explaining myself


Ry Cooder made an album called Jazz in the late 70s. It includes the song Shine, it caused a kerfuffle at the time and Cooder has put some water between himself and that album since, but I actually like that album and have a certain fondness for that tune. It’s a bouncy piece that includes terms that would make a corporate HR person go into a tail spin because it is a coon song that was written by a black musician who went under the name of Cecil Mack. He is on the front row at the far right on the featured image on this post. His real name was name was Richard C. McPherson and a major voice advocating for the rights of black musicians. He lived from somewhere around November 6, 1873 until August 1, 1944 and he did not die in poverty because he was a tin pan alley king not least because he wrote a whole boat load of coon songs. Facts are things y’know.

On Monday, I was listening to Start the Week and Lenny Henry was on talking about his autobiography and his experiences growing up in Dudley in the 70s and ending up on the Black and White Minstrel Show. He has to account for this a lot to journalists and interviewers. I found myself getting really irritated because, brace yourself, I used to love the black and white minstrel show. I thought it was great that Lenny Henry was on the show because I loved him too. To add to my ‘shame’ I used to pester my parents to take us to see them when they were doing the summer season in Torquay. I know it seems appalling now but it is really starting to grate with me when Sir Lenny has to explain why he worked with (from his own account) what appeared to be quite a nice group of people who were doing what we now think of as a grim thing. But mainly it pisses me off because that experience is always channeled through the prism of some white skinned shock. Yes it was an entertainment predicated on the slave trade and its aftermath, but if you permit me some whataboutary: Wagner was an active and vicious anti semite but his work has hardly been erased from the opera canon. When it comes to home grown nastiness, let’s have a prod at Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the villain Shylock is redeemed only through the renunciation of his creed, a play written by a man who might credibly have never met a Jew, hummmmmmm. And as for the amoral pack of current global leaders and the despicable dogwhistle vote corralling they engage in, where do I begin?

The thing that really annoyed me about the programme was some of the other people in the room were white and about the same age as Henry. I did not hear any of those people say anything about their own responses to racism at the time Henry was working on the B&WMS, perhaps they didn’t catch the show. Maybe the audience made up entirely of non white people like me, though it seems a little unlikely as at its peak 21 million people tuned in and in the 2011 census of the UK there were 1.85 million black people in the uk. Where did the other 19 million go?

It irked me because there is a kind of performative blackness that is taking up residence in the dialogue. A place where people like me or Lenny Henry or whoever, get to describe their experiences to people who are frequently the same age. What happens during this is the black people tick off the iniquities and the white people act shocked. What is missing from this discourse is exactly what the fuck the white people were up to while all this was going on and there is a reason for this; nobody makes them do it, until something happens where they are forced to consider their own responses.

Indulge me further:

In June I was at the baptism of my latest great niece – I have four a the time of writing this – and my eldest brother (who is about the same age as Lenny Henry), sat next to me and said, I owe you and apology. To be honest, he owes me a ton of sorries, but that’s siblings and I owe him a wheelbarrow full back. However, this was actually a good one. He told me about how one of his band mates has a step son who is half chinese and this young man had been told to fuck off back to where he came from in, of all places, Bristol. My brother had been really shocked and angered by this and he’d discussed it with another of my brothers and then then had started to talk about me and all of the racism I had encountered growing up and how nobody had paid it a blind bit of notice, or if they had, they’d played it down with that old chestnut, sicks and stones, some people have glasses, blah blah blah.

I was pleased by the apology, but at the same time I experienced a mounting fury that he had been able, along with everybody else, to tune out the outrageous behaviour of their peers, and there can be no doubt that their peers would have been indulging in light to vicious racism by dint of the fact they used words to communicate and they were using them in England. I appreciate the apology, because it means he has reflected on how difficult it was for me growing up as the only girl, the only brown girl in a family of white people, drowning in a sea of whiteness in a vortex of ignorance and stupidity that nestles under the Malvern Hills. It was incredibly difficult and the fact I didn’t actually murder anybody is a testament to my lower middle classed upbringing.

