Birmingham-based De’Anne Crooks was recently commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) to produce a piece responding to the pandemic. ‘Great-ish: The Gaslighting of a Nation’ (2020) is a love letter to an unborn child which engages with the migrant experience and Britain as a spouse in a would-be toxic relationship.
Annabel Clarke talks to her about her work.
‘Great-ish: The Gaslighting of a Nation’ is such a moving piece. I was in tears. Can you tell us a little about how you went about making the film?
I am still humbled by the emotional response people have had to the film. I think the response has been quite reflective of the process. Making it was emotional. There were so many times I felt like I was giving too much to the work. Like it was very raw thing to explore a topic in this way, in this very personal way.
I knew when I wrote the proposal that I really wanted to show the toxic relationship that marginalised people have with their country, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to do it. As I worked, I began to make connections between how this country treats marginalised people and toxic relationships, and I realised that actually, everything I’m writing down, everything relating to what occurs between a country and marginalised peoples, especially Great Britain, is symbolic of a bad relationship, it’s actually gaslighting. As somebody who has been in a toxic relationship and somebody who has been gaslit, making those parallels came easily to me.
It took me about two weeks to cement how I could communicate these ideas in a way that not only expressed what I felt and what my community feels (although I cannot speak for my entire community), but what I as a Black womxn feels and is willing to share. I didn’t really know how I could express this concept in a way that everyone could relate to because depending on your racial background, you will either never experience a complex relationship with your country or you will have experienced it so comprehensively that this work may trigger you. I’m aware of how ridiculously cliché this may sound, but the solution came to me in a dream, I know how that sounds. But the truth is, I literally jumped out of bed at 4am, grabbed my phone and started to jot down what ended up being the first half of the script for ‘Great-ish: The Gaslighting of a Nation.’ It was at the end of my bed, phone in one hand and through blurry eyes that the structure and the first half of the script began to form.
This idea that I would write a letter to my unborn child, which again is an aspect of this that is so personal to me because of my own relationship and issues with being able to have a child, could only have come in this way. Even though I was apprehensive about the initial script, it felt very important and it felt appropriate to tell a story in this way. So I started to write a love letter. Once I had this structure I felt a lot more confident about bringing this experience across. That’s the thing with gaslighting, it can be hard to explain that type of abuse because you have been convinced that it’s not abuse. But half way through the commission, I realised that I was teaching something non fictional. This is not me talking to my abuser, to Great Britain, or even to my peers, but this is me talking to someone who doesn’t exist yet. That added a whole different dimension to the piece, and I had to play around a lot more with my storyboard. I feel like I should say that the monologue informed the visuals but it didn’t, and I feel like that worked well in this case. I had already selected archived material and had filmed most of the new material around my home, as the brief required we stay indoors, before the script was complete. I think the rule that we had to film within our homes adds a layer of intimacy, having visuals that have been collected in my home, in my space, a safe space that I would rarely share with such a wide audience, but also have that working alongside audio that is ultimately saying things aren’t so safe and talking about things that are quite dangerous and emotional and traumatic is what pushed my thinking a little further forward.
It can currently be viewed on the FVU website. Are there plans for it to be shown elsewhere?
The film is available to watch on the FVU website as part of their permanent collection and is a featured video until 14 November. In terms of what happens with the work now, I’m not too sure yet. I really would love to screen it elsewhere. I’d love to screen it in spaces that specifically talk to and heal people like me really, because I feel like even though it can be read as quite a sad piece, this is a testimony of healing. It is an experience a lot of Black people can relate to, so it would be really great for people to see it in a space that feels like home. Sometimes galleries don’t exist as an inclusive space for Black people and so I have this vision of screening it in spaces specifically chosen by the Black community.
To be honest, being able to view it on the FVU website works really well right now as many physical spaces cannot be occupied. I’m grateful to FVU, not just for the commission, but the support. My Supervising Producer Leah McGurk was really invested in the concept, in the proposal, in the work and I felt that in the support I got from her. I specifically want to thank her for helping bring this together.
Your work spans mediums. Has the pandemic changed the way in which you make work?
I’ve never really considered myself to be one type of artist, so I’ve never committed to calling myself a painter, a filmmaker or a sculptor. I guess I just create work in a way where the medium is dictated by the message.
