Through moving image and performance, the London-based artist explores the politics of race and representation.
Growing up in the suburban district of Neasden, northwest London, the British artist Michelle Williams Gamaker found reprieve from her “industrial and gritty” surroundings in the Renaissance and Baroque paintings on show in places such as the National Gallery. “There was this outside-looking-in moment, and going to art school was part of learning what it meant to be in the art world,” she says. “Art school was this life-saving space for me.” Working across the mediums of filmmaking and performance, Michelle has developed a practice that is deeply rooted in activism and social justice, exploring everything from the politics of race and representation to migration, gender identity and the emotional toll of capitalism.
After graduating with a BA in Fine Art from Middlesex University in 2001, Michelle completed a two-year residency at De Ateliers in Amsterdam. She then returned to the UK to do a master’s and PhD at Goldsmiths, where she teaches today, having also worked as an arts educator in institutions such as Camden Art Centre and the Serpentine during her twenties – the “bread and butter”, she says, that helped sustain her practice. Indeed, teaching has become a core part of her work, with her performance art often exploring pedagogy and educational frameworks, and her students sometimes participating directly in her performance pieces.
Fuelled by a lifelong obsession with 20th century British and Hollywood cinema, Michelle creates film works that unpick problematic and colonialist narratives within the history of cinema. The pieces restage segments of classic films to offer alternative endings and place previously sidelined characters of colour in central roles. Dissolution (2019), her recent trilogy of her films House of Women (2017), The Fruit is There to be Eaten (2018) and The Eternal Return (2019), explores characters from the 1947 film Black Narcissus, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. She is currently working on The Bang Straws, a new 16mm film that takes the casting discrimination of Anna May Wong as its starting point. Anna wanted to play the leading role of the Chinese character O-Lan in Sidney Franklin’s 1937 film The Good Earth, but was only offered the role of Lotus, a sex worker (she turned it down). There’s something inherently hopeful about this process of “fictional activism”, as Michelle describes it, with her films opening up another world of possibilities for characters and actors previously destined to play out their marginalised roles throughout history.
Upcoming shows and screenings for the artist include The Silver Wave, a commission for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, which follows the story of Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiak woman who was the sole survivor of a doomed mission to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Circle in 1921. And she’s also working on The Imperial, a coming-of-age film based on her childhood in 1980s London, co-written with her husband, Elan Gamaker.
Through your film works you explore the politics of race and representation, and challenge imperialist narratives within classic cinema. How essential is this process of re-examining history and what drew you to film as the medium for that?
For me, film was this incredible time-travelling agent that turned up in the front room. I actually lived quite vicariously through movies, which is something to do with the glamour of 20th-century film, but I didn’t have the politics that I have today, and I didn’t have a grasp of what I was looking at. In the 1980s, there was a complete lack of Brownness and Blackness on TV, except in these horrid racist British comedy reruns, where the butt of the joke was always the Asian guy. After all these years experiencing my own dose of injustice through different workspaces and society in general, I’ve had to come back to reframe this thing that I’m totally obsessed with. There’s a lot of reappraisal of the past, but I like to invert that and really play with it. I’m deeply interested in the fact that art writing can break down this idea that everything is doomed or a marginalised character has to wait in the wings and can’t take the lead.
Through scriptwriting, restaging and recasting, these works essentially liberate these previously sidelined characters, reimagining new possibilities for them. Can you talk through some of the characters you’ve explored?
From about 2014, I started to think about the idea of a Brown protagonist, one that precisely wasn’t a sidekick any more. I started with the character of Kanchi, a dancing girl in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, played by Jean Simmons, a white actress in brownface. With my film House of Women, I recast to find a south-Asian alternative to play that role. I was also really interested in Sabu, [the actor] who plays alongside Simmons as the prince. He didn’t need makeup because he was Hollywood’s go-to Brown man and appeared in many films, such as The Jungle Book and The Thief of Bagdad. For Distant Relative, my solo show [at Tintype, London] last year, I made a pilgrimage to Sabu’s grave at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills. I turned up at the cemetery wearing this brown taffeta cocktail dress and gold stilettos, probably looking really suspicious. I said, “I’m looking for Sabu’s plot,” and they said, “Erm, why do you want to visit?” I kind of stuttered and said, “It’s just that I’m a distant relative.” In saying that, though it’s in jest, I am clearly making a fictional retrospective bond to these actors.
You’ve worked with the American artist Julia Kouneski and Dutch cultural theorist Mieke Bal for years. What has this process of collaboration brought to your practice as an artist?
Beyond education, collaboration was just a way to not be alone in the art world. Being an artist can be inherently lonely and things happen more quickly in collaboration – it always generates an abundance of work. With Julia Kouneski, I mainly work on the body, therapeutic and sensorial investigations through performance, and I’ve worked with the Dutch theorist Mieke Bal for over 14 years, making experimental films. All of these things feed back into how I make today.
You co-founded the Women of Colour Index (WOCI) Reading Group with Samia Malik and Rehana Zaman, which meets monthly to discuss the work of underrepresented female artists of colour who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. How vital is that as a space to inform contemporary practice?
It’s huge. Can you believe that I got past my PhD before having a kind of awakening about all the artists in that index that I never had access to throughout my whole education. I worked on the project between 2017-2019 and the reading group continues under the lead of Samia Malik. There are incredible artists there – Rita Keegan, who collated it, Chila Kumari Burman, Ingrid Pollard, Sutapa Biswas, Lubaina Himid, Maud Sulter, Symrath Patti, Bhajan Hunjan – their names matter because, for years, they’ve been erased. It’s a travesty that I didn’t have those references. I’m also frustrated at myself that I was so enmeshed in white ideology – it’s so deeply ingrained in everything. There’s so much work for us to do to decolonise the curriculum, but it’s happening already and that’s a joy.
It’s a pretty bleak landscape for the art world at the moment – the current pandemic and recession follow years of cuts to the arts. What are your hopes for the new generation of art graduates that you’ve been teaching?
I think that the older model we were operating on – of gallery representation and some form of individual success – was always a bit of a fallacy. It’s taken me until my late thirties and forties to be able to feel like I command any kind of audience and, even then, it’s very precarious. I’m nervous if students follow that model, but if we can think about more collective ways of working, we’ve probably got a chance at a different kind of art world. I understand we still work within a heavily marketised industry, but if art means that much to you, you will survive – you may just need multiple ways to survive. Some of that has to be socially motivated art that cares about ecology and community. I want artists to work across all spaces, a bit like the Artist Placement Group and initiatives where artists have a say in social reform – we’re actually best placed to do that work. But I also want to see an overthrow of government.
Finally, Harold Offeh, our guest editor for this section, also wanted to ask you a question – what tools, both real and metaphorical, might you employ to either dismantle or construct an aspect of contemporary culture?
In terms of metaphorical tools, we need to have conversations with our spiritual ancestors. I think that some of the answers to our work lie not in running away from our culture but in running towards it. There’s solace in actually being who you are. Then, secondly, reading and watching and listening. That means expanding your reading beyond things that you’re familiar with, but also rereading and watching things that you care about.
Many of us are so schooled in deep, deep capitalism and I hear myself saying, “I need to produce.” But I wonder, what if the slowing down now is about not overproducing, but really only making things carefully, because we just don’t have the resources? How would a film that I make connect to questions that I have about ecology, care for people and race relations and representation? And how could I do that without reinforcing further violence? Hopefully, if my work is slowed down enough and more thoughtful, we’ll start to do that over time.
The DIY Issue is out now, get your own copy here.
13 January 2021