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Issue 203

How Artists Are Using the Power of Personal Histories to Tackle the Legacy of Colonialism

Artists Barby Asante, Libita Clayton and Ashley Holmes are reimagining what it means to go back home

BY Kadish Morris in Features , Thematic Essays | 26 APR 19

A man once told me to ‘go back to where I came from’. It’s something I often think about. What did he envisage? That the Home Office might clip the corner of my burgundy passport before ushering me onto a one-way charter flight? It’s not that far-fetched. The ongoing Windrush scandal has seen hundreds of people deported to the Caribbean despite building their lives in the UK. Or did he imagine the journey as a pilgrimage? Could I, we, go back to where we came from by virtue of Google searches, sifting through archival documents and having painstaking conversations with family and community members? In the 1996 documentary on his life, A Great and Mighty Walk, the US historian and pioneer in Pan-African studies John Henrik Clarke spoke of the importance of the past: ‘History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography.’ For people whose heritage isn’t linear, going back home is as much a personal coming-of-age long-haul as it is a tale of remigration or diasporic return. Barby Asante, Libita Clayton and Ashley Holmes, as people of the African diaspora, are three UK artists whose recent work is about revisitation, the power of personal histories, the practice of archiving and the legacy of colonialism.

Libita Clayton, Quantum Ghost, 2019, installation view, Gasworks, London. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Andy Keate

Clayton’s work gravitates toward the unearthing of intimate and public information. Her solo exhibition earlier this year at London’s Gasworks, ‘Quantum Ghost’, saw the Bristol-based artist tracing her family tree between Cornwall and, via a mining connection, to the southern African country of Namibia, while concomitantly decoding her personal relationship to these landscapes. A shepherd in this work is the artist’s late father, who disappeared during her youth. As a member of the South West African People’s Organisation, a political movement that fought for Namibia’s independence from South African apartheid rule, he met Clayton’s mother while studying mining in Cornwall after going into exile in the 1980s. In Clayton’s work, we bear witness to the gale behind this absence, to how a childhood curiosity can transform into a search party later in life. Using sound archaeology as a way of evoking the past, Clayton employs field recordings from Cornish tin mines as well as Namibian pink salt lakes and uranium mines to create a multi-channel audio installation that is intended, according to the artist, to summon ‘a polyphony of ancestral voices in the form of a lament’. The manifestation of this excavation is a tunnelled, cave-like structure made from cob: a mixture of clay, sand and straw. Walking through it is like travelling into the red-tinted abyss of Clayton’s subconscious. The enclosure – which exudes the eerie textural rhythms of slow-moving magma and the radioactive decay of uranium into lead – feels like the physical coalescence of her recollections navigating the world as a mixed-race woman, the fragmented stories of her earlier years re-told by family members, and the imagined testimonies of her progenitors extracted from the land during her expeditions.

During a lecture programmed in conjunction with the exhibition, Clayton projected slides of herself as a child in the arms of her African aunties. She has no memory of this moment but, like many without concrete knowledge or proof of their ancestral links, the phantoms of her forebears have become her guardians of sort. In the West African-originated Yoruba religion, practised in countries including Nigeria and Trinidad, such a guide would be referred to as your Itefa or primary ancestor.

Barby Asante, Declaration of Independence, 2019, installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Colin Davison 

In her essay ‘The Personal Is Political’ (1969), Carol Hanisch writes: ‘I’ve been forced to take off the rose-coloured glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. I am getting a gut understanding of everything as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings I had in “other people’s” struggles.’ The idea that subjective experience is relevant to political discourse gives necessary value to empirical evidence. Fact-based research may outweigh personal testimonies in traditional Western methodology but the vitality and richness of oral history lies in its ability to add texture while offering nuanced observations of the past. Consider, for example, the significance of griots in West African societies. Originating during the 13th century in the Mande empire of Mali, they were the community members with the strongest memories, who could pass down stories relating to empire and cultural traditions.

The artist, curator and educator Barby Asante, whose work centres around the mapping of stories and the probing of given narratives through live experiences and staging, puts a focus on re-evaluating the past. In 2012, she presented the ‘South London Black Music Archive’ – which preserves and explores the personal relationships of local residents to moments in Black music history – at London’s Peckham Space. As well as displaying memorabilia, the exhibition also made clear that first-hand accounts are as worthy of treasuring as relics. Asante’s personal experiences pervade her practice – rightly so, given how little airtime the media affords Black women. For example, John Ridley’s six-part mini-series, ‘Guerilla’ (2017), which dramatizes the British Black Power movements of the 1970s, features no Black women in prominent roles and is just one instance among many that erases marginalized peoples’ contributions to significant political moments. This is why it is paramount that we tell our own stories. For those who have been ignored by traditional outlets or platforms, being candid and confessional is always a radical act.

