Published  15/03/2019

Barby Asante – interview: ‘There was real pleasure running through the declarations – we’re trying to influence’

Barby Asante – interview: ‘There was real pleasure running through the declarations – we’re trying to influence’

With Declaration of Independence at the Baltic, Asante makes space for womxn of colour to relate narratives and reflect on the nature of independence


The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art looms over the River Tyne on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Newcastle, decked out with vertical green banners that remind me of a Better leisure centre. Two days after the opening of her exhibition Declaration of Independence, the London-based artist and educator Barby Asante (b1971) is about to hold a performance. As the gallery room is prepared, Asante’s contributor-performers mill around in block-coloured clothes, chatting and gathering for group photographs. There is an expectant air of high energy that arises from everyone’s convergence on this centre for contemporary arts.

At 2pm, the room is opened and we are welcomed into a visually stunning space: a blue bench, curved into a three-quarter circle, is positioned in front of a floating banner comprised of interlocking pastel-coloured shapes. The contributors assemble there and hold hands, swaying gently to music that emanates through the space. I sit next to Cédric Fauq, curator at Nottingham Contemporary, waiting for the performance to begin.

Barby Asante. Declaration of Independence, 2019. BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, installation view. Photo: Colin Davison © 2019 BALTIC.

Asante stands up and names each womxn in the circle, thanking them individually. The declarations that ensue offer a variety of responses to a poem by Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo that, in turn, reflects on the meaning of the country’s independence of 1957, and the dynamics of womxn’s agency through that history. The readings are joyful and moving, echoing Asante’s opening address to “grief and celebration”; their performance culminates in an uprising of music, dancing and hugging that opens the circle to the audience.

I meet Asante the following Thursday in a cafe on Brixton Road, in London, to learn more about the events surrounding Declaration of Independence.

Tom Hastings: Before we talk about the show, I am curious to hear about your formation.

Barby Asante: I studied at the University of East London in the early 1990s, where tutors included filmmakers John Smith and Alia Syed. My assigned tutor, Alison Winckle, participated in the Housewatch film project (1985), while some fellow students were involved in protests around the M11 link road. John made the 1996 film, Blight, about this campaign. From these activities I got a sense of working with community – of a community practice. When I graduated in 1995, I was pregnant. Having a small child and working in schools led me to consider how to incorporate family alongside art-making and to engage with different audiences.

The art world and gallery system felt stark: I recall feeling both attracted to and repulsed by the gallery’s white walls and reflecting that the kinds of images of myself, or anyone like me, that were on display might not be the most liberating ones. Since then, I have navigated this contradiction while working within elite systems.

At that time, Iniva (the Institute of International Visual Arts, in London) was challenging preconceptions through its publication stream. Magazines, such as Black Phoenix, were produced and there were organisations such as 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning. This embodied a rich history of people dealing not just with representation, but with the legacies of colonialism, politics and racism in the time preceding my own development as an artist.

TH: How has the situation changed since the mid-90s, in terms of the institutional framing of blackness or Africanness?

BA: At college, I looked at a lot of artists’ work, such as Rasheed Araeen’s 1977 performance Paki Bastard (Portrait of the Artist As a Black Person). What I think has changed is that a lot of the work we see by young artists is representational. This is not due to the artists themselves so much as the reception of the work: today, the focus by institutions is very much on what it looks like. What we look like. What’s visible and how we are visible.

It’s clear to me that when certain practices and ideas are adopted by the mainstream, something is lost. With many solo shows by artists of colour happening, in a sense, it is our year.

TH: How might you contextualise your practice?

BA: I’ve always worked with people and my practice is based on the collectivity of a coming together. I’ve been thinking a lot about ritual. My practice is rooted in discourses memory, community organising, and decoloniality. Among others, I look to M Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing (2005), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Moving the Centre (1993), the writings of Octavia Butler, and the emergent strategies of Adrienne Maree Brown. If I really took on the ideas of these thinkers, I would not, perhaps, be called an artist. It’s easy to think that it’s as simple as being in the centre, of having “us” in your space. We can’t escape from an exhibition history that would have actually put me on display. By this I mean that the logic of colonial practice is perpetuated through the exhibition format.

Barby Asante: Declaration of Independence, 2019. BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. © 2019 BALTIC.

In the past I’ve encountered organisations that will use an image from the work of black artists, featuring black bodies, to recruit volunteers or employees. I’m one of those people who will question this kind of practice. There’s supposed to be a gratitude that we’ve been given the opportunity to be in the institution/ in the centre – we’re supposed to be happy and affirmed. The beauty of a decolonial analysis is that it provides a larger framework with which to interrogate these processes.

TH: This stunning performance, Declaration of Independence, was first performed at the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. How did it come about?