The solo exhibition I had in July 2019 at Centrala ‘Two Truths and a Lie’, was made up of mostly paintings with one photographic piece, a print piece and one short video piece called ‘Lief’. So I’d say for that body of work I steered towards more paintings and photography, which just so happened to be a project I shared pre-covid. So I would say the pandemic has in fact altered the way in which I’m creating, not necessarily thinking but my choice of medium. I’ve got to really think about how people are going to engage with my work more carefully, so that has dictated the way I’m making it. I think I still have a traditional approach, as in jotting stuff down in my sketchbook, I always return to my sketchbook, but I’ve noticed that I am then bringing those sketchbook ideas to my screen and creating these sort of desktop mood boards. I’ll have writing I’ve done on there, some of the automatic writings, images from my phone, sketches, sketchbook pages, other found imagery all laid out on my desktop screen. Some of these are available to see on my website and Instagram. As soon as the first lockdown happened, that was when I started putting everything on screen in a particular way and played with how the different things worked with one another – Seeing how some of the text would contrast with the drawing and how that contrasted with the photographs I took. I think that was to first stage of seeing my practice change in this digital sort of way.
The filmmaking really came back into my work through lockdown. The FVU commission requiring me to only film in doors, only in my home, was definitely something that was affected by the pandemic. And even though I use my sketchbook a lot, for ‘Great-ish’ I found that I was mostly using my phone to make notes. I feel I’ve become a little more digital, as I imagine most of the world has due to the pandemic. I think I only leaned into that way of producing work because most people were at home, on their computers, getting more in touch with technology.
You’ve recently been awarded a bursary through ReFramed. Could you tell us a little about what you will be producing for the commission?
I’ve been asked to respond to how COVID-19 has affected Black and Asian people or the Black and Asian experience in relation to COVID-19 which is a huge topic really! I could probably complete a whole body of work about that. But the brief required me to create 3-5 photographs and I chose to do this work about my grandmother (who I call ‘Nan’). You can actually see her in ‘Great-ish: The Gaslighting of a Nation’. She’s my muse.
The series of photographs I’ve produced capture her experience of faith and fear. Initially I wanted to look at how someone who is elderly, an immigrant in England, can already feel like they are in a strange land. They can feel isolated as both an older person, as a woman, as a Caribbean person – how that is already quite isolating to be in a country that you consider a sort of home but not quite that, and then in addition to that, to be in isolation, to be locked down. It’s a difficult experience. It’s an experience that’s not represented enough.
I then started to focus on one of the things that has always been a comfort for her, something that has always been a constant, and that has been her faith. She’s a Christian woman and a firm believer in God. Her faith is everything to her. The photographs try to document her relationship between having this faith but not being able to go to church, be around her friends, her pastor, her leadership, her family. What happens when someone is surrounded by all of this fear and is hearing on the news everyday: ‘Stay home’, ‘Don’t go anywhere’, ‘You are vulnerable, you are vulnerable’? I think it’s weird always hearing that you are vulnerable and then being Black, being an older woman and having these underlying conditions, receiving these messages since the start of lockdown, she has just had this very strange and difficult experience.
I really wanted to discover what that fear looks like alongside her firm faith, really trusting and believing in a God that she believes has everything under control and that she is protected, and safe and loved. The photographs are a documentation of her relationship between her home, her space and how her home is safe because she has this faith. She is surrounded by all these memorabilia, scriptures, images, her bible and her hymns. So yeah hopefully you can see the final images soon and I hope you enjoy them.
What else are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a few things. I’ve just created something for Vivid Projects. Alex Billingham at Vivid Projects has an incredible concept at the moment called Vivid Live TV. They commissioned me to create something that responded to this digital era that’s happening; the digital boom of creating art and how we access it as well. I created a short video called ‘Break Bread With Me’. That’s available to view until 6 November. Hopefully I can show that work again at some point in the future. I’m delving a little into work about identity politics and what makes my identity political.
My work at the moment is looking into what happens at this intersection of being Black and British and what that actually means in relation to belonging, the implicit consequences of colonisation, the conversation around migration and people existing within Britain; but Britain not really feeling like a place where one can exist and so on…that is where my current body of work seems to be going. This is even starting to cross over into my Masters degree where I’m looking at inclusive language and the consideration of identity within education; thinking about Bell Hooks and David Sutcliffe’s text ‘British Black English’. Really focusing on language and speech in relation to identity politics. I’m also working with Black Hole Club which is fantastic and we are developing something really cool at the moment and I have the opportunity to unpack my ideas a little further but through a retrospective lens, thinking about identity politics spanning the last 30-40 years. Making different connections with my own work but with other artists that have inspired me as well. There is a lot of cross over happening between my studying, my commissions and the fellowship with Black Hole Club so that’s fun.