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Interview with Rochelle White: Artist-in-Residence

Yasmin Idris was due to curate an exhibition with us at Theatre Peckham prior to Covid-19. While this is on hold, Yasmin interviewed Theatre Peckham’s Artist-in-Residence, Rochelle White in advance of her new project, Blank Canvas

Yasmin is a free-spirited creative powerhouse; a visual artist, [part1] architect, designer, model, creative director and founder of MaybeArt. Her work ranges from digital collages to oil paintings on textiles.
Her love for sci-fi, fantasy, anime and the unknown drive her artistic expression; usually turning to cinematography and music for inspiration, particularly colour palettes.
MaybeArt is Yasmin’s culturally inclusive art practice with an afrofuturism ethos, she aims to change the way visual art is perceived and redefine colonial nuances embedded within Nigerian culture through multidisciplinary Afrofuturism storytelling.
She is currently working on an Afrofuturism project called New Age Matrix (an adaption of the original matrix trilogy), serving as the debut of her unique artistic storytelling method. 

When did you start your residency and has COVID-19 had a major impact on your work?
I started in about February but Covid has definitely impacted my work. I’m an empath so it has affected my mental a bit but I’ve found ways to be positive.

What do you do to take care of your mental health?
Cooking has helped a lot, coming from a Caribbean background. I’ve regularly been making curry goat, even though I call up the family to ask how to make it about 10 times. I haven’t made it a lot before because I went through veggie and pescatarian phases. I’ve also been working out a lot, going for jogs and walks, to make myself feel good physically.

What makes you a multidisciplinary artist? Why do you think it’s important to be a versatile artist in this contemporary age?
Going to a predominantly white university and trying to navigate through that space and finding other things I was interested in allowed me to pick up on different skills and understand different areas critically. Understanding how things work in a different way.

Do you think it’s important for young black artists to try and be more versatile since they’re black?
Don’t try fall into the idea of doing more work because we’re black, we are always taught to double our work and work harder but don’t try to force yourself to do more because you’re black. I don’t agree with doing this.

How hard has it been to navigate through the industry being a black woman?
There are so many different experiences and I felt really frazzled after leaving university. My dad actually got accepted to study at UAL, he wasn’t allowed to go because of the stigma behind being creative (back then) as and it was quite important for me to complete that journey. It was very different feeling like an outsider/invisible and rejected by the industry.

Are your experiences, based on leaving uni and feeling lost, what made you develop EAST?
I did a talk with a poet and ‘babes’, producing culture across the boat, exhibited with them shortly after graduating in 2016. It opened up a whole community of people who were like minded. Hamed Maiye was there and we did dinner, from there we found a name and wanted to be a support system. It really did start over dinner and eat where we can!

How does one join?
Initially there was a sign up sheet, see your bio, send some work and what you’re currently producing. Then we had to really work on out reaching in a more organic way. People just come to talks & email ideas to us and we’re like, okay, if you wanna join just roll with us basically. Just start coming!

We do events and have an inner circle, which is expanding and contracting and moving all the time because people have lives and all doing their own thing. It just kind of flows, we try to do internal dinners, obviously covid has stopped that from happening. We’ve done a lot of potlucks which have happened internally as well as external events with institutions, so we’re just trying to restructure in the shape of what is happening today. We’re definitely always open to people just joining and running projects through east as a platform. We never wanted to be leading, in the sense of not sharing, we never wanted to be very singular about it. We’ve always wanted to be expansive. Again, It’s tough because people have their own lives and stuff but we’ve always been encouraging people to pitch everything. If you wanna do something, cool, if we get an opportunity through that we don’t necessarily have the capacity and we think someone would be really great to lead it we just reach out to our network, so it’s basically just about becoming part of our email network and real life network and then that’s how things just start to grow.

Me:[ I love that, I think that’s so essential for people just coming out of uni & trying to navigate through the art world, when I was just starting out, just last year, I was so nervous to join groups like that because I was so intimidated but as I went on, I realised, it’s not as scary as I thought it would be. it starts when you do join networks like this. I think that’s great.]
It does have to be organic. it’s hard because when you get older you don’t feel like you can go up to people and be like “hey let’s be friends”, when you were younger with no inhibitions, you could do that, it was fine! But social cues and stuff have changed and social media has changed in the way that we interact and get to know each other. So we’re trying to keep it as organic as possible because that’s the way!

