in Interviews | 04 SEP 92
Featured in
Issue 6

Island Stories

Keith Piper in conversation

in Interviews | 04 SEP 92

Ameena Meer: I know your back-ground in that you went eventually to the Royal College of Art and all the rest is in those impressive biographies in the back of the cata-logues, but how did you become an artist? It's not a...

Keith Piper: ...worthwhile thing to do?
Well, in immigrant communities, it's not looked well upon. In an Asian family, if a boy said he wanted to be an artist when he grew up, his parents would just die.
As far as my mum and dad were concerned, it wasn't a real job. Especially since I was interested in doing conceptual work: assemblage and collage, stuff which was non- focused in terms of theme.

I met Eddie Chambers, who was, at that time, an overtly political didact, making work that was extremely issue-based. My move into that kind of work wasn't instant, but over a year or so, I began to explore a wide range of ideas. I was influenced more by the kind of music I was listening to: early reggae, that was quite politically conscious, like Steel Pulse, Aswad and Burning Spear; and the books I was reading - Black male writers like Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, Huey Newton, Malcolm X; and my social group, rather than by visual art.

How did you get into the writing? There are texts of yours in the catalogues and you write the voice-over for the video. Most visual artists would have someone else do that.

I can't write. I don't think of myself as a writer. In the catalogues, it's an attempt to explain the work, to supplement the work with background. I have to express my ideas on paper, because I'm always sending proposals off to try and get funding. Writing is a way of contextualizing my ideas. It's also an efficient way of fixing ideas. The world's all over the place, you have no control over the potential range of readings. But you can write...

So you can make sure they know what you're doing?

Not make sure. You see, over the past four years, I've moved away from wanting to communicate the 'correct' position or orientation. But because we all occupy a range of contradictory spaces, I'm now attempting to raise a few issues and juggle them around a bit. Without a clear conclusion.

How did your family, coming from a Christian fundamentalist background react to the questions you raise in A Ship Called Jesus?

They're not exposed to that much of my work. The Ikon show was around the corner from where they work, and I don't think my mum went to see it. My dad went and laughed. They've seen the catalogue, but they haven't read it. It runs against the orthodoxies that they hold dear. They assume that's just my own individual position.

In the catalogues for A Ship Called Jesus and Step Into the Arena you refer a lot to Black American History, which I know about, but I don't know much about Black British History. I wonder if I missed references.

In A Ship Called Jesus, there are references there to the community which I come from. The experience of my family's immigration from the West Indies in the 50s, to a consolidation of a space in the 60s and my dad himself as a product of those spaces. That's a shortened version. A lot has happened...

Your parents are first-generation immigrants.

Yes. So obviously, that is not the only type of Black British experience. There are communities who have been here for 400 years. And the Trophies of Empire project is an initial attempt to explore those long and wide histories. But, looking at the history of the Black Church, you obviously have to draw illustrations from the States, especially if you're going to talk about the times the Black Church becomes overtly political, like in the American Civil Rights movement. We haven't had that long history here, even though a lot has happened in Britain.

What has happened here?

It's a completely different dynamic. The experi-ence was one of people coming here and encoun-tering a racist response in the established church and having to rebuild the institution. Those Black Churches didn't move on to a political front in this country. It's all been elsewhere, from work-ers' organisations to activists in education.

I keep talking to people here, Americans and English, who say that the racism in England isn't nearly as bad as it is in the US.

It's different.

What do you mean?

Here people weren't systematically denied a voice and a vote, which was what finally mobilised the Civil Rights movement. So if you compare that overt racism, segregation and keeping people politically disenfranchised, there's a different type of racism which we encounter here. I don't know if you can say which has been worse.

I'm talking now about day-to-day experiences. I notice a lot more hostility in Britain, in people's reaction to me. Someone told me that West Indians have integrated much better than Asians into the mainstream community - that Asians keep to themselves and that's why there's so much hostility towards us.

That's a simplistic view which doesn't recognise how different communities are made up, how things change across generations, how young people who were born and brought up here are interfacing with each other and the wider community. The racism differs because of the ways in which different groups are fixed, and the stereo-types which have grown around different races. But can one say it's greater or less? And does that make any sense or is it useful?

