You do not know what happens when you are an artist: you have to take the opportunities. Be open and ready. I try to let the door open to what comes.
What is your background?
Both my parents are from St Vincent, and came in the 1960s in England, where I was born. I am a playwright, artist/curator and academic. I was a painter before I was a playwright/dramatist and through making live art pieces and writing critically about performance, photography, visual arts culture, I have come home in a sense to fine arts, through making mixed-media installations, which given my interest in performativity background can be seen also as theatre sets. My work and practice is often interdisciplinary using mixed media, installations and performance.
What were the first visual arts’ pieces you created?
My first installation was The West Indian Front Room. I use the term “West Indian” as it refers to a particular moment of post-WW2 Caribbean migration to England and the wider Diaspora.
The front room emerges from the Victorian parlour, which traditionally was reserved for guests. And because it had to be kept pristine, immaculate, clean and presentable almost like a shrine, for the unexpected visitor, children were not usually allowed to go in there. Because of that nature, it was “the special room” in which the family could manage impressions of themselves what to show to the outside world about who they wanted to be. It would have the best latest appliances, furniture, photographs, ornaments & souvenirs.
In making and remaking this installation in different countries and different cultural contexts, I have come to realise how universal a practice the phenomenon of the front room or living room is, especially when it reflects migrant aesthetics in the home in how they dressed this space. Embedded in the material culture of the front room are memories of growing up at a particular moment in British society, not simply for black British community, but other migrant and English working class communities, because this is an aspirational space that speaks to the aesthetics of respectability. The paradox is that while individually we belief that no one else may have we have in our front room or living room, the irony is that there is a commonality we share with its aesthetics and the gendered domestic practices associated with it.
Who was responsible for dressing this room?
I think it was and generally still is a woman’s room. It is a feminine space that shows how women expressed themselves through consumer culture and fetish for particular everyday objects that then become sacred, such as artificial flowers. For Caribbean migrants, this room was crucial because usually black women were not often represented as respectable women, yet through their dressing of and controlling social behaviour in the front room, they could say something about being a good spouse, a good mother and a respectable woman.
As an art piece, the idea came from discovering that there was a similar aesthetic in the front rooms and living rooms of first generation Caribbean elders where I carried out oral history interviews about their experiences of coming to England. I realised that while I was ambivalent growing up about the kitsch style and conservative moral code of the front room, it’s material culture, whether I liked or not, expressed on a private domestic level, where some of own domestic practices have unconsciously come from. When the Wycombe Local Museum in High Wycombe, England, where I was born and had done a yearlong writer’s residency, invited me to make exhibition, I jumped at the opportunity even though they had very little funds. As necessity is the mother of invention, I realised that my mother and aunt had lots of material, which they no longer used, but I could – it was there for the asking.
What became apparent from that first very simple front room installation was that the few iconic items I used, seemed to resonate with visitors on a similar emotional level to my own memories of that room. I was subsequently commissioned by other venues around the UK to recreate it, where I would bring a few objects from the previous installation as well as sourcing local materials from local people and shops where ever the venue was situated. I eventually approached the Geffrye Museum, whose specialism is English middle class domestic interiors, such as parlour rooms going back to the 16th Century. We had a large enough budget to dress a front room installation authentically from the architectural to decorative, soft furnishing, furniture and ornamental details of an Edwardian built front room that was reminiscent of the room I knew growing up. I spent a year sourcing the materials: visiting markets and second hand shops most weekends and being donated or loaned objects from many people who began to hear about the project. The West Indian Front Room: Memories & Impressions of black British Homes opened at The Geffrye Museum in late 2005 and over the next five months, it had over 35,000 visitors. The installation was also contextualised by a multi-media exhibition about the Caribbean migrant narrative in England, because those of my parent’s generation were forced to live in cramped and squalid one-room conditions until they could often better accommodation. These experiences were expressed through a series of large-scale archive photographic prints, two listening posts where oral history sound bites could accessed and two short films about recollections of and commentaries on the front room.
Since then there has also been a BBC4 documentary Tales from the Front Room (2007), a website – www.thefrontroom.org.uk/ – a book The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home (Black Dog Publishing 2009), international commissions, such as Van Huis Uit: The Living Room of Migrants in the Netherlands (Imagine IC, Amsterdam and Netherlands Tour 2007-08) and A Living Room Surrounded by Salt (IBB, Curacao 2008).
From an artistic and curatorial perspective, my approach was not a nostalgic recreation of front room, but rather how as a second-generation migrant descendent grappling with what it meant to be black in a racist society, which did not see me as British even though I was born in England, this room became a contested space. It was contested because externally during the 1970’s, there were many cultural political shifts taking place in British society: Black Power, the feminist movement, punk, reggae, Rastafari, riots at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, the anti-racism movement were all affecting how young people, much less black young people saw themselves, yet internally this was seen as a rebellion, which was often enacted in the front room. When television arrived in the front room, this space became more informal, because now all the family could be in there at the same time. But what was shown on the TV brought all those external social, cultural and political forces into the home through programmes such as: Love Thy Neighbour a sitcom that played on racist stereotypes about black people neighbours, The Black & White Minstrel Show, where blackface performers caricatured black songs and dance and Roots, a drama series based on Alex Haley’s novel of the same name.
