By Elena K. Cruz
Adelaide Damoah’s body remained rooted to the ground as audience members pressed scissors against her traditional Ghanaian funeral dress. The Black British Female Artist Collective founding member opened her palms and stared forwards as chunks of fabric fell to the floor. Damoah’s blood-coloured torso revealed itself.
The only noise in the packed, humid room came from the snip of scissors on cloth. The viewers remained silent, entranced by Damoah’s power, until all that remained of her dress was a tattered rag hanging limply from her shoulders. Then Damoah unlocked her gaze, lay on the ground and used her entire body to leave red imprints on pages of directional manuals by colonisers of Ghana.
Damoah had just finished reading excerpts from these texts before performing this section of the powerful work, Into the Mind of the Coloniser, at Open Space’s Forum: Of Hosts and Guests on 28 March. She vocalised the inhuman treatment of Ghanaians during the 19th century. She exposed racism and colonialism in a moving performance.
In the audience sat artist and BBFA Collective founder Enam Gbewonyo, and at the end of the performance, she cheered with clamour and pride alongside the crowd’s neverending sea of applause.
Gbewonyo supported Damoah during this exhibition, and Damoah has done the same for Gbewonyo. They are two of the four members of BBFA Collective, a group that combines their versatile artistic visions to increase representation in the visual arts.
Individually, the creatives in the BBFA Collective are talented. Together, they enact change. Black British woman artists are dynamic and imaginative, the collective announces, and they deserve to be recognised. The collective’s members will make sure they are.
Gbewonyo makes multimedia textiles by hand to transfer spiritual, kinetic energy into her pieces in a way machinemade products do not. Founding member Ayesha Feisal turns human emotions into tangible images through paintings that connect mentality and manifestation. Damoah makes paintings and performance pieces with her body as her tool. Founding member Carleen de Sozer creates street art throughout London that increases the visibility of agent black people.
The group impacts its members, its viewers, upcoming generations of artists. It has impacted Gbewonyo’s artistic path so much that when finding the words to explain it, she takes a few beats to speak. “Wow,” she manages to say. Then she laughs. “Oh my goodness.”
“It’s an amazing support system, it really is,” she continues. “It can be really difficult, just as a woman and then as a black woman, to try to navigate the art world, and there are a lot of issues that we come across. It’s just nice to have that support system of women who understand and appreciate and help you stay positive.”
Initially, Gbewonyo formed the BBFA Collective in 2015, so women could create an exhibition that presented their diverse skills. “The idea really changed me because, as a black woman artist myself, I found it really difficult to find the right places to exhibit, and I just really found it difficult navigating the art world,” Gbewonyo says in a soft voice that reflects her disappointment.
Gbewonyo wanted to connect artists who have faced similar challenges, so they could find empowerment together. She created the collective and invited women to join through an open call on social media. Feisal was one of the many who responded with enthusiasm.
“Enam reached out to me and the other artists, many who I had heard of but I’d not actually met, and it was through the collective that we met for the first time,” Feisal says. Her work connects institutional expectations with the ability to escape societal limitations. The collective’s goals matched her own. “It was actually great to be a part of that and to actually have a support network in place.”
The group first exhibited at the African and African-Caribbean Design Diaspora festival, and it was after this show that BBFA Collective’s purpose began to develop. It became more than just about exhibitions and career advancement in 2016, although that remains an important piece as well.
Today, BBFA focuses on several key themes: advancing diverse art history education, increasing global outreach through cross-cultural exchanges, making space for black woman artists from the diaspora and increasing the group’s financial model so it can sustain women through time. Simultaneously, artists put on their own exhibitions such as Damoah’s performance about colonialisation in Ghana.
“By coming together, collaborating and having that power in numbers, I’ve seen the positive impacts,” Feisal says.
