Each year, five different areas of art practice are chosen – anything from circus skills, to fine art, furniture design, hip hop dance or sustainable fashion practice. Since 2017, David Collins Studio has sponsored six awards.
The awards are open to anyone living in the UK with three year’s post-educational work behind them. Entrants are nominated by experts in each field, and then assessed by four judges. The winner of each category receives £10,000, while every other artist, designer, writer, musician or maker under consideration receives £1,000.
This year, David Collins Studio has chosen to support the Visual Arts sector. The four women who have been selected as finalists are at different stages in their careers and practice. All create time-based work – moving image, performance, film etc – which delves into the complexities of being part of contemporary society as a black British woman.
Tanoa Sasraku doesn’t make works on paper but works of paper. She also makes films – silent ones which seem to pay homage to Jean Cocteau, Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger; and others which take her to the open countryside. There she is battered by powerful winds – a metaphor of the black British visitor to the country’s rural places, where otherness is more highly amplified than in the city.
“I didn’t know I wasn’t white until I was nine,” says Sasraku, who spent her first few years in Ghana, where her father is from. She later returned to Plymouth with her mother. Her work, then, deals with intersections of her identity – a mixed-race gay young woman, growing up in a predominantly white town in 21st century Britain. (She was born in 1996.
The paper works, which Sasraku started to make at the end of her fine art graduate studies at Goldsmiths in London, are her own version of the Fante flags made by the Asafo tribe in west Africa. The images on them the story of Asafo life under, and resistance to, Colonial rule on the Cape Coast. Hers are created not from textile but layers of newsprint stitched together until they become strong and structured. “I like the idea of taking throwaway materials to make decadent ceremonial objects,” she says. In the 2018 short film Whop, Cawbaby, as she wrestles with a huge flag on the Devon moors, it becomes as deracinated and torn as the artist herself.
Sasraku, however, takes a different role in the silent film O Pierrot. In it she recasts (and plays) the Pierrot as a black protagonist up against Harlequin Jack – a black man in white face whose crazed actions reflect his tortured position in society. While the subject matter is tense, the lush scenography, choreography and costumes reference the history of radical cinema. “I’d like to think I’m creating a new shift in the canon,” says Sasraku. “I was inspired by Get Out, for example, to make black-directed horror and thriller where you can play with the idea of black villainy.”
Sonya Dyer studied fine art at Goldsmith’s in London, and went on to develop an extensive writing career and curatorial career. She has been the curator of Public Programming at Tate Modern and Tate Britain and even last year she organised a conference about decolonising the musueum for the National Portrait Gallery in London. But since 2010, Dyer has privileged her art practice. “I suddenly felt a strong desire to make work again,” she says, and was accepted onto the prestigious Whitney programme in the United States.
Now a resident of Somerset House studios (and a lecturer at Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Art), Dyer says that she is “Interested in the notion of authority and to whom authority is given, and in merging fact and fiction without saying which is which.” This she plays out through performative lecturers, “being on a stage, being the person listened to.”
Dyer’s moving image work refers to this, while sitting at the intersection of speculative fiction and science, where new possibilities for black female subjectivities can be developed. Among her reference points are Nichelle Nichols, the actor who played lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek – one of the show’s most popular characters, though Nichols was only employed as an extra. Also Octavia Butler, the science fiction writer who was rare among her peers as both female and black, and under-appreciated for much of her career.
Dyer’s on-going project, Hailing Frequencies Open, knits together the Andromeda myth, Nichols’s astronaut recruitment activism, and the revelation that the first human materials to be sent to space in 1960 by the Soviet Union came from the body of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman. These became the source of the HeLa cell line (the first immortalized human cell line). Simultaneously Dyer is working on a new piece for the London-based annual Artnight event, working again with the Andromeda myth, African drumming and morse code. “I’m interested in cross-fertilisation,” she says, “and in codes, from the HeLa cells, to morse to drumming.”
A couple of years ago, Rosa-Johan Uddoh (28) carried out a performance at Sarabande, the foundation established with money from the estate of Alexander McQueen to help post-graduate artists and designers. Beside the canal outside the Sarabande building, a group of black and mixed race women made terracotta tiles by bending a slab of clay on their thighs. “There is a lot about how women’s bodies have so often been part of a production line,” says Uddoh. “I wanted to create a situation that was constructive, not exploitative.” The tiles could be used to make a small structure.
In Uddoh’s performances, installations and writings, serious narratives are appetizingly presented with humour and references to popular culture. In 2018, in a performance in the Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries, Uddoh and 2 peers from her (real, but tongue-in-cheek by title) Department of International Dance group appear like the Supremes in front of a pneumatic sculpture by Henry Moore. To the tune of You Keep Me Hanging On, she critiques our national cultural institutions, media and education system from the viewpoint of a young black woman.
Uddoh studied architecture at Cambridge before moving to the Slade to complete a masters in fine art. “I was so excited not to be making buildings,” she says. “Instead I could take anything and turn it into performance or a script – something I could do on my own first and foremost.” Her book “Windrush: the Tongue Twister” begins with the line “Black Britiain before that big bloody boat”. I’m interested in the idea of the rehearsal,” she says, “and the point where you start making words work for you, and to find out what they mean to you. Reading a tongue twister, especially a long-form one, is an endless rehearsal.”
For Uddoh, London – which she defines as a “former colonial centre” – is important as her centre of operations. “We think of colonialism as being done to other people,” she says. “But it has had a huge effect on British culture and people. The legacy happened to us. To live here is not a neutral experience.” And Uddoh is far from being a neutral artist.
When Ayo Akingbade set about making her graduation film at the London College of Communication, things got complicated. She had chosen to work with the lyrics of Street 66, a poem by Lynton Kwesi Johnson about police harassment. “I wrote a script around it, and my tutors thought I was promoting violence,” says Akingbade, who was in fact looking into the words of one of Britian’s most celebrated poets.
Words are important in Akingdade’s work. In Tower XYZ, a film made under the auspices of east London’s Chisenhale Gallery in 2016, she describes the frustration and exhaustion of living in Hackney, her own part of London, as images of wet, empty football fields segue into Dalston’s African fabric shops and her camera moves from the outside of tower blocks into the shiny stainless steel lifts inside.
“The geography and architecture of Hackney are reflections of my sense of identity,” says Akingbade, now 26 and a post-graduate student at the Royal Academy in London. “I like to film where I know. I’m interested in Walter Benjamin and the concept of place.” For a recent sound commission from Common Guild in Scotland, she took her recording equipment to locations loaded with personal meaning. “It’s called Love Letters to E9”, she says. But she has other touchstones. The singer Sade and the artist Frida Kahlo are women whom she frequently references as agents of their own artistic careers.
While Akingbade’s film course at LCC trained her for a career in commercial film-making, it put on a more personal journey, and a desire to investigate a more subjective path. “[The black british artist] Claudette Johnson once said that she started painting because she didn’t see her friends and family being reflected in art at the time,” says Akingbade. This is something she now aims to do in her films.
Caroline Roux is a columnist for The Telegraph and a freelance arts writer and architecture and design specialist.
On Wednesday 27 January 2021 Tanoa Sasraku was announced as a 2021 Fellow of The Arts Foundation Futures Awards.