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Ask an Artist: Valerie Asiimwe Amani

20 July 2023

Commissioned as part of our summer programme Boundary Encounters, Valerie Asiimwe Amani’s Mkutano // A place for us is an immersive installation which celebrates community through themes of friendship, courage and revival. Inspired by the journals and newsletters of the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD), a pioneering activist network established in 1978, the installation interweaves remixed poetry and text fragments from the journals to explore the different ways in which we support each other.

Here, Amani discusses the work, her inspirations behind it and her invitation to audiences.

Could you explain the meaning behind the title Mkutano // A place for us?

Mkutano is a swahili word for a meetings. I chose it considering both homes and public spaces as places for formal and informal gatherings to take place; gatherings that can result in formation of friendships; shared agreements; or communal support. ‘A place for us’ welcomes the audience to use the installation as a space for reflection – the metaphorical us is without demographic – asking the audience to situate themselves within the us. 

This work was inspired by your research in the Black Cultural Archives, could you speak a little bit about this and particularly your interest in the archival materials of the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD)? 

I came across the OWAAD journals while preparing for a workshop about representation and media. I found them particularly interesting because of the range of contributions they had; from articles about the experience of Black and Asian women in hospitals, to poetry about the complexities of being mixed-race, to comic strips depicting gentrification. There were also calls to help families with deportation notices and articles that educated migrants on their rights. It made me reflect on how important it is to have community support that speaks to diverse experiences of belonging. It was clear that there was not enough council/government support that understood the various needs of these black and brown communities – and they had to fill in the gaps themselves. The journals were also a place for other smaller community groups to publicise their meeting that tackled childcare, education, creative crafts training; such as the Simba Black Women’s Group; United black Women’s action group; and the Southall Black Sisters to mention a few. 

The installation combines textile, moving image, text fragments and a seating area. Could you explain the different materials that you have used and how they relate to one another in the installation? 

I wanted to create a space that was familiar in its use of domestic objects – using texts to link the objects in a way that would make someone feel like they are within an intimate space of a journal or  diary. The use of repurposed curtains and fabric is a way to bring a physical softness into the space; I liked the idea that using pre-owned curtains meant they have existed in homes before – that within the fabric are memories and lives lived. I also imagined the action of opening a cupboard being a mundane one and wanted to mimic this mundanity but with the surprise of having the videos placed inside the cupboard. Usually bathroom cupboards also have mirrors on them and perhaps by taking away the mirror, I’m asking the viewer to try to see themselves through the work. The copper pipes used on the window pieces speak to the healing properties of copper, and the bench is both practical and decorative, acting as both a frame and seating. Together they create an order of actions we do often without much thought; looking out the window; sitting, opening and closing – but within the installation, I hope with the introduction of text and imagery, that these actions are experienced with more intention in how we situate ourselves within a space we share with others. 

Your work often explores how language and place can be used to situate (or isolate) the self within community. Could you talk more about how you have explored this in relation to feminist communities of care that are formed in Whatsapp groups and other digital spaces?

Going through the journals and the smaller community groups that formed made me think of the whatsapp groups (dominantly femme) that I have encountered, groups for financial advice, groups for health and fitness, friendship groups just for chats and memes. It made me consider that these are ways that we engage with feminism ideals on the daily – the support, information and advice shared within these groups eminantes the culture of communing. There are also online pages and newsletters that act as ways for women and queer people to share their experiences of being present in this world – some difficult, some lessons, some just as a reminder that you are not alone. 

This installation is a reflection space on how we restore ourselves, and with whom this restoration happens. Whether with friends or family, on the internet, or internally. The question on the bench asks, “how have you survived for this long” – reminiscing on the people who left families and familiarity behind for hopes of a better life – or right now in a world where we are bombarded with trauma – consistent bad news and hate speech. How do we keep love as our foundation? How can we return to community, kindness and mutual care?

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