Othello De’ Souza-Hartley’s work is driven by a desire to strip out conventions of gender and race, exposing the vulnerable essence of human existence. On occasion of his first solo show entitled ‘I am’ at Sulger-Buel Gallery, the artist speaks about the inspiration behind his work.
The first three portraits in the show belong to the Masculinity project (2010-2017). The starting point of this long body of work is the concept of masculinity, and how to address its different stereotypes through the confrontation of the naked body. For De’ Souza-Hartley, the original vision behind this work changed with time: “The idea was to get men to go naked. But it took me over a year to get 14 men to go semi naked. The reasons I kept getting were ‘I’m too old’, or guys were shy – one guy called it therapy because he was uncomfortable with his body. I noticed there was this insecurity in the men showing their bodies. They were very self-conscious about their appearance. We always talk about the female gaze and how females have always been sexualised. But the same is happening to men now, whether that is through media or magazines.”
The experience of shooting ‘Masculinity Portraits’ evidenced the vulnerability behind mainstream ideals of masculinity. The findings from these early portraits evolved into subsequent phases of the project, where De’Souza-Hartley started staging his own naked body in spaces associated with masculinity to explore ideas of male vulnerability. The images in the subsequent phases would bring in a very conscious work with performance informed by his background in contemporary dance and theatre.
The first image in this phase is ‘Barber Shop’, a key work to understand De’ Souza-Hartley’s interests: “I started to think about my own self and my own challenges as a male. I started to think about how I find barbershops daunting. They are like a social club, particularly black barbershops. Within that social club there is a lot of bragging and bravado. I thought about these places and how you feel in them. So this was me stripping away all the bravado. Letting it all go and going back to a purer kind of person that you don’t reveal to anyone else.”
The leap from these initial images to the next phase of the project was quite bold, leaving the comfort of London to explore a completely different setting, one unequivocally associated with masculinity in the UK. For Phase 4 of his Masculinity Project, De’ Souza-Hartley travelled to the north of the country. The spark for this phase of the project was a very touching confession which triggered a strong connection: “I was watching a documentary and this Northern guy was sitting in his kitchen and he said by losing his job he felt emasculated, and that stayed in my head. I was doing a lot of the [masculinity] project in London and I felt that it was quite a safe place for me.
But what if I was to go somewhere else outside of my comfort zone? I needed to explore this influence, this inspiration: what life was like for men in the North of England. I started in Middlesbrough, then Wakefield, then and Redcar and then to Teesside. It started with me going up there by myself -no camera- just talking to people and looking at locations, to get an understanding about the North. I made about three journeys up there before I shot these images.”
Following from ‘Barbershop’, ‘Wakefield’ was staged and shot in the northern coalmines, another heavily loaded space. On this instance, the experience of image confronted De’ Souza with his own particular issues: “This is all my own insecurity, as I was thinking they would see me as a black guy and some pretentious artist from the South. I particularly wanted to go to places that are not as multicultural as London. When I met the guys there, they were very supportive. I said ‘you know I’m going to go naked and they were like ‘mate, you know we used to work with 500 guys, and at the end of a shift we all showered together. So this is nothing’. They came and actually watched me making the project and asked questions, they stood there watching, the miners. I had conversations with them after doing the photographs; they said the project expressed how they felt inside. For me it was crossing boundaries between race, which is probably my own insecurities, it was just men talking about what it’s like to be a man and the challenges they faced.
‘Redcar’ sums up the phase of the project shot in the north. It was shot in the Tata Redcar Steel Plant, which stopped production after 100 years, leaving more than 1000 people jobless. One can trace connections with D’Souza-Hartley’s earlier staged works, but it is clear this time he is thinking of masculinity on a wider scale: “I was thinking about how men up there must feel if they lose everything, that horizon looking out to nothing. And the interesting thing is this is the Tata Steel factory that closed down last year. When this image was shot there was only one remaining furnace working that was just about to close. It is now gone.
Following up from his experience in Wakefield and Redcar, De’Souza-Hartley turned his interest back to his immediate surroundings in London. ‘Before for the last moment’ is his personal take on the connections between masculinity and gang culture: “I’ve been thinking about what’s been happening in London with the whole gang culture, particularly with black youths. I live in East London and I was reading a story about a 17yr old boy that was killed in Hoxton about 2 years ago and it really hit me, this could be my nephew, or one of my students. I think it said something like he was trying to crawl back home. And you hear numerous stories about these boys in gangs who are quite masculine, quite macho but at that point when you’re on the streets and you’re dying, I was thinking about that point, do they revert back to being as vulnerable as a child. So I created this image as a response. And I think he died near here, I don’t know the exact location, but it was here in Hoxton. This is my response to this gang culture, this loneliness and this emptiness of victim after being stabbed.”
