For me, 2020 has been primarily characterised by an overwhelming feeling of unending-ness. I recently had a conversation with a friend in which we spoke about the undeniable similarities between the Spanish Flu of the early 20th Century and COVID-19 outbreaks. She also mentioned the prevalence of world-wide race riots that happened around the same time as that outbreak. The cyclical nature of these events from which we appear to have learned nothing is heart-breaking to say the least. And this feeling pervades – I see no end to COVID-19-imposed lockdown measures, and I see no end to this civil rights movement. In order to stay sane in these times, it’s important to envisage a world in which the ever-increasing right-wing fades into the darkness, and human rights activists no longer have to exist because human rights are universally accepted without question. When I think about the incredible ability of humanity to consistently and repeatedly forget the past, it becomes more and more difficult to stay optimistic. How long must we fight for justice – and how many times will we be knocked back – before we can rest?
Commissioned as part of Wezi Mhura’s Black Lives Matter mural trail, Sekai Machache’s photography poster exhibition A BREAdTH Apart poignantly comments on the connection between the two pandemics through which we are currently living, “putting them in the same conversation, where they should exist”. This work adorns the boards of Sharing Not Hoarding at Slessor Gardens with sixteen photographs of Black people wearing face masks.
For many months now, we have been reminded that COVID-19 disproportionately affects BAME people. When I spoke to Sekai she described this as; “shocking, but not shocking when you know about systemic racism…enacting its violence on us at all times”, as she referenced the intergenerational effects of unrelenting systemic oppression. Despite this being glaringly obvious to us, research is still being carried out to discover the ‘real’ reason, as though some sort of genetic-predisposition is going to be uncovered, despite this being scientifically impossible. The blindness to how close this errs to eugenics is terrifying.
And to think that the time and money wasted on these reports could be saved if only the Black people with lived experience of systemic oppression were listened to…
Visually, A BREAdTH Apart is overwhelmingly beautiful. Each portrait is bordered by an African pattern which matches the fabric used for the face mask of the person photographed. The result of this is striking, injecting a flurry of vibrancy to Dundee’s waterfront. Furthermore, the mere appearance of sixteen Black faces side by side is a special sight indeed. In a city whose creative sector is alarmingly lacking in Black representation, being able to see so many Black faces in this artwork is truly a gift. Sekai also described the joy this brought her while making the work. Sekai’s photography often takes the form of self-portraits due to a lack of Black people in her life, particularly in Dundee where she was based for twelve years. Sekai was excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with lots of Black people in Scotland, many of whom she met at the BLM protest in Dundee.
Individually, these boards tell an intimate story of each person photographed; collectively they embody the potency of shared experience. Despite their masks we can see their facial expressions. Some are smiling, some are sincere, and all are imploring the onlooker to listen carefully.
If you aren’t Black, simply listen. Listen to us when we tell you our experiences, trust that they are true. Listen to us when we tell you that we know our lives better than you do. Time and time again, we know the answer.
Despite Dundee’s overwhelming lack of involvement in Black History Month, Sekai Machache’s A BREAdTH Apart has proudly been on display at Slessor Gardens throughout October. Black History Month is a yearly reminder of two things: the impressive achievements of many Black people historically and currently; and the societal efforts to push these achievements to the side lines eleven out of twelve months a year.
Sekai told me about how aware she was of the disparity in the way discussions around race take place in Dundee and Scotland’s other large cities. She pointed out, for example, that the BLM Mural Trail had been met with celebration and news coverage in Edinburgh and Glasgow, yet Dundee had so far shied away from creating any fanfare about A BREAdTH Apart. Sekai told me that it “felt weird to be in the position of representing Black History Month in Dundee”, and that she still feels “a sense of responsibility to be the voice of Dundee’s Black people” despite having recently moved to Edinburgh. Sekai also spoke about Dundee’s reluctance to acknowledge its racist past and present, referencing acts of vandalism to her work at Nomas* Projects last September and the George Floyd memorial mural that was defaced earlier this year.
In an almost hilariously ironic act of racism, A BREAdTH Apart was recently torn down. When I first heard about this, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone had been able to look at each face in the eyes, see a person with a whole life and story behind them, and callously tear them down. Sekai imagines this person (or people) to have taken issue with this artwork because they disagreed with its discussion of the relationship between racism and COVID-19, effectively confirming the continued prevalence of racism in a city which often claims to be more progressive than its counterparts.
The upside of this, as Sekai herself has commented, is that the message must have been clearly received, and was evidently powerful enough to piss the racists off! On top of that, A BREAdTH Apart finally received the coverage it deserved, as swathes of people rallied together to raise the funds to reinstall the work, and Dundee was forced to accept the rampant racism it tries so hard to repress.
Sekai was unsurprised at this racist act of vandalism, and rather unbothered. She told me, “I’m just an artist making art. I’m not speaking to racists; I’m speaking to my community.” I think I can confidently say that I speak on behalf of many a Black person in Dundee when I say, “We hear you, we see you, and we thank you, Sekai!”
Words: Saoirse Amira Anis
Images taken by Janice Aitken of reinstated work @janise_aitken. Credits to @sekaimachache and for mask design @feefalarouge (Fiona Catherine Powell) on Instagram.