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Barby Asante’s Declaration of Independence Hits The Right Note: An Interview

By Unveilral


Declaration of Independence, Barby Asante. Art installation images. Commissioned by Art on the Underground, 2023. Photo: Thierry Bal.

As I descend the escalators at Bethnal Green, Barby Asante’s recognisable circles intersect triangles with pastels and simple line patterns. It is a pretty and welcome splash of colour that belies its greater symbolism. They represent the circular organising of indigenous communities and interconnected relationships. They have a rhythm to them, like a beat you cannot quite hear, but can feel. Much of the world, especially within activist organising, looks to Black, Indigenous, and other people of Colour (BIPOC) for anti-capitalist formations of structuring community. It is a prescient piece juxtaposed against the unforgiving journey on the tube.

Asante’s Declaration of Independence reached its 10th iteration, commissioned by Art on the Underground. I attended a performance of this piece on the 17th of September inside Stratford train station.

Declaration of Independence takes a group of Women and Non-Binary people of Colour, this time all Transport for London (TFL) workers, to respond to the poem ‘As Always, a Painful Declaration of Independence’ by Ama Ata Aidoo. Ata Aidoo’s Aidoo’s poem explores Ghana ending British colonial rule and seeking liberation.

Declaration of Independence, Barby Asante. Art installation images. Commissioned by Art on the Underground, 2023. Photo: Thierry Bal.

Unveilral: You use circles in your art to represent circular communities that echo the way that BIPOC organised themselves; can you expand on the meaning of them in relation to the space they occupy in London underground tube stations?

Barby Asante: The circle is a symbol of eternal connection. The line of a circle does not have a beginning or an ending. It is a space of holding, of connection, of grounding. In West African traditions the circle represents the connection between the spiritual and the physical worlds. So, when we meet in a circle we are connecting to higher wisdom.

I like to think about the Declaration of Independence as a series of intersecting circles within a wider circle of the overarching project, where over 100 Black and of Colour Women and Non-Binary folx in many places across the world have met through the process of this project and shared their stories, hopes and dreams. I think that the meeting with the group who have joined the circle from TFL, and working within this context, we not only invite into the context of this growing project conversations and links about our various connections that arise from slavery, colonialism, and the subsequent migrations, but also how these migrations exist in a city like London. The transport lines become a metaphor for these journeys. They become layered within the pieces in the stations and the performance script that meanders through different timelines and spaces, revealing how these connections reveal themselves in our everyday lives. We are interconnected. We are interdependent. It’s the core essence of the project.

Declaration of Independence, Barby Asante. Art installation images. Commissioned by Art on the Underground, 2023. Photo: Thierry Bal.

Unveilral: The Declaration of Independence is a long-form project that has seen many iterations and performances. How do you feel the performance at Stratford builds on the previous ones?

Barby Asante: I think I kind of answered this in the previous question, but to add, Declaration of Independence is like a living archive or perhaps a very live question about the ways in which we are connected. An archive in the fact that each performance brings forth new pieces written by the folx that took part in that iteration, and in a sense, these pieces build on those pieces, draw from those pieces, reflect on those pieces and more.

I should also mention here that each and every person who has taken part has also been in some kind of engagement with Ghanaian writer and poet Ama Ata Aidoo’s 1992 poem ‘As Always, a Painful Declaration of Independence’, which speaks of the failure of post-colonial independence projects, who have benefited from this failure, race relations, gender relations and presents us with an ending which is a refusal of this as the given order of things. So, what’s next? DOI is in that question of what is next and perhaps tries to imagine this. The performance in a sense is a live questioning of this presented as a performance. It’s an expression of our presence, evidence of our stories and our imaginings of what is possible, for all of us.

Barby Asante, Declaration of Independence, 2023, Art on the Underground, Stratford Station. Photos: Benedict Johnson

Following Ata Aidoo’s death this year, we see the next generation of pan-African poets and artists such as Barby Asante evolve. The poem also recognises the legacy of ancestors as Women of Colour in the United Kingdom and as part of the land from which they have come. This connection is palpable when one of the performers says, “Who will keep me rooted when you are gone? Cast adrift in Babylon”.

A pivotal part of the recital is contrasting the spiritual connection to nature in opposition to the city. This was the dream of many people who have migrated to the UK, to find work in a country that promised blossoming industry and capital. However, we know now that was not true and we have recently seen new policies introduced by the UK government penalising migrants, particularly those they call “economic” migrants despite the fact they support and carry the country through their labour.

Barby Asante, Declaration of Independence, 2023, Art on the Underground, Stratford Station. Photos: Benedict Johnson

Unveilral: Does the refrain “apologies you were given the wrong directions” play on both the life of a TFL worker and that of the false promises given to the Windrush generation?

Barby Asante: I suppose it could, you would have to ask Alexis who wrote those lines if this is the case, but what I might add is that the conversation about the Windrush generation is a very serious one that sheds light on the deep racism that has been embedded in the UK’s immigration system. People were hoodwinked into believing they belonged only to be deported with no care or compassion for the fact that they had built lives here, that their connections to this place are ancestral, go back a long way and are part of a brutal and continuing history.

