Last week, the Tate gallery announced this year’s Turner Prize shortlist. Acclaimed for being ‘international’ in its make-up, the biggest surprise was perhaps the inclusion of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – the first black woman to be shortlisted for the prize. I will not be surprised if much of the discourse that follows (especially if Yiadom Boakye is to win) will be about what this ‘means’ for black women artists, and whether or not the ‘establishment’ is becoming more inclusive. However, I can’t help but recall the words of Sonia Boyce, who at a recent panel discussion commented (and I paraphrase here), ‘once again, we have not talked about the work itself.’ It seems that black women’s work, in art as in other spheres, is always politicised. Do black women have the freedom to create art without having to specifically state their position?
In some ways Yiadom-Boakye’s work is unusual for a Turner Prize nominee; recent winners have been conceptual multi-media pieces. Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits, on the other hand, figurative in form, with subjects in a variety of ‘ordinary’ positions, seem more traditional in comparison. In fact what makes her oil paintings unconventional is that all the subjects are black. She herself has stated that this is in itself a political act, ‘We’re used to looking at portraits of white people in painting’. Of course, just because one artist chooses to make an explicitly political statement, does not mean that we should expect it from all black women.
I recently spoke about DIY Culture and how black women artists should continue to organise their own shows, rather than wait for mainstream approval which is often restrictive and can pigeonhole minority groups. However, that does not mean this approval should be outright rejected when it does appear. The fact remains, that institutions such as Tate have the power to dictate who is accepted into the ‘canon’ and to effectively create history. Thus, being accepted into the fold is an achievement. Black women artists are producing work just like everyone else, so why should we not be included in the museums and galleries, the holders of knowledge for future generations? Furthermore, the greater the presence of black women artists, as well as other excluded groups, the more chance there is for ‘normalisation’ and thus the freedom to represent oneself in any way, political or otherwise.
Image from the Saatchi Gallery of Politics, 2005, oil on canvas, 183 x 168 cm.
Hot in-and-out action, and the roles of Black people involved in this!
(Have our Google hits increased yet?)
Ok, enough exclamation marks. Sex is one of the few things that we all have an opinion on. When concepts like pornography and prostitution enter the conversation, it can become hopelessly entrenched. As Chitra put it in her excellent post a few weeks ago, the conversation seems to go around and around the same old worn grooves. Sex-positivity versus sex-negativity, and the emotional force that many of us feel when identifying with aspects of those terms, can lead to us becoming more involved in the ideal than is healthy.
For example, I have seen many women call for criminalising pornography and/or prostitution out of a desire to protect the workers and punish those who abuse them. However, many sex workers are among the most marginalised members of society; on the poverty line, queer/trans*, asylum seekers, mentally ill and so on. Criminalisation would put power into the hands of the police, and the police do not have a good track record with marginalised bodies. Look at the actions of Detective Ryan Coleman-Farrow from the London Metropolitan Police sexual crimes task force last year, disposing of evidence. Or the United States’ ‘War On Drugs’, which has led to a hugely disproportionate number of Black bodies imprisoned.
On the other end of the argument, I have also seen women speak in praise of the companies that make porn as a part of their pro-sex worker ideology. This is done without noting any difference between the sort of mainstream company that earns thousands or millions of dollars by selling class/race based stereotypes as part of their sex scenes, with scenarios like ‘Latina maids’ or ‘white girl attempts to take on huge black dick’ reappearing again and again, and the more specialised companies that offer feminist/queer/radical porn which can be more careful about using such stereotypes.
One of the results of this divide down partisan lines is that the lived experience of those who are or were sex workers themselves are often either ignored or used to prove an ideological point, which is ultimately unhelpful. As Black Feminists, we know ourselves how it feels to have our own experiences dismissed when they don’t agree with the expectation held by others.
What Black voices are speaking about their own negative or positive experiences in various forms of sex work?* One of the few I know about is Jiz Lee (@ http://jizlee.com/, NSFW link), who is a genderqueer Asian-American performer in queer feminist porn. Who else should I be reading or following?
*Necessary disclaimer: I am not and have never been part of any paid sex work myself.
