Responses to Soul of a Nation…

I was invited by Zinzi Minott and Imani Robinson, alongside Errol Anderson and Joy Miessi, to participate in ‘Work It Out’ a workshop at Tate Modern as part of the public programme of events alongside their current Soul of a Nation exhibition. 

The brief for the text that I am sharing here was to make a 10 minute presentation on my practice and reflections to the exhibition, to open a group discussion around a contemporary Black British context for ‘art in the age of Black Power’.

I find it easier at the moment to move rather than to speak, a place where I do not need to deal with the complications created in the gaps between perceived and intended meaning. It’s 22:40 on Friday night, the night before I am due to deliver this presentation, and I am clutching at straws trying to imagine relevant ways to speak about my practice or imagine my practice at all. It all feels like a void…but maybe I am just tired. So, a stream of consciousness:


I struggle – I feel like it would maybe be more on trend to say ‘grapple’ – with meaning, at this point, I do not know about ‘Meaning’, I am possessed by feeling and an instinct for survival. In this moment, where there is demand (from institutions at least) for ‘political’ art, I am often asking myself what it is that makes something ‘Art’, maybe more so than what it might be that makes something political. All actions contain a politic, all thoughts processed through ideology but I am curious about the art part, the thing that weaponises the statement, represents the reality more clearly than the reality itself whilst doing away with the possibility for singular realities, something my body encounters and my mind rearranges itself around…transgressions, transcendence…understanding as sensing…
I participate in a few ‘professional’ conversations, public and as research, and we often say we want the conversation to be productive (too much of a capitalist agenda); generative (privileges the tangible and the immediate and expansion); now I have started to say that I want these conversations to be Transformative. It made me smile that this was also what Zinzi [Minott] said regarding this conversation in our meeting on Thursday. That’s the thing right now: FUCKING TRANSFORMATION. Not change, shift, little by little but actually transformation. I had a teacher in Year Three – and these were the days when the curriculum in the UK seemed less strict – and this teacher loved science and she would always say, it was her motto, “Energy is the go of things” and “energy cannot be made or destroyed, only transformed”. This stays with me and informs my practice.
Walking through the exhibition I hear this sentiment echoed in a quote from Frank Bowling, about the way that black artists disrupt conventions of signification in their work, imbuing the signifier with new ‘meaning’ about experience that was not initially represented. Feelings make facts. David Hammons in Room 6 is quoted “I feel it my moral obligation as a Black artist, to try to graphically document what I feel socially”.
At the moment my work is a lot about energy transformation. Arriving in a space, feeling it out, letting it in, processing it and transforming it into something else. I guess you think about this as sampling, remixing, collage, ritual, trance….


There’s this annoying debate about abstraction that is referred to in Room 10 – can black artists make abstract art? Should black artists make abstract art or is that shirking responsibility? can black artists make art that isn’t political?

I realised something the other day, which is that I cannot be a Contemporary Dancer. I thought that I was, I trained for years in ‘Contemporary Dance’, I have an MA in Contemporary Dance but actually, what I do, cannot be that, will always disrupt that or otherwise become an obstacle for me.
Can black artists do contemporary dance? Can black artists make abstract art? In a way, always no, because we do not have the privilege of pseudo-neutrality aka whiteness – perhaps this is sometimes possible to gain when your body (or your name) are not visibly racialised in your work, but I walk down the road and I know full well that everything I do is loaded here, that my being presents a threat, there is no “freedom from representation” or ability to deal with “ideas rather than events” because my black body appears in front of you with a history of events, encounters, death. But new languages are always being created and what was once abstract is now an aesthetic convention and ‘abstract’ is also often a word used to describe a person’s perceived distance from the thing.
This energy work I am doing, it is on one level a strategy for attempting to engage with a public or an audience as many, not a singular mass. There are different conversations to be had with different people but when you don’t choose – or even know – who is in a space and engaging with your work, it feels important to try to acknowledge that this. I have seen – and felt sadness and erasure at – too many shows that are by black and poc artists that address themselves to a white audience, I am sure I have also done this, it is a gaze that I think I have had to internalise for survival but it feels very important to try not to continue this culture of exclusion and centring of whiteness. How to have many conversations at once? How to hold all the contradictions and conflict and continue? In discussion with someone I work with, they said that in discussions about the work I “open all the doors” and they wanted to close them so that we could ‘focus’. I found this very interesting, I think about focus as some kind of epic holistic awareness and want to find all the ‘doors’ possible, open them, and feel the breeze.


Room 10 speaks to improvisation. This is another word I struggle with. I describe what I do as dancing. It is technical, it is improvised, it is no freer than I am, it is choreographed, it is experimental as it is working its way from knowns and into unknowns. The way that this word ‘improvisation’ privileges certain kinds of knowledges I do not think is helpful for black experience and black art when lack of representation is a thing, and experience is your reference point because there is no book in the local library that will explain the situation to you. (This is said, I hope the collections in the libraries I frequented as a teenager, desperately looking for myself, have changed) Feelings have to become facts, and we need to validate them ourselves. Fantasies and visions become Guides.


Improvisation is defined in this dictionary here (google): “create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation”. Running through this text, I guess is the idea that everything can be material; one of the most striking works in this show for me is the tights Zinzi referenced by Senga Nengudi. I think life is preparation enough for art making. One of the questions I ask myself a lot is, what is here already? And what can be done with it? Objects, energy, ideology, power structures, the tensions between things that we call relationships.
My work is currently with emotionality, sadness, attempts to produce states of alienation and discord and to find the music, the flow in these tensions, accepting that I am at odds with my environment and the processes of hybridisation that produce me mean that I am at odds with myself. It sounds a bit spiritual but it looks more pop. Maybe.
I wonder about the curation of the exhibition, the journey could perhaps have been designed with a logic that relates to that history, those intentions, a vision of and a struggle for a world that doesn’t centre whiteness and exploit and crush blackness, could it employ those strategies used by artists working to create (intentionally or by virtue of history) a Black aesthetic tradition? I am struck by the experience of moving through that space full of art that describes, represents, presents, produces complex experience as a black body, as a living body. What if chronology shifted from the calendar logic? What if locations of the production of the work or the artist’s birth were not mentioned? What if Nationhood was not invoked? What if different forms of contextualisation were presented? What if the gaps and absences were marked? What if we were not spat out into the shop? What if it wasn’t called ‘Soul of a Nation’ but actually referenced some kind of embodiment when bodies are the ground on, through and over which the work and politics are activated or enacted?