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Ahead of the launch of her educational platform, the designer opens up her research archive and speaks to poet Petero Kalulé on the theme of Black Rhythmicality

Taken from the autumn 2020 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

Inbetweenness isn’t something that is privileged in a polarised era, but for Grace Wales Bonner, inhabiting the space between disciplines is energy-giving – an energy that might just create a portal to someplace new. Between Critique and Hope is the designer’s digital, educational space platforming Black voices and archivists. Though the idea for the project has been incubating for some time, its title came from a conversation the designer had with academic Dr Michael Ralph, which prompted her to think about the role of fiction and fantasy in exploring history and its structures. For Wales Bonner, that’s where the hope comes in. “The idea was to create a window into cultural archives, so that to enter it is to allow for nuanced viewpoints on a subject. A space for reflection, healing and uplifting people.” 

As we currently look to and learn from history to create new models for living, there is increasingly a need for resources of this kind that can critique what criticism itself is doing for us – something Ugandan poet and composer Petero Kalulé thought about when Wales Bonner reached out to them for this feature. “I kind of linked the notion of hope to freedom and play, but more like beyond critique,” they say. “I just want to play, you know.” Wales Bonner came across Kalulé’s work at the South London Gallery, through the poet’s 2019 publication Kalimba; though Kalulé in turn has become aware of the designer’s work since she spotlighted their poetry in The Happy Reader last year, the below conversation is, surprisingly, the first time they have connected. 

As their conversation explores via the lens of the platform’s first weekly theme – Black Rhythmicality, which has fascinated Wales Bonner ever since her Central Saint Martins thesis – Between Critique and Hope is an educational tool, an experiment, a re-grounding. More than anything, it epitomises what writer Lola Olufemi recently said of the movements we are currently witnessing, as a “call to the imagination”.


Grace Wales Bonner: I’m not sure if you saw, but I was speaking to (Nigerian writer) Ben Okri about your work for an interview quite recently.

Petero Kalulé: Yeah! I saw it, I saw it. Actually, my publisher told me about it first and I was like, ‘Woah – why would they be interested in my work?’ I was just playing and doing my own thing. It was nice to see how the work travelled and who was reading it.

Grace Wales Bonner: I wondered (what) you thought about the idea of Between Critique and Hope?

Petero Kalulé: I’ve been thinking a lot about what critique does, the ways in which critique re-enacts the oppression it’s trying to break away from because, in a sense, it is preoccupied with it – it attempts to think through. I don’t usually use the word ‘hope’, I kind of use ‘freedom’ more, freedom of playing. I guess (those words) are less theological. And then I just find ‘play’ more interesting – ‘play’ and perhaps ‘freedom’ – because essentially that’s what I thought music was. With critique I always get scared – perhaps not scared, but concerned – about being stuck in what critique is, especially when it’s Eurocentric ideas of critique. I mean, I just thought it was a good theme overall. I just had some thoughts about it. (laughs)

Grace Wales Bonner: I’m interested in these kinds of structures or frameworks, especially the idea of freedom and play and improvisation within that – whether that’s musical in some way. But often disrupting within a framework that (already) exists.

Petero Kalulé: I’m an academic, but I don’t necessarily find any kind of freedom or joy in it. There’s a limit to what critique (can give you), or even thinking or analysis. And I think that in certain ways they delimit, they mark the horizons of what hope or freedom or play could be, even though they don’t intend to. They ‘discipline’ freedom and play and hope. I know that they’re important (laughs) but I guess in my life, I don’t give them as much importance as many people do. I just want to play, you know?

Grace Wales Bonner: The way I think about research, it can (also) be quite irreverent in terms of (looking to) different sources. So I will look at academic and theoretical research, but I’ll also look at something I bought in a market, let’s say – something more handmade. I give everything (an) equal level of importance, and I study everything on that kind of level. I think it’s interesting when you put theory in relation to poetry, in relation to sound, in relation to environments, as well. So that’s how I compose, in a way, the worlds I explore. It sounds like you bring in other principles to your exploration of worlds?

