6 July 2021
Amber Ablett’s solo exhibition Rehearsal For A Change Gonna Come was on view at UKS in February – March 2021. In conjunction with the show, UKS’ former Curatorial Assistant Nicole Rafiki together with Director Miriam Wistreich, interviewed the artist about the process of making the exhibition, as well as her learnings from the process and the exhibition’s meeting with the public eye. Enjoy!
UKS: The text for your UKS exhibition begins with the question: “How should a bi-racial person with light skin express themselves regarding racial oppression—a struggle that doesn’t have their face on it?” Could you tell us a bit about this question?
Amber Ablett: I think that the need to ask this question is very telling. It reveals how constructed race is and the importance our society places on skin color. It also points to some of the internal conflicts of being bi-racial, a subject that I am exploring bodily within the video work in the exhibition.
Colorism goes hand in hand with racism, and when racist attitudes can be disguised as a critique of different cultures, colorism reveals this as a lie. Colorism acknowledges the prejudice that is solely based on the color of your skin: as humans, we are visual animals, and this often registers first, before you hear someone speak or know where they come from. It boils down to the fact that our society is easier to navigate the lighter your skin tone is—I’ve certainly experienced this to be true as an Irish/Caribbean mixed-race woman compared to others who have the same cultural background as me but with a darker skin tone, even within my own family. It is also true for the majority of people of color we see in the public eye: those with lighter skin and more European features are more accepted into the dominant racial identity.
This means that, although racism has affected and disrupted my life, having a lighter skin tone comes with a lot of privileges. It means that I don’t experience racism as intensely or violently as some others and offers easier access to spaces that are majority white. It often means that people feel more comfortable expressing racist attitudes in front of me. Both of these give light-skinned, bi-racial people a unique position in the conversation with white people about racism. So, colorism was at the heart of this question: how a bi-racial person with light skin should express themselves regarding racial oppression.
UKS: What have you learned through the process of making the work for the exhibition and how would you answer that question now?
AA: In my exhibition at UKS I approached it on a very personal level with answers I still stand by, and with a theory or experiment that I wanted to test out.
One of these answers, for both bi-racial people with a light skin tone and those with the dominant racial identity, is to simply listen and learn from others without centering our own experience. This answer frames both the sound and video installation and the workshops in the exhibition. The installation was a way of sharing five people’s expressions at the same time: the three young performers (Damien Cooke, Destiney Brooks, and Xavian Lewis), Sam Cooke (whose 1964 song “A Change Is Gonna Come” was recorded by the performers as home videos on their cellphones), and myself. Just as the three teenagers looked back to a 60-year-old song, I wanted to look forward and learn from those younger than me. While making the triptych video work, I was listening through my body as well as to their tone and the lyrics.
The theory I wanted to explore was personal and internal, about finding validity in my own feelings and finding my own voice. I am interested in how physical gesture and posture can affect inner feelings (which also links to gestalt therapy and the workshops). Through inhabiting other people’s physical expressions of their feelings, I was looking to find comfort in the anger, frustration, and hope that I feel. Making the videos often felt very awkward and embarrassing, just like karaoke, but like all types of learning about ourselves, I found that some things fitted, and some felt unnatural.
The video work didn’t eclipse the original singers, their voices, or expressions—I thought of it like a duet, or a YouTube tutorial, simultaneously learning and showing solidarity. There is often an expectation on bi-racial people to “choose a side,” and most often our society does that for us, based on the color of our skin. I was interested in navigating the space between, which is also the space of both, and how this allows me to both support my community and speak to a majority-white art audience.
UKS: How did you come to the formal realization of the three-channel video and sound work that made up the sculptural, sonic, and film elements of the show?
AA: I see the artwork as both the act of learning the gestures and as the formalized installation showing this process. I worked closely with artist and filmmaker David Alrek to film and edit the video work where we used the shots and cuts to reflect the repetitive process of learning and getting into the characters of the three performers, and to somehow reflect the confusion and tireless attempts at navigating between different parts of ourselves.
The installation at UKS recreated how the film was made, in a darkened empty space with a mirrored wall where I watched myself beneath the projections to copy the actions. This was a way of inviting the audience into the process, sharing my research and attempt with them.