Born in 1915, Sister Rosetta Sharpe is seen as the Godmother of Rock n Roll. Her electric guitar playing and singing in the 1940s have been cited as key influences by music icons, including Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Johnny Cash. Songs like Strange Things Happening Every Day and Up Above My Head are great examples of her style, straddling her gospel roots with jazz and blues. During the 1940s she was also said to be in a relationship with singer Marie Knight, which was an ‘open secret’ in the music industry. She was an original flamboyant performer who has influenced generations. – Tara
Trinidadian native, feminist, Black nationalist, political activist, community leader, journalist and the mother of Notting Hill Carnival. After being expelled from the US, Claudia came to England where she worked tirelessly and became a prominent figure within the African-Caribbean community in London. Claudia died at 49 on Christmas Eve and was laid to rest next to the grave of Karl Marx with the words “Valiant fighter against racism and imperialism who dedicated her life to the progress of socialism and the liberation of her own Black people.” To learn more about her life, I suggest you get your hands on a copy of ‘Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment’. – Rianna
Growing up female, black and poor, the daughter of immigrants, in the economically deprived northern city of Bradford, you can imagine that representations of people like me did not abound back then in 1990s England. (I’m not sure that they do now but that is another blog post…) So imagine my sense of wonderful recognition when, at the age of 14, I first read Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl Brown Stone.
Here was a story about the vicissitudes of poor Barbadian immigrants in a racist New York, trapped between wanting to make a home in such harsh conditions and longing for the warmth of ‘back home’. It was a sweet revelation and affirmation of who I was. – Lola
When Li Na won the French Open in 2011, it was widely reported that she was the first Asian woman to win a grand slam. What was overlooked was that she was only the second woman from outside Europe, North America and Australia to win a singles grand slam title in the open era. In some ways, tennis leads the way forward in terms of equality. It is the only major sport where women approach anything near to the fame and money of men. However, players from white majority countries dominate tennis more so than many other sports.
I do not know much about Li Na but in addition to her powerful groundstrokes, athleticism and quick reflexes, I applaud her for upsetting tennis hierarchies. – Chitra
It’s October 2008, and I’m in my first year of an English Literature degree. We are slowly working our way through the great works of the English literary canon- which peculiarly fetishises the writings of dead white men. This week’s book is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It’s a deeply unsettling novel, soaked in white supremacy, by an author dedicated to denigrating blackness in all its forms.
There’s a lot than can be said about the politics of canonized literature. These are the books that are taught over and over again in classrooms across the west. Their elevated status encourages us to accept their content uncritically. This book, set in the year 1899, was predictable in its race hate, but that didn’t make it any less shocking. Black skinned people were violently ‘othered’ and repeatedly reduced to the status of an animal. The novella’s protagonist would stare into black skinned brown eyes and struggle to find humanity. This book painted us as bestial. And there was I, of African heritage, one of two black students in a lecture hall of roughly 100, feeling uncomfortable, feeling ashamed. We were expected to discuss the literary merit of a text that I’d now consider hate speech.
Every now and then the power of the written word proves itself when you stumble across a writer who speaks to you. That’s why I’ve always liked literature- ideas suspended in time and space are as relevant now as the day the words were written, and they will continue to be long after an author passes away. There are few writers whose work shapes your understanding of the world, and Chinua Achebe did that for me.
Achebe was one of the greatest literary thinkers of the past century, who contributed greatly to a shifting of the accepted boundaries of representations of race in literature. And that essay was one that rests alongside the legendary status of works such as Orientalism by Edward Said.
The essay was the literary equivalent of sticking his neck out, exposing Joseph Conrad for the racist he is. ‘Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’’ smashed apart white supremacist, euro centric thinking that was too often accepted as the norm. His work inspired so many influential critical race writers after him. Toni Morrison cites Achebe as one of the writers who inspired her work.
He wrote about the danger of not owning your own stories. Born into an African diaspora I found myself submerged daily in narratives that othered me. We can critique, but to own our own narratives, we must create. With his writing, Achebe achieved this.
We rely on thinkers who came before us to ignite a curiosity about the status quo. That questioning takes courage, because the repercussions can be violently adverse. Writers like Achebe and Morrison walked a difficult terrain that made it easier for people like me to speak about our understanding of race and racism without fear. Last week he died, aged 82. He left a legacy and I for one am indebted to him.
Black Feminists are excited to announce that we’ll be giving a talk at the amazing DIY Cultures event on Sunday 7th April at 1pm.
We’ll be giving a talk on how black women have played a vital role in DIY culture and continue to do so today with Stephanie Phillips, Aurella Yussuf and Rianna Parker.
DIY Cultures is a day-long festival, taking place at Rich Mix, of zines, artist books, comics, artists-run spaces, talks, films, animation, video art, exhibition, workshops – the spirit of independence, autonomy & alternatives.
An exciting new literary voice, born in London and raised in Boston to Nigerian parents, this trans-atlantic writer spanning cultures was recently named one of Waterstones’ Eleven their ‘pick of the most promising Fiction debuts of the year’. This graduate of Yale and Oxford is known for her eccentric personality and stand-out fashion choices. I first encountered Taiye when her essay ‘Afropolitans’ went viral and many of us young Diasporan Black women used it as a blueprint to describe a new generation. I recommend any of her writings to you all, her new book ’Ghana Must Go’ will be published April 4th. – Rianna