It is now two days before my four vinyl panels, filled with personal herstories, existential wonderings, theological thoughts and emotional content have to be taken to Leeds Museum and carefully applied to The Broderick Suite Doors on the second floor.
The aim of Love Arts Festival is to celebrate creativity and mental well-being in Leeds and begins on the 4th October ending on the 13th. With events and exhibitions in various places around Leeds it is easy to squeeze a picture viewing into a lunch break or watch a performance after work with a couple of friends. After all, we all need to look after and support our mental health.
I am very good with deadlines and yes, I was one of those people who would have their work ready with usually a week to spare, but not anymore. And so it was that I suddenly realised I had two weeks to draw my exhibition pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I have done nothing but think about and experience the issues I raise in my work: detachment, confrontation, confusion, abandonment, loneliness as well as dealing with the everyday experiences of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and misogyny. Listening to people reiterating stereotypes again and again is exhausting. But the one that gets under my skin is racism. Since I was born, it has covered me and others like a swaddling cloth and soon becomes a pernicious vine whose sole purpose is to down-press, belittle and to stranglehold hope, the very thing that moves us to be better human beings.
At times like these I turn to my own personal collection of proverbs, sayings of my Jamaican Granddad and Granma, of the smells of freshly cut red, green and yellow pepper, of bun, yam and other parts of Jamaican cooking; of laughter, hugs and back clapping, of a glass of Guinness and a drop of rum followed by deep sighs and of worn hands, of coco butter and adult talk in coded language – all part of learning to be canny in a world that doesn’t want you. I turn to old time caribbean sayings, of the poetry of black British and mixed heritage poets and to the sublime music of Miles Davis, Burning Spear and Nina Simone.
My favourite one at the moment is from Angela Y Davis:
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I can not accept.”
So women, who previously had inhabited a richly filled space of an A4 canvas were now striding onto a stage that they was so big it makes you feel small. Thighs wider than your own are populated with vines, sometimes strangling sometimes supporting. Nor did I think about what to do when a Sharpie pens run out half way through shading a breast or an earlobe. After all, the earlobe is now the size of a fist not a five pence piece.
The theme of the Love Arts this year is Connect. In one way connect-ing is a fundamental part of what it is to be human, thus, we connect with other animals (including human beings), to nature, to the past, ideology, even to inanimate objects (in my case my iPad and my favourite 5B pencil) but other times to connect and to be connected can be very difficult.
According to the Oxford Dictionary to connect is to
‘Bring together or into contact so that a real or notional link is established’.
When you have no words to articulate your thoughts or feelings for that day it becomes harder to connect with either yourself or with others. A permanent gap is outlined in indelible ink, sometimes in a hidden place on your body, other times it is written clearly across your face. Somedays I crave connections as if I were a man whose beard was on fire seeks a pond, to reuse an old proverb.
Themes of connect-ing and connect-ion in my art work are extremely important but so too is the lack of connection. Therefore in my sketches, drawn on a napkin or back of a receipt, I will draw the person staring into their own memories or lost in list making. In doodles done in cafes or waiting rooms I watch and draw people waiting for news – tensed against bad news, daring not to hope for good. In cafes I watch and draw those who wait for others to make them feel loved, inadequate or incomplete. I then place these figures floating through or against physical, emotional or mental landscapes, awash with malformed creatures, local flowers and the tang of a post-industrial civilisation. The figures struggle against what is considered to be normal and acceptable.
My figures, usually female and ageing as am I, have long since given up trying to fit into what is generally and openly considered to be the normalcy of British society – that is, white, male and middle-class.
As the African American poet and commentator Audre Lorde wrote in Sister Outsider (1984)
“Revolution is not a one time event”
so too revolution, in my work, repeatedly questions, interrogates, critiques and sometimes, lingers. Revolutionary emotions, thoughts, understandings and questions appear as loud bold pen or pencil strokes, with colours that demand to be heard, images that shock or intrigue are laid against a local or imagined landscape. Creating visual tidal-waves using colour and imagery in spaces that are well known create splinters into the fortified well of conscious and unconscious bias.
In my work both landscapes and figures reflect the individual and the collective wounds made by a society and government that proposes whiteness as the norm.
But sometimes the revolution is quiet – soft watercolour washes over the frames of heavy limbed women, arms, necks and legs twisting with the weight of dealing with a society that considers blackness to be less than normal, where woman are still paid less than men, where binaries determine the thoughts, actions and deeds of others and, of course, where atonement is given to prime ministers who can connect with pigs in a way understood to others as immoral but black youths are picked off the streets in ‘random’ police checks and sent to prisons far more than their white counterparts.
My work is deliberately created to force myself as well as the viewer, to reveal our own blindness, to confront our own bias, and to acknowledge our privilege. Sometimes this is shown through the use of colour and shape with angles and disjointed images as a way of articulating the violent cacophony of rage, pain and disconnection that is felt.
But to only focus on this aspect would be to misunderstand the internal complexity and content of the black and mixed heritage peoples living in Britain. To be black, mixed heritage and female in Britain is to hold within yourself a multiplicity of factors, some competing, some oppositional and others that merely hang around the fringes.
Whereas violent articulation might, quite rightly, demand atonement, it can also articulate other emotions and aspects of living under a racist and unequal society. Whilst internal and external revolutions can be violent, aggressive, fear and hatred filled events they can also be strong and quiet. After-all water wears down stone in a way that dynamite could never do. Thus, in my work you will find landscapes that appear soothing and flowing but look more closely and you will find the dead body of a wild and unkempt Ophelia carried along by the oncoming tides of ignorance, and overt discrimination. Yet in another picture you will find a defiant Medusa, her hair matted to dreadlocks by the water that both drowns and holds her up at the same time. Both figures exist in landscapes that are imaginary and local, from the back-to-back terraces of Burley with spices and shade – two of the many things to breathe in when shopping in Burley, to the clammer and noise of young, newly freed adults trying to please others, and, be accepted in the sensation seeking activities for new students in Hyde Park in September to the vastness of deep grey skies of Whitby in mid December.