Points of Refusal: Camara Taylor on their new show

Camara Taylor is a prolific programmer, writer and practising artist, and one of the most active critics of poor representation within cultural institutions in Glasgow.

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 30 Oct 2017

Camara Taylor will present their first solo show at Many Studios at the end of this month.  Their independent visual artistic practice is one part of their involvement as a Glasgow-based artist, programmer and facilitator. In our meeting with Taylor, one month ahead of the show, they share the surprising and insightful results of their extensive research practices. In addition, they give insight into the difficulties and tolls of experiencing and actively criticising institutional racism on a daily basis.

Taylor initially began the research for the exhibition with a postcard that depicted the limbo dance in Barbados. “It began as a ritual performed at wakes in Trinidad. [But it would] start low and dancers would gradually go higher, replicating cycles of rebirth and reincarnation.” The different forms that this dance has taken through time included forms that related to the movement of slaves on slave ships and how they would move to enter the hold – “the phrase ‘being bent like a spider’ came up a lot.”

In one recent video work, Taylor likens the contorted limbo shape to the strained position of Black women and gender non-conforming as “bridge”. It was then that adapting and survival practices took hold as a central organising theme for the exhibition, through thinking about the relation of the movement of the body and people and the book This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Colour. Taylor describes one of the theses of this book: “the position of Black women and women of colour [is] that they always have to be this ‘in between’ between black men and men of colour and white people, and refuting that, refuting erasures and articulating life at the intersections (of race, gender, sexuality).”

At this point, parallel research interests began to meet as Taylor was “thinking around the body and movement in respect to refusal and the navigation of survival practices in relation to the photography studio.” This brought together the limbo research with Taylor’s work as part of another research project about Black presences in Glasgow. Of particular importance was an encounter with the history of Frederick Douglass who led a campaign called Send Back the Money directed at the Free Church of Scotland. This Church “travelled around the US raising money, and accepting money from plantation owners. It became a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement in Scotland. There’s a rumour he scratched 'Send Back the Money' into Arthur’s Seat.”

It was one part of Douglass’ biography in particular that informed parts of Taylor’s upcoming exhibition. “He was the most photographed 19th-century American, he always made a point of having his portrait taken as a way to refute the other representations of Black people at the time.” It’s this history that has led Taylor to looking at the photography studio and photography more generally as on the one hand, “completely tied up in colonialism and imperialism.” But they also think too of the ways “people have tried to flip that, or use the tools of the camera to push other representations of Blackness in a wider sphere.”

On this note, Taylor recalls a powerful encounter with the work of acclaimed artist Arthur Jafa. After accidentally queuing half-an-hour for the Grayson Perry show at one of the two Serpentine Galleries in London, Taylor describes being “stuck” on one particular image. It was a screenshot of a FaceTime conversation, with a literal note of caution written on top of it: 'if you point a camera at a Black person, on a psychoanalytic level it functions as a White gaze... It doesn't matter if a Black person is behind the camera or not'.

More specifically, Taylor describes the technical adroitness that’s necessary in order to represent Black skin tones faithfully with current standards of available technology. On this topic, they point to Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line. Despite never buying make-up, Taylor describes the excitement they felt personally, and that was shared widely when the Fenty Beauty line was launched, and straight away included 40 shades of foundation. “Perhaps it’s a testament to thirst for there to be more [products and technology] created by us that are for us.” On the more general influence and impact of Rihanna’s music and performances and the anxiety, racism and sexism with which they are responded, Taylor cites with unqualified approval Doreen St Felix’ 2015 Pitchfork article The Prosperity Gospel of Rihanna on her message of material liberation.

A twin suspicion of, and potential for subversion of photography form part of the rationale for Taylor’s photography studio-themed installation within the exhibition space of Many Studios. One part of the work will be a photographic backdrop, which features in a corresponding video work, and a different area that will be clad in blackout fabric and includes an overexposed, entirely black photographic print.

“I’ve always understood that one of the ways that Blackness and Black people are spoken of is in terms of excess, being too loud, too dark, too much, while at the same time being invisible.” Taylor thus considers “the contradiction of being both hypervisible and invisible at the same time.” They also think of this in terms of the way that the colour black is made in the darkroom “through an excess or overload of light” and how it contradicts certain colour theories that blackness is an absence of light.

The exhibition also includes a sound work collaboration between Taylor and the DJ and promoter Sarra Wild who founded OH141, Glasgow based platform, club night and radio show. Taylor and Wild’s soundscape brings together their shared ideas about survival, and particularly in relation to music. However, while Taylor comes to music more often from reading about then listening to a musician, they think of Wild as being able to combine both a research-based and practical knowledge of music and sound technology as leading figure of some of the most exciting club nights in Glasgow and the organisation, Grassroots Glasgow. Their free workshops, events and nights intend to improve representation of women, POC and LGBTQ+ identifying individuals in the electronic music scene across music venues and organisations.

One particular element of audio comes from a BBC documentary The Street, a three-episode series from 2014. In one episode, the busker Melo was interviewed on Sauchiehall Street. As he’s being interviewed, “two white men come over and verbally abuse him and try to fight him.” In the video, Taylor identifies different modes of practising self-defense. “It’s different to most of the things you see of this kind because, for one, he’s still alive and death wasn’t the endpoint of this encounter. Throughout the video, he turns insults back onto the abusers, and these clips of Melo speaking are excerpted and included in the audio work alongside full songs of resistances and other collaged elements.

Taylor speaks about the work as in process, and is clear that the opening date has been changed, following “continuous fatigue”. Taylor classifies this tiredness and exhaustion as an important context for the work, the show (and its postponement), setting it within axes of obligation, marginalisation and institutional racism. Taylor relates as one example their experience of studying in Glasgow School of Art. In their year group for Fine Art, they were one of three or four black people. Students of colour would then also leave the city immediately after graduating – or frequently before, without finishing their degree.

“There’s this idea that the city can’t or won’t hold us.” Countering this for Taylor involves making it known that, “We’re here, and if we want to we can fight for a space for ourselves, and navigate that in a way that goes beyond tokenistic inclusion or a version or inclusion or representation that only serves hegemony.”

One of the most dominating parts of Taylor’s experience of Glasgow since graduating has been their role on the Transmission Committee. Taylor describes spending a month or two as the only person of colour before asking for that to change. Since that point, the committee and programming has become visibly pivoted on issues of institutional exclusion and in particular questions of race, sexuality and gender.

At the same time, Taylor speaks of an identifiable trend of “institutions looking at a wider variety of practices.” They go on to sound a note of caution. “I know enough of exhibition histories to be aware that this has happened before, and I’m trying to figure how there can be longevity in place of these discrete moments that are peaks, followed by a trough of silence.”

Flourish by Camara Taylor, The Gallow Gate, Many Studios, until 3 Dec