Facing Fire: In Conversation with Emmanuel Awuni
Emmanuel Awuni interviewed by Madinah Farhannah Thompson
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Emmanuel Awuni @black__obiwan is a multi-disciplinary artist living in London. His work is concerned with the re-imagining of the architectural structures that construct our sense of hierarchy, space and time. Hip-hop is an integral element in the configuration of his practice, utilising hip-hop as a blueprint to develop the poetics of relation between subject and object.

I sat down with Emmanuel over zoom to discuss five of his works which pertain to Black healing, vulnerability and looking fire in the face. Read the conversation below! 


Untitled (2021)

Emmanuel Awuni  

Madinah, how are you?


Madinah Farhannah Thompson  

I'm good. How are you?


Emmanuel Awuni    

Yeah, I'm not too bad. A bit tired. I like your hair.

MFT  

Thank you. Thanks very much.

Emmanuel Awuni   

It's good. It looks good.


MFT  

So thanks for doing this. I guess I'm mostly interested in how you came to select those five specific works. I know one of them is a series but, when someone says to you, show me five of your works, is it that you pick what you like the most or what you're proud of the most or what? How did you select that?


Emmanuel Awuni  

So I was selecting it with what you told me in mind about this idea of healing. And so I was trying to look at my work. And you know, there's such a, I don't want to say cliché, but obviously for Black people I think there's quite a lot of platforms for us to talk about ourselves. And one of those things is healing. And we do need to heal as a community. And as individuals, so I'm looking at my work, and I'm like, is this really healing? Not for anyone else but for me? How do I feel looking at this thing? 

And I chose those different works, because I think they're not directly sort of quote unquote 'healing,' but there's something in them that I recognise. Actually, it's about almost, I don't remember specifically, if it’s death or divorce but when you go through the stages of grief. 


MFT 

Grief, yeah the five stages of grief. 


Emmanuel Awuni  

And I selected those works based on, sort of, okay, this work made me feel like this and that's how I was able to move forward within myself. And I think that's the process of healing as well, moving forward, because you're shedding the shit, you know, or your understanding is becoming better. So therefore, when those things fall, the way you navigate everything around you is much better and you'll progress as a person.


MFT 

Okay, so personally, for you, things that have got to you, or have been part of your process. And you said that you think there are lots of platforms for Black people to talk about our experience? Do you mean within the art world or just in general? Can you expand on that more?


Emmanuel Awuni   

I think in general, institutions are much more aware of diversity programs. And so each place is trying their best to put on and give a platform to us. Not just Black people, you know, Asian people as well and other minorities. And I think, yeah, it's not just in the creative industry, it's actually everywhere. I just think the way they go about it is different. 

So I suppose the art world is completely different, because it's supposed to be this liberal world, however, like in more sort of corporate world i'm sure the way they go about it is completely different. But I think it's the whole world because like, a lot of things have been happening. Things that impact. One of the works that I selected was the sound piece...


MFT 

Yeah.


Emmanuel Awuni  

And for me, that was, you know, that was an epiphany when George Floyd got murdered. And I was like what!? This is happening now in 2020!? You know, this is happening, like, you know, I mean, I watched the video, and I almost couldn't believe it, because I was like, you know, they looked so powerless, those people around him.


MFT  

Yeah.


Emmanuel Awuni    

They were just trying, and I thought I would've gone and just like kicked him off because I'm coming from a completely different environment. And those people were scared, yeah, I can't believe this is 2020. It's not like the 1950s or the 60s. This is 2020. And I'm like, okay, so where's the progress? And it's like, watching that how do I feel as a young man. And then how do I navigate in this world? You know?


Otis (2021)

MFT  

Yeah. 


Emmanuel Awuni  

Yeah, it's deep.


MFT 

So you’re talking about the piece called Ma. 


Emmanuel Awuni  

Yeah, Ma. Yeah, yeah.


MFT

Which you made last year? And is it just a sound piece?


Emmanuel Awuni  

Yeah. It's just a sound piece. And it's a conversation between me and my mother. Because I was going to the protest, and my mum obviously was saying, ‘Yo, be careful. Because you know, I know you're upset, but come on, be smart. Don't put yourself in a situation you can't get out of it.’ 


