For the most part I’ve never understood the appeal of Kanye West but I have form when it comes to missing the boat with great black music as evidenced by the fact it took me years to appreciate Beyoncé. So for all I know Ye is as good as other people tell me. I’ve just not arrived at that station and his endorsement of the orange menace hasn’t really encouraged me to the table. However, there is one place where we are on the same page; Ye is on record calling Black History Month ‘torture porn’ and this post my round about way of saying I do not disagree with this for reasons that touch all of my reasons I am currently making art.
Indulge me with a thought experiment: Imagine you were a white european teenager who had pitched up as a refugee in Wakanda at the age of, say, 7. Imagine living in all that glittering prosperity and innovation and although it was undoubtedly better than the place you’d come from with its recent wars and upheaval, you’d still turned up with your own family’s stories of their collective lives interwoven with the history of the place you were born and given the right circumstances, the place you would really like to experience because although it’s certainly not been a cauldron of prosperity and calm for your entire life time, there are members of your family that can tell you rose tinted stories of a beautiful place where they lived a pretty pleasant existence which would not be possible in your current location because it isn’t really home. Imagine then, if you were mooching about in the school library and you found a book about world history and you, being really interested in history, turned to the section on Europe to understand how your hosts regarded your home and discovered it warranted a single paragraph. Imagine that paragraph précised the entire history of the multiple states and kings and queens, heroes and villains and ordinary people living their lives, dreaming their dreams celebrating their traditions and beliefs; imagine all of that coalesced into a paragraph that was mostly an observation about the holocaust.
I’m aware Wakanda is a fictional construct, unlike the holocaust. Sweden on the other hand is not and this is where the Somali archaeologist Dr Sada Mire and her family ended up as refugees. It is also the place where she went to secondary school, and being a smart and interested child she went to the library in search of knowledge and discovered:
A big huge history book. I wanted to know about African history and this was a world history book. But there was only one page on Africa and there was actually just a one paragraph, and this paragraph mentioned the transatlantic slave trade and that’s important, but surely there’s more to African history.
You can see the whole talk here:
Dr Mire really impressed me, not least because she is a warm and engaging speaker. Mainly Dr Mire chimed because she was talking about what we are encouraged to value as culture and she is concerned with someting called intangible cultural heritage. In short order and no depth because I’m not an archaeologist, that is basically the stuff that matters to us on a day to day basis. It was as if someone was drawing back a curtain for me. She made some excellent points about how in the west great significance is placed on buildings and objects and how that in focusing on those items, we miss or fail to value the actual things that hold us together as human beings, and I concur.
Granted, those big ticket items like the Parthenon are incredibly impressive when you rock up with your smartphone and start smashing your data allowance in front of bone white columns and the occasional splash of fresco. But, if you think about what they are actually about, they are about the ambition and spendables of a fairly small pool of individuals. A bit more thought and you realise the individuals memorialised and lauded wouldn’t have been personally hefting chunks of granite across mind bending, back breaking terrain. That was done by the myriad other individuals who are always necessary to bring the dreams of megalomaniacs to life. But those rock cutters and painters and basket weavers, they are analogues of us. Most of us will flicker into existence and gutter out mainly unnoticed in the ledgers of big history having hot desked and barristered our way through our lives as per the bullshit jobs of the ancients. That’s how it works.
If you think about, say, Persepolis, for a moment, what is left behind is indisputable evidence of the sum of knowledge about materials and clear signs of shared skills which says a great deal more about a life lived than a tableaux of an out of proportion king knocking seven bells out of some kind of a wholly made up, totally lacking from the fossil record feathered, horned maybe lion. If that doesn’t tell you something about how history was for a long time hijacked by noisy bellicose mainly men, then a scoot round the City of London isn’t going to make you start thinking about the cleaners who deal with the effluent generated by a myriad graduates with a 2.1 who spend their days writing emails to other graduates with 2.1s in between humble brags on LinkedIn. My point is, most of us spend a lot of our lives doing benign, uncontroversial stuff that contributes to the overall look and feel of the world we inhabit without ever seeming to touch the sides. Nevertheless, without the media, which is frequently owned by a highly selective, very small group of interests, you’d probably notice the ammonia hum of an untended toilet a good deal quicker than a flat lining gold plated lift.