Back to Sir Lenny and this performative blackness for white people to look shocked about. I have no doubt his work with the B&WMS caused him profound pain and I am genuinely sorry that he suffered that in such isolation because I know what that is like. All I can say is he bought me joy at a time when there were precious few black people on the TV for me to look up to. His warmth, his loveability, his relatability with that cuddly Dudley accent, echoes of which I could always hear in the voices of my Brummie parents, completely overrode the things that we are now commanded to find problematic. He helped me see my skin as something really rather fantastic. So out of his adversity I got some relief from the endless stupid.

It really is time that some of those white people who disregarded our pain, our humiliations, put up their hands and gave us a mea culpa, reflected on the times they saw someone like me being battered in the playground or spat at in the street, or refused service in a shop, put up their hands and admitted they’d given preference to a light skinned person, talked over a black woman at a conference, the list is endless. It’s time some of these people admitted it and reflected on the fact that we don’t need Lenny Henry to tell anybody how complicit he was in racism, we need an awful lot of white people to look at themselves and their families and their own actions and maybe admit that they were also part of the problem. A wee dab of historical context.

If you’d like to know more about Cecil Mack, and you damn well should, go here:

explaining myself

a bag of shallots

Every christmas we had the same stuff: a massive mutant turkey, a boned ham joint, brussels sprouts cooked close to mush, each one with a little cross at it’s base, roast and boiled potatoes, stuffing, gravy, the whole nine yards. I wasn’t a fan of christmas dinner, but boxing day lunch was something that I did like because most of that stuff made a reappearance, just done over into bubble and squeak, with pickles.

You can’t make an old fashioned west midlands pickle overnight so in October, my mother would get a monster string bag of shallots and spend a horrible hour or so skinning and topping and tailing them before dunking them in brine to soak overnight. I got lassooed into this as I got older, the worst job in the kitchen. The next day she’d boil up some vinegar with allspice and peppercorns and bay leaves to make a vile gas that seemed to pull all of the oxygen out of the air. This was then poured over the shallots which were packed into an old Heinz Ketchup catering jar which would then sit in the dark somewhere going, slightly soft, until Boxing Day.

So until 1979 the bag of shallots always meant that it was about a month until fireworks night with jacket potatoes that had crisp skin and the sausages were black on one side because of the fire. Soon I would be able to swap tea at breakfast for cacao and that could only mean that the selection box and Beano annual combo wouldn’t follow all that long after. Shallots were the hurdle you had to get over in order to get to the good stuff.

On October 1st 1979, when I got home I knew my mother was skinning shallots because farty onion smell was seeping out of the front door even before I got my key into the lock. I hoped she’d done most of the job because I wasn’t in the mood to help anybody do anything at all because I’d been in the middle of something exciting that day because I’d been part of the huge crowd on the street watching Woolworths in Worcester burning down.

It was lunchtime and me and my new friend Fi had gone looking for something to eat that wasn’t a chip butty in the canteen. There was a good whole food cafe round the back of Foregate Street and I am guessing we were on our way there. Instead, we stopped in front of Woolworths because the blaze was really taking hold. There were some police pushing the gathering crowd of rubber neckers back into a semi circle cordon from where we watched people still leaving the shop, in a calm but determined manner. That was until a pane of glass fell from a couple of storeys above and damn near sliced a woman in two. I swear it was like that scene in the Omen, where Patrick Troughton gets skewered by the lightning rod, except she got out. After that, the mood was up a notch, the panic was palpable and I thought it was fucking exciting.

So I got home and wanted to tell everybody about this extraordinary event, but nobody was really interested. Like I said, mother was spoiling shallots, my brothers were watching TV or noodling about on guitars or percussion and my father was upstairs getting ready to go out for a beer with a new colleague from his new job. I felt kind of cheated and disgruntled. Something exciting, newsworthy, was happening and here in my small town nobody really cared. It made me all the more keen to get away from there. Art school wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, nothing was what I thought it was going to be. Though I’m not sure what I really expected. I was pretty fresh out of usual school, but beyond not having to wear a uniform and being allowed to smoke in the canteen, there was not an awful lot of difference between being at college or at class. I had expected my new life to be a more radically, palpably different, without any real idea of what that difference would actually be.

