Interview by Louisa Buck

Barby Asante (born 1975, lives and works in London) is an artist, curator, educator and occasional DJ whose work explores the politics and memories of spaces and places and the histories and legacies of colonialism. Her practice is collaborative and performative; she often works with groups and communities to research and tell stories, enact rituals and to unearth and interrogate narratives around society, culture and politics. Asante is co-founder of agency for agency, a London-based collaborative agency concerned with ethics, intersectionality and education in the contemporary arts. She is a board member of the Women’s Art Library and 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning and a PhD Candidate on the University of Westminster’s Cream Doctoral Programme.

Asante appeared in a-n in April 2012, p30 in a review of South London Black Music Archive at Peckham Platform; and in September 2012 in a video on the a-n website in conversation with Sonia Boyce, discussing crossovers between their practices, collective memory building and juggling portfolio careers. In December 2017 Asante featured in a-n’s end-of-year How was it for you? interview series, and in July 2020 took part in Artists Make Change Conversations with curatorial duo Languid Hands.What have been the main changes you’ve experienced as an artist over the last 10 to 20 years?
The main change I have seen is that there is more visibility of artists of colour, queer artists and artists with disabilities. Though I feel cynical about how this has come about and I’m not sure how helpful this visibility has been to these artists, I have seen more POC [people of colour] young people enter art colleges and have similar experiences around their work and the learning they receive while at art college, to those that I had 25+ years ago. But despite the increased visibility of the work of POC, queer and disabled artists, I have also heard many of my colleagues default to sharing knowledges of the same old artists, most of whom are white, male, straight, and in many cases, dead.

When I started working in the arts on education projects I was paid £150 per day. This was in 1997. In a recent frank conversation with other artists, we realised that the average pay offered to artists, for anything from a talk to tech work, to workshops or exhibition fees – if you get them – is still £150.

20 years into the 21st century, what is the role of art and the artist?
I am re-examining my own relationship to art, particularly as the art worlds have been formed through a particular socio-political and historic framework, that I feel they are now really struggling to unlearn. The idea that an arts organisation can decolonise itself by merely adding more artists of colour to its programming is not decolonisation. Decolonisation is not a metaphor! Decolonisation is not diversification!

Over the last 10 to 20 years I have seen many initiatives attempting to address the problem of ‘diversity’ with very little acknowledgement of what created the ‘problem’ in the first place and how the arts – or our understandings and instituting of what we understand as the arts, especially the ‘visual’ arts are deeply rooted in the creation of this ‘problem’. It’s as if the art worlds cannot see their relationship to the histories that brought us to this present. The forgetting of the oppressive systems in which our understanding of what we understand as ‘art’ have been formed: the quests for knowledge and beauty; enlightened connoisseurship, and the pillaging and looting of many of the items from colonised places.I have not forgotten that I was taught ‘The Story of Art’ from EH Gombrich and it did not include me or anyone like me! And although modernism, post-modernism and alter-modernism would hold on to the idea that we have somehow ‘progressed’, I hear the very present cry for us to get back to ‘normal’.  There are people who have never had the privilege of any kind of ‘normality’. I remember that the safety of the ‘normal’ was built on the backs of the many who have never experienced ‘normality’ and have at one time or another been perceived as outside of the ‘normal’, hence the need for ‘normality’ to promote a ‘diversity’ agenda.

And when the shops, restaurants, theatres, galleries and so on cannot open and everyone is working at home, confined to their homes where they have no choice but to see the images of a black man being choked to death by a police officer, that this killing has its historic roots in all that came before. In all that created the comfort and illusion of ‘normality’. So every newly visible death (because there are many invisible ones, physical, mental and soul deaths), every new diversity (decolonising) initiative, brings me to a deeply exasperated exhaustion, followed by a deep and unending feeling of grief.

As poet Nayyirah Waheed has written, “anger is often grief that has been silent for too long”. Thank Goddess that Audre [Lorde] has given us direction in how to respond to the anger that racism feeds in the ‘POETRY’ that is not a ‘LUXURY’ but the very life force that enables black women to continue to dream ourselves into being!In a recent article for the Ford Foundation and Hyperallergic Coco Fusco wrote, “equity won’t be achieved by a new biennial, another emerging artist of colour survey, or a record auction sale by a Black artist”. Yet these tropes are forever repeating and I have no doubt that there is much planning for much of the same behind the scenes at this very moment as arts organisations imagine what they might do in the future to address the systemic inequalities made visible in the global enforced confinement that the COVID-19 pandemic has found us in.

Because of this continued repetition, I cannot give a simple answer to the role of art or the artist in the 21st century, because those things that were supposed to change have not changed and the repetition continues as the stuck record turns its revolutions, while many pine for a real revolution but don’t know how to start one and if they did, they wouldn’t want to be on the frontlines of that revolution.

If I can offer anything to this question right now, it is that everyone needs to go to their edges and step through or over to the other side and feel the discomfort of what is there. Things cannot stay the same. Decolonisation is not adding some colour to your collection, board or curriculum. It is deep and painful work! To borrow from the statement that curatorial duo Languid Hands put out as part of their 2020/21 Cubitt Curatorial Fellowship: what does it mean “to curate (from Latin cura ‘care’) for the work (and lives) of Black people?” I could add other ‘marginalised’ groups but as a Black woman, I’m with Languid Hands on asking this particular question. Because as the Combahee River Collective states, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”Can this level of understanding of what it means to care be something that can be lived in the art worlds? Do the art worlds need to be remade in order to really attend to the amount of unlearning and care that needs to happen in order to create a truly just and decolonised world? Would the artworlds be willing to undo all the systems of oppression that they are part of, uphold or support? I don’t want to be one of the ones who hold the answers. And I have been very willing in my life and my time here as an artist to continually ask the questions and I will continue to do so, until my breath has run out!

To close, I will draw on the words of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, words I have often shared with my students; words I have often shared within workshops and in talks; words that resonate in my ears when I think about what I am doing with my work. These words are: “We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything.” This is where we might think about how we work together, working from this position to think about the role of art, arts institutions and artists and what our roles are, need to be and could be in the future.

Header: Barby Asante at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, Propositions 10, Instituting Otherwise. Photo: Tom Janssen.
1. Barby Asante at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, Propositions 10, Instituting Otherwise. Photo: Tom Janssen.
2. Barby Asante, South London Black Music Archive, Peckham Platform, 2012.
3. Barby Asante, Declaration of Independence, Bergen Kunstall, 2020.
4. Intimacy and Distance, Diaspora Pavilion, 2017.

Louisa Buck is a writer and broadcaster on contemporary art. She has been London Contemporary Art Correspondent for The Art Newspaper since 1997. She is a regular reviewer and commentator on BBC radio and TV. As an author she has written catalogue essays for institutions including Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, ICA London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 2016, she authored The Going Public Report for Museums Sheffield. Her books include Moving Targets 2: A User’s Guide to British Art Now (2000), Market Matters: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Art Market (2004), Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook (2006), and Commissioning Contemporary Art: A Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists (2012). She was a Turner Prize judge in 2005.