‘Hidden In Plain Sight’ Masters of Letters in Fine Art Show, Glasgow School of Art. September 2017

This year my work has become more reflective of, and informed by contemporary issues rather than historical ones. I have widened the angle of political referents in the work, marking a less gendered critical approach to research and making. The archival interest that flowed through my final undergraduate year and Stage 1 of Masters study progressed into examining contemporary narrative through a wide variety of online media. Research contrasted tabloid news with social media platform news; leading into a visual impression of social unrest and current affairs held in a single event; the Grenfell fire.

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The unrest I refer to stems from increasing global migration, environmental decline and increasing autocratic/corporate global control, set against the rise of public interest in activism and resistance to that control. This has led to traces of the bio-political: pervasive surveillance and state control creeping visually into the work. In a Yale University lecture “Legal Violence: an Ethical and Political critique” Judith Butler describes the bio-political field as:

A distinct type of power over humans as living beings – distinct from sovereign power, bio-politics or bio-power…operates through various technologies and methods – for managing life, but also death…Foucoult describes the Bio-Political as the power to make live or let die; but also the power to take life or let live” (Butler, 2016)

Butler argues that this type of power serves to manage populations and to regulate the liveability of life, adding that this power is documented in mortality and natality rates that indicate forms of racism that belong to bio-politics quoting Ruth Wilson-Gilmour who states:

Racism specifically is the state sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (ibid Butler)

Un(en)titled (Hidden in Plain Sight) - 245cm x 142cm, Digital painting on canvas, F Rhodes 2017
Un(en)titled (Hidden in Plain Sight) – 245cm x 142cm, Digital painting on canvas, F Donnelly 2017

These definitions and identifications of types of power became central to the Grenfell flats fire research. After huge failures by the local council and government to both support the survivors adequately in the weeks since the fire and bring about a commitment to transparent methods of investigation into the real causes,  a local speaker and human rights activist commented:

How did this happen? What were the sort of policies that were put in place to make such a thing happen? –  and quite frankly that goes down to the deregulation, so I think it goes right to the top and that’s what many people are frightened of. (Blagrove, 2017)

Research I had written about in a Masters essay The Aesthetics of Abjection in relation to my own Practice and Artist Influences had deepened and consolidated into observing that some areas identified by the essay such as death, social division, loss of self, were gathered in this focal point of contemporary trauma but also threaded through my own art practice for some time. The sheer weight of this trauma and division surrounding the events of 14th June at the Grenfell tower block guided my research. The most commonly used descriptions amongst local residents and survivors that I was discovering were terms like ‘social’ or ‘ethnic’ cleansing’, specifically in relation to notions of gentrification.

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Three colour screen prints “I’m not Racist but….” and amalgamated performance mask, and the Grenfell tower.

Before I go any further, I want to address a question that will likely arise again as it has already: why am I, a white artist, addressing black pain? Here I refer specifically to the protest that happened around Dana Schultz’s Open Casket painting that Hannah Black wrote about suggesting that ‘the painting must go’. The painting Open Casket depicts an abstracted version of the famed photograph of Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral stating:

The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time. (Greenberger, Artnews, 21/3/17).

I will emphasise that all the work I produced for the Masters show at Glasgow School of Art that relates specifically to the Grenfell fire is not for sale, and was not made with profit in mind. The fire affected me specifically because I lost my own baby son Louis (whose father is Afro-Caribbean) to a situation where the truth behind probable causes of his death were covered over – the cause of death on his certificate stated ‘Sudden Infant Death Syndrome’; but no one will convince me that the high fever he ran shortly before his death on 17th August 2001 was not directly related to the dysentry that the whole camp had come down with due to cow shit leaking into the camp water pipes.  So I understand how this denial of culpability freezes and suspends the grief process, and thus specifically (though I am not by any means denying my by birth white privilege here) I understand the pain of losing a child of colour. The 17th August 2017 – 16 years on, was the day all the work went up in the exhibition space.

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Photo of my late son Louis in picture frame behind ‘ Dear Firefighter”‘ letter.

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Dear Firefighter Etching and Chine Colle.
Dear Firefighter Etching and Chine Colle.

