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Progress 1968, Progress 2020 - Art-based Interventions on Race, Politics, Gender, Social Commentary, and History: An Interview with Jeffrey Lennon and Etienne Joseph

Published onMar 17, 2022
Progress 1968, Progress 2020 - Art-based Interventions on Race, Politics, Gender, Social Commentary, and History: An Interview with Jeffrey Lennon and Etienne Joseph

Here we share a conversation with Jeffrey Lennon and Etienne Joseph around Progress 1968 and Progress 2020, touching on issues of decolonisation, sharing living history within the community and beyond.

Giulia: Progress 1968, Progress 2020 are important artistic inspirations alongside issues of race and identity. Thank you Jeffrey and Etienne for taking part in this interview and contributing with your insight by presenting Progress 1968 and Progress 2020 as well as sharing your work on diaspora, identity and on decolonising the archive. Please introduce yourself and your work. Viewing the role of the arts as an empowering process, it would be great to understand the connection between the two stages of the project - Progress 1968 and Progress 2020 - and how you presented these artworks as visual intervention - for instance in the public event in Windrush Square in Brixton in 2019.

Jeff: My name is Jeffrey Lennon, and I run an ongoing project entitled African Street Style, which runs activities and events that celebrates the creative influence of the diaspora. Where possible, we aim to utilise public spaces to demonstrate our work. My background is in urbanism, working for over a decade predominantly in London, on projects which highlight how people can relate to the built environment. Essentially, my interest is around the places in which we live and how people navigate and relate to those places. My background has informed this project that we are about to discuss. Progress 1968 emerged out of my own interests of reflection on how people - the culture and heritage of communities - relate to contemporary life.

In 2017 some discussions emerged on how to mark the 50th anniversary of 1968, with much discussion about what we have learned from 1968 and the relevance of that particular moment. What I felt I wanted to do - recognizing my role as a member of the African diaspora in London - was to deliver a project where we can speak to and represent people who may have experienced what was going on in 1968, providing their particular perspective. We were aware of the possibility of bias, with a focus on the mainstream, the most well-known aspects of that period of time and of the protests which ensued - that is, the student and workers strikes in France, or the civil rights movement in the United States. As we know, the first post-WWII generation were looking at some of the promises made and how their lives were not reflected in those expectations.

I felt there was a need for a global, more balanced dimension to the debate - which included insights in places across Africa and Latin America, as well as some of our ‘global cities’ to highlight issues from this period that are still significant in the life of black people today.

We thus focused on some of the countries across the Caribbean and Africa, which at the time were caught in the middle of the Soviet Union and Chinese communist response to the US influence. Dictatorships in parts of Latin America were beginning to gain momentum in 1968; there were conflicts in parts of Africa - for instance across Biafra, a war that is influential in how we perceive what we know to be Africa today. Lusophone countries were challenging Portuguese rule. We wanted to bring together a narrative for a project and speak to some people who represent these regions, and who are alive today in London

Apart from my personal association with Etienne Joseph,, I chose to partner with Decolonising The Archive because of the importance of the historic narrative for this project. Our brief was ‘how can we use the creative arts to articulate this particular time across the African diaspora?’

Etienne: I am Etienne Joseph, and I am an archivist by profession. My background is in the arts, particularly music. I am one of the founders of Decolonising The Archive (DTA) (www.decolonisingthearchive.com), an organization and ongoing project I co founded seven years ago, not too long after I was trained as an archivist My background is in music, particularly on the so-called traditional music of the African diaspora. I was very acclimatised to history and heritage that are passed on in living ways. So, you learn of the rhythms, songs and dances, and you learn to pick up these elements of a culture in an experiential, visceral way. When I went into studying, as an archivist. I noticed that the idea of what an archive is - the idea of what history is and heritage is - can be quite narrow in that form. I didn't really feel that there was a place for the experience I was coming in from. This is how Decolonising the Archive came about. I guess I was exploring what a developing methodology for working with African and African Diaspora heritage might be - what were those different elements that would involve and expand the idea of what an archive can be. And the reason why I say my background in music was quite important - particularly for this film - are clear, I suppose, if you see the film and reflect on how it has been put together.

Progress (1968) Produced by African Street Style, and Directed by DTA, supported by Imigongo Films.

Progress 1968 for instance, this idea of sampling and mixtapes, of how things are arranged in a sequence and how they speak to each other. And also, I think, how this creative product would then be promoted, how the delivery was organised. We will probably touch upon this later on. I was struck by Jeff's idea of the projection of the film, as something that would happen outdoors in a public space - living it in a different way, rather than as it would normally be aired or screened.

