I had the honour of sitting down in conversation with conceptual artist Lina Iris Viktor and scholar and curator Rharha Nembhard for their two-part, two-city talk series called “Noirwave presents Transcendence //On Art as Agency”. In a room full of love and Nag Champa smoke at Cape Town’s now defunct Creative Nestlings space on 14 July 2016, we spoke about transcendence, art making, mentorship, plus a whole lot more.
-love & light
(All photographs by Ike Sobe//*this transcript was edited for clarity)
Stefanie Jason: Welcome everyone to this evening’s #TheNestSpace. My name is Stefanie Jason, I am a person, I write for a living – I write opinion pieces and on culture, recently writing some poetry. My focus is on African excellence worldwide, I enjoy writing on my people and my people in relation to the world. Currently I’m also a features writer for Marie Claire SA. Before I pass the mic I want to share a Whatsapp, which a friend from the States had sent to me today. I think what he sent me resonates with what we’re going to talk about here today. It’s a Nina Simone quote which goes: “You can’t help it, an artists’ duty as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”
Lina Iris Viktor: One of my favourite quotes. Firstly, thank you everyone for having me here in Cape Town – my name is Lina Iris Viktor. I’m a conceptual artist based between New York and London. I’m of Liberian descent – both of my parents were born and raised in Monrovia. In addition to my own artistic practice, I create a lot of work with Rharha and Yannick – we have formed what we regard to be a creative trinity. In the past, I have worked with a number of artists however, there is a special kinship that exists between the three of us; a genuine union that I regard to be kismet. We speak everyday – Rharha is my sister and Yannick is my brother. It is very powerful to exist in a conversation where we are each bringing something very unique and powerful to the table.
Truth be told, we have only known one another for a year and half although it may seem that we’ve been friends for a lifetime. We met for the first time in person in March 2015 when I shot Yannick’s debut album cover for ‘La Vie est Belle’ – and the rest is history. I guess we are going to work together until we die, mostly because we have a shared core purpose within the work we create. Above and beyond making aesthetically beautiful work, we aim to instil our existential ideologies of transcending the imposed labels often placed on us as people and artists. We want to share our own stories with the world, but more importantly, create new stories that resonate with all of us. I hope we do justice.
Rharha Nembhard: Thank you Lina. My name is Rharha, thank you for allowing us to speak to you today. I’m British-Jamaican. I was born in England and moved to South Africa when I was 5 until I was 18, then moved to Asia at the age of 19, I did my undergraduate in Asia and then moved back in London. I do the creative direction for Noir Wave and for Petit Noir, and work with Lina Viktor. As Lina has just said it’s kismet; we’ve been called together to create something outside of ourselves. Even though Yannick’s not here tonight, our union is love but also it’s to give and I know many of you have been touched by the work Lina has done. She came here on holiday and I said, Lina you have to share because people want to hear your and our message and so thank you to Creative Nestlings and to Stefanie for moderating this talk tonight, we really need to really appreciate it.
SJ: It’s a pleasure, so the last time I was here it was June 16 and it was to commemorate the youth who had died in 1976 and the conversation strongly moved to a youth collective and artists collaborating, which I think in the time of singular artists is important. When I recently saw you two in Joburg, we met up briefly at Momo gallery and it feels as though you guys have a collaborative working agreement. Would you guys like to talk to us about it, about how you collaborate and how you come together, with the aesthetics and all.
LV: Of course. As I’ve said it’s very organic. Our dynamic is not something I was actively seeking as I do regard myself as a self-sufficient artist. But I also recognised, upon talking and meeting Rha and Yannick that there was a type of magic between us – an alchemy and shared vision. The nature of our collaboration defies my comprehension and categorisation as of now. I’m not saying that we are magical, (but maybe we all are), I’m saying that there are things that happen, there are meetings that happen in life that are very much meant to happen – this is one of those circumstances.
When Rochelle contacted me, I think it was in 2014, I was struck by her sincerity – she basically gifted me a ring that she had made. Then we started having these deep conversations over email; very existential, philosophical conversations about our purpose as individuals, as creatives, and we discussed the message that we were individually trying to impart.
Then in March of last year, I was coming to London and they were in town. When Rha tells this story, she often speaks of how she was nervous to ask me, which is funny, but she asked if I would create the cover for Yannick. Of course, it was an instantaneous yes because I respect the music and her vision. That was the spark that brought about what has come since and what will come in the future.
The cover was really speaking about transcendence and the melding of what may be perceived as disparate worlds. Yannick’s levitating – he’s floating and transcending above a malachite altar. We chose Malachite because it is a stone that speaks to transformation, and it comes from Congo, which is where Yannick is from, and it’s also a stone I grew up with. It’s a stone that has very powerful energies and I wanted to speak to what I feel Yannick’s music is about, which is that of rising above the divides and boxes. We were aiming to break down preconceived boundaries – break the walls and stereotypes around who people think we are while creating our own narrative – telling our own story.
