Performance artist Travis Alabanza talks to The Skinny ahead of their ambitious collaborative exhibition of Black artists The Other'd Artist with Transmission in May
This May, London-based artist and performer Travis Alabanza opens their project The Other'd Artist in Transmission Gallery. Right now, Alabanza is working with a group of Black artists and collaborators to develop an ambitious collaboration that will come just over a year after their first trip to Glasgow last April.
For Alabanza, their first invitation to Glasgow for a performance in Transmission made for a moment of “real parallel.” They describe “being invited up to a space as a Black person then realising there was this whole Black community that already exists and is struggling,” referring to the African Carribean Network Centre, “who were facing eviction and there was no noise about that or anything. So Linda [Stupart] and I really tried to turn that around and use our voice there.”
Soon after, Transmission invited Alabanza to mount a solo show this year. But the same concerns for the existing Black community in Scotland have led Alabanza to greatly expand the project. “I felt very conflicted about a Glasgow and Scottish space responding to a lack of diversity by inviting a London-based Black artist to come up and I felt uncomfortable about how much space there is at Transmission, and that I would be filling that with my voice.”
As a way of considering and deepening these ideas and their sense of the occasion of being invited by Transmission to make an exhibition, Alabanza thinks in particular of concepts of the archive. “How are we being archived? Where will we be in ten years? How do we know we existed and were in these spaces? It’s really an exhibition about archiving ourselves and doing the archiving and us talking about our experiences and them being documented in a space. So for me in short the exhibition’s looking at these experiences of Black artists within the institution and how they navigate those institutions and also wanting to record – I call what Linda and I did a ‘clapback’ – the fact that Black people have [always] been doing clapbacks.”
In the last year, Alabanza describes being invited by different institutions and in many cases declining these opportunities. Out of a sharp awareness for the people that might otherwise be excluded, it is often out of principle that Alabanza will opt for stepping back or creating a means of sharing the space with others. “Unless I have the burning desire to say something, it’s so much more interesting and important to invite multiple people into that conversation. Especially for me, because I’m always brought in as a token and when [that happens] we really limit our conversations around race because I’m constantly trying to clarify that I’m not speaking for everyone. By inviting 20 plus Black artists to the space, we can talk honestly without fear of who we have to represent.”
This process of opening out Transmission to Black artists and voices brings Alabanza to a specific thought about buildings and ownership. “I think a lot about Black people and space and how much our organising could reach another level if we actually owned space.” As a live example of Alabanza’s attempt to transform spaces, through January they were a weekly host at Royal Vauxhall Tavern – a queer space notorious for its whiteness. Now, each Tuesday Alabanza puts together a programme of queer Black artists. “We’ve seen the demographic change from being two Black people in a room to last Tuesday [speaking during January], we had 85% of the room were people of colour. To me I’m interested in that same process of transition in Glasgow. How can we turn the footfall and function of Transmission to a space of Black hangouts.”
It’s for this reason that Alabanza has not programmed artists’ talks to accompany their project. Instead there will be a Black haircare workshop, and a voguing workshop, and other kinds of skillshares. “I want to change the function of the gallery to something that is more accessible and interesting.” The exhibition will also start “quite empty.” After collecting interviews, Alabanza will use them as a soundtrack in the space across several Walkmen. In this way, as they go through Transmission, visitors hear accounts of Black artists within art school and gallery institutions.
Crucially still, as a means of thinking of ways to create a safe and comfortable open space, Alabanza plans on a two or three week period when Transmission will at moments be differently exclusive to certain audiences. So there will be events that “are Black only, maybe Black queers in some only, and I might not be in some of the spaces if we invite Black disabled activists in, as well… Then when we do invite white people in to see it, we’ve already created a space that we feel we own [which is a better strategy than if] I went straight to it and wanted these Black people to come through but haven’t done the work to build safety in the space.”
Some events might not be highly publicised, but rather for smaller audiences of the participants only. They think specifically of an artists’ critique group in Transmission formed of Black artists. “Whenever Black people make work, we always have to think about how it will be consumed by whiteness, so creating work just to be seen by each other… A lot of my Black friends talk about these horrible experiences in crits when loads of people in the room don’t understand their work, so they’re getting basic levels of critique around race.”
This comes close to the heart of the title, The Other’d Artist. “When you exist in Otherness, you’re constantly not relaxed or constantly not at ease which means you can’t really make the work you want to make. The art world survives off of playground cliques that have been now given a bit more age and a lot of money to do it. I think a lot about the awkward Black person in that clique and why they need the clique and if they stay in the clique how are they still surviving in the clique. They’ve probably had to sacrifice not speaking up when so and so said this. It’s about time these people got given the space to create safely."
Alabanza mentions they’ve not been up to Glasgow very many times yet, before giving a sense of the kind of artistic circulation and economy of the area. “Just listening to people’s conversations, there’s a huge art school there that creates a group that then has a show, and there’s the pattern of work that happens in the progression of their art career. And I just always think that Black folk are left out of that, and that goes back to the feeling of being invited by Linda (and Linda and I have spoken about this a lot), that whenever Black folk are put in spaces we’re always the afterthought and not the first thought. We’re brought in after something’s been created because someone’s realised there’s been a mistake. And what would it look like if someone said you’re being invited here because I care about your work and I want to hear your work, make whatever the fuck you want. There’s no pressure here, I just really dig your work and I want people to see your work.”
Alabanza excitingly is still wanting participants, collaborators and conversations with Black artists in Glasgow and wider Scotland. If you are a Scottish Black artist, or a Black artist residing in Scotland, and want to discuss how you can be involved in the exhibition, please contact Travis Alabanza at firstname.lastname@example.org or their website – and send an email introducing yourselves.