In 2016 London-based artist, archivist, and curator Ajamu and New York and Los Angeles-based artist, educator, and organizer Pato Hebert collaborated on a series of activities at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. On July 16, they presented an illustrated conversation as the main plenary at the “Action + Access” Pre-Conference for gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. The talk, entitled, “We Liked the Way He Moved”, featured imagery from both artists’ archives and discussed the role that memory, creativity, and storytelling have played in the formation of queer communities during the time of AIDS.
Their talk also addressed two seminal figures — photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode and oral historian Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, whose efforts have much to teach us in relationship to migration, cultural production, pleasure, and world making. (An edited version of their conversation appears here on ArtsEverywhere later this summer as the second installment in the series.)
From 18-21 July, Ajamu ran a pop-up portrait studio inside of an activist networking zone at the International AIDS Conference. He and Pato engaged community organizers, activists, and advocates from around the world who are leaders in the response to HIV and the expansion of human rights in their countries and regions. Portraits from these exchanges are featured on ArtsEverywhere, along with a third conversation between Ajamu and Pato that reflects on their collaboration and experience at the International AIDS Conference.
The following conversation took place via Skype on 28 June, 2016.
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Pato Herbert: You are just finishing up a conference in London, no?
Ajamu: Yes, I was on the steering committee of the Without Borders Conference of the LGBTQ+ Archives, Libraries, Museums & Special Collections. The conference is ten years old. My talk was called, “Archival Dirt: The Politics of Pleasure and Black Queer Archiving”. I gave an overview of why the rukus! Black LGBTQ Archive came into being, and that was mainly around a lot of your black social and cultural history, in terms of the UK. Black social and cultural history rarely include LGBT, and the wider LGBTQ community rarely include race and ethnicity. And a lot of the work around black queer experiences is based around a deficit model, so then my work as the co-founder of the rukus! Black LGBTQ Archive is to rethink what an archive is, to develop a counter-narrative. My main argument is not what an archive is, but rather what it is that we want our queer archive to do. That means that our archive has got to do something for us, it has to have an affect and that thing that I think it is doing is called pleasure. Part of my thinking is based on Lordean erotics — Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, in which she talks about how the erotic is not just connected to the body and sexuality, but it’s a bridge toward the political, the cultural and the spiritual. For me, a lot of the work around queer archives is around identity politics, and we don’t really hear things around emotions or feelings around our archiving work. So if archiving is about caring for our materials, caring for the past, touching the past, somehow the notion of embodiment, sensuousness comes into that frame of reference.
P When we met in New York in the spring, you were on a residency with Visual AIDS.
A Yes, I was on residency for four weeks at Visual AIDS, researching their archive and creating 14 new portraits, 14 interviews with artists, activists, cultural producers — African-American, Asian-American, some were trans, cisgender, gender non-binary. I was in dialogue with people around archival activism. Part of my four weeks was also to be in dialogue around my photography practice and work as an archive curator. The final event was called “Suitcase Under the Bed”, which was a public gathering and workshop whereby we invited people to come and share things that they’ve kept in relation to their identity, sexuality and gender. About 30 people turned up, cross-age groups. It was great to hear people’s personal testimonies.
P rukus! has been established for 16 years and you’ve been working for at least a couple of decades in London, and the UK more broadly. What was your interest in coming to New York?
A During the late 1980s and through the 90s, there was always this trans-Atlantic dialogue between North American [black] experience and the black British experience. I think that kind of fell by the wayside. While I think there are a lot people talking in cyberspace and chat rooms, there are very few spaces where we meet face to face to have those dialogues. So for me it was then about keeping those dialogues open, just to understand the thought processes of the artists I was coming across for the first time. Out of the people I was photographing, I only knew Darnell Moore. So it’s about how we can create new kinds of dialogues.
P How did you find your way to folks if 13 of them were new to you?
A Alex Fialho, who works at Visual AIDS, made the connections for me. I met people such as Kia Labeija, Alok Vaid-Menon, Seyi Adebanjo, Martez Smith, Tiona McClodden, and others such writer and producer Seven King, who created a web series called Eden’s Garden, which was about black trans men. We’d recently become Facebook buddies. Also Jamal Lewis, who is working on a film called No Fats, No Femmes. I had come across their films and sent them a message saying, “Look, I’m gonna be around, let’s just meet up and see what happens.” That’s how I linked into those spaces, and then came across other people for the first time. Alex, the Visual AIDS team and Residency Unlimited also put things in place for me and were an amazing group of people to work with.
P You were especially focused on young activists in New York City?
A Yes, most were under the age of 35. That is linked to a project I did in 2013 called Fierce: Portraits of Young Black LGBTQ People. I wanted to get a sense of what the shifts and changes were in how people identify themselves, and talk about sexuality, gender. There’s a lot of work that’s been done around HIV and AIDS focusing on the 1980s, so I really wanted to get a sense of where some of the young people are now, given a slight distance from that period but also what then are the threads and themes that are still continuing.
