#portraitoftheartist is a feature in which artists discuss their work, their careers and their inspiration. In this, the first of a two-part #portraitoftheartist, Biba Nalumoso discusses the part her race plays in her being an artist.
I am Ugandan and British. I have lived in both Uganda and Britain and I know what it is like in both of these countries- from the culture and the media to the weather and the economics. I feel this duel heritage enriches me and has given me two whole worlds to draw upon as an artist and a person. Yet, in spite of this, I’ve never felt fully received into either society – in main because I am neither monoracial ‘black’ nor ‘white’. With this in mind it has become increasingly difficult to be able to freely and completely make use of both these sources of my heritage; members from both of my races cannot recognise that I am the same as them. They tell me I am not from their society but from the other one.
The fact that I am a female compounds these difficulties. Throughout history in most societies (not just Ugandan and British) females have not been treated as equal to males and personally, as a young woman I am finding time and time again my ‘otherness’ becomes exoticised. People become fascinated by the fact that my looks don’t instantly let them know where I’m from. A question I get asked many times from white and black people alike is: “What are you?” or “What’s your ethnicity?”
Over the years I’ve developed a serious resentment for this question because the subtext is, ‘I want to be able to place your African features and brown skin’. To begin with, I was amused and proud to educate people about mixed race babies and explain my story. But as the years have passed and I have grown, it is draining trying to explain my difference by rationalizing my ethnic origins just to make other people feel they understand what I’m about.
When people try to fit me into a category, what they fail (or refuse) to understand is that in fact I see myself as a gestalt, i.e. I am a whole who is more than the sum of my parts. I am black and white – if I negate one I feel I am ignoring half of myself.
A consequence of living in Britain but belonging to both Britain and Uganda is the sad feeling of losing touch with my African origins. Over the last few years I have come to realise that, if I want to bridge that gap and reconnect, I will have to do that by myself. Living in a white supremacist society and bearing witness to one of my parent’s total lack of confidence and pride in their ethnicity makes it harder for me to engage with my blackness through them. In fact, I get the impression that my father has a certain victim mentality living in England, whereas in Uganda he is totally in his element, with authority and respect from others. Perhaps a lack of strong African pride around me has led to conflicts within my own black identity.
However, my incredibly strong mother and two ambitious older sisters are already independently making their own connections with Africa. If I were an only child or not surrounded by these robust female role models, I would struggle to respond creatively to the social problems I face on an almost daily basis.
In 2013 I saw a piece of art called ‘The Three Furies’, a spoken word performance by Zena Edwards, a black British-Caribbean-African artist. The piece was about a black woman’s double jeopardy in British society today and the unspoken frustration and tension felt by all black or mixed race women. A talk held after the performance became a very passionate conversation between black, mixed race and some white women. This production was hugely inspiring to me both as a young mixed race woman and as an artist; it gave me the ammunition to explore this unspoken frustration and tension as I progressed into University.
Art is a platform for self-expression, and before I started university I was certain that I was going to be thrown into a hub of multi-racial, open-minded, arty types and not be the only brown face in the room. However, since starting it’s broken my heart to see how institutionally racist my university really is. On a BA course of about 75 students, I am the only black student in my class – and I’m not even black. I’m mixed.
You would think that art school would create a safe creative space to address these issues, but it’s only recently that I’ve come across discussions of race and identity. I attended a talk at Chelsea called ‘Liberate UAL: My curriculum, pale, male and stale.’ It was the first time in nearly two years here that I have a) been in a room with so many black, duel heritage African UAL students, b) had an open, honest discussion with my peers about this lack of black presence within our curriculum and c) felt the full force of how unjust the system I’m in is. One thing that I heard which has refused to leave my mind is this:
The proportion of White students awarded a 1st or 2:1 is 23% higher than for BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) students also brought up in Britain, which is 3% higher than last year’s gap of 20%.
The cultural hegemony of whiteness is perpetuated in the curriculum, courses and institutions. British home students who are not white, like myself, fall short because of our backgrounds. We are not encouraged, nurtured or valued in our institution as we should be. It is incredibly frustrating to feel like you have finally made it into a place where you can develop as an artist, but as an individual you are still not represented. My university is on Peckham’s doorstep, yet whenever I go into Camberwell I feel like I am completely saying goodbye to the Afro-Caribbean influence that’s just down the road.
After recent studies made by Aisha Richards, founder and programme manager of ‘Shades by Noir,’ she discusses a hierarchy of race in the curriculum as white at the top followed by Chinese, then Indian, then black. Racial inequality within academia is a very real thing and it affects black students the most. It is unsurprising, even entertaining, then that the race champion at UAL is a middle-class, middle aged, white man. How can I, a black British 21 year old female relate?
All of the evidence points out that institutionalised racism will persist until serious efforts are made to challenge the structures, systems and cultural attitudes that feed it.
Biba Nalumoso considers herself a bit of a magpie as she is drawn to all things shiny – jewellery, glitter you name it, she likes it. Maybe that is why she is a sucker for ‘Rupauls Drag Race,’ a reality TV competition for glitzy drag queens. Rupaul’s pearls (of wisdom) are not just to be worn though: ‘cos if you can’t love yourself how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?!’. Pearls indeed.
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