RN: Just to add on because obviously she mentioned me and Yannick were making a video and it’s crazy because the video was called, ‘Many are Called, Few Are Chosen’, and I was staying with a friend in Bangkok and she showed me Lina’s page on Instagram. And I just had a vision I’m gonna meet her, she’s gonna be my sister, I’m gonna make work with her. I don’t know how I’m gonna ask her and I was very nervous to ask her. My mom always said is, “The worse thing someone can say is no.”
So I emailed her and to my surprise she replied and said, “I really like Yannicks’ music like I resonate with what you guys do.” And we had just put out the LP and the video in black and white, the full and she was like you guys are magic, and we met in London. As soon as we met it was very, it was like we all knew each other, I had the ideas but I knew that she could create and translate them better than even what I had imagined. I knew that we needed this for Yannick’s music because you guys know Yannick. And I mean his music is really hard to define and we needed something that hadn’t been created before and it was very magical when we all got together but more than that this was meant to be. This was before us and it was written and we were just going through the steps of what’s meant to happen.
SJ: Obviously from the time that I’ve spent with you guys I’ve seen that there’s a lot of love, Rha, between you and Yannick, and with Lina too. So there’s this thing I wanted to speak to, which is self-love. And self love as a tool for conquering certain challenges, such being a black woman in a Western contemporary art space, as a tool for creating art, as a tool for surviving everyday. As you know I live here in Cape Town and I understand that this is so necessary, because I would not be able to live. So do you guys want to touch on that.
RN: I believe the only way you can create is through self-love, before you can create anything if you are an artist, if you are not an artist, if you are creating your normal everyday life you need to start with self love. Because what starts on the inside manifests through reality and so if you don’t have self love you are outward reality won’t reflect on the outside. And so I think if you are a black woman or any type of person, I don’t want to box myself into any category, as a person, self-love is very important as a first step. I love Yannick very much, I love Lina very much. Love transcends all. When true love is in the room, it transcends sex, it transcends gender, it transcends race and I think that’s a point that we need to talk about. Love is the only weapon that you can start creating where everybody will pick up on it regardless of their gender, race, class, race breaks through all those barriers and once you let down your ego and you create from love, it’s a feeling that nobody can deny.
LV: I think we’ve been taught not to love ourselves because once you do, you see the world for what it is and you claim your power within it – that is implicitly dangerous. Self-love to me is the understanding that I am my universe; self-love is my understanding that I am not the other. Self-love is knowing that I control my space, I control my story, no one else controls my story. So saying that self-love is the impetus to create is very true because the work I create is supremely personal and tied to my ideologies around self in relation to the world, and then even further, the universe.
There’s a level of crazy in artists some believe, in that they put themselves out there in that way. That kind of revealing of oneself can only come when you have wrestled with yourself. It’s a never ending journey but you wrestle with yourself and with your demons, or things that you view as shortcomings and you realise that those things that you think are your weaknesses can actually be your strengths; then you can show that to the world. I mean there’s nothing more powerful than the ability to reveal yourself and to speak your truth to the world – whether or not people like it is not really important. Like I said, I am a big believer of the law of attraction: so what you put out, you attract. That which is not for me will never come to me and that which is for me will always come to me. And that knowing is again coming from this place of loving myself.
SJ: Sure and I guess with that self-love comes loving each other as you were saying. As a writer in the industry that I am in, I have met a lot of people that have supported me, such as editor Phakama Mbonambi a mentor who, when I was at Sunday World, would take me under his wing and he would basically guide me. I started out as a copy editor working for the Sunday World and Sowetan and then I just evolved; started writing and he was there as a mentor. When we were at Momo gallery and had a moment, Lina you spoke of how you had this mentor who really imparted a lot of wisdom on to you as a young artist and I think in the arts space, and I’m not an artist, but in the creative space it’s really important to have a person to guide you especially when you seem a bit lost. Would you like to explore this and if you guys have mentors are you are mentors as well?
