In the summer of 2018, London-based artist, archivist, and curator Ajamu and New York and Los Angeles-based artist, educator, and organizer Pato Hebert collaborated on an exhibition in Amsterdam and discussed Ajamu’s residency with the Black queer community of Toronto, self-care and the lure of the ephemeral.
Pato: Last time we spoke you said you needed to be cloned about 10 times [laughter]. You’re constantly juggling multiple projects and commitments, and you recently returned to kickboxing and also started practicing tai chi. How is your sense of self-care evolving?
Ajamu: My self-care—the tai chi, the meditation—is about taking time out for myself. The thing with being an independent artist is that there are always competing priorities and deadlines. I generally plan a project years in advance, because—with galleries and spaces—you basically have to start the conversation two or three years out to try and get into those spaces. I’m also now doing my PhD, planning a new body of work. So I’ve got to be mindful that I don’t deplete my energy. I have to take time out just for me to be with family, my partner, as these moments are a space of respite. Not the artwork, not the activism, not the archives, not the PhD, just for me. There is a long history of littered bodies on the activist path. People burnt out, suffering from mental health issues because a lot of art activists usually punch above their weight. So there’s all these kinds of pressures on the body. The self-care is about just managing some of these kinds of monsters.
I think self-care has got to be central to our artistic practice, to our activism, because if you want to transform the culture that you’re born into, if you want to transform society, you have to transform yourself in that process too, and it is central. One then has to look after one’s self and self-care has to be central to all our activist work. And then because an artist or activist is constantly out there, it’s a vulnerable place. Because we’d want to then protect our own vulnerabilities and sensitivities within this process.
P: You’re talking about our tendency to punch above our weight and the ever-lurking trap of burnout. I wonder if you could talk about the differences in how your body feels in, say, kickboxing, as compared to tai chi?
A: Tai chi is a lot slower, a different engagement with my body. We live in a moment of speed, right? Everything’s speed and noise actually. Tai chi is basically a way of me just slowing down that rhythm. And then the kickboxing [laughter], I could imagine certain people’s bodies, whose faces I want to kick in and punch [laughter]. And because one is very soft and gentle and the other a bit harder, I like entering those different kinds of spaces around and with my body.
P: You spoke about the incredible range of things you’re doing, from the PhD to the rhythms and intensities of being an exhibiting artist. Didn’t you recently do a Blissful Chaos event in London?
A: Blissful Chaos and a kink-posium was a one-day event that brought together Black and brown folks who were into BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism – my personal definition is a consensual exchange of erotic pleasure), kink, and radical pleasure, and the day was about sharing and feeling less isolated. A lot of us are out around our sexual identity, however I would argue that we might also then be isolated in terms of our sexual practice. I think that there are ways that certain kinds of pleasures are policed not only within our Black queer communities, but beyond that as well. So the day was really about kinksters, Black and brown, queer and straight. I’m trying to talk about what is done to Black bodies, and what it is that we want to be done in and with our Black bodies. That then brings in notions of agency. We spent a lot of time talking about sexuality, and there’s very few spaces where we talk about sex. We spend a lot of time talking about desire but rarely do we actually talk about pleasure. So the day started with a series of provocations by myself, Sinister, Ama Josephine Budge, and Raju Rage. Then we had a skills-sharing workshop where I spoke about things around the house that we can use for kink play. The first exercise would have people go through their houses visually and then try and think about things that they could use in terms of sexual play.
Ties are great for bondage, pillowcases are great for hoods, or a shirt tied backward is then great for a straitjacket. Then we do some basic rope ties. There was a workshop around self-care led by Sin. How are we looking after ourselves in the context of pleasure, especially, if it’s a very intense scene? What other rituals do we have—breathing exercises and meditation, caring for one’s self and also caring for the person that we’re playing with. I would argue that a lot of the conversations around BDSM and kink rarely bring in a notion of intimacy with the various kinds of players we engage with.
We had a performance, we showed some films, and we listened to music. So our day was about how we hold the different kinds of spaces that we can exist in as Black and brown folks who are into kink. There are virtually no spaces in the UK where we come together to talk, share, and play. So with Blissful Chaos, I’m trying to articulate what’s happening in the moment of pleasure. It’s very ephemeral. There’s this notion called la petite mort, a theory about what is lost in that moment of an orgasm, that identity and subjectivity get shattered in the moment of somebody cumming. And what I’m trying to articulate is a theory that begins from the experiential.
P: And the visceral, your idea of touch as an archive. I hear self-care come up more and more in social justice circles and in community organizing. On the one hand, it’s exciting because how we attend to our wellbeing is so important. At the same time, Buddhism teaches me the limits of a solid or singular notion of self, the danger of individualism. Not having great uniqueness, even eccentricity as an individual, but rather individualism as a neoliberal ethos. So one of the things that I appreciate about your work is the idea of being together, as you just talked about with Blissful Chaos. The talking, the sharing, the playing, and in that intimacy there is this possibility that the self would not simply be singular or individual. It might be collective. It might be shared, the little death that you’re talking about. I guess that makes me think about care as never only being in isolation. We all need our solitude, of course, but care is also shared. You have something coming up this month called A Place of Abundance: An Intergenerational Conversation. Could you say more about this event?
A: A Place of Abundance is an exhibition by Evan Ifekoya, and it’s their first major one-person show in London. My image, Bodybuilder in the Bra from 1990 is included in the exhibition, a kind of intergenerational conversation. On one level I find it quite funny that I am invited on panels because I’m now the person who could talk intergenerationally. [laughter] At what age does one become that older person? Part of me kind of smiles because when some folks want diversity and inclusion around “age,” I get wheeled out, and I tell those youngins, “I need to be back in my bed by 10 o’clock.” [laughter]
P: Yes, you’re part of generation papi. [laughter]
A: Yes. [laughter] And then part of my practice is how do we shape the conversation from talking about representation and visibility, which are important conversations, to the making parts of our practice? How do we talk about notions of materiality? How do we talk about pleasure and intimacy while we are creating a work? There is this assumption that if you’re a Black and queer artist, your work will always be about identity and representation, and then spaces can bring you in under the guise of education, diversity, and inclusion, yeah? And that means process gets sidelined, because then you’re only there to talk about how your work fits within a social and cultural framework. We need to have other, more complex and nuanced conversations about practice. And then as a friend of mine said last week, “Ajamu, somehow regardless of the conversation, you always bring sex into the mix.” So somehow [laughter] sex will be weaved into that as well.
P: It’s hard to believe. [laughter]
A: I feel it’s quite believable, actually. [laughter]
P: You’re talking about practice, and how we can know and be through that practice. I’m curious if you could say more about your recent artist-in-residence in Toronto. What did that residency consist of and what stood out to you from your time there?
A: Well, quickly going back to process — I would say that I am the process. The process is not something that you do. It’s something else that’s going on, right? I just wanted to add that. I went back to Toronto and I created twenty-five new black-and-white portraits, and I conducted about ten filmed interviews with artists, activists, cultural producers, creatives, mischief-makers. I photographed Courtnay McFarlane who is an artist, activist Junior Harrison, Rodney Diverlus, who was one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, and Twysted Miyake-Mugler, who is one of the young Jedi Knights around the emerging vogue and kinky scene, and Savannah Taylor-Clarke who had this amazing energy. She’s about 23, an actress, and just comes in totally nervous and laughing, but the energy was like, wow.
The residency was about reconnecting and continuing conversations with some folks that I met last October  when I went to Toronto for the first time, and then again when I visited in February . It was also about meeting people who I’ve not come across before and vice-versa. I created a pop-up portrait studio in a hotel. So for me, it’s always about, “How do I also facilitate people meeting each other for the first time?” At one point, I was with one of the models and then another model came in. They kind of knew each other over the last fifteen years or so, but they had never sat down and spoken before. So then we all went for a meal and walked around. I’m really excited that the project was able to connect folks together. I mean, just hearing people share their stories and their narratives, that’s why I am compelled through the lens of photography to capture these ephemeral and fleeting moments.
I’ve been really keen to try and record some of the conversations if possible, because the photograph has its limits. As I did previously with the brothers from São Paulo, it’s about me capturing their voices on video to then create another kind of an archive as well. It’s a kind of a transnational, nomadic archive as I move through these various spaces with a camera.
P: Earlier this year we released Amizade como ativismo, the Friendship as Activism series of interviews that you did with four of our compas from São Paulo. This was another part of our efforts at building transnational community. What are you learning from your encounters during your ongoing visits to Toronto?
A: I’m learning some of the cultural and social context that the work is created in. Your older activists, those who are in their late forties or early fifties, not originally from Toronto, they’re from the Caribbean. I’m interested in that part whereby folks who are then born and raised in Toronto and the kind of spaces that they then create, in a space that’s home and not home at the same time. And then I’m going to Julian’s house, going through his photographic album, and it’s great to see the fact that I’m—that someone has photographed the events from the eighties onwards. I can then see the technology around the photographs as well—very small, slightly soft, out-of-focus, not as vibrant as the images that you would take now. I’m also seeing within Junior’s album a young Isaac Julian (Film Maker/ Installation Artist) in the late 1980s. I’m now seeing that there is a long history of activists, cultural producers, and possibility models creating these other kinds of spaces. People comment and then share their work. I’m surprised, but then the more I think about it, I realize I should not be surprised, because actually there are these histories within histories, and then sometimes you know about other moments via these encounters. And they won’t be written down as such. So who else has been part of that conversation between the UK and Toronto, the UK and Holland, the UK and the Caribbean around LGBTQ+ from around the 1980s onwards? That means a lot of “the archives” then have to be dug into deeper, and deeper, and deeper. And I am mindful as I speak that many of our stories will never be stored, collected for posterity.
P: You’ve been exploring the ways in which location and geography matter but are not simply delimiting. Place can be particular and extremely important, especially through Indigenous ways of knowing and being. Time and place can also be porous, especially in cities and in diaspora, and this in turn can shape us and our relationship to place and one another. Can you discuss your notion of familiar strangers and what you see as some of the differences as well as the echoes across the communities you engage in your work?
A: In terms of some of the echoes, I think there are all these conversations around white privilege, white supremacy. And those are everyday kind of tensions into how Black and brown bodies are treated, are targeted, and attacked. Those kinds of conversations will always come up because I think that there is always a need for us to share those kind of experiences. I’m still not getting a sense of the differences yet because I think that I need a longer time to try and bed myself down in Toronto. Because I’m there fleetingly, I’m still trying to get my head around the idea of what it means to be born and raised in Toronto as a Black, queer person outside of the narrative of white privilege. I can’t quite grasp what those major differences are, or if they’re major at all, actually. It’s just those personal one-to-one conversations that I think is key at the moment.
P: One of the things you did in Toronto was a public talk with Courtnay McFarlane called Promiscuous Archiving. Promiscuity and the archive are ongoing commitments in your work. Why are these so compelling to you?
A: First and foremost, I like playing with language as I associate words that have multiple meanings. The word promiscuous is always used in terms of negativity. I’m playing around with that. Then it’s about trying to articulate the archive—after representation, after a rights-based narrative—to begin trying to talk about what actually happens when I touch the materials of the archive. I have to think on the wider level. In the age of social media and digital technology, I think that actually, what is created is a behavior around the technology that is promiscuous. If I think about cruising, we have the ritual of promiscuity. We wait to be approached or we approach somebody. And I think that the technology that we use now does that same kind of move. Hence, promiscuity is a word that needs to be reclaimed and embraced.
It’s time for us to articulate how we account for those other ways that these kind of archives can be experienced. If the archive is about embodiment, and the best in Black and queer bodies are always already archived, then, in that context, I would argue that our lips, dicks, vaginas, nipples, anus, and so on are also archived. They are embodied memories. How do you then begin to articulate these encounters, and not lose sight of the body, of unpolishedness, of the dirt, of the smell, the sensuousness? My frustration with archiving is that the more that LGBTQ history becomes mainstreamed, the more it becomes cleaned up and sanitized. I want us to not lose sight of our bodies, or that the archive is a body too. The archive is corporeal. If the talk was called Black Queer Archive, that would sound too boring. So, naming is key to presenting a politic which is mischievous yet serious.
P: You make me think of Felipe Rivas San Martín, a Chilean artist, and activist who is now in Spain. We recently published his piece about QR codes and cruising, and the relationship between the digital and touch, the touch of bodies in relationship to place. There’s a beautiful echoing I’m hearing in each of your thinking.
Speaking of archives, you and I are also preparing to open our joint exhibition Melange at the IHLIA LGBT Heritage space in a few weeks, which is the queer archive that’s part of the main public library in Amsterdam, an incredibly important space. You’ll be showcasing a series of portraits that you made at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban. We’ve timed this new exhibition to coincide with the 2018 International AIDS Conference, which is happening in Amsterdam, hence our show at IHLIA. I’m wondering how that experience in Durban impacted you a couple of years ago? It was one of the first times you’ve shown outside of a white cube. How do you feel your practice has grown in the two years since that experience in Durban?
A: One thing that stays with me is how folks took up that space, the energy. For me, it’s about how we create these temporal kinds of spaces. Durban was the first time that I worked with the pop-up studio format and, of course, it was beautifully intense. Normally, I work slowly. It’s about a one-on-one relationship. But the thing that kicked in for Durban was shooting lots and lots of images, over eighty new portraits. The same happened as part of the House Lives Matter ball in New York in 2017. Then in Toronto, I was able to just block out eight days and shoot thirty portraits. There was an intensity that I’m not used to in terms of my practice. That said, I’m having multiple conversations with folks, and while I’m physically tired from that intense way we’re working, at the same time I’m mentally stoked as well.