So what do you think of social as an artist? I think there are quite a few negatives but I want your opinion and what you think about it!
So I was talking to my friend the other day, Jermaine Robinson, he’s a stylist and he’s just recently done his first cover, we were talking about how things were different back in the day, like how breezy things felt when we were younger and didn’t really care about Instagram. We’d just go out and experiment with clothes, fashion and music or whatever it was. It felt very free because we weren’t always documenting it & weren’t always manicuring ourselves to document ourselves in this perfect way. We would put skits online, just weird pictures and the bloopers. It was less, far less pretence, it would be lovely to return to some version of that. Then Insta started coming through and started getting more serious about career and craft, our Instagrams went through a weird transition of being partly professional but also still having all those skits on there and stuff. The funny stuff. The memes. Then it went all the way to this is now professional, I might have a private Instagram for people I’m close to or close friends for example just to maintain that level of protection. Coming from a Caribbean background, there’s a lot of superstition around just having your face out there so you have to be careful of what we put online in terms of our own personal stuff.

I think it can be a great tool for networking, sharing information, education especially with everything that’s happening now with uprisings & all of the sexual allegations and experiences being sent. It’s been a lot. I think we have to find ways to protect ourselves. That’s been a part of my mental health upkeep as well. Making sure I don’t get lost in a spiral. Even when you craft your own bubble, there’s still sponsored posts that get in the way! There’s an over-saturation of posts.

Do you think more needs to be done to teach black women to market themselves in the art industry?
I’ve got friends who have loads of followers, at one point I was concerned about it & think about how I could do that. Went onto google to see how I could; you have to post everyday, having to use certain hashtags, follow certain people & it’s a lot of strategy & I’m personally not very concerned about that. I have friends who’d tell me to get it together, there’s a lot of money to be made online & exposure that could be good for you. I just have to stay true to myself.

In terms of marketing yourself as black women, there are a lot of influencers & shaping the way we interact and engage. There’s a lot of potential & it depends on how you as a black woman feel about it.

Do you feel like you’d just rather focus that energy on your art?
Yeah that’s what it’s always been for me as an artist. As a black woman, we’re commodities; in media, music, it spans so much, in literature & the resistance to that pressure has been a part of who I am, not feeling like I have to post a picture that is expected of me. I don’t want it to be taken out of context, I’ll always champion the bad bs on Insta but for me, it’s more about making and figuring out what I want to be in the world and how I want to produce in the world too. If I had a burner account I’d probably be doing more but it’s not really ‘on brand’, whether you like it or not there is a brand! It’s about striking the balance between that. Being quite a private person, I don’t want to be out there too much. I’ve also heard people say you won’t really be taken seriously as an artist if you have your face out there as much.

Me: [I was speaking with an artist who gave me a documentary to watch about the art industry & he was speaking about whether I’d be interested in having more of an online presence or more interested in museums; you can’t really have both]
The rules don’t really make sense, they’re dictated by beneficiaries of white supremacy to be honest. We’ll always be chasing if we’re trying to adhere to those rules. At the same time money needs to be made! It’s hard, a constant battle.

I’ve seen instances where people haven’t been called to do more ‘highbrow’ work because they’ve worked with this brand, their face is out there too much or they’re considered too mainstream. It gets confused but it’s up to you to navigate & talk with people. Again, this is where a support system comes in handy, speaking to other black women from various fields and broaden your insight. The more knowledge you have on how people move and how you could move could be useful or blocking it out and doing your own thing!!

How important do you think it is for black artists to contribute to the narrative that we’re not a monolith?
It is important. There’s no one way to be black. It’s hard as a black artist, at times, treading the lines of being coined as a black artist and making everything black! Doing the most & trying to overcompensate because you’re a black artist. When you don’t have to do that, simply being black and an artist means your work is valid enough.

Also recognising all the beauty in the nuances of being black rather than flattening out all of our experiences as a singular narrative. Even when it comes to “we’re all African, we’re all brothers and sisters” and I think that flattens out all our beautiful experiences that are to be shared. Of course we are. Saying that is kind of redundant, we all have our experiences, whether you’re from content, from the Caribbean, diaspora, living in the states, in Brazil, Australia, the U.K. we all have our experiences so trying to flatten that in one singular narrative of blackness is a no from me!

That’s the great thing about black artists who are creating and don’t feel like they have to play into this painful narrative. There’s a lot of joy in blackness too. I think that needs to be shared more.

We need to stop the ‘wakandification’ of Africa.

How do you explore spirituality and consumption in your work?
I grew up Pentecostal church, going to church 5 days a week, it was intense. I lived with my grandparents a while, we used to go every Sunday sometimes during the week. I guess it’s pretty embedded in my understanding of my family and where I come from and who I am. I’ve also done a lot of to unpack that, unravel it a little bit and become more spiritual. The good thing is I’ve got parents who are kind of rebellious in that aspect, dubbed as black sheep’s as being more creative, writing poetry that critically questions the things they were being taught. For those reasons, there was already somewhat of a radical foundation which allowed me to be more open minded about spirituality and other religions. I’d definitely say I’m more spiritual than religious which is connected to holistic health and mental health.

