Kirtis Clarke And The Fluidity Of Blackness

Written By Madinah Farhannah Thompson
15 min read

BD sat down with the artist Kirtis Clarke to discuss his sculpture and performance work, the liminal nature of Blackness and the idea that the Black diaspora are children of the water.

Madinah Farhannah Thompson: Your work ranges from performance to sculpture, do you want to talk about that relationship, between experimental performance work and how that led on to these sculptures?

Kirtis Clarke: I was really interested in the performance of Blackness and rooting myself in Black performance, essentially. Black performance, being something that I see in my every day, in the gestures, in the very daily kind of interactions that Black people have. And seeing these everyday gestures as a really important representation of what it means to be Black and diasporic. 

So, I took this ritual of The Dap, this handshake that originated in Vietnam, between Black soldiers, and I saw this similarity between where I was, which was The Netherlands studying in a place that I don't know, and needing to find some way of connecting with my other Black colleagues and Black students at the time. And that basically developed into me having a conversation with another student called Amelie, who's from Guadeloupe. And we developed our own Dap, which built into a kind of choreography.

I then took it into a virtual world. I put on a virtual reality headset and then I began to perform the choreography that I made with Amelie within this virtual space, and was able to create these shapes. And these forms, which then became the monuments to the conversation, and this encounter that I had with Amelie. So that's what you see in the metal structure.

MFT:  I'm drawn to this phrase ‘the performance of Blackness’ because when you first said performance I thought of a performative nature, in terms of being co opted. And that's not at all what you're talking about. Could you talk a little bit more about the use of the word performance?

KC: I'm someone who grew up in London but I have Jamaican heritage. I'm in this kind of perpetual state of movement. I left London when I was 18. I went to Bristol. Five years after that I went to the Netherlands (to a different city) and now I've moved to Amsterdam. So in amongst me moving a lot I've stepped quite far away from where I'm able to see Blackness in my every day as it is in London, around my family, these family events, all this stuff. 

How am I able to connect to Blackness when I'm far away from it, you know? And that was for me through these everyday performances. Seeing it through a different lens as a kind of performance I was then able to begin re-performing and re-reading these performance gestures as a way to route myself back into Blackness or Black diasporic lifestyles or daily living.

You know, I have memories of being down Brixton market with my grandma carrying her shopping bags. 

MFT: The blue plastic bags!

KC: Yeah, you can see exactly and you know the ones. And because i’m so far away from it these things are really important signifiers to me of what it means to be Black and diasporic. Over this process of making I interviewed mum, dad, family members, friends, friends of friends, and the question I would ask is, ‘What performances and what gestures in your everyday tell you of your own Blackness?’

It was a matter of getting this information from other people. And then it basically came down to The Dap, and using that as a starting point to begin building, you know, my own choreography, my own language.

MFT: I think it's really interesting that you talk a lot about movement, and that movement informs your work a lot but your work is sculptural. Do you have a movement background? Or are performance and choreography just something that you've always felt aligned to?

KC: Yeah actually, funnily neither, I really stumbled into it. It was actually a way for me to reconnect to Black identity and Blackness, you know. This field is kind of an everlasting area of discovery for me. And I just saw it as this thing that I didn't need material for, you know, I didn't need anything else other than my physical body. And I could essentially step into these diasporic narratives.

I also built up quite a large archive of films and music videos, and me and Amelie would begin re-performing these and re-enacting these little moments. 

MFT: So movement practice is one where you only have to bring yourself to it?

KC: Yeah, exactly. And it just felt like a different medium that I had never really looked into before. I mean, I did drama briefly at some point in my life previously, but it's not something that I looked at again, until easily, like five years later. It really came up randomly, I’d never really looked at performance as part of my practice.

MFT: It’s interesting for something to come about randomly.

KC: Yeah. This is also a new way of working for me in terms of the topics i’m looking at, I've slightly avoided this kind of work previously. So it's interesting that it came at the same time as that. 

I did a lot of research into all these knowledges that exist within the Black diaspora, across time and geography. I tried writing, I tried use of the voice. But I wasn't only able to develop my ideas through using movement as a tool. I had almost a spiritual connection with it, it just felt different. I was really stepping into the gestures of my community, you know, which felt completely different to anything I kind of experienced before. I'm really interested in the use of the hands, it's been a real gateway for me.