P: It’s beautiful how that goes back to where we were at the start of this conversation around kickboxing and tai chi as two ways of being, two kinds of intensities or energies. We’ve been working together for two years on what you’re calling your nomadic residency, from New York City, Durban, and São Paulo in 2016, to New York and Toronto in 2017, to Toronto again in early 2018. I’m curious how Durban informed those subsequent trips and residencies and how you begin to see them relating to one another as a kind of circuitry?
A: It takes me out of my comfort zone in the sense that at home in London I normally work with people that I already know. So I like the challenge that what I’m doing now is I’m pulling the different conversations and dialogues through individuals across time and space. In person, I think that there’s a different conversation than if I were to talk to some of the same folks only by social media.
P: Yes, and there’s something challenging and exciting to me about your notions of the archive and these different touches that occur. I’m using touch metaphorically as well as more concretely — the different touches that happen when there’s familiarity, and also an encounter in a place that is new to you or your collaborators. There is the community of friendships and relationships that you’ve cultivated in the UK for decades. But as you mentioned earlier, there is also cruising, or online touching and swiping that may then lead to bodily touching. What happens in that touch with a stranger who quickly becomes something less than a stranger? What is shared and what might be known, however fleetingly but profoundly? And yet I appreciate your humility and recognition that it takes time in a place to come to know deeper histories. How did a person become who they are? Who are we becoming together in this shared touch?
A: Within that moment of the photographic encounter, it’s not just about taking the portrait. It’s not just about conversation — it’s about how we connect. I think as Black and brown folks, sometimes we connect via the playfulness, via the flirting, all that stuff. There is so much happening in that moment, yeah? That’s part of the excitement, and the thing that the photograph cannot really capture is the humor, the laughter, and all the other stuff, and just how we connect on so many different levels in that instant. So there’s a lot going on that constantly excites me when I’m able to travel and meet folks. It’s really exciting.
P: Agreed, and we were very strategic in how we curated your show in Durban so that it held the MSMGF’s activist space where queer men gathered at the AIDS Conference. The primary series that we exhibited was your body of work called Fierce, even as you were also then running a pop-up studio and stretching as you said, into a really new way of working for you: digitally, quickly, intensely, dozens and dozens of people coming through the space every day. That then generated the new body of portraits from Durban that we’re about to show in Amsterdam. We often joke in our work together about our love of the notion of “fierce,” along with the ways it dates us and marks us as our middle-aged selves. But you’re continually probing the way fierce might mean not only fabulous and amazing, of course, but also dangerous. Can you speak to why danger, and why this fierceness still holds such sway?
A: The word fierce has a history from mainly Black gay men from the 1980s. There is a genealogy in terms of how a word is used amongst Black gay men, Black gay activists from the US and UK. But then the word fierce is one of those words that also then moves outside of Black and gay experiences. So a word is not just around Black gay experiences, but it’s also used in lots of different kinds of contexts, and that’s why I like the word fierce. There is also the context of how fierce is used in terms of danger and resistance, so there is this beautiful tension between fierce being this thing that’s fabulous and also fierce then means a kind of danger. That’s how I inhabit my praxis.
When I think about some of the fabulous young queens here, they’re fierce, but that fierceness also says, “Don’t fuck with me today because I have to get to where I’m getting to,” or, “Don’t hassle me.” So, naturally, that’s how I like the word fierce. It’s just constantly flipping between those two notions of what the word embodies, so it’s actually one of these words that troubles quite well. Fierce is also me still trying to make meets between the UK and Toronto, São Paulo, and so on. It’s one of those words that I think has a particular kind of cultural currency as well. The word is also used within the bossy and the kinky scene. So it’s kind of gesturing to all of that as one word.
P: Is there anything else that you want to add for today’s conversation?
A: I would be curious how your practice has shifted or changed? I remember in São Paulo it was me, you and a few folks talking about the club that was there in the 1990s, and the sister was talking about her experience about going to the club for the first time. Her word was Melange. Do you remember that conversation?
P: I remember the conversation very clearly—it inspired the title of our show in Amsterdam. Back in 2016 we were together in São Paulo for Cidade Queer, Queer City. We had just been in Durban two months prior, and then in São Paulo we had the privilege of being on a walk with local activists and queer historians. They were guiding a group of us around the center of São Paulo, talking about the gentrification and the historical shifts in access to space for lots of kinds of folks there: queer folks for sure, but also working class people and poor people, Black and mestizo folks, and the incredible inequity and racial and class tensions in a place like Brazil.