What problems did you encounter working with a museum?
Museums are by their nature conservative institutions and the challenge of working with the Geffrye Museum was negotiating hierarchical practices and procedures as an arts practitioner, such as the struggle to get them to accept that this was not simply an ethnographic project, but an art project as well. As a consequence, this meant having to choose my battles. One battle I decided not to fight was their policy about ethnographic materials, which meant that the items I was sourcing for the installation had to be carefully catalogued with some provenance: a historical relevance that I could justify. This was a worthwhile learning experience, because I could later on give a commentary on each and every item used in the installation. One battle I decided to fight were what I saw exploitative practices from senior management about the intellectual copyright ownership, which meant that I was excluded from speaking at my own exhibition – though on the night events took a different turn and I speak eventually. I had approached the Geffrye Museum with the project and subsequently drove the intellectual framing and curatorial design of the project, yet the paradox was that while The West Indian Front Room was one of the most successful exhibitions at the Geffrye Museum, senior management did not adequately acknowledge this.
What would you have in that room? Which elements or objects would be recurrent and why?
The West Indian Front Room is stylistically of the 1970s, with colourful floral wallpaper and carpet that never matched and artificial things with shiny glossy ‘bling’ surfaces that were cherished for the future. Crochet for instance, was a knitting craft was brought by European missionaries to the colonies and was usually flat and monochrome, yet Caribbean migrant women brought it to England as if ‘re-colonising’ this practice with colourful pieces that were starched as pieces of sculptures. For many Caribbean migrant women, it was a cottage industry craft that they could supplement their income with.
Other iconic objects included: the glass drinks cabinet, whose only function seemed to be displaying glass and chinaware that was rarely used; the ‘Blue Spot’ radiogram that was important, because may Caribbean migrants were often banned from pubs and clubs and so they would entertainment themselves at home playing music familiar to them such as Ska, Bluebeat, Calypso, Soul etc. on this Hi Fi appliance. These migrants were also not welcome in many English churches and the front room became where they could express their religious identities such as pictures of The Last Supper, much less use it prayer meetings and holding life-cycle events such as Christening, Birthday and Wedding parties. Even the coffin of the deceased would be opened and on display in the front room, as we did for both my parents when they died.
The front room is about the expression of a controlled personal style, but also reflects the conservative nature of the black society, which the general society does not know and understand, because migrants tend to be demonised as immigrants in media, who live on the streets with no homes and no families. The West Indian Front Room, and I have not been the first to recreate this room as an installation, is an important, yet ignored and hidden chapter in British social and design history, from which many legacies resonate such as how intergenerational identifications and disavowals have been negotiated. Some of these legacies include for instance: respect for elders; beliefs and practices about life and death and ‘good grooming’ practices, such as the presentation of self through the body. I have explored ‘good grooming’ practices and black body in a consumer context in The Beauty Shop (198 Contemporary Arts & Learning 2008).
What about your installation “I miss my mum’s cooking” in the exhibition Who More Sci-Fi than Us?
The West Indian Front Room was in a sense a homage to my mother. Moving on artistically from the front room as the formal social space in the home, I had then wanted to explore The Kitchen as the informal one. My father died at the end of 2010 and my mother, his wife of 50 years, followed him nine months to the day in late 2011. When the curator, Nancy Hoffmann invited me to participate in Who More Sci-Fi than Us, I saw it as an opportunity to commemorate my experience of my mum’s food and cooking using the material culture of her kitchen that I collected when we cleared her house after her death. I have also inherited many of my mother’s choice of food stuffs, recipes, cooking techniques, culinary tastes and even some eating practices and while I could never hope and would never want to cook like her, I do miss her cooking.
The installation is in two parts: a 1970s styled Formica topped kitchen table is covered with a red check plastic tablecloth, typical of the 1970s, on to which is laid out her Dutch Pot, in which her cooking has been sealed in, as well as some of her plates, cups, jugs and cutlery. Surrounding the table are three connected circles of rice, black eye peas and kidney beans, which would be the ingredients for the classic Caribbean dish of Rice & Peas. Leaning on the table is a walking stick; the kind used my mother, which signifies her deteriorating health, as she got older.
Beside this piece there is a text written on greaseproof paper about how she used the various objects on the kitchen table to make the dishes I grew up with, such as the smell of coffee and bakes on a Sunday morning. This is hung from a wall running down to the floor and is surrounded by three connected circles of sugar, salt and corn meal. The dialectic of sugar and salt here is that while they loved within Caribbean and African Diasporic cooking, they also signify diabetes and high blood pressure, two illnesses my mother suffered from and eventually conspired to kill her. Within this circle are branded canned goods such as: corned beef, Carnation evaporated milk, hot pepper sauce, a coconut, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla essence spices as well as ointments and treatments that my mother used to help with her ailments.
The installation is dressed like an alter/shrine that evokes/invokes memories on an emotional and sensorial level as well as loss and legacy. My mother’s cooking lives on through me and as a memorial, this piece is part of the process of my spiritual healing about losing her.
