Selina Thompson is a likeable, funny and generous performer. Lyn Gardner wrote, in response to Chewing the Fat (2012) that ‘Thompson is so personable you could eat her up”. However she did follow with an observation that she perceived, ‘glimmers of anger’ in the next show Dark and Lovely (2015). Contemplating the version of Dark and Lovely I saw at Oval House, South London I would say that I saw more than ‘glimmers’ of anger. Thompson has acknowledged that, “I was much more comfortable in Dark and Lovely making people feel uncomfortable”. Thompson shares deeply personal, revealing and unapologetically angry stories. These stories are heartwarming and uplifting but they are also about the myriad of ways in which white society and culture work to remind her that to them she is ‘other’.
Dark and Lovely features ‘The Tumbleweave’, a large igloo-like structure built of Kanekalon hair. Thompson has said that the idea partly came out of a flippant remark she made to an aggravating PR officer- she sarcastically asserted, ‘I’m going to create a giant ball of hair and live in it’ and then found herself obliged to fulfill her promise. In this piece, Thompson invites audience members to join her inside the igloo and help prepare natural conditioners to maintain the health and manageability of her hair. She shares the experience of having hair relaxer applied that was so strong it left her with ‘burning, pain’ and ‘hair damage’. She tells the story of having over-tight cornrows and weaves that left her with terrible eczema. Thompson has raised the question, “do artists focused on race have a responsibility to engage ‘white people’?” and a piece such as this deliberately stages some of this ambivalence. Drawing on the audible murmurs of agreement expressed by the audience at the Ovalhouse, it is clear this work articulates many long-held frustrations.
My next experience of Thompson’s work was in a small room at Toynbee Studios for Race Cards in 2016. Participants were admitted one at a time to a room filled with 1000 mounted cards. Each bore a question about race, society, popular culture and/or identity. They included, “is it better to have an ill-informed conversation about race or none at all?” and “when somebody tells me that I am ‘playing the race card’, what are they really telling me?” The room is dimly lit and encourages an air of seriousness. Each participant is invited to copy one question to take away, and prepare an answer and clip it behind the original. I copy down, ‘can any good come of white guilt?’ and try to argue, as succinctly as I can, that ‘yes, it could be part of a catalyst for change’. This contribution feels inadequate and insufficient. I come away with a feeling of nausea and panic as I realise that my best liberal intentions are often contributing to, rather than countering, an unconscious racism.
I am fortunate to see two versions of Salt. The first in May 2016, only one month after Thompson has returned from her transatlantic journey, and the second in July 2017 after a period of reflection and reworking. Thompson set out to chart the transatlantic slave-trade route between Belgium, Ghana and the Caribbean as a way of remembering and honouring the many who were murdered and brutalised as part of state-sanctioned slavery. The first leg of her journey involves a hellish encounter with a racist Italian captain (who must be addressed as ‘master’), six Italian officers and 19 Filipino crew members. Another black female artist, a filmmaker commissioned to document and film the journey, joins her. The “master” claims that although women are welcome on board as “a distraction” he insists that he would not have agreed to issue the tickets had he known the nature of the project and refuses to release the tickets until they sign a contract agreeing not to film. He asserts, “this is not a slave ship”. Thompson’s antipathy for the Italian master and crew intensifies as she hears them repeat the word ‘nigger’ at the dinner table, to her face and in the corridor outside her cabin door.
Throughout her work Thompson expresses frustration borne of a concurrent desire to ‘push back’ against racism and maintain a dignified, rational demeanor. It is in Salt that her anger is expressed most explicitly. One of the most striking moments of the piece sees Thompson don safety goggles and take an enormous sledgehammer to large pieces of salt rock. She organizes the shattered segments according to size and hammers at them repeatedly, drawing attention to the hierarchies and cycles of oppression emanating from the bullying and abuse passed down the line. This leads ultimately to, ‘two women in a room, you shouting at me, me shouting at you and we’re still at sea in the morning’.
Watching Thompson wield the sledgehammer is both alarming andexhilarating. It is gratifying to see her exorcise her fury and yet the violence of the act is testament to the deep score of the trauma. Thompson has said that as part of her autobiographical work she is ‘excavating the wounds’ and that she needs some time to elapse to make sense of the injury because, ‘you can say much more interesting things about a scar, than you can about a wound’. Thompson is a mesmerising, formidable figure who mines her vulnerability and anger and a whole host of other emotions to give voice to an all too recognisable injustice.
Photo: The Other Richard