Jeff did touch on 1968 and that whole engagement. I am very interested in that, both as a person of African heritage but also as an archivist. I think that this is a particularly interesting era in quite recent history. A lot of my research in general has touched on elements of what was going on in the United States, in the Americas in general and on the African continent around liberation movements. So, like Jeff, I was interested in that kind of engagement. I was looking at conference proposals and events that were happening around that subject, and I felt too that there was something missing there. So, I was interested in looking at that period and thinking about the kinds of ways of representing a living heritage. A lot of my research explores how heritage is held and transmitted in different ways - through media, through documents, but also within the body and beyond. I was interested in exploring some of those ideas through this vehicle. That is where my engagement starts with the Progress project.

Jeff: Yes, I spoke earlier about urbanism and that significant link between people and place - how we navigate and settle, sometimes unsettle, in the places in which we are raised and live. We developed our thoughts on how to present this project that would connect with this. In 2018 we thought about an installation in a public space (Progress1968 - Installation, Windrush Square, Brixton, UK October 2019 - https://vimeo.com/373366316/9ff1bb44a1). We spent considerable time to discuss the presentation of the archive, and how people could experience this piece of work.

We looked at six areas, regions and cities - London, Paris, Guinea Bissau, Kingston, Rio, and the Biafra region, and we wanted to try to interpret and present all of those locations in slightly different ways.

I just reiterate and support the point Etienne made about how important it is to use different formats of presentation when it comes to issues around history, culture and heritage. For instance, we included a quote from an academic who looked back to 1968, living then in Paris and witnessing what was going on: ‘We didn't expect May 1968 to be the solution’.

This is a fascinating and brilliant perspective, supported by archive footage we found, framed via poetry, and the result is the presentation of something that is well known albeit in a different way. There is a subtlety to that, there is an interest which draws you in, to consider what was going on from a different perspective - not just in terms of the factory workers from the core industries in Paris, or the sexual revolution and everything else. But from the perspective of a young black academic back then in 1968 in Paris.

Using art to reflect on culture and heritage, that in itself, is not unique: there are incredible examples across the arts, that creatively capture moments in history. What we have tried however was to engage very popular contemporary practices of spoken word poetry, movement and music, to inspire and stimulate our inner heritage to people. This is really what Progress 1968 is about. For instance, in the film we include an interview with a lady who worked at a local library, where she shares her perspective and memories of the Biafra war. As an elder, she has a huge amount of experience, culture and heritage within - expressed both in physical form but also intellectual and spiritual thoughts. If you frame that within a creative piece of work, her memory becomes both artistic, yet tangible and defining. Her powerful words and reflections, there is an inspiration there as well as a recognition of who we are.

Etienne: We wanted to make a point about time. And it goes back to thinking about what the archive is, and how history is represented, constructed and I suppose the Eurocentric perception of that. I think there is a lot of unspoken stuff that is going on in the film (Progress 1968) that we have not necessarily fully disclosed. There are little vignettes of what happened in different places in the world in 1968, but also there are references to precolonial African history in there, to Afrofuturism and spirituality. And I think there is something really important about looking at the idea of an archive - or looking at history, at heritage - in this sort of continuum, almost like a spiral or a circle rather than in a linear way. We were intent in making sure that this work was not just ‘this is what happened’ or ‘this is what somebody says happened’, but it is more like ‘this is what happened but also what is happening’. And this is what me, Jeff, and all of the other members of the global African family are kind of living today: we are carrying that within us in some ways in the present. And we are also manifesting it as the future, whether we really know it or not. The idea of calling it Progress and exploring what that really means, is also quite an important aspect of the work. 1968 is a reference point for thinking about ideas of progress, and the various struggles that have been undertaken across the African continent and in the diaspora to advance these ideas. ‘Struggles’ because ideas of African progress tend to be perceived politically and economically as a threat to Euro-American (and latterly, East Asian) power and stability unless they are led from the outside by these entities.

In terms of your question on ‘why 1968?’, the process of putting the film together for me was like a vector of what had happened previously. A wider movement that is coming out at this time but inherently referencing the struggles for emancipation of enslaved Africans, resistance to colonisation of the African continent, the awakening of a Pan-African consciousness - as I earlier mentioned cycles and circles. I think this is part of an even bigger frame - which we can perhaps address another time. But here there was definitely a cycle of reawakening. And for me 1968 - and in general that period of the 60s and early 70s. In relative terms, 1968 is close, it is a time that people can feel and understand - as one of the various awakenings that have happened over the past few hundred years of this kind of perpetual struggle in Africa and the diaspora. I think this focus was important in its own right, but also important in the context of the observance of cyclical patterns in our history.