Barby Asante, ‘South London Black Music Archive’, 2012, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Peckham Space, London; photograph: John Clare

When I recently spoke with Asante, she relayed her qualms about creating archives: firstly, they require space and, secondly, they run the risk of fixing knowledge. Her belief in elevating voice over document is demonstrated in her current solo exhibition at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. Titled ‘Declaration of Independence’, it explores the importance of collective thinking, ritual and re-enactment. The artist creates an assembly-like space that can be used to negotiate treaties of independence, coalitions and trade deals and gathers womxn of colour to reflect on how the legacies of slavery and colonialism have shaped them. One by one, they share their manifestos in a live video forum. ‘And we rejoice that, despite Babylon, we have not been dispatched with bullets. Not been policed off of the earth. Or medicated ourselves to death. Smeared ourselves with oblivion. Bleached our skins,’ declares one speaker. There’s something emancipating about Asante using her access to a public space to showcase the visceral proclamations of historically oppressed people. The exhibition makes clear that change is only possible when we acknowledge the value of speaking and listening. But, as Reni Eddo-Lodge writes in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2018): ‘It’s truly a lifetime of self-censorship that people of colour have to live. The options are: speak your truth and face the reprisals or bite your tongue and get ahead in life.’ Therefore, building environments that do not deter those who are less privileged from being vocal is arguably the genesis of reform.

Is it apposite to ask if looking back can also be about looking forward? Ashley Holmes’s work, which is based in and around the collection and preservation of sonic material, supports this case. The Sheffield-based artist uses archival footage to hypothesize about the future. His video work Forward (2018) is comprised of still images of events during the period when lovers rock – a romantic style of reggae that originated in London in the early 1970s – was at its height. Holmes’s regard for the genre, kindled by his parents’ connection to it, is about re-articulating and repeating the material of yesteryear in order to gain new understanding of the Black British struggle. He is also very much concerned with present-day heritage: the ways in which Black Britishness is currently being constructed, also in relation to other diasporic identities, such as Black Americanness.

Ashley Holmes, ‘Cry Then Win Then Lose Reaction’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Two Queens, Leicester

In his 2018 solo show, ‘Cry Then Win Then Lose Reaction’, at Two Queens in Leicester, the project cry then win then lose (2018) was installed on six monitors in the centre of the space. The work samples YouTube videos of US hip-hop fans reacting to clips of UK grime and drill music. This transatlantic exchange sees the listeners grappling with a slang and tempo that is alien to them. While this work features recent found footage, it feeds into a years-old conversation about the complexities that exist within the intersection of Blackness and nationality. The videos highlight the chasm between the two geographical groups but also illustrate how we still seem to be living in the early days of the internet. While African-American culture has been globally syndicated for decades via television, music and film, Black British culture has received less attention. A 2017 article in The Guardian by Yomi Adegoke speaks to the difficulties of visibility: ‘If Black Britons aren’t fighting our way out from behind the shadow of white Brits, then we’re often attempting to be heard over the “Black” discourse usually centred on the Black American experience.’ As Holmes’s work illustrates, the internet, however, supports reciprocity and helps to record the relationships between communities with analogous backstories.

From Clayton visiting Cornwall’s Camborne School of Mines and asking them to show her ‘all of their pictures that feature Black people’ to Asante’s investigation of legal and colonial practices to Holmes’s cataloguing of Black UK cultural production, these artists are venturing to uncover truths, events and activities that would otherwise remain eclipsed. Surveying their work reveals how an autobiography is an archive in itself. Equal parts soul-searching and untangling of lineage, these investigations aren’t dissimilar to those of non-artists: many born as a consequence of colonialism and mass displacement embark upon similar journeys of ancestral discovery. As celebrated Somali-British poet Warsan Shire said in a 2012 interview with The Well&Often Reader: ‘Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.’ Or, perhaps home is the journey itself, and the encountering of others who look like you, trekking down the same path, feeling homesick for a land they may never have set foot upon, is where some refuge can be found.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘Going Back Home’

Main image: Barby Asante, Declaration of Independence, 2019, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead; photograph: Colin Davison

Kadish Morris is editorial assistant and staff writer of frieze, based in London, UK.