Petero Kalulé: I came to poetry first as music, I think. I think of myself first as a musician then as a poet, although the two are kind of interrelated. But at the same time, I also think of music and poetry as kinds of hauntings. Sometimes a poem writes itself – I don’t write it. In the sense that I see something and I’m haunted by it and it must be articulated in some way or other. I just find myself writing a poem and then it’s done. And I think like that sometimes when I sit at the piano or pick up an instrument. It’s just like, I’m doing something, but there’s something else at work that I cannot exactly comprehend or articulate in the moment. I may think of it later and say, ‘Oh, maybe it was this,’ but in the moment, it’s almost like, to use a figure of speech, the ancestors take over. That is not to say that I don’t also have form. I study lots of other poets and musicians who influence me. So I guess it’s a very delicate balance of the spontaneous, but also things I want to dream of. Again, I say freedom and play, right? Those are always central to whatever I try to do. Am I free? Am I enjoying it? Am I playing? Am I inspiring, like you said, uplift and magic, or some kind of pleasure within the reader or the audience? These are the things I try to think about. 

Grace Wales Bonner: That’s beautiful. For me, in terms of how I develop my ideas, there’ll be a lot of input that aggregates over time, and there will be a moment where it kind of clicks and becomes immediate and essential. And that (moment) is completely out of my control. So I think, then, connecting to other places – or a sense of spirituality – allows for a different sense of understanding time. Or different times becoming relevant. Do you see any connection between that process and the kind of spiritual, or devotional, practice?

Petero Kalulé: I hesitate to use the words ‘spiritual’ and ‘devotional’, although I guess I really like the word ‘numinous’.

Grace Wales Bonner: Numinous?

Petero Kalulé: Numinous. Yeah. I like that because I think it kind of does something else, but I don’t know how, exactly. I mean, I need to look at the dictionary again! I think that (the poems) are, in a sense, spiritual, in this whole idea of absence and presence. You know, the inundation of someone other (that) you cannot necessarily identify or know – but (you) realise, (you) notice. It’s something that scares me, but it also inspires me to do the work.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what critique does, the ways in which critique re-enacts the oppression it’s trying to break away from because, in a sense, it is preoccupied with it – it attempts to think through” – Petero Kalulé

Grace Wales Bonner: I like how precise you are with words, and your relationship (to them).

Petero Kalulé: (laughs) I guess one of the problems of being a poet (is) you always have to find a better word, even when such a word doesn’t exist! And you know, the thing is – words escape us. I obviously speak another language, and other languages very poorly. So it’s always a mode of translation, but I guess so is art. Like, you see something and you want to express it in a certain way, and you’re always searching for the best way to represent it. You know, Coltrane said that if you’re sincere enough, you can play a shoestring. (I’m) always trying to be as sincere as possible. And it’s hard to get to that point, but I think that’s also part of the spiritual practice of trying to be honest and sincere and humble as well. Because, in a way, the work is greater than you. And you realise that when you’re performing, practising, playing, making...

Grace Wales Bonner: Yes. It’s interesting, because I think that the way I communicate is quite abstract, in the sense that I’m creating these mosaics and piecing (them) together through different media. And probably my most immediate way of communicating is through imagery and representing moods – and what happens in that in-between space and what is suggested in that relationship. I feel like there’s a purity in that, which is lost in the way I probably communicate.

Petero Kalulé: I don’t think we’re so different in that sense! Because when I play music, I play the abstract. Like, the kinds of music I’m interested in are very abstract and people are usually like, ‘This is noise.’ For me, it represents things that I know are very immediate and urgent and need to be said. But poetry does it more precisely than music or dance.

Grace Wales Bonner: Hmm. And I think that relies on a certain level of space around itself. Even in poetry there’s the idea of intonation and how to speak in the space around words, which suggest a sense of rhythm as well. When I’m reading your poetry, I see quite a specific landscape. It encompasses sound and intonation, (but) also quite specific imagery or moods. I wondered, do you have images in your mind when you write?