I can’t help wondering what I had for dinner that evening. I was a vegetarian then on the more extreme end where I wouldn’t wear leather, so that meant once the weather got bad, I had to go everywhere in wellies and carry pumps, I really was a pious knob. My mother usually prepared something for the family, but if I wanted a meatless option, then I was out of luck. I’m quite proud of her for that. I don’t know why I think about that missing meal.

At some point my father came downstairs. He was wearing a dark blue suit. He was waiting to be picked up. I don’t know why I was in the hallway, or even if I was in the hallway, but I definitely saw him. I do remember him standing at the door in a strange way that I’d never seen before. He looked as if he had a great sack of something wet and heavy on his back that he’d been carrying for a very long time. Then the door bell went and he, well he unfurled, he stood straight, he went from my height, which was about 5’4″ to 6’0″. He assumed something amazing, an entire body mask, opened the door, greeted his new colleague and left the shallot soaked house.

explaining myself

I won the Denis Roussel Award and it reminded me of Mrs Haynes

In the third year of junior school we had a teacher called Mrs Haynes. She was scottish. I’d never come into contact with a person who talked like that before. She was firey and prone to shouting. I’m not sure we were a particularly naughty or disagreeable class, but her MO was robust for the year she had us. She was frequently to be heard loudly stating ‘oh for the patience of Job’ except she would say Jooooobe. I didn’t know who Job was, but I was pretty sure he was the opposite of Mrs Haynes.

I remember that her hair was strawberry blond, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was mellowed red. She wore tweedy clothes, mossy greens and taupe and buttoned shoes. I remember her clothes and her voice, but not her face beyond its felineness.

At junior school we had assemblies in the morning Monday to Thursday. On those days we gathered in the school hall which also worked as a gym and performance space. Serried ranks of children would stand and figit while the headmaster or other senior teachers would bang on about a subject that was book ended by hymns the words of which would be on banners hanging from the ceiling.

Fridays were different, assembly was in the afternoon and it culminated in the awarding of merit and courtesy badges. These awards were given out for each class. The merit for some kind of smarts and the courtesy for being nice. I guess. Mrs Haynes didn’t make the distinction between the forms of behaviour; in her manor the getting a badge depended solely on the number of house points you got. Most=merit, second most=courtesy. Simple.

Curiously, I won badges in Mrs Hayne’s class more times than in any other and possibly even more strange as anybody who knows me will attest, I won the courtesy badge a lot. So what with one thing or another; Mrs Haynes was not a popular teacher and being told we would spend the next year in her class had filled some of us with fear, at the end of the day, I look back fondly on my year with her because I simply got appreciated for being good at what I was good at.

Over 40 years later, I find myself in possession of another award. This time for work I have made that was thoughtfully considered and contrasted with other work. For want of a better word, I’d say it feels sparkly to get it. I found out because I was sitting in the car coming back from the opening of The Photograph as Object at the Offshoot Gallery and was doing that mindless scrolling through facebook to see that I’d been mentioned in a comment so me and my ego went and looked at who was talking about me. I read congratulations and I read my name. I skimmed, I screeched to a halt and went back. I’d won the Denis Roussel Award and I’d done it for something that I thought about and carefully made and the curator of the award Jessica Ferguson had seen what I had been attempting to do, got the exact point of it and been impressed enough to put me top of the list.

I spend a lot of time packaging up my work and sending it to people for what seems like the sole purpose of generating a template email that could be précised as ‘nope’. I’d spent a lot of time on that application but I was doing it as an exercise in expressing the work I do. it is easy to become cynical about it competitions, particularly the ones that ask you for entry contributions and then for hanging fees, such as the Julia Margret Cameron award, where I got an ego polish immediately followed with a request to pay them more than 300 dollars, plus shipping, to show my work in Venice which is why the only mention of it you will find on here is the fact I got a name check. So I am doubly appreciative of this award because it has reminded me that I am making work for a reason and some people actually care about people like me making work for the reasons that we have.

explaining myself

The Pecking Order

You ever been spat at? Out of the blue? You ever been told to fuck off back to where you came from by someone who is so similar to just about everybody else you know that you would be hard pushed to pick them out in an identity parade? You ever been shopping in a department store and have other people served before you even though you’ve been there longer? You had your card conspicuously checked in to make sure it isn’t stolen when all you want is to buy a bottle of wine to go with a meal you’ve invited your friends to? You ever had someone stick their face right up to your face and bellow ‘white is right’ into it, flecking your face with their spittle while you are wondering if they are going to belt you?

