Jenny Davis

Diary 4 December 2004

Well, we had our mid term evaluation. It was wonderful to see Gloria and Dalila and get a sense of their work so far. It's very exciting and really intriguing how different our projects are. It knocks that irritating myth on the head as to how homogenous 'Black' people are supposed to be. There will be similarities and overlaps obviously but what Thursday proved was that we are essentially individualistic in our take on our worlds.

Thursday also made me look again at my work. I've used certain images as a sort of shorthand but they are...I have to admit this...really tired. The slave ship, the middle passage map. I feel rather vulnerable in writing this. I also realised that I haven't exactly been using these pages to their full benefit. The thinking churns on and relentlessly on in my head and in my journal...but to put them online is just too exposing. But then who am I kidding?? What did I think would happen come February. As I start to talk about the ideas...I get that gremlin's voice sometimes sniggering at the side of my laptop....'need a map cos you've disappeared up yer arse again'.

Sometimes it just feels a bit pointless. Who's going to see this anyway? And it's hardly likely to make a dent in MTV's conscience and play schedule. Oooh we've just seen Jenny Davis' radical work on sexism...we must stop doing it! We've been bad boys...I mean boyz.

Drove to Clevedon to film the sea, and pulled over en route to film whatever took my interest...from razor wire on a church wall to yet more tree trunks and primary colour milk crates. And all the while I kept thinking, 'what's feminism got to do with this?' Am I digressing cause I love using this camera?

 

I filmed with mum last week, and daughter and friend. And it was so hard not to direct them and just let them film what they wanted. I thought why the hell am I doing this...I should just tell them what I think should be filmed. Some female angst about the Black woman's condition please, not more bloody shots looking up Stapleton Road. And then there was the dangled carrot from my mum that she wanted to film a favourite walk she liked to take. The walk it transpired was just 3 minutes away on the corner of her street...and the view was the hills behind the neighbouring grey council estate. Is that it? I rather ungraciously said. But you see the point of this story...my mum's...is that she is probably the only Black family who live in this Welsh town of Pontypool. A misguided sense that the Welsh hills reminded her of St. Vincent is what brought her here in 1979. The fact that I spent 18 of some of the worst months in my life living there in '79/80...was enough to give me a glimpse of what kind of life she could expect living in a very insular white community. She has fought on and obstinately carved something of a niche for herself. However the 3 minute walk felt like the accumulation of all that experience. The 3 minute walk illustrated for me the parameters of my mother's 'freedom' after 25 years. She has given Pontypool some of her best years, living there even longer than in her home country.

I've been finding myself drawn increasingly to my mum's personal narrative...I've been struggling under the weight of this for a while...denying that I needed to go to the depth it requires. Requires? Strange. I have been skirting around my mum for decades now in one way or another. And yet making sense of my self and our relationship means continually committing. Committing to take the plunge and swim with what comes up. I recall saying at the beginning of this project that I didn't want this piece to be a social treatise...but neither do I want it to be art as therapy. Art as confessional...yet even as I write this I'm not sure I know what that means. For art to have that resonance as truth we as artists have to plunge into those depths...and swim about in the murk. We find our pearls in the flotsam. That's what other people recognise when they see or read something that has that 'ping' effect. Ping of truth. My ideas are flying around in all directions. I want to explore how history has also shaped who we are and our relationship to each other. So what better than my relationship with my mum. It's funny I keep coming back to this realisation...we are products of our Postcolonial history...we have choices as to who we are now...but to be unconscious of our knee-jerk reactions to our past...keeps us unwittingly victimised in those pasts.

 

It's strange how this has converged with a difficult point in my novel. I have been asked by my agent to do another rewrite. She had found there was no emotional vulnerability in the adult narrator: "It was as if she had erected a wall...a wall of articulate words...to keep the reader out." My agent had seen through my survival mechanism - well it's worked pretty well up till now. I can coast beautifully on a page...dazzle the reader with choice imagery and breathy description. But I am just fooling myself when I do this. When I leave my heart out of it.

 

I very much liked hearing Tracy Emin on Desert Island Discs. She is feisty, plucky, bold and unapologetically herself. She was there warts and all relating one of her chosen records to the memory of not having had sex for 18 months. The comparatively prim Sue Lawley talked about the artist's use of personal objects, her uncle's cigarette packet being an example, which have meaning for the artist....but the question was there...about making confessional art...art out of therapy... and even if it has meaning for the artist why the bloody hell should it matter to the viewing public. The significance of the cigarette packet revealed itself when the artist told us that her uncle had this with him when he died in a traffic accident.

I think Tracy Emin was simply doing what is common fare for any self respecting artist. We make stories and create meaning from the supposed ordinary. In filming at my mum's I see the back stories of her existence in everything from her sewing machine, her dog-eared bible to the subsidence cracks in her living room wall. And all the while I keep thinking, what's feminism got to do with this? I know the answer is possibly blindingly obvious but I'm up too close to see properly. I'm feeling a bit tangled in me own tapestry.

The personal is political...that old chestnut...and my mum's picture smiles at me from my window sill as I write this. I have to keep returning to personal narratives again and again...that's where the power lies...and that's the only starting point I really understand.

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