LV: I believe in mentoring younger artists so that they may understand their agency – their latent power. They are not products of a system, and if they are strategic and so choose, they can rise above that system and better dictate the terms of their career. The biggest misconception I find with most artists is the belief that they are at the behest of the art world system, which is very much not in our favour but that’s another thing entirely. Without the artist the whole system would collapse so…
In terms of my own mentor who’s still my mentor; I sought his advice out. We met in the middle I think, in that I recognised what he could teach me, and he recognised potential. But as all mentors go – in life we are all teaching each other constantly so it is a mutual exchange. Again, it was very kismet. He has guided me in the art world, providing invaluable advice on how to navigate different spaces. It is an important relationship because there is professional distance – he’s not an “artist” per se, but rather an architect so the counsel is not so black and white. He has experience and age that far surpasses mine, and he quickly dispelled notions of what I thought I must do as a young artist to succeed, i.e. you’re meant to be represented, you’re meant to have a gallery, you’re supposed to go for the bigger shows, and you’re supposed to have heightened exposure.
Most people will tell you that it’s all about exposure. However, I have learned that exposure for exposure’s sake is actually worthless. What keeps people engaged is actually who are you as an artist – so in actuality, its far more powerful to be specific with the exposure that you seek, making sure it actually galvanises your message. It’s not about being in any publication for the sake of being in a publication if it doesn’t clearly relate to what you are about. So his role has been to assist me in honing in on who I am as an artist, and guide me towards channels I should walk.
I show a lot at academic institutions like Harvard and Spelman, and the reason I focus there currently is because I want our voices in those spaces. I want our voices in the art spaces of those institutions because I do feel that there is an educational aspect to the work that I do. There is a story that I want to impart to people like ourselves. I’ve turned down, to be very honest, 90% of the things that come to me because I have a very clear idea of where I want to be in the next 10 years, in the next 20 years, in the next 30 years. I think in terms of what do I want to be, where do I want to see my work, what kind of conversations do I want to have surrounding my work in the next 30 years.
RN: My parents always told me that you are the sum total of the people you surround yourself with and before I met Lina, that is what I was meditating on. I meditated on attracting mentors into my life and powerful people in my life. I had to cut out a lot of people in my life because I realised that I was the sum total of my friends. That may seem harsh but at the end of the day I knew where I wanted to go. I was in Bangkok and I was praying and meditating on powerful people to come into my life and lo and behold Ms Lina came into my life. I’m born on the 17th and she’s born on the 7th; she literally is my sister, mentor and I believe it’s so important to have mentors because they’ve done it, they’ve been there. and she guides me every single day and this is you need to do Rochelle, this is what you don’t need to do and she guides me in business and for me, and for me and Yannick and for Noir Wave I do believe that our mission is to not to be celebrities but it is to give back and as much as we are learning and we are full, we can’t be so full that we don’t share and so that’s why it’s important for me and Lina that we do these talks in Joburg wherever because as I’m getting information I can’t be selfish and keep that information for myself, it’s important that we share.
And I believe that in life, especially as artists, our purpose in life is serve. The more you serve, the more you get refilled and so it’s a constant getting filled up by our mentors and then sharing that information. That’s how we’ll change our country and change our blacknesses. Many people want to keep that information and keep it in isolation. And we need mentors and we need to also share the information, it’s very important than getting a job than anything if you can learn from a mentor in the next five years you will elevate to where you need to be but it’s very important to not keep that information to yourself but to keep passing it on because that’s the only way we gonna grow and evolve.
SJ: That’s very true! And I guess I’ve also learned that mentorship is sometimes a two way street because I remember a few years ago I approached writer Percy Zvomuya, he was my colleague at Mail & Guardian at the time and I was like, ‘You’re amazing, you write so beautifully please can I be your mentee?’ And he was like, ‘But Stef, you’ve given me all this jazz music and you’ve given me all this information and you send me links to stuff, and so at the same time you’re taking from me I’m also taking a lot from you so I’m sorry I can’t be your mentor.’ But we can have this relationship where it’s given and he’s still my brother today, you know, years later.
– A break for questions from the floor –
SJ: I want to take it back to the artistic practice and back to your art and how you create it. I mean, I watched the Wu Tang video with you…
RN: I love that video, it’s a beautiful video.
SJ: It’s a beautiful video of you creating your art. So how do you wake up every morning and make your art? This question is for both of you.
LV: I have a very strong spiritual practice, every morning I start by reading, meditating and I do that for hours honestly. You know I don’t believe in just going to the studio and creating haphazardly. All the work I do is very much preconceived if you will. I map my canvases out before I even start painting and gilding, because the nature of my work is all about precision and the lines must be clean. I’m not in the studio the whole day just painting, to me there’s a long process before I even start painting – that’s why I say I am a conceptual artist. I lead with my idea, I lead with a lot of research into what it is that I want to speak to. I view the work as a cross-section; it’s a bridge between many disciplines and schools of thought. I go from researching various cosmological stories that exist within many African tribal cultures. I speak about astrophysics in general, you know in terms of modern day astrophysics, which is just ancient cosmology. I speak about maths in my work, and ancient scripts & pictorial based languages – the implicit knowledge that is imparted via symbols.