I have.

You ever tried to explain what that is like to a group of people who profess to love you and care about you but who also dismiss what just happened to you as some kind of an aberration and that it should be glossed over because it’s not the norm?

I have.

You ever woken up and the first thing you read is about how the president of the most powerful country in the world completely failing to call a halt to his supporters chanting ‘send her back’ about a an elected member of the senate who you also happen to share genes with and then hear the flagship news programme of your national broadcaster fail to report this in the headlines, preferring to let us all know that an american actor has had one of the charges of sexual assault dropped against him.

I just did.

explaining myself

The Naked Truth

I think it was new year’s day 2015 I got an email that had come through the contact form from a man called Tim Andrews asking me if I would take a portrait of him. He explained he’d seen a cyanotype I’d made in the Photomonth brochure which was used by Double Negative Darkroom (the precursor to e5process) to advertise a show. He hadn’t seen the show but he had looked me up and found my site and liked my stuff. He also explained that he had contracted Parkinson’s disease and this had bought an end to his career as a solicitor and the beginning of a new one as a photographic muse. We exchanged a couple of other mails and it transpired he liked to be photographed naked. If you knew me, you’d know that naked men are not really my oeuvre. It’s not that I’m a prude, though I may well be, it’s just most of my thoughts about naked men stay in my head for personal purposes. Anyhoo. I said no but I would photograph him because it was a nice idea. It took five months for it to happen. In the interim, I had decided I would photograph him using a pinhole camera but when he walked into the studio I realised I wanted to use instant film and a polariod back, which is the kind of capricious thing I do. So we spent a really lovely hour chatting and snapping. I then took another couple of months to drum up the confidence to lift the emulsion on to blocks of oak and finally produced this.

In May 2015 I was an associate at Open School East. OSE is an art school, now based in Margate but then was in Dalston. I was catching up on an art education that had been curtailed by a mixture of tragedy and churlishness. This new learning has been the jumping off point to a completely different way of being a creative practitioner and meeting Tim has been important to the ways I think about making work as until then, taking portraits, although something I was interested in, certainly wasn’t something I considered I could actually do.

Fast forward to now, I’m in the middle of a year off, spending the money I saved as an IT contractor and had the head space to put these different ways of making work into practice. I had found myself thinking about Tim more often and we had exchanged a few mails about him sitting for me again. I arranged a studio and assistant and invited him to come along and sit for me.

I was thinking about the work of Euan Uglow who is probably my favorite painter. One of the first posts I made here was about his paintings. There is something so considered about his work that it transcends the term nude. In fact, to my eyes something of the glacial speed of his work (one model is said to have got engaged, married and divorced during one piece) means each figure, clothed or unclothed becomes the kind of in depth consideration on the nature of the human frame which also makes me think about Perec’s “An attempt at describing a place in Paris”. This dense descriptive work was something I wanted to apply to Tim’s particular and increasingly disobedient body.

My grandfather had also suffered from Parkinson’s but he had dementia as well so my memories of his illness were of him frozen, confused and helpless. The first time I met Tim, I would have been forgiven to have thought he had just been sitting a little uncomfortably and his leg had gone to sleep. There was nothing helpless about the man who made his way up the absurdly steep stairs to my studio four years ago.

I hadn’t seen Tim again until last autumn when he invited me to show the blocks as part of And Far Away at the Brighton Photo Fringe. The show was busy and I didn’t get much time to talk to him, but I did observe; this time the Parkinson’s was evident, almost as if some invisible vindictive gremlin was setting about him with a reflex mallet.