P I’m curious about the HIV piece within that, and how it is or isn’t a focus in the work of the activists you spoke with. How that shapes their sense of queerness in this moment? And how queerness is larger than HIV, obviously?
A Yes. A lot of the dialogues were also around people’s perspectives about HIV and how that fits into a wider dialogue around poverty, politics and the lack of spaces. So even though the archive is specific around art and HIV work, which in the UK are seen as separate, I also wanted to create living archives, so that archives are not seen as these cold, dusty places where things go to die; archives can be a place where things go to live as well. Archives are not just things that we go to; we also bring archives with us. So it’s about how we can break down these binaries around artists and activists, archivists being non-archivists, that’s what I’m interested in.
P It risks re-inscribing these false divisions, but I’m curious how your practice as an artist — as a photographer but also as somebody who is interested in story and narrative, body and desire — how does your work shape the kinds of creative archives and communities that you are creating with others?
A My practice is there to create all kinds of conversations. Those dialogues then crisscross each other, so my art practice and my archival work are not separate. Because it’s still around creating these stories from a black British queer experience, which is still missing within the wider dialogue around the diaspora. So my work is about carving out that space.
P How did that mixing that was happening during your time in New York — the deepening of what you’ve been doing and also holding it in relationship to communities of color in New York City —impact your thinking and practice?
A The residency only just happened in April, so I think it may be too soon for me to talk about how it might impact on my practice. I think for me it’s about how I’m able to have dialogue with lots of groups of people, who are not necessarily people I would include in my work. For me, that was one of the exciting things, talking with sitters who are outside of my usual practice. Listening to other people’s stories and narratives, and getting a sense of the things that we have in common, and the things that are different in terms of where we are located.
P Yes, naming these echoes and also the differences. Place shapes us differently. Our chosen, cultural and familial histories shape us differently and yet we are living in this shared moment.
A We are in a shared moment. But I’ve just done a project, Through a Queer Lens: Portraits of Jewish LGBT People. My thinking is that there are lots of artists, activists doing amazing work in their own communities. It’s very rare that we work across communities. Usually it’s when we are having friction with other communities. Friction can be generative. However, I am interested in how we speak to, and with, and create across communities. For me New York was about having a different dialogue with a group of artists and activists who were celebrating their narratives, their experiences. That for me is far more exciting, because we also spent a lot of time laughing, and being playful. Sometimes as activists or archivists, we might spend a lot of time in our own heads, so the kinds of dialogues we want to have we’re not hearing. So when we do get to meet one another, we start talking very, very quickly just to do that kind of connection. The conversations offline were just as enriching as the ones that ended up online. And sometimes these things are really hard to articulate because there is so much going on in that moment that you cannot always unravel it to speak about it, because much of it is about the affect in that moment. It does something to me that I cannot always articulate literally. So maybe we have to find other ways to say the things that we want to say that might not be verbal.
P I think that’s why the image becomes important. The body is active through those images, but also the body in space and with one another — you sitting with an individual or a group of people, and what then happens, spoken and unspoken. Spoken through language but also spoken with the body. You spoke earlier about emotions and feelings, and that might be pleasure, that might be playfulness, that might be a sense of soulful sharing of shit we’ve been through. There’s a whole bunch of ways there might be resonance. How to have a living archive, which is perhaps to say a way of living together, that embraces all of that, rather than suppressing or repressing it?
A It is around how we create our archives as living, breathing, nourishing, celebratory and aspirational, without being locked into an oppression-based narrative. How do we create spaces where we can give testimony? How do we create spaces where we commune? Whether it’s in an archive, whether it’s in a night club, whether it’s in a sauna, whether it’s that cruising out on the street, how do we create these spaces that are not always able to be pinned down and fixed neither? Usually these spaces are quite ephemeral, they’re very fleeting as well. So how can I hold that moment to talk, to share around our politics? When I have used the word “politic”, I’m not talking about a politic that is devoid of intimacy and pleasure, which are essential as well.
P These were the kinds of ideas that made me eager to collaborate with you in some way. I wasn’t even sure how, but I felt our practices were synergistic even as they were different. I was excited to have this series of conversations with you. This is our first, leading up to the International AIDS Conference that happens in mid-July in Durban, South Africa. This conference happens every two years and is a space where the global AIDS community comes together to talk about the state of the epidemic and the response. The conferences can tend to be public health and science heavy, but there is also a strong community and activist presence. Less so artistic, though there are always artists present of course, but it’s really not a conversation that’s looking at expression, aesthetics, creative politics, or imagination in relationship to HIV. So as someone who has been engaged in this work for quite a long time, I’m always interested in how to give creativity presence and not have these false divisions as you said earlier.
