Reimagining Black Female Trauma in Victorian Times
By Maya Acharya
Who is Lady Sarah Forbes Bonnetta? That is what visual artist and performer, Heather Agyepong, asked herself after unearthing a small, faded carte-de-visite at an exhibit in London. The discovery led to creation of Too Many Blackamoors, a photographic series of portraits that explore the little known life of Sarah Forbes, whose family were killed by colonisers before she was taken from West Africa to England and presented to the Queen Vitoria as a gift. In this interview with Masq, Heather talks about challenging Black female narratives, and how Sarah’s story entwines with her personal struggles with mental health and racism.
You have a background in psychology - how you first got into art & photography?
I had always wanted to be an actress. Then, when I was sixteen, I suffered from a really bad mental health issue for several years. I had depression, and it totally derailed me. I had to leave school and took a year off to figure things out. After that I still wanted to act but didn’t really have the support around me that I needed to pursue acting, and I was kind of in this weird self-diagnosis. I forgot about acting and thought ‘I really just need to sort myself out’. I was quite hidden about the mental health stuff and didn’t really tell anyone for ages. Anyway, I did psychology at university and it just got worse and worse for me. I was in and out of hospital, and then, when I was nineteen, I felt the need to do something creative, which is when I picked up a camera. It was completely random - I think I watched a Youtube video or something - and the camera became a therapeutic tool for me.
How did you first come across Sarah and what was the process of researching her story?
An organisation called Autograph ABP did this huge exhibition called Black Chronicles, which was about unearthing archival images of the black presence in Britain and the project was called The Missing Chapter. A lot of us perhaps think that people of colour came to Britain sixty or seventy years ago, but actually we have been here for five hundred years, right? I went to the show and it was just… it was exhilarating but it also felt so embarrassing, because I genuinely believed that the first black people came to Britain in the 60s, so it was shocking to see those images. As part of the exhibit they also had carte de visites. I saw Sarah's, and thought ‘who is this woman’? Autograph ABP did a call out for young artists to respond to the work and during that time I found out she was adopted by Queen Victoria, which was just unbelievable. That’s how the focus of my work became about Sarah.
You mention that the portraits reflect some of your own experiences of racism while travelling – could you elaborate a bit on that part of the project’s background?
Previously, a lot of my work wasn’t personal – I tried to make it about other people. I guess I still hadn’t really been open about “hey I suffered from depression for years and years and you guys didn’t know.” So when I first found out about Sarah, I wanted to reflect on how this story related to me. When I was reading her diary and research about her, there was no mention of any sexism, any racism. The whole thing just sounds nuts; like, a black woman is essentially a princess and no one says anything? And that’s when I thought, ‘that is what is missing from black female narratives: we are never shown as vulnerable or struggling’. And I realised that in a way, that was my missing chapter. People don’t talk about my vulnerabilities as a black woman. So the project became about reimagining myself as Sarah, going through my own traumas.
The method you apply - Re-enactment Phototherapy - is really interesting and something I hadn’t come across before. Could you tell me about what it entails specifically and how you experienced the process emotionally?
Of course. So it’s a method developed by Rosy Martin, in collaboration with Jo Spence. Basically, in crude terms, let’s say you have a bad relationship with your mother and you have a family album with a picture of you and her. You take the picture, dress up as your mother in that photo and try to reimagine situations: what you wanted your mother to say, or how you wanted things to be resolved. I loosely used this idea in my project. In each picture there is an item that reminded me of a trauma that I had experienced which triggered a memory. I had a photography mentor working with me, Angela Dennis, who vocalised the specific trauma during that session. That way I could immerse myself in the memory and think about how I felt.
So would she be taking on the role of the aggressor in some cases?
Oh gosh yeah. Definitely. And “what does it make you feel, Heather?”. She’s not a therapist, but I kind of primed her to say things that would trigger those memories, because it was very fresh. I had just come back from a trip to Copenhagen where I had experienced so many micro-aggressions of racism, and was just a complete wreck, which also meant that some depressive feelings resurfaced. I guess for me the end result was being able to visualise the traumas. Because these aggressions towards black women are something I hear about, but I don’t really see them, and seeing them is important for it to feel ok, I guess.
I think it’s interesting that you talk about micro aggressions as trauma. There seems to be a lot of erasure around women of colour when it comes to trauma, but especially when we’re talking about the mundane, the everyday. What do you think about that?
Yeah, I genuinely think they are traumatic. You know when you hear bad news and your heart starts beating faster and you start feeling, kind of, hot? It happens when someone will say, ‘I like your hair, it’s kind of odd’, ‘you don’t really look black’, or ‘where are you really from’. You think ‘oh people say those things all the time’. But internally, it is traumatic. And I think because we don’t deal with these traumas, it can become maladapted behaviour, even later on.