The Grenfell imagery and it’s link to my own pain, caused me to look deeply into ethical considerations especially after Stage 3 crit feedback, when screen-printed versions of an image were too much for people to digest/absorb/accept etc. People asked questions like “how does the KKK relate to what’s happening in the UK?” and questions posed such as: “Consider the socio-political mechanics between American KKK and British politics: vastly different?”  However shortly after this crit, MP Anne Marie Morris’s casual racist slur discussing Brexit caused outrage all over social and tabloid media:

“Now I’m sure there will be many people who’ll challenge that, but my response and my request is look at the detail, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile, which is, in two years what happens if there is no deal?”  (Mason, 2017)

This bought back some really traumatic images for me; despite the phrase being purported to pertain to black slaves hiding in stacked railway sleeper piles or similar (bad enough!),

I remembered being shown some horrendous photos of the Klan standing over a burnt-out corpse of a murdered slave as part of a black history workshop. Looking the phrase up I discovered that the phrase is also the title of a 1967 paperback, written by the executive secretary to Edward Young Clarke, the Imperial Wizard pro tempore of the Ku Klux Klan (Fuller, 1967).

A dramatic increase in cases shows that institutionalised racism has begun to harvest substantial real world results both in the USA and the UK, with increasing success considering the five acid attacks in London in the last month alone plus frequent death threats received by Labour MP Louise Haigh who dared to propose a ban on Britain First last winter (Pidd and Perraudin, 2016).

The events of the past week in Charlottesville should leave no one in a any doubt about the seriousness of growing racism globally but in particular in the USA and the UK right now. I have to add here that the way that Theresa May has not specifically challenged or stood up to Trump for attempting to argue that there was violence on ‘both sides’ (which by definition assumes some level of innocence of the white supremacist marchers who ploughed into a crowd killing and injuring people) should make any British person question their complicity in this dangerous growing silence. However,  given that genocide, racism and white supremacy should clearly still be unacceptable forms of facism to the masses and therefore rightly invoke protest, then May’s colluding with this view point indicates why politically the time has come to get off the fence for all of us who care about human rights. It’s time to stand in our truth by whatever talents, powers of communication, diplomacy, compassion and resolve we have.

“I’ve always tried to put things over as directly and rawly as I possibly can, and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly, people feel that it is horrific…because people tend to be offended by facts, or what used to be the truth” (Gayford quoting Francis Bacon, 2017)   

In an earlier Masters essay I refer to the notion that it hurts to look at a work by Francis Bacon; having reflected on and questioned why I would then continue to make the ‘Un(en)titled’ print, knowing that it is imbued with local and national trauma and to varying degrees, outrage and shame.  I have decided that this is because my work follows a psychological strategy and pattern learned as a direct result of escaping adversity myself, which is to identify or name the issue before addressing it. This is a common coping technique amongst artists who have lived through trauma:

“Art is a guarantee of sanity” (Turner quoting Bourgeois 2012)

Thus, it is easy to see evidence of the kind of social division discussed by Jeremy Corbyn in his 2003 anti-Iraq war speech which has been viral in social media during the recent 2017 UK general elections:

“It will set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, of misery, of desperation that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and the misery of future generations.” (Snowdon quoting Corbyn 2016)

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‘Ohhh Jeremy Corbyn’ Print. Etching on Somerset paper 50cm x 80cm.

Through artistically and ethically attempting to balance sensitivities, whilst absorbing the subject matter of the fire; developmental thinking from ‘that which has affected only myself’ into ‘that which affects all of us’, has given me more of an experiential understanding of the delicacy and potential psychological risk involved in making sensitive socially informed and engaged work.

In making works about this terrible event, I have had to check back with myself more than ever before ‘is this true?’ or ‘is this only true for me? This led to a reordering of my own thoughts and prioritization set against the ability to absorb with better impartiality fellow students or tutor comments and reactions to something which earlier I had projected would be perceived in an entirely different way.

