Arnolfini
John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea Arnolfini

Africa at Arnolfini | Interview with Arnolfini’s Writer in Residence, Melissa Chemam

To coincide with Black History Month, our writer in residence Melissa Chemam talks to us about her new project

What are you writing about, Melissa?
After about six months as the writer-in-residence at the Arnolfini, writing short pieces on women artists, feminism and resistance worldwide, we had the idea of assembling a little art book. A text dedicated to all the African, Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean British artists who Arnolfini has invited to exhibit over the years since 1961… That was in April and it sounded very relevant to me, as I’ve spent most of my adult life as a reporter on African news, in and out of Africa; I’ve worked for a film production company from Haiti; and as the daughter of Algerian immigrants to Paris, I’m a member of the African diaspora myself.

I started working on this book that is now to me a sort of short history of “Black Art” in the UK. Some of the artists are from the UK, other were born in Trinidad, Jamaica, Morocco, Sudan or Ghana, so it gives me room to try to weave together the different parts of the African continent, as well as the “triangular” routes that bind it with the Americas and Europe. These are themes that have haunted my work as a journalist, researcher and writer since the mid-2000s as well.

 

How have you been researching it?
I’ve started by trying to get in touch with some of the artists and curators. Some sent me articles, links, video recordings about their art, from back then and from now. Others have had the time for an interview. Then I’ve looked into catalogues, at Arnolfini, and also at Bristol Archives (which was a great chance to visit this wonderful place, despite the current Covid restrictions). Writing about art is one of my favourite endeavours as a writer, because it allows so much depth, and to dig into all different sorts of subjectivities. And the rest is about my own memories of some of the exhibitions, or some of these artists’ work in other places, as well as things I was researching from 2015 for my previous book, on Bristol’s music and graffiti scene Out of the Comfort Zone (Tangent Books, 2019).

 

Could you tell us a bit about your relationship with Bristol?
Before I came to Bristol, I had lived in London for years and thought I knew and loved England… But Bristol revolutionised my vision of the UK. I came after years reporting mainly in Africa, to write more about art and music than about immigration and politics. I came precisely because it has links with both the Americas and Africa. Links with the consequences of colonial conquests, from the 1500s up to recently.

The city was then the European Green capital. I immediately fell in love with Bristol people and their energy. I felt a strong sense of community here, and an interest in climate justice, so I came again and stayed for weeks. I met so many people – artists, writers, historians, curators, charity workers, etc. I walked mostly, from the Arnolfini and Watershed to St. Andrews and Gloucester Road, or Trinity in Easton and artists’ homes in Clifton, in Hotwells and Bedminster, in St. Paul’s and St. Werburgh’s. I stayed in these different neighbourhoods with different people of different ages and origins and always found commonalities. Bristol became both an exciting territory to explore and a familiar second home. It’s been quite a unique experience for me.

I moved here finally a year ago, and since we have been through a lot… First there was Brexit! Then the Covid crisis, with the quasi-impossibility to travel… For a nomad like myself, it took a special place to not feel desperate. I walked almost daily along the Harbourside or in one of Bristol’s parks. And of course Edward Colston’s statue was torn down! A statue which I had discussed with a member of Massive Attack very early on…

Bristol and I, it’s a weird relationship, in a way. I’m from a North African background, lived in warm climate for years, and always thought I would one day settle somewhere like Italy… And sometimes some Bristolians can be a bit territorial, so I can feel like it’s delusional to want to be part of such a city, with complex history, divisions. I regularly wonder: where do I fit? But I’m still here and there is mostly joy, learning and friendship on a daily basis!

 

Are there any spoilers or favourite stories you’d like to share?
My favourite show at the Arnolfini was definitely ‘Vertigo Sea’ by Ghanaian British filmmaker John Akomfrah, in 2016! His work with the Black Audio Film Collective and lately Smoking Dogs Film has had a huge influence on my tastes in art and reflections on our post-modern world… The other show on the top list is ‘Trophies of Empire’; my discussion with Keith Piper was very insightful, notably on what ‘Black Art’ really means, between a political meaning to a more sociological perspective, not even strictly racial. In the 1970s, the most radical British ‘Black’ artist in the UK was probably Rasheed Araeen, born in 1935 in Karachi. Then Jamaican and other Caribbean British artists like Sonia Boyce and Frank Bowling revolutionised the artistic landscape. And more recently, African artists born on the African continent have left their mark, etc. It is a fascinating journey, and everything but one-sided.

Melissa’s book will be launched in March 2021, as part of the celebrations to mark Arnolfini’s 60th anniversary. More information to follow.

Frank Bowling will be exhibiting at Arnolfini in Summer 2021.

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