How about segregation in terms of the art world here? in New York, there are about five Black, meaning African-American, Asian, South Asian, artists you see in mainstream galleries and I don't count Jean-Michel Basquiat because he's dead. So you've got Sam Gilliam, Renée Green, Fred Wilson, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, and Glen Ligon - who else? Is that the case here?

Once again, I'm not sure about the process by which those artists in the States come to that level of visibility. In terms of this country, it's a very specific history. Black artists, from the 3os all the way to the Los were seen as completely outside the modern mainstream, with just a few excep-tions. From the early 8os,there was an upsurge of interest in the work of Black artists, but it was qualified. There was a specific interest in work which expressed a particular type of Black experi-ence and identity, as opposed to an interest in work that was integral part of the contemporary British art world.

Which artists in particular?

Those who came out of that particular historical moment like Sonia Boyce, Claudette Johnson and Donald Rodney. From early on in the 80s - I first saw Sonia's work in 1981 - they were establishing a space in which they could discuss and integrate the styles and aesthetics which came out of their history and their parents' homes. And that led to a wave of work in the 80s which referenced those spaces and those aesthetics. Those artists came from African backgrounds, but there is also a whole wave of Asian artists who are doing the same thing with their background. They're evolving an aesthetic of that - Zarina Bhimji, Sitpa Biswas, and Allan De Souza and someone like Gavin Jantjes, even though he's not Asian, but he was part of that movement.

What were the riots in the 70s and 80s about?

They were about all different Black issues, from industrial disputes involving Asian labourers who were not given proper health protection, National Front events, about the way of policing young Black males of Caribbean origin who were fixed in the police mind as potential criminals. Protesters were often attacked by the police. There were riots all over the country in different Black communi-ties.

Like the Rodney King riots?

Nothing really on that scale - the L.A. riots were huge. But yes, there were confrontations that would last for a number of days with fires and clashes.

How was that resolved? Was there any change?

In the period from 1974-83, those riots led to Black issues being placed on the political agenda. As a result, some changes were made, but they were all quite cosmetic. And in terms of local authorities attempting to foster a type of Black creativity, monies were made available. But, of course, the people who have the skills and the language to apply for those projects and get those funds weren't the people who were out there rioting. The middle class college-educated Black people got the benefit, much in the way it hap-pened in the States, with the fledgling Black middle-class riding on the back of the rioting underclass. There were changes, but not ... ...very much. So for a young Black person in England, how does that resolve itself?

As an individual sitting here in my study, I can't speak for Black youth... A lot of Black issues were co-opted by the liberal establishment. But I don't think it disappeared, it's still simmering there. I have friends who were in the riots who now have 14 year-old kids, and they're still aware, in the way they tell their kids how to conduct themselves in the street.

The only reference I ever saw to it was in Hanif Kureishi's Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. It seemed to just disappear. No one wears 'Remember Brixton' T-shirts.

That's not true at all. Perhaps Sammy and Rosie was the only commercial film, but there was Black Audio's Handsworth Song, Sankofa's Territories, there was poetry, and artists like Eddie Chambers made work about the riots. Marlene Smith made a particularly poignant piece around the Cherry Grove killing, Aswad and Steel Pulse had songs referring to the riots. And I think now, with the heaviest recession Britain's had in years, it could easily explode again. There are already riots in housing estates.

In relation to that, and A Ship Called Jesus -there doesn't seem to be a Black Muslim move-ment in Britain.

There are Muslims in Britain now, it is increas-ing. Obviously, there is a large Asian Muslim community here which has recently been quite vocal. In terms of Black Muslims, as connected to the Nation of Islam in the States, it's made inroads and, while it isn't as huge as in States, there is a mosque in Brixton. It's the Afrocentric, Black Culture-nationalistic form that's its appeal. In the past few decades, its impact wasn't quite so strong, in comparison to the impact of the Rasta-farian movement, in terms of that kind of Afro-centricity, how our identity exists, on our own, being of African descent and all that stuff. But now, that Rasta thing has lost its political image and its space is being filled by Black Muslims -especially among young people who are exposed to the ideas in music and rap by the ethnicised rappers who identify themselves with the Nation of Islam.

