Artist Joyce Treasure speaks to us about her recent exhibition and residency at Bruntwood’s Cornerblock building in Birmingham in partnership with Grand Union. Now roughly half way through her residency period, Joyce explains more about the images, influences, subjects and processes which are critical to her work.
Your recent exhibition at Bruntwood featured a number of new works in drawing and sculpture circling race, gender, religion and politics. How was the exhibition’s premise conceived and how did you select which works to show?
The preparation for ‘Hymns’ began with small graphite portrait drawings of civil rights activists in October 2018 for an open studio event at the Custard Factory. The images were drawn on to the pages taken from a 1920s common prayer book that I had picked up from a charity shop. ‘Hymns’ was partly chosen as a collection title as a tribute – a song of praise – to scholars I admire, and to highlight each portrait’s ‘ideological critique’ and its resistance of the accepted dominant ideologies of that time. It’s a multidisciplinary body of work with each piece numbered ‘Hymns #1 – #22’. The portraits are presented on a small scale to emphasise the hidden histories and to highlight the lack of Black agency throughout dominant narratives. I think my reasoning to draw civil rights activists is leftover from my school days, where there was zero education on the radical movements of that time. My own progressive education was sought outside of school and independently, where I used to attend communist meetings. I was a member of the young communist league (YCL), and I would go off to meetings – with a couple who were members of the West Midlands communist party – to listen to talks around Marxism, and civil rights. At the time, it all went way over my head, really. There was a lot of racism floating around during the ’70s, so it was a place to go where topics about race could be discussed. I was around about 13/14 years old and the experience of ‘belonging’ related to feelings rather than anything academic or concrete; a place to feel okay. I chose those particular portraits because they are artists or speakers I admire now. In my imagination, I would go back and write those narratives into the education system: the missing education that I have been unpicking since 2010 when I began creating street art and paintings around Black identity.
One portrait is of a Bodi Tribe woman, whose sexual orientation is androgynous. I have deliberately done this with other paintings too, to demonstrate gender fluidity, as a way to disrupt the heteronormative thought – that belief that heterosexuality is the norm and anything outside of this is deviant. Johnson and Henderson tell us that Queer studies, like Black studies, disrupt dominant and hegemonic discourse by constantly destabilising fixed notions of identity by deconstructing binaries such as heterosexual/homosexual, gay/lesbian and masculine/feminine as well as the concept of heteronormativity in general.
The theories, contexts and lived experiences of race are critical to your work. Can you tell me more about how these perspectives are intermeshed in the works?
My black studies degree course has helped further develop a social and political perspective mixed in with my personal experience. The work is autobiographical, so I used a copy of my Dad’s British passport, images of my mom and me on my centre assemblage piece to document that I am a child of the Windrush generation. The distressing Windrush scandal appalled me, and I wished to bring this into the narrative, as a way to record it into an art piece to demonstrate, protest and resist. I wanted to speak about this during my talk, which I did by drawing comparisons between Enoch Powell’s rhetoric and today’s driving narrative that has forged our “hostile environment” policies, and how this has dangerous and harmful effects on people’s lives and well-being. Racism existed within my family dynamics, as well as socially, so a part of me wishes to acknowledge how race has partly affected my childhood adversities. The assemblaged female centre figure needed to be black. She has been needle felted. Felt making is one of the oldest forms of fabric making. A tradition that came before spinning and weaving; a non-woven interlocking of wool fibres that is subject to heat, moisture, agitation or pressure. The base of the felted bust is made of polystyrene. I used one of those white European polystyrene heads that you use for wigs; a kind of Frantz Fanon Black Skin, White Mask piece. I wanted my centrepiece for ‘Hymns’ to embody blackness as a point of strength and to occupy and interrogate the ‘white space’ (Anderson, 2015).
The copy of my dad’s passport was pasted onto a bridge that connected the centrepieces to a pillar holding a speaker; the “home”. In this sense “home” which is seen as a speaker, points towards music. The inside of the speaker acts as a kind of sanctuary, where I have placed myself. In the base of the pillar, I have cut away a ledge. Inside a black ceramic bird is broken into three pieces. It broke into three parts by accident. I was really annoyed at the time – I’d knocked it off the table, nudged it with my elbow. Wayne Lucas, a friend of mine and whose work I admire, said he preferred it that way. In the end, I owned it. I’m so concerned with getting things right, doing the ‘right’ thing, in the moral sense that is, but the whole work is about accepting the broken pieces that exist, and I really need to be able to be okay with all that. The speaker symbolising music, sits on top above the broken pieces. Indre Viskontas tells us that music helps us to feel more human. It heals and makes us feel better. This relationship between strength, fear and vulnerability is something I am interested in.
What feedback has the exhibition received? Has this influenced your thinking or your practice?
