Cultivating Rhizomatic Space
Queer City (8/20)

Cultivating Rhizomatic Space

The intimate process of portrait-making in pop-up studios is like creating a queer temporal family.

In 2016, London-based artist, archivist, and curator Ajamu and New York and Los Angeles-based artist, educator, and organizer Pato Hebert collaborated on a series of activities at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. 

On 14 August, 2016 they spoke via Skype and reflected on their experiences. Ajamu spoke from his home in London and Pato from Cassis, France where he was an artist-in-residence on a BAU Institute Fellowship.

This is the third installment of Pato and Ajamu’s collaboration to be featured on ArtsEverywhere. The first installment can be read here. The second can be seen here.

Pato: Can you describe what it was like when you first entered the exhibition space in Durban and saw your work installed?

Ajamu: When I first entered the space, I had a childish kind of smile because I always get excited when I see my work on the wall and printed. It does something for me. Then because of how the space was laid out, it felt like a living room, because of the white leather sofas and chairs and the images on the back wall and on the sides. It’s also the first time that I’ve seen my work outside of a white cube space.

P I didn’t realize that.

A Yes. Basically I only work inside of white cube spaces. I think it’s only been once that I’ve shown my work projected on walls, but mainly it’s gallery spaces. So I was really excited to see my work in the context of the Global Village, in the context of an HIV and AIDS conference, on the continent of Africa, given that some of the images show black men being intimate with other black men.

P And then what was it like the next morning when you dove in and started running the pop-up portrait studio?

A It was crazy intense! A lot of black folks I know and have met, they love pictures being taken of them. So that was kind of exciting meeting people for the first time because then the challenge is always around how you create that immediate intimacy with a stranger in a public space; [other] people could see what was going on as well. Normally when I shoot portraits, it’s very slow and there’s a build up. But this time in Durban it was much more about speed. Creating over 80 portraits in three or four days was really, really intense. And not just creating the portraits but also dialoguing with people after the session once they’d gotten their images, and came and sat down in the space. For me there was something about watching mainly young, black queens take up that space. Initially I wasn’t quite sure if a pop-up studio would work; however part of the experience is that it did work in that space.

P Why weren’t you sure that it would work?

A Because my experiences of lots of events and spaces around AIDS and HIV rarely include art or art practices. A lot of people don’t necessarily see fine art practice as activist work. Hence, I wasn’t quite sure. But then once that first person sat down, and I took that first picture, I knew it was working.

P How did you know? Just intuitively, or was it something they said, or that you did?

A Actually Kelly was the one I was testing my lights with. And then the second person was this guy who came and sat down, looking very, very serious and I’m like, “Is this the serious face you’re going to give me?” I smiled, and then he laughed, and we started to just shoot. So for me, from that moment it’s around playing, it’s around flirting, all that kind of stuff irrespective of the person’s sexual orientation or gender. That’s when I know that it’s working, there’s an energy that I’m feeding off, then they are relaxed as well. Because most of the people there who I photographed, they actually don’t know me from Adam. Trust is a key part of that process in that moment as well.

Ajamu in his pop up studio
Ajamu in his pop up studio
Ajamu with Kelly Kigera, photos by Pato Hebert 2016

P And out of that trust building, what types of relationships did you form over the course of the week?

A Well, I had my conference boyfriend. [laughter] I still talk with my conference boyfriend. I had one or two conference boyfriends. I think for me over the time of the conference, people came back and they said, “I love the images that you took of me.” A few people weren’t happy with how they looked the first time around so then I shot a few people again. The space was there to talk about photography, my work, their work. By and large I was meeting a lot of young activists, from Kenya, Jo’burg, Capetown, Jamaica. A lot of people I probably would not have met in any other context. In these moments I find I want to talk, connect, share and make community.

P Can you describe your daily rhythm — what was your work process like over the course of the week?

A The first day was just to set up and test the lights, and try to do a few portraits. I think I ended up doing 50 portraits on the first day. My mornings were spent editing and emailing portraits to people. By Wednesday I’d already shot so many portraits that it became my day to edit and send out images to people. Then Thursday I shot more portraits, and on Friday I mailed more out. My plan was that by the time I left Durban, everybody that I photographed would have gotten their portraits.

P And what kind of email exchanges have you experienced in the three weeks since then?