MFT 

That conversation. 


Emmanuel Awuni   

When he called out for his mum, like called for his mum, you know I felt how powerless he felt. Talking to my mum and then realizing that George Floyd, you know, he, he called out to his mum before he died. And I feel, you know, do you know when you're just stuck, and there's nowhere else to go, and you're just looking for anything holy. 

And instinctively, the thing that he thought about was his mother, his dead mother, by the way. So it's like he knew like, he's like, I'm done. And me, I felt that connection. And when I spoke to my mum, and my mum was telling me about, ‘Yo be careful,’ it felt just like that. And I'm like, wow, okay. Like, how do I again navigate this world as a Black man.


MFT

Yeah, I think it's, it's really interesting that that's a conversation that particularly Black men have all had with their parents with particularly yeah, especially with their mothers. And I mean, obviously, that's why the work resonated for me in terms of, I don't know if you've read any Debbie Tucker Green, any of her plays. I think it's Ear For Eye. 

There's this whole speech about telling your young Black sons, warning them about the world and basically saying anything that they do, it doesn't matter what they do, it's going to be wrong. Like, there's nothing they can do in that situation. So I kind of felt that, that powerlessness, and that thing of like I often say when I'm like, sad or stressed or whatever, I want my mum, not even for wanting my mum. But for wanting, the essence of whatever that mothering maternal figure thing is, so when you said his dead mum, you know, it really like just, yeah, I was like, fuck. 


Emmanuel Awuni  

Yeah. 


MFT

Yeah. And so, that piece, you made last year. And then your works Otis and Untitled, which you said you made in 2021. They seem like such a departure from any work of yours that I've seen before. And that's really interesting. But tell me, because you said that these works have been part of your process. So what is it that has taken you to this different place?


Emmanuel Awuni  

This might be a long answer. When I think about artists, and I think about, you know, the artists that come before me, I'm like, yo, it's much more difficult to be an artist now, especially with what we have around us, especially with social media, and how people perform this thing of being an artist. 

Now this difference between an artist and a performer, it's imitation. But there's a lot of people who are doing that. It's this idea of simulation and simulacra where you know how to copy shit, but it's almost like bootlegging! 


MFT

Yeah.


Emmanuel Awuni  

You know, it's like, there's a lot of that happening now. And so for me, an artist isn't just like this, isn't this person that it's just like, oh, I paint, or I make sculpture, or I do performance, I think we've, we're so advanced in terms of our intelligence that there's no such thing. 

And if you’re saying, oh i'm, i'm only going to make this thing because that's what you're doing then you're not in the right generation, you're not being progressive at all. And I think, you know, with ‘Otis’ and ‘Untitled’, it's just my desire to communicate in a different way. And in a much more direct way, but also to slip expectations.


MFT  

Yeah.


Emmanuel Awuni   

So it's called Otis because, you know, I'm thinking about, essentially, I'm inspired by music. Because I think music is the greatest art form. And, you know, no one's better at music than Black people. No one. I'm willing to put my money down on that.


MFT 

Yeah literally. I'm willing to put my life on that.


Emmanuel Awuni  

Exactly. I'm like, I'll beef with anyone. And so, for me, I'm like, okay, how can I make the work look like music? How can I make something visual look like music? So looking at a surface value of like, oh, Jay Z said, you know, so and so. And I'm just going to imitate that visually. 

And it's like, no bro! There's this book I was reading, and it was talking about African music or Black music. And it was talking about Black music in relation to dance, and how we do not imitate what we hear. In a sense, it's almost like a call and response.


MFT 

Yeah.


Emmanuel Awuni  

Everything had its own frequency. The easiest way to actually explain this, is that if we listen to like reggae or dub or like the one drop, the whole point is that you’re not actually bobbing your head to the beat, you actually go in the opposite of the beat, and therefore your body’s doing something, the music is doing something different. However, the frequency is the same. 

And I think that’s what I was trying to do with my painting in these new works in a way, is really to represent Blackness. In the most off-beat way and with ‘Otis’ and with this series, where you're supposed to understand and see the rhythm of it, rather than it just being one thing. 

