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Photography by Bernice Mulenga

Photos that take you back to dancefloor memories with friends

Bernice Mulenga talks about Between Me & You, their first solo exhibition at Home by Ronan McKenzie.

03 Feb

Capturing candid moments of black British joy, Bernice Mulenga’s work takes you back to sweating on the dancefloor, revelry with friends, and rare moments where we lose our inhibitions and feel connected. 

The London-based photographer’s solo show Between Me & You opened on 27 January at Home by Ronan Mckenzie, an intentionally curated space that highlights black womxn and non-binary artists through group and solo shows, as well as providing space to work, read about art and literature and meet other black artists. 

Having known Bernice for some years, following their creative career has been extremely exciting to observe as well as be part of. We spoke about their background, creative process, inspirations and future plans – including film production, more collaboration and maybe a photography book. In true Bernice fashion, themes of the work in the solo exhibition range from love, relationships and queer nightlife but are all encompassed within togetherness and intimacy.

gal-dem: What has the process of creating new work over the last two years during the pandemic been like for you?

Bernice Mulenga: Over the last two years, I took a long break for personal reasons. I was also feeling a little bit forgotten. I felt like people only wanted to have me involved in projects that involve queer things, which is good – but it was becoming everything I did. Well, that’s not the only thing you can get me involved in. There was a point when I realised that the people trying to get me involved were always non-queer people, which is interesting, and it would always be last-minute and rushed. 

That must have been frustrating and sounds like something many of us can relate to as queer creatives. How did that affect your practice over the last two years? 

I felt like I needed to reclaim my work. I document specific nightlife events, and in these moments, it started reaching a point where people [like event management] were telling me what to do and what photos to take. I feel like a lot of my work is very much in the moment, and I can’t really over-plan anything. Sometimes I might be focused on a colour, or sometimes I’m in the mood to just look at friendships or groups. Everyone always says my work is very intimate, and I feel like that’s what I was searching for in my personal life as well. So when Ronan approached me, I was actually thinking, ‘okay let me try and get back to this art thing and do the things I want to do again.’

How did the show come together, how involved was Ronan? 

She had great ideas, and there was such great care when curating the space and selecting the works. We spent a lot of time in the space and looking at small details like framing. I’m really excited about the programming. Even the idea to have [dancer] Josh Woolford perform as part of the exhibition – they’ve been really encouraging about my practice as well. I want to also do performance in the future, and it really does feel like it’s only just the beginning.

A friend reminded me of how I maybe spoke this into existence. I have this dream list where I want to tick things off: like therapy for one year consistently, going on walks, little things like that. And then I would have things like have your first solo exhibition in the next few years. I think maybe not even a month after I had said it and shared it with some close friends, I was talking about the show with Ronan. I’m ticking things off the list.

Bernice Mulenga shoots a group of black friends hugging on a dancefloor

Were the themes for the exhibition already pre-determined by Ronan, or was the decision collaborative?

The theme of this year is togetherness and collaboration. I love the body of work #friendsonfilm. It belongs as much to the people who are in it as it does to me. I feel like the language people use and the way people describe my work or the way people tell me how my work makes them feel has really allowed me to be ‘wow, this is quite a big thing’. Whenever I’d picture my first solo exhibition, I wanted these images to be big. I feel like even when we did that Christie’s exhibition in 2019 and you [Pacheanne] were like, no, we’ve got to print these large. And I thought about it, and you were right, it does need to be large to be seen in all its glory. And I’m really happy that this body of work is getting its time.

Your photography is always very intimate. How did it feel to shoot throughout the great emotional, economic and mental health many of us have endured throughout the pandemic? 

I was in deep grief, deep in grief of losing and also the grief of not being able to go out and do what I do and bump into the people that I love. Taking pictures really does bring me joy, and I feel like over the last few years, I have come to know the power of my work, but also the power of myself as well. So I tried to flip the lens on me. 

Some of these ideas we’re seeing now are maybe four, five years old. There was a point where I just reached I was like, ‘okay, I’m not going to do too many exhibitions anymore’, because I was just feeling like it wasn’t really bringing me anywhere. I would like to take more breaks as I rest. I feel like this season, there will be windows for me to just hibernate, recharge and recoup, then once the spring comes, that’s when I can start working on things again. 

What’s next for Bernice?

I’ve been playing around with a medium format camera as well because a lot of the stuff I do is on a five millimetre. I just want to teach myself some more new skills like playing around with film and video. I just love how people really personalize their own spaces, so I’m excited to explore more self-portraits also.

The right people have gravitated towards me in collaborating with me to create special moments on film – like my work with ABOE [an artist-led creative studio]. Now we’re a creative studio because we all do so many different things together commercially, but individually we are artists in our own right. I think it is beautiful and I’m really excited for the future of that as well. Whether it continues or not. I feel like it’s so crazy at this moment in time to be able to share such special memories and special moments. 

‘Between Me & You’ is open at Home by Ronan McKenzie until 6 March 2022 between 10am and 6pm.