A Since then, some people have got back saying, “Thanks for the images, I really love them.” I’ve also had Skype chats as well. So there is a continuing friendship with people that I met.

Black on Black 1 by Ajamu
Black on Black 1 by Ajamu

P You mentioned before that you felt like people claimed the space in dynamic ways and created what you call a “queer temporal family.” Can you say more about this?

A I think how the space was laid out helped to create that possibility; it looked like someone’s front room, with the sofa, table, chairs, monitor, and then the large portraits on the back wall. And then the image of the two guys being intimate was the centerpiece, and that’s where the sofa was positioned. So basically people walked by, they looked, some of them ended up taking portraits. There was also Nkululeko, a young brother from South Africa who was the one who was bringing people into the space. They would go off to workshops and then come back to the space. Some of them would plug in their phones and play music. They had karaoke. A guy from Kenya was singing, and his friends were around him clapping, supporting, talking. Some of the women that I read as straight also came into the space and sat down.

Nkululeko by Ajamu
Nkululeko by Ajamu

Some of them might have been colleagues of some of the young gay men. So there was this interesting mix of people just kind of taking up the space. There were also various points when the other networking zones around our space were emptying out, but people were still staying until the last moment in our space until the guards would come and say, “You’ve got to leave now.”

P When I was curating your photographs, working on a layout and running designs by you and the MSMGF team, you and I both had some questions, even concerns about how the pop-up studio would work, given that you normally work in this beautifully slow way — large format photography — in a studio that you’re familiar with, complete with your studio lights. So I was grateful that you were willing to try this improvised, seat of your pants, DIY approach to a studio in a sometimes chaotic environment. We put your pop-up studio on one end of the space, then there was the front room sofa and chairs moment in the middle of the space, and then on the opposite end of the space from your pop-up studio and the living room was a workshop space. So three times per day there were these dynamic workshops happening on one end of the space. I wonder how that either impeded or fed your process, and if you felt like there was any kind of synergy or competition across the space given that there were three types of activities and spatial moments occurring simultaneously within the larger field there?

A I actually never felt like there was any kind of competition, because at various points you didn’t know where the workshops ended and the middle space began; I liked that. The studio space had people watching and observing, which was interesting as well. That’s not part of my creative process, but this time around I was slightly out of my creative comfort zone. I guess part of me also likes voyeurs, and being watched. And in this context, it was me working with clothes on. [laughter] All of that feeds into the energy that was in the space. Sometimes when I would go into the space early in the morning, it felt really lonely. I missed some of the brothers coming into the space.

Six portraits from Ajamu's pop-up studio
Top row (L to R): Menzi, Okunade, Sithembiso Ntuli
Bottom row (L to R): Atardo Dimitri, Nkambwe Christopher, Othusitse Norman Letebele

P You and I are both middle-aged men, and there were lots of people older than us as well as all manner of young people claiming the space. One of the things I loved was seeing you — after you’d finished your mornings of shooting —hanging out in the middle of the space and “kiki-ing” with people. Can you talk about that intergenerational flow of the space? I know that engaging younger folks in London, New York, and now at the conference in Durban has been a priority for you over the last couple of years. What was it like to experience that in South Africa?

A I always enjoy talking with some of the ‘kids’ because I think it’s important that we create spaces where we have an intergenerational dialogue — to talk, to play, to flirt, and to get a sense of what it’s like to be a young, black queer living as out in Nairobi, someone who says that he’s femme inside but a gangsta outside. And I’m like, “I think you’re more of a femme outside, and a gangsta inside . . . ” [laughter] So a lot of the interaction is about playfulness. A lot of the youngsters were curious about the work I do. One of the older guys said, “We don’t see work like this in Uganda.” So the images triggered other kinds of dialogues as well, around portraiture, space, archiving and so forth. I like that sense of breaking bread with others, how ever we meet, how ever fleeting or temporary it is. These are very precious moments, and I recognize that I have the privilege to be able to travel halfway across the world and be part of these ephemeral, queer moments.

P I’m also curious what it meant [for you] to be in a space that on the one hand was very international — folks from Central Asia, Latin America, the Global North — and at the same time a space that was really beautifully and fluidly layered in its blackness? What was it like for you to navigate and work in that space?

A That kind of layered space is a space I always try to inhabit our work in. It’s the same kind of space or energy I had when I was creating Fierce and the exhibition in London; it’s the same kind of energy I had when I was in New York. There’s language differences, but there’s something about that energy that is very, very similar. I think there’s this need to connect with others who are similar to you and might have shared experiences with you, and some who haven’t.

P This picks up on a theme we’ve been discussing, which is also present in the title of the exhibition we created in Durban: the layerings of praxis. You wanted to call the show, which featured your photographs as well as the pop-up studio “Portraits + Praxis,” and in the space, there appeared existing work alongside you making new work. The new work was also the presented in digital form on the large-scale monitor, so there were many layerings of praxis in addition to the interest we both have around creating queer spaces that break down the supposed barriers between art and activism in the context of HIV work. Do you think the effort in Durban was successful in this regard, or did it run into some of the same kinds of limitations, problems, or gaps that have often persisted in HIV work?

A My gut feeling is that it did break down some of those barriers around art and activism in part because it’s about the kind of affect and effect I want to feel from that space — isn’t always tangible but still emotes something. For me, I’m seeing young, black queers coming into that space talking, laughing, hugging, holding hands in that context — and that’s the work. How do you create spaces in which people can feel confident in who they are in all their queerness without having to look over their shoulders? I think the whole space did that, helped to facilitate people feeling welcome, just to be [themselves], another kind of politic.

P I often think of art and organizing as ways to apprehend and shape the world, and for us to be together differently. Because we were at the International AIDS Conference, HIV was an ever-present frame. [Finding ways to ensure] it was present yet not getting in the way of either the art making or new ways of community forming was really important. Seeing how all these elements could be present, yet some would come forward more fully at different moments while still interacting with the others across time made me realize: I don’t think people ever forgot about HIV. But equally and maybe even more importantly, I don’t think people could ever forget about art because the space presenced art so fully alongside the pop-up studio. And you as a physical, convivial, social and political presence in the afternoons meant that there was tons of fluidity. All of this made it difficult to say where art, activism, organizing, HIV, community, silliness or desire began and ended.

A We don’t inhabit the world in terms of these things beginning and ending. I think the space got to speak back to how we inhabit the world on these multiple levels simultaneously. So while it was framed around the AIDS Conference, people also did not forget about joy, playfulness, pleasure as well. Usually it’s weighted towards one or the other, so I like when those so-called demarcation lines are broken down.

P In a recent email to me, you said you feel like our approach to space and praxis is rhizomatic. Would you elaborate on that?

A For me, the idea around the rhizome is understanding how we break down hierarchical structures upon which so many of our families, communities, and ways of being in society are based. It’s usually a “power-over” type of structure, whereas the rhizome means an equal, or in this context, black queers could enter the space through so many different kinds of entry points, not just physically but also mentally, emotionally, sexually, spiritually. So how do you create space that people can enter on so many levels simultaneously, and also on a level that we might not be aware of? Maybe some of that engagement can only be done in hindsight. We don’t always know what’s going on in a moment until we step outside of it. The rhizome frame of reference does that — allows us to enter this mesh on so many levels — it’s what’s exciting.

P Is the making of a portrait rhizomatic? For the sitter? For the photographer?

A I’ve actually not thought of that yet, but I’ve thought about it in terms of a politic — how we rethink space, power dynamics, how politics work around the world — which is different now and more rhizomatic. But the politic I’m talking about is not devoid of a creative process.

P It makes me think about our second installment here on ArtsEverwhere, which was our illustrated plenary talk, “We Liked the Way He Moved”, given at the MSMGF’s “Action + Access” Pre-Conference in Durban. We were trying to mesh imagery, stories, essays, memory, music and a group performance.

A The music that you selected basically set a kind of tone that worked on an emotional level, especially the parts of it that were generational and cultural. Talking about Rotimi and Horacio . . . it’s always important that we tell those stories of people that we might not hear about. One of the other highlights of our presentation was at the end when we asked people to stand up and call out the names that they remembered of people who have passed on. There was something about that energy that was slightly overwhelming because I’m asking people to do something that they might not have done at an HIV and AIDS conference. I’d only done it once before at an event called “Passion for Maud Sulter” (1960–2008), who was an award-winning artist and writer, curator and gallerist of Ghanaian and Scottish heritage who lived and worked in Britain. Something said to me, “Just do this and see what happens,” and the whole room erupted. It’s what I like about being an artist and an activist: You don’t always know what’s going to happen, but you just want to see. So when we tried it in Durban, that energy, with people calling out and showing respect, it was something! All those people will then take away that moment with them. They’ll go back to their jobs, their own countries, and they’ll take that moment of a community, having used the voice and the body, clapping and stamping.

