What kind of a year has 2017 been for you?
It’s been interesting, pretty full on and has yielded a lot of opportunities. There’s a responsibility that comes with that but it’s good to see it happening. It’s also been good to see peers of mine getting the respect and recognition they deserve. Artists like Evan Ifekoya who received an Arts Foundation award for performance and has been working at an incredible rate, and Lubaina [Himid] winning the Turner Prize – that was a real highlight. I hope, though, that this isn’t just a ‘moment’, a trend, for the art world; that it’s not a case of, ‘Hey, we’ve done black this year, now let’s revert back to business as usual’.
What has changed for the better and what, if anything, has changed for the worse?
Better: More people waking up to being politically active, as shown by the response to the snap election. Just seeing the turn out of young people has been heartening and a counterpoint to the narrative of political apathy.
Worse: Witnessing the increased divide between the rich and poor; the separation in the quality of education between state and private schools; the decreased wages for poorer people (and increase for those that are wealthy); the amplified visibility of people sleeping rough on the streets; cuts to public services…
What do you wish hadn’t happened this year?
I really wish that Grenfell hadn’t happened. I wish I hadn’t had to wake up in the morning and check Facebook and see that my friend, Khadija Saye, had written that she wasn’t able to get out of the building; to basically read a message from the last moments before she died. But it’s not simply because of the death of my friend and her mother. It’s the way that people in that building were treated and the way the whole thing was handled. That lack of safety or care or consideration for people of colour and people in working class and impoverished situations – it really doesn’t sit well in my chest. I went to the site afterwards, to the protest march and prayers; to see the way the local community was pulling together without any direct emergency help from the authorities, and that was a beautiful and heartwarming thing. But Chelsea and Kensington Borough Council have huge reserves of money [£274 million, as reported in The Guardian]. To me, that’s ridiculous. That you can’t even keep people safe when you’re taking their money, it’s like some kind of gangster syndicate offering protection and then not giving it.
What do you wish had happened this year, but didn’t?
I so much wish that the Conservative government had been put out of power; that they’d been given a harsh enough blow that they couldn’t come back from.
What would you characterise as your major achievement this year and why?
In terms of my own work – and of course this comes down to additional efforts from people I’ve been working with – my ability to hustle together and build a project, to generate opportunities that connect my current practice in a way that is not just ambitious but is also saying something. So the Relic Traveller project, the major flag commission work with Somerset House – that kind of public-facing project has been an incredible thing. I’m very proud to have been able to say something with the Pan African Flag For The Relic Travellers’ Alliance. These projects have been ten years in the making since I left the Slade, but to see a lot of ideas manifesting has been a really good thing for me; I feel like this has been my best year so far as a practitioner.
Being part of the Diaspora Pavilion in Venice was a great thing, but not just because of showing during the Venice Biennale. The really special thing about it was being able to connect with artists and to develop a relationship on a deeper level: to have met Khadija Saye and build a friendship, and other artists like Paul Maheke and Barby Asante. I think even before Grenfell happened – which has solidified us as a family – being able to have that kind of camaraderie was and is very important. For me, being an artist isn’t about coming into a cold studio on my own and thinking about how I’m going to get a gallery to support what I’m doing. It’s in the communal environment where we can have conversations about the things that connect us and how we move forward. With the way the Diaspora Pavilion addressed ideas of nationalism at the Biennale and more widely, it feels like it was a very timely project and I’m really proud to have been part of it.
Is there anything you’d like to have done this year but haven’t?
I wish I could have got my driver’s licence. My Relic Traveller project involves shooting film footage across the UK and it would have been really good to have a car and be able to drive and find places, rather than paying someone a crazy amount of money just to get somewhere. Also, I’ve started doing karate over the last six months and I wish that I’d got my yellow belt and then orange. I wasn’t able to because I’ve just been too hard at work.
What would make 2018 a better year than 2017?
I want to see more proper opportunities for artists of colour. Don’t get me wrong, to work on an education project is nice, but we all know – and this is going out to the big institutions – that it’s not the big opportunity.
I want to see the Conservative party disintegrate – there are so many people who are being cut down left, right and centre by this government.
And I want to see people with privilege – and that includes me noticing the privilege I have as a man – beginning to use it to work with and help those who don’t. That, to me, is what’s going to make a better new year.
Larry Achiampong was talking to Chris Sharratt
Larry Achiampong’s Pan African Flag For The Relic Travellers’ Alliance will continue to fly above Somerset House, London until 31 January 2018. www.larryachiampong.co.uk
1. Larry Achiampong at Jerwood Space, London, November 2017. Photo: Hydar Dewachi
2. Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, FF Gaiden ESCAPE, 2017, installation view, ‘Untitled: Art On The Conditions Of Our Time’, New Art Exchange, Nottingham. Photo: Bartosz Kali
3. Larry Achiampong, Sunday’s Best, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist