Black Gaze White Walls

An exhibition of women and non-binary artists in an opulent Stockholm home is rife with dissonances and challenges to the gaze.

From left to right: Ming Smith, Pan, Pan, gelatin silver print 50,8 x 60,96 cm, 2006; Zanele Muholi, Bona Charlottesville, wall paper, 2015; Theresa Traore Dahlberg, Hakili – The Hare VI, bronze 100 x 127 x 21 cm, 2022. Photo: Carl-Henrik Tillberg.

Before walking into the private residence that has been transformed into an art gallery containing the exhibition Rock My Soul II, with twenty-five female and non-binary artists from the African and Caribbean diaspora, I stop to wonder whether I should ring the doorbell. I hesitate, but do it anyway. Twice. It feels right, but could still be wrong. It’s not entirely clear how one should behave while visiting the gallerist and collector Eva Livijn’s exclusive home in Stockholm’s posh Östermalm district. 

Rock My Soul II is curated by the artist Sir Isaac Julien and its first iteration was shown in 2019 at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London. The artist roster is impressive, with names such as Sonia Boyce, Deana Lawson, Jeannette Ehlers, and Carrie Mae Weems alongside Sweden-based Theresa Traore Dalhberg and Fatima Moallim. The exhibition is intergenerational, comprising works from the early 1990s to 2022. The title is borrowed from Black feminist writer bell hooks’s Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem (2003), a critical examination of the self-esteem of African Americans from the era of slavery to the present day. 

From left to right: Theresa Traore Dahlberg, Copper and Glass X, mixed media, 90 x 70 cm, 2022; Wangechi Mutu, Heeler VIII & IX, red soil, paper pulp, wood glue, rocks, acrylic shoe, wood, 70.5 x 11.4 x 33 cm, 2016; Rachel Jones, say cheeeeese, oil stick on canvas, 137,5 x 81 cm, 2022. Photo: Carl-Henrik Tillberg.

Livijn’s home is filled to the brim with artworks, but also private objects – furniture and art that are not part of the show. At first it is difficult to navigate and, as the works are for sale, the exhibition also functions as a proposal for how the art could decorate similar homes. But in the living room, Diana Agunbiade-Kolawole’s work Cloak (2015) breaks free from the constraints of the lavish, yet tasteful apartment. The work is a cloak made up of thirty three interconnected photographs depicting anonymised British people of Yoruba origin wearing traditional clothing. It hangs down over the fireplace, covering parts of the floor and a section of the patterned carpet. Its presence in the room is inviting and helps me see the art.

In the bedroom, Zanele Muholi’s extraordinary black-and-white self-portrait Bona, Charlottesville (2015) hangs above the bed. It features the artist naked on a similar bed with both hands firmly gripping a large round mirror in front of her face. The mirror obscures most of her body; her gaze is focused, not on the viewer or on the camera, but on herself. 

In The Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See (2021), Tina M. Campt writes about a “Black gaze,” which places the viewer in relation to blackness and demands a certain kind of ethical work. In this process, Campt argues, the viewer becomes a witness: “When we participate as active witnesses in this confrontation, the Black gaze we encounter creates complex and contradictory forms of intimacy.” I first came across Muholi around 2012 on the internet platform Tumblr. In my search for images of queer and lesbian bodies, I found some of the artist’s many portraits of Black LGBTQI+ people in South Africa. Now, facing the self-portrait, I feel a distant kinship, but also a responsibility to consistently interrogate my own gaze.

From left to right: Lorraine O’Grady, Lilith Sends Out the Destroyers, archival pigment print, 129,2 x 103,8 cm, 1991/2019; Frida Orupabo, A Litany for Survival, wood, video, sound, 135 x 120 cm, 2021; Ming Smith, Pan, Pan, gelatin silver print, 50,8 x 60,96 cm, 2006; Zanele Muholi, Bona Charlottesville, wall paper, 2015. Photo: Carl-Henrik Tillberg.

Perhaps the longing for queer communities that once drove me to Muholi is what now attracts me to Sadie Barnette’s Eagle Creek I (2021). This collage-like artwork consisting of archival material from the first Black-owned gay bar in San Francisco hangs above a couch in the living room. In 1990, the artist’s father, Rodney Barnette, opened the New Eagle Creek Saloon to create a space for a multiracial queer community which had previously been impossible due to the racial profiling within the city’s bar scene. The work juxtaposes the community of the past with the loss of the present, but by visualising memories of connectedness and freedom, a sense of hope also emerges.

Further into the apartment, one of the rooms is cordoned off with dark blue fabric, a simple yet very effective device that forms a soothing cocoon in the otherwise visually overwhelming environment. The installation is part of Alberta Whittle’s meditative video A Black Footprint Is a Beautiful Thing (2021), in which the artist finds strength in an unexpected anti-colonial companion: the shipworm. During European colonisation of the Caribbean, the “termite of the sea” satisfied its hunger by feeding on ships. The film features a reading of a poetic text about love, memory, and power from below. I imagine the artworks being transformed into shipworms and the apartment into a ship. Although there is a dissonance between the content of the art and the opulent environment in which it is shown (not to mention hooks’s Marxist sensibility), small ruptures appear in the prevailing order. In a home that feels cramped despite its size, art provides the air.

Alberta Whittle, A Black Footprint is a Beautiful Thing, video, 2021. Photo: Carl-Henrik Tillberg