I want to add that this is not the only story of such dispassion embedded within these systems, we are witnessing this daily in the narratives around boats, borders, and refugees. These narratives are from the same seeds, and I think are fueled by fear-mongering about the threat of “others”. This is a legacy of slavery and colonialism and an awareness of the brutality committed in these oppressive and atrocious acts, lauded as victories by the powers that be. But as activist and former director of the Institute of Race Relations, Ambalavaner Sivanadan, has said, “We are here because you were there”. This is our interconnectedness. It’s a brutal one, but those people who have migrated or are attempting to are not looking for revenge, they are looking for a means to stay alive. So maybe Alexis’s words have some potency (I’m thinking about how she delivered them during the performance) in the idea that somehow our arrivals here are the result of some sort of wrong direction, given. But we should also remember especially within the context of something like TFL that there was an invitation, an active recruitment of people from former colonies to come to rebuild the ‘motherland’ after the war. And what these folx did was to follow that call.

Declaration of Independence, Barby Asante. Art installation images. Commissioned by Art on the Underground, 2023. Photo: Thierry Bal.

The work that was found by migrants when they arrived could be seen as some of the toughest. Asante shows the variety of roles that Women of Colour took up in the London Underground historically through the archival photographs she selected. For example, the primary portrait she has used is of a ‘fluffer’, whose job it was to clear tracks of dust and debris so that they would not catch light due to friction on the tracks. A dark, dirty, and dangerous job that would not exist in a country without industry. When speaking with the photographer from the performance, they explained that these roles were typically gendered as women’s jobs and often had lower wages.

Fluffer nightcleaner © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Typically, the labour of the working class who create the infrastructure itself is forgotten, but a post-COVID-19 society is starting to realise just how essential certain workers are and beginning to recognise the work they do. Asante successfully uses the TFL archives to do this by plastering the walls of the stations with the photograph of a ‘fluffer’, mask atop her head. She remains unnamed though, which historically was typical of photographs of People of Colour by colonial anthropologists who seemingly did not deem their sitters important enough to name. Asante has given credit to the contributors everywhere possible, from showing who created each line in The Declaration of Independence to her collaboration with Innavisions who created the visuals out of TFL archives.

It is essential to interrogate photographic archives as they are loaded with racial bias, and it is a great addition to this work by Asante to be able to re-invigorate the TFL photography archives through a de-colonial lens, which would not be possible without Art on the Underground. To elevate the working class is imperative right now as wages stagnate, and the UK sees its largest incidence of industrial action in decades. It brings together her aim to show personal as political and how everyday living for some people is a silent revolution. Documentary photography started as a way to create better working conditions during the Industrial Revolution, and Asante’s collaboration with Art on the Underground echoes this sentiment. Together they are striving to improve the lives of people working on and using public transport.

Woman worker© Tfl from the London Transport Museum collection

Unveilral: Can you tell us more about the reasoning behind the photographs you chose?

Barby Asante: I wanted to find images that were ambiguous. Images that spoke to the unexpected spaces that Black, and Women of Colour might be seen, and also images that have people asking questions about what they are doing. The images are of operations, communications, engineering work and tunnel cleaning, but when brought together with the Declaration images created with InnaVisions, the images become part of the speculative conversation of the ongoing project of Declaration of Independence, referencing the past, the present or presence of the work, and of them/of us and the futures that the project is also imagining.

Unveilral: What initially drew you to the Transport for London photography archives?

Barby Asante: I’m interested in the histories and connections that bring Black and Brown folx into Euro-American contexts. The connections are not always legible in the ways in which histories are written. It was definitely something I was going try to explore with the group I was working with, and the fact that Transport for London has such an extensive archive was a great opportunity to think about these connections and especially the role of Black and Women of Colour within the organisation.

A portrait photograph of a young woman, Dee Rodrigues, working at the London Transport Travel Information office, 1991 © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection.

The performance itself interrupts people’s everyday lives. Commuters weaved through the crowd who were waiting for the performance to begin, and we were asked to shuffle forwards, so we did not disrupt them. Many people paused their journey to watch. The harsh industrial metal and glass seem in opposition to the lilting voices. Slow melodic music fills the concourse and colourful vinyls glow.

The audience is taken on a journey, both a day in the life of someone travelling to work or working at the train station, but also that of a migrant coming to the UK for work. The poem, like the patterns across the balcony, weaves the narrative back and forth as each performer tells their story. Lines like “Us African and Caribbeans ploughing through” serve to unite the Black diaspora in the UK. Others such as, “they called it The Commonwealth but there was nothing common about that wealth”, speak to how former colonies are often mineral-rich countries, for example, Ghana was known as the Gold Coast under British rule but did not see the money made from those natural resources.

The performance, despite some technical hitches, was incredibly moving and brought the audience together at the end, where we mingled and discussed what we had learnt and reflected on the performance. It was striking to experience a piece in which people declare their strength in the face of hardships. Asante tackles the important and difficult topics of identity, colonialism, and workers' rights with a deft hand in this far-reaching project. It is through the many collaborations that this project is successful and shows how interdependent we are with each other. She has successfully elevated the voices of people who are otherwise unsung heroes.

You can still catch the visual artworks at Bethnal Green, Notting Hill and Stratford Underground stations until January 2025.



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