Africa, Agency, and Atom Spirits: Does the body remember the journey across the Atlantic?

By Natalie Willis

This week we continue our discussion with Nicole Yip, the Director of LUX Scotland. LUX is a London-based organisation with a remarkable archive of film and moving image–the largest in Europe, in fact–often seen as the unofficial national archive, but to retain their history of being open and forward-thinking, they launched their new site in Scotland. Yip continues to speak to us on her process of choosing film and moving image works from the behemoth that is the LUX archive, and her learning processes along the way as she worked closely with the curatorial team at the NAGB to produce a poignant series of film screenings, the next of which is set to take place on Thursday, July 5th at 8:00pm.

NW: Given the contentious history of the Caribbean in regards to the lens – both in photography and film – tell me a bit about how you went about selecting video works for the screenings. What were you hoping to find, or what did you feel like you were trying to look for in particular?

NY: It was mainly myself looking through, and I felt quite protective about the project, I wanted to get it right. I wanted to make sense of it for myself, and eventually the conversations opened out to people within the wider local community. People like Tiffany Boyle, curator and co-founder of Mother Tongue, were extremely helpful, and so too were a lot of the artists who were part of the selection for the program as well.

NW: So you were drawing on the Afro-Caribbean diaspora already within Scotland?

NY: Exactly. And asked them to recommend people who I may not have thought of or come across in my own research.

NW: That is good practice, especially considering how little agency we often get in writing our own narratives as part of the Black and Caribbean diaspora. This kind of exchange is something we appreciate deeply in these parts.

NY: The starting point was just to amass a long list of artists, without thinking about how things would be framed thematically first. We wanted to look at the themes more generally and see what emerged through the work. There’s this approach, which I think happens too much in curating, where people define the theme first and find things to fit the box. We inverted that process and put together a comprehensive list and looked at the work,and through that and the research being done parallel to that, then we could just see what came forward.

There were many lines of inquiry along which we were looking. We were looking more historically at the Black Artists Movement in Britain, at artists like Sonia Boyce and Keith Piper. In another line we looked at the LUX Collection and work by the Black Audio Film Collective and Isaac Julien. But we also looked at how more contemporary makers were responding. There are a couple British or European filmmakers whose work we have in the collection that addresses quite directly some of the issues relevant to the conversation about the history between the UK and Caribbean at the moment, which we decided to include in the program as well. Then we were also trying to address the issue of the Scottish element, so what resulted from it all was a bringing together of research that followed these different paths and lines of inquiry.

NW: Speak to me a little about some of the European artists doing work that was relevant to the region?

NY: There were some things that jumped out particularly to us.  There was one piece, “Atom Spirit” by Ursula Mayer, an Austrian filmmaker living and working in the UK and represented by LUX. She made a work with the LGBT community in Trinidad, and that work unlocked something for her, and she’s now embarking on a feature film dealing with the same issue. She also has a very long-standing collaboration with a trans woman actress, Valentijn, and they’ve collaborated on a number of films, and she is in “Atom Spirit”. I haven’t spoken yet with Ursula about how she felt as a filmmaker making a work about such a hotly contested issue.

NW: Yes, LGBT issues are certainly a point of great contention in this region and in many postcolonial countries.

NY: That was one thing that really surprised me actually, the way that issues of gender and sexuality are being dealt with in the Caribbean. How it is still illegal in some Caribbean nations? From what I understand there’s been a lot of advocacy in recent years that has lead to laws, put in place during the colonial era, being overturned. I think it’s a really brave work for someone who is an outsider like Mayer to make, so I’m fascinated to see how people respond to that.

NW: The idea of being inside or outside of a space is a contested issue as well, especially given the general global overtones of xenophobia we are dealing with now. As you are neither Caribbean British or of the African diaspora, how were you able to negotiate your space within the programming?

NY: To me, a lot of the programs reflect quite directly what I was reading and discussions I was having. I wanted to make sure that things were specific enough to mean something, and that it wasn’t just a generic program about the history of transatlantic slavery. I really wanted to take an approach that felt novel and fresh, and hoped that maybe I could open up a slightly different perspective on things. Within each of the programs there’s a big nod to different scholars and academics and writers whose work I’ve been researching.

I’ve been quite heavily informed by that, so maybe that’s where my own subjectivity really comes in, how that research has been translated into a program. For instance, the third program, “Hieroglyphics of the Flesh”, which is really quite a violent title, came from a few different readings but was mainly influenced by this amazing artist and writer, Dr Ayesha Hameed. I believe she’s a lecturer in Visual Cultures and Programme Leader of the MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths  at the moment. She has, for many years, developed this body of research, often taking the form of an audio-visual performance lecture, about this idea of the Black Atlantis. She talks about the idea of “hapticality”, a way of bringing the sense of the bodily and the visceral back into the discourse of the postcolonial. In her critique of Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic”, she states that Gilroy’s work is too much about the surface, that it doesn’t get to the wetness and meat of the matter. I started thinking about this idea, of bringing the body back into the discussion. I was wondering if, through work that tries to think through violence and negation through the material or the bodily, or how the body might remember the journey across the Atlantic. What can we unpack together from that?

The next film screening, “Hieroglyphics of the Flesh”, featuring works by Camara Taylor, Isaac Julien, Keith Piper, Ursula Mayer and Maud Sulter, begins at the NAGB on Thursday, July 5th starting 8:00pm. The screening that evening will run for an hour after which we will dialogue about the themes in a conversational setting. All screenings at the museum are free and open to the public, and we encourage all to come out for this world-class set of films you may not be able to see again so easily!

Promotion for “Hieroglyphics of the Flesh”. Image by Keith Piper, from Go West Yong Man, 1986. Image courtesy of the artist and LUX.