There are also concepts that speak to identity – not specifically race, but obviously being who I am it’s not a conversation that I am completely devoid of having. But truly, the conversation within the work is an amalgamation of many seemingly disparate ideas. There’s a lot of research that happens before I even start creating a new body of work. I imagine most would not guess it or see all of what I am referencing because the works are highly aesthetic, and they can be viewed on the basis alone. But if you do want to delve deeper, you can discover that there is a very specific ideology, practice and thought space that surrounds the work. When I do start the painting process – it happens in a flurry; of being within the studio and working non-stop, but there could be weeks to months where I am not making any paintings at all. So it’s kind of existing between these poles.
RN: I think it’s the same for me, it starts with the spiritual practice, actively on the inside before I can even receive anything. When I do receive something I receive it and it comes like a lightning bolt and then I can’t stop thinking about it. And I have to do it with like ‘best’ video I was researching African practices and it came to me one day and I just had to write everything down and I couldn’t get it out of my head and I had to create that video. But it doesn’t come every single day, it starts on the inside and you have to wait. And this relates to social media, which we talked about in Johannesburg, this need to create every single day. Sometimes there’s nothing to create, you have to live, you have to be a person, you have to go through life. For most artists back in the day it was 10 years between their art pieces that are remembered throughout time. But when it comes, it comes and you can’t deny it, you can just feel it, it’s a pouring out.
SJ: Sure. And I especially as a writer I feel working for magazine sometimes it’s a question of, ‘please write this story, we need it,’ and at times as a black woman, which I definitely consider myself as in a white publishing space, it comes with writing on black [experience]. Sometimes it’s about digging deep and sometimes it’s hard to speak on these emotions; to excavate these feelings, to put on paper. And you know, I guess with social media there’s that demand for your creativity when it’s not there. My time spent working at the gallery was short. I noticed that being a black artist in a white cube sometimes means exhibiting your black pain, which can be commodified and so easily sold, you know. So Lina, I think it is quite notable that you don’t have a gallery by choice and you’re not in the gallery system. So I wanted to find out how you are surviving because And I’m not an artist but I know that some art schools present the gallery as something to be a part; it’s presented as this great thing that artists need to survive. And for you Rharha, you are studying through Tate how are you fitting in, even though you are in an academic space it’s still the connection to Tate London, which is “prestigious” space?
LV: I think it’s a terrible misconception to believe that artists can’t exist without representation. I think most artists have been told that, and the only reason I knew better is because I had a mentor who has existed within these arts spaces for a long time and could give me the rundown of pros and cons of existing within a gallery system. I am not adverse to having representation, I am for having representation that works for me. There’s a difference. I am not trying to be last on the roster of importance of some great gallery’s list. I know my worth and so therefore a gallery has to understand my worth as well. If I do find a gallery great, if I don’t, I have existed without it. I believe in things happening as they are supposed to. Doors have closed and doors have opened but I have learned to trust my intuition on such things as it has always yielded fruits.
This time last year i wasn’t showing in the spaces that I’m showing in now, so I actually, for a lack of a better word, prayed on it because I knew where I wanted to see my work and the conversations that I wanted to be having – I had to be in Harvard. I wanted to be in Ivy League universities. I want to be in institutions that have African and African American dialogues within the American space and beyond, and I want to show on the continent – that’s kind of where I’m headed. These things I’ve willed into being. I think that’s no answer, but it’s my answer and it’s what has kind of worked for me. I have always been slightly adversed to gallery spaces because I believe they practice exclusivity – they don’t allow for most people to feel comfortable walking into them. A lot of galleries out there exploit our people, it’s like a lot of African and African American artists on their roster and their agreements are very disadvantageous for the artist. I’m watching and waiting to see the rise of the black-owned galleries that are representing our people fairly.
RN: For me I decided to do my Masters in museums, galleries and contemporary culture. I’m in a programme with Westminister and Tate, and it was important for me to do this Masters because in South Africa, I looked around and there was only gallery MOMO, there was only one and I think there is another one now. But there’s literally two [back-owned galleries] in South Africa. So for me it was important to go out in this field and get this Masters. Because I want to represent artists of colour and I want to be in spaces where they can be included. My focus is on access, inclusion and diversity within the museum space. When we were younger I don’t know how many of you were comfortable going into museum, were you taught to go to museums, galleries? When you go to an art gallery, do you feel judged, do you feel like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening here?’ Because there’s a way to look at the art, there’s way to talk about the art and there’s a way for you to behave in front of the art and for us we see art every single day. We are art. And for me that’s really messed up. I’m the only person of colour in my course in London, and it’s a big problem, it’s a huge problem.
