Alien Nation - white girl black girl
I have finally read the essay: Shut up and write! Art, citizenship and what it means to be “an African writer” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was published in the New Statesman 11-17 January 2019 issue and it is wonderful. Full of snippets of wisdom that clarified things that I have found difficult to verbalise. Things that I continuously try to unpick and then run away from, scared that I might be interpreted wrongly.
Adichie quotes Proust who wrote that a book (art) is a product of different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices and she adds that the two selves are not entirely disconnected:-
Still, artists are also citizens. It would be dishonest to suggest that our art were entirely disconnected from our lives as members of a community …. Our art is shaped by where we come from.
My early memories of the house where I grew up are of a living room with a big window at the front and the back, as typifies most Dutch houses. We had curtains that we never closed, allowing people on the outside to see in and through. A copy of Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Melkmeisje’ on our wall.
When it turned dark outside the windows turned into mirrors and we saw ourselves how others saw us, changing over time like Rembrandt’s self portraits. It’s always been a statement of Dutch households - ‘we have nothing to hide’ so anyone who closed their curtains was considered as ‘outsider’.
My father was in the Royal Dutch Navy and travelled often and far. He brought back presents: a porcelain teaset from China, so delicate that my mother put it in a cupboard never to be used; the latest Nintendo handheld computer games from America; tall thin African or Caribbean statues that cast their long shadows on our parquet floor at sunset.
When I was an art student I began to look in more depth at the 16th C interior paintings by Vermeer and his contemporaries. I removed the human figures from these interiors and then filled in the background with small sections of the surroundings of the paintings.
That empty space was never just an empty space. By removing the human figures your were left with an interior that reflected our gaze, revealing how it surveyed, controlled and oppressed its inhabitants. Much like those windows of my childhood home.
On a Monday morning, not far from my studio here in Sheffield, there is a little market, nestled in between charity shops and bargain stores. It sells all sorts of things, old and new. People who go there look for bargains. It is a diverse community that haggles over the price of things that are already cheap. There is a retired train driver who now buys small wooden carvings on e-bay and polishes them up and sells them for a few pounds. They are African looking carvings but maybe they are not from Africa, there is no provenance to them, he doesn’t know who owned them before or who made them. They are definitely not mass produced and appear to be hand carved. At some point my parents must have put their statues up in our loft, and then threw them away when they moved house? No longer treasured objects to be shown off. Reduced in value, once exotic but suddenly uncool to live in our front room.
I bought a few of the carvings from that train driver. One is face of an African woman with a high forehead, plump lips and empty eyes. I painted the face of Vermeer’s ‘Girl with pearl earring over the top of it. It looks strange, uncomfortable.
Adichie states in her essay; it’s what I come from and from what I can’t disconnect. She explains how she navigates that tricky area of being claimed as ‘one of us’ (as in ‘African writer’), feeling like ‘one of them’ (sharing in their pride) and yet knowing that this isn’t entirely true.
Exelic Dilemma is what Brian Daines, artist in the same studio building calls it - is that what it means? To feel that you don’t belong in either place? You have left somewhere, you have moved on and yet you still are of that place, made from it, formed by it but you’ve evolved. It doesn’t mean you don’t want to belong to it anymore - you miss it, you long for it - but inside you known it isn’t really where you are anymore.