P We had not originally planned that aspect. I thought, as you said, it held the uncertainty and open-endedness that I think we were trying to cultivate with the talk overall, and it was a very powerful way to bring people together.

A Sometimes when I meet artists, I just trust their process. I’m like, “Okay, I’m on this journey with you, so take me to it, and let’s see what happens.” I’m curious how this space compared to previous spaces that you’ve worked in around HIV and AIDS?

P I got my start in HIV work in 1994 through teaching creative workshops at Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida in the Mission District in San Francisco as part of a community organizing effort that was the brainchild of writer Ricardo Bracho. Yes, I’m an artist, and I’m interested in radical pedagogy, so arts programming interests me in general. But it also happened to be my entre into doing HIV work over two decades ago. So in the context of HIV art has been a longstanding interest and commitment of mine at multiple levels. I think the dynamic work that I’ve had the privilege of being engaged in with others is what we might call creative programming and community organizing.

cover photo for the magazine Corpus 7
Corpus 7 cover image by Tom Williams, Kelly with a Friend at Cerrito del Carmen, 2006, inkjet print 20″x24″

Having said that, it’s always been a challenge at the International AIDS Conference because there’s so much else to tend to, and they tend to be very heavy on science and public health paradigms. The production itself on the MSMGF’s end is always an intense and massive undertaking in terms of trying to organize a Pre-Conference for hundreds of gay and queer men and also programming in the Networking Zone in order to create multiple kinds of spaces. But we also have a long engagement with art.

In 2008 in Mexico City, poet and editor Andy Quan and I did a presentation on Corpus, which was an arts journal committed to HIV prevention and whose final edition was global in content, scope and contributors. In 2010 our space in Vienna featured a salon-style art exhibition, “Even When I’m With Him,” as well as the participatory portrait series Les Condamnés, which was initiated by Philippe Castetbon. In 2014 in Melbourne, we had “When the Rainbow Isn’t Enough,” a participatory text installation that was colorful, chaotic and DIY. It was very busy and alive, a messy and maximalist aesthetic that unfolded over the course of the week.

But this year in Durban we took a very different, much more minimalist approach. The furniture was sleek and contemporary, and the way it was staged spatially and the way it felt, as you said, looked much more like an elegant living room or front room. So in Melbourne, we created a space that felt very much alive, in formation, and a little chaotic; but in Durban it was much more elegant, yet also very fierce. It was no less inviting, just differently so. It was probably our most successful effort to date. I think the space felt cohesive and like it had an identity from afar as you approached it. But that identity was also porous and inviting in that the bodies flowing through made it and completed it.

When the rainbow isn't enough participants
Photo from When the Rainbow isn’t Enough by Pato Hebert

That’s a tricky thing to pull off in a Networking Zone, which can feel like a trade fair with thousands of people flowing through. Sometimes the spaces can devolve into a bit of a zombie feel, too “seat of the pants,” or too formal in terms of the activities going on, so finding the right balance can be difficult. My colleague Omar Baños and I have been working together for years, and continue to try to hone that balance in the way we approach what the conference refers to as the “Networking Zone” or the ”Global Village.” So at the MSMGF we put out the call to regional networks, community groups and partners from around the world who will be attending the conference, asking them what kind of workshops and activities they’d like to lead and experience. We also try to prioritize a creative presence.

I don’t think we’ve ever had quite the synergy that we were able to cultivate in Durban, with people claiming the space and so much interplay between elements. I think this was due in part to how we designed the space, in part due to the ongoing organizing and movement building that we’re doing at the MSMGF, and it’s also a tribute to you and your work, as well as Leko and the other young, queer African men who did the work and play of bringing their people in and making magic happen. It all combined to make a huge difference.

Two portraits from the pop-up studio
Portraits of Ceeya and Oliver Makgokamo by Ajamu

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