14.4 / Claudette’s Star / Matthew Barrington

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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What is the role of Black artists within the space of the gallery? Claudette’s Star (2019) is a short film by British Nigerian filmmaker Ayo Akingbade, which addresses this central question. The film was funded as part of Second Sight, a project celebrating the legacy of the 1980s workshop movement, which produced four films by British experimental filmmakers.1 As a result of this commission, Claudette’s Star engages with the legacies of this period.

A recurring theme across the 1980s workshop movement was the social and political conditions of Britain’s Afro-Caribbean communities. The work made from this period is characterised by an attempt to establish a visual language that incorporates diasporic thought and a critique of media representations of Britain’s Black communities. Many of the key films focused on urban spaces and working-class communities. Akingbade’s film continues some of these conversations with the key difference being her departure from urban spaces to focus on gallery spaces.

A slowed down mix of Derrick Harriott’s “The Loser” opens the film.2 Recorded in 1967, the song epitomises the rocksteady revival in the UK of the late 1970s and 1980s. The film’s version is distorted so that Harriott’s voice creates a spectral presence, a thematic dialogue between the past and present which recurs throughout the film. Moments later we see a close-up of a map as a young woman appears to trace a journey from London to two pillars of Britain’s colonial empire: India and Nigeria. Second and Third generation migrants have had to develop cultural identities mixing elements from their country of birth with the former British colonies from which their parents and grandparents have long since left behind. Within this opening sequence Akingbade alludes to the difficulty of forming a hybrid cultural identity, introducing two thematic cornerstones of the workshop movement: reggae music and Britain’s post-coloniality.3

A recurring theme in the work of Sankofa and the Black Audio Film Collective was the question of the archive. These filmmakers interrogated notions of the archive through a post-colonial reading using film to re-animate photographs and text to subvert canonical meaning. In Claudette’s Star, Akingbade looks to the gallery as an archive (of images) and her focus on Black artists establishes the gallery as ripe for re-reading. In this instance, the re-reading occurs with current students at the Royal Academy (RA) who are establishing themselves as young Black British artists.

Excerpt from Ayo Akingbade’s Claudette’s Star (2019)

The question of identity and locating oneself again re-emerges in the gallery as Akingbade centralizes her own position as an artist by filming herself looking upon Claudette Johnson’s Trilogy (1982–86).4 The presence of Johnson’s paintings provides the most explicit reference to the period of the 1980s as not only does the painter give the film its name, but she also belongs to the BLK Art Group.5 Complementing Akingbade in this scene, we see another figure whose attire matches that of the subject of one of Johnson’s paintings. With the art object as a mirror, the suggestion is that art is capable of shaping one’s ability to see oneself. The camera enables a cross-generational artist to artist interaction. This differs from a depiction of the spectator’s aesthetic appreciation of the work and instead enacts something more akin to a cultural inheritance or the passing down of a gift from one Black British woman artist to another. The fertile possibility for the gallery to function as an archive is evident as the two artists gaze upon Johnson’s Trilogy. There is much at stake as the ability to read the painting gives way to what one spectator in a voiceover, a non-verbal experience, describes as  unexplainable yet “felt.”

Akingbade’s position in front of the camera, her autobiographical perspective, provides the film with a thoughtful and reflective tone. After the sequences of her engagement with Trilogy, the film moves to the London-based RA, an institution which had long refrained from celebrating work by Black British artists and where Akingbade is a student.6 Akingbade films four of her fellow Black British students within the RA library. Each of the artists selects work they have been influenced by while staring into the camera explaining their choices.

