“A critical examination of the relationship between materiality and the Black psyche.”
When we think about what it means to breathe in 2021, the shadows of the trauma of the global pandemic and the brutal violence of a relentless procession of contemporary manifestations of structural racism loom large. The effects of COVID-19 are inextricably linked with the act of breathing in the present day, just as is the memory of George Floyd, who was murdered by a white police officer with a knee on his neck. We might also think of Eric Garner, Javier Ambler, Manuel Ellis and Elijah McClain, all of whom repeated the phrase “I can’t breathe” before their breath was also stopped by the hands of police. In 2013 a nine-year-old girl, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, became the first person in Britain to officially have air pollution listed as a cause of death. Living with her family next to South Circular Road in Lewisham, Ella suffered from severe asthma and was hospitalised more than 30 times during her short life, her lungs collapsing on five separate occasions.
These are the conditions within which multidisciplinary artist, director, poet and Fact Resident Julianknxx finds himself trying to draw breath. They are they same conditions that Christina Sharpe equates to living “in the wake” in her essential, revelatory book In The Wake: On Blackness and Being, in which she explodes and expands the meaning of ‘the wake’ by connecting its multiple registers, including the path behind a (slave) ship, the act of keeping watch with the dead and the experience of coming into consciousness. Sharpe identifies the wake as “the conceptual frame of and for living blackness in the diaspora in the still unfolding aftermaths of Atlantic chattel slavery” and it is within this framework that Julianknxx situates Black Corporeal (Between This Air).
Describing the work as “a critical examination of the relationship between materiality and the Black psyche”, Julianknxx interrogates the continual challenge to breath experienced by Black bodies, a challenge that manifests as a persistent invocation to breathe. The chorus of singers assembled by lead vocalist Celestina Diamond carry this cry in song as a consistent thread through the work, their voices fading in and out, just as the artist’s camera dissolves in and out of darkness: inhalation and exhalation. “Let me breathe / as though I work this land,” reads Julianknxx from I Can’t Breathe, one of two poems that feature in the film, written in 2016 as a response to the killing of Eric Garner. “As though the earth / is one with my beating heart. We the generation digging deep for a breath.” Held in the moments between breath, the artist’s words reverberating through the song of his collaborators, it is as though we ourselves our fading in and out of consciousness.
One of the kinds of work Christina Sharpe understands as essential to being in the wake is the work of aspiration, “what it takes, in the midst of the singularity, the virulent antiblackness everywhere and always remotivated, to keep breath in the Black body.” It’s a concern she shares with Ellah P. Wakatama, OBE, who’s voice is one of many woven into the fabric of Black Corporeal. As Editor-at-Large at Canongate Books and the founding Publishing Director of The Indigo Press, Julianknxx casts Wakatama in the role of griot, a West African title for a storyteller, bard and repository of oral tradition. His conversation with her forms a fundamental part of his poetic practice, as he describes it: “to create a living oral archive of the lives, thoughts and perspectives of my community of artists, writers, thinkers and elders.” Like Christina Sharpe, Wakatama underlines the importance of “finding the spaces that allow you to breathe deeply, ” or as Sharpe puts it: “the necessity of breath, to breathing space, to the breathtaking spaces in the wake in which we live.”
Fitting, then, that we find ourselves in such a place, illuminated under the foliage of the Barbican Conservatory, which in the film stands as a place of sanctuary, full of air purified by plant life. “As I get old you need to feel safe in order to properly exhale”, confides Wakatama. It is in this sanctuary, a place of living and breathing, that Julianknxx brings together a chorus of individuals that represent those living in the wake, leading an insistent invocation to breathe, to exist as an embodied people. “My series Black Corporeal is about exploring the fullness of our lives through our bodies,” explains Julianknxx. “To paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘my spirit is my flesh’. I take this exploration on with that level of reverence and respect.” In Black Corporeal (Between This Air), the artist breathes with us and in turn invites us to breathe with him, to reflect on how difficult it still is for Black bodies to draw breath.