These are not unique to São Paulo, of course, but they’re certainly heightened there. And one of the spaces we passed was this club. People were speaking very poignantly about which spaces were accessible, which spaces consistently turned away Black people in perpetual acts of racism, and how that shaped the creation of new spaces where people could come together. We published a conversation with João Simões and Cláudio Bueno about this—how they work the relationship between the city’s periphery and center. So on the walking tour of the center our compa was talking about this club as one of the few spaces where people actually did come together, around and across and against the divisions of gender and race and class that so negatively shaped nightlife in that area in São Paolo. She described it beautifully as a mélange. I was thinking about the differences in, say, my practice and yours, but also the echoes across time. I’m very interested in how we make space together and reshape the world.
A: Yes. And it’s not just about making space, but also about how we take up space. To take up space has a negative connotation to it, but then there’s something about how we take up the space that is a different move than creating space. I’m always aware that there’s limits to what the photographic image can do. However, it’s still trying to articulate this thing, this something that I know is happening. Because one actually feels it against the skin.
P: Agreed. For me there’s something about language, and voice in particular. I think the voice through sound is a kind of touch. It’s touching us in this very sensual way. Language does too, when it’s spoken. Voice can be words and language or it can just be utterance, right? It can be scatting or uttering or all the sounds of pleasure, which in many cruising spaces is the only sound. There isn’t language in terms of words. There is only the language of the body and the language of the voice. Or the language of the body parts moving in relationship to each other. So I’m really excited by this ongoing expansion of your work into voice, the moving image and the video portraits you’ve been making of activists, one of which we shared at the AIDS Conference in Durban. But also the power of conversation, which is something we both care a lot about, hence this ongoing series of dialogues. I agree that it’s incredibly important to take space including, say, from an Indigenous perspective, holding space and taking it back when there has been displacement. Or as we’ve talked about slavery and the diaspora, what it means to think proactively as people have for centuries about relationship to place and belonging.
At the same time I think a lot about the limits of the existing spaces that we do have. So there is taking what is, in addition to making what might be, and that interplay is powerful. The work you did in Durban was a beautiful kind of melange that way. It took that AIDS Conference space that is so often inhospitable and unfriendly, invisibilizing and hostile, and it made it into something else. I think that shows in the portraits you made, even though they were much quicker than you’re used to working and were a real stretch for you, people were queued for minutes to have that encounter with you. It was about being with you and your spirit and your flirtatiousness and all your experience and wisdom. But as you know, sitters have their own agency. The beauty of the portrait encounter is that sitters bring their wants and needs to it. Sometimes those are super assertive, like we were talking about, fierce. Other times it’s very coy and shy. Other times it may not be so immediate but there’s something underneath which is what drives that decision and desire to sit with the photographer and the lens and then it becomes this collaborative act.
A: Yes. I think that every time someone sits in front of the apparatus they give me the gift.
P: I think so too, and if we listen there’s this incredible thing that has the chance to arise. I’m grateful for the listening that we’ve been doing together over the last couple of years. And the ways your practice pushes and challenges us to think about listening. For me listening always implies a kind of relationality, and ideally, as in conversation, a reciprocity. I was just in Australia and I had the gift of spending some time in national parks and really touching the land along the eastern coast and in the mountains. I was working on In, If Not Always Of, my ongoing body of work with The Oscillator.
The project engages spaces that have been designated as parks, these set-asides that are both beautiful but also problematic because of colonialism and capitalism. And for the first time I took that work from stills into moving image, so video and sound. I really struggled to learn the tech of sound, how to get a decent recording because I’m such a neophyte.
But I found myself listening to place and space differently. Of course the wind and the birds. But also the feeling of the air itself and what it means to let a space touch us. This is, of course, part of what makes dance clubs and sex clubs and alleys and cruising space and dungeons so magical — the body and the touch but also the space itself.
A: What does it mean to be attuned? That’s something like listening but it goes deeper. I think it’s probably listening with all the senses.
P: Maybe that can be a touchstone for our next conversation, this notion of attunement and moving between places, which is a privilege we have as artists at this stage in our practices. Moving with and between and in other bodies, and in our bodies. How do we try to cultivate this deeper attunement? And there’s the kickboxing version and there’s the tai chi version and all kinds of fierce versions in between!
A: Yes. Yes.