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Features Published 6 February 2017

Busty Beatz: “I’m responding to capitalism, patriarchy, elitism.”

Busty Beatz, MD of Hot Brown Honey, is on residency at Wellcome Collection as part of The Sick Of The Fringe. She talks to Maddy Costa about making the personal political, and how she'll confront Wellcome's colonialism.
Maddy Costa
Busty Beatz, who's on residency at Wellcome Collection

Busty Beatz, who’ll be responding to Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Medicine Man

Tucked away in an upstairs room of the Wellcome Collection building in London is a quiet, wood-panelled gallery dedicated to Henry Wellcome himself: entrepreneur, eclectic collector, and the man behind the trust fund that now gives millions each year to scientific research (and supports artists, too). Like any museum display, Medicine Man isn’t intended to offend but to enlighten, surprise and intrigue. Except none of those words describe how Busty Beatz, musical director of Australian cabaret group Hot Brown Honey, felt on first walking in. “I was affronted,” she says. “And every time I’ve walked in with more information, that feeling hasn’t changed.”

Busty and I meet on the invitation of The Sick of the Fringe, an organisation financed by the Wellcome Trust to create a new paradigm for writing and conversation about performance, in relation to the body, health and science. It’s through TSOTF’s writing programme that I’ve encountered her before: I was charged with “diagnosing” the Hot Brown Honey show during last year’s Edinburgh fringe. Diagnosing means avoiding judgemental language, which is why my piece calmly describes their “mission: to deliver ‘black feminist truth’ and ‘cultural awareness training’ while subjecting received white feminism and unconscious colonial-supremacist thinking to close interrogation … using the tools of irreverence and high-octane pop culture”. And doesn’t say what I was really thinking, which was more along the lines of: ohmyfuckinggod I have waited my whole life for this! It’s punk hip-hop burlesque! Made by women of all body sizes and skin colours! Who quote Audre Lorde! I love them! I LOVE THEM!!!

Hot Brown Honey performed at Assembly at Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Hot Brown Honey performed at Assembly at Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Hot Brown Honey’s show is the very definition of a good night out: politically acute, vibrant, participatory and populist. It’s also staged on a three-metre-high beehive constructed from domestic lampshades, and features six performers, which makes it somewhat too big for TSOTF to bring to London for its festival taking place next week. Instead Busty – or Kim Bowers, in more everyday guise – has been commissioned to spend a fortnight getting a feel for both the Medicine Man exhibition and Wellcome’s wider collection, talking to the people charged with its care, and shaping a response.

She’s found much to admire in the story of Wellcome, a self-made man and medical pioneer. But she’s also found much to feel affronted by. The Medicine Man exhibition contains a tiny fraction of Wellcome’s prodigious collection of tribal masks, ritual artefacts, photographs of indigenous peoples, and miscellanea related to the body, including human skin, and represents a particular Victorian mindset. Born in 1853, Wellcome was a man of open curiosity and polymath talents, but he was also conditioned by the atmosphere of empire, white Christian supremacy and masculine dominance of his time. To look at portraits of him or at his collection, says Busty, is to be stared down by the “male colonial gaze”. A gaze she has been fighting for most of her life.

In a sense, the disquiet she feels here is “how I feel generally in the world”. The difference is a question of degree. “I’ve done so much reading, talking, studying, of what actually is a decolonisation process, but this is being put in the middle of it. In the world of museums, you’re taught to have an unbiased opinion, you’re taught not to look at things in a particular way, to try to disconnect from them. But I look over there at his collection of photos and I know one shows a South African tribe that my grandmother came from. So it’s personal.”

A view of Wellcome Collection's permanent exhibition. Photo: Wellcome Collection

A view of Wellcome Collection’s permanent exhibition. Photo: Wellcome Collection

Busty was a child when her family escaped apartheid to seek political asylum in Australia. “Of all places!” she laughs. “The stolen land of Australia.” In both countries she felt aware of a silence around her. “My parents couldn’t talk about anything in South Africa, and they made a decision not to talk about anything in Australia, because they ‘just wanted to be normal’.” At first she kept her questions to herself: “Now I’m really interested in how questions are raised and how they’re asked.” At the Wellcome, she finds herself repeatedly asking: “Who has the authority? Like really, at its basic point, who has the authority here? We know institution-wise what that means, we know outside of the institution what that means, but even just as a personal question. I can’t look at the mummy in the display because I know I don’t have authority to. It’s not for me to look at or for me to even talk about: it’s from a different people.”