Petero Kalulé: Yeah. I have images and moods, definitely. And those guide the work more than anything else. Although, what you call mood, I call emotions, in that you’re overtaken by things and you just write whatever you feel in the moment. But I think I do that more with this second book, Marsh-River Raft-Feather, I’m writing with a friend (Clarissa Álvarez). We’re imagining the landscape of the marsh, but how it relates to the river, the raft and also flight. I guess it’s also an experiment in freedom and play. But we actually don’t impose ourselves on the form. The form kind of takes over. So if one read the manuscript, it would feel like there are different textures and feelings and emotions flowing all through the text. And there’s no strict split between – ‘Oh, this is a poem, this is a poem, this is another poem.’ It’s all multi-directional, polyrhythmic. It’s all there at once. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Grace Wales Bonner: I can’t remember what my question was, but that makes sense of the approach, definitely. And how do you connect to this idea of rhythmicality and polyrhythms?

Petero Kalulé: For me, I’ve always played music, since I was maybe three years old. And there’s just something about how music enables working across difference and with difference – in relation – that is hard to find (elsewhere). If you watch some drummers play, one hand is doing something else, right? Like, one hand (is) giving a stable rhythm and another is playing a different emotion. Both hands are playing different emotions. So I’m always thinking of how to kind of gather – another word I’m interested in! – how to gather difference in a way that doesn’t assimilate or exclude, in a non-hierarchical arrangement. And I think that music and polyrhythms, especially with my poetry, attempt to do that. I’m always trying to grip together different sounds and images. I guess, like you say, to create a mosaic.

Grace Wales Bonner: I’ve been really interested in rhythmicality and how it manifests as aesthetics, because I find it quite a difficult thing to express visually. But it’s so entangled with visual culture and expression. So, I’m very interested in how artists have explored connections to music and rhythmicality, and how those things can be portrayed in objects. I think it started off for me (when I was) trying to understand more about musicology and jazz and classical frameworks, and then understand another frequency within the classical framework that has a sense of time but also allows for so much more freedom and creates a broader universe of potential. So that’s what I’m excited about.

“The way I think about research, I will look at academic and theoretical research, but I’ll also look at something I bought in a market. I give everything (an) equal level of importance” – Grace Wales Bonner

Petero Kalulé: How do you incorporate some of the rhythms in your own work?

Grace Wales Bonner: For me, the way I think about rhythmicality is this idea of working with something that already exists, but it’s the way that it’s worn or the way that it’s styled or the gestures associated with it that kind of disrupt and bring it into another space. I also think about it in relation to styling – looking at Black style. (These) gestural ways that are very inventive, that give us a sense of character and soul that is unique. The way that I develop the collections, there’ll be these disruptive, discordant elements in terms of fabrications or mixing garments that belong to different times in history. I’m interested in things that exist, but also in how you can be disruptive. I keep coming back to this idea of frameworks and structures or having certain parameters to work in that allow for freedom and playfulness. And that’s what has drawn me to menswear and tailoring. There are specific rules and measurements and ways in which certain details should be placed. I like this idea of there being a familiarity to clothing, but, if you look into it, it’s actually disrupted, somehow. I like to think about hybridity, or a kind of meeting point between different… 

Petero Kalulé: ...rhythms! (laughs)

Grace Wales Bonner: And for me, it’s really about the relationship between form: classicism, but (also) another cultural perspective that enriches and creates something that’s more than the sum of its parts. But, yeah, it’s fun. That’s how it informs my process. I’m not sure how visible it is.

Petero Kalulé: I think it is.

Grace Wales Bonner: That’s great. I remember speaking to Ishmael Reed around my (AW19) show, Mumbo Jumbo. I always thought of clothing and fashion as being a bit outside of Black intellectualism in terms of art, music and literature – (the things that) really inspire what I do. I thought of fashion as slightly outside of that. But Ishmael said to me, ‘You know, clothing is as important to the Black radical tradition as drumming.’ For him to connect what I’m doing to such a lineage, because (fashion) actually has such a vital role – for me that was quite validating.

Petero Kalulé: It’s a very powerful thing to say. It’s almost like saying we wear the ancestors, hey?

Grace Wales Bonner: Yes. So I think I didn’t really have any more specific questions.

Petero Kalulé: Neither do I, actually – there’s so much that’s been said that I’m sitting with. And it’s almost like a beautiful place, right? Where you’re just inundated with sound. When you just want to sit with that.


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