sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, a collective of black artists, thinkers and makers based in London present an urgently needed body of work in collaboration with The Gallow Gate. Titled ‘[BUT] WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT WHITE SUPREMACY?’, the multi-disciplinary work curated and produced by the collective at Many Studios is supported by a programme of workshops, discussions, performances, and screenings which respond to the question posed in the title. Members include Christopher Kirubi, Halima Haruna, Rabz Lansiquot, Mayfly Mutyambizi, Imani Robinson and Jacob V Joyce.
Both the collective’s name and exhibition title act as a tongue-in-cheek refusal of a white Western curatorial gaze, traditionally voyeuristic and exploitative of black suffering and pain, privileging white and heteronormative narratives in its display and acts of interpretation. The collective’s name points to the unwelcome reception that people of colour often experience in UK art spaces, and to the disruption and unease generated by the collective’s radical space-making in this exclusive sector. The exhibition title, coupled with the work produced in response to it, has a similarly sarcastic tone. The programme’s curatorial discourse, as devised by collective members Imani Robinson and Rabz Lansiquot, does not answer the question, but instead explores what white supremacy does to the lives and practices of the collective members themselves. By turning the question on its head, the collective challenges what the UK art world expects of a show by black artists.
Refusing to educate a white audience on political solidarity and allyship, a tiresome and laborious expectation that is placed on the shoulders of people of colour, the artists instead present the audience with work that heavily alludes to black British (and often queer) historical and cultural events and figures. These references, although not niche to their more politically radical visitors and audiences of colour, are unfamiliar, and therefore inaccessible to more conservative audience members. In this clever inversion of power, the collective causes an environment of exclusion and discomfort for particular audience members; those whose narratives are traditionally privileged in the UK art world; those who typically shape elite spaces that exclude people of colour. These themes were further explored during the programmed events, which were facilitated as nurturing spaces for people of colour. These spaces allowed us to deeply study, meditate on and discuss our collective, individual and familial histories, as well as the issues and political circumstances that affect us most violently today.
The pieces on display in the exhibition at Many Studios speak to similar themes of migration, identity, ancestry, radical political history, and black and feminist archiving. The works featured include autobiographical videos by Haruna, audio and a ‘note to self’ by Mutyambizi, a video by Robinson, as well as an installation which pays tribute to the legacy of their maternal ancestral line, Lansiquot’s acetate collages, and a visual poem in vinyl by Kirubi. The most striking work on display, ‘Back Door’ (2017), created by artist, zine-maker and punk musician Jacob V. Joyce, pays tribute to the inter-generational colonial trauma experienced by black migrants in the UK. The bright red front door is adorned with Joyce’s black and white illustrations and a nameplate that reads ‘asylum’. The back of the door is painted black, and features an image of Joyce’s grandmother, who migrated to the UK from Trinidad and Tobago as a member of the Windrush generation. The illustrations on the door are collaged-over receipts, and depict UK-based black power protests against police brutality as well as portraits of black British activists. A quote by Althea Jones-Lecointe, a leader of the British Black Panther Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, is also featured. The choice of receipts as a backdrop is a reference to the Commonwealth’s treatment of migration as a transaction of labour, and the transactional deceit that the Windrush generation faced when they arrived in the UK in the 1940s, and the dehumanisation and violence that they, and new migrants, continue to receive at the hands of the British state and media today.
Some of the protests featured in Joyce’s illustrations make reference to the Mangrove Nine campaign; a campaign led by black activists in London during the 1970s that sought to defend Notting Hill’s black community from police violence and racism. At the end of the 1960s, Mangrove, a West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill, became a central hub for the local black community, attracting famous figures such as Bob Marley and Nina Simone. During this period, police officers aggressively patrolled the community, raiding the restaurant 12 times between January 1969 and July 1970 for unsubstantiated drug-related charges. In reaction, a collective of nine black radicals, including Althea Jones-Lecointe, staged protests and took legal action against the police, winning one of the very first trails against police racism in British history.
This shared political and community history neatly ties in with Joyce’s personal familial history, as their grandmother opened one of the first Caribbean restaurants in Coventry when she first arrived in the UK, and which, like the Mangrove, quickly became the beating heart of the black community in Coventry.
[BUT] WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT WHITE SUPREMACY? sorryyoufeeluncomfortable. Many Studios, 20 April - 20 May. On 5 May, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable will be performing with artist Barby Asante at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow
Samar Ziadat is a curator, educator and activist and co-founder of Dardishi.She is also a committee member of Transmission Gallery and the Scottish Queer International Film Festival. You can find her on twitter at @samarziadat