For me, we need to enter these spaces because they are selling our artworks but we are not controlling these spaces. I told my family I am going to study museums and they said what are going to do that for, it doesn’t make money, it doesn’t make sense, you know. So for me it was important to enter that space instead of talking, talking, ‘oh, we are about black lives matter,’ let’s do. Let’s do, let’s stop talking, let’s act. Not many people know that I am doing my Masters. Let’s do, let’s move in silence. They just see, oh Rochelle she’s posted on Instagram. Let’s move in silence and let’s do. So I urge all of you, education is not a bad thing. We need to be very strategic about how. let’s be strategic about entering economic art space, economic black-owned businesses everything you know we need to be very smart. And for me to enter that space every day in school they are studying african culture, ‘oh, so this is what… oh interesting… oh so this is how the black man stands’, you know, ‘so this how Sara Baartman…’ you know they are studying our every single move. And I’m sitting here like, we’re not studying what’s happening and I couldn’t believe the amount of energy that goes into the Western empire studying us and for me these are the spaces that we need to be in and it’s not like we are not interested in art it’s just that for us art we don’t view it, it’s not separate to us you know it’s one thing, it’s our whole entire existance, you know we play the drum, we use the comb, we eat with the Ghanaian, but it’s very different so that’s why I went to go study that.
RN: I think we need to start learning about art from an early age, not learning about it, we know but I know that from especially the black community if you want to go and do art, the people don’t think that you can have that as the actual profession, they think that it’s fine when you are younger and I think that that discussion needs to change. It needs to change because there are artists making money, there are institutions making money and that’s why I say it needs to change it starts from education about these issues.
LV: It’s a double-edged sword. For a lot of African, African American and African diasporic people art and craft are very linked, yet we are taught in the art world that there’s a difference in import between art and craft. Craft is almost a lesser art that is often relegated to ethnographic exhibitions – a far cry from whatever fine art is being deemed to be today. Art is what we are about as people – it’s in everything we do. I don’t even believe in conforming. I don’t believe in trying to fit into the Western system of what art is to the art world. I believe in creating our own world. I don’t believe in pitching myself against a perceived norm and trying to fit into that system. Why are all these people here? Why can’t we create our own system, create our own standard, forge our own “art world” that is not informed by the western/mainstream construct?
Sadly however, we often undermine our own people. My mom runs a gallery in London – The Gallery of African Art. It’s in the centre of Mayfair, and if you don’t know where Mayfair is, it’s one of the most affluent areas in London and also where all the biggest galleries are like Marlborough, Victoria Miro, PACE etc. She positioned her African art gallery there and represents solely African artists – mid-career to established. She often tells me about her issues with artists that undermine her efforts in favour of galleries that are run by non-Africans as they feel it validates them more. There is very little solidarity with us – that is the root of a lot of problems and is in my mind, the reason why we cannot carve out our own niche and voice, and why we can’t rise above the current system in place. With this mindset we will remain at the behest of the establishment – we do not work together for the betterment of one another – this is a problem that needs to be addressed.
SJ: Yeah just to add to your point I think you [an audience member] mentioned what is wrong with us. And I think that we always have to remember that there’s nothing wrong with us, we have been wronged for so many years and it’s just that reminder that as they were killing us on this continent and in the diaspora, we are not the issue. It’s that constant reminder you know that reflection that we are ok, but there are so many things against us and so many evils working against us and we just have to come together and remind ourselves that we are ok.
– A break for questions from the floor –
SJ: So I sort want to speak about Africa and the Western art world. I guess the West says that it’s the time for Africa and you know we have the Wangechis, he Meschac Gabas et cetera. And at the Armoury Show there was an African focus and at the Venice Biennale. Do you consider yourselves African artists, of course you are but what is your relation to Africa and being artists living in the diaspora?
LV: Naturally I am an African artist, by heritage, by story, by narrative, and my family’s heritage. At the same time I could be considered to be an English artist because I was raised in London. I could also be considered an American artist because I’m living and working in New York currently. It’s funny to me that people label you according to what they want to highlight or keeping in line with their agenda so for different people I’m different things – I find that interesting. Personally, I align with no label because I am simply an artist. I’m a person who creates and I feel like these labels are reductive. That is not to detract from my heritage, I just think that the way that it’s used can be very confining, i.e. you are an African artist therefore you have to exist and create within a certain thought space.
As an African American artist for example, if your predominant subject matter is not about race then what kind of African American artist are you? I’m so tired of being placed in these confines – ‘oh you’re black and american therefore you must be talking about your “blackness”. I’m very bored of this expectation. My view is the opposite – I don’t have to talk about blackness, white artists don’t talk about their whiteness, why do I have to talk about blackness? I remove all labels from myself because I don’t want to exist within the confines that other people believe they can place me in. If I’m going to exist within a label, it’s going to have to be a label I place upon myself – that’s just how I look at it.
