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Rhea Dillon, The Name I Call Myself
A still from The Name I Call MyselfRhea Dillon

Rhea Dillon elevates queer black British lives in her liberating new film

The dual-screen film art installation frees the diaspora from stigma and celebrates it in all its tenderness, beauty, and intersectionality

Straight out of the gate, we are thrown into the action in The Name I Call Myself. A child’s running feet pound the pavement in slow motion for a few brief seconds before transporting us to a breathtaking funeral scene. The cameras move slowly with intent as they track two figures contorting and arranging their bodies fluidly in front a still mourning crowd and a mound of dirt, all while the string-filled soundscape swells and intensifies.

It’s an undeniably strong opening from 23-year-old visual artist Rhea Dillon, who is exhibiting the piece which doubles as her final university project, as an installation for a limited three-day run in a small space on London’s Bateman’s Row. Equipped with curated scents of the diaspora by perfume brand Byredo and funeral flowers by Sage Flowers, commemorating ‘Myself’ in floral lettering, it’s an encapsulating experience.

Inspired by Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, which Dillon explains showed her the power of “understanding and respecting the story of one’s life”, and W.E.B Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness, the film guides you warmly through the physical and emotional homes of Dillon’s own friends, inspirations and more – in a taxi with loved ones, in the kitchen with family, or in the dark of the night on the streets. The film is an entrancing exploration of the black British queer community in all its tenderness, beauty, and intersections.

Below, she unpacks the importance of portraying blackness in a grounded way through what she terms ‘Humane Afrofuturism’, the incredible cast of characters depicted, the erasure of the black British experience, and how queerness relates to narratives of life and death.

What were your main inspirations when putting this film together?

Rhea Dillon: I guess the main influence or reference was just looking at black Britain, period. So I came across this photographer called Vanley Burke who had shot black Britain since the Windrush, specifically up in Liverpool where the docks were. And he was a photographer who, firstly, managed to capture us when so many people just didn’t because they didn’t think it was something worth capturing, and secondly, did it in such a beautiful manner.

Obviously, Zami by Audre Lorde was really important to me in terms of allowing the story of one’s life to take up space and be held. I don’t think there’s been another biography of that level within the queer black female sphere.

There’s something really powerful in black art right now, where because we have been so lacking in representation, we are able to find such beauty in just directly reflecting the lives of people who have felt unseen for so long. You coined the phrase ‘Humane Afrofuturism’, which focuses on the humanisation and respect paid to black bodies in their everyday and natural contexts, beyond sci-fi and fantasy narratives – is that your way of honouring that in your work?

Rhea Dillon: Exactly. As much as Afrofuturism is as exciting as it is and allows for much-needed escapism when you go back to the origin of the term, it was about the advancement of black people in society, full stop, before we hit that science fiction part. Sun Ra spoke about us being from another planet, even attributing us to being aliens. Instead, I want black people to be respected here in our society on planet Earth without furthering the narrative. So that’s what Humane Afrofuturism is about and hopefully what my work is channelling.

I think Kerry James Marshall is someone who works within that sphere. Even his most famous painting is the girl walking down the street with a dog, like literally just a black girl walking down the street with a dog! But when you read into it you realise you haven’t even seen that visual before, how crazy it that? The same with Arthur Jafa, where even though he uses harder images because the reality for black people is so harsh in America, he’s just throwing that back at you. I often talk about my work as refracting society, and he literally reflects and refracts what’s happening in the world back to us, and everyone’s like ‘wow, this is amazing!’ But this is actually our life.

“When you are black in society, you’re always a doubleheader; black British, black queer, African-American. There are always these titles that come even before what you do, while other people just get to be known by their name” – Rhea Dillon

That’s so true. I guess it comes down to fantasy as escapism rather than your reality?

Rhea Dillon: Yes, because there’s definitely a time and a place for Afrofuturism. Black Panther was amazing, but at the same time, for some art, I think showing humanity just makes sense.

So the film was also inspired by W.E.B Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness? Is that also why you opted for a dual-screen narrative?

Rhea Dillon: Having a dual screen installation came from a few references, and that’s one for sure. When you are black in society, you’re always a doubleheader; black British, black queer, African-American. There are always these titles that come even before what you do, while other people just get to be known by their name. Another meaning was from a statistic that came out last year that we now as a minimum are able to focus on two screens, with this obsession we have of having our phone out, etc. So I tried to take that further to when we’re walking around where the world is one screen and our phone is the other. When you read that stat, you think that’s a director’s nightmare because you want people to focus on this one screen that you’ve poured so much effort into. So I decided to literally take these two screens that we are now able to focus on and put them in front of you, to work with the focus levels we apparently now possess.

Would you say code-switching and double consciousness touched you in your own life?

Rhea Dillon: Definitely. I grew up in Croydon but then ended up getting a scholarship to a private school and I would cross Croydon every day. I’d literally take two buses to get to school, the first one from my house in what is the poorer area, and then I’d cross over to another bus when I’d get to South Croydon which is a really posh area.

Wow, that’s so symbolic.  

Rhea Dillon: It really is, thinking about it now. So even with that, you’d naturally change. You’d have a double consciousness of what was going on and how to portray yourself.

