Sensation.” Kengy’s photograph features thick buttocks and backs of thighs, flesh in excess rippling and rebounding, resisting instistances of tone, shade, size or cellulite. Her work invokes a canon of sexually deviant photographers and image-makers: Lola Flash, Ajamu X and others. Ajamu was himself present at the opening, trailing hints of leather around curtained corridors, generations of subversive aesthetics coalesce. Flesh and colour in excess, the buttocks are backed by a brilliant red square and I am struck in wonderment at how “not allowed” it feels: Black nudity and red. Red the colour of blood and sex and new life, of menstruation and danger and dissidence, of aberrance and aberration. Abominations come back to seduce and make-sacred, an incantation of space — making, reclamation, reparations. Affirmation drums deep and sure where before they may have seemed unutterable. And then, not two steps to the left, spreading orgasmically across stone and silence, honey and varnish lubricates a whisper, braiding consumations between each of the works in the show: Robinson’s “Plasticised Sensation.” Like molasses dripping from a bird-box, suspended in time and questioning. Pleasurable sensations with a sinister undertone: Black bodies swinging from Magnolia trees, labour and sugar plantations preserved, lacquered in turpentine, a bird-box: a house possessed by the angered spirit of a baby, Duppy plasma come back to haunt, to force us to remember, sweet to the point of sickness, of fever dreams rotted, decomposing. Except, of course, plastic will not decompose, it just transforms. Leaking toxins.
“your vessel began to unravel in the rolling expanse” – Ebun Sodipo “in the thick of it” (2019)
My notes read:
Deform the animation machine [and “Is it a coincidence that most of their friends and wives are white”? As the Sims music triggers childhood, body shaming, striving to assimilate, surrounded by whiteness and a blackness I couldn’t touch that wasn’t meant for me, [read: wasn’t meant for any of us].
‘Everything trips you up in a different kind of way.’
I love these carabiner hooks — Caribana hooks? Just can’t stop tapping my feet, re-thinking illustrations of Emory Douglas, Black Panther and Charles White [who wrote “Art must be an integral part of the struggle.” We’re all struggling for this life] Linda Nwachukwu’s “Got Life!”
Dear White People: we’re still fucking here. Journeying through digital interventions, body-mapping, Black/post-Black representations in reality TV and that thing they call our entertainment, a girl outside a nationalist pub that just keeps on dancing; through lands of tiny brown hands, brush strokes on glass, canvass and potential. I enter Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s room of installations and performance right at the start of “Digging For Black Trans Life.” Static discordance meets me. Endless questions and apologies and a listless looking, “losing my way” Brathwaite-Shirley moans through a microphone boozy with static, “I’m sorry we buried you.” I wonder if it is they who is doing the burial.
A coffin full of plastic flowers and rubber tubes invoke Zanele Muholi’s work with rubber: Basizeni XI named for their late sister, and the same bike tire inner-tubes wrapped around their neck and body, tires that in apartheid South Africa might be filled with gasoline, wrapped around accused traitors and lit on fire. Their interactive performance collaborator: a VR game projection questions their trauma: a host feeding off of that which it perceives a parasite. The dark curtained-off room looks and smells like combat wear, lazer tag, fangs, leather gloves and afros. Effigies of trans masks that may have gone before, and may come after. I think of the exhibition text for IncarNations: African Art as Philosophy created by South African artist Kendell Geers and Congolese collector Sinkika Dokolo at BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts in Belgium: ‘In order to understand art, it is important to apprehend the work’s context, including its spiritual context. An African mask, for example, created to bring about a symbolic transformation, allowed its wearer to incarnate a deity. This same spiritual strength is embodied in both classical and contemporary works.’ What might a BBZ Alternative Grad Show philosophy read like? What trans deity’s is Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley incarnating? Can they chaperone trans life from violence to nirvana? Do they walk to the the performers mantra: “Black life = Black love” ?
“you desire an end” – Ebun Sodipo “in the thick of it” (2019)
There are many ends I have desired, small and big and everything. In this show I desire an end to un-safety, the way that our very souls are made unsafe when we try to create art. That who and how we fuck, what we wear, where we’re from, our accents and our gods mean the world has decided what kind of art we’re allowed to make before we’ve even started playing with mediums. There is so much I could say about this show, I haven’t time to write it all down here. Its walls are veined with growing pains and I cannot wait to watch it evolve, it’s a project still fresh in its afterbirth, now we all need to help it grow.
One of the things I love best about the ways the show organisers instigate is that they care about legacy, they make a point of referencing the artists of last year’s show and illuminating on how they continue to be supported and platformed one year on. I love the inclusion of interdisciplinary panels of judges (this year’s included Travil Alabanza, Jamila Johnson-Small and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye), and the very uncomfortable attempt to disrupt cliques of friends and collaborators that inevitably spring up in queer communities. I’m thrilled to be surrounded by queers of colour I do not know!
There is so much I could say about this show, but for now all I’ll say is go see it. Whether you’re an artist or a “creative” – whatever the hell that means, I mean who amongst us surviving isn’t doing so creatively? – or a local with a free hour, or a dreamer, or an often lonesome soul, this show is for you, this show is for us, this show is changing what graduating as a queer artist of colour can look like. Our desires are unending, and so are the possibilities for growth, for expansion, and eventually, for entirely new worlds.
Danielle Brathwaite Shirley, “I Held You While You Took Your First Breath, 2019. Courtesy of BBZ
Miranda Forrester, “Naked Truths” series. Courtesy of BBZ
Miranda Forrester, “Naked Truths” series. Courtesy of BBZ
Miranda Forrester, “Friendly.” Courtesy of BBZ
Miranda Forrester, “Friendly.” Courtesy of BBZ
Linda Nwachukwu. Courtesy of BBZ
Linda Nwachukwu.Courtesy of BBZ