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Assembly Black Country: Black Box

Image credits (from left to right): Helen Cammock, Image by Alun Callender; Haja Fanta, Image by Marta Camarada; Dr Jareh Das, Image by Nelta Kasparian; Jade Foster, Image by Tom Platinum Morley.

Black Curators Collective is excited to be invited by a-n The Artists Information Company to curate their next edition of Assembly!

Landing in the Black Country between Thursday, 11 - Saturday, 13 July 2024, the three-day event centres around an expanded idea of 'access' beyond the Social Model of Disability and disability justice. Grounded within BCC's foundational principle of being a space of rest, reinforcement and resistance, the Assembly has been curated around these three words to cultivate a life-affirming moment for audiences and contributors. In addition, this Assembly launched into the world BCC's long-term programme strand, which was collectively conceived between 2020 and 2021 by alums and current members.

You can book here if you would like to participate in a-n Assembly. Read more about the programme and the extraordinary Black women and non-binary creatives featured below.

Assembly Black Country: Black Box begins restfully with an online guided meditation led by West Midlands-based artist Betsy Bradley from Kadampa Buddhist Meditation Centre. We invite you to come as you are—addressing the need for connection to counter the separation of work and life. Life does not stop flowing when we enter the workplace.

With the hope of offering reinforcement and solidarity to cultural workers, the teach-ins that follow the meditation are person-centred informal discussion groups about legacies of protest, political expression and activism; here, our notion of access expands.

We are excited to have invited artist Helen Cammock, whose teach-in co-facilitated with BCC's Jade Foster, takes its title from the artist's project I Will Keep My Soul (2023), an exhibition at Art + Practice (A+P) in South Los Angeles of film, poetry, performance, ceramics, archival documents, and books. Helen's show was rooted in the social history, geography, and community of New Orleans and developed from a residency with the Rivers Institute for Contemporary Art & Thought and the Amistad Research Center. The project institutes something we hope to create with the teach-ins: 'a gathering on gathering, on the inseparable relationship between art, politics, and the power of assembly' (A+P exhibition text).

The teach-in draws from the project's story of struggle—for agency, creative autonomy and support. Helen's work aligns with the curatorial proposition for the group discussions, which relates the idea of 'access' to what it means to move through, with or against multiple disabling forces that get in the way of an artist being an artist. We believe it is pertinent how Helen as an artist has reflected on another artist's journey, in this case, Elizabeth Catlett: How can we be 'an artist and activist—and free'? Helen's provocation, which is quoted here, among many others, is based on a transnational conversation around activism, civil rights, Blackness and Black womanhood.

When the visual arts sector discusses access, it is common for the idea to be explored mainly within the paradigm of disability and physical access requirements. Even though Blackness does not generally come to mind when people think of access, we believe it should. Racialisation, racial marginalisation and segregation are disabling.

In dialogue with the late Sandwell-born artist Donald Rodney's retrospective exhibition touring across the country from Spike Island in Bristol to Nottingham Contemporary and then the Whitechapel Gallery in London, curator and writer Dr Jareh Das will co-facilitate a teach-in called ‘The British Black arts movement started here’: The Legacy of Donald Rodney with BCC member Haja Fanta. Jareh has written extensively about Rodney for Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, ABC Magazine (New Art Exchange), and Mousse Magazine.

Donald Rodney (1961–98) developed a unique approach to critiquing representations of the Black male body that extended beyond his experience as a person living with sickle cell disease. Creating conceptual self-portraits of his life as a young Black man, Rodney used X-rays of his cells and tiny sculptures made from his own skin. Jareh shares in 'Things Arrive Together as Suffused and Inseparable: Donald Rodney' within Mouse Magazine that she 'believes he used illness as an expression of autobiographical struggle that in turn spoke to, became a metaphor for, universal struggles'. In the same way, Rodney's notion of 'access' and struggle was unbounded; his legacy is unbounded, reaching far across the Atlantic. The quote, which comes from the same text, that we use as a curatorial wayfinder and a way to orientate the teach-ins is a reflection from American artist Carolyn Lazard on Rodney: 'We can ask what it means that in order to occupy the subject position of an artist, Rodney had to operate against his illness'. How does Rodney's work, which reveals the mechanisms for how he simultaneously circumvents and works with his illness, offer a different perspective on access and expose the inseparable nature between art and self-advocacy?

Our programme not only situates the proliferation of the British Black arts movement of 1980s Britain within the Black Country and the Midlands through his work and that of the BLK Art Group but also reflects on Rodney's activism. Rodney was one of the most compelling artists to emerge in the 80s until he died in 1998 from complications related to sickle cell disease. This disease affects people of African, Caribbean, Eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian descent, and there is still no cure for it. It is known as a 'Black' disease that raises polemics of care toward Black bodies and the invisibility of sufferers. Rodney’s art presents a strong argument for an artist’s commitment to making himself and his work seen through self-determination and speaking from the position of an artist. His attitude towards his work considers an expanded notion of access, which delves into the mechanisms for how someone navigates ableist structures. Thinking about access in a macro and systemic way is a stay against the oppressive forces and reproduction of marginalisation.

a-n Assembly enables artists to lead debate and open up discussion. Tuning in from cities across the UK, artists build their events around a chosen theme, inviting you to explore, discuss and question pertinent topics.

a-n Assembly launched in 2017 as an in-person event and moved online in 2021. Assembly has taken place in Margate, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Leeds, Salford, Birmingham, Cardiff, Dundee, Swansea, Aberdeen, Stoke-on-Trent, Thamesmead, Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Wirksworth and Leicester.


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