I told him of my plans and he agreed and so it was he came to a yoga studio in Dalston to let me take his photo. Like the first time, I wanted to break him up and reconstruct him. This time I knew how I was going to photograph, print and display the image. I’ve come a long way since 2015. I set up the camera on a tripod and took eye level shots using a 150mm lens of his head, torso, hips and legs and feet. I also took the colour shots of him on a chaise that make the main image on this post, because it was there and I also like Manet’s Olympia.

This is the finished piece. I’m pleased with the way it has come out. I would like more detail on the hands because they were moving. But that is the deal you have to make between the substrate and the image. I’ll put more work into this, but not right now.

Tim Andrews. 4 panel liquid emulsion 190×65

As with most of the work I produce, the piece is designed to hang free from the wall and to respond to the air currents that the environment provides.

Piece on Show @ e5process Solstice Show, June 2019

I also couldn’t resist a pinhole shot while we were working. Which has given me a few other ideas, but those are for another day indeed.

Pinhole Image of the Sitting
explaining myself

Ship for Fools

Last Tuesday I read in the Guardian that the remains of a fishing boat that sank taking with it somewhere in the region of 1,000 lives with it to the sea bed in 2015, will be on display as part of the Venice Bienalle and that its presence was connected to the work of Christoph Büchel.

In 2006 I made a point of finding a nondescript building on a less than impressive street off Brick Lane in order to see Büchel’s work Simply Botiful. I knew very little about the art world then and I came away awed by the way each space felt as if it had only seconds ago been left by someone who knew about what was really going on. I had a real feeling that if I just stopped long enough, was quiet and still enough, one of the real agents would walk into the space and continue with what they had abandoned. I had taken part in a huge complex promenade performance where the audience were cleverly directed. Good show, enjoyable show. Theatre.

After visiting that work, I went to the pub. I may have had a Sunday roast, it’s a long time ago, I don’t keep a diary. I talked about it, I thought about it, I still think about it in terms of stagecraft, in the way I still think about some of the work of Theatre de Complicité. What I didn’t really think about was the underlying social and political issues that I presume Büchel was alluding to. I considered those things from other, serious, less contrived sources. What I’d been thinking about is how I’d been entertained for about 60 minutes.

Recently I have been thinking quite a lot about suffering in art especially in the context of the big commercial galleries in Mayfair and the like. I had not long since seen both William Eggleston at David Zwirner and Reinhard Mucha at Sprueth Magers. I enjoyed them both though I felt neither was uplifting or even that I would wish to explore the themes on display further. What they made me consider was how curious it was that work that explores failure and erasure was being shown in some of the most expensive real estate in the world to the kinds of people who could afford to live there. What I was struggling with was why it was bothering me so much.

I got my answer from of all people Frankie Boyle, during an episode of his New World Order when he unexpectedly started talking about Guy Deboard and the Society of the Spectacle. Boyle’s conclusion was ‘the spectacle has replaced modern relations with the alienation of commodity fetishism…’ which I found interesting enough to make me look up Deboard on Wikipedia (I make no claims to be an academic) where a summary of Deboard’s thinking ran thus: ‘All that was once directly lived has become mere representation’.

So, back to the resurrected boat currently moored in Venice. Where I’d seen Simply Botiful as a neat idea, I see the boat as crass and depressing. What is this terrible artefact doing parked up alongside a city which is currently full of art of varying relevance, quality and interest? Is it there for onlookers to see a machine that had killed people fleeing from carnage and poverty? You can do that on the internet any time, with added gore. Surely the fact the boat sank would only be a matter for the underwriters if it had not been for the plight of its human cargo, so what is the point of rendering it sea worthy again? Furthermore, is there an artwork that engages with those human experiences, the voices of those left behind perhaps? My conclusion is, it’s The Spectacle eminently photographable for immediate upload on to instagram #christophbuchel #venicebienalle19 soon followed by a shot of our companions enjoying an aperitivo #carefulnow #lolz.

