Portrait, Q&A

Heather Agyepong: “We want action”

Heather Agyepong WISH YOU WERE HERE (1. LE CAKE-WALK_ ROB THIS ENGLAND) C-Type colour print on Hahnemuhle paper _ 63.5 x 44 cms

Wish You Were Here (Le Cake-Walk: Rob This England). 2020 © Heather Agyepong.

Agyepong discusses her most recent series Wish You Were Here — what drove it, what it signifies, and what it means today

Wish You Were Here, Heather Agyepong’s most recent series acts on many levels: historically and contemporaneously; personally and collectively. It takes the 19th-century American vaudeville performer Aida Overton Walker, known as ‘Queen of the Cake-Walk’ — a pre-Civil War dance performed by slaves on plantations — as its focal point. Agyepong, driven by Overton Walker’s bravery and resilience, reclaims offensive depictions of Cake-Walk dancers from the turn of the 20th century, inserting herself into the frame. The act is significant, for her and others: empowering and reclaiming space for Black women, past and present, discriminated against in the creative industries and outside of them.

But, the work also extends beyond its central subject.

“We want action. We want tangible clear ways you as an individual, or organisation, are dismantling the oppressive structures so many people are affected by — be it mentally, economically, and physically in the art space. This is the whole point of Wish You Were Here,” writes Heather Agyepong — of the work — and the individual and systematic racism which provoked it. Agyepong wrote this statement, which is published in full below, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, US, on 25 May by a police officer who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. The murder is a further fatality of the individual and systemic racism and inequality, which pervade societies worldwide — chronic abuses, which run deep into our past and remain in our present, and which Agyepong’s work, and the work of many others, have actively called attention to far beyond this moment.

“I hope Wish You Were Here, and the life of Overton Walker encourages people to take up all the space they need”

The Cake-Walk, which Overton Walker would revolutionise, and from which Agyepong’s project stems, was conceived of in the mid-19th century by slaves on plantations mocking and mimicking their slave owners and high society. Following emancipation in the Southern United States, the dance grew in popularity and was performed by African Americans to white audiences. At the start of the 20th century Overton Walker reclaimed it: “she reinterpreted the dance into one of elegance, skill and accuracy in her performance in In Dahomey [a landmark 1903 American musical comedy],” explains Agyepong. Overton Walker subsequently became known as the Queen of the Cake-Walk: “Although she was limited in freedoms and expressions, she was very outspoken in how she wanted to be represented,” writes Agyepong, “she challenged the status quo depicting black women as cultural producers and drew attention to the limiting embodiments of her status as a performer.”

However, at the turn of the century, grotesque and offensive postcards of Cake-Walk dancers emerged and circulated across Europe, particularly France, where negrophilia was rife. Taking her lead from Overton Walker, Agyepong reclaims these postcards — transforming them from emblems of oppression and discrimination to those of self-care. They are charged “with a mandate for people of Afro-Caribbean descent to take up space,” writes Agyepong, whose re-imaginings “employ satirical commentary and depictions of radical self-worth in an attempt to disrupt the roadblocks affecting our collective mental health.”

Below, the artist discusses the work — how it came to be, and what it means now.

Heather AGYEPONG, Wish You Were Here (2. Le Cake-Walk_ Razzle Dazzle), 2020 C-Type colour print on Hahnemuhle paper, c. James Hyman
Wish You Were Here (2. Le Cake-Walk: Razzle Dazzle). 2020 © Heather Agyepong.

BJP-online: You answered my questions about Wish You Were Here before the murder of George Floyd. Do you have anything you want to say?

Heather Agyepong: In light of the recent brutal murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the protests happening around the world, and the exposure of institutional racism that pervades the world at large, as a Black British female artist, I am tired of empty gestures and radio silence until #Blacklivesmatter is trending. I am sick of broken promises from cultural institutions, media outlets, and the wider art world — their tokenistic gestures, lip service, and virtue signalling.

We want action. We want tangible clear ways you as an individual, or organisation, are dismantling the oppressive structures so many people are affected by, be it mentally, economically, and physically in the art space. This is the whole point of Wish You Were Here.

