The shape of things bursary has given me the opportunity to develop a new body of work that aims to explore and reflect, for an ethnically diverse audience, on the question of National Identity and what it means to be British, in particular for those who identify as Black.
The Title “Negotiations’ is significant. Clearly everybody, regardless of race, ethnicity, class or gender has had, at some time in their lives, to adjust, compromise and effectively become socialized into the prevailing dominant culture. However, the extent to which our group is required to negotiate, alter and transform itself is contingent on the power relationship we have been assigned within the culture.
When trying to discuss the way in which we, as black people, are forced to negotiate our place within a white majority culture and the ways in which these negotiations manifest themselves, it is impossible not to talk about Racism.
For me, it is evident that Racism plays a key role in maintaining a capitalist, oppressive society – people of colour are the vast majority of the world. The economies of the ‘over developed’ world are, and have been for hundreds of years, dependent on harnessing the strength and muscle power of the world’s non- white population.
Even a rudimentary knowledge of the history of Slavery and Colonialism leaves no doubt about the extreme lengths to which Europeans have gone to develop and maintain ideological justifications for the continued exploitation of black people. However, the laws and practices enforced by the state were often sustained through social representations and controlling images that suggested that this treatment was not only justifiable but also inevitable and natural. The idea that black people are not the same as white people, (physically and emotionally), has been consistently used as a prime excuse to treat us differently.
The stereotype of black people as Other, as outsider, as inherently different, has been in existence for almost as long as black people have been in Britain,* This is, of course, a label we have shared over the last 300 years with Jews, Chinese, Irish and ‘Gypsies’. The creation of the outsider, (the individual or group deemed Other), as strange and inferior also allows for the construction of the insider. All those deemed not to belong to the group labeled different can be reassured of their normality!
So how do you negotiate to be normal?
Can the definition of ‘normalcy’ be broadened and fully embracing or do we continue to internalize the racism that excludes us?
In the majority of the pieces for the exhibition I have identified some of the ways we have been forced or sometimes seduced into negotiating and settling for less.
The images are a small selection, a snap shot, of some of the ways we internalise our oppression; to put it simply, we are fed the misinformation, the racism, that distorts who we are and our true nature. How the misinformation makes us feel and how those feelings make us act is internalised racism.
Using images from my own life, growing up in Britain in the 50’s, and 60’s I have looked for visual metaphors, memories and symbols to illustrate some of the early messages I and countless other young black children received at school, on the play ground and – in the case of the black and white minstrel show – on television in our homes. How confusing it was to try and make sense of the often-contradictory images.
The body of work also includes an installation called “Step Out of the Shadows”, a critique of the beautification industry and the seduction of skin lightening. We need to look at the ways in which we are invited to testify against ourselves, against our beauty;**
The ways in which we have been so skillfully targeted, allowing extreme and often dangerous treatments to be presented as entirely normal and reasonable, is alarming.
To have an opportunity to broaden the dialogue and challenge the view that the desire to lighten one’s skin and be as white as possible is about ‘personal choice’, or is the same as white people going to the tanning booth, could not to be missed!
*Peter Fryer, “Staying Power”.
**Audre Lorde ‘Charting the Journey’.