I have learned to be a great deal more open to, and interested in varying group critique scenarios – a real personal achievement given some really difficult experiences in crits during my undergraduate degree. This is a significant development in my learning to trust in the process of critiquing given beneficial conditions, and a better idea of what those conditions might feel like:

A critique is not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought our accepted practices rest. (Sircar & Jain quoting Foucault, 1988) 

To conclude, the painter in me wanted to research and capture a moment in UK political history which for me, unequivocally represents a point at which British people, and perhaps globally; can no longer remain indifferent or in denial about what is happening regarding the orchestrated and intentional social cleansing of our societies.  I know this body of work I have made may receive the usual barrage of oblique criticism; become labelled as ‘sensationalist’ or ‘in bad taste’, get denied as fake news like the rest of the mounting injustice covered over now by a system which flaunts its own cunning; hiding in plain sight.

We no longer have the shadow of ignorance to hide behind in our generations fight against racism; since on the night of 14th June at the Grenfell flats, the now silenced screams of the children linger like the putrid air poisoned by the toxic fumes from a sightly jacket of death –  designed and installed through savage policymakers with due negligence, whose own greed and grasping must surely make us all question our complicity in such terror.

Bibliography:

1/.Blagrove, I. (21/07/17) Grenfell speaks with Ishmahil Blagrove, You Tube Video. Accessed on 24/7/17 Available online at https://youtu.be/Kp3ytDbMplo

2/. Butler, J. (2016) Legal Violence: An Ethical and Political Critique, You Tube Yale Lecture – 30/6/2016, Accessed 20/7/17 Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coBcQajx18I

3/. Fuller, E, (1967) Nigger in the Woodpile, Washington, Capitol Hill Books Available online at https://www.abebooks.co.uk/Nigger-Woodpile-Edgar-Fuller-Lacey-Washington/9647862608/bd

4/. Gayford, M. quoting Bacon, F (1996) in The Brutality of Fact, Modern painters. Autumn 96. Vol 9 issue 3, p.43 –accessed online 17/7/17 – Available at https://www.google.co.uk/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=the+brutality+of+fact+ebscohost&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&gfe_rd=cr&ei=GnV6WdjkDJPc8AeFh7OQBg

5/. Greenberger, A, (21.3.17) ‘The Painting must go’: Hannah Black pens open letter to the Whitney about Controversial Biennial work. Available online at http://www.artnews.com/2017/03/21/the-painting-must-go-hannah-black-pens-open-letter-to-the-whitney-about-controversial-biennial-work/  Accessed on 19/8/17.

6/. Hanish, C, (1970) The Personal is the Political excerpt from Notes from the second year: Women’s Liberation, Women’s Library Print Culture – Accessed 23/7/17Available online at http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/wlmpc_wlmms01039/

7/. Mason, R 11/07/17 May orders Anne Marie Morris MP to be suspended after using N-word Accessed 22/7/17 – Available online at (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/10/tories-urgently-investigating-after-mp-uses-n-word-at-public-event)

8/. Pidd, H and Perraudin, F. (15/12/16) Female MP received death threats for calling for ban on Britain First, Accessed on 26/7/17, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/15/female-mp-received-death-threats-for-calling-for-ban-on-britain-first

9/. Pollock, G. (2013). After Effects|After Images: Trauma and Aesthetic transformation in the virtual feminist museum. 1st ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.xxiv preface.

10/. Sircar, O & Jain, D quoting Michel Foucault, Practicing Criticism, in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: interviews and other Writings 1977-1984, 152-158 (A. Sheridan et al. trans., L.D. Kritzman ed., 1988) accessed on 20/7/17 available at: http://jglr.jgu.edu.in/PDF/OishikSircarDipikaJainChapter-1_F_HR.pdf

11/. Snowdon, J quoting Corbyn, J. 5/7/16 – Jeremy Corbyn’s 2003 Anti-Iraq War Speech Reminds Us Where Labour Leader Has Always Stood, Huffington Post .Acessed 23/7/17 – Availbale online at (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jeremy-corbyn-2003-anti-iraq-war-speech-labour-leader-ahead-of-his-time_uk_577bbbe8e4b0f7b55795fa0a)

12/. Turner, C (6/4/2012) Analysing Louise Bourgeois: Art Therapy and Freud, The Guardian Online, Accessed 27/7/17, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/apr/06/louise-bourgeois-freud

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