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Oh, Freedom! – Theo White
“Oh, Freedom! I”, 2018Courtesy Of Giovanni Corabi / Theo White

Theo White’s new show reclaims racist stereotypes by turning them into art

The art director opens a new exhibition in the middle of Piccadilly Circus underground that celebrates freedom

Piccadilly Circus underground station is not a place that makes you think of radical art work, bright colours, and forward-thinking artists... which is why Oh, Freedom!, by Theo White, seems to have come out of nowhere. Now exhibiting at Soft Opening – a game-changing gallery founded by Antonia Marsh which displays art in a storefront window within the transitory space.

On now until 8th April, Oh! Freedom challenges the black caricatures of early cartoon illustrations that the Jamaican-born, London-based art director has encountered. Working with photographer Giovanni Corabi, and unique costumes designed and made by artist Alfie Kungu, Oloapitreps, and Nathan Jones, White’s images ironise the detrimental ways these western cartoons have historically represented black men. One remarkable picture in Oh, Freedom! features a model sat impassively in a watermelon dress and coordinated red Nike trainers. Here, White is referencing cartoon imagery of black people eating tropical fruit – a prop meant to invoke and reinforce the association of foreignness of ‘otherness.’ It may appear humorous at first glance, but White is subverting and reclaiming a seriously harmful stigma.

By presenting his images to the diverse and largely unexpectant audience passing through Piccadilly, White hopes it will enable his message to penetrate the consciousness of a vast crowd. Whether or not passersby recognise the stereotypes and images he’s referencing or not, White says, “they’ll still see a black boy in a dress wearing Air Maxes, and that relates back to the title of the exhibition.”

Below, we talk to the artist about the philosophy behind Oh, Freedom! and why he hopes to enlighten the throng of tourists at Piccadilly Station.

“If I portray black people enacting these stereotypes, but in a colourful, playful way and having fun while doing so, then I turn these stigmas on their head and completely reclaim their power” – Theo White

How did the idea for Oh, Freedom! come about? What inspired you to make these images?

Theo White: I wanted to present black boys in a fun, childlike way. To do this I immediately started thinking of cartoons, but as the idea developed I realised I didn't want to just end up doing a blah blah fashion shoot. The images had to have deeper meaning and it was at that point that the project turned itself towards racial conversations. It became an opportunity to address a bigger issue and have more to say than just a regular shoot.

The characters aim to subvert black stereotypes found in early cartoons – can you tell us more about these original characters and why you chose them particularly?

Theo White: The first character I envisioned was the watermelon character with the model Jonah. This character comes from cartoons of the late 19th century that feature caricatured black men and women eating the fruit as if some kind of generalised accurate representation. With all the images I wanted to reappropriate these racial stereotypes and subvert them through image. If I portray black people enacting these stereotypes, but in a colourful, playful way, and having fun while doing so, then I turn these stigmas on their head and completely reclaim their power. Because, essentially, there’s nothing wrong with black people being clowns and entertainers, eating watermelons and having fun. The location of the shoot is massively important too. Barbershops shops are seen as really ultra-masculine places, so by doing this kind of shoot in there, I feel like I’m softening that masculinity in a way and so turning that assumption or stereotype on its head too. I wanted to show that you can have a boy wearing full Grace Jones make up in this really masculine pro-black space – that in itself is a statement, a liberation.

Can you talk more about why it’s important to reclaim these characters in this way?

Theo White: In mainstream media, black boys are either told how they should be and how they should behave or are constantly portrayed in a negative light, with negative connotations. So I wanted to instead depict them in a joyful light. In my work, I want to show black people just being themselves in all their beautiful colours and lights. If you wanna be a clown, you wanna be a clown. If you wanna be a dancer, you wanna be a dancer. If you wanna be friends with gay people, be friends with gay people. If you wanna wear makeup, wear makeup. Be free!

Why did you decide to collaborate with artists; Giovanni Corabi, Alfie Kungu, Oloapitreps and Nathan Jones? 

Theo White: I’m a big fan of Giovanni’s work and we’ve collaborated previously and I knew he would capture my vision for the show, so it was a no-brainer asking him to take the images. I hadn’t worked with Alfie before and really wanted an opportunity to, so I was happy to be able to do that. His artwork is very bright and colourful and I wanted to incorporate that vibe into the shoot. Nathan made the watermelon dress, which is obviously key to the shoot. And I had worked with Oloapitreps previously, but I saw the towel waistcoats that we used in the shoot a few weeks ago and I got really obsessed with them and couldn't wait to use them for something. Those really drove the shoot forwards for me.

Tell us about how the mechanics of Soft Opening, as a gallery space, work with Oh, Freedom!?

Theo White: It was interesting working on a show about freedom in such a public space where you have to be careful what you portray and be sensitive to your audience. I’m not trying to offend anyone with these images, it’s purely to educate and enlighten. Working for an audience as wide as Soft Opening, a message that can permeate and resonate is of utmost priority. If my audience is aware of these racial stereotypes and stigmas and can engage with those, that’s an added bonus, but if not, they’ll still see a black boy in a red dress wearing Air Maxes, and that relates back to the title of the exhibition.

When I make work I don't consciously think about how people will perceive it. It’s got good intentions, but I want people to take from the images whatever they feel. It has to remain open to interpretation because we all live different lives and go through different experiences: we all experience different histories and cultures and we all have our own stories to tell. But what we all share is a common ground in appreciating the transformative potential of art – art is the link between everyone and everything.

Lastly, what does freedom mean to you?

Theo White: Freedom is unapologetic, and I want to emulate that freedom is not just a white privilege. I wanna say to all individuals, we are all welcome to be free and accepted in life. Freedom to me means, being and living your 100 p,er cent true life. There are too many superficial labels placed on people within today's society of how people should be, but we are not clones! We are all meant to be individual and unique! No one is you and that is your power!

Oh, Freedom! is showing at Soft Opening (Unit 7, Piccadilly Circus Underground Station) until April 8, 2018