MFT: When you say that you hadn't really explored these topics before. Are you talking about things to do with Blackness and Black diaspora?

KC: I have but not to this extent. And I think that is to do with the context I make work in, but also to do with me not really knowing how to articulate properly. So it's come at a point of maturity where I am able to confidently speak about these things, in relation to myself, that doesn't feel like I'm being stretched in any particular direction but actually, I'm just telling my own narratives.

MFT: In your artist statement you talk about how we're children of the water. I thought that was a really interesting statement and something that we've been thinking about at Black Discourse, the importance of water for Black people. Can you talk more about that, where that phrase came from, and water's importance to the Black diaspora?

KC: I've been thinking about it for a while, but actually, I think it might have been on Dave's most recent album. I'm from the same place as him, I'm from Streatham as well and I really like to cross these boundaries. I’m from an artistic, sculptural practice but then how can we take from these other creative disciplines. 

There are really interesting links, like I'm able to go from Benny The Butcher to Franz Fanon; they both speak on violence. Benny the Butcher says violence is the only way to answer violence. And we know Franz Fanon’s views on violence!

I think, for me, this idea of like children of the water, of course, over and above the transatlantic slave trade, it speaks about, or speaks of, the fluidity within Blackness. And it goes against this idea of what people might think Black means in a very singular sense but actually, children of the water being everything we know about water. It's this, it's this mass. It's this changing state, constantly. It's this push, and this pull, it's in negotiation with itself, but also its surroundings. 

I don't think there is any static sort of state in Blackness. In my thesis, I speak about how from our root, we have been dismembered and if we don't have any claim to land,- Blackness itself must be where we take value. 

I really tried to step into this with my work, the knowledge that I don't belong to any one place, or one kind of cultural background or any one reference. It's like I'm actually at home in this again, coming back to this state of perpetual movement. That is my home. 

I am at home within this kind of state of diasporic movement. I don't see my diasporic narrative ending with me being born in London, I actually think it's in flux, you know, it's continuous. I'm in it now, I'm in Amsterdam. You know, I acknowledge all of these things at the same time.

MFT: That's really interesting to think about Blackness as a liminal state, as opposed to something that can be static. And I think it kind of goes against media representation of Blackness, as a monolith and something that can be commodified. 

It’s also interesting, that you're looking at things, maybe differently, and you said something about maturity as well and being able to come at it from a different place. I always find that really interesting to see what leads up to Black people deciding that they can finally talk about themselves or their own experiences, without feeling any kind of self consciousness or feeling like they have to fit into any kind of box or, or particular state. 

Could you talk more about what led to that for you? If that comes from your work, from doing this course or moving countries? What things came together for you to have this particular grounding and be able to make this work?

KC: Yeah, it was a real combination of things. It was. And while I haven't made work that has dealt with these topics, I also haven't made work, which is sculptural in this way, or using these materials. It was really a task, or an exercise in articulation. I wasn't limited by any one or a number of these different variables, I was trying to articulate something. And that something was, what my relationship is, as an individual to everyone around me, all audiences, Black audiences, white audiences, the institution, just everyone. 

I feel like there's always this tension point between each of those groups in a different way. I always tell the story, but the context the work was made in was in a school where all of my tutors were white. And I was asked the question, would this work have been made if there was a huge amount of diversity in the school? And, the answer is no, it was a response to the setting. And in one of my early presentations, I turned around to all of my tutors, and I said, essentially, you're not my audience. 

And it was kind of this fight or flight moment of, I've got my back against the wall, and you can't tell half the story in this setting, you know, you have to tell the whole story. But it was also a process of being able to look inward instead of outward. That was kind of what my work was about. How do I reconnect with my own sense of Blackness and identity in a very diasporic sense.

MFT: And how did they take it when you said essentially you're not my audience?