I might have peevishly dismissed this as an empty piece of art wank if I didn’t have the experience of three years living in Krakow in the early 1990s where there was visible work, most notably but not only by Yad Vashem, to ensure the safeguarding and imparting the memory of the lives destroyed in the Shoah in the face of a pre Schindler’s List Krakow indifference. There is a rightful insistence on respect around this and for the most part it is sustained. Yad Vashem has four pillars, the first is commemoration and at its heart is a database of the victims’ names. There may be no fireworks in a query, but the results bring evidence of a life and a refusal to allow that life to be obliterated. As far as I can garner (and I’d love to stand corrected), there has been no attempt to even list the names or in some way capture the humanity of the people drowned, to publicly provide some succour to the people they left behind.

And further to this, the failure to insist on humanity feeds our indifference and although indifference might seem if not benign, not actively hostile, that indifference can be leveraged into precision hostility and that is a dangerous thing. Consider this: about a year after the boat sank, I was standing on the station at Great Malvern, waiting for the train to take me back to London when an old woman started talking to what I am assuming were her middle aged children. She’d been watching the Andrew Marr show or similar and the talk had been about refugees. The old woman let loose with the opinion that if she had her way, the boats of the refugees should be “sent to the bottom of the sea” with all on board. Nobody said anything, though the middle aged couple looked at me in a manner that could only be described as sheepish. I sincerely wished I had the nuts to kick her stick away or punch her on to the track, but instead I moved away and posted a furious update on facebook.

The refugees were just a nuisance to her, a potential drain on her resources with their dangerous religion and indecipherable languages. The term refugee in her lexicon was a description of a lesser category of human for her to make a spectacularly spiteful point from all the other dehumanising language that was sloshing around in the public discourse at that time, from cockroaches to skittles, never people, not Ahmed, or Ferhana, but muslims, the poor, the dark, the not her and hers, just bit parts in a news item blapping out of her Sunday telly gawp.

The presence of that boat in Venice is at very best degrading and ill considered and I believe it’s only there because of the ridiculous nexus of money and power makes that people think they have good ideas because the best ideas come from where money and power sit. But you’ve only got to look at the USA and the UK to see how having power and money do nothing for your humanity beyond giving the powerful the ability to observe the spectacle from the best seats in the house, legislate some toxic penalty on those least able to resist and shimmer off to the sponsored bar.

explaining myself

Diving for pearls

I watched this video about August Sander’s photograph of “Three farmers on the way to a dance”. It was revealing, beyond the fact that none of them were actually farmers.

I was pleased that it was possible to trace the three men and not only discover two were miners and the third worked in the mine’s office, but research also revealed what happened after the photograph was taken. Two survived the first world war, one did not.

Another thing that was compelling about the short film was although John Green is at pains to talk about the facts of the image, he was unable to refrain from assigning character traits to the subjects, most about Ewald Klein, the figure to the right, based upon how he was looking at the camera, despite already making clear it was a long exposure and all of the tells that Klein appears to display, could just be artifacts of standing still.

Nevertheless, it is a thoughtful piece and well worth 9 minutes of anybody’s time. I frequently make recourse to Ariella Azoulay’s Civil Contract of Photography because of the way she talks about the way meaning in photographs is altered by the spectator. I can’t help wondering if we are just hard wired to impose our own narratives on everything and this is something that is niggling away at me with the Oyster Shell and Little Races Projects.

I agree with Green’s conclusion:

A picture is not a life. The young farmers photograph is about what those boys don’t know. But it is also about what we don’t know and a reminder of what pictures cannot show us.

John Green on The Art Assignment
explaining myself

Mudlarks and Oyster Shell Ghosts

Mudlarks were people, frequently children, who scavenged along the Thames foreshore in the olden days. It was a way of making money. It could be pretty dangerous, not least because the Thames was full of raw sewage, the guts of fish and animals discarded in food preparation, glass, metal shards from the industries that went by the shore. These days the Thames is much cleaner, though I wouldn’t drink it. The glass and the metal has been worn by tides and scraping up against sand and stones and anybody caught tossing animal waste after food preparation into the river will most likely find themselves in court. These days mudlarks are people like me who just like scuttling about on the foreshore and scraping about to a depth of no more than 7.5 cm (I’m licenced to lark) and taking home great handfuls of clay pipe shards and old oyster shells.

