‘Post-Black’; An intimate conversation with Contemporary Artist Ian Barrington By Rayvenn Shaleigha D’Clark
‘Being ‘post-black’ does not mean ‘post-identity‘; it means I’m unwilling to be defined by historical paradigms built by those wielding power to deliver fear and ignorance, and to limit both my humanity and ambition’ (Ian Barrington on 29th March, 2018)
I will admit that it was this single quote – among all the other insightful comments Ian posts to his page – that attracted me to interview this particular artist who I have the pleasure of working alongside during my current MA at Chelsea College of Arts. I guess in stumbling across the aforementioned comment late one night on Facebook in another fit of procrastination as I come to the end of my Masters, I suppose I was struck by the eloquence and thoughtfulness of his commentary. This is not to say that I didn’t hold him in already high esteem, Ian being someone I admire as a proactive and passionate artist, but that – rather ashamedly – the comment was a bit high brow for the likes of Facebook, having garnered an impressive number of likes, admiration and reciprocal commentary. In the ever-evolving conversation surrounding diversity, decolonisation, race and gender in the larger discussion of identity politics that we are all immersed within, I can confess that I found myself not quite understanding what his comment meant. Post-black? What was that I asked myself. Post-identity. The prefix of ‘post-’ always being something that has sent shivers down my spine, especially when employed in a art context, was I post-black? As such I begin, quite obsessively, to backtrack as far back as Facebook will allow me on Ian’s timeline – I justify this in my mind by saying that obsessively scrolling through his timeline for the next 30 minutes is OK because we are actually friends on facebook so it not really the same level of stalking. Thus I muster up the courage to send Ian a message.
What is is to be ‘post-Black’?
What is is to be ‘post-identity’?
Does this bare any relationship to the concept of ‘post-radicalism’ that I have only begun to explore in more detail this year? And of course all of these burning questions spilled out into my haphazard attempt at proposing this interview; his response, a cooly worded ‘of course’ hits my inbox the next day. My personal reading of identifying as post-black is to (re-)consider black identity in the 21st century. An act ofdistancing the self from the fundamentals of blackness itself, therefore redefining the complex notions contained within it, pertaining to and juxtaposed against societal definitions within this current millenia. However, it become strikingly clear that any attempt to define it more than likely results in the merging of definitions to find an identity imposed by the wider culture, whilst fundamentally at odds with the definitionary authenticity of blackness* I of course do the necessary prep; my first port of call his website where I learn of his interests in macro-societal dynamics and themes of identity; through his investigation of simultaneous exclusion and empowerment contained within our sense of individuality – primary to minority groups – the misappropriation and compartmentalisation of identity through institutionalised conventions and paradigms of didactic cultural “norms” becomes a wider focus within Ian’s oeuvre. In his ongoing inquiry into his own identity within spheres typically limited to western aesthetics – manifesting within architecture and design – his exploration of this concept through materiality, utilising fabric to build abstract structures reflects his line of critical questioning.
Now his commentary makes sense to me. I suppose then Ian’s work hits me with even more immediacy as I begin to understand the way in which he chooses to investigate the notion ‘blackness’ removed from the prescribed aesthetics of black art. In light of all that we are being currently exposed to – the recent Cannes protest by 16 black actresses, the critical and commercial successes of Black Panther, the evolving delusions of Kanye West, the idiocy of Donald Trump surrounded by contemporary feminist discourse, intersectionality, race, class debates – it signals to me the vitality of art within the midst of it all that is yet to reach the world of politics. Whilst ‘the bigger picture can sometimes seem haphazard, imbalanced, discordant… a closer investigation sees its elements, […] the smooth cannot be defined or shaped without the coarse, new and old, all working in unison’ (Barrington, 3rd May, 2018).
I similarly wonder and ask of you all, Given the opportunity, could you curate your identity? (Barrington, 3rd May 2018). What weight does cultural norms regarding race hold in the present. In the strict interplay between modernity and tradition, artificial and bias constructs of society norms permeated within their institutions of critique, who are we? Who are we when we align, define and juxtapose ourselves against the dominant white aesthetic? Surely it is destined to only ever be a chaotic association further complicated by the search for new language through which they can explore new identities that the term post-black typifies. We begin with a conversation of definitions: ‘how do you define yourself?’ Ian asks me. I remain wholly interested in self-declaration versus unconscious labelling. Ian mimicked my sentiments. He continues, describing his practice that within it has interests that are wholly removed from the remit of ‘blackness’ altogether. ‘I don’t always want it to be imposed upon me’ Ian declares. To this, Ian tells me how he is a producer, substituting this noun in place of the title of (black) artist: ‘I just like to produce. I am the colour that I am. And our culture is our culture, and I don’t need to fly it as a flag.’ Here too I must agree that it is not always wanted, necessary or appropriate to reassert this very clear position. ‘Again, it is just another form of segregation’, Ian confirms. ‘I want Ofili to go next to Picasso, not just to be over there, you know, by the staff entrance’. Again, the notion of contemporary ‘othering’ creeps into my mind, as Ian continues to speak of the way in which he perceives the world: ‘I don’t look through my eyes and see the world with a brown haze over it’. And I suppose that what it is. Even in our investigation of self and the discourse surrounding it, that encompasses our background, cultural heritage and our experiences in the everyday, it is the presumption and prejudices of the prevailing white aesthetic that chooses to latch onto the way we communicate this within our work which is problematic.
