Who was your childhood hero? For British artist Rosa-Johan Uddoh, it seems to have been Serena Williams, the African American tennis player who dominated the most prestigious tournaments in the early 2000s. In the performance video The Serve (2017–19) – one of six videos shown in Uddoh’s exhibition She Is Still Alive! at Destiny’s in Oslo – the artist appears immaculately dressed in a double-breasted suit, seated in front of an audience in a TV studio. With the straight-backed demeanour of a TV presenter and her eyes firmly fixed on the camera, Uddoh performs a text that links the media attention surrounding Williams’s meteoric achievements within an upper-class sport mainly played by white athletes to the fact that she herself, later in life, had the confidence to apply to the elite educational institution Cambridge. Thus, Uddoh emphasises that asserting one’s own place in life is a political act for black women, given that the norms within European institutions often favour the white majority population.
Although linear television ratings are plummeting, the technology is still involved in shaping the national discourse. In Performing Whitness 2 (Mews) (2019), Uddoh acts as a news anchor, merging stock phrases from news reports (“it’s Friday!” and “tonight!”) with football scores, Brexit politics, and economic projections. The resulting statements are by turns absurd, gloomy, and humorous: “We will be analysing the reasons for the job cuts on Monday / Leaving millions of Children scarred for life.” Uddoh isn’t exclusively interested in who is allowed to present and produce the news, for example as news anchors; she is also interested in the news broadcast’s image as an objective communicator of current social events.
Uddoh’s humorous take on newscast proclamations has a kinship with cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s (1932–2014) communication model encoding – decoding, which claims that the terms on which a news report are read are determined by the broadcaster in the production process. In contrast to previous communication models, where audiences were seen as passive recipients, Hall’s model takes into account that viewers are capable of reading the content of a given programme differently than the producers intended. Hall’s innovation consisted in recognising that the ideologies of broadcasters and viewers don’t necessarily need to align, meaning that viewers can engage in either a “negotiated reading” or an “oppositional interpretation.” Uddoh is probably most interested in the latter, given that she directs attention to how language and images in news broadcasts create a superficial impression of representing events objectively, rather than representing discourses about events.
Shown on an ipad, Performing Whitness 1 (Good Evening) (2019) consists of brief imitations of the newscasts’ lead-ins. The camera pans towards Uddoh with the London skyline as a backdrop or zooms quickly towards her face before the phrase “Good evening” marks the end of each clip. Stripped down to convention-bound camera movements, sets, and outfits, the work is ideally suited to showing how the formatting of the news broadcast creates an aura of neutrality, as if the city in the background represents us all. In The Master’s Tools, Uddoh performs a song set to The Supremes’ soul classic “You Keep me Hanging On” (1966). The song is performed in a room at Tate Britain, and Uddoh and two energetic backup singers are flanked by huge figurative sculptures by the British modernist Henry Moore. The lyrics lament the lack of willingness to introduce reforms in institutions ranging from art museums to the EU, and touch upon the lack of Black representation in Britain’s modernist canon.
Earlier this summer, the newspaper Morgenbladet published a letter written by five students at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO), the largest art school in Norway, expressing concerns about freedom of expression at the school and how rector Måns Wrånge’s plan “for diversity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination strategies that will include all school activities” will impact the quality of education. The letter concludes by stating a desire for “knowledge, not ideology.” Uddoh’s exhibition at Destiny’s is not an entry in the somewhat tiresome debate about the possible pitfalls of identity politics. But by emphasising how seemingly neutral conventions often privilege people with white skin, it reminds us that no discourses or knowledge systems are “outside” the realm of ideology.