The curator tells C& about an exhibition of Rosa-Johan Uddoh’s films, libraries as exhibition spaces, and Britain’s colonial legacy.
Contemporary And: What are the origins of Rosa-Johan Uddoh’s body of work for her exhibition Pink Tongue, Brown Cheek at the Institute of International Visual Arts (iniva) in London?
Tobi Alexandra Falade: Rosa-Johan Uddoh was awarded the Stuart Hall Library Artist’s Residency by iniva and the Stuart Hall Foundation in 2020. It offers visual artists the opportunity to develop their practice by excavating ideas contained within the library, using Stuart Hall’s writing as a starting point for her residency. Uddoh’s residency took place during lockdown, and she found ways to engage with its collections online even though she wasn’t physically present in the library.
C&: Hall has a wealth of writings to his name. How did Uddoh decide where to starting when engaging with his work?
TAF: Uddoh found Hall’s lectures on cultural theory and identity very relevant to her research around performance and popular culture, and how our identities are formed through and around that relationship. As a result of her research around Hall’s essential 1993 essay “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” Uddoh developed a tongue twister, which is featured in the video work Practice Makes Perfect (2020). A range of other works made before and after her residency is also shown in the library. The piece And I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids (2020) was created in collaboration with the Art Assassins, a creative forum for young people at the South London Gallery, during lockdown.
C&: What were the key decisions you took when curating the viewing and listening experience of Pink Tongue, Brown Cheek?
TAF: Uddoh’s works are displayed on screens around the Stuart Hall Library. Exhibiting videos within a library environment felt sacrilegious. Uddoh was especially interested in showing them in a space that is supposed to be quiet in order to read or study, an environment in which knowledge can be acquired, disseminated, and developed.
At the reception you are greeted by a TV stand with a series of three works titled Performing Whitness (2019), in which Uddoh performs as a news presenter. In other parts of the library such as the reading desks, we placed smaller monitors to show And I would’ve gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling kids! (2020). We wanted to spread them evenly throughout the library space, giving visitors room to watch the twenty-three minute film. Uddoh and I also positioned a monitor embedded within a bookshelf in the study room to show Black Poirot (2018–2021), a longer film with great musicality and soundscapes. We placed Brown Paper Envelope Test (2021) on a monitor between the narrow aisles of the bookstacks to surprise library visitors.
C&: What qualities of Uddoh’s work are you specifically drawn to?
TAF: The curatorial team at iniva and I had many conversations with Uddoh. We spoke about the physicality of the library as an exhibition space, as well as the themes, formats, and questions raised within Uddoh’s works. As a curator I was drawn to her practice because of the ideas she explores, such as colonialism, tokenism, and performance. Her use of performance as a tool for storytelling throughout her work has changed how I view performance art.
C&: At what point of Uddoh’s production did you start working together?
TAF: I visited Uddoh’s exhibition Practice Makes Perfect in December 2021 at the Bluecoat in Liverpool, where my family lives. Uddoh then sent us a portfolio of her work, and I watched all the videos to select those which I felt spoke to each other and revolved around ideas of performance, the creation of personas, and Blackness.
C&: Humor appears to be a key ingredient in Uddoh’s work. Is this a deliberate strategy?
TAF: I was especially drawn to Brown Paper Envelope Test because of the humor Uddoh creates around “passing”, which has many meanings. I was specifically interested in the idea of people “officially” being classified as members of certain racial groups, and how the color of our skins changes our experiences of life. This highlighted how unique Black experiences are, and how narratives of Blackness should be nuanced as well. In my opinion, Uddoh’s use of humor highlights the very serious themes within her work, capturing audiences and allowing them to think about these ideas in a new way.
C&: Another of Uddoh’s strategies is deploying cartoon characters as avatars. How effective is this device in her works?
TAF: Uddoh refers to popular culture a lot within her work. One work relates to objects in the Northcote Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge and explores colonialism, separation, and their legacies. The collection comprises objects taken from southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone by Northcote Thomas during his expeditions as a British colonial anthropologist between 1909 and 1915. On arrival in Britain, the objects sat in their crates for around a hundred years. By using cartoon characters like Scooby Doo and riffing on the popular Scooby Doo refrain, “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!,” Uddoh and the Art Assassins examine colonialism in a way that doesn’t allow our pre-existing feelings or ideas to influence us. New thoughts about the topic can be formed.
Rosa-Johan Uddoh: Pink Tongue, Brown Cheek was on view atInstitute of International Visual Arts, London, United Kingdom from 18 Jan 2022 – 01 Apr 2022.
Sabo Kpade is a culture writer from London.
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