On a cool evening in October, my sister and I travelled to University of Arts College London in Holborn to see the student-led art exhibition, ‘African Migration’. Advertised as “an array of multidisciplinary works from paintings to installations, addressing themes such as identity, culture, physical and personal journey,” it featured artists Bernard Veyu, Emmanuel Awuni, Shaequan Bell, Rhian Spencer-Noronha, Zeinab Saleh, Eldon Somers, Rochelle White and curator and host Gabriel Choto.
As we walked around the venue we saw pieces varying from photography and portraits to life-like animation, all of which were designed by the artists whose origins span across Africa and the Caribbean. We spoke to Gabriel about the premise behind his event.
“I wanted to get involved in Black History Month and do something I’d never done before, which was host and curate an exhibition. When it comes to my artwork, I’m always looking to overstep my own boundaries,” he explained. By talking to other people of colour at London universities, Gabriel found that many were asking the same question as him: where is the representation in the curriculum for people of colour? The exhibition provided a supportive community for black artists, so they didn’t have to go it alone.
Exhibiting artist Rochelle White displayed an untitled photography piece, featuring food products commonly used in Caribbean, Latin and African cultures. Though born and raised in South London, the bold, bright and luxurious colours used are a homage to her Jamaican background, signifying the displacement she experienced being a part of Western culture as a woman of colour. My sister and I caught up with her for an interview about the exhibition.
gal-dem: How did you get involved in this exhibition?
Rochelle White: I went to Camberwell University of Arts with a few other artists who are in this show. Gabriel Choto reached out to me, saying he was working on something creative and would really love for my work to be in the show. As the theme of the show is African Migration and a lot of my work is about the African diaspora, it fitted really well.
What personal and emotional journey did you go through during the development of your art pieces?
It was mostly birthed out of frustration. I had a strong yearning to re-visit Jamaica. Even though I’ve only been twice, that’s where my family is from and I felt such a connection to the culture and to my roots when I went there. Most people will forge that connection of home through food. It’s like the phrase “soul food” it’s kind of a spiritual connection that we have, and I missed that. In the black community, when visiting friends or relatives you’ll find people gravitate towards the kitchen or the dining room where food is being prepared, it’s always been a big part of our culture. It was this association with home, that I found myself spending time in local food markets where they sell Afro-Caribbean food products, that I became really interested in the packaging and how so much of it is very distinctly Caribbean and so proudly Caribbean. My idea was to take these products and re-contextualise them. Often times, we see them obediently stacked one on top of the other in the food market, waiting to be noticed. I wanted to take it from the shelf and give it attention, give it value and love so we have an opportunity to reconnect with these items we sometimes take for granted.
You’ve taken the boldest colour from the items and made it the backdrop of the frame, it’s very effective and really brings it to life!
Thank you! When I see these items, when I think about them, they are the kinds of colours that come to mind because the vibrancy reminds me of “home”. I see the colours that have such a close connection to this culture, where grey England was slowly becoming such a frustrating place for me to live. Traumatic, at times. My work is a resistance to that feeling. That for me was my escape.
Do you believe being a black British woman affects your status within the arts community?
Absolutely. We deal with a different kind of “Othering”, where we’re often overlooked and underrepresented even in our creativity. A lot of my work is about celebrating Otherness and using it as a strength.
I’m trying to tap into the displacement that I and so many of my peers feel, being a third generation black British woman. My mother always drilled into me, “you’re black British, you’re not English,” and when I’m in Jamaica they call me English, so there’s this in-betweenness that a lot of us carry.
Which print strikes you the most?
You know what, it’s really funny I’m allergic to nuts but I’m really drawn to the peanut punch! That is, like, my baby. I think it is because the box is small and the fact that I can’t have it must be what makes it so appealing to me. Seeing these products in these contexts you’re connecting with them on another level. I don’t know! The regality of the gold tones… it’s very silky and sexy.
In your photography, you explore themes of light and sexuality. Did you project feelings of sexuality into this work?
That’s a really good question. It didn’t begin from a sexual place but as I continued to work I started to put some of that energy into my work. Everything you see was done on purpose. Initially, I let the fabric drop naturally and then tweaked it to the position I wanted it in where the fabric could caress the product. So there’s definitely an interaction between the fabric and the product. I wanted to play around with textures and light as well to infuse the sensual aspect of it.
Was that conscious or subconscious?
Subconscious. When I first realised, I tried to suppress it. But during this process I was also starting to own my own sexuality and so it doesn’t surprise me that some of that energy seeped into the work. It is interesting to me how they influenced each other.
Are there any women of colour in the industry that currently inspire you?
Solange Knowles, obviously! She’s been such a great inspiration she’s just poured so much emotion into everything and I think it’s come at a great time when so many of us are in need of that comfort. On a local scale, there are definitely some who I have take inspiration from, for example BBZ ; they run a party and exhibition for queer folk and women of colour which provides a both safe space and a platform for artists of colour. I also love Abondance Matanda. She’s a poet from London. She just puts her whole heart into her poetry, so authentic and so unapologetically herself. That’s my babes!
What is the next step for Rochelle White?
There are great artists all around me right now and I just want to connect and see what magic we can cook up. Collaboration is so important. I would love to get a creative space that I could call my own, I’m using my bedroom as a studio at the moment. I’m looking for mentor as well! Someone I could grow with artistically. I just want to continue creating.
See some more of Rochelle White’s work here: