Over the last month we have all been invited to reflect upon the injustices of history. Encouraging a different perspective on the human narrative and highlighting the need for further representation of minority groups within our cultures, institutions, policies and businesses. The education and dismantling of oppressive structures, we could argue, has only just begun in order to rebuild what we hope to consider a more fair and equal world. Seeking to dismantle history as told through a predominantly white patriarchal lens, Valerie Ebuwa actively challenges the current narrative by utilising her own black female body within the historical context of the ‘nude’.
As a dancer Ebuwa has worked with renowned dance companies such as Clod Ensemble and Vincent Dance Theatre, taken part in live performance work for artist Eddie Peake and has even been featured in music videos for Chase & Status and Joy Crookes. However, as a woman of many talents, she is also a model, activist and writer, covering dance reviews and interviews for I am Hip-Hop Magazine and wrote the thought-provoking piece ‘Sometimes We Have to Review The Reviewer’ for Run-Riot.
Bringing together her own life experience and versatile skill set, Ebuwa has been working in collaboration with various creatives to produce content for her ‘ValUE’ project, which aims to encourage positive observations of the black female body. Drawing inspiration from her practice as a dancer, Ebuwa combines her knowledge of movement with her experience of life modelling to create dynamic nude images with photographer Henry Gorse and illustrator Sara Kuan. As a collaborative team they have produced content that seeks to disrupt the continuation of the historical ‘nude’ by weaving Ebuwa’s own nude body into the fabric of art history. Presenting an opportunity to explore the concept of ‘primitivism’ and cultural archetypes, the work also provokes discussion whilst simultaneously celebrating and empowering the black female body.
‘Body Data’, an extension of the ‘ValUE’ project, was due to be shared at the V&A as part of this year’s ‘Performance Festival 2020’. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 the event was cancelled, however, since the project can be viewed digitally Ebuwa has been able to continue sharing her work by utilising social media platforms. To gain further insight, View of the Arts caught up with Valerie Ebuwa to learn more about the experiences and influences that have inspired her work, the importance of diversity within our cultural institutions and how collaboration is key for change.
Photo © Henry Gorse
You have already had great success within your dance career. You have performed with renowned contemporary dance companies, featured in music videos, and even participated in artist Eddie Peake’s live performance work. Have you always aspired to be a dancer?
Aspired would be an understatement. You could not kill my passion for dance. Believe me, I have been tested. When I was three years old, I ran on stage to try and dance with my sister Chi, who was around 10 years old at the time. Chi was performing in a kid version of ‘Fame’ and I somehow got on stage and stood next to her. I didn’t know what to do, but it seemed [as though] I knew I was meant to be on stage. So, I have always known that I wanted to be dancing.
Not only are you a dancer, you are also an activist, writer and a model! Given your recent projects, would you also describe yourself as an artist?
Yes, 1000%. Although I only realised this about two years ago as I had always thought of myself as a performer or dancer first and nothing else. Then I found myself becoming [increasingly] interested in doing other things, which made me question my need to define what I do. I use all these words, activist, writer, model, etc. so that it’s easier for other people to understand the type of art that I favour. Writing is art. Dancing is art. Modelling is art. Activism is art. So yeah, I am an artist.
Within the ‘ValUE’ project you explore the representation of the black female body. Looking upon your experience as a life model, what has life modelling taught you and how has the concept of nudity informed your work?
The general perception of life modelling is that the muse or object is this silent, nameless, beautiful creature that sits, stands or poses in a way that people can capture. They often get little to no recognition and the artist who has captured the model reaps all the rewards and benefits. How often do you see an image of someone, of a muse or model, and have no idea who they are, or what their name is? Instead you may know the photographer or illustrator that captured them. Life models get paid peanuts when they are in fact artists in their own right. The fact that there is such little value placed on a naked body is astounding. The dance world is no different. Dancers often devise, choreograph and perform in work that usually gives them little recognition while the choreographer or director receives all the glory. I’m not saying that all experiences are like this, but what I am saying is that the dynamic contribution between model and artist or performer and director needs to be readdressed. I really feel that there is a way to work where the exchange is more mutually beneficial.
I feel that there is an offer to perform and model my actual life when I think of the words ‘life’ and ‘modelling’. So when I was modelling, I would use what I knew about the body anatomically as well as my knowledge of dance movement to inform my poses. I started to see life modelling as a type of performance, so it would be almost nonsensical to not include it within my own independent work, after all it was a part of my actual life. I started life modelling because I wanted to be able to afford living in London as a freelance dancer and it was an easy way to ensure that I could pay my rent when I was in between projects. London is an expensive city, so being an artist of any calibre is a whirlwind of juggling and measuring the cost of any opportunity. However, I decided to quit life modelling last year, deciding to just model life. Way more fruitful.
Photo © Kirk Truman
Within the project, there is an element of ‘decoding’ the past. Within your texts you draw upon colonialism, religion and art history, breaking it down to challenge and present an alternative. Would you say you seek to provoke the dismantling of such oppressive history? If so, how is this presented within your work?
