Tobi Balogun: Collaborative Arts and Human Rights
In late 2020, I applied for the Create Artist in the Community Scheme Bursary (Collaborative Arts and Human Rights) for my project Black Canvas at what I felt was a crucial point in my development as an artist. I had been living in London for several months through lockdown and had recently taken part in the Create and Counterpoints Arts School on Cultural Diversity and Collaborative Practice, following an internship with UK based mentor Ivan Blackstock.
This research project grew from a desire to explore issues around identity and ethnicity
after the rise of the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement in 2020. In June 2020 we created a project entitled ‘Black and Afro’ in collaboration with local dance/visual artists Kingsley Okapku and Jacek Snowchowski. Our rehearsals were completed through Zoom and we hoped that the artistic elements would cohere successfully on the day. We produced a dance visual combining hip hop and African dance culture to express not only our views towards the stereotypes we faced but also share the joy we felt in being ourselves and knowing who we were.
We acknowledged in the process differences we shared culturally. Everyone pitched in and it became a vivid visual, mixing streetwear with traditional African garments and sonically, a US-based track “Buddy – Black” set the tone followed by a high-energy Afrobeat song.
We realised this was our first time in a collaborative creative process with other black artists. We all acknowledged how incredible the day had felt, not only because we produced such an incredible visual despite the many challenges faced due to a lack of resources, but also because of the strong sense of community, support and belonging we all felt.
This led me to question why these opportunities didn’t happen very often, and why black artists seemed to lack support or a platform that doesn’t feel tokenistic. I wanted to explore this not merely for the creation of enhanced performance, but also to better understand collaboration itself. How could we root our collaborative practices in our own cultural truth and how could that help deepen a sense of community locally?
Beyond that, why were we labelled ‘Black’? Why did it seem that cultures labelled such seemed to be denied validity in the industry, or picked apart for just what was popular,
creating a sense of alienation in the community? In addition to these questions was the feeling of being a dancer in a multicultural and multi-ethnic community. I felt that ‘Black’ was too often focused on ethnicity: in hip hop -a Black cultured artform – unity is everything, and there were other artists who represented other styles within the culture to the fullest, better than I did. Cathy Coughlan suggested extending the Black and Afro project beyond this visual, beyond this moment. With her help, I applied for a Professional Development award and was awarded professional development funding from the Arts Council to work with a UK-based mentor, Ivan Blackstock. Ivan’s work questions how socially disenfranchised young Black men are depicted and represented in British contemporary culture.
During this period of mentorship, I wanted to take time to reflect on new creation processes for Black artists that would allow safe space for more culturally diverse work as well as access to a network of support both nationally and internationally. During this period I also took part in the Create and Counterpoints Arts School on Cultural Diversity and Collaborative Practice, after which I was awarded the Artist in the Community Scheme Bursary Award 2020: Collaborative Arts and Human Rights. The bursary from Create afforded me time to consult with Black artists and communities around this work, to get to know them better as individuals and hear their stories as well as reflections on racial discrimination in Ireland. At the time I chose to move to London which allowed me to have a different experience despite the Covid lockdown. The move allowed me to connect more with the local community, being able to train in a more diverse but also more deeply informed and developed space.
However, following the brief period in London, I felt my focus shift from exploring Black as an identity to an open cultural canvas present in Ireland. Within ‘Blackness’ what cultures were present in Ireland? What forms did Black-Irish culture take and what influenced identity within that? How did lived experience affect factors surrounding Black artists and their careers (whether considered professional or not)? Having experienced the School on Cultural Diversity and Collaborative Practice, I wanted to build upon the discussions and open the space for these conversations in the local community, to get to know the journeys of other Black artists. Most of all to look at how these topics could be addressed.
For phase one of Black Canvas, I sought to speak with Black Artists of varying fields/backgrounds, to allow open space for discussion on identity and their journeys. This involved a recorded series of informal Zoom discussions with a wide variety of Black artists and the communities they work with. These included Tobi Omoteso (Director of Top 8 Dublin Dance Festival and Cois Céim board of directors), Tobi Bello (Visual Artist), Onai Tafuma (Choreographer, Visual Artist), and Favour Odusola (Thespian, multi-disciplinary Artist).
We spoke on topics such as their journey through the Arts/their creative field, how representation or access affected them, and their views on needed support and how we could work more collaboratively. A lot of similarities arose, for instance with Tobi Omoteso and Favour Odusola we had all began our journeys with similar inspirations e.g. movies such as ‘You Got Served’, ‘Stomp The Yard’, Michael Jackson, and Nigerian street styles we’d later infused into our expressive forms. With Onai Tafuma and Tobi Bello we discussed at length the lack of female representation in the industry and how they hoped to highlight the local community through their work.
