Features Published 18 January 2019

Brownton Abbey

Tarik Elmoutawakil, creative producer at Brighton's Marlborough Theatre, talks about creating a space for artists who identify with being disabled, queer, trans and non-binary people of colour.
Colin Hambrook

Lasana Shabazz performing as part of Brownton Abby. Photograph: Victor Frankowski

Brownton Abbey is an Afro-futurist performance party of intersectional identities, where queer, trans and disabled people of colour lead the narrative, born initially from the idea of flipping power structures to create a world in which queer people of colour are at the centre, as opposed to the fringes.  In this piece, Tarik Elmoutawakil, Creative Producer at the Marlborough, talks about the project’s aim to diversify queer interdisciplinary live art and performance-based theatre. As told to Colin Hambrook, editor of Disability Arts Online.

“I’d been encouraging my people of colour (POC) friends to move to Brighton and I found spending time with other people of colour was healing and led to some profound realisations. What began as a joke – that Brighton would soon be known as Brownton – became a catalyst for a project. We all took on titles and found something powerful in the act of naming ourselves. Although I had been making art for many years, I realised that I could take power and name myself as an artist, rather than wait for someone else to name me.

And so Brownton Abbey was conceived of as an event that challenges discrimination, opening up opportunities for artists who identify with being disabled, queer, trans and non-binary people of colour. Key to the ideas behind the project is that it should be challenging without there being labour put on the people who are discriminated against. Often when we talk about people who are marginalised or work that is made by marginalised people it requires us to declare our humanity – to prove ourselves. I bleed like you do. It is exhausting to continually remind people that you are human. We should have moved past that.

I didn’t want the event to require people to have to explain themselves. Instead we get to exist in our fullest, authentic form and we get to take up space and to be our incredible selves. It is a space where we can be beautiful and divine and silly and vulnerable and deep and powerful. We can be ugly and messy in that too if we want to be. It’s about being all the different ways we can be without constraint.

Audience Member (Sea Sharpe) at Brownton Abby. Photograph: Victor Frankowski

Brownton Abbey is also about challenging the notion that often when we think about marginalisation we do that in silos. We think about disabled people or we think about black people or we think about queer people and rarely do we think we can be all of those things. It’s challenging that by allowing us to be multiple forms and to create a space in which we are centring ourselves.

I have been making performance as an alien for 10 years, but it was during a period of reflection following a mental breakdown – that in some part came about because I found myself trying to fit myself into power structures that felt oppressive – that I began to understand why the concept of being an alien was so attractive to me. I was deciding what kind of alien I would be. It made sense that Brownton would have aliens in it, but equally I didn’t want to impose my own afro-futuristic vision on others. What I enjoy about afro-futurism as a genre is that it allows us to name ourselves to create our own back stories on how we came to be in the space church that is Brownton Abbey.

It might just be that it includes aliens or people from different dimensions or it might be just that there is a person in a costume pretending to be an alien to make a point about racism. We are all going to have our own way to get to that point. There is room for everyone in whatever way we want to exist in this world and we get to name that ourselves. Through centring queer people of colour and disabled people we are acknowledging that there are reasons why we have to make this space, without us having to explain them. From that position we can then invite others into the space.

What I wanted to do with Brownton Abbey was to create a space that acknowledges trauma, but rather than focusing on trauma in the moment it recognises it and moves past that trauma. People who are ‘minoritised’ can be made to feel small by the structures that exist in a white patriarchal world. So one of the main inspirations was to attest to the fact that that we absolutely do exist.

To date there have been two public outings of Brownton Abbey – one in Brighton Festival which had the artists Ria Hartley, Marikiscrycrycry, Lasana Shabazz, Rachael Young and Big Freedia involved. They are all artists I had worked with before – chosen for their commitment to engaging with diversity in a more complex and nuanced way than you’d usually get. What I really enjoyed about the work that all the artists we got involved with make is that their first thought isn’t their white audience. They are not trying to explain their humanity to people who may not see them as humans.

When I asked these particular artists to make work with us, part of the vision for what we wanted them to create was the idea of creating something ritualistic. Marikiscrycrycry burst on to the dance floor with the opening piece of the night, a beautiful ritual, experimental in the use of video and sound and made specifically for QTIPOCS.

Ria Hartley created a sacred interactive installation called the Breathing Space, appearing as an intergalactic shaman. Ria had researched Yoruba breathing techniques to create an Afrofuturistic ritual in which a small audience were taken on a beautiful journey that engaged all the senses, using breathing techniques to raise energy levels.”