Jeff: As Etienne raised, our issues are more ephemeral as they are aspects that you cannot sort of immediately touch and see - whether this be Afrofuturism or our lived association, understanding and appreciation of what are important aspects of progress for the diaspora and how they do tap into such issues. I am currently delving into notions of identity, and issues around duality, which I am seeking to pursue and raise in the Progress 2020 phase of the project.

The use of different types of expression is quite powerful. Each element of Progress 1968 is tied together in spoken word poetry by a poet from Sierra Leone in creole language. He reflects on the different perspectives highlighted in that phase of work in 1968 and ties the narrative together through intentionally unfamiliar sound. We could have asked him to just speak the words with great command of English, however, we asked him to articulate and present to the public these moments - which were taking place across the globe, using unfamiliar language terms. It is about challenging the viewer to think about how culture and heritage and our memories of times of historical significance are articulated. It requires some work to bring together what he is saying and how that relates to what you are watching and why. This specific use of poetry - what it does for me - is basically to highlight, to reiterate those differences, the global language of protest, across different regions, and different perspectives. This is supported by a superb soundtrack, completely original, acoustic, bespoke, spontaneous. We challenge people to consider how your mind manifests thought through language and tone, how it will interpret and help inform how people perceive a particular event. It was fascinating to see that within the context of what was essentially a period of social and political upheaval.

I think that a very important aspect of this project was to challenge how historical events are narrated - who owns that narrative and what is the most appropriate narrative and what it actually sounds like. Here it was narrated through our own narrative, to confront a centric view of archive and of time. There is an element of the film that is quiet, it is being reflective. We use a very bold use of imagery of black people, from the young, to our elders, to evoke, demanding you to engage with the visual dynamic of the film. What we did was to make sure that the film itself - even though it is just 20 minutes long and it covers six different regions - allows the viewer to perceive, to feel. And the sounds and the tones support the film.

Additionally, we were committed to inviting all cultures and ethnicities to engage with this work. For instance, for our piece that looked at Rio in 1968, we commissioned a beautiful London-based dancer and choreographer, Adriano Oliveira, to run a workshop with members of the public, to join in a reflective dance and movement session which interpreted feelings of oppression, dictatorship and restriction - of life under military rule. You were part of that. You were part of a choreography, which was highlighting a particular moment in time.

These points are really important because essentially, you do not get many approaches to historical narrative presented in such a way.

Giulia: When did you show the film apart from the Windrush square in 2019?

Jeff: It has been presented by various people online, but the installation in Brixton itself is the only public event so far. We have had a number of people inviting us, suggesting that we should just show the film in a cinema. And I think at some stages that will probably happen. It is however an issue on how we want to promote this. It is very visual and it is audio, and should be considered within the context of a city or an urban environment, with a sense of scale, creating a passive yet a clear public announcement. It is a very immersive experience because the film itself is made that way. I am always thinking of different ways of presenting the film.

Etienne: I don’t think Jeffrey mentioned it, but he ran movement workshops, which were connected to the film project. Our involvement as DTA was very much with the film, we have not necessarily been as involved in some of the other things that have gone on. But then I remember that we were talking about the film and how to present it - for instance, alongside the movement workshops. I think this is one of those visual and sound projects that need to be set in a very living context - and that might be an installation, but also could be activities around it. I am interested in other ways of doing things rather than in a sedentary experience, where people sit and watch - whereby we may be part of it, as immersive and engaging experiences. Those active elements are really important, because we feel them. And there are things that you feel and you transmit, that you are not going to get from just watching the film alone either. So it is a kind of multi-dimensional thing. from a conceptual and methodological standpoint I think it is important to not think of Progress 1968 as just a film.

Giulia: What about galleries and the artworld?

Etienne:I don't know if myself and Jeff agree on this, but personally I am not a huge fan of gallery spaces. I do find galleries as quite challenging spaces to be in, but not necessarily positively challenging. And again, maybe this goes back to my background in music and all of that - there is potential in the gallery space, but there is some life missing. I find that they can be quite exclusionary as well.