The AIC Scheme bursary allowed me to identify some key understandings about my area of practice that would impact every aspect of my practice as a collaborating artist. These key learnings also gave me new perspectives on what forms my art could take, for instance through film, through conversation, through collaboration. The understandings that emerged from the bursary period were often a greater and deeper understanding of things I already knew but may have struggled to apply in practice. I emerged with a real clarity on how to move forward with the work in a way that wouldn’t compromise on what I understood as an artist.
These experiences led me to consider how we might collaborate more effectively. Our general research and focus question in discussions was framed as: what is the nature of Black culture and how can this guide collaborative artistic research across our artistic disciplines and across our cultures? Within this general focus question we asked more specifically, what collaborative processes can we develop? And how can self-determination be maintained for artists within collaborative artistic research?
Drawing from the discussions throughout the project, we all felt three main things needed addressing: first, support: support regarding equal access and attempts to bridge the gap presently exposed by social injustices; second, development: to have access to developed cultural mentors. How could we speak for ourselves if never given the opportunity to find our own voice, to understand our roots not from a slavery perspective but from a cultural one? And third, platforming: opportunities to present, to deviate from what is popular, explore our own nuances more deeply and feel valued without the pressures of racial stereotypes.
One possible answer that arose from every discussion was a ‘Black’ led platform showcasing local artists from across Ireland. In November 2020, an opportunity arose to collaborate with Zeda The Architect (Oyindamola Animashaun) a stylist but also producer, director and fashion editor on a highlight moment for the culture. With the help of Cathy Coughlan, we secured funding and support to create SPOTLIGHT: Éire to the World, Commissioned by Project Arts Centre and supported by Arts Council Ireland, Dublin City Arts, and Dublin City Council. Headlined by Black Irish artists from Ireland such as Jafaris (Percy Chamburuka: Musician, Actor), Felispeaks (Felicia Odusanya: Poet), UNQ, alongside acts such as ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ podcast. SPOTLIGHT highlighted a true mix of the Black Irish culture present but underrepresented in the industry.
Through these conversations, I was able to connect more deeply with Favour Odusola, whom I’d met the day we shot ‘Black and Afro’ and he became a key collaborator in my projects. I received an Agility Award from the Arts Council to research the creation of a dance theatre work based on Nigerian Lore, traditional dance and childhood games fused with hip hop cultural/theatre methods. This research was conducted in collaboration with Favour who studied theatre and traditional Arts in Nigeria.What emerged was a work in progress exploring masculinity and cultural narratives through embodied experiences in dance, fusing our vocabulary of Afrobeats and Nigerian traditional dance with hip hop. Over time we will develop the work to incorporate other mediums such as live music, lighting and costume design, drawing more of the Black-Irish artistic community into the process.
We focused our discussions of culture on Nigerian folklore and childhood games, looking at whether there was a similarity or a difference in purpose or expression to Western styles. For example, the similarities between a hip hop accent of a bounce on a two-step in comparison to a shaku shaku and how those subtle changes could inform our storytelling. We also discussed other topics, including differences between childhood games such as hide and seek, known as boju-boju in Yoruba-speaking parts of Nigeria whereby there’s a song within the game, a sort of call and response between the searcher and the children hiding which creates a sense of unity. Our research focused on cross-cultural collaboration in the arts across artistic mediums. Where possible, we drew from my background in hip hop culture and Favour’s in Nigerian Dance, combining ideas such as the cypher with traditional gyration or placing the shoulders of a harlem shake on the fast-paced legwork: a trending dance move that was actually rooted in Nigerian original street styles such as Konto, Galala, and Swo. In similarity to hip hop culture, these were started by steps created to a song which became a social trend and then expanded with each individual bringing their own interpretation and each identity unique within a sea of similarities. One step could trigger a sense of community, regardless of ethnicity.
During the bursary period, I applied for an internship with Altruviolet, a production company in which Ivan Blackstock is the Chief Executive. I was selected alongside 7 others out of 90 applicants to take part in 8 weeks of mentorship, focusing on film-making and content creation. The internship was focused on Ivan’s work around Traplord, discussing topics such as black masculinity, identity, spirituality, the processes involved in Traplord, but also mental health and self-awareness. Urban culture influences in the UK were reflected through the piece. The internship was focused on equipping upcoming Black artists with the skills to make it in the industry and network. I produced and directed a film titled “Ultralight” as part of the internship.
By the end of the bursary period, I had developed a framework for my practice focused on the making of work in a multidisciplinary context. I had developed a much greater sense of what I would need to put in place in the context of my Artistic Direction to seek to redress the systemic barriers facing Black artists. A key outcome of the bursary was the development of an Artist Development Model for collaborators. As a direct result of my bursary learning and conversations, I was able to connect other artists with organisations such as Create and Smashing Times as well as offer support whenever advice was needed.