The ‘ValUE’ project itself contributes to dismantling history. History has always been told through a white lens and this is why when you think about Black history, your thoughts probably go straight to slavery. [However] the reality of Black history is rich in culture. In fact it is the root of all culture and predates colonialism, yet we’re only taught about colonial structures. Black women and particularly the black female nude have been erased throughout art history. So, placing a black female nude in the context of art history, whether in a Virtuvian Man framework or ‘ValUE’ being shown in institutions such as the V&A, is already doing the job of changing history. Which is decoding the past and presenting possibilities of a new future.
‘ValUE’ provokes discussion and debate, which all good art should do in my opinion. I [also] believe that representation is one of the many cures to racism and decoding history. Upon seeing my work that has been placed in multiple contexts, we start to allow black women to be seen which is the opposite of erasure. With no funding at the beginning of this project, there was no way I was going to ask black women to get naked with or for me for free. So, I took the risk of using my black female body as the subject. I took this risk, but somehow it didn’t feel so scary. Maybe a little scary!
‘Body Data’ was due to be featured in the ‘V&A Performance Festival 2020’ (25th April – 3rd May), which was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID-19. The V&A is seen as a prestigious institution, what did this opportunity mean to you?
It felt like an opportunity to really incite thought into the industry as a whole, especially since the V&A is one of the largest art institutions in the world. It also felt quite surreal to be on the same bill as Akram Khan. Not that I should compare myself or my work to anyone, but for my first ever solo independent project to be on the same programme with the likes of Khan, Maeva Berthelot, RAD, Si Rawlinson, etc. made me feel super proud. This festival has a different theme every year and for 2020 it happened to be Dance, and my work got picked. There are thousands of incredible dance artists in the UK, so honoured is the only word [to describe how I felt]. Funnily enough though, I am kind of happy that it got cancelled because I feel that the project is now even better, having had time to refine it. When it does eventually get out into the non-cyber world, I think it will now have an even greater impact.
Do you feel that we need to see more diversity within museums and galleries? What would be the benefits of increased inclusivity?
Yes, it’s essential. Without inclusive structures, we miss and silence so many wonderful stories. Minority communities deserve to be included. I don’t know why that’s such a challenging concept for some people to understand. For so long many Black, BAME, queer, disabled, poor, older, etc. people haven’t been included. It’s also so boring to see the same types of shows, with the same types of people, saying the same types of things all the time. The expression ‘a broken record’ comes to mind. It is called broken for a reason. Things need fixing, restructuring or to simply start again anew.
Since the cancellation of ‘Body Data’ at the V&A, how did you adapt to the lack of accessibility? What platforms have you utilised?
Instagram is free and its usage was already part of the original marketing strategy for the V&A project, so it didn’t feel like an adaptation at all. We all have to make the most use out of the limited resources we have. Of course with Instagram there are some restrictions, but if you’re clever you can work around them. I have somehow managed to put out an entirely nude project! If that’s not proof that you can get around things then I don’t know what is!
The stories feature [on Instagram] is incredible too, because I’ve always enjoyed the notion of storytelling and how it allows you to build a picture for people. The story we all know best is the story of our own lives, and I realised that I could give value to my own life and experiences through my art and sharing that with people. This entire project can be viewed digitally. The illustrations and paintings were initially created on canvas or paper so they do have a physical form, but my friend and favourite content creator, Sarika Thakorlal, kindly took photos and videos of those images. Working digitally has also allowed me to be in multiple places at once, which has meant I could rest my physical body when I needed to. I have a few more platforms that I am about to try out, but I will let you know how they go!
Aside from the dancers that you have already mentioned, what other artists have inspired or influenced your work?
Loads! But to narrow them down – Princess Nokia, Little Simz, Anderson .Paak, Audre Lorde Sidi larbi Cherkoui and Missy Elliott. They all stay true to themselves and aren’t afraid to push boundaries. They’re all pioneers in my opinion and that’s what I strive for. Copying [others work] has always been difficult for me, however, I don’t feel like any of these artists copy anything. They just keep replicating and reframing their own wonderful ideas.
Photo © Henry Gorse
There are a series of images within ‘Body Data’ that were photographed in Hyde Park, which have been titled ‘Positive Primitive’. What was the motivation for creating these images? What is the significance of the word ‘primitive’, and how you have used it?
‘Primitivism’ or to be ‘primitive’ refers to the social structures and way of life of black people before colonial ideas became what we know as the foundation of society today. Primitivism is rooted in Matriarchal structures that can even be seen within the lineage of the ancient Egyptians, whereas Colonialism brought patriarchal structures. When you look up the definition of ‘primitive’ it usually refers to a simpler, more basic way of life [as though] assuming that black people are incapable of complexity and [alludes to the idea] that having a lineage of men is more ideal. By erasing matriarchy and only allowing black people to be seen in multiple modes of submission, primitivism as we now experience it hasn’t been positive or provided black women with any form of capital.
In art history, Picasso was greatly inspired by primitivism, which led to [the movement we now know as] cubism, while Paul Gauguin also pioneered primitivism referring to it as ‘savage art’. However, by referring to this ‘primitive’ way of life as ‘savage’, it immediately dehumanises the people or culture it refers to and actively produces racist ideals and stereotypes.
