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BZ.BLK.BKPhotography Abigail Holsborough

The alternative graduate show liberating black, queer artists

Last month, BBZ and sorryyoufeeluncomfortable hosted ten emerging artists – here’s what went down and why it was so important

“There are people whispering across the diaspora, across the world, about what they can do, what they can produce, what resources they can tap into. I think that's amazing, because at some point it might mean that these oppressed people, these minorities in institutions, in white-washed spaces, might just create their own space that is not just a one-off or annual event.”

It’s been two weeks since the alternative graduate show, BBZ.BLK.BK, opened at Peckham’s Copeland Gallery – a collaborative exhibition between BBZ and sorryyoufeeluncomfortable. Naeem Davis, co-founder of BBZ alongside Tia Simon-Campbell, is reflecting on the reasons why it came into being, adding, “Also, to let people know that it can be done... up until we produced an event of this size, we didn't even know it could be done.”

In May, the collectives published a call out for submissions, the requirement was that artists identified as queer womxn, trans people, and/or non-binary people of black ancestry who had graduated from a practice-based arts degree within the past two years.

“Black and queer voices are so often silenced or muted in institutional spaces,” explains sorryyoufeeluncomfortable’s Rabz Lansiquot and Imani Robinson. “In our conversations with the artists, it became clear that each one of them had experiences during art school which, in some way, limited their ability to make and exhibit the work they wanted to share.”

Giving the artists absolute freedom of expression and agency to present their work as they wished it to be shown was of the utmost importance to the collectives. “This isn’t just about how the work is curated, or about the physical space”, Lansiquot and Robinson add, “but about how the space feels, and the conversations and provocations that are allowed into the alternative graduate show.”

“In our conversations with the artists, it became clear that each one of them had experiences during art school which, in some way, limited their ability to make and exhibit the work they wanted to share” – Rabz Lansiquot and Imani Robinson

Alongside a jury of artists, curators, and cultural workers – which included Evan Ifekoye, Barby Asante, Campbell X, Ajamu X, and Zinzi Minott – ten artists were chosen, with BBZ and sorryyoufeeluncomfortable covering install costs, offering artist fees, and paying for accommodation and travel for artists outside of London. The exhibiting artists were named as Sadé Mica, mayfly, Christopher Kirubi, Shenece Oretha, Georgia Lucas Going, Rebekah Williams, Irvine Bartlett, Tanoa Sasraku-Ansah, Sola Olulode, and Shadi Al- Atallah, and traversed a variety of mediums which pushed past any initial ideas.

“People were using mediums and practices completely outside of the box, but I guess that was expected of people on the peripheries of society,” reflects Davis. “I imagine, in their institutions, they were often on the outside looking in and creating work that spoke to that experience. (The works we showed) were very bold pieces of work – there was no hiding, or misinterpreting what those piece of work meant. It meant that people who didn't interact with contemporary art, or felt that it was hard to understand or often a bit frivolous – like my mother – absolutely loved the show.”

For Lansiquot and Robinson, even with the exhibition’s links to gender, sexuality, and/or race, the collective admits that it was surprised by the breadth of work offered. “It went beyond immediate or obvious references to blackness and queerness, and into a more nuanced type of art-making. The work could not have been made by artists who didn’t have these identities, but being black and queer was only part of the process.”

Despite the wide-reaching success of the show – with praise from art world figures such as author Kimberley Drew, curator Cairo Clarke, and curator of digital design at the V&A Natalie Kane – there is no denying that structures need to be dismantled and restructured to accommodate the needs of more than just a few demographics. “The British university and arts university curriculum is what it is – and, as black people, we're always searching for our own education, our own pedagogy,” says Davis. “I don't think that if you put that into a curriculum that anything would be different because people still wouldn't be able to understand it. But there should be more room for minorities within institutions to present their own curriculum, or invite them to have the topic discussed or explored.”

Davis revealed that the initial ideas to stage the show came from a talk that Davis did with BBZ co-founder Tia Simon-Campbell at London’s Royal Academy – having been invited by one of its students to talk about their work in relation to the arts. “Afterwards (the student) said, ‘Often we talk about and research and learn about artists that I just do not relate to, and it just leaves me in this space, when I present my work, that people can't and won't see it for what it is’.” After she expressed that she didn’t want to show her work in the university’s degree show, Davis and Simon-Campbell knew they had a concrete cause to offer another platform for her.

While many people would agree that while there is no lack of queer or black artists creating, the recognition that these artists receive, especially in comparison to their white and/or cis contemporaries, is minimal to none. This, in turn, has had a domino effect on the generations of artists coming through who are looking to explore their rich and varied legacies. “So many black queer artists go through school with the majority of their references being that of artists who don’t share the same circumstances, passions or intentions,” explains Lansiquot and Robinson. “As we saw in the wide range of work chosen to exhibit, there are extremely vast ways to be a black queer artist, but we are often pigeonholed by institutions and peers who pathologize this difference.”

Davis adds, “A show like the alternative graduate show is important because, contextually, in this society, we do need separatist bases at times so people can 100 per cent be themselves, can see themselves, see others, work, build defenses against institutions, and oppressive ways of seeing, and have conversations about how to affect those spaces and how to get through and exist within those spaces. And, more than anything – or just on a social tip – I think the morale of those artists completely shifted.

“This is the kind of creativity a lot of people want to see within their institutions and in the biennales because it speaks to a different part of people. It’s the future – they’re the future!”