And ‘Untitled’ as well, it was just me experimenting in the process of developing this new language. And hopefully, like, this is Blackness and it doesn't have to have a Black figure in the middle of it. And I think there's something very exciting when I look at this painting and I think it reminds me of how we make our music.


MFT  

Yeah, when you say that I can see that. Looking at them now. I can see that. And I think it's also really important to have that - representations that aren't just representations. And that’s not to say anything against anyone who does make work like that. But it's just to have the full cacophony of options and things and ways and everything. So yeah, I really get that. 

So you said it's a series. Have you already got more of them? Or are you in the process of making it?


Emmanuel Awuni   

Yeah, I've got so many paintings! They're all sort of in the process. Because they are a series, they are showing multiple faces of the same thing. Yeah. So those ones that I showed you are just the ones that I'm very happy with. 

In the dark 3 (2017)


MFT   

From here I'm going to ask you about 'In the dark', which is obviously the complete other side of it. I mean, these images that you sent me are just absolutely incredible. They are fucking stunning and really, really painful I think.


Emmanuel Awuni  

Yeah. I think you know, with 'In the dark'. There's something about... you know, a lot of people keep saying that. The first thing they think about is the pain. And obviously, I can't stop how people see the work, but I also don't really see them that way. I mean, why do you think that they're painful?


MFT 

I don't think they're painful because of pain. I think that they are painful because of truth. 


Emmanuel Awuni  

Okay!


MFT   

When you see something that is so right at the core of it, that is hard, because our whole life is about keeping away from the truth. That is capitalism, that's what we have to do to exist in this system is to be like, away, away, away, away, away, away. So for me looking at them. It's like, there's something so honest, and so truthful, in them. That cuts through straight to the core. And that is painful.


In the dark 4 (2017)

Emmanuel Awuni  

Yeah, but I think for me, that's like, Billie Holiday, when you listen to Billie Holiday, when you listen to James Brown, when you listen to Otis Reading you know, they just cut through you. You're defenseless. Because it's real. 

And I think that's one of the things that as an artist i'm fighting for, is that realness. And just making work that comes from my gut, because it's like, I feel it, you know, like bleeding and being fine with bleeding. And being like, yeah, this is where my power comes from. And actually using it as a weapon, to defend myself. I'm really vulnerable when I make art but I also think that's where my power is. 

So I'm happy that you definitely saw that in the 'in the dark' series. But it also came from thinking about things that I kind of avoid. And I can’t avoid for me to become better and for me to grow. I have to walk through this shit otherwise nothing will make sense. Nothing will make sense. 

And then that's what I mean by healing, not in that sort of cliched way. But just walking through the fire maybe will show you your coolest spark like you're like wow this shit is fucked. But you just keep going. Because, you know, when you get through it, you're gonna come out, like, I don't know, something, something I don't want to use the word.


MFT  

Yeah. There'll be something there. Yeah.


Emmanuel Awuni  

Exactly. 

And you use it as a weapon or as armour, so that through this shit that we're surrounded by in this outer world, you can like fucking defend yourself, or you can navigate this shit without compromising yourself. And also your lineage, you know? 


MFT   

I think that's probably the hardest thing about making work is to be vulnerable all the time. To open yourself up to everything in order to create something and still come home to yourself afterwards. So when I look at this work, I think like, how the fuck did you make that and then like, go home and make dinner. Or, like, catch the bus?


Emmanuel Awuni   

[Laughter] I did. That's such a funny thing to put in there. But I think it's like, you know I, I think I grew up in such a difficult environment and also, I think just to bring it back to 'ma' the work, how the fuck did I watch George Floyd get murdered? And then like, go about my day. How? Yeah, it's not just my own personal experience. I’m like, yo that could've been me. You know, how do I go and be like hey, how are you? And like go out and like drink and like act like life is good?


MFT   

Yeah. Like the cognitive dissonance is real. The gaslighting, self gaslighting is something that we just seem to keep on doing, but maybe that's not a bad thing because it helps us to get up everyday.