Black women have been left out of the Western art canon for centuries. As of February 2019, the Public Library of Science reported that 85 percent of artists in US museums are white, and 87 percent are men. White women make up about 10 percent of artists, and black women fill only 1 percent of museum walls. In Britain, the Turner Prize had existed for 33 years before a black woman, Lubaina Himid, won it in 2017. Just look at an art history textbook and compare the number of black artists to white. Black women continue to face inequality, which has persisted for centuries.
The BBFA Collective members support each other in a system that does not. The artists collaborate, have group critiques and connect their networks. They use their strength in unity to dismantle institutional barriers and pronounce themselves as the visible, talented artists they are. By coming together, they grow. They push boundaries. They help other women do the same.
Such was the case in 2017 when the BBFA Collective traveled to Ghana to meet with three local artists. In collaboration with the Nubuke Foundation in Accra, they talked about the similarities and differences they had experienced as black woman artists from different countries. Then, they put together an exhibition for the annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival.
“It was such an enriching experience also for our practice because we had never worked in such a collaborative way in such a short space of time,” Gbewonyo says.
BBFA also increased its global output when working with Adidas in 2018. The members delivered talks and performed and created art at the company’s events in America and Germany.
Still, while increasing their global outreach, BBFA Collective maintains its focus on the important work to do at home. Black British women encounter specific institutional and historical barriers that come apparent when traversing the art world. The collective acknowledges these complex experiences and brings women together to overcome the roadblocks.
“Being from the diaspora, being a British artist, yes we’re born in the UK, but at the same time we have African heritage, and our ethnic roots are not in the UK,” Feisal says. “I would describe myself as British, as a black British female and this is my home, but then at the same time there are other experiences, and they’re shared. It helps to have that peer support and especially when you’re still trying to forge your way as a professional, you’re still trying to establish yourself.”
The Western art scene currently accepts a narrow expectation of black art. “For artists of the diaspora, it can be difficult to navigate because the expectation is that our work must have a certain aesthetic, which a lot of African art does because the dialogue in the Western art world is very much set around what art by black artists should look like,” Gbewonyo says, “and obviously a lot of us don’t make work that would fit that aesthetic.”
Gbewonyo will discuss the effects of the diaspora at London’s WISH Africa Expo in June as one of her many upcoming projects with BBFA Collective. The members of the collective will have solo shows at the Tafeta Gallery in 2019 and 2020, and they will continue having art critiques, communication and opportunities to educate younger artists.
Individually, each artist has also been moving her career forward. Gbewonyo performed agbegbɔgbɔ, meaning breath of life or life force, at the Henry Moore Institute in February. It responded to and created a cross-pollination of Native American and African healing practices while symbolising human endurance.
At the end of 2018, de Sozer exhibited in the group show Black to the Future about Afrofuturism and its connections to Southampton. Feisal participated in the House of African Art inaugural exhibition The Next Wave: The Power of Authenticity and Self-Validation 21 to 26 March. This show celebrated pride for artists and African cultures without needing external validation from institutions.
This month, Damoah is using performance at multiple shows to confront realities of sexual harassment and Ghana’s colonial history. She also had the solo show Genesis in 2018. It included the piece If unity is not a good thing, look at the black ants as they form a straight line.
“I feel like wanting to learn from some of the artists from the ’80s like Lubaina Himid and Claudette Johnson and Sonia Boyce who have all traversed these challenges,” Gbewonyo says.
Gbewonyo says that when the the 1990s hit, the era of the Young British Artists, institutions left black artists behind as if they were simply a trend. Gbewonyo wants the collective to create a self-sustaining environment that doesn’t rely on institutions. That way, when institutions’s “diversity drives” dry up, she and other black woman artists will continue making and sharing work in front of the public.
The artists are working today to improve the landscape for black British woman artists. In the collective’s four years of life, it has expanded the visibility of black woman artists in Britain and around the globe. The members have aided one another’s work, led artist talks and collaborated with companies and people.
BBFA Collective tells the world that black British women’s voices are valid. They tell the world through performances, textiles, street art, paintings and collaboration that they won’t stop creating until their voices are heard.