Dismantling Stereotypes of the Strong Black Woman

Second generation Ghanaian artist Heather Agyepong earned a BSC in Applied Psychology from the University of Kent and an MA in Photography and Urban Cultures at Goldsmiths College, London. Renowned for her series ‘The Gaze on Agbogbloshie’, Agyepong’s interest spans across social justice and how visual culture impacts mental and physical well-being, as well as psychodynamics, performance, re-imagination, the archive and activism. An accomplished photographer, she was awarded the Kirsty MacColl 2014 scholarship, shortlisted for the RPS International Print Exhibition 159 and nominated for the Prix Pictet award. Her work is featured as the promotion image for Black British History at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, UK. Heather Agyepong has recently been selected as one of Talawa Theatre’s MAKE: Sustain Artists of 2017.

Why the transition from psychology to photography?

I always wanted to be an actor but when I started to suffer from issues surrounding my mental health, I became more concerned with mental well-being. Perhaps it was self-diagnosis but I wanted to know how education, images, anything affected people’s ideas about identity. It was definitely not my plan initially but I started to picture myself pursuing a career in clinical psychology, however, I found that photography became a therapeutic way to help me deal with the things I was going through so I stuck with it.

You are a visual artist and performer who lives in London. Please tell us about your experiences of racism as a British Black, and how much the city’s multi-cultural influences have impacted on your work?

Most of my racist experiences haven’t actually happened in Britain but abroad, mostly in European countries and quite recently. I’ve been threatened, chased after with my camera, verbally abused, I mean basically everything. The racism I experience in the UK is with Europeans, which is a shame because it has happened so much to me that I am hyper aware of it more than ever.

As an artist, I’ve never wanted to be that photographer who only talks about race and prejudice but it has been thrust upon me. I would be lying to others and myself if I simply ignored it, and it would serve as an injustice to the people within my community. Nina Simone once said ‘‘An artist’s duty is to reflect the times’’, and right now this is what is in front of me. Living in such a multicultural city as London has just been a blessing I think I wouldn’t be able to deal with, being the only person of colour in a village.

However, after the results of Brexit, I am realising that I am in a bubble. London isn’t a representation of the UK, and I’m discovering how class, education and locale affect the way one relates to ideas around marginalisation and how it’s exhibited. I think I’m going to focus on that for some of my future work.

You have been successful in achieving a balance between a second – generation Ghanaian background that fosters “strict and rigid codes of conduct”, and your sense of liberation obtained from living and working in England. How do you locate your own position in breaking down this ‘in-betweeness’ to scrutinise issues such as the politics of representation, displacement and migration, as well as cultural hybridity?

There is no resolution, I’ve accepted the in-betweenness of it all. I am not fully at home in the UK but not a complete visitor to Ghana, and I’m okay with that. Finding out that there have been people in my position for over 500 years has put me at ease, and that there is also a legacy behind me, diasporic ghosts if you will, that have been through that same transition, un-comfortability and cultural tug of war. I am happy to sit in the middle of these things, like the eye of the storm.

You recently travelled to Ghana, where you produced the body of work ‘Life in Technicolour’, which aims to “discover and challenge the rationality, order and motivations behind the stern, aspirational, spiritualized and prideful nation of Ghana.” What did you discover and how successful was your journey in gaining a better understanding of the Ghanaian people?

I shot that project back in 2012 and it was one of the first times I went to Ghana on my own accord. I just realised that I had suffered from a lot of self-hate growing up with images of West Africa – always desperate, oppressed and chaotic so I attempted to disassociate myself. It was only in my late teens/early twenties that I discovered I had been misled based on issues surrounding power struggles and the capital that is generated from the image of a poverty-stricken Africa.

I began to realise many of the core values my parents raised me on were embedded within the buzzing city of Accra. The work ethic of the street vendors, the mothers carrying their children on their backs, the sharing of food and clothing, the array of Christian scriptures of aspiration, were all great contributions to who I am today. I felt like part of me was here, a part of me felt at home, which I had never experienced before.

Please tell us more about Autograph ABP’s The Missing Chapter project for which you were commissioned to produce ‘Too Many Blackamoorsand how this is a visual response to the project?

The project came from an open call which Autograph ABP was doing for their three-year research project, The Missing Chapter (funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund), which looked at archival materials of Black British presence within the UK. We were encouraged to respond to an image they found in the archives. I wanted to think about how archives could be reimagined to help us with contemporary issues. I wanted to explore the richness of how this material can be used by younger artists to explore the idea of diaspora, which manifested into ‘Too Many Blackamoors’.

On a personal level, Too Many Blackamoors is based on your experiences as a young Black woman, “dealing with the macro and micro traumas of racism encountered while travelling around European countries”, as well as exploring your “internal conflict of falling short of such mainstream ideals.” Please share with us some of these experiences.

As I said before, the majority of those experiences have been in European countries and I realised my brother had travelled to the exact same places but never shared these encounters. I never really told anyone about this until I burst into tears on the phone to my friends a year and a half ago, and low and behold they had been through this exact same thing. I started to think about how historical Black women have been taught to experience little to no pain, allowing slave owners and the like to operate on a lot of women in experimenting new medical techniques. This may support the narrative of Black women being strong, resilient and independent. Although this is a great thing, I don’t consider myself as any of these things, but think they’re never fixed and Black women can be fragile. Going through depression felt particularly lonely as I had never seen a woman who looked like me and who struggled with mental health. In the media, in books, within my family, the women had to support everyone except themselves. I wanted to use the image of Lady Sarah Forbes Bonetta who was adopted by Queen Victoria as a template to explore Black women as fragile, delicate and vulnerable

Your work also revolves around consumer cultures, discussing issues such as the West using Africa as a dumping site for products of technology. Are there also plans in place to raise awareness through your work to curb these illegalities as opposed to only promoting recycling efforts?

I have concerns regarding social justice but all I can do is bring awareness and try to get the right people to take notice. In regards to the project ‘The Gaze on Agbogbloshie’, my main concern was about how people within these contexts – older white men visiting the continent to talk about how awful it is, often dehumanizes the people being photographed. I just wanted to question our duty of care to our subjects if we even acknowledge them at that moment as human beings with a voice, an opinion. I think issues around identity and well-being are more pressing to me right now.

You hold with triple distinction, a BTEC National Diploma in Performance Arts, enjoy dance and movement work and have recently begun to explore playwriting. Do these separate genres converge and/or overlap in your work as a photographer and does any take predominance over the other in your visual expression.

I am definitely a creative in the sense where I try to explore the best medium for the work I want to produce right now it’s mostly performance and visual work as my priorities. I want my work to challenge and empower people even in the tiniest of ways. These are quite odd/difficult times and artists have the license to talk about things, which can often go unsaid, so I just go back and forth between the media. As Toni Morrison said, ‘‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal.’’

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