In terms of the current surge in the art world around African Art, I again think it’s a double edged sword. I am interested by the current conversations purely because unlike previous times when the worlds attention fell upon African Artists, where it was very much a top down dialogue i.e. major institutions that are considered the leading voices speaking to African art and culture and placing their non-African gaze upon what they viewed African art to be and that being the overarching viewpoint being sent out into the world, for the first time that dynamic is shifting. You mentioned the recent Venice Biennale that was curated by Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian who is also the curator at Haus de Kunst in Munich – he curated the entire 2014 Venice Biennale aptly titled ‘All The World’s Futures’. It had the biggest showing of African (diasporic) artists. The Venice Biennale is very political in their selections, but of the 300+ odd artists at least 100+ of them were African artists. That is still not enough of a representation but it’s a beginning and was very impactful and powerful because basically it’s the establishment passing on the baton – at least temporarily – so that the conversation around African art and artists amidst the entire art world conversation could be a more authentic one.
Basically the Venice Biennale committee obviously recognised that there’s a shift happening and they could either be part of that shift or they could be left behind. They could even possibly be leaders of that shift in conversation. Their electing Okwui was a ceremonial passing of the baton that said, “we want to hear from you – an African curator”. He in turn brought the British-Ghanian architect David Adjaye to design the main pavilion and ARENA. It’s a very big rite of passage. The next step is to create such spaces and experiences for ourselves and on our own terms.
RN: I think up until now we’ve always had to prove ourselves and with social media we have a few hundred years of proving ourselves and the problem I have with terms such as black girl magic is great we’ve proved ourselves but a diamond doesn’t have to prove itself it just shines, it just sparkles. And this constant need to prove ourselves and put ourselves in boxes is an underlying subconscious reason to affirm ourselves and say we are here but I think we’ve done enough of that but I think now we have to move into the future, we don’t need to prove ourselves any longer, we are here and we don’t have anything to prove we’ve been here, we understand that, let’s build life, let’s create pictures that move us into the future and just shine, we don’t need to prove anything that’s my simple point on that.
SJ: And I think that’s really interesting especially because Sandra Bland died last year on this day, and when I think of things like Black Lives Matter I think that we’re preaching to the choir because when we speak to ourselves we know that Black Lives Matter and we know that land has been stolen et cetera. So I think it’s time for the West to speak to themselves and have this dialogue and clarify and understand and recognise.
RN: I think the more we keep talking about the same things, over and over and over again, we are manifesting that into reality like it’s called insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different results. Let’s talk about something new, let’s talk about how we are in the future but say it in the present tense and watch it manifest into reality.
SJ: Just to touch on the future point, when I was Whatsapping you Rochelle , you were like, ‘Let’s speak about the future.’ And I guess I’m always like, let’s speak about the past because to go forward [you need] to understand the past and the present. So it’s all these tenses. But I sort of want to speak about your relationship to the future or maybe futurism as the aesthetic and also Lina touch on your aesthetic, which I think sometimes feels a bit nostalgic. When I look at your work I think early Ethiopian art depicting religious figures and also like Byzantine art. So how do you two marry present and past and future into the aesthetic.
LV: Time for me is not linear so I don’t think in terms of past and future. I think of time in terms of where do I want to be, where do I want to see us – a day from now or ten years from now on my life journey. I am a big believer in speaking my world into existence or creating my world, so in that regard I have really fought against speaking about our recent collective past through my work – and when I say recent I mean the past few hundred years i.e. apartheid and/or the slave trade and their repercussions. These histories are so pervasive in our consciousness and continue to be used as a tool of indoctrination – they operate as prisons for our minds that are meant to keep us in a space of victimisation and perceived inferiority. I understand that institutional racism exists across the world, I am not blind to that but what I do believe is that, like Rharha said, the more you speak about those situations that are inherently negative, the more you perpetuate those scenarios and thus, the more these circumstances continue to be part of your existence.
This is why I focus on creating my story rather than re-telling an old story that no longer applies to me. I am driven to create a story where if it is going to be reflective on our past, then I am addressing a different time in our collective history that most would rather us forget i.e. the times when we were the largest empire in the world. People don’t know, for example, that Mali was the world centre for higher education during and prior to the middle ages – that is where the concept of “university” began – quite literally the study of the universe. People don’t know that Egypt was the source for the current structure of modern civilisation in the western world – not Greece. The Greeks recorded the fact that they traveled to Egypt and started to build their democratic structure, the same structure America is built upon based on what they learned from the Ancient Egyptians. So, if I am to speak about our past at all, that is the past I will speak about because those stories empower us. I’m not interested in stories that disempower us. And I’m not interested in talking about how we were subjugated, and how for the past few centuries, we allowed others to rob us of our bloodlines, lineage, heritage etc.