If you posted a black square, if you made a statement, if you in any way condemned any of the racism you have witnessed in the last week, you will be held accountable.

RESOURCES — UNDERSTAND. READ. TAKE ACTION. DONATE.

How did you conceive of the idea for Wish You Were Here, which was commissioned by the Hyman Collection? What drew you to the life and story of Aida Overton Walker? Why do you feel it is important to draw attention to her story?

I came across the word Cake-Walk in a script I was reading, googled it, and it blew my mind. I’d heard the phrase and even seen the dance itself. However, I did not know that it originated in slave plantations, where they mocked the dances of their slave owners and were even rewarded for it.

I am really excited about subversion and resistance in marginalised groups so this felt like the starting point for something very interesting. A few days later James Hyman approached me about a potential commission and asked me if I knew what the Cake-Walk was — it was serendipitous! He suggested books, a number of researchers, and had an abundance of 19th-century postcards depicting people posing the Cake-Walk.

I started digging. I often anchor myself on particular women within the themes of my work and we found Aida Overton Walker. She was this incredibly brave and outspoken female activist who was extremely talented and highly critical of the confinement of black womanhood on stage. At the time of making the work I was struck with anxiety — often unable to form sentences without stumbling on my words, judging myself over everyday interactions, and juggling my head between my visual art world and my acting life.

But, Overton Walker’s path felt like part of the work to pick me up, get me on my feet, feeling grounded and being honest about the hoops women, especially black women, have to jump through to survive and thrive within the creative industry. In therapy, they encourage you to expose the lie to see the truth and Overton Walker’s work epitomises that: deconstructing the myth of black life and championing self-acceptance.

Heather AGYEPONG Wish You Were Here diptych (9.1. Le Cake-Walk_ Caucasian Chalk Circle), 2020 C-Type colour print on Hahnemuhle paper, c. James Hyman
Wish You Were Here diptych (9.1. Le Cake-Walk: Caucasian Chalk Circle). 2020 © Heather Agyepong.

“In therapy, they encourage you to expose the lie to see the truth and Overton Walker’s work epitomises that; deconstructing the myth of black life and championing self-acceptance”

Heather AGYEPONG Wish You Were Here diptych (9.2. Le Cake-Walk_ Caucasian Chalk Circle), 2020 C-Type colour print on Hahnemuhle paper, c. James Hyman
Wish You Were Here diptych (9.2. Le Cake-Walk: Caucasian Chalk Circle), 2020 © Heather Agyepong.

In re-imagining postcards of Cake-Walk dancers in a contemporary context, what do you hope to achieve? How does the work’s message extend beyond its immediate subject-matter?

When I first interacted with the postcards they were incredibly jarring. They seemed to reflect the same obsession some European photographers have with taking pictures of black bodies in a very rigid and diagnostic way. A lot of them were highly problematic and lacked agency. Overton Walker’s work as a performer and activist was all about breaking, dismantling and demonstrating the skill and delicacy of her craft, so I wanted to re-imagine and inject the same spirit into this new set of images.

In my experience, people within marginalised communities can often undervalue their work and contributions to the point that they can settle with the idea that it’s just “good to be noticed at all”. I want the images to feel like I could reinstate my power — a taking back or retelling was activated that could be read in my own cultural and social vernacular, like reference imagery from pop culture, gifs, memes and hashtags.

Some of the imagery and phrases are specific to the language of my peers in online and real-life interactions and I wanted to instil a sense of ownership and pride. The work also aims to encourage a sense of care and self-regulation in our daily lives and to be aware of the unhealthy societal forces that say “sleep when you’re dead”.

Heather AGYEPONG Wish You Were Here (3. Le Cake-Walk_ Charmer), 2020, c. James Hyman
Wish You Were Here (3. Le Cake-Walk: Charmer). 2020 © Heather Agyepong.

The series is your most recent body of work. How does it diverge from themes explored within previous projects, and how is it a continuation of them?

I’m apologising for my work less and it’s developing in a way that is more specific to my experiences, rather than it generalising or being driven by the feeling that it needs to speak for everyone.