I liked history at school, I liked the way it told me the story of how things happened. I thought, like many people do, that the chronology that I learned was the truth. But it was really a list of things that happened that could be attached to people who had their names recorded. On reflection the other people, and that is millions of people, never got a look in. But all of those people had parents (even if only in the baldest of biological terms), they had jobs, they ate and drank stuff, committed crimes, were victims, got rich, got poor, got sick and died, got better and led happy and blameless lives, but the only place you ever saw them recorded were in the court or church records.

However, if you go down to the river at low tide, near London Bridge, you can find the ghosts of many people; lots of animal bones and oyster shells that could only have got there because someone put them there. These are the leavings of the fundamentals of day to day life, along with pottery shards and the clay pipes. Each and every one of those things went through the hands of people who were never recorded but little traces of them remain. Not all jetsam is a problem. Some jetsam is all that will remain of the majority of us. That’s a sobering thought.

At Christmas 2018 I was given a box of negatives that had been found in a house clearance and I decided to print them on the oyster shells, discarded things on discarded things.

explaining myself stuff that matters

Dispatches from the Woodpile

For one reason or another I recently found myself getting my ducks in a row about making photographs of transracially adopted people. At the root was the simple wish to make voices like mine heard because I think we have some interesting information that might illuminate some of the febrile discussion around race. I also wanted the excuse to write about two of my favorite films: The Watermelon Man by Melvin Van Peebles and The Uncle by Desmond Davis. Both of these movies are about individuals who have and identity imposed upon them by external interests and in both cases the movie charts this experience, not least the confusion and discomfort of the protagonist undergoes at this sudden shift in their own perception of themselves coupled with the absolute failure of empathy of those they had considered close.

The Watermelon Man seems far more a product of its times than The Uncle. The basic plot is: a fairly unpleasant white guy wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned into a black man. After the initial shock of his new appearance, his fundamental self attempts to carry on as normal and almost immediately the bindings of white privilege unravel to his dismay. The movie shifts from ur Farrelley Brothers into far more complex territory and ends with a Jeff Gerber teetering on the brink of radical black politics. This is all wrapped in 1960s sensibilities so there is a visual, social and linguistic tone to the movie that locks it into that period. The racism that Gerber shells out and then receives in the movie however, is timeless.

The Watermelon Man, Melvin Van Peebles 1970

The Uncle is a film about a child that children can watch, though it doesn’t make it childish. It is located within the world of a 7 year who happens to be a boy. The conundrum is simple, he has a much older sister who had a son at the same time as he was born and that makes him an uncle. The other children use this as a means to bully him and the adults fail to understand just why this hurts. The movie could easily be called The Auntie and tell the same story with different genders. One of the things that makes it so believable is Davis’ decision to shoot, for the most part, at eye level of a 7 year old. You see what Gus sees and what he sees confuses the hell out of him.

The Uncle Desmond Davis, 1965

This empathetic view works in unexpected ways. It seems hard to imagine now, but at the time, Van Peebles had to fight against the intention to cast Jack Lemmon in the role of Jeff Gerber. Had Van Peebles failed to get his wish, Lemmon would have spent all but 10 minuites of the running time in blackface. It could so easily have become Lemmon’s The Day the Clown Cried. In refusing to bow under pressure Van Peebles shows the audience the inherent tinearedness of blackface by putting Godfry Cambridge in whiteface and it grates.

Empathy is something I bang on about a lot. I think most of us are hard wired to have it and as we grow up those wires are snipped by experience, by family, by the need to fit in. The nature of transracial adoption is the narrative around who you are shifts a lot and those shifts affect your own self image. I can honestly say I have been taken by surprise by my own appearance in photographs: from a brown face with a frizzy mop of hair in school photos to sitting next to my mother in a Parisian cafe about 12 years ago where we look like stock photos of international, intergenerational friendship. I am sure I belong in each of those images, but to a stranger, if these were found photos, there are always going to be questions, superficial or not.

