Representation is a word that gets used a lot in the arts. A lot. Ushered in by the death of Trayvon Martin on 26th February 2012 and the Black Lives Matter movement that followed, the arts have also become a space of identity enquiry. Underrepresented groups are angry at the dominant culture and want to express how it felt. In that school, with that hair texture. As that gender, as that sexuality. Without the money, as the Other.
I was born and bred in a predominantly white town just outside London. I was angry I had to live there. It was refreshing to interact with art that validated my experiences. That told me I wasn’t crazy and that these injustices were real. It felt good to be represented. But as the years have gone on, it’s beginning to feel restricting.
I do not negate the necessity of representation. I get it. But my frustration comes when it’s assumed that representation is the sole purpose and only goal that art made by Black people, or Black women, or Black British women can have.
This could just be me, but it’s as if there’s a specific way to represent. You’ve gotta be a queen. You’ve gotta like certain things. Have certain tastes. Have certain concerns and points of view. You’re the correct kind of marginalised. You always say the right thing and those that disagree are bad people. And you’ve gotta be happy to explain yourself, whether consciously or not.
As an artist and lover of art, this doesn’t satisfy me. It doesn’t have breadth or width. It’s not enuf.
Until very recently, I was working as a shop assistant in a Black owned gift shop. We sold books. All types: novels, poetry, non-fiction, cookery, almost all by Black authors. On a particularly quiet shift, I picked up a purple and propped up book that sat at the front of the display. It was Sula, Toni Morrison’s second novel. Sula is a woman that did things her way, and people were upset about it. Even her loneliness and her ultimate death belonged to her. It’s a phenomenal book and I read it quickly. In my hastiness, I hadn’t read the foreword, so I went back to it. As I flipped the pages, aware my manager could appear at any moment, a sentence stuck out to me:
“- my only option was fidelity to my own sensibility. Further exploration of my own interests, questions, challenges.” [emphases are my own]
A couple of years ago, I asked Jenn Nkiru at a Q&A how she was able to trust herself to make her sensational film Rebirth is Necessary. She answered saying that she had to commit to figuring out how to translate her ideas in a way that was clear because she had resolved to not change anything or rescind on her vision. Even slightly.
I love this, and I love what Toni Morrison said. They’re above trends and unconcerned with what’s happening around them. It’s belligerent and self-serving stance. Almost selfish in a landscape that expects Black women artists to cater to everyone but themselves. It’s about hearing your own voice and embracing it. Whether young or old. Arrogant or humble. Wise or misguided. Positive or pessimistic. Representation is irrelevant.
I went to see …cake, written by babirye bukilwa and directed by malakai sargeant at Theatre Peckham in London. It centres mother and daughter Sissy and Eshe. It’s Sissy’s birthday and Eshe is visiting. Sissy is frighteningly mercurial, switching between co-dependent saccharine and spiteful grief. Eshe spends the plays duration figuring out how to manoeuvre her mother’s rough terrain. It’s devastating.
babirye is a brave writer. They make linguistic decisions that could alienate. They don’t explain or attempt to teach. There’s no ending moral or message. Just commitment to Sissy and Eshe and their relationship. babirye does not shy away from the horror. They don’t shove levity down our throats. They only present the story in its entirety. In a way that could only come from babirye’s mind and soul. We are asked to stay silent and bear witness.
I also saw Jasmine Lee Jones’ seven methods of killing kylie jenner, directed by Milli Bhatia at the Royal Court Downstairs in London. Textually, it’s an innovative feat. It’s set in a bedroom and in the Twittersphere. Part dialogue, part meme and part poetry. It’s ambitious and nuts. Cleo, co-protagonist with Kara, says lots and nothing at the same time. She’s immature and heartbroken and mean. She constantly gets it wrong but that’s precisely what makes the play engaging.
Something cosmic can happen when an artist does it their way. You’re able to see your reflection back. In both …cake and seven methods of killing kylie jenner, I saw myself. Deeply.
I saw my ability for cruelty. To project and cut with my words. My willingness to forgive too quickly. My unwillingness to forget. My overwhelming desire to be loved by the wrong person. I saw the ugly and the wondrous coexisting inside me, and I was able to love it all.
I think that’s what this art thing is about.
Shoutout to SZA for the title! <3
written by lydia luke