Jeff: We are essentially a group of people with our own vocational interests, working together. And as part of any process, we also have slightly different views on how certain things could be presented. In terms of the gallery space, we have had this conversation. I agree that as far as the traditional gallery space - what we know as a gallery space in those institutional placings which are quite dominant, I am deeply uncomfortable about that. That is one reason why I am slightly hesitant about going to a well-known gallery or cultural institution to offer this project as I am not sure there would be any long-term real engagement. And for me, it has to be a two way thing - not just because of the sense of principles I have about these sorts of things, but also because of the topic and the subject which we are talking about. It is not just a commercial transaction or an academic exchange, it is about the value of this type of work. I am reluctant to simply just select on the basis of it being a fine gallery. Producers can engage with institutions about showcasing their work, making sure that any collaboration or partnership is done in an ethical way. And at the moment, I probably need to give it more consideration and reflections.

For instance, showing a lady sharing her memories of running away from the military during the Biafra war, holding herself underwater while some people she knew died. What is it about that really interests you as an institution?

They may offer to use our cinema screen, show to film and have a Q&A afterwards. But for me it is a bit more than that.

Giulia: Let’s now turn to the next stage - from 1968 to 2020.

Jeff: I think we already mentioned that 1968 was a moment of history incredibly significant and represents a living history of this time, for many people who are alive today in London. , which sometimes is not fully appreciated, as these reflections sit within the family or within a tight community. The project is called Progress and whilst highlighting that very sort of turbulent time in history in 1968, we felt the need to also ask the question of what does that mean today for the diaspora. So, again we use a similar format, I should say, of featuring different global cities. This time we worked in Bremen, Germany, in Bologna in Italy and Maputo in Mozambique. Here too we are using different aspects of arts and creativity to interpret a current narrative about identity, culture and heritage.

In Bremen in Germany, we realised a beautiful photo shoot with four women: a politician, a local community leader, a young student, and an artist. They spoke on the subject of culture heritage and identity in Germany, today - following up from the Progress 1968 perspective, as well as framing it within the current experience of people from the diaspora in Germany today.

In Maputo we are working with designers whose trade is in textiles, creating pieces which utilize and celebrate the traditional forms of patterns and textile styling processes. We asked them to use those processes to interpret life as they imagine Maputo today. This creative practice has also reflected what is happening in the North of Mozambique at the moment. About 20 years ago in Cabo Delgado - natural resources were found. Over the last decade these resources have been exploited by global corporate companies which have established there to entrench local work and their economy, extracting this commodity at the expense of local people. Many people have been displaced, and more recently, the extraction process and foreign operatives have departed the region, and works are on pause. There is however a broader issue here. We highlighted 1968 as a critical time for colonial interventions - which caused a lot of problems based on political and historical issues. However some of these issues are still prevalent today. You still have the external industrial colonizer focusing on Africa as a continent because it is rich in resources - and as a result the damage that is caused and suffered amongst local people. We have thus asked this collective of designers to put together and produce a new textile which would reflect this story.

In Bologna, Italy, we asked a young dancer, Dece, to creatively interpret her life as a young half Senegalese half Italian woman. She expressed her multiple identity through her dance and performance, whilst reflecting upon the Italian legacy and its role in colonial interventions.

It has created a fascinating narrative through her perceptions. We have been filming her performing in some of the key historical landmarks in the beautiful city of Bologna. I think what has also been really interesting was Dece’s discussion with her mother on her parents and wider family - which highlighted all of these issues about how different generations perceive and understand the role of Italy in colonial conflict.

In summary, we used photography to look at issues around identity in Bremen, textiles in Maputo to bring together issues of industrialization and neocolonial exploitation, dance and movement in Bologna to reflect on questions of identity, mixed heritage, duality and belonging. Of course, this too, is still an ongoing project.

Giulia: Would you connect (or not) your work to Black Lives Matter?

Jeff: Obviously, what has happened recently with Black Lives Matter has been triggered by a heinous crime, essentially, as well as the visual impact of that. The fact that everybody could see it on social media, has it projected into the consciousness of the world. There is also an undercurrent of activism. Over the last 10-15 years people have been sitting in the squares across the Middle East to manifest to our political leaders - here it is now on to issues around gender equality, the #metoo movement, the treatment of different people, climate change. So, I think there is an undercurrent of people trying to re-formulate, almost re-emphasise and announce their particular positioning within our social construct. I think these informed what happened in Summer 2020 as well as the earlier creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. For those same reasons, I feel that a lot of the work we have been talking about is almost disconnected - Progress 1968 and 2020 - because it is our kids who are informed by those things. Our work is instead not focused on a particular moment on a particular day. which was captured and shared globally sparking a protest. Our work is broader, as it reflects a culmination of a huge number of issues, which resulted in a year long program of activism in 1968.

