It was 2:36am. I was having trouble sleeping. I did that thing of unconsciously reaching for my smartphone beside my bed and began to read through emails. There was an invitation from a curator called Christine Eyene requesting to view my video work Afrophobia created in 2007 for an exhibition she was curating in Brussels. I was wide awake now. After sending Christine the 7 min video work via dropbox she was happy to include it in the upcoming show titled Where We’re At! Other voices on gender to be shown at BOZAR Bruxelle Palais Des Beaux-Arts (Centre for Fine Arts). A support letter from BOZAR and a successful travel grant application to the Australia Council for the Arts got me on a plane. I was on my way to Belgium!
“WHERE WE’RE AT! Other voices on gender brings together women photographers and video artists of African, Caribbean and Pacific cultural background, developing gender discourses in their art. Conceived as part of the Summer of Photography 2014 centered on Gender Relations, the project presents the work of practitioners who have made significant contributions to the participation and visibility of women in the arts since the 1980s. ” (Bozar website)
It was a whirlwind, jam packed, full of goodness 5 day trip to Brussels to attend the opening event and public programs. Being amongst so many other women of colour, conversing and seeing how they are using their bodies within their own practices validated the work I had made and compelled me to continue making work that relates to the black female body. I had found my people and my community of practice.
I became aware of art histories that were and are still relevant to me and other women of colour whose bodies and histories remain hidden. Art histories such as the Black arts movements in Britain, queer and trans-gender practices, performative gender, body trauma, Orientalism, racism and social history, politics of hair all conveyed through art, public dialogues and breakfast conversations over waffles and earl grey tea. Most importantly, I got to see images of black women portraying themselves their way. The photographic image is a powerful tool in constructing the self and collective identity. It was so liberating and validating to have Afrophobia, a work I made 7 years ago whilst at university find a space that connected me and opened up an avenue learning beyond the silence of countless critical review sessions at my Australian arts school. I don’t miss those days.
I struggled big time to gain any comprehension or valid support from my peers for the work I was interested in making at art school, particularly around issues such as Pacific diasporic identity, cross cultural identity and the lack of representation of black people in Australian media and history. It led me to anger, frustration and to the library to read critical writers such as Coco Fusco, bell hookes, Michelle Wallace and Franz Fanon amongst others.
Being included in Where We’re At! Other voices on gender significantly helped me understand my practice in a global context, beyond Australia. This was a good thing.
A few of my favourite moments
I had the most invigorating and insightful discussions with many of the artists and curators that were present for opening events. Pamela Dlungwana traveled from Johannesburg to represent and speak about the queer media platform Ikanyiso, supporting LGBTIQ communities in South Africa conceived by artist Zanele Muholi. Pamela taught me about the complexities of using language to define marginalised LGBTIQ communities in a predominantly conservative, pious South Africa. Pamela spoke in detail about this with curator Christine Eyene – Difficult Love: Zanele Muholi Debate BOZAR (30 min video)
Steven Cohen, Jewish South African born performance artist who lives and works in France taught me the power of using the queer male body to clown and challenge patriarchal systems. During the Transgenderism panel discussion, he made such a compelling case of verifying the male gaze in patriarchal and homophobic societies, such as France, where a female performance artist is applauded and acquitted for exposing their genitals more than once publicly and he gets arrested and fined thousands of dollars for doing a similar act.
Shigeyuki Kihara, Sāmoan artist and Fa’afafine was a guiding light in navigating the European art world. I learned much from Yuki, she challenged, enlightened and made me laugh in many ways. I greatly appreciated having a fellow Pacific artist to converse with, particularly at times when during our joint artist talk, you hear people laugh or guffaw when you try and explain the concept of the Wan Solwara / Pacific ocean, lands and people being connected as one. I clearly remember Yuki’s comment shortly after “they didn’t get it” in relation to the overall presentation of the array of artists and our practices.
Alberta Whittle artist and researcher from Barbados, taught me how to read the body and gesture in photography. Alberta’s work at BOZAR explored performance and gender roles in Caribbean Fete Posters. Alberta and I had an exchanged moment of learning where I helped her with a technical video issue she was having and she deconstructed an ethnographic image I had been examining for my Masters research. It was an image of Tolai women and men, most of whom had little to no clothing on. Their bodies gestures spoke loudly of their pride and lack of shame regarding their bodies. Standing in the same image is a very well known Methodist Missionary’s wife, dressed in classic 19th century Victorian garb clearly showing discomfort whilst standing among ‘the natives.’
Marlene Smith was not present, but her work was resonating, it is part of a Black Arts Archive project Making Histories Visible led by Lubaina Himid MBE Professor of Contemporary Art and supported by Christine Eyene Research Guild Fellow. Hearing Christine talk about this research of Black Artists in Britain in the 1980’s and how it fed into the framework of the exhibition was eye opening. I was particularly moved when I read Marlene Smith’s text within this work that was exhibited.
I made this piece for us.
I am trying to make an image of a
Do you know her?
This image is not about faces, eyes. lips.
breasts, thighs, hips………………………………..
This is an image about living a life.
Do you know it?
As a child I dusted flowers like the ones in
this piece. Then I hated them.
Today, placing them in this context
I am using them as a vehicle
around which I make images of
ourselves and our struggle.
The hatred vanquished.
The understanding is developing.
I made this image
of a Black woman for us.
Do you know her?
All text and images by Lisa Hilli, except where cited.