I wanted the space to feel both lonely and overwhelming which was mostly reflected in the sound. The three videos were initially taken from YouTube where they were performed with backing tracks which I removed as I wanted to focus on the singers’ voices. As the tracks were also slowed down, this increased the melancholy tone of the song but also its hopeful yearning. Across the large exhibition space, the three voices, repeating and overlapping each other and calling from different sides of the room, pulled viewers in different directions.
UKS: The second work in the exhibition was a series of workshops. How did this come about?
AA: Workshops and gatherings are really important in my practice. I see art as a space for shared thinking, so by inviting gestalt therapist Vikram Kolmannskog to work with me and facilitate the workshop—to which we invited Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to discuss and explore the state of in-between—we were able to make space for this as part of the exhibition. It was an important decision to dedicate an entire room to the workshop, even when nothing was going on, instead of just hosting them in the archive room at UKS. I wanted the room to act as an invitation to ask questions for those who visited but did not take part in the workshops. It was also a way of taking up space in a majority white art field: in the workshops, we weren’t talking about racist structures as an academic discussion, we were reflecting together, though individually, on what it means as a Black, indigenous, or person of color to navigate our lives within a dominant racial identity.
I chose to reach out to a gestalt practitioner as there are clear, though unintentional, similarities between my practice and the gestalt school of thought. In particular, the use of physical placement as a tool to investigate inner feelings, for example through polarity exercises, which acknowledge the many conflicting parts of our identity. Kolmannskog also has a mixed cultural background, so the workshop developed out of our many conversations starting from personal experience. We continue to talk and think together and plan to continue investigating these questions as a collaborative project.
UKS: There’s some reluctance to address issues of race and racism in Norway. What do you find are the obstacles in talking about those subjects? Do you have any thoughts on how we might open up the subject and start talking more freely?
AA: A successful tool for upholding racist structures in Norway is to claim that they only exist in the US and that they are only perpetuated by racists. People of color are made to be aware of what a huge role racism plays in shaping our society, education, and institutions. Racial violence does not only happen in the US and the UK, you just have to listen to those around you to hear first-hand experience of police violence toward Black bodies in Norway. As people of color, we know that tackling racism in Norway is urgent—we cannot afford to teach another generation of young people that there is one rule if you are white and one rule if you are BIPOC.
As those with the dominant racial identity, white people have a duty to take racism seriously. They have the most power in numbers to hold our systems and structures to account. By doing nothing, and by downplaying the experiences of people in our country, white people uphold the structures that continue to unfairly benefit them.
A first step would be to take racism seriously. Another would be to remove ego from discussions. We aren’t talking about individuals or racists: all of our actions are informed by the society we live in and were brought up in, and that society is biased towards white people. Understanding the systems that enable racism to survive can help prevent conversations from being side-tracked by white fragility or guilt. As Vikram Kolmannskog says, “When we’re not so caught up in individualism, real exploration and change becomes possible.”
At the same time, I am wary of how much space is given to academic discussions of racism and colonialism in the art world, and when this happens without any action this is a way of creating distance. We know academia and research are slow-moving beasts, and that this is urgent. As well as talking about structures, I think there should be more space for emotion in these discussions and an understanding that it can be painful for Black, indigenous and people of color to have to describe their experiences of oppression or violence: it cannot always be spoken of unemotionally when racism leaves tangible marks on bodies and minds.
It’s similar to the #metoo movement: the demand is on those who have suffered sexual assault, abuse and harassment to share their stories, and not on perpetrators to acknowledge their mistakes (I don’t know how that would have worked, #ihave?). It would help if we could start to see all the ways that white supremacy benefits us, as well as acknowledging how it destroys the lives of others.
I see the aim of being anti-racist as a steppingstone to dismantling the racist structures in our society and that as a steppingstone to all people being able to experience life as fully human. White supremacy and racism also limit those with white racial identity, meaning that no one living under white supremacy can be fully human. To quote author Ta-Nehisi Coates, “race is the child of racism, not the father.” Race was constructed to legitimize the treatment of humans like livestock. Race is a child of capitalism. Viewing white supremacy as a common enemy can also enable white people to see the personal value in dismantling our racist structures.
Talking about racism will never get easier; to be anti-racist means to unlearn everything we have been told about the way society functions, and then learn whole new ways of seeing the world. It will be uncomfortable—I suggest we start getting used to that.