Were there any particularly intense or emotional for you to shoot?
Yes. There’s a picture of me in Doc Martens, which is the one that is related to my trip in Copenhagen. Basically, there were a lot of people staring at me throughout the whole trip. I had my afro out and I mean, I did look kinda fantastic, but, you know. There’s another one of me screaming at the camera. I often don’t say anything in situations of aggression; I just put my head down. So screaming felt really liberating. Even so, I also hate portraying an angry black woman and feeding into that narrative, so simultaneously it felt strange to be yelling like that. It’s this weird dilemma we’re constantly faced with, of how do you respond: am I going to fit their stereotypes of what they think I am or am I just going to accept those microaggresions and internalize them? It’s a daily battle. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but for me it is for sure.
A theme that had already come up in discussing your project, but I think is worth clarifying as many might not think about these things in connection with each other: How do you see the relationship between being black, or a person of colour, and mental health, and why is it important to acknowledge these issues as related?
Well just the stats are crazy shocking. Black males in the UK are seventeen times more likely to suffer from mental health issues than others, and if you're Black you're six times more likely to be an inpatient or sectioned in mental health hospitals. Yet it seems our community believes that we don’t have a problem. Talking to a lot of black women, particularly older black women, I’ve noticed distrust with the National Health Service because of past traumas. In addition, there is this rhetoric of needing to be ‘strong for our men’, and ‘strong for the community’. It’s getting worse and worse and I feel that mental health is something we have to start talking about. It’s slowly killing us. You just need some bold people to come forward about their mental health, to say: ‘I’m depressed’, to normalise it. I guess it’s difficult in all communities, but especially within the black community, it seems incredibly taboo to talk about mental health.
Where do you get support to deal with these issues yourself, when there is so much silence around the topic of Black mental health?
I went to a therapist on and off but that didn’t really work. I guess the issue for that particularly was that they didn’t understand what I was talking about. I’d start sentence with, “Sometimes, being a black woman…”, and the therapist would be like, “What do you mean, being black woman?”. I just couldn’t be bothered to explain and explain. Online communities and community events are my main support. And my friends as well - we now talk about mental health issues openly, and I found out that many of them had suffered with similar things but never told me.
Your project highlights a woman who has been hugely invisible in history books. Where do you think the UK is at the moment in terms of acknowledging colonial history in education, media and other public spaces?
These things keep popping up, and I don’t know if it’s always for the right reasons, but I think people of colour want to know more about their histories because we’re realising that a lot of it is missing. I think it relates to the shock of realising how long we have been here, and that we haven’t been lied to exactly, but we haven’t been told the full story either. So I guess with that demand, comes money. In terms of spaces and funding, history also has an affect. So many places have a dodgy colonial history, like Barclays Bank for example, who helped fund apartheid.
You've made clear that your work is very personal and affected by your experience as a Black woman from the UK. Do you ever feel like your art is labelled as somehow innately representative of the Black British experience, and if so, how do you feel about that?
Initially, it really pissed me off. I went to this photography event that invited young people to do a Master Class, and I was the only person of colour. Of course I bloody was. And they were telling me how my work really represents the Black experience… everyone was white and middle class there. I’ve come to realise that I’m not going to be able to just be a cool artist; this is going to happen constantly. So I want my work to challenge current narratives and what people think my art is going to be. I think it’s about being unapologetically honest. If people of colour are very honest, their experience will not fit a neat stereotype. It will always be a bit of an anomaly, I hope.
To come back to Sarah for the last question, how do you feel about the end result of Too Many Blackamoors and the legacy of Sarah? How would you describe your relationship with her now that the project is done?
I went to Brighton, to the place where she was married and the house she lived in. Actually, I was originally supposed to do the re-enactment phototherapy there, in her house. However that got changed at the last minute, because… I don’t know, it felt so uncomfortable and upsetting. It was this huge white house with pillars, and seeing the mirrors she must have looked in… it was odd. Everything felt so colonial and uncomfortable and I just thought ‘flip, how must she have felt?' All her family are dead, and she has just been plucked from her country. Even wearing the dress we chose to emulate hers felt oppressive. In a way the clothing symbolised how you feel when you’re depressed, really restricted and wanting to escape, but this is your life, so you can’t.
I just wish there was more about Sarah that was recorded. There are only a few photos of her and hardly any research, so I hope the project has added some nuance, to give a clearer picture of her. I hope to have done justice to a fraction of what she experienced.
To see more of Heather’s work, check out her website at: www.heatheragyepong.com