Artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy interview with Marlon Moncrieffe.
Dr Marlon Moncrieffe studies migration stories and national identity; Decolonising the curriculum; Critical multicultural education; Black-British histories used with the primary school curriculum and Black-British histories in cycling. For this post he has interviewed the artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy about their collaborative project called Finding Fanon (2015-17). This series of works is inspired by the lost plays of Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), a politically radical humanist whose practice dealt with the psychopathology of colonisation and the social and cultural consequences of decolonisation. In the films, the two artists negotiate Fanon’s ideas, examining the politics of race, racism and the post-colonial, and how these societal issues affect their relationship. The interview will be followed by a VR exhibition of the work in September, to be launched as part of new project developed by Louise Colbourne and funded by the Universities Research and Enterprise award and Creative Futures. David and Larry continue to work together and have show coming up in Art Exchange in Colchester this October.
M M: Can you discuss more about your visual and aural application of the elements in these films i.e. water (sea, rain); wind; fire (sun); and imagery of the scorched earth. The sky is also a focus. What were the specific analogies or connotations in these in coming to Fanon’s thinking?
L A: One of the things that fascinated me about reading Fanon’s writing when I was at art school was how these visions of doom, chaos, even pandemic are presented in front of the reader. Even 50 years after the book was published the writings are ever present; the evil that is racism is very much alive and continues to fester through societies across the planet. When we worked on the films, I was considering the continued (and often ignored) oppression of black people around the planet and the long-living existence of systematic racism, and it’s direct links to capitalism, environmental issues, structural inequality and more, and the only way to relate that was through an impending sense of mania. And this story had to be told by a black woman (the main trilogy being voiced by Hayleigh-Joy Rose), there is no coincidence there – conversations around power and agency are flowing through the project.
D B: Our films are visual poetry, using image, soundtrack and voice to create a complex interplay of meanings, but I’ll try to unpack some of the thoughts we had while constructing the final works. The elements provided a symbolic framework for out thoughts around Fanon, alluding to histories and ideas through the image and sound. Water acts as medium, a space of transition between the real and the virtual, but also refers to the Middle Passage and migration in general. A place of flux and a place of death, the final transition. The wind and rain are elements of resistance, that we must pass through to find new understandings. The sun is the giver of life, the promise of a “new day”, but also refers to the threat of global warming brought about by colonial extractivism, the turmoil and fire that will bring. It is also the agent in this marker of “difference”, as Fanon says “I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a drop of sun under the earth.” The scorched earth is the present or near future, the post-cataclysmic wasteland or tabula rasa that must be formed to find a way through, to create an equal plane- “What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”
M M: It has been suggested that Fanon’s anger is directed not towards the ‘black man’ but the proposition that he is required not only to be black, but he must be black in relation to the white man. There are some symbolic analogies in the films which appear to define Fanon’s anger. Can you discuss these a little more?
L A: Again, when relating my own experience of this anger and my lived experience as a young black person, one of the things you hear in the film that the narrator talks of is a moment when my mother told me as a child that I would have to work multiple times as much as white men in order to merely survive in the world. Just thinking about that statement brings a lot of fatigue, because the right to exist means having to operate on an inhuman level, to have to be nothing but excellent, and yet even when being those things, black people will still be persecuted, unjustly treated, killed, shat on. I think that anger is thus explored in a myriad of ways.
D B: In Finding Fanon 3 the narrator says “Maybe it is not I whom should abandon my blackness, but instead you renounce the system and its design that continues to privilege you.” There is the observation that inequalities are built into the language we speak, the system of words that define us, equating darkness with evil, and goodness with light. Fanon was a psychiatrist, and very much understood that we are defined by language, but he recognised that it was a language that was not made for him, but was instead subject to. Language is insidious, and aspects must be pin-pointed and confronted if we are to make real progress.
M M: The effects of colonialism described by Fanon manifests today as ‘whiteness’ and systemic racism. These work visibly and invisibly in multifaceted violent forms. Can you talk more about how you have aimed to illustrate violence (symbolic, epistemic, psychological, physical, economic) via the films?
D B: Our approach was to conflate the personal and the geopolitical, to contrast our positions and point at the historic inequalities and how they continue and reverberate through our personal friendship, contemporary society and the virtual realm. Larry talks of his Ghanaian uncle detained in immigration detention centres, and I contrast that with my Grandfather’s part in the Swynnerton Plan, a plan to repress the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya through horticulture, building a black middle class by growing pineapples for export to England. The trilogy ends with the words “We have been subservient to the algorithms of the oppressor until now. The time has arisen to cast aside these bonds. In order for us to become a part of all things we must fight.” We have performed this script live many times (with the film as a backdrop), and each time there is this tension in those words, whether we will fight together for this new world, or whether we have to fight each other to achieve it.
L A: In order to think about how that makes its way into the work, it is important to consider the relationship of the artists; that of David’s and mine. I would say we are close, beyond our working relationship, and there are many similarities between us. We are both parents, we love video games and science fiction, we both grew up in London. Yet even with all of these similarities that link us, our lived experiences where race (and class) are concerned are worlds apart, due to the system that precedes us, benefits David (and his children in comparison to mine) and continues to exist. This collaboration is worthless without us talking about it, and we talk a lot. And it is painful sometimes, but it is necessary in order for there to be any truth in what we do. So that violence is ever present beyond the screen and the work – it is the violence that white people have recently only become “aware” of in the age of Coronavirus. And I say this in inverted commas, because it is gonna take a lot more than some black squares and some statements for true acknowledgement, reparations and even the obliterating of old power structures, to happen. That I think, is the legacy of our practice.