We are first and foremost informed by the world immediately surrounding us and yet our state is blackness from those who are non-black is imposed upon us, leaving us little choice to be and to do something different. Ian chooses to defy this; to be something else whilst working within the framework that perpetuates it nearly exclusively. And it is here we can insert the notion of post-black(ness). In art, to be post-black is to consider the paradoxical nature of race and racism which are mutually juxtaposed in a way that rejects their interaction altogether. Typifying the post-Civil Rights generation of artists, the term was coined by Thelma Golden – director of Studio Museum in Harlem – and conceptual artist Glenn Ligon in the late 1990s to describe ‘the liberating value in tossing off the immense burden of race-wide representation, the idea that everything they do must speak to or for or about the entire race’ (1990). Explored in more detail in 2001* in which to be a post-black (artist) is to consider those who are ‘adamant about not being labeled ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness. They embrace the dichotomies of high and low, inside and outside, tradition and innovation, with a great ease and facility’ (Golden, 2001). In the exhibition catalogue for the studios exhibition entitled ‘Freestyle’ (2001)*, Golden proclaims, ‘post-black was the new black.’ Ian describes the importance of looking inward; ‘as I looked deeper into the mist I saw myself, all the while I wondered which of the two versions was the original, and whether I created both so I could see my ‘true’ identity, because I am in fact, the mist itself’ (Barrington, April 10th 2018).
Here then, the notion of being post black becomes both powerful and saddening to me. I have come to another realisation; that Ian’s abstract structures play on representations of the black body as both on several levels: as physical objects, as metaphysical subjects and as literal sites of infrastructure reflected in our built environment. His work therefore comes a performance of de-ethnitising his creative practice, instead of perpetuating the prevailing conditions, aesthetics and narratives of blackness. I suppose then in contemplating Ian’s opening statement, in his affirmation of post-blackness l: in his reclamation of race rooted in, but not restricted by, blackness. According to American writer *Touré, ‘this search for an identity derives from being constantly reminded, as a black person, of the status of the other’ (Touré, 2011) . To therefore continue such an investigation, but conducted from a considerable distance from the presumed negativity of the association, we reach a new entry point in identity politics in my opinion. In his overarching unwillingness to be defined by his race and the paradigms of the systems he chooses to operate within, he is liberated; no longer are the limits – both external and internal – of his blackness imposed upon him, casting a ‘brown haze’ over his vision. Here we can locate our dialogue about black identity in the new millennium. ‘Stand back’ declares Ian, ‘I am going to break into the Ivory Tower!’ (Barrington, April, 2018).
Freestyle was an exhibition that included twenty-eight up and coming artists of African American backgrounds. Some suggest the term is attributable to the 1995 book The End of Blackness by Debra Dickerson. *Touré comes to the point that Blackness is too difficult and is too wide-ranging to have a simple definition. In his book, ‘Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness?’ What it Means to be Black Now, Touré claims that Blackness became a constructed identity, to defend themselves efficiently as a group. However, he does not say that post-blackness signifies the end of Blackness, but allows for variation in what Blackness means and can mean to be accepted as the truth. Post-racial denotes to a period or society in which racial prejudice and discrimination no longer exist.
Original interview text
Rayvenn is a reporter, art writer and artist - her work can be found on her website here.
India Local and National Press. Bangla Biennale 2019
Selected Interviews/ Reviews
2019 Bangla Biennale Gestores y Motivedores Voluntarios De Las Artse
2019 Bangla Biennale. Latest World Trends
2019 Bangla Biennale. CNN News 18. National News Channel
2019 Bangla Biennale. Telegraph India. English Newspaper
2019 Komdhara. Sangram Choudhuri Video review,
2019 Bangla Biennale Ananda bazar. Bengali Newspaper
The Knight Agency. Project Review
2012 Unhinged Festival, Croydon Guardian. Report
The Other Art Fair, London