Do you feel like we’ll get to a stage where blackness no longer needs to be fragmented to fit into different spaces?

Rhea Dillon: One hundred per cent. Today, for example, we have many more artists not talk about their blackness in their work, which is so important. I don't have to talk about being black; I choose to. And that is a choice for now and may not be so forever. This project's keyword was freedom. That is universal in how it can be received. You don't have to be black to understand and respect the message of The Name I Call Myself.

Do you feel like we still have some way to go in terms of fully uncovering all the nuances of blackness – with its intersections and internal politics – within black art and film?

Rhea Dillon: We definitely do. When I was researching for this project, what I found was, so many people when they talk about blackness would just be talking about African-American blackness. Reading between the lines in these talks, you realise they’re often forgetting you in those conversations and therefore eliminating you. As much as we have a shared experience, there are things that black Britain has separate from America – one of the main things being that we tend to know our heritage more directly, because of our movement in the diaspora.

Even when asking people what they think of when they think of black British cinema, their first answer is either Kidulthood/Adulthood, or they just have no idea. Speaking to the older generation they at best referenced Desmond’s, which was on prime TV for my mum and aunt's generation. And that’s really sad. With black queer cinema, the main film that came up was The Watermelon Woman. There’s so much room and stories that need to be told, and I don’t think we’ll ever be finished telling them. People like Steve McQueen are so important, he’s holding and pushing things further from his place in cinema, even when he’s not always talking about black Britain.

Could you unpack some of the vocal recordings we hear weaved into the soundtrack?

Rhea Dillon: Sound is one of my favourite parts of film! The soundtrack was composed by the incredible James William Blades, who works with Theaster Gates and Kahlil Joseph. We both have a great obsession with how sound can change how the audience feels in unison with what’s on screen. There are excerpts from a recording of Audre Lorde doing a talk at UCLA, and my favourite line is used at the end of the film when she’s describing how her book being so well-received made her realise that these stories weren’t being told. I thought that was really important in terms of what I’m trying to say through Humane Afrofuturism, allowing for people to just be seen. It’s as simple as that.

And whose track plays in the underground scene?

Rhea Dillon: The song is by Ms. Carrie Stacks, formerly known as Larry B. She’s a black trans woman also from South London, who graduated from the same course I’m on and is the last person that we see in the film. She’s quite a pillar when it comes to the black British queer scene and has just founded this new project AQEM (the Association of Queer Ethnic Minorities).

“This project's keyword was freedom. That is universal in how it can be received. You don't have to be black to understand and respect the message of The Name I Call Myself” – Rhea Dillon

Can we talk about the beautiful cast of the film: from members of BBZ, to Ms. Carrie Stacks? What do the characters mean to you and why did you choose who you did?

Rhea Dillon: So I cast most of the film myself which was mad, except the kids! For the children, I worked with this agency called Looks Like Me, who also helped with Process, and that whole agency came about when Selma, the head of it, was watching TV with her daughter, and her daughter said she wanted to be like the white, blonde character on the show... you know the story. And then they obviously took her to see something with a more diverse cast and her daughter told her she loved the film and said, ‘she looks like me!’ and that’s when she decided to start an agency called that which focuses on children of colour and specifically black children.

In regards to everyone else, I wanted to show different parts of the queer black British scene. Obviously, BBZ, which I'm part of, as well as club nights such as PDA. But I also wanted people who were part of the community, but not necessarily as closely linked. For example, the parent and child are both non-gendered. And it’s about showing people who are a part of the queer community just doing yoga, that you wouldn’t even know are non-gendered, but it opens up that conversation. We’re in the first generation of bringing up non-gendered children and all that comes with it so it was really important to have them in the film. Tia and Mali are like my big sisters, after seeing them, you see Yvonne Taylor and her friends who are black lesbians. In Britain, they were some of the first to do black queer parties which I found out via Tia. All three of those groups were part of the scene story I call ‘Interior’, which explores queer families, and how sometimes when you identify as queer you have to make your own, or sometimes you’re able to happily stay in contact with your blood-family.

And in the amazing opening scene?

Rhea Dillon: That scene is called ‘Death of Angelo’ – inspired by the statistics of the death rate within the queer community. The average life expectancy of a black trans woman is 35-years-old. Nigel Shelby, a 15-year-old at Huntsville High School in Northern Alabama took his life just the other week after being bullied about being gay. Being black and openly gay isn’t easy. I wanted – needed – a scene that referenced that.

Also, Kai (Isaiah Jamal), who is part of BBZ as well and an amazing poet, is in the film at the very end. I referenced how in his poetry he often talks about death. Specifically in a line from a poem called ‘Boy’ which is absolutely beautiful – ‘boy is not born, therefore boy is not born’. As a trans black man, he’s talking about not being born in the right gender, so technically is he even born? That line just really hit me. So that is what ‘Death of Angelo’ is, with Angelo meaning ‘angel’ in the masculine. That scene is trying to flip the idea of death – which coming out can be for some people in their families. So the cast is split into the ‘Mourners’ and then the people dancing are ‘Spirituals’, who are actually coming to life again. Violet in the LGBTQ flag represents spirits and is why the Zami sashes I commissioned for the videos are lined in purple. To identify as black British and queer, to me, is to be free.