October is Black History Month (BHM) in the UK, the annual celebration of the history, culture, achievements and contributions of black people across the country. It originally began as a way of remembering important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.
To celebrate, we have been raising the profile of work by our black students, staff and alumni on social media.
We spoke to recent Wimbledon graduates Glory Samjolly and Ruth Badila about their views on Black History Month as well as their cultural influences and artistic identities as black practitioners. Graduating from BA Fine Art Painting and BA Theatre Design, we also asked them about the work they submitted as part of the UAL Graduate Showcase this summer.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Ruth: Black History Month for me represents having a sense of empowerment and pride in what makes me different. It is about inclusion, representation and essentially having a place at the table so we can be seen and heard.
Glory: I don’t agree with confining Black History into a month as it comes to show how marginalised black history is from the general curriculum. It has also been an excuse to box black artists into a small-time frame where we can shine.
As Morgan Freeman stressed, Black History Month should be eradicated, and should rather be celebrated every month. If it is the case that we celebrate our renowned black ancestry in October, what are we celebrating for the remaining 11 months of the year? I keep Black History Month in mind because it is a good platform for supporting upcoming Black artists, however I do feel it has become somewhat of a societal ritual that we all accept rather than question.
How will you be celebrating Black History Month? Are there any events or exhibitions you are particularly looking forward to?
Ruth: Arts SU and the UAL African Caribbean Society (ACS) have a series of Black History Month events which I will be attending online. It think it will be a good opportunity for me and other students to celebrate the richness of black culture at UAL.
Glory: I will be doing the normal things I do all year round. But I am currently exhibiting my work at Central Saint Martins and Notting Hill and considering the restrictions since the pandemic, it has been a good turnout which is something to celebrate.
What is your cultural background and has this had an influence in your art practice?
Glory: My mother is Jamaican and my father is from Sierra-Leone. But I was born and raised in London so I don’t have any emotional or nostalgic attachments to these countries or their cultures within my work. My parents hardly took me and my sisters to their home countries for holidays, and until today I have never visited Africa so I should probably book a flight!
Which black artist inspires you the most?
Glory: Harmonia Rosales, because of her audacious reproach to the construct of white nobility, which often overpowers black nobility in western art history.
Ruth: Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series. She captures really well the fragility of the black women, which I think is more relevant now than ever given the current social climate we are in with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. She is deeply concerned with the constructed image and representation of the black women and the black experience. And I think it highlights the stigma that black women who fight against inequality, sexism, racism, transphobia etc. are strong and don’t need to be protected, but we do.
Can you tell us about your work? What are you showing as part of the UAL Graduate Showcase?
Ruth: My final piece is an adaption of the poem Negative Space by Ron Koertge. It is a short story about a father and son’s relationship depicted metaphorically through the art of packing a suitcase.
They have an interesting complex dynamic that I could relate to in many ways, such as having unspoken taboos in the household. I made a digital model set with costumes and a storyboard to recreate scenes that resonated with me from the poem for the characters in the play.
Glory: I am showcasing 5 of my latest paintings from my series: Dear Archives. My inspiration came from frequent visits into the world of art history. Trips to classical venues, like the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Palace of Portici, Kenwood House and other such attractions spurred my investigation into non-white historical figures, seeing the lack of diversity in European history.
What key message do you hope audiences will take away from seeing your work?
Glory: My paintings don’t respond directly to any specific painting or artist, but rather the colonial diaspora involving a collection of portraiture artists. Replicating their method of image enlargement and using similar lighting techniques has all been necessary in reproaching pro-masculine and racially bias colonial portraiture.
This creative process is a part of my criticism against a genre of art that misrepresents Black people the most. Before a painting of mine reaches its finished form, it requires investigation into my model, and their stance in society.
If you could collaborate with one artist, who would it be and why?
Ruth: Virgil Abloh. It is really amazing seeing what he has accomplished and his unconventional journey into the creative industry. It would be amazing to collaborate and work on a set piece for an installation or for his fashion shows.
Glory: Kara Walker. Because of her popular art mediums, sculpture and installation, and her exploration into plantation life in a unique way, our exhibition would have a good range of art mediums which explore Black femininity. Since I mainly paint on board or canvas, it would be nice to have her sculptures, especially her latest sculpture in the Tate Modern.
How important is diversity, inclusion and representation in the art sector?
Glory: Art, like any other academic subject is timeless and will always be significant in the world we live in, so representation is imperative. Many cultures, from Eastern culture to African culture value art, and the Western world is so diverse, made up of people from all cultural backgrounds, that representing only one particular race in western historical art would be absurd.
How do you consider the relationship between art and social activism?
Glory: Art and social activism are married constructs that feed each other. Ever since the Black Lives Matter protests in May, there has been a massive wave of unforeseen art, combining mask diplomacy and the pandemic situation with racial politics. No other subjects united can seamlessly blend global chaos with racial politics.
We see in 2020 that the mask has a double meaning, and the last words of George Floyd - “I can’t breathe” - perfectly describe our social and political situation. We are forced to wear masks without questioning what it does to our health, an accessory that also reminds black people that we become prey to government enforcement at any time, without questioning police motives or behaviour.
What are your career plans after graduating?
Ruth: Set design is ultimately what I want to do. I’m looking into acquiring more experience in the field whether it be an internship or series of collaboration projects. I’ve learnt so much throughout my degree and I am excited with what I have discovered about myself as a designer. I feel ready to apply the many skills that I’ve acquired in to the field but there is definitely a possibility of me doing an MA later on, too.
Glory: Originally, I just wanted to continue painting and taking commissions, but I was requested by someone to illustrate a children’s book and now I am finding illustration quite fun. I’m also interested in being a part-time gallery representative.
See more of Glory Samjolly and Ruth Badila’s work on the UAL Graduate Showcase
Find out more about BA Theatre Design at Wimbledon College of Arts.
If you are a student at UAL and would like to join a community group that supports young black creatives, Shades of Noir (SoN) is an independent programme which creates physical safe spaces and opportunities for UAL students to have critical and interdisciplinary discussions around curriculum design, representation and pedagogies of social justice.
The African Caribbean Society (ACS) also hosts several monthly events including interactive workshops, industry talks, exhibitions, screenings and socials. You can stay up to date on all UAL ACS activities by following them on Instagram: @ual.acs