A Also, when I think about some of the people we lost during the early days of the AIDS crisis, there were so many artists, so many creatives. We need to keep the artists in the frame. That’s why an arts practice around archival work is very important, and that we continue to tell the stories of Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs — there’s a whole team of people who were cultural producers that we’ve lost along the way so we also need to keep their memories alive as well.
P Agreed. It’s why this combination of the living archive, the living memory holding questions of history and the past in relationship to the present cum future is how we’ve been imagining our upcoming time together in Durban. At every International AIDS Conference since 2008, the Global Forum on MSM & HIV holds a Pre-Conference focusing on gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. It’s a space where folks can come together to talk about the issues that are too often absent or silenced or disregarded in other parts of the conference. At this year’s Pre-Conference you and I are going to have a plenary conversation entitled “We Like the Way He Moved”. We plan to discuss our practices and the archive, a couple of particular people we have lost that are important to our histories, and how these engagements shape our work going forward. Of course we’ll also show some images. Then throughout the ensuing week of the conference, there’s an activist space for gay men and allies. We’re mounting an exhibition of your works, entitled Portraits and Praxis, and you’ll be running a pop-up studio in that space. I wonder if you can say a little bit about what excites you or terrifies you about presenting your portraiture and living archive practice inside of this chaotic, dynamic activist zone?
A I am terrified! And I’m also excited as well. The pop-up studio is a way to engage some of the people who are there. It’s about having dialogues with people that I might not otherwise come across. How do we constantly create spaces to speak and be heard? I remember some of the early conferences I went to in London, and they were always resistant to having artists be part of those spaces because artists’ work was not seen as connected to policy creating. Artists have always been dismissed. So for me it’s about being in a space where your artists have a right to be there as well.
P What are some of the ways that you think artists shape policy?
A That is difficult. Over the years, some of the HIV groups have done cultural events. More often than not, HIV workshops were all about trainings, passive knowledge. But then a few of the groups used to do some more cultural type of events, which was a way of shaping HIV work. So there’s more than one template. There’s more than one way to do this kind of work. I’ve found that if you do events that are more culturally focused, then you bring out people who would not otherwise be in those spaces. But these kinds of events are still too few and far between. So we get stuck with this demarcation line between the artists on one side and those who create the trench policy on another side.
P I appreciate your naming and critiquing of passive knowledge approaches, versus active knowledge, knowledge in formation, knowledge that we co-create together. It’s what excites me about your living archive practice and the upcoming pop-up studio in Durban, and for you to be part and parcel of this activist milieu. It’s your milieu too, and even though the specific context of a giant International AIDS Conference spectacle may not have been the main roost you’ve operated in, the crosscurrents are quite similar. Given that today we’re speaking less than a week after the historic ‘Brexit’ vote, I can’t help but think about this idea of passive and active knowledges, and how we think together through decisions that can really shift the course of history.
A Over the next two years, we’ll get a better sense of what the ‘Brexit’ really means. However, I still think that the danger of the conversation is that it will continue to revolve around a binary question. There are so many more layers. The UK can never totally leave Europe because there are so many things intertwined already. And it depends on where you are positioned in relationship to who makes the decisions. Irrespective of whether it’s in or out, or both of those things, things will not improve for some people. My concern will always be around your working class, things around poverty, migration, people who’ve caught hell when the UK was in, and who will now catch more hell now that the UK is out. It’s more complex than either in or out. It’s more both/and. That’s where it will sit. People forget it’s a power play between rich white boys who went to school together. As a black, queer artist, I don’t have the luxury of exiting Europe. We still have to talk with people of color from around the world, wherever they are.
P Yes. I’m thinking of the huge erosion of progress that was evidenced at the High Level Meeting around the 2016 Political Declaration on Ending AIDS, recently held in early June at the United Nations in New York. We saw very real backtracking from so many governments around the world on supporting key populations and the communities and people who are most impacted by HIV. But the one thing that has kept me energized coming out of that otherwise deeply discouraging process is that our coalitions are even more strongly coordinated, linking the local, regional and global and the very key populations that HIV funding streams and discourses and power plays have worked perniciously to divide at best, and silence and make invisible at worst. We are more organized than ever, and this kind of collaboration and coalition politics is very encouraging. It is also crucial, because if ‘Brexit’ is evidencing massive tectonic dynamics through a European lens, and a British lens in particular, a similar thing is happening around the question of how HIV resources and participation or exclusion are going to play out over the next decade. So there’s a huge battle underway about whether and how donors will continue to invest. There’s so much knowledge and wisdom at community level about how to respond to HIV. We’re more than three decades into building that knowledge base and practice, and it’s really lack of political will and resources that continues to fuel the disease. There is a major debate about who is going to lay claim to the direction of the work, and in ways that are not overly simplistic or binaristic, to your earlier point. So ‘Brexit’ and the weak Political Declaration on Ending AIDS are not unrelated I think, which is why I’m so excited to keep pushing these ideas forward with you and all of the other activists and artists that we’ll engage In Durban.