Post originally written for AADAT.
Cloud, performed by British-Ghanaian visual artist Larry Achiampong investigates the concept of racial identity while exploring the consequences of ‘othering’ in modern British society. The performance, at London’s Tate Modern begins with the Cloudface character – a mask with a black head and bright red lips – entering the gallery escorted by an anonymous female character towards a space containing paintings and sculptures by Picasso. On arrival, the Cloudface character sits silently in a chair placed against the bare white walls of the gallery for an hour, and again is escorted out of the gallery space by the same anonymous female character. This performance is a continuation of Achiampong’s photo series, ‘Lemme Skull U’ and ‘Glyth’ where he places the Cloudface character on top of photographs of family members in a variety of situations via digital manipulation, erasing them of their identities. Essentially making them faceless with no back-story.
The thing that first strikes the viewer of the photographs and the performance itself is Cloudface’s glaring similarity to the controversial Gollywog figure. In an interview with OkayAfrica, Achiampong states that Cloudface was an extension of seeing the ‘Golly’ character on jars of Robertsons’ Marmalade, a breakfast staple in the UK and US during the 1980s. Its everyday normalness, despite its offensiveness could be seen as an extension to the tense race relations that hung over Britain during the 80s. In a decade that brought riots to many major cities, the New Cross Fire and Swamp 80 with an introduction to racial profiling by police, the overwhelming sense of minorities being ‘othered’ and losing their own sense of self is a narrative that one cannot avoid. As one looks through the ‘Lemme Skull U’ series in particular, we are introduced to that same powerful motif running throughout. Reflecting on his practice, Achiampong states, “work with images that include my family [are] a starting point for telling a story that will open up and become less about the singular moment and more about plural debates.”
The performance of Cloud in a classic gallery setting does indeed lead us to evaluate the current climate of race relations and tensions in the UK today. The performance, simplistic in nature and action, is more than enough to provoke an emotional response. With political parties such as UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) wanting the UK to remove itself from the European Union due to Britain being ‘full’ to figures such as Tommy Robinson (former leader of the English Defence League) gaining more platforms to speak on, the UK risks becoming more inward-looking, more closed, and sadly, more intolerant of diversity. In recent years, perhaps in part due to the economic downturn, immigrants and ethnic minorities have almost taken on a caricature-like figure to many, an ‘other’ that is to be avoided and in some cases, demonised. Adverts sponsored by the Home Office are pasted onto vans imploring asylum seekers to ‘go home’. Far right leaning newspaper articles talk of immigrants abusing the benefits system, when official statistics show that this practice is indeed a rarity, with immigrants paying more in taxes than they take out in benefits. In short, racism – although seen as subtle or even as a non-existent issue by some – still runs through the very fabric of British society today. Achiampong’s work, using a variety of different mediums and techniques, skilfully reinforces the alienation and intolerance many do experience. In a fragile climate where particular groups risk losing their individualism, it also suggests moving against the tide of popular opinion, with the ‘others’ taking ownership of their own personal identity and history.