BA: Declaration of Independence is part of larger project of mine that reflects on the 60th anniversary of Ghana’s Independence from colonial rule, in 1957. I was initially asked to do an engagement project by the Tropenmuseum in the Netherlands – this hasn’t happened yet. But I started doing research and thinking about how to tackle this. I have been looking at Documents and ethnographic collections, and during that process I came across a poem by the Ghanaian poet Ama Ata Aidoo.

I read As Always, a Painful Declaration of Independence over and over again. This poem describes independence not just from imperialism, but also from structural racism and gender inequality. She’s stark about the difference between man and woman, black and white, while not pretending to know what might be possible. She leaves the future an open question: “I don’t know what I’m going to do, and don’t know how it’s going to be.” That openness became an important driver for Preface: Intimacy and Distance [the first iteration of Declaration of Independence, performed at the Diaspora Pavilion, 2017 Venice Biennale].

The project started with a series of Skype calls with womxn of colour, some of whom were in the Baltic performance. I had given each of them Aidoo’s poem, in response to which I myself had written a poem about what my grandmother, who died aged 102, had seen in her lifetime. She was an ordinary person who contributed to the quotidian struggle for liberation. Each womxn I invited responded with declarations of different kinds. It felt right to build on that.

TH: How was Intimacy and Distance received in Venice?

BA: The performance was disruptive; it took place during the opening of the Diaspora Pavilion, before the party. It was very hard to do as the palazzo was packed, and it was powerful for that. I’m not sure how the work was received – other than as a spectacle of brown and black womxn. There was a show of visibility and acceptance, but a month after the opening we lost one of the artists, Khadija Saye, in the Grenfell fire.

It was in the Pavilion that I first experienced the performance itself as a ritual of celebration and grief.

TH: You opened Declaration at the Baltic with this phrase about celebration and grief. What is its significance for you?

BA: During conversations leading up to the pavilion, a video surfaced of an African migrant drowning in the lagoon. Both Paul Maheke and Libita Clayton referenced this in their work. People were actually laughing. It brought home the reality of the bodies and people, passages and map-making that are tied to Venice’s relationship to coloniality.

When you read or hear the performance text, you can really feel a sense of grief. In Venice, I was thinking about hauntings in domestic spaces and decided to include a bedspread that featured an ethnographic image of a Ghanaian woman, as well as voices and a sound works that disturbed the space. At the same time, I wanted to think of celebration as political, as not merely indicating the “good times”, but as a record of what has come out of diasporic culture: house music, disco, carnival, blues and jazz – forms of expression that have political undertones and a liberatory, visceral potential.

TH: Relating declarations in the space of the circle enabled a specific kind of transmission of histories and lives, one that differs from other engagements with the archive.

BA: I would question the notion that the archival represents a higher form of knowledge. Obviously, we need to keep records in order to remember. Yet there are oral traditions that present another form of remembering. In 2012, I instigated the South London Black Music archive. It was an open, temporary proposition through which I invited people from south London to donate music and tell stories related to music. It enabled people to freely remember, reflect and share experiences. For me, memory is live – it lives in the present. I’m interested in re-enacting, restaging and redefining the archive.

We’re living through a crisis, with the rise of fascism and global warming. Money’s not working. It’s scary. I’m interested in asking questions about what is possible, and in creating spaces for us to imagine possible futures. We need to question the production of new databases for definition. No one really owns any land. As humans, we’re custodians. (In some indigenous traditions, this is really important.) The declarations gathered in the performance suggest how womxn might contribute to different ways of thinking about the situation we’re facing.

TH: It seems important that the declarations formed a response to Aidoo’s poem. You adopted a similar approach in 2014, by sharing Horace Ove’s 1968 documentary, Baldwin’s Nigger, about James Baldwin’s talk at the West Indian student centre in London. This led to the performance Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded and the founding of the collective, Sorryyoufeeluncomfortable (both 2014). Does the term “performer” adequately describe the role of those with whom you collaborate?

BA: I called them “contributor-performers” to the team at Baltic, which had referred to them as participants. You have to manage the kind of language that gets used; yet it’s not always straightforward. I have been described as having a “socially engaged” practice – another term, such as “participatory art” – that is problematic in that it implies a hierarchical structure. Of course, I do end up with the author name; this arose because, as others have argued: “If you don’t bring the idea, we wouldn’t be here.” So, now I name everyone who’s contributing.

TH: And they each have their own practice as well.

BA: Declaration of Independence is important because they all have their own practice. As well as artists and writers, the performance included curators, administrators and consultants. We held the legacies from which we come in common. My grandma was poor, she knew about herbs. Others spoke about their mothers, or, in a more abstract sense, the search for space.

There was a real sense of pleasure running through the declarations – we’re trying to influence and effect change. At the same time, there was the recognition that we’re tired, but we’re still coming together and doing it. I think about visibility and vulnerability, and what it means to be present and tell stories unapologetically in those spaces. You can do nothing but listen.

