Culture& and Black Cultural Archives’ Perspectives Series – November 2020

Culture&, in collaboration with the Black Cultural Archives, continues its monthly series Perspectives, which invites persons from the arts and culture sector to respond to ‘Re’ words from Culture&’s 2020 decolonisation mantra. With the aim of gaining a richer understanding of what these terms mean from different points of view, this month they consider RebirthReclassify and Recast.

Chloe Austin, Exhibitions and Research Manager at Maximillian William

Rebirth

I’m halfway through Zora Neale Hurston’s, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937. There’s so many amazingly poignant lines but one in particular stands out to me about rebirth. While telling her story the protagonist, Janie, “thought awhile and decided that her conscious life had commenced at Nanny’s gate.” It was at the gate that a series of events are put in motion ending in Janie leaving her Nanny’s house to marry a man she does not love. Although less dramatic, I think there’s many moments when a new “conscious life” has begun for me, usually through reading or hearing new ideas or being forced into a new situation. However, as Hurston well knows, we are not fools to fate alone, there is agency in rebirth too “women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

Reclassify

One new “conscious life” came after reading Michel Foucault’s, “Classifying,” The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences, 1966. I always found philosophy difficult to get my head around but in this chapter, Foucault opened my mind to the idea that classification is innately artificial and, in a way, subjective and arbitrary. We think of classification as natural because we have been told that it is by those who created the categories! When we recognise that classifications are not a reflection of the rules of nature and instead begin to define our own systems, we regain power. However, in our rush to reclassify we have to be careful not to replicate the very thing we are trying to resist.

Recast

Chinaza Agbor’sGirl with the Green Earring, 2020 is a beautiful riff on Johannes Vermeer’s, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665. I love Agbor’s painting not just because it pleases the art historian in me, but because it took me a good while to realise that the painting was referencing an iconic image. I was drawn in by the confidence – both of the artist and subject – the glamour and boldness of the combination of pink eyeshadow, green earrings and black lipstick and the rich darkness of the piece. There’s something powerful about recasting ourselves as iconic subjects but in the process there’s also the opportunity to become something new.

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