In the middle weekend of a depleting fortnight, when the work was taking an emotional toll, she posted a self-boosting message to herself on Instagram. “It sums up a lot of what’s been going on,” she says, digging it out of her phone. “I think you’ll laugh. ‘Whenever you feel that sting of intergenerational trauma smashing in your face, due to the horrendous acts of violent brutal colonisation by the empire of First Nations people across the globe, and you could stay in bed all day weeping for the continuous impact it has on daily existence, just remember that the town of Hull in the northern UK has a massive banner of your big black self in a leopard-print catsuit in their main street.” Looking at that advert for Hot Brown Honey’s performances at the Freedom festival in September last year, a shot of vivid colour in a grey municipal scene, didn’t just cheer her, it reminded her: “There’s actually an opportunity here, to really think about the way we look at things.”

The Wellcome Trust prides itself on working at the intersection of art, medicine and health: it’s why it funds organisations like The Sick of the Fringe (incidentally, if you’re suspicious that my being paid by TSOTF to write this means I’m just creating advertorial, I’d like to make clear: I think the festival programme is really strong, and that the Hot Brown Honey commission should be packed the whole weekend). Hot Brown Honey pride themselves in working at the intersections of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, body image and more. Busty plans to layer each cultural marker so that all are visible – and with it, the long history of Wellcome and the British empire that, as an American immigrant, he “so wanted to be a part of”. She talks me through her ideas board, stretched across two walls of a green room next door to the exhibition: photographs of the Hot Brown Honey gang that will stand alongside those collected by Wellcome; sheets and sheets of quotes from key feminist thinkers (among them Arundhati Roy, Laura Mvula, Angela Davis and Lebo Mashile); ideas for the soundscape; and examples of cakes modelled to look like people’s faces. “Henry had a lot of masks made of himself, and that needs to be made out of cake,” she says in cheerful explanation. “Everyone who walks in here takes a piece of Henry away with them anyway. And it’s about culture eating culture.”

Her primary impulse is not to attempt to eradicate the values present in the exhibition, but to bring them in contact with other ways of thinking. “We don’t want to cover up history, because that’s been done: we need to explore it further, we need to give voice to those voices that were not heard.” It’s startled her, how little is known about the origins of the objects in Wellcome’s collection: that tracing is a work in progress for the institution, but in the meantime, she argues, “We’ve got to mirror stuff. Of course you need to put up stuff that is from that time, but what other notions, histories, perspectives are there as well?” Addressing that, she says, might be as simple as including a photograph of Winnie Mandela. The key is for “the communities where this stuff comes from to feel empowered. There’s a great quote by Audre Lorde, which is: ‘Divide and conquer now needs to be define and empower.’ It’s really about that: we need to create those definitions, keep creating them, keep smashing them down, pulling them apart.”

The commission’s title, We Are the Latest Models of Our Ancestry, is lifted from Hot Brown Honey’s extensive library of feminist slogans; others range from hip-hop mantras (“word to the mother”, “fuck the patriarchy”) to instructions both stern (“don’t touch my hair”) and tongue-in-cheek (a personal favourite: “decolonise and moisturise”). Although the work will be different in form, Busty argues that it functions in exactly the same way as the show: “I’m not just responding to this one collection, I’m responding to capitalism, patriarchy, elitism. It’s what we do in Hot Brown Honey as well: we say this is personal but this is also political, and this is talking to culture. It’s using the same tools to break through a perception.”

Inevitably, there are people who don’t want their perception broken. The review of the Edinburgh show published in The Stage, for instance, dismisses what Hot Brown Honey have to say as “belligerent tub-thumping”: angry, strident, aggressive and antagonistic. But isn’t it always the fate of feminists to be denigrated thus? (The only word the Stage man misses out is feisty.) At a time of globally resurgent racism, Hot Brown Honey strike me as exactly what the world needs: bold women of colour challenging received thinking and demonstrating collective solidarity. Their dream for the show, Busty reveals, is to recruit performers everywhere they travel, so that ultimately they have not six women on stage but a hundred. “People are like, ‘That seems ambitious.’ But we want to use the platform as much as possible.” It’s a typically generous gesture – you too can be a hot brown honey – from a group on course to change the world.

We are the Latest Models of our Ancestry will be on at Wellcome Collection from 17th-19th February. For more info, visit the Wellcome Collection website.  

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa writes about theatre and music, as much as possible at the same time. Preferably with a recipe included. An occasional contributor to the Guardian, she found one blog (Deliq) wasn't enough, so now co-hosts four. She is critical writer, or critic in residence, or embedded critic, with Chris Goode & Company; through her work with them, and with Dialogue, the organisation she co-founded with Jake Orr, she is attempting to rethink the relationship between people who make, watch and write about theatre. At least once a week she decides she should stop writing about theatre and do something more useful instead.