So, I'm not going to say that it is coincidental, because obviously what happened to George Floyd, and the things which informed Black Lives Matter are predominantly historic. These are the legacies of historical issues, social, economic and political structures which continue to manifest its impact and influence. And obviously, there is a connection between what we have done - which is to highlight a number of these issues and interpret them in our own way through the arts. But what I would not wish to do, is to say that our work is related to Black Lives Matter, because it is highlighting the struggle. I think it could be better used to further contextualize what happened and what is happening around Black Lives Matter today. This is a movement arising from some of the context around the experiences of today's diaspora. So, if we look at what happened in 1968 during the military dictatorship in Brazil, for instance, in Sao Paulo a young person was shot by a member of the military and there were protests and riots as a result. During that time there were a number of leading academics in Brazil, who were really pushing against the government, trying to highlight the disparities in equality around black people from Brazil. So, you could turn around and say ‘well, nothing has changed’, or you could use it to contextualize a number of issues. We spoke about what is happening in Mozambique at the moment. As Etienne says, there is a cycle. As one of the people we spoke to during Progress said: ‘things go in cycles,’ and if you don't address history in the right way, the cycles will just keep on recurring. This was said in the context of what is happening in Brazil, where there is still a huge disparity around people from the black diaspora - the way they are considered in Brazil, the opportunities available to them, as opposed to white people. And that is still happening today.

I don't want to forget that Black Lives Matter was triggered by a cold blooded murder, basically. And we do not want to dismiss that through contextualizing too much about why it did happen. We need to focus on what practical things we are going to do to address the reforms that are necessary in the police across America and beyond. What are we going to do in terms of the role of the police and the military in places like South Africa, Johannesburg? And some of the really aggressive ways that may be pushed through those experiences. And how is that different for people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds? A lot of these things are still happening today and I suppose our film really does capture that as a precursor looking back at 1968 and now in 2020. But I do think there is a difference, because George Floyd is dead, and we need to make sure these sorts of things do not happen again. I do not want us to get lost in discussions regarding points of views, and well-informed rationale for that. Let's instead work together to say what we are going to do. What can we do practically? This is where I am and this is my response if it makes sense.

Etienne: I pretty much agree with Jeff. I mean I think there is a paradox here, as there is clearly a connection, from what we were talking about before in terms of cycles. But also - as Jeff said - to stop at that obvious parallel would be to draw quite a lazy connection. I think the point for me here is to focus on practical actions. I think the actual process of making the film, for me, is part of a kind of wider process of developing a methodology and praxis in my area of expertise. And, ultimately, also of legitimizing it first amongst the people I consider to be my community, and then among other communities. And to me, that is just an important drive for all of us. If people of African heritage occupied a stronger position globally, there would have been a massive kind of political pressure on the US, perhaps even backed by force, to address not just his killing, but countless similar incidents. Global power dynamics are very important. I think that everybody who considers themselves to be of African heritage, through developing and legitimising our various practices - that could be legal, agricultural or educational or whatever - in my case its about history and heritage - is all part of the same movement towards building a stronger global community that does not have to suffer these kinds of injustices. Part of raising the capacity of the African continent, and what it is now acknowledged as the 6th region - the diaspora - to the level where when we face injustice in the UK, or the US, or Germany or wherever, we are confident that we have the collective power and resource to address it politically, economically, artistically, legally or whatever.

So, yes. In a way, for me the film actually touches on certain aspects that connect with the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, but it is mostly intended as an exploration of developing a practice, a wider context, if you like, that extends far beyond a time-bound reactionary movement and is primarily concerned with the repair of the devastation that has been wrought on people of African heritage for many centuries now. I see the film as a tiny part of this project of reconstruction which eventually will see us in fuller control of our immense resources. In that sense then, it is much more expansive than a particular commentary on Black Lives Matter or anything like that although I recognise how people, especially people who have not directly lived in melanated skin, might draw that direct parallel without the additional context I have just offered..

Jeff: One of the things that Black Lives Matter has done and it is continuing to do is to bring together the different interests, vocations and levels of awareness that have often been disparate - as within a certain community, be it the activist, the academic, the artists or the intellectuals. And here it has been all together now, globally. It is bringing all of this together in various ways - from Marcus Rashford making sure kids are fed for lunch, to the BBC saying they are now going to put money into production filmmakers from a certain background. All together, I think, there are very good intentions in that. But I think that we have to make sure we are still focused on what we are trying to do and what we are responding to, and the motivations that drive those who suggest an interest and commitment to responding to BLM. I think sometimes this is already beginning to happen. What we can do in our own ways is to address issues which are important. And I really do not think we can now afford to lose that moment.

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