I confess. I didn’t know that Berto Pasuka existed until 2017.
But when BlackOut asked me to give the inaugural Berto Pasuka Lecture this Friday (15th Feb) I couldn’t say no!
I’ve been making a song and dance since 1992 and have worked with the Architectural Association Interprofessional studio on an interdisciplinary spatial design programme since 2008. Technically, this is in my wheelhouse. To deliver a lecture in a major art space is transporting enough, but I feel that I’ve been given an enormous responsibility this time; hence the nerves.
Berto Pasuka (1911 – 1963) was a Jamaican dancer who came to London in 1939, founder of The Ballet Negres, the first Black dance company in Britain. He was something of a celebrity in his day, more recently obscured by time and popular histories, so kudos to BlackOut for returning him to the public eye.
The National Portrait Gallery houses a collection of Berto Pasuka images, the British Film Institute holds performance footage; and more recently, Tate Britain featured him alongside the jail door of Oscar Wilde’s Reading Gaol cell, Pre Raphaelites and Francis Bacon as part of the exhibition Queer British Art 1861 – 1967.
Black queer men in the UK do have a historical presence. However, it rarely gains the platform in prestigious institutions like the National Portrait Gallery to be explored. I want to make sure I use the space well. Attempting to address Black, gay or queer experience in the forty-five minutes I’ve been given – even if it is an immersive experience – is an almighty head spin. Even though a lecture is in essence ephemeral, you don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of the history of Black Gay Britons!
Seeking to address my nerves, and to ground my thinking in current realities, I decided to approach the lecture by speaking with Black bi- and gay men about where we are at this singular moment in history.
One of the first people I spoke to was friend and artist Ajamu X who put me right straightaway. Ajamu gets on with it. He’s conscious. He creates great art, and as one half of rukus! with Topher Campbell has established a vital legacy – a Black LGBT archive that is now housed at the London Metropolitan Archive. It has been a major source of inspiration, providing context for the lecture.
Ajamu took one look at a related blurb I’d posted on Facebook in which I alluded to “racism” and “marginalisation,” and he scoffed at the mention of both. That’s me told! He said that he was over hearing that stuff. He expressed impatience with the surplus column inches given over to an easy victim narrative and lamented the absence of a counter narrative.
With Ajamu’s reminder that ‘There is more to the lived experience of identifying as Black and gay than being Black and gay‘, I left the conversation wanting to craft something interesting, rich, surprising, and sexy; and why not?
Even though the archives, histories and biographies are not always readily accessible, they do exist, and there are diligent guardians seeing to it that those histories are used as a source of inspiration. Along with the rukus! Black LGBT Archive, the Haringey Vanguard project is extending Black LGBT archives through a local lens, while BlackOut starts its Lessons in The Life project next month – operationalising what we have learned from our histories to inform current concerns.
Academic historian, Dr Gemma Romain, a friend of BlackOut, has recently been awarded a Paul Mellon Fellowship to complete her definitive study Berto Pasuka and Queer Black British Art. I’m looking forward to reading the outcome and finding out more about this remarkable man’s life.
I’ve been in contact with more people since the chat with Ajamu. The main issue so far, with sitters approached for imagery and biography, is that they are friends of an age, but I have reached out to young’uns, as it were, and they are not exactly backwards in coming forwards.
Performance, the AAIS, the National Portrait Gallery and the Wallace Collection, and a life changing four years studying the History of Western Art and Architecture, have all given me a taste for performance presentation using spoken word and song; sourcing appropriate composition, in this case Black composition from the US and the UK, and adapting conversation to it. A large screen will stream images while I speak; this time, a cavalcade of beautiful portraits of Black queer Men.
The aim is drama and entertainment, less dry than tired lecture “conventions” like to dictate. Being a student of art or architectural histories does not mean that one has to execute something as leaden as a Gothic cathedral lecture can be. As I said to a friend at the end of the Birkbeck course – where I pretty much overdosed on Renaissance modules – “I’ve spent the last four years studying dead Europeans.”
Thank you BlackOut. What you do is invaluable – even if I made the mistake of suggesting that you have events in major art spaces, only to find myself panicking about doing the right thing as a consequence.