Emmanuel Awuni   

Obviously I'm not, I'm not interested in like, you know, what's the word? I suppose, lying to myself or cheating. I want to look at fire face, and I want to walk through it. And I want to feel it and I want to tame it. And I want to be like cool. 


MFT   

I get that because I would say my personal brand is authenticity, right? It's my brand, I'm honest, and I'm real about things. But that doesn't stop me from, automatically subconsciously, putting on armor in order to move through the day fighting fires. I couldn't be, I wouldn't be, upright if I didn’t.

So what's your line? Where is the line then between you being real? And you fighting it? Because you want to fight it and come through it and be like, yes, I did that. And I am whatever I am now. And existing. I don't mean living, I mean existing.


Emmanuel Awuni  

So I actually think it's quite simple. Because it's, it's huge, right? And for me, rather than looking at it as like this huge thing, I'm taking it day by day, as an individual and in my life, I'm like, I just have to be like the best version of myself. I honestly do not give a fuck about what's going on around me. Like, I'm not a customer, it's beyond me. But something is a community thing where we all have to come together and then fight this, this thing. 

So when I went to the protests, I’d never been to a protest. Just because I don't believe in that shit. When I went to the George Floyd protests it was more for the symbolism of that. Because then going, I was able to heal, you know. When you’re chanting Black Lives Matter you're chanting that shit, you believe that shit. And it's like, you're letting go of the tension. And you can feel everyone's energy and it's like this energy just leaving but also coming in and healing you. And I feel that that works on a group level. 

But individually today, okay, what is bothering me? And how can you deal with this thing? Just don't try and save the world. Or just make work. I'm like, how do I really feel about this? And how can I move on from this? How does this treat me or make me think or make me question or make me grow and look at my own biases. On an individual level you need to be better. It's just about me. And therefore by me being the best version of myself, I can hopefully touch the next person, the next person, the next person, or the closest person to me, rather than by being at the top, I'm always in the middle and that's how that's how... I can't. 

It's too big. It's too contentious, too violent, too much. But individually. And as a community with grassroots works, you can survive, and you can face the fires. Easily. [Laughs] not easily. But you can.


MFT   

Yeah. You definitely can. Is there anything else you want to add about the work? The ones that you've selected? Anything you feel is missing?


Where do we go from here? (2020)

Emmanuel Awuni  

So with 'in the dark' there was this idea. You know, when you talk about Mami Wata, and 'in the dark' those heads are the heads of all the millions of souls that have drowned during the Trans Atlantic slave trade and how I feel those voices are muted, you know, forever. But I was trying to show them and represent them. That's why the painting is completely abstract, whereas the sculptures are super, almost real. 

And I'm like, Okay, how do I represent these people but also they have their eyes closed. Yes, that's death, but they are not going through the shit that we're seeing. Right now they're in Nirvana. And there's something about the ocean, you know, water. And I think as a personality I've never understood water or the idea of water. I want to. But it's something that I think I'm just almost like oh fuck. And then, like, I'm just the complete opposite in terms of my mental vibration to water. For me, there's something about the water, like the formlessness and the way it's able to take shape. It's just, yeah, and those heads being excavated from the underground of this water. 

But they're not here. They've got their eyes closed. And they're all in Nirvana. They're not living this life and this water heals and refreshes, it makes you stay calm, it makes you cool and heals. You know, ‘in the dark’ is me trying to understand water and how it can rejuvenate and heal me by connecting to these people. I haven't you know, I don't know who they are. But they shaped my existence. In the most offbeat way ever. I feel, I feel, I feel their energy. Their hopes and dreams.


MFT 

Yeah, yeah.

Emmanuel Awuni   

Yeah. And the other works, 'where do we go from here?' - you know I love this question. Because I'm like, right now, the pandemic is self cleansing. It's cleansed, like, old ideas, or the way we think. Because before the pandemic, we were just going on this same course. And right now the word is change. And it always feels like I'm doing myself a disservice if I start thinking, like, I was in 2019 or 2020. And I'm coming with an energy of my ancestors energy, I'm coming with an energy that is different. But where do we go from here? 

It's like, looking at things that have been the chaos, a dying Empire, and how Blackness survives through this shit and how are we able to hold together so in the work there's a table, and I use hair, Black hair extension to, give it a base. And then hopefully, I can put something on top of it. So that it can hold. There’s this brown or red turtle thing walking, it looks like it's walking. 

And it's just like, where do we go from here? And it's just, like, the emotion. I don't know where we're going to go, we're moving forward, but it's like this deserted, like, painful landscape and it's got symbols of Blackness, trying to escape or trying to find something, but it doesn't know where it's going. But it's just trying to find what’s next, and I think again the same idea, it's quite barren, there's a lot of stuff going on. But it's very barren. 

Like, where do we go from here? You know, like literally, right now where do I go, in a pandemic. Okay, how do I make art? How do I talk about art? Or like, why should someone come up with some painting? What? Like, what's the next thing? How are we going to evolve? How is this conversation going to evolve? How's this idea of Blackness? Or how are we going to move forward, where do we go from there, really, in the most realest sense, where? 

You know, i’m trying to talk about things not, again, not in the most direct way. Just like, okay, I want to talk about this but I don't want to be right on the nose, because I think sometimes it's about being off the thing that makes it interesting. 


MFT  

It makes people connect to it more. Because it's very easy to see something and be like, yep, that's that, check. That's how it's supposed to feel, check. It's like movie soundtracks, just there to manipulate you to feel a certain way. To make it personal, I guess is to be on that off beat.


In the dark 1 (2017)

Emmanuel Awuni  

Exactly. And I think, you know, as a Black artist, what I'm fighting for is for us to represent ourselves. Not in a way that whiteness wants us to represent ourselves. But just to say look, I'm just talking about this shit, that I know, my reality. And I think rappers or like hip hop was the best example. It’s manifested as people just talking about their lives on fucking beats.


MFT  

Yeah. That's what poetry is for me, it’s actually a space to just talk about whatever the fuck you want to talk about, regardless of what you're supposed to be talking about. It is very difficult with imagery, especially with figures to take away the white gaze from it. 


Emmanuel Awuni  

What do you mean withdraw the white gaze from it? 


MFT   

I feel like for example, if I do some work, and it's me naked, lying on the floor, there's going to be certain things that are going to be put onto and prescribed onto that image. Either an over sexual or an asexual gaze, either this is Mammy, or is this Jezabel. Those things are going to just be read automatically. Whereas when I write, I don't feel that I have to second guess what I'm doing. Because I've often found I've made work and people have said things and I'm like, well, that wasn't really the point. But you've read that because... yeah.


Emmanuel Awuni   

So how do you navigate around that when making work? How do you get someone to enter a space? Like, you know there's you, Madinah the person and then there's an experience of like okay, I'm coming to see a show. And the show as the space is the bridge, where both of you meet.  And how do I get people to stop bringing in these shit biases into my own experiences, and almost make it so naked that they're naked and exposed? Because whatever that they're questioning is not actually to do with me, it's about them and how they see the world. And they shouldn't just bring that shit and project it onto my own world. How, I swear that's quite a big question [laughs].


MFT   

I make it for myself. I make it for myself. Because if I do it for any other reason, for a space or for certain people or for anything apart from making it for myself, then to me there's not anything to uncloud people when they walk into a space or uncloud people when they watch something or read something. I think as soon as you are so honest, no one can put anything else on it because it's just, it's, it's what's there. That's what's there. 


Emmanuel Awuni   

Yeah raw. 


MFT  

So that's what I try and do. And I know because whenever you start making work and you feel any kind of pressure, that isn't just you wanting to make something, then that's when I know that what I'm making isn't right. And it doesn't flow right.


Emmanuel Awuni  

I suppose I will say this. I think that what I'm excited about is, so seeing how, you know, I think about Jimi Hendrix, Basquiat, Otis Redding... I think about these guys, and there's something within the way they made work. And even Young Thug, for example, I'm so inspired by Young Thug it's ridiculous. And these people, this is Blackness to me, in the manifested way, you can see the legacy the people that came before everything. And I just want to see that happen in the art world. For institutions that isn't really what they give a fuck about though, they give a fuck about tokenism. I think just like the way hip hop was able to evolve and become a pillar for Black people to just express themselves and do what the fuck they want. But yeah, quantify and transcend that environment and objection that they've been relegated to. How can art do that now, whether, it's in the first century, or you know, the 20s? 