TH: The performance ended with music and hugging: a celebration.

BA: Music is intrinsic to the performance. At the Diaspora Pavilion, we played Right On Be Free by the Voices of East Harlem, a funk group started in the early-70s by African-American teachers in New York.

In Venice, I also included the 2017 song Brujas by Princess Nokia. In it she refers to connecting with other womxn and to African spirituality. Many of us in the performance think of practising from a bruja or witch-like position: at a different point in time, we might have been burned at the stake.

Working with an understanding of cycles, through rituals, is what brings us closer to passing certain thresholds. The song has a line, Don’t fuck with my energies, that perfectly sums up what we’re having to contend with. At the start of the performance this time round, we listened to Energy by Sampa the Great – another sustaining song.

TH: It felt like a potential accrued through the declarations that was somehow realised through the songs.

BA: Yes, but I’m also interested in that moment when you really take it down, as with an orchestration, to allow for reflection. For instance, Baldwin’s Nigger Reloaded involved rewriting and reading text, at the end of which there was a palatable silence. This effectively turned the proposition over to the audience, who were permitted to reflect on what had passed.

In both performances, I concentrate on this holding, as I can see the tears, the grief. It’s interesting to see men crying. My role is simply to hold it there and allow that to happen, for everyone to have that grieving moment. To hold that and then let celebration hold it: body movement.

TH: What is the relation between the performance and the exhibition, which runs till 6 May?

BA: I’ve often thought how to activate a space that is performative and propositional. It was necessary to create a space to hold video work, in which the audience felt involved. The exhibition’s opening night proved it was working, as people watched all 52 minutes of the videos and clapped, as if it were a performance. I was worried about how to translate the performance, as the exhibition does not include music. In that sense, it’s more contained, a totally different setup. I worked with the editor Jess Harrington to think about timing, and the fictional  liveness of it.

TH: In the video works, you are pictured in a space-like vacuum, scrolling through the speeches and selecting the order of declarations.

BA: Yes, I appear as a hologram in a timeless state, as if I might not be on this planet.

TH: This aspect of the performance reminded me of Octavia Butler, who you referenced earlier in the interview.

BA: Butler has been moved into this idea of Afrofuturism when, I think, she was simply making propositions around ethical ways of living. She asked questions and that’s what I’m materialising with the Declaration of Independence.

The space itself hijacks the format of a conference assembly, turning it over to different ways of thinking. It follows from previous summits I’ve organised, such as Noise Summit (2013-4). My hope is that people, or groups, will feel able to test out the potential of the space.

TH: The large banner that forms the backdrop to the circle seems to express this potential. 

BA: I wanted a logo that’s not a logo, a design that embodies a sense of potential. The triangular shapes go inwards, as if into a different dimension. It gives a shape to the space that is speculative and purely visual.

The banner moves in space; it’s supposed to be very temporary. The audience pass through a series of circles to enter, a format that developed through my dialogue with architect Afaina de Jong. She also designed the space for Diasporic Self – Black Togetherness as Lingua Franca, a show I recently co-curated with Amal Alhaag at Framer Framed, in Amsterdam. Both designs emerged from an exploration of whether the gallery could even hold this material and, if so, what that would look like.

Our live video of the performance reached more than 1,000 viewers, suggesting one possible way of moving beyond the art world.

TH: It was great to see those involved chatting before the performance: it brought the work’s processual dimension into focus.

BA: I am very concerned with what happens in front of and behind the performance. All these people need to be taken care of, to experience moments of pleasure. This is something I brought to the institution.

The work is all about declaring independence. Last year, I ran a series of workshops at 198 Contemporary Arts and Toynbee Studios in London. The workshops involved gong meditation work, the sharing of food and collective writing as a process of holding, laughing, pleasure and disruption in ourselves. This work continued until we reached the point of performance.

TH: Where do you plan to go next with Declaration of Independence?

BA: A book of declarations is forthcoming. We’re producing it in the tradition of an anthology of womxn’s stories, after the example of Gloria E Anzaldúa, among others. This will be a performance document, but it will also include instructions. Drawing on the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs, we will provide the reader with instructions to develop their own action within the piece. It will be a kind of performance manual.

There is a question about what to do with all the learning that comes out of a project like this. We start to make collaborations and explore pedagogies, and to discuss existing inadequacies. In university, women of colour get less pay and are more prone to hold temporary contracts. The irony is that, while students want us to be there – our knowledge is desirable – we are subject to micro-aggressions and our ways of working are questioned.

Maybe part of this project is thinking about how you make your ways of being as a pedagogue. The summit space allows us to consider some of these things. How we do make spaces available? Or if certain things aren’t possible, what are the alternatives? There’s a lot of action and potential to come.

Barby Asante: Declaration of Independence is at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle, until 6 May 2019.

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