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Pitch Black: a recap and review

Pitch Black was a weekly festival that occurred over a month in association with the National Museum Wales. It was a showcase and celebration of Black artists and their work. I attended these sessions, and this blog post is a recap and personal review.

Education is a cornerstone of life with aspects of this coming not only from schools but also museums and other institutes which play a very important role. Heritage is a part of the education in which museums teach and Pitch Black aimed to showcase this in a more unusual and interactive way.

How ‘great’ is Britain?

Our education system fails us all. Schools do not clearly explain the atrocities that led to the UK we know today – one built off the back of slavery and colonisation. Built in prejudice which stems from colonialism perpetuates myths of Britain’s ‘greatness’, to the expense of hearing the histories and experiences of Black and non-Black people of colour. Many white people experience some degree of discomfort when Black people challenge this status quo, are these two experiences connected?

Pitch Black, in my opinion, was a platform to allow Black artists to express themselves and force the audience to question certain aspects of our collective past. It is meant to make us see the Black narratives and experiences in what we perceive as mostly white history.  Most people want to ignore and hide away from the past, but this festival is taking place to showcase to everyone that Black artists are taking a stand and will not be silenced.

A range of beautifully dynamic and thought-provoking pieces were completed over the four weeks of the Pitch Black showcase, ranging from a cine-poem to dance and visual arts pieces. Each piece had a distinctive voice and message that the artists was trying to purvey, and this came across clearly and very visibly. The artists Q and As also allowed the audience to be further involved with the process and history of the performances.

The Black art and artefacts tours that investigated the museum’s collections, highlighting previously neglected stories, was also highly eye opening as it showed just how two dimensional complex museum collections have been curated and viewed. Even though I feel I had quite a good education about Black History, the slave trade and issues of colonialism. I had very little knowledge of to the deeper meanings behind the paintings and artefacts that were explained and described in the tours. Education in the United Kingdom does not prepare you for the harrowing sides of British history and culture. From David Hockney to Henri Gaudier- Brzeska the art world has many Black influences which are never discussed and are basically hidden from public consumption. Is this simply the United Kingdom’s way of systematically ignoring the country's past? Education is key and through art, education is what the viewer receives.

This education needs to be delivered in the right way - representing the viewpoints of those it affects the most. Not watered down, not worrying about people's reactions, but true, raw and honest. The artists, their families and ancestors had to go through so much to be where they are today and yet many of the workshops and pieces still had one central message: Hope.

Pitch Black showcased that while colonialism and slavery are essentially white heritage – a legacy of what Britain and other colonial forces did, the heritage and legacy of Black communities is resilience;  the will to keep fighting, to celebrate their strength and beauty and retain Hope. Pitch Black did not dwell on the negatives. Yes, these artists could have focused on this aspect of their journeys, but the beauty was more prevalent. Of course, discrimination and racism was presented to the viewers but also ideas of home and family, which all came across as a beacon of positivity.

The platform of Pitch Black has allowed Black artists to showcase their stories and work. Having many voices from many differing backgrounds allows for a richer life experience. Every aspect of everyone’s lives can benefit from a multicultural input and art, heritage and culture are no different. The UK is a melting pot for different nationalities and races, this comes with difficult historical legacies and everyday challenges that we need to work together to acknowledge, challenge and overcome.  We need to recognise how uneducated many of us really are on Black history and experiences, we need to challenge our own prejudices and deepen our insight and capacity for empathy – art and in particular the Pitch Black showcase can provide new experiences and insights, help us to broaden our horizons.

As for the individual pieces I took something different away from each one. June Campbell – Davies’ piece made me very emotional. The story that was told was so honest and heartbreaking. It was very contemporary, and the message was subtle but so much history was packed into the short performance. With the camera panning to some of the portraits surrounding the room I got a real sense that this performance in this room was reclaiming space that had for too long been denied to Black people and their stories. This piece being called ‘Sometimes we are Invisible’ was a very apt name as when the performance was over the materials and chairs which were used were all that was left. The complete removal of June from the scene made the set even more atmospheric. There was also a voice over to the piece which had snippets about Britain from the past. The whole performance was a little unnerving as you never knew what exactly was going to happen next. It was so well presented and really resonated with me and made me think of so much, not just whilst watching but also after. This piece really left you asking questions and rethinking everything.

Gabin Kongolo had his work focused on in week two. His cine poem entitled ‘Ndáko’ which means ‘Home’ in Lingala focused on the journey of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Wales. Even though the start was more down beaten as the piece went on it became more and more hopeful. The issues were shared it in such a personal way. Also, the mix of Lingala and English tied the piece to the artist's roots, and I felt like this gave a better insight to the culture and made the piece even more hard hitting. Even the music throughout mirrors the happiness of the family. What I loved about this piece is the joy you can see on the families faces and the stories that Kongolo told in the artists Q and A, they were so lovely, and I am sure made the whole audience think of home.

‘The ocean is always looking for a way into your boat’ by Omikemi puts you on edge from the minute it starts. The sounds of waves and percussion made you worried for the characters involved. This spoken poem highlights the idea of loss and the struggles in life, but also how you are able to dream beyond this and find yourself and others. I personally felt that the whole piece was quite organic and natural. I went away from watching the video feeling slightly saddened but understanding that the artist was looking for an improved future. I love the root of this piece as it is an interesting starting point, looking from a care background but I feel that this adds to the effect of the piece on the viewer but also with links to the LGBTQIA+ and disabled communities there are many accessible aspects for many different groups of people.

For the final week Yvonne Connikie was in the spotlight with her piece entitled ‘A time for new dreams’ which focused on the Windrush generation in South Wales. The inclusion of actors of multiple ages and genders gave this piece a unique twist as it tried to give some insight to a whole community and made the piece interesting to watch. From the little child to the elder individuals I felt many different emotions as you reacted differently to every person included in the piece. The idea of dreams is so open, and it really allows the viewers to see the people better and dreams are so personal and sharing them feels almost like you are now holding a secret with these people. The changing of season and backgrounds which can be seen in the video gave you a real sense of time. Dreams are not granted overnight but rather dreams are the future. I think the biggest take away with Connikie’s work for me was the sense of peace.

Overall, Pitch Black was an eye-opening experience for me. It perfectly highlighted the duality of being Black in Wales and was a highly accessible way of learning more about Black lives and art. For more information on the showcase please go to: https://museum.wales/whatson/digital/11289/Lates-PITCH-BLACK/ 

This blog was written by one of our Amgueddfa Cymru Producers. Youthled projects across the museum are part of the Hands on Heritage initiative, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund's Kick the Dust Grant.

To see more of Pitch Black and other projects we run, follow us on Instagram @bloedd_ac https://www.instagram.com/bloedd_ac/ and check out our website to find out more about how young people can get involved Young people | National Museum Wales 

Thanks to The Fund and all our National Lottery Players - keeping our fingers crossed for you! 

Dr Sarah Younan

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