Rachael Young’s Nightclubbing channelled the power of Grace Jones to explore notions of freedom and bravery, in a piece about when black people are too black for gay spaces and too gay for black spaces

Rachael Young performing as part of Brownton Abby. Photograph: Victor Frankowski

Lasana Shabazz’s costume was incredible, incorporating lots of black leather, feathers and a gold mask. They express a lot of power, energy and fabulousness even when the subject matter is dark – mirroring elements of the Black Panther movie in this instance.

Big Freedia – the New Orleans ‘Queen of Bounce’ was the one non-UK-based artist known for their work with Beyonce and Drake – who was a big draw to pull people to come to the Dome from far and wide.

Brownton Abbey deliberately presents itself as a space church and plays with themes around creativity and spirituality. It is about recognising the sacred moment within dance, movement and ritual. We wanted to connect with our own interpretations of spirituality. A lot of us have either been pushed out or have been told that our cultures don’t want us. I was told that Islam doesn’t like gays. I wasn’t told that a lot of the ways in which homophobia has been radicalised comes as a direct result of colonialism. So many countries that have anti-gay laws are ones in which British colonial governments made those laws in the first place. While we are celebrating Trinidad & Tobago having decriminalised gay sex, there is still no information about where those laws came from.

What I loved about this event is that it was radically inclusive. Some parts of the Brownton Abbey project are radically exclusive and I believe both have validity. In practicality there are always barriers – but to be radically inclusive means to get to the heart of what the barriers are and seek to remove them. It wasn’t a perfectly accessible event, but I believe we are always setting ourselves targets we can work towards. We had a BSL interpreter who was always on the stage who was also a person of colour. We found out too late that the dance floor was not wheelchair accessible – but we’ve learnt from that and it will always be the first question we ask in future.

Other ways in which it was radically inclusive, we made sure that there were no financial barriers to people of colour. Brighton Dome employed a Pay it Forward Scheme and I had tickets put aside specifically to pull queer POC people in.

We worked with local queer POC who were hosts for the space. Their instruction was to get dressed up in costumes made for the occasion and to literally to take up space – to enjoy themselves. There were similarities with the fabrics chosen so they could be seen as of one tribe – but with elements of their own individuality and self-expression with choice in how to put on these layers. As soon as the audience came in they were met by a group of people looking amazing having a good time wearing extravagant costumes. And in that way, we set the tone and created a certain energy. People immediately felt something different was happening and that there was an invitation for everybody to enjoy our space.

We also designed wraparound activities – workshops that were radically exclusive. We wanted to help build resilience and create a space where QTIPOCS could find each other and heal each other in the process of building this big adventure. We had three workshops one in clowning, another based on ancestral constellations – a form of divination and embodiment practice – and a third encompassing Haitian Voodoo Dance ritual.

Practices that traditionally come from Africa and Asia are often taught by white people to white people – so it was lovely to have something that was genuine and for ourselves. The workshop facilitators were also people of colour – so the whole thing was based on the idea that we can do this for ourselves. The workshops played a part in preparing us for the event.

I wanted the people who were hosting the occasion to have an opportunity for their own healing and self-development prior to this big event. I wanted people to feel they had ample time to bond and recognise each other before going into a larger space. At the main event POC were still in a minority – but the difference was that those of us present didn’t feel ‘minoritised’.

In September we created the Brownton Abbey Bless Bar at the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre. It was a mini-version in comparison to the Dome. We had a smaller budget and it was clear from the start that the space was not going to be as palatial, but I liked the idea that we would be working more closely with a disabled audience – and that we had an opportunity to work with more disabled artists. That inclusive offer is vital to the integrity of the project and so I was pleased that there were a lot more disabled people present. I enjoyed having more visibly disabled hosts taking up space as well. We had a fantastic collaboration with Ebony Rose Dark – a queer black visually impaired dance artist – that involved video projection from Daniel Braithwaite-Shirley.

Brownton Abbey is not a specific touring group of people but is a continually evolving and growing group of people who are finding each other through our space church. As the Brownton Abbey collective evolves so I am wary of who is interested and for what purpose. What I don’t want is for our unique life experience to be turned into a tick-box exercise. I want to protect the value we have and ensure we are not used tokenistically.”

Brownton Abbey will be appearing as part of Toronto’s Cripping the Arts on 26 January – again with support from Unlimited, delivered by Shape and Artsadmin – before embarking on a UK tour.

This piece is published in partnership with Disability Arts Online.


Colin Hambrook

Colin Hambrook is editor of disabilityarts.online