Exploring resistance through performance, the exhibition Wish You Were Here presents the artist’s interpretations of Aida Overton Walker's legacy.
Contemporary And: Postcards of the cakewalkers such as vaudeville performer Aida Overton Walker (1880–1914) were popular in the early twentieth century, but this has more or less disappeared. Do you see postcards as a vital or quaint form of exchange?
Heather Agyepong: I don’t think it’s either. I love getting postcards. Just the thought of someone thinking of me is lovely. My work is a conversation through time, and the postcard also acts as a symbol of exchange and desire to share parts of our individual presence in time.
C&: The display sizes of your works at the Centre for British Photography are modest. Is that to invite intimacy?
HA: They actually come in two sizes: postcard size and larger. The idea of taking up space during the making of the work felt really important. I wanted Aida’s experience and the intricacies of my own to be detailed, especially with all the iconography in the images. The smaller sizes are to comment on the delicacy of the experience, providing something you treasure.
C&: Overton Walker toured cakewalk performances in the UK, though the dance craze originated in the US. Do you expect Wish You Were Here to have a different, perhaps deeper resonance there?
Heather Agyepong: I would absolutely love it if it toured the US. It was originally meant to debut there but, alas – the pandemic. I’m sure the conversation would be different there. The US was Overton Walker’s home. So hopefully we can find a way to get it there.
C&: Was cakewalking a coded self-celebration by enslaved people, on account of the costumes, pageantry, energetic dancing, and theatricality?
HA: One can only speculate what exactly happened during the time of enslavement. I hope that cakewalking was a dear moment of respite, but I haven’t read any accounts of people experiencing it at the time.
C&: It is hard to believe that slave owners found it amusing that they were being mocked or satirized in an institution where dissent could cost a life. Is this consistent with the research you have done?
HA: From what I’ve read, some enslavers didn’t even realize that they were being mocked by such performances. They assumed the enslaved people were performing some form of whiteness. But different sources each say something slightly different. What I generally love is the act of resistance that has manifested in so many ways through performance – back then and today, within my own community. Signals and signs that only we can understand.
C&: Little is said about the music which accompanied cakewalk dances, although to me the music is synonymous with the dance. Have you considered including musical samples when exhibiting Wish You Were Here?
HA: I haven’t. For me image-making is cathartic, a way of making room for agency. It’s an interesting question how people would have felt about the music that accompanied it when it entered vaudeville spaces. But I’m not attempting a retelling. I’m presenting a re-imagining, using Aida as my inspiration and guide, rather than restaging her work. I’m staging my take on her through my own narratives.
C&: Did you consider filming a performance of your cakewalking, since you’re a practicing film and theater actor? Would this approach be more illustrative of the dance or less so?
HA: Not at all. My acting feels completely different to my visual artwork. And again: I am not attempting to become Aida. I am very much myself and Aida is leading me on the visual journey.
Because there is so much to unpack in the images, we decided to create a video interview [filmed by Piotr Sell] in which I discuss my personal journey and experiences two years after I made the work.
C&: Fifty percent of the sales from your large prints will go back to the charity of the Centre for British Photography, a recently opened private gallery. Is this a requirement for collaborating with the institution? To fund future exhibitions?
HA: Yes, all profits go to the charity and back into new exhibitions, grants, etc.
C&: In some interviews, you discuss the importance of self-care in your life and learning how to rest. Could you share the progress you’ve made?
HA: I am way more gentle with myself, yes. Self-compassion used to be something I cringed at, but I actually really believe in it now. Curiosity about myself has overpowered the fear to reveal. I just own my story more these days.
C&: How does your acting career and photography practice correlate?
HA: I think it makes me more open to vulnerability: the camera doesn’t intimidate me. In fact the gaze of it feels like a challenge. I get to dictate what it sees so there is no violence in the image-making. But it definitely takes time to honor all parts of my creative output.
C&: Your role as Ndudi Okafor in the Amazon Prime series The Power (2023) and your exhibition Wish You Were Here are simultaneously raising your profile as a screen actor and photographer. Do these two practices cross-pollinate?
Questions around power and agency were very much happening for me at the same time I did both projects. Fear played quite a large part in my life at that time. I didn’t know it but I was avoiding pain, embarrassment, and mistakes. I didn’t want to do something wrong. What’s funny is Wish You Were Here totally rejects that. I think both the Anna Mae triptych from the series, which refers to the GIF of Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) in How To Get Away With Murder (2014–20) getting up from a chair and walking off, and the B***h Better image, in reference to singer Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” (2015), have such a fearless spirit to them. In The Power, my character Ndudi has such a transformation and a lot of that was how beautifully she was written in regards to self-love and discovery, but I just changed when I made that show. I remember I used to whine in the mirror before a shoot day, just loving myself and coming on the set and giving it everything. I’m sure both fed into each other in some way.
Sabo Kpade is a culture writer from London.