But what has this got to do with Ye calling black history month torture porn? Well, the transatlantic slave trade is a big ticket item, it’s showy, it’s dramatic, it’s easy to talk about, so it gets top billing. What the transatlantic slave trade isn’t, wasn’t nor will ever be is the sum total of the lives of black people. This has toxic implications for the ways in which black people are seen and understood, evidenced in the way ears only seem to prick up when an atrocity is played out and the inevitable discussion of anti-black racism ends up mired in the transatlantic slave trade. That, I have to say, is a white problem and I’m at a loss of how to deal with it from within my brown skin.
I’m half Somali and I am aware that historically that a small number of Somalis benefited from a highly profitable long lived trade in the Bantu people so don’t @ me. But in the same way that I have no direct relationship with the transatlantic slave trade, I have none with that one either. I’m an Anglo-Somali transracial adoptee. What I do know is the term is Somali not Somalian unlike the knuckle dragging troll David Vance and his ear licking followers who revelled in the fact that the knife attacks in Birmingham this September were perpetrated by an asylum seeker who appears to have come from there. Somalia to me is the place that Sada Mire talks about and it’s an interesting, ancient place not the dust bowl of chaos we’ve become accustomed to because that is how it is portrayed. The work I make, the life I live, is grounded in this. I experienced racism that is informed by attitudes made large by the British Empire, and the work I make may well address the way these attitudes resonate in the world I inhabit. Ultimately, all of my work emanates from the way light falls on things and how substrate and process can show this. This is what I do.
I can talk about transatlantic slave trade in the same way I can talk about the Holocaust. In fact, having lived in Krakow for three years, I can talk with a greater degree of personal knowledge of the effects and artifacts scattered across the city, (and there are many) than I could possibly hope to do about the transatlantic slave trade in Worcestershire where I grew up. Though they are there, oh yes, they are definitely there. I can talk about the shift in attitudes and willingness to engage with the guilt, loss and horror of the destruction of the Jewish presence in Poland that was bought about by the location filming of Schindler’s List. I can also talk about it’s rapid monetisation because I observed it happening while I lived there. The current unseemly race to put black faces on the covers of magazines, black people into roles previously, tediously, white reminds me of this. There is something disingenuous about it. I find myself thinking, I’ll check back on this in a while and see how the agenda has performed, but I’m not expecting kingfishers. This cynicism was seriously pimped by black squares, brown fists and other bollocks on the insta accounts of people who I know have dismissed my concerns about their dodgy comments on race in the past. I decoupled a few followers in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd as a direct result. I’m not sure that helped beyond a moment of fuck you bucko, but fuck you bucko works for me, so talk to the hand etc.
I’m just as brown as I was before George Floyd was murdered; just as adopted; just as female; just as keen to learn more about the half of me nobody else bothered to know about; just as nerdily interested in papers and emulsions and making the stuff in my head turn into tangible, touchable and hopefully beautiful things. I want to be able to address my experiences in the work I make. But just like explaining transracial adoption is a chore because people get beached on the question of if I have or have not ever been to the Somalia they know about, nobody seems much interested in the lived experience in situ without a great deal of preamble. But it’s that experience that underpins who I am and the art I make. I shouldn’t have to explain that there are ancient olive groves in Somalia, there are incredible rock paintings at Laas Geel, I shouldn’t have to be the person who introduces you to the work of Sada Mire and other notable, interesting people, but I do.
In the same way the lives of black people seem to make it into the headlines when those lives are at the sharp end of some traumatic horror that leads to the soul searching; the statue toppling; the riots and further spectacle. It’s stressful and depressing to witness. It would be as unseemly for me to address the chaos in the USA as it is for Dana Schutz’s repugnant ‘Open Casket’ to be shown pretty much anywhere, and as for Christoph Büchel’s resurrected refugee boat, I’m ahead of you.
Black history is human history. Conversations need to begin in other places. Just like when we look at the pyramids, it might help to not say they were built by this or that pharaoh, but for or better still, because of the power that they had somehow come by. If that was the way we talked about history and how we came to be where we now are, it might mean the end of chest thumping, winners and losers and it might mean that when we talk about black history, then it wouldn’t sum up as mostly harmed and potential allies wouldn’t think #alllivesmatter wasn’t the egregious insult that is so palpably is.