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Features Published 2 November 2015

Selina Thompson: “The question of ‘the white gaze’”

The Leeds-based artist and performer talks beauty politics, assumed white audiences, and being a Black artist in a white-majority culture.
Selina Thompson

Selina Thompson“It’s very easy to continue to make art for white people, to explain black people to white people…”
– Maggie Scott in conversation with Bim Adewumni – 13th April 2012 at the opening of Maggie Scott’s exhibition ‘Negotiations, Black in a White Majority Culture’

“Don’t you worry your pretty little weave about it”
– Mimi Whiteman to Cookie Lyons, Empire, Season Two, Episode One: The Devils are Here

Out of the work I’ve created so far, the connection between Chewing the Fat and Dark & Lovely is the strongest, seeing that they’ve toured, have received more PR, and garnered a bigger audience; and more significantly were both, in their own way, exploring the politics of beauty. I was vaguely amused and a little bit surprised last year when I realised this, although not unhappy – this is not me being a snob about beauty politics, nor dismissive of it. But I was surprised, as beauty was not something I saw myself as engaged in, or engaging with – but here we are!

I think I probably saw myself as ‘not having a relationship to beauty’ for the same reasons that I decided to make shows about them – I am fat, and have been for a long time – a great deal of prescribed bodily beauty has not applied to me since I left school. I shaved my hair at 16, and have largely worn it –‘natural’ – in the kinky, ‘coarse’, undefined curls of the Afro since. My hair and my fat body embody the opposite of what we are told beauty and sexy should look and feel like, other than when we’re in the realms of fetish and exoticism. When you are so far outside of the dominant beauty ideals that your society renders you both hyper visible and invisible, it can almost feel like freedom. But it is not. I think that me making these shows is a small, fiery core of me, not allowing myself to remain comfortably asleep inside that delusion. It’s a shame, I like sleeping.

The politics of Black women’s hair is massive, exhaustive and exhausting but I want to talk about two things a little – not to offer answers, but to problematize some things, to share with you the worries that freeze my fingers as I redraft the work, that sometimes have me pause in the middle of a scene, and wonder if I would be dying to walk out if I was sat in my show.

The first thing is an awareness that the choices that Black women make are often held to a different standard than the choices that white women, and other non black women of colour make – that they are interrogated at length, and subject to surveillance, and that often our own words are used against us. This is of course, not unique to Black women – but I notice it when I make my weary way through the 748th article about why Beyonce is still not a feminist (written underneath a picture of her stood in front of a ten foot feminist sign). I feel the stab of it when I hear about women being refused entrance to a nightclub because their skin is too dark, or they’re not the right weight, and the paternalism that so often accompanies is it is ever present – when another artist describes my politics as ‘a brand’ – and tells me to be careful. She means well, but she is, essentially, telling me to shut up.

The quote from Empire at the start of this article exemplifies how knowledge about the tensions and emotional resonance around black women’s hair is often used against them – Mimi Whiteman is telling Cookie to shut up essentially, and this is how she does it, referring to her hairpiece in a manner that is patronising, and humiliating.   Cookie is a formidable character, rolls her eyes at the insult and silences her sons when they begin to smirk at her, but it’s a stinging put down – heaving with race and gender – and the character knows it’ll aggravate, if it wouldn’t, she wouldn’t have said it. I try to imagine it having quite the same air of derision if directed at a white woman, and fail.

Dark and Lovely in performance

Dark and Lovely in performance

About a year after I did Dark and Lovely for the first time, I had gotten long braids (a protective style, my hair was brittle in the winter – I also fancied a change, and it was the first time in a while I’d had the money or confidence to experiment with my look), and at a party, a friend grabbed a fistful of them, and asked how ‘me having braids fit with that show I did’. She’s a good friend, and meant nothing by it – but I felt about 2cm tall when she said it.

I remember a friend telling me that since she’d watched the show, she’d looked at black women’s hair, trying to figure out if it was a weave or not, that at one point she’d almost tapped a girl on the bus on the shoulder to ask her about it, but she’d stopped herself. I was horrified.

I’m aware that the combination of a little information, privilege and a mostly benign cluelessness can lead to really awful experiences for Black women. As well as not wanting women to feel jabbed at within the show, I also have to think of its afterlife.

This brings me neatly onto my second issue, one I think I’ve been negotiating for a long time, that will perhaps be a source of tension throughout my practice: the question of ‘the white gaze’.

I am a Black artist in a white majority culture.

I don’t live in London. I live in Leeds. It’s a ‘diverse’ city – but I am aware of the change in demographic when I travel through Leeds, London and my home city of Birmingham respectively.

When I toured Chewing the Fat last year, I played in several rooms in which I was the only person that was not white.

The warning I’ve opened this blog with – Maggie Scott’s point on not explaining black people to white people lives inside my head a lot. How do you centre the community your work is drawn from, how do you talk to them directly, how can your work resist the objectification and othering so inherent in most other parts of your culture? How do I do this? And what happens to my work if I (try to) do this in front of an audience that is exclusively white?  Alice Saville is helping me write this (I love her) and she sends me an email about the stage and the cinema as spaces where women are inevitably objectified – and if I am to be objectified, I will be objectified as both woman and Black. If I bring the stories of Black women with me, how do I prevent those stories from being objectified too?

But running parallel to this question is a concern that thinking about an audience in terms of black and white gazes dehumanises everybody involved, turning both black and white experience into monoliths, with me (inaccurately) pre-empting audience responses. There still has to be enough information in the show for anyone that spends £10 on a ticket to come along, enjoy it, and understand enough to follow what’s going on. When I do Dark and Lovely, I get a sense of it working on three levels – a level for Black women, a level for Black men, and a third level for everybody else. How am I holding all three of these levels, how am I negotiating all three of these levels of expertise?

No answers, remember? I already warned you.

A Media Diversified article questioned who my show was made for – and whilst a little dismayed that perhaps my show wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do, that it had failed in something that I thought was hugely important – I welcomed the conversation. So much work, so very much, is made for an assumed white audience, almost without realising it. Rarely is this critiqued or thought about – especially amongst white artists – after all, we are always essentially making art for ourselves. If the majority of your artists are white, middle class, male and straight – that’s who most work is going to be skewed towards.

When I first made the show, I wanted to put the whole thing behind a curtain, and my head would just peek out – I had a sense of revealing secrets. More than anything as an artist, I want to feel free to create what I want, to say what I feel needs to be said, to cut off inhibitions, resist forces that tell me not to bring things to light. But I know – especially after something like Exhibit B last year – that this does not come without risk. I always want those risks to remain in the space, to lie in my body. But this is something I cannot guarantee. People bring what they bring to work, and take what they take.

Maybe decentring the white gaze is less about cutting things out because of the response they may or may not elicit from white people, but perhaps more about hitting notes – setting off little chimes in the work, in the hopes that if I was sat in the audience, they would set of a corresponding chime inside me, that I would feel myself seen and acknowledged within the work – which is perhaps all we ever really want from the art we seek out.

Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself this week. I’m rewriting it all in the last week of October – you’ll have to check back with me then. And pray for David, our production manager.

Find out more about Selina Thompson on her website. The national tour of Dark and Lovely runs from 3-28th November, in Newcastle, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Bradford. Full dates here.

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