I’ve often looked into colonial legacies of the white Jesus that was sitting in every West Indians home. I used to see that as a kid and think what? Jesus couldn’t have been white, if was supposed to be from Jerusalem/Bethlehem, surely he couldn’t be a white man with blue eyes. Makes no sense. I started to do more reading and understand colonialism, as I got older, I started to think about what was there before. What kind of practices were around before, started to get interested in Santeria, Ifa and all these different religions. I started to do a bit of research and I was very interested into how these practices were also embedded into folklore and oral histories. That’s the point where my work comes in, even looking at some of the items and objects that are used in the West Indian home & the connection they have to spirituality. I did a project in uni about superstition, looking into objects like a comb, which in some cases would relate to mami wata, all these kind of symbolisms. Fruit and food & the symbolism that has to religion and spirituality – offerings those sort of things. Some of my installation work, I featured in the group show with my friend, Hamed Maiye who runs EAST as well, I did a piece called ‘Alter’. It features some work from some film work I did called ‘Brother Bill’ about my grandad. It had a bible, other pieces, which mapped out a spiritual journey.

I describe a lot of my work as thought processes because they all feed into each other. Even though one work may have felt resolved it will show itself up in another piece which I find interesting. Looking at the essential tools of being a West Indian Christian is what’s been interesting to me as well. For me personally, I’m far more interested in that narrative of my own; crystals, praying in the morning, working out, group prayers with family – those kind of practices, those are personal things I do. That’s kind of tied to me feeling whole as a person, trying to reach a more conscious understanding of life. I don’t want to be preachy about it which is why I’m more interested in the history of it.

Do you think black artists/creatives owe it to our culture to give back to communities? A lot of people who ‘make it’ tend to not want to look back. Do you think it’s important for us to help those who are trying to make it too?
Yeah absolutely! The fact there’s only a select few who make it out, so to speak, there’s a problem with that. Wealth needs to be redistributed, in a proportionate way. I think if you are someone’s who’s got resources, capital, education, if you have money…share it! Otherwise what’s the point in you winning if everyone else is living the way the oppressed live.

How are you able to explore culture in your work? Do you take personal experiences or look at other people’s stories? How do you find inspiration?
Definitely my own experiences, I’m invested in the experiences of black women; cis and trans, interested in our nuances and the things that we’ve experienced. That we connect on, that resonate with one another. Those are the things that fuel a lot of the work I make. For instance, using roadworks as an example, a documented performance piece, I walked with my trainers behind my feet and I was trudging on this journey. It became a lament for people who’ve lost their lives, to institution, the system, particularly for black women who are hyper visible but invisible at the same time; a very unique experience for us that I wanted to explore.

In some ways, I was invisible on that journey people kind of wrote me off and others were invested to say, are you okay, are you good? There’s loads of different aspects of our lives that I’m interested in exploring and magnifying, similarly to something I’m working on now which is about language and oral histories, how those sounds and linguistic symbolism have been used as tools of resistance – in church when people are speaking tongues is a deeply spiritual thing and in jazz when people are scatting, I’m interested in exploring that in a wider diaspora scale. I’m informed by our collective experiences and honing in on the nuances of those.

Tell me more about this particular project with Theatre Peckham.
I’m now a newly qualified secondary school teacher. Education has become something that’s very important to me, especially through EAST. Having done this course, this training enables EAST to be stronger. The week with Theatre Peckham is a perfect bridge as I’ve been out of the game with covid, finding a way to still connect, share resources and information that I have. Whilst also bringing in two amazing artists I have admired for years, that’s a really great opportunity to explore that. I’m looking forward to it. Excited.

What do you hope to achieve with this project?
I hope that the young people can find a bit more understanding about how they can see themselves within the arts. Growing up as a young black person, I didn’t see myself much in the arts, that’s reinforced by galleries, media, who you see on the walls and who you see as staff. I just want to let young people know that “you have a place here”, we’re working on it. We’re trying to make sure you feel comfortable in these spaces and that you know how to navigate these spaces. I know they’re a little younger because at 14 you might not be sure, at 18 you might not be as sure. I can help to give some information about the art world, about how they can use their craft as a tool to navigate this world, to explore emotions, experiences, to explore thoughts. Art can be a great outlet for that, also this builds community! They’re getting to know other young people who are interested in visual arts as well as meeting people who are a bit more seasoned, even though I’m still a baby girl in this! I would’ve enjoyed this when I was younger, meeting older black artists who are doing it.

Do you have a particular art style and is this something you’d want to teach during the workshops or do you have a particular style that makes you unique?
Me being at a place that fuses art and education. There’s a lot of critical theory that goes into it, there’s the practice side of it because i have exhibited, worked with institutions, I have navigated for a good few years, I don’t think it makes me unique but I hope that this platform could be a nice bridge to help these young people infuse these things together. Also exploring installation, excited to what young people are working on, where their heads are at and their creativity.