My favourite definition of ‘primitive’ is [characterised as] being the first or earliest kind of existence. In Catholicism the Garden of Eden was the first place humans existed. Henry and I would have loved to be able to shoot in Kew Gardens and frame it as the ‘London Garden of Eden’, but we knew it simply couldn’t happen. However, a friend of mine also told me that in the 60’s, he and his friends would often be a part of huge groups of people sunbathing nude in Hyde Park. It just seemed like the perfect spot for me to try to reclaim primitivism for what it truly is – Black, matriarchal and positive. That was the motivation.
Embracing that positivity, there is also an image within the project that replicates the Grace Jones ‘Island Life’ album cover that was originally shot by Jean-Paul Goude. What were you trying to recreate within this image or pay tribute to?
Grace Jones for any black female is truly the epitome of excellence. Her career is prolific and she found fame at a time when virtually all TV and media featured only white people. We can still call out problems with representation today as there is still a long way to go, but in the 80’s Grace Jones paved the way for so many of the black artists we all know and love today. My family are big fans of James Bond and seeing her in the 1985 film ‘A View to A Kill’ literally taught all of us that dreams could become reality, even for people as dark as we are. But not only is she an actor, she is also a musician, model and producer, and I also like to think of myself as someone who can do many different things. The pose in the ‘Island Life’ image is a modified yoga pose called dancer’s pose (Natarajasana) and since I am a dancer, it felt right to recreate this. Grace has paved the way for women like me to work with photographers like Henry so of course we had to pay homage to the Queen!
Photo © Henry Gorse
You also utilise many props including balloons and watermelons within the photographs. What is the significance of these items within your work?
Balloons have featured across many different shows or projects throughout my dance career. As ‘ValUE’ is my first independent project, it felt silly not to include balloons since they have been prevalent in my performance practice for a while now. When Henry Gorse and I first collaborated, he and Patricia Villirillo not knowing my previous connection [with balloons] came up with the idea of a balloon-women. The balloons were supposed to represent muscles and strength as well as joy and beauty. I was covered head to toe in nothing but balloons and still to this day, it is one of my favourite images. So, when starting project ‘ValUE’, working with Henry again meant that we had to revisit that somehow. Balloons to me are all about celebration so a celebration of the self had to be in the project.
I have always linked watermelons to the Caribbean and black culture in general (this is perhaps linked to its origin in Africa over some 5000 years ago) and when I looked into the symbolic meaning of watermelons in dreams, it suggested love, intellect, work, but also fertility and sexuality. I’ve always wrestled with the ideas of nudity, sex and reproduction. In my mind, they’re separate ideas although society generally groups them as the same thing. Ideas around parthenogenesis, sex for pleasure vs sex for reproduction and the differences between sexuality and sensuality came to mind when choosing the watermelon as an object within my nude exploration. I also think that the lines on a watermelon resemble stretch marks [on a woman’s body], which I think are natural and beautiful. This provides so many avenues to explore in regards to the expectations placed on female bodies.
You have worked with a variety of photographers, illustrators and art directors across various projects. Is collaboration a key element within your practice?
I always need different perspectives and voices in my work otherwise it is just my thoughts, words and dance all the time. Everything we do is done in collaboration to a certain extent. We’re in collaboration right now. You’re asking me questions, I am answering them and then you will publish this and I will share it. I am the last of five kids so I’ve never really known how to not work in a team or in collaboration. It keeps ideas fresh, but also gives me motivation to work even harder. I’m working for myself, but I am also working for them, the collaborators, because I want their hard work to be acknowledged. I feel that all my collaborators feel the same in that sense. The ‘ValUE’ project in particular I feel is bigger than me, since it is about seeing black female bodies and dismantling oppressive systems. I can’t do that all on my own. So collaboration is key.
Photo © Kirk Truman
Within the ‘ValUE’ project, you have collaborated with illustrator Sara Kuan on a series of illustrations representing your naked body. The drawings denote yoga poses and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. What is the importance of the poses that have been selected?
The importance is that these poses are pretty much the epitome of art or the archetypes of humanity, strength and beauty. When I realised that these images hadn’t previously included black women specifically, I thought a good way to illustrate that point would be through illustrations.
What do you hope your audience will learn or take away from your work?
Archetypes are symbols and we use symbols to form a language in which we use to communicate with others. By creating and reinventing archetypes, we will create a new language of understanding which will allow us to apply compassion to a different experience or perspective. For far too long we have ignored, silenced and erased blackness and it is time for change. We need to value our stories and the stories of others. Everyone deserves to be seen and heard and decoding [the past] is exactly what needs to happen in order for black women to be truly seen and valued. We need to valorize black female bodies and black people in general. My name is Val so I guess I have to be the one to do it and be the change I want to see.
What are you currently working on, or how do you wish to take your work forward?
I am currently finalising the ‘ValUE’ project and working to raise funds to be able to put it out there once it’s all finished. I can’t say for now how I wish to take my work forward because I will be giving away the gag, but big things are in motion and I am super excited. Stay tuned!
Interviewed by Georgina Saunders
Featured photo © Henry Gorse