You know Liberia is a by-product of the slave trade; Monrovia is the product of slave trade, conceived to be the “new world” for freed slaves to reintegrate back into Africa. My family shares this history so in some regard, I don’t know my lineage accurately beyond a few generations. Maybe I’m from Central Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa. Who knows where I could originate but that’s not important anymore, what’s important is where do I want to see myself at the end of my life – where do I want to see my children, where do I want to see my grandchildren, my great-great grandchildren and so on and so forth. Therefore, I would rather focus on the positive, the positive affirmations and stories that I know will come into being because I believe in manifestation.
RN: And I think that that’s another reason why we connect so well is because me and Yannick weren’t interested in – I mean we are interested in our past we know it very well people, we study it and wit Yannick’s music it was hard to define oh it’s african mixed with rock and what is and it was no we are creating a new future. Yes, I am British Jamaican and I have a global part of me and we are global citizens let’s create a new world, let’s stop focusing on the past and bring things into manifestation which is why the images we create speak to that, there is so much I can talk to you for so long but the images are able to hold your attention and that is using art as agency, speak through your art words only last for a few hours, you go home it will resonate but once you look at that art it transcends a lot of borders which is why you guys are here tonight because the art brought you here and that is using art as agency to speak to the future, using your art to tell the african future. I think one thing we need to stop doing is focusing on the past, we understand it let’s move into the future.
SJ: Interesting, we don’t always have to agree on points. When I sometimes think of the past I think that many don’t actually know our past because in the South African context we are not really being taught what happened in apartheid. I think that is why a lot of people in this city mainly can get away with the injustices that they have been done. There has been no repercussions for the past. I was having a conversation on Twitter and some people joined about the fact that some areas are built on slave graves and how those are the wealthiest, like Clifton, Sea Point, Greenpoint, Oranjezight and some have the remains of slaves beneath them. And today the descendants of those slaves can only access those areas by being modern day slaves in the form of the people who come in to clean our houses in the form of just visiting and not having access to those places. So I guess your relationship to the past can either set us free or you know it can subjugate. But it’s a conversation and I think it’s one that can be had over and over and we don’t have to agree.
– A break for questions from the floor –
SJ: I have two questions and one is, I guess religion and spirituality. I look at both your art; in Lina’s I see these depictions of saints or religious figures, I could be wrong. What is your relationship to religion and spirituality?
RN: Well, I grew up very religious and so it’s a part of me and I can’t let it go. For me god is the ultimate creator, yes. He was the ultimate creator of whoever we turned out to be and I believe that we all have a god embryo inside of us we are made in his image and so we are just acting as creators in everything that you see around us we get from nature, in our art and for me there is no separating God from art because he was and is all and I’m not saying he/she whatever you believe was the creator and so it was just a source and so we are just creating in our daily lives and our daily routine and I can’t separate myself from that because I am always getting my energy from that I am always relying on that with every breath I take for every move I make and I just see it just through one. and I don’t understand making art without substance just making art, I mean you can make art just to make art but once you use that source energy it’s when people resonate with your art and they feel that emotion to it that can never be and you can’t deny it because it’s in you and that’s where I get most of my inspiration from.
LV: I believe that religion as is qualified in modern terms has served its purpose i.e. organised religion. I say that because it has caused more problems in this age than it’s solved. I think organised religion was created – and I say this knowing that it will probably not garner me a lot of friends – but I think that it’s a man made construct that serves as a means to comprehend our relationship with the larger cosmos – the universe that surrounds us. How do you explain our existence as a three-dimensional human being on a planet suspended in dark matter, in space, where to travel to our closest neighbour takes tens, hundreds, thousands of human years? And that technological advancement was only a recent development.
We feel alone so must substantiate the reason behind it all – the purpose of us. There is beauty and magic in understanding how small we are in the bigger scheme of things – and that is just in the perceivable universe – but I think the lack of knowledge, or the “unknown” simply garners fear in many – hence religion. It provides a means to elevate ourselves and to ascribe meaning to this life. At it’s core religion is not negative, however, how it has manifested as a tool to control and overpower others based upon a fictitious moral high ground dictated by fellow people is where the issue lies. The moral values instilled in most religions (because they all are very similar), are a beneficial ordering mechanism to allow us to rise above our baser natures and live in accordance with nature. But, it always floors me that the people that tout religion the most don’t ever seem to live by the core tenants and teachings they are trying to espouse to others. Whereas people who embrace spirituality, in my experience, seem to live far more in accordance with these core tenants and also do not judge others – they truly lead with love and acceptance. I grew up within the church, went to Catholic school, church with my family etc – so my opinion is definitely a considered one based on my observations.