Some of the feedback objected to the use of bible pages, deeming it disrespectful. However, the use of the text acts as a cultural backdrop and as my work, to date, sometimes examines colonialism and empire, the bible, concerning imperialism, acts as a construct for critical thinking. The bible, with regards to the enslavement of Africans, was used to oppress, and also for revolutionary preaching, allowing people like Sam Sharpe to inform and encourage political thought through religious meetings that were the only forms of organised activities for Africans during enslavement. Besides being a collection of sacred text for religious teachings, the bible acts as a form of resistance, a space of commune and a space for connectivity.
From a feminist perspective, I question the patriarchal, hegemonic masculine context within the writings of the bible and how that contains semiotic power. Writing of any kind can be pulled into question as much as any other form. The scriptures have been written many times and has changed according to the era. For example fourth-century mistranslation of the bible attributed to ‘song of songs’ where the speech of Queen Sheba shifts from “I am Black and beautiful” to “I am Black but beautiful”, bringing with it a whole new way of seeing beauty. With its many interpretations and misuses, what is known as ‘reception history’, the study of the Bible text has changed, adopted and been appropriated according to different cultures throughout history. Those changes play a role in advertising, social, political, scientific discourse, and many more. It was also forbidden for enslaved people to practice their own traditional religious beliefs. Not deterred, the bible was, at times, adapted to complement and work alongside indigenous spirituality such as the Yoruba Orishas. Catholicism was absorbed to form Candomblé for Brazil and other Latin American countries and Vodou, Haiti and other Caribbean islands and Latin American countries. In this body of work, I weave elements of these traditions juxtaposed against the scriptures as a reference, pointing back, a bridge between here and there; past, present, future. The westernised idea that God is a white-bearded man has always entertained my imagination, so the central black female figure challenges that notion too. It is the energy within a faith that it is most impressive.
The rest of the feedback was mostly positive, which is always good to receive. One person said they thought the work looked cheap and unfinished. I used materials that I could upcycle and spent as little money as possible, as the project was self-funded. People in Haiti, a place I travelled to in April 2017, use whatever they can get their hands on. They don’t let lack of funds get in the way of expression and creativity. We are totally spoilt in the west with notions relating to opulence. We work with what we have at our disposal. It was important to me to hear from other Black women that find the work relatable to their own identity. This helps me to consider how to move my practice forward, which I am still reflecting on.
You are roughly half way into your residency at Bruntwood, a partnership with Grand Union. What has this entailed so far and how has this differed from being embedded within a gallery context?
The residency is thanks to Grand Union and Bruntwood who are working in partnership to offer annual artist residencies at Bruntwood’s Cornwall Buildings, where I am currently resident until February 2020. As it stands, we have a studio space for a year in exchange for a commissioned artwork. The residency differs in that there is no defined objective other than the commissioned art piece. In my submission, I specifically wrote the residency to fit around my university black studies placement course to help me further consider ways to implement academia with art and to use ‘Hymns’ as a body of work as a reflective location. Being in conversation with the private sector feels different because you are speaking or working in an environment that is used to a clear understanding and outcomes, where my approach to my art is more experimental. Posing questions within my work, in my case, around Black female identity is unusual in a ‘white space’ such as Bruntwood’s Cornerblock building, where the exhibition happened. Often these spaces want to see work that fits inside the hegemonic discourse. Work that seeks to step beyond the prescribed formula is unusual. The ‘white space’ can also be applied to the gallery space as well. Shows such as Frank Bowling’s retrospective work showing at the Tate importantly helps to break down the constraints set on Black artists to only produce work regarding the Black struggle. But it is important that there remains space for artists whose narrative contains adversity and who wish to do work that includes conflict; otherwise, we risk art being homogenised to suit a singular audience.
What are your plans for the remainder of the residency and for your practice more widely?
Bruntwood has expressed that they would like to take the exhibition to Manchester, so I need to consider this. The residency is written around me producing a commissioned artwork, so I need to think about how I can build on my current methodology of combining cultural heritage onto existing material. I plan to combine research and possibly some fabricated work. However, I need to further develop my skills if I venture into fabrication. Birmingham’s STEAMhouse offers a programme that helps designers, entrepreneurs and artists develop their ideas, so this may be an option.
My daughter bought me the book, Marina Abramovic: Student Body. Gemma Jones, a Birmingham based performance artist, delivered a performative art workshop in April that I attended. The exercises she provided were taken from the book Student Body, which I very much enjoyed doing, so I am looking at performance art as a practice and experimentation. From a subjective location and reflective practice, the work and my experience form a personal social site that aims to connect with different epistemologies. I plan to continue building on my current reflective practice and to identify curators and public gallery spaces to work with who are concerned with social, political themes and well-being.