Paris 2007

Casting about for other movies that might fit this I came up with these titles, but I’m not entirely convinced by all of them: Lars and the Real Girl, the Lives of Others, Moonlight, It’s a Wonderful Life, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing. I am sure I could extend that indefinitely, just not sure if I should. However, none of those films explores liminality per se and certainly none of them, in my opinion, gets under the skin of living constrained by the imagination of others to quite the same effect of The Watermelon Man and The Uncle.

explaining myself

Travel Chaos at London Bridge

Some poor bastard threw themselves under a train near New Cross this morning. It screwed up the trains into London Bridge so when I arrived at my office people were late and moaning about it. I listened to them in the lift and a bit more in the kitchen but eventually the selfish assholery of complaining about being 30 minutes late for a job that isn’t going to dock your pay, punish you or probably even notice you showed up late got to me and I said; I would imagine they were feeling pretty bad. The response to this was ‘couldn’t he have taken a pill or something’. I looked at the speaker in a way that most likely implied I was not impressed and sloped away from the corporate coffee machine.

I went to pick up the caddy that holds my laptop from my locker because it’s a modern agile work environment with on message litter about mental health awareness and other workplace concerns scattered about and because we all hot desk here to keep us on our toes.  So I found an empty space near a window because I always sit near windows. While I was plugging in this and that, I noticed that my eyes were prickling so I went to the toilets because although I’m pretty sure the fella that said the thing is not a heartless asshole of trumpian proportions and had meant to make me cry, it just happened that he did.  He probably will have no idea just how fucking awful it is to lose someone you love to suicide because you can’t until you lose some one you love to suicide. Furthermore, I’m willing to bet, the excruciating pain of waking up and realising that someone you love chose to take their own life probably only scratches the surface of what it is like to feel suicide is the only solution to the baleful conundrum your life has become. The pain I feel when I bump up against the hard reality of my father’s death nearly 40 years ago is thankfully, generally fleeting. Any attempt to try and understand the depth of the well of hopelessness that is a precursor to the vast majority of suicides, just fails. That, I firmly believe, is the stop valve that keeps most of us present.

And there is worse to come for the suicidee, the left behind, the act distorts the shape of the person you have lost. It bloats them out like some ghastly cartoon balloon transforming them into a huge fleshy bruise that every time you try to touch, hurts you all the more. It’s horrible. And so it stole away the good things; the happy times, the myriad acts each and every day that attest to the overall goodness of my father; the willingness to indulge my imagination even when the rest of the world dismissed me as a disruptive pest and troublemaker, the patience to show me how to make a chord progression without the need of sheet music, the insistence I should start to learn to drive 9 months before I could have applied for a licence, the common sense that meant on those occasions that school was just too awful a place for me that meant he’d let me spend the day with him as he drove around the territory he had to service for our daily bread. All gone.

I completely forgot him for quite a long time.

Not like the amnesiac who would say, who are you to their spouse, or like the alzheimer’s sufferer who can’t tell the bus driver from their own flesh and blood. I knew who he was had been. I could point him out in a photograph. What I was denied was access to memories of him a living person. I couldn’t hear his voice or even imagine him moving in anyway at all. And at the same time, I forgot that I was in the process of forgetting him.

Well not quite, there was one memory, from the morning of the day he died. I’d had a row with my mother at the breakfast table and I was stomping out of the house without the usual peck on the cheek. Somehow, he got to the front door first, and he was standing there in front of me, eye to eye, which was weird as he was 6ft and I’m barely 5.5”. He looked at me with a little bit of panic in his eyes and said, “kiss your mother good bye please”, I said no, he said again, “kiss your mother goodbye Tina, kiss your mother goodbye for me”. Well I did. I had no difficulty remembering that exchange in animated living colour and dolby surround sound.

So the next time you hear that you are going to have to stand on a platform some minutes longer than you had anticipated when you left the house this morning and you are going to be late for a job that you probably don’t really give the slightest toss about beyond the salary; the next time something like that happens and your first thought is how inconvenienced it has all made you, do me a favour; go fuck yourself.