Space. Place. Race.
‘A whole history remains to be written of spaces— which would at the same time be the history of powers’ -Michel Foucault
Whilst scrolling through my Twitter feed, recently, I came across a tweet by Bilal Harry Khan, or @TweetsByBilal, as he’s known on Twitter. In the tweet, Khan relayed the story of a former inmate he spoke to who, having noted the aesthetic similarities between his council estate and his prison block, discovered that they had been designed by the same architect.
The tweet hit me hard…very hard.
Granted, I am well aware of the thinly veiled cradle to prison pipeline so carefully crafted for the disadvantaged in this country. I am also well aware of the aesthetic similarities and routines (i.e., bells, uniforms, etc.) taking place in school buildings, hospitals, etc, as explored by Foucault et al. I guess what hit me the most was the image I created in my mind of this young inquisitive man, his curiosity piqued, discovering, without any doubt that the tragic trajectory of his life had been most definitely preordained.
I, and I am certain many others, have faced internal and external battles when it comes to existing within, and at times feeling an affinity or even an attraction towards very colonial spaces; spaces built with both the blood money and actual blood of my ancestors, but also spaces built very much to oppress and destroy the underprivileged. Spaces that continue to be smeared with the blood of those seen as lesser than amongst the dominant society.
Recent conversations with a colleague, and an interesting interaction with a conflicted American friend- keen to visit the famous ‘sights’ of London, but acutely aware of their history and their continuing oppressive messages, have left me to further question these ‘public’ and private spaces, many of which claim to be ‘open to all'. What indeed is my and others’ relationship with them, and is there ever a way that these relationships can be purely positive? I have realised that often, whilst in conversation, I confidently speak on the reclaiming and subverting of these spaces, much like the mimicry Homi Bhabha talks of, where the formerly-colonised adopts elements of the former-colonisers’ traditions, whilst injecting these said traditions with those of their ancestors; simultaneously unsettling the former coloniser, and transfiguring what was before a deeply traumatic reminder. Indeed, I have written about this subversion and reclamation, in regards to the Notting Hill Carnival and the cricket fields of the Caribbean….but…
Glimpses of hope for me come through the countering of the dominant reminders of a colonial (reality) past through such people as Sir David Adjaye OBE, The prolific Ghanaian-British architect, responsible for such buildings as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. (2016). Adjaye’s belief that architecture has a social responsibility is shown through his architecture, which purposefully and explicitly pays homage to not only African art and architecture but also the work, for example, of the enslaved of Charlotte. However, his very title (OBE) problematises his standing. Not for a moment taking away from his amazing work, but rather a reminder that his prolific standing is perhaps due in no small way to the modern Empire’s decision to ‘allow’ him to be one of the very few oppressed voices to speak through his art. The extreme underrepresentation of black architects further compounds this.
I have attended a number of ‘lates’ at various galleries and museums over the last few years, and I have enjoyed seeing such sights as the juxtaposition between the extremely talented spoken word artist George the Poet, sharing the plight of 21st century marginalised people, against the backdrop of 18th-century paintings in the Tate Britain. Also, listening to the blasting Grime music whilst viewing the artwork of young people from a multitude of racial, sexual and economic backgrounds at such events as the GalDem Zine takeover at the Victoria and Albert, whilst stood beside a Rodin sculpture, was equally as satisfying.
What though when the lights go out on these amazing nights?
When ethnically diverse crowds- attracted by promotion and events which centre them or decentre others fade?
When the establishment has fulfilled its diversity quota?
When the faithful patrons have declared the events ‘gimmicky’ and ‘not real art’?
When for 99% of the year, a homogenous set of visitors, part of a hegemonic system, stalk the corridors, dismissive of the African, Caribbean and Indian items on display, hurrying by to see the ‘real art’ of John Constable. Or worse still, showing a great eagerness to experience the ‘ethnic’ displays… just as long as they remain behind glass, with a distance both physically and a number of centuries.
Just as with breathing, eating, water, oxygen, people need space to survive.
Unfortunately, those of diasporas formed as a result of empire, often find themselves ‘surviving’ in spaces that seek to destroy their mental and physical wellbeing.
What is the immediate solution to these spaces slowly killing off generations?
I don’t know.
And that kills me a little