Art is a way of curing oneself?
Art does have the power for change, which is why writers and artists around the world are censored, imprisoned, tortured and killed by those threatened by what they create and produce. I recently completed a yearlong artist residency, working in two hospitals in North Wales with cancer and rheumatology patients, staff and carers. Cultural identity is an important cultural factor in this part of Wales, where because of English colonialism, children were punished for speaking Welsh. There is a historical black presence in North Wales, yet race and race politics are rarely discussed unlike the cosmopolitan metropolis of London. From my previous experience of working as an artist in similar environments, I sensed that the people I encountered had no clear racial stereotypes to draw on when engaging with me. which meant that I was some exotic being they couldn’t quite work out. They may also have been polite with smiling faces, as the English tend to do. In any case, I was able to make relationships based on trust with a number of patients, with whom I recorded audio interviews in their living rooms. This material as well as photographs of their favourite living room objects formed the basis of two similar, but different books and CDs of anonymous audio interviews. Entitled The Waiting Room, these books could be accessed by visitors in a living room installation created as part of the Stories and Journeys exhibition with another resident artist (Gwynedd Museum & Art Gallery, Bangor 2012).
At the beginning of the residency, my father suffered a heart attack. I was then spending much of my professional and personal time in hospitals, which seemed like a cruel coincidence, because my father eventually died and then my mother also towards to the end of the residency. I eventually realised that these events had happened for a reason and chose to write about this experience in the introduction to The Waiting Room book. I wanted to talk about how death was not a strange subject to discuss within my family, as both my parents grew older and in fact we had discussed and even joked about their respective funeral wishes: what clothes they wanted to be dressed in, what hymns and photographic portraits of them should be used in their Orders of Service and that their coffins would not be opened during the church funeral service.
Growing up, I was always away of the close relationship between spiritual world of the dead and the human world of the living through the folktales my father would tell us about ‘Jumbies’ spirits and how they would be invoked by the living with nefarious intentions. While my parents have physically left this world, if their lives are remembered and celebrated then they live on spiritually. These are commonly held beliefs, rituals and practices throughout the African Diaspora, which were brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans who grafted them onto indigenous (Amerindian) spiritual belief systems and colonially imposed Christian religious doctrines.
Do you plan to have an installation about your father as you did that for your mother?
When I became a father myself, I begun looking at black masculinities and my relationship with my father, which informed a number of plays and performance pieces: Invisible (1993), a one-man show based on the prologue from Ralph Ellison’s 1950s novel The Invisible Man, Brother to Brother (1996 & 1998) emerged from a devised process with three other black men. I have also explored these themes through my work in prisons, Secure Units and black men only workshops. Now that my father has gone, I feel free to explore others chapters in my relationship with him that I could not while he was alive. I know that if he was still alive he would have told me to cut my hair for instance, and since turning fifty I have let my hair grow, whereas I would have shaved it regularly in the past.
On a subliminal level this maybe connected to working on new exhibition: The Origins of the Afro Comb, which will open at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge in the summer of 2013. In it, I will be recreating a retro 1970s barbershop, alongside a hyper modern hairdressers salon that will include oral histories about black hair. I used a similar approach in the making of The Beauty Shop exhibition, though this included the recreation of a black orientated High Street beauty shop. The Afro Comb was an iconic symbol of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement during the 1970s and signifies the cultural political significance of black hairstyles in response to hegemonic Western ideals of beauty. What is fascinating therefore, is how much people of African descent, especially women, spend on maintaining and transforming their hair whether through hair straightening treatments, wigs and weaves. These practices have often been associated with the troupe of racial self-hatred; however, in reality the situation is more complex, as the texture of black hair requires more daily maintenance than straight hair. Hence, working women and mothers with little time to spend maintaining on their hair, may look for practical solutions such as wigs and weaves, which also conforms to a body image type constructed by female peers and those in positions of power, such as in the workplace.
Why hair is that important? Is the way people represent themselves an inspiration in your work?
The way we dress and adorn our hair intersects with our desires about how we want to present our bodies publicly, which have different political meanings depending on the context: for instance as an artist I am perceived to have more freedom in how I might dress the hair on my head and face than if I worked in the corporate sector with a suit as an uniform. What we want to say about ourselves through our hair continually intersects with contested ideals of beauty, which have their own hegemonic cultural power over us. Maybe because of my theatre background, I am interested in the body and the way that hair has a ‘performative’ dynamic. The hairdresser and the barbershop are secret institutions implying a mise en scène and you have an intimate embodied relationship with the person who cuts or dresses your hair, which is why we may share with them information about ourselves we would not share with others in the public domain. We will always need barbers and hairdressers, because hair always grows back.
As a mixed-media installation artist and curator, I am interested in creative everyday practices and how we relate to material cultures, ordinary mundane things we take for granted, like the comb for instance, in the private and public domains. I am particularly interested in the transcultural ways that black popular culture is practised, created and interpreted similarly and differently across and within the African Diaspora.
By Clelia Coussonnet
Headline picture’s credits : Michael McMillan when we met in the KAdE in Amersfoort © Uprising Art