RN: I think the most important thing for me because I grew up very religious my dad was a pastor and I was taught to separate the teachings of the religion to how Jesus or whatever actually lived, there was no judgement. There are certain proverbs in the bible that relate to any spiritual teachings and once I remove the people and the concept of god as a man-made construct but just the actual simple, simple teachings that relate to any teachings like Buddhism and any religion and that’s where I’ve found the most peace and the most joy and it’s definitely what I believe in.
SJ: That’s very interesting because my last editor-in-chief once told me that the only religion that he’s ok with is Buddhism because there’s no judgement, there’s no harsh judgement. I come from a pretty secular home, my dad is an artist. So when speaking of Christianity with some of my friends there’s a lot of tension but [Christianity] is very prevalent within black homes, within black communities in the diaspora and you know the Caribbean and the States and Africa. It’s a force … I was going to make a point but never-mind I’ll just move on. Let’s speak again about past and future and time. I’m gonna go back to this because I specifically want to speak about memory. I guess this is a cold question but how would you like to be remembered?
LV: I don’t actually think about that as much as I think about creating different futures – or what I imagine to be better futures through art. What I am about to say is not coming from a place of ego, but rather a place of understanding my role – my journey as a being, and I just know that whatever I leave behind will be in some kind of canon because it has to be – what I envision creating in the next decade etc has never existed before. I want to leave a legacy that’s impactful and I’m trying to align myself with people and circumstances that will allow me to leave behind some sort of capsule. Who knows what may come in the next 30/40/50 years, who knows where my journey will take me – I can’t really predict these things but I do know that it will be written. It will be written in history hopefully because it’s truly touched people and that’s the purpose. I have always recognised that I could do a lot of things – I could be an astronaut, I still want to be an astronaut, I want to be astrophysicist, I want to be a mathematician. But above all else, I believe that art is the best vehicle to speak on all of these things and most importantly, touches the most people as it has low barriers to entry. It is the least exclusive in terms of bringing a variety of people to the table to have a conversation, and I know that within that paradigm there will be something left behind.
RN: It’s definitely written in history I feel that and I don’t know how exactly we will be remembered but all I know that there will be the sacrifice of submitting to our purpose everyday and I don’t know what the outcome of that will be but I know that daily submitting to your purpose and to our purposes all that we can do, basically.
SJ: I sort of want to take it back to news, I think we had this conversation at MOMO gallery this week and the topic of conversation at the moment I guess is all the killings that are happening in America, and I wanted to find out from somebody who lives in the States, how are you dealing with having to go back to New York. How are you reconciling with that?
LV: I rode in an Uber today and the driver was from Ethiopia and he was telling me how he was listening to the news and heard that a lot of white Americans were telling black Americans to go back home. And I’m like – hello – “home” is a very interesting word to use for a place from which they are completely disassociated at this point because of you to begin with. It’s a very contested situation and I left literally before this wave erupted, but it’s been brewing, it’s been happening. We spoke about how these injustices happen mostly in low economic areas within the States you know. It’s cyclical because owing to the systemic institutional racism that exists in America, these areas are predominantly where most black people live.
There’s no making peace with it, there’s no coming to terms with it, there’s just an understanding of the circumstances and figuring out what is it you have to put out to the universe to at least in some way fight it. I don’t fight in the same way others do – you won’t see me chanting Black Lives Matter because that goes without saying. To speak it is almost to reinforce the idea that black people must validate their existence against a perceived superiority. How do you affect change in a way that’s just not group think? How do you affect change that literally transforms a situation? I believe that this change needs to happen in numbers and I believe that it needs to be affirmative action. I’m still trying to figure our what that is – we talk about it everyday. But I know that these riots, and even the guy that shot all those police in Dallas is a bandaid on a wound and yes, it may make you feel better momentarily. But then you realise its just reacting – it’s just retaliation, it’s just violence upon violence and it’s not helping the situation. It’s actually just creating more anger and a much larger, explosive situation and giving people notions that this is the only way to fix it – so it breeds more violence etc. Killing people is never going to fix the situation.
I don’t know what the answer is but I do believe that putting out positivity, positive words and images that can shift our collective thought consciousness can never do any harm. I believe in solidarity – we have to come together within the diaspora and within our communities. We need to find a way to have solidarity – that I don’t see us having right now. That would create a unified force that nobody can mess with. Until we can come to that understanding, we will always be fragile and people will always attack us because we are weak within. We can raise our fists and we can be angry but it’s not doing anything. We’ve been doing that since all of this began – it hasn’t changed much.