‘Before for the last moment’ closes more than five years of work around masculinity. Two subsequent series –I am and Within- show the most recent developments in his work, examining issues beyond masculinity. I am evolved out of a fashion collaboration, and provided the opportunity for De’Souza-Hartley to connect to that same vulnerability from his self portraits, this time focusing on the materiality of afro hair and questioning its role and importance in black women’s identity: “My Grandmother is of mixed heritage Portuguese and black Caribbean. I remember growing up, going to the Caribbean to visit her, and there is this saying in the Caribbean about good hair. For my Grandmother’s generation there’s a link between good hair if mixed.
The idea for this work came when I was working on a fashion project with a dress made out of Afro hair and story that I read about black girls in South Africa being told in a school to straighten their hair. In another incident my friend’s daughter was told at school to put her hair back into one like the rest of the teenagers in her class, but she tried to explain to the teachers that her hair was a short Afro and it would be impossible to tie back into one. My friend had end up going to school to also explain to the teachers. I wanted to make a project about women and their relationship to their hair. I thought, I’ve done a masculinity project I want to do a project about black women being who they are, and being really proud of who they are. Strip away everything, similar to the masculinity project. And this was the result. I did a small series, around six different portraits, where I also interviewed the women. One of them told me when she went home with hair cut off her mum cried. The relationship with hair is still of huge interest for me.”
The final project in the show is ‘Within’, for this exhibition shown as a projection in the downstairs screening room. It is De’ Souza’s most recent project, staged and shot in Uganda as part of a residency at 32 East Ugandan Arts Trust. For De’ Souza-Hartley this was his greatest challenge, to produce work in an environment completely removed from his usual surroundings:
“I didn’t know anything about Uganda, apart from the red soil that I’d heard about.
So I went there with no preconceptions. There’s this idea of Africa, going back to the motherland if you’re from the African Diaspora. But Africa is vast and each country has lots of different ethnic groups. Countries like Uganda were made up by Europe when they were dividing Africa amongst themselves. And I heard that some artists from the African Diaspora have failed when they go to Africa, because they were expecting a homecoming. So I just went there and started from scratch without any preconcieved ideas of Uganda or Africa. The first thing I did was to get hold of the red soil I had heard of, to create an installation. I covered the studio in it. I started from there. I started going to talks, meeting people, and interviewing people. I had an open studio so people could come and talk to me. I realised that the younger generation – who have grown up after the independence are fed up with the narrative ‘poor me’, aids ridden Africa.
I started meeting people who were talking about traditions and getting the younger generation engage with them. I met people from Kenya, and also people from the Caribbean who had moved there, people from all over the world. So I started thinking about a spider’s web and the African diaspora. One day I was walking around and I saw this goat rope. I started playing around with it and hanging it like spider webs in the studio. I wanted to experiment. And it came out like Afro hair after dying it, like braids.
The studio became an installation; People said it was very spiritual and remind them of being back home in their village. They would spend hours in there. So then I started photographing people in the space, I used film lighting, and it gave it another feeling. There was still something missing so I started to research traditional clothes. The difficulty I found from the women I spoke to from different ethnic groups, they would not wear the Gomesi if it were not from their tribe. From my research I read about the Kanzu that was brought into Uganda by the Arabs in the 1800’s. Kings and the wealthy originally wore it. On speaking to a group of women after I mentioned the Kanzu one of them said why couldn’t a woman wear it and she would prefer to wear the Kanzu to a Gomesi (a traditional dress worn in Uganda) not from her ethnic group. I found a local tailor to make a Kanzu but in black, in keeping with my theme using traditional things in a contemporary way. ‘ And said ‘I need it to be able to be worn by men and women.
De Souza-Hartley describes the experience in Uganda as a big change for his work: “We are owning ourselves now. We’re not looking out, we’re looking in to give out rather than looking out and giving out but not getting anything back. That’s why this work is called ‘Within’ because it’s all inside. It’s about people telling their own stories now. I imagine a room full of all these huge portraits looking at you. I got them all to think about changing the narrative while I was photographing them.
One can see a really exciting evolution from the early portraits to the work in Uganda, over almost a decade of constant work. For me, De’ Souza-Hartley is guided by intuition and an urgency to translate his interests into images. Photography allows him to bring together his background in dance, with a clear talent for staging and choreographing scenes. It also allows him to use the body – his sitters’ or his own- as material for expression, to question and explore different issues around gender, race and the preconceptions of different generations. This show is an introduction to his world and interests but also the preface of ambitious projects to come.
Othello de Souza – I am
Sulger-Buel Gallery – 2018