Two of the artists select works by African American women, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2015) and the catalogue for the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85: A Sourcebook by Catherine Janet Morris and Rujeko Hockley (2017).7 The other texts selected are Enrique Martínez Celaya’s On Art and Mindfulness (2015), Mary Grierson and Christopher Brickell’s An English Florilegium (1987) and a text on Cuban artist Felix Gonzáléz-Torres by Nancy Spector (1995). When Akingbade looks upon Johnson’s portraits, a direct dialogue between Black British artists is suggested. In comparison, through this final library scene, a hybrid communication is formed through the selection of texts. Rankine’s Citizen and We Wanted a Revolution, point to a transatlantic dialogue on blackness. On Art and Mindfulness, An English Florilegium, and the Felix Gonzáléz-Torres text suggest an interaction between horticulture, mental well-being/self-care, and visual art. The diverse selections mirror elements of the Black-British experience, communities formed through a mixture of Caribbean, African and British cultures. Akingbade’s film presents the RA as an incomplete archive. Historically a site that privileged a white account of art, the recent induction of a number of Black artists points to a change.8 This is further suggested through the presence of current Black British artists extrapolating objects from the library to form their own synthetic and artistic practice. Their respective practices have a constellation of wide-ranging reference points and influences.

In these ways, Claudette’s Star considers how young Black British artists position themselves within the gallery space while still being on the outside, echoing the lament in Derrick Harriot’s song. Yet, it is through their use of the gallery as a living archive that Akingbade’s film points to different paths and languages that can emerge out of these sites of inequality.

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This is one of five essays from the fourteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 14.1 / Somesay-Someday / L.H. Stallings
b.O.s. 14.2 / Glenville / Allyson Nadia Field
b.O.s. 14.3 / Bag Lady in Flight / Sampada Aranke
b.O.s. 14.5 / Habla Lamadre / Courtney Desiree Morris

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. Beginning in 1981, the workshop movement relates to an initiative instigated by public broadcaster Channel 4 which would fund filmmaking workshops in Black communities. The workshops would focus on teaching filmmaking to underprivileged artists and out of this period collectives such as Sankofa, CEDDO and the Black Audio Film Collective would emerge. This period is generally understood to stretch from 1981 to the early 1990s at which point many of the collectives were no longer functioning and artists associated with the collectives like Isaac Julien and John Akomfrah would gain fame and influence as solo artists. As a part of Second Sight’s celebration of the work of collectives like the Sankofa and the Black Audio Film Collective, a touring screening programme paired the newly commissioned material alongside archival works from the workshop movement: Martina Attille’s Dreaming Rivers (1988), Milton Bryan’s The People’s Account (1987) and D. Elmina Davis’ Omega Rising Women of Rastafari (1988).
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCWNI2UXrU0
  3. Reggae as both soundtrack and idea is featured in many films made during this period. Most notably in Handsworth Songs (1986) and Territories (1984), dub reggae is used to reflect the sounds of Black-British culture, but also using the genres of different musical reference points and influences as a symbol of how Britain was changing.
  4. As the trilogy of paintings appear on the screen, it’s hard not to wonder why these works are not as more visible and canonical as they work of some of her more well-known contemporary artists, especially in the context of the imminent rise of the YBA’s and the worldwide visibility of British art by the end of the decade.
  5. Active in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the BLK Art Group was made up of artists from Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community whose art work correlated directly with the concerns of those working in the workshop movement. See https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/t/blk-art-group
  6. The Royal Academy originated in 1768 as a site to celebrate British art. The institution’s traditions include a practice dating back to its celebration of prominent artists by inducting them into the academy as Royal Academicians. Despite such a long history, the Royal Academy would only induct its first ever Black Academician in 2005 with the election of Guyanese painter Frank Bowling. Through the lack of Black inductees, the Royal Academy is an example of Black absence within the gallery as the sequences shot Inside the gallery become a comment on how Black artists engage with the institution.
  7. We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 (Brooklyn Musuem of Art, April 21–September 17, 2017): https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/we_wanted_a_revolution
  8. For a full list of Royal Academicians see here: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/royal-academicians?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIkOXSgpT26gIV0WDmCh3A3Q_rEAAYASAAEgL2wvD_BwE
Matthew Barrington
Matthew Barrington is a researcher and curator based in London. He is currently working on his PhD at Birkbeck College, London which focuses on Slow Cinema. He is the Manager of the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image and a programmer for the Essay Film Festival and the London Korean Film Festival.