My work about re-imagination still feels very alive and using women in history to explore the buried facets and versions of myself remains empowering. Looking back has often been the cause of so much pain but with this work, looking back seems to hold a lot of the secrets, and often gifts, which can help me in my present and beyond.

Heather AGYEPONG Wish You Were Here triptych (8.1. Le Cake-Walk_ Anna Mae), 2020 C-Type colour print on Hahnemuhle paper, c. James Hyman
Wish You Were Here triptych (8.1. Le Cake-Walk: Anna Mae). 2020 © Heather Agyepong.

“Looking back has often been the cause of so much pain but with this work, looking back seems to hold a lot of the secrets, and often gifts, which can help me in my present and beyond”

Heather AGYEPONG Wish You Were Here triptych (8.2. Le Cake-Walk_ Anna Mae), 2020 C-Type colour print on Hahnemuhle paper, c. James Hyman
Wish You Were Here triptych (8.2. Le Cake-Walk: Anna Mae), 2020 © Heather Agyepong.

Can you explain about the making of the work? How did you conceive of the various scenes and props?

I had been researching and planning for maybe four to five months. It started with a series of titles to help me categorise my thoughts. A lot of it was about what was concerning me at that time: things like political manipulation, money insecurities, and a lack of self-compassion. I was ruminating on a lot of things, and I wanted to explore these issues, not really to answer them, but, to ask — what would it look like to “put on” that sentence?

The wording on the bottom mirrors that of the original postcards, but they are now my words; they were not assigned by any other gaze than my own. I wanted there to be a lot of iconographies, which would elicit some sort of response unique to the viewer, but which I knew would mean different things to different people.

It felt a bit cheeky, which I loved. I remember going to museums when I was younger and looking at “high art” and thinking this feels utterly inaccessible. The work felt like an exciting opportunity to explore power dynamics.

Heather AGYEPONG Wish You Were Here (6. Le Cake-Walk_ Spotlight on Rest), 2020 C-Type colour print on Hahnemuhle paper, c. James Hyman
Wish You Were Here (6. Le Cake-Walk: Spotlight on Rest). 2020 © Heather Agyepong.

“I was ruminating on a lot of things, and I wanted to explore these issues, not really to answer them, but, to ask — what would it look like to “put on” that sentence?”

Heather AGYEPONG, Wish You Were Here (5. Le Cake-Walk_ F.U.B.U), 2020, C-Type colour print on Hahnemuhle paper, c. James Hyman
Wish You Were Here (5. Le Cake-Walk: F.U.B.U). 2020 © Heather Agyepong.

How do you hope that the series will impact viewers?

Wow, what a question. I guess to have those internal conversations with yourself. Am I valuing myself at this moment? Am I standing up for myself? Do I need to stop? Am I disrespecting myself or my values? I would love people to think about having a more compassionate experience with themselves and especially in spaces or environments that have not historically been welcoming to them. I hope Wish You Were Here, and the life of Overton Walker encourages people to take up all the space they need.

The work is currently on show as part of the exhibition In Sickness and in Health, alongside projects by Anna Fox and Jo Spence. How does the series fit into this exhibition, and how does it sit alongside the other work exhibited?

Jo Spence and Rosy Martin’s work has really inspired my practice. Rosy came into my MA degree class about seven years ago and spoke about the combination of photography and psychoanalysis. It blew my mind. I felt like I had been forming my practice without me really knowing as I had previously studied Applied Psychology for four years. The cathartic nature of image-making really helped me develop my artistic approach, so it feels incredibly special to be in a show with Spence.

Anna Fox’s deeply personal and delicate work from My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words is deeply moving but also allows the viewer to consider complexity; it allows them to have their own individual and unique response to the images. I think all of our work encourages inner dialogue with oneself and encourages us to consider not just the art, but our own lives.

heatheragyepong.com
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Twitter: heatha_a

Heather AGYEPONG Wish You Were Here triptych (8.3. Le Cake-Walk_ Anna Mae), 2020, c. James Hyman
Wish You Were Here triptych (8.3. Le Cake-Walk: Anna Mae). 2020 © Heather Agyepong.



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