KC: They were very confronted with their own whiteness. And it was my actually my first presentation. In my finals, it came back up, and my head of department asked "you said at the beginning that we’re not your audience, is that still true?" And my answer was, it was never true. Of course you're my audience, but it needed to be said to confront everyone with the situation, you know. So it's kind of this exercise of playing? And you know, I'm a devil advocate as much as the next person. 

So how do you communicate with audiences who are stuck within their own kind of lexicon of like, understanding of what design is or what it isn't? And actually, once you pull it out from under their feet and say, you're not my audience, and this isn't for you, then an interesting thing happens. And that was the kind of game I was playing throughout. How can I create these sort of gestures and codes and make a very in depth project for myself, which might not be understood by a wider audience, which might not even be understood by a Black audience.

But actually, by doing this, I'm able to create work which is meaningful and speaks of these Black diasporic narratives and movements. I'm making monuments to that information, essentially.

MFT: We haven't really talked specifically about the work. We've kind of talked about the ideas behind it. Is there anything you'd like to say about the work?

KC: The metal structure that you see was almost an endpoint. After I made it I stood back and I looked and I’d created this architecture, which was born from an encounter, but where other encounters, other Black encounters could take place. 

I have always had an underlying interest in death and violence. Using these very harsh materials like steel, cement, plaster, sand, all of which I apply bare handedly. I'm getting into this spiritual process where making is a violent act, but also physically applying this material is also a kind of gesture.

When I made this final metal structure, everyone around me was like “this is finished, it looks great, it's great.” But it was almost too celebratory. So I wanted to go through a process of burying this thing, so the structure was now telling of the process that came before. The question was how can I bury this information, and then excavate it back into the present day, so that people are only provided with a haunting reminder of what it once was.

Rather than a true translation of what it is. People are only provided with a haunting reminder of what once was, rather than a true translation of what it is. And really I'm always kind of playing with the parallels in my own identity. For me, my heritage is something that is inaccessible, something that I recognize, but also am very far away from. There's this push and pull that's happening. And I wanted to get that same kind of push and pull with these sculptures that I've made. I want to distance people from the work. I want them to wonder where it's come from, but be denied access to that information. And most of this is in response to a predominantly white audience. So how do you not allow your work to be co-opted by a white audience? 

Seeing these works as iterations, the sculptures are an iteration of what came before. Similarly, me being an iteration of something that has come before like this idea of diaspora as this constantly changing thing. The sculptures are still changing. I want them to still change. I actually wanted to burn one but I was told I couldn't.

MFT: You want them to keep moving. 

KC: Yeah, keep moving. They should never feel static because that's not where they come from. And that's not their destiny, they're not to stay in the same state, they are to continue their own diasporic process, they are kind of becoming diaspora, in and of themselves. And that's why I kind of present them as these stages. The first one, which stays very close to the metal structure, which is just the steel, the next you kind of see a piece of metal, like poking out. And then the next is a completely covered object, but because of the relation, because you see all of them, you have a pretty clear idea what's underneath that one. So they are following this narrative. And they're telling of this kind of this idea of diaspora, this idea of change, you know, how much is retained, how much is lost, they kind of contain all of these questions for me.

MFT: Returning back to this idea of movement. I think it's a testament to you as an artist, that you've managed to create that sensation, with sculpture. Because when people think of sculpture, they think of something that is static.

KC: Yeah. And to be honest, it's not something that you can really plan for, you know, I had no idea what these shapes would look like, they've kind of been informed by their own process. I'm kind of just this blunt object that puts it together, they are the living things. I kind of don't really have much say in it!

I look at them and even I wonder where have these things come from? I'm also surprised, they are autonomous. I've never drawn anything as part of this process. It was from movement, and these things pop up.

They almost follow the contours of the body. Somehow they’ve retained that movement. I don't think you can design that. It's really just the essence of the work, which follows through. And, yeah, their these kinds of haunting, curious things, which hopefully people want to move towards. Even when I presented them, when people were touching them and moving around them, for me, they were taking part in these gestures and taking part in these performances. Again, I'm playing with the audience. They don't really know what they're taking part in.

MFT: That's really great. Well, thank you so much for talking to me. 

KC: Thanks. 

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Kirtis Clarke And The Fluidity Of Blackness
15 min read