Diary of a Black Digital Artist, 29 Sept. 04
I interviewed Mrs Atkinson in her flat in London. She talked to me about Amigos, a charity organisation helping refugees to understand their status and deal with everyday life problems such as using the new currency, finding a place of worship, a doctor, etc. She also reminisced about her own feelings of loneliness and alienation during her early days in Britain. She described it as still palpable and her reason for volunteering with Amigos. I could relate since I too was once an aupair drinking coffee alone in a strange city.
I used to eavesdrop on conversations in crowds and wonder if one suspected my true nationality for as long as I did not speak I was one among others. How naïve. A few years ago, I sat in a classroom at the University of Greenwich with three white male students when our tutor (British, white, young, male) made sexist and racist remarks – to whom but me? – I was so stunned, it took me a year to write a letter of complaint. Naturally, I had left by then. Angry and half way through the course, I had made up my mind not to return. Ironically, one of my classmates present at the lecture confided in me later on how he thought such comments were out of order, how it had felt wrong. “Wrong” was exactly how I’d felt for about two hours in that room, I, the only attending black, female, non-British, non-Christian person there to take offence. I eventually confronted the tutor; his response was as follows: he had made the same lecture before and so far no one had accused him of sexism or racism – and jeopardise his or her degree?
Also, I had failed to appreciate his sense of humour – how lame. I remember very little of what he said. What really mattered was how helpless I’d become in that classroom and how I had to will myself to remain rational in the face of outright irrationality. The staff were so intent on avoiding the issue I finally withdrew my complaint and left it only as a serious warning – still naïve?
The shift in my identity, from student to minority, had been a shock. So imbued with the notion of Freedom are we that to construe identity as a “democratic” choice seems almost “right”. We speak of the creation of identity, the renewal of origins and beliefs as if we were blocks of clay. To what extent is that true? I wonder. I was once thought to be of Asian origin by a white person in England because of the colour of my skin while Kuumba and The Watershed questioned my blackness and African heritage from the start. The term “French-Algerian” was something of a mystery to me for a long time. Like any girl, I suppose, to be called “a woman” for the first time was both expected and unforeseeable. The hierarchy of signs with which I present myself, changes according to my interlocutor, my onlooker, my reader; I, on the other hand, have very few means to direct the exchange and the circumstances of what I mean to say.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of course 9/11 have brought Islam to the fore and, talks of conflicts and fundamentalism have replaced the liberal discourse of multiculturalism. In my first film, Portrait #1: Veiled Woman, I tackle the issue of the veil in Islam. My intention is not to polarise the argument but to isolate it from any parti pris, somewhat of an impossible task when it occurs to me that I am perhaps recreating my relationship with Islam through film.