What's the premise behind the Trophies of Empire show?

To give contemporary artists a chance to respond to themes which were linked to this country's history of Empire and colonial expansion. More specifically, the history of ports as they grew in response to Empire and Atlantic trade. Bristol and Liverpool are the principle examples of that expansion.

When you refer to Trophies of Empire, are you referring to objects, things that were brought back from the colonies, or the culture of Empire, or the art work...

I'm talking about...

Or are we the trophies of empire?

Well, the interpretation of the Trophies is as wide as you'd like it to be - basically the various ongoing legacies of the Empire, whether expressed in communities of people, cultural forms, actual physical landscapes of towns, buildings or monuments, ongoing economic relationships, or things which are woven into the culture and the language which we use, which are linked to the whole period. It's as broad as you like. And the artists are taking a wide range of interpretations of this whole thing. One artist actually worked with a trophy case, full of tro-phies. One is working with plants, the spheres that botanists used when they went off to Australia and all sorts of strange places and collected plants which they brought back and labelled. That's another expression of Empire. I mean, it's a whole range of things.

What's your piece?

It's called Tradewinds. I don't actually know what the piece is about. It's still developing. Physically, it's 12 video monitors, each one in a packing crate and running an animation. And the animation is based around waves and sea and moving water, cargo crates and different objects floating around. It's to do with how trade relationships in the slave trade were established and how those relation-ships are echoed in contemporary shipping and global markets, all that kind of stuff. It's all there. That's what the piece is.

You make your pieces on an Amiga computer?

Increasingly, yes. My work has always been about collage, accumulating things from here and there and bringing them together. And an Amiga is a good means of reducing images or sounds or translating them to a common form, collage or manipulated images. So over the past three or four years, I've been working with new technolo-gies to make things. It's a learning process in finding the best way to get things into the comput-er and out again. Now, I'm working with anima-tion, animating computer montages.

So your new stuff won't stay still?

Everything I've been working on recently and what's in the pipeline are all animation. I like working in that area. It's clean, there's no spray adhesive or bits of paper.

We've been talking about Black American history, but who do people take as role models in Britain?

Role models? I can't speak for anyone else and in terms of young people out there, I don't know if the whole idea of role models works at all -whether people actually need a kind of role model in order to do what they do, or if people just do what they want to.

Well, we all grew up with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and for Muslim kids growing up in the States, Malcolm X was ours. He was a really important role model for me, in terms of imagining myself as an American Muslim. Or, even though he was less eloquent, someone like Mohammed Ali. My question is, for people here, does that have the same kind of relevance, or do they have other 'heroes' or role models?

Well, recently, there was a documentary about this whole new wave of interest specifically in Mal-colm X amongst people who were born in 1973. So his stance and writings are reactivating a whole new generation. But, it's strange, the choices people make, plucking things out of history and making them relevant. I wonder about those choices and why it's specifically Malcolm X, not someone else. Because he's someone quite complex.

In the U.S., Malcolm X isn't in the textbooks. You learn about Martin Luther King, but they don't teach Malcolm X because he was dangerous.

Malcolm X is interesting because he was quite ambiguous, in terms of his writings, and how he changed. What makes Malcolm X's work impor-tant as an ongoing issue is that, now, after his death, all these different groups claim they are the real fulfilment of his legacy, because at his death he was moving towards where they are now. And that's a whole range of groups right across the political spectrum who are effectively remaking Malcolm X in their own image. From the Black Panthers, who possibly had the greatest claim, to Spike Lee. People point to him as someone who's very straight-talking, when in fact he's a figure who's very much open to interpretation. But because of his ambiguity, others can use his words the way they want.

Are there people who are comparable to Malcolm X in influence in this country? Not at all. Obviously, we have no contemporary political figures, none who can begin to claim a wide appeal. The only person with that impor-tance alive now is Nelson Mandela, but he's not British. And he was much more respected when he was in prison. When he came out, he stopped being a symbol and he had to became a real politician. There isn't anyone else. I can't think why that is the case. The best we can do is Bernie Grant, the M.P., I kind of like him, but he's not -or Darcus Howe, you know - oh please, it's not the same thing at all.