How can we push it forward in the UK? Can we push it forward? And that's what I'm excited to see. And that's what I'm fighting for. You know, that's what I want. Like we can't be thinking or we can't be institutionalized by this. Because then I'm like, yo, we're just performing. We're not actually living. You know, it's performing. It's like ok cool. That's what I'm interested in. Therefore, my practice is so sporadic and like, it doesn't really make sense.


MFT

But it shouldn't. I mean if you were to look into someone and it made sense that wouldn't be real. It's not possible. I think that's difficult though, because so many artists I see, especially the generation above us, are institutionalized. 


Emmanuel Awuni  

Of course [laughs].


MFT  

So many, from the smallest ones to the little little collectives, so I don't really know and I wonder how to resist, because they must have said the same things as we are.


Emmanuel Awuni    

Well, I think they must have but the difference between them and us is that we really have a chance to get our voice out and to be heard. I really believe that. I think we can just be like no, fuck you. I'm just gonna do my own thing. Yeah. We don't give a fuck, or I hope we don't give a fuck. And yeah, whatever cream and making money, but at the same time, don't let this shit control you. 

I think we're quite an interesting generation. We have the tools to make things work for us whereas I don't really think they did, you know. I think about Steve McQueen and Isaac Julian's generation, and being Black and trying to face shit and trying to break shit down in this U.K., that's impossible, because racism was still fucking dominant there. You know, I think we have something different because of globalism, being connected, everyone being connected throughout the world. 

I can just pick up my phone and wow, I'm in China, wow I'm in America, I'm in Brazil, whatever, I'm in Africa. I can just go anywhere just through my phone. And actually, we have different access than they did. And therefore, the tools that we have, we should be able to at least make something interesting. Or just like, revolt. Not a revolution. Revolt.

In the dark 2 (2017)


MFT 

Yeah, yeah. Okay. Yes, there is a difference. Well, I hope so.


Emmanuel Awuni   

Well I hope so too, you know, I just feel like, you know why not give it a shot? You know, and I think music, if you follow the like pattern of music. We've definitely transcended our self, our race to become more of an entity, a being, a something, a force. And regardless of the business of Black music, in terms of the production, we definitely have, we've created something and are benefiting from it as a race.


MFT  

Yeah. An entity? Yeah, it's true. It is true.


Emmanuel Awuni   

I'm also coming from a space of being more privileged. And I don't mean, I suppose privileged in every sense. Fair enough. We're oppressed. Fair enough, we're marginalized, fair enough - but I refuse to submit. And I refuse to submit regardless of how ludicrous and how off the chance of winning is. I believe I'm a wire or a cog in the machine that can stop it from functioning properly. 

You know, and it's like, Okay, fair enough. How do you go about doing this? I do not know, but I just know, deep down, I trust the process, you know. You just have to be real and make things that people can feel because to me it's all about feelings, because that transcends and breaks shit. If you watch something, if you listen to music that you've been affected by you’re like damn, I am empowered. Because that connects to something, I connect to this person. And that's, I think that's powerful. And art has that, and I think we just... or I hope, that my work does that.


MFT 

Yes! I mean, it does and when you said that I just thought about 'In the dark'. And I thought, yeah, that's that exact feeling that you get when you listen to something, a piece of music that is just transcendent, it takes you to a different place. It's more than you.


Emmanuel Awuni  

Exactly. Exactly. It's space and time. Not in a linear way.


MFT  

Yeah. Amazing. Excellent. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this. 


Emmanuel Awuni  

Hopefully I said something good!


MFT

Yeah you said some really good shit. I wrote things down just to remember them!


Emmanuel Awuni  

Great.


MFT

Well, have a great day. 


Emmanuel Awuni  

You too. 


MFT

Take care. Bye.


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