For many diasporic communities, past stories cannot be told faithfully without contradictions, multiple authorships, and discourse around narratives.
Reflecting on their experience of Serpentine Pavilion 2022: Black Chapel by Theaster Gates, the members of multidisciplinary design collective RESOLVE offer a series of sonic memories from communal spaces.
In 1964, under the spell of jazz composer Mary Lou Williams, audiences were each handed a single page of text titled ‘Jazz for the Soul’. Part instruction, part invitation, the words in the hands of the revellers did more than merely accompany the haunting choral jazz hymns of Williams’ performance of Black Christ of the Andes, a record made in reverence of the son of a freed slave and Afro-Peruvian saint, Martin de Porres. Instead, the hand-out elucidated the collective work of song: a palpable labour that includes but also extends beyond the creation of music and is sustained too by the viscerality of transmission, sonic genealogies, spirituality, collective movement, discourse, and imagination. It is the collective work of song that ensures the ambit of an audience is not only auditory, just as an instrument’s is far more than mechanical. In acknowledgement of this, at the bottom of the page in all caps, Williams shared with her audience a note on how they might fully appreciate the work’s offerings:
YOUR ATTENTIVE PARTICIPATION, THRU LISTENING WITH YOUR EARS AND YOUR HEART, WILL ALLOW YOU TO ENJOY FULLY THIS EXCHANGE OF IDEAS, TO SENSE THESE VARIOUS MOODS, AND TO REAP THE FULL THERAPEUTIC REWARDS THAT GOOD MUSIC ALWAYS BRINGS TO A TIRED, DISTURBED SOUL AND ALL ‘WHO DIG
Under the skyward oculus of Theaster Gates’ Serpentine Pavilion, Black Chapel, we are offered another means of reaping the reward of the collective work of song, this time through a vessel for all who dig the sounds. Constructed for both convivial gathering and solemn reflection, in Gates’ blackened wooden silo in Hyde Park, we are invited into attentive participation with songs not as we might usually perceive them. The songs of are an exchange of ideas and energies, transmitted through collective endeavours in shared space. They are divinations, some of which involve music, such as the dialogue between , the assembled bodies on the floor around him, and the materiality of the cavernous black Pavilion. The Pavilion’s invocation of innumerable circular forms – from Hungarian rotundas to Musgum obos in Cameroon and beehive kilns in Stoke-on-Trent is a spatial recital playing architectural canons like musical ones, all the while inexplicably canonising the Chapel’s users. In the eye of Gates’ form, we receive an architectural pantheon, we are not subject to it. Other songs, Gates’ own Seven Songs for Black Chapel, are a series of tar paintings made in honour of the artist’s father’s craft and in conversation with Mark Rothko’s fourteen paintings for the Rothko Chapel. Fittingly, the Black Chapel’s songs are acute excavations of assembly and introspection: moments of togetherness and reverie that can be read through spaces and their contents.
Understanding song in this way resonates deeply with our practice at RESOLVE, where we often find ourselves to be present within or tasked with the creation of spaces that precondition these types of assembly and introspection to produce transformative exchanges. As we sat by the bell of St. Laurence outside the Pavilion this summer, watching the Chapel‘s apostles enter and exit with a trance-like quietude, we considered our own Black chapels and their songs. Our chapels, it seemed, were often situated in community spaces across the country, from Liverpool to Lewisham. Their songs were moments of sacred transmission in these spaces and exchanges of knowledge and emotion that cured and fed us just as Williams sang of the Black Andean Christ. We offer a recount of three of these songs here as a means by which tired readers might accrue some therapeutic reward; as sketches of the vessels in which we once dug the sounds, vibrations, and energies of a gathering; and most importantly, as jazz for the soul.
The Basil Griffiths Library, Sheffield And District African Caribbean Community Association (SADACCA), Sheffield
The modest confines of the Basil Griffiths Library in the Sheffield and District African Caribbean Community Association (SADACCA) became an auditorium when archivist Ella Barrett spoke there, one dreary Sheffield morning in May 2022. In its stalls, an audience of university students, staff, and RESOLVE members sat enthralled by a projection of her PowerPoint presentation, framed between a constellation of 1980s Pan-Africanist posters carefully strewn across the library’s walls. There we learned of her work with the Bantu Archive Programme: SADACCA’s collaborative archiving project with the scholars Alex Mason, Rosie Knight and the School of Architecture’s Live Works programme – a critical endeavour excavating and celebrating the lives and memories of African Caribbean society in Sheffield. The recorded collection of personal histories adds to a constellation of contemporary works alongside the Nyara School of Arts’ film, Passing the Baton; ADIRA’s landmark African-Caribbean Market in the Moor Market in 2021; Désirée Reynolds’ inimitable Dig Where You Stand project with the Sheffield Archives; AS I AM Creative’s Looking Glass Into My Black Mind exhibition, and many others, all of which carefully recentre the historic and contemporary chapters of Black experiences in this city of stories.
During a keynote at ‘The Living Archive’ conference organised by the African and Asian Artists Archive (AAVAA) at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) in 1997, cultural theorist Stuart Hall stated that “the archive has to insist on a certain heterodoxy”. Hall’s assertion captures the context of the AAVAA in the late 90s, where practitioners like Sonia Boyce and David Bailey were challenging and rethinking institutional archiving and collection policy. As such, the multiple voices, aesthetics and configurations of diasporic archives were, for Hall, what allowed them to live, be reinterpreted and refuse the carceral states of traditional historical collections.
Today, in Sheffield, the archival insistence on heterodoxy does not so much speak to the politics of institutions as it does the politics of communities. For many diasporic communities in the city, past stories cannot be told faithfully without the inclusion of important contradictions, multiple authorships, and a discursive relationship with contemporary diasporic narratives.
Fittingly then, in the recent recordings of the Bantu Archive, the voice of the young archivist, Ella, haunts the portrayal of her older subject, Daniel Dukes. Soft, sparse and almost whispered interjections punctuate the recordings in the form of questions, allowing us to hear fleeting moments of the present, speaking not only of, but to the past. It is the call and response of a song that resurrects the archives of everyday experience and – as we found in the Basil Griffiths Library that day in May – makes auditoria of ordinary spaces.
Liverpool African Caribbean Community Centre, Toxteth, Liverpool
We found ourselves submerged in the sounds of a football tournament, Beres Hammond blaring from a stereo, the slap of basketballs against hard ground, and a low hum of Sunday conversation. This was long before we actually saw the Liverpool African Caribbean Centre, one tropical summer’s day in Toxteth, Liverpool in 2021. Enshrouded by a row of colourful steel palisade fencing and large trees, the oasis-like centre, formerly the Merseyside Caribbean Council Community Centre, is unassuming if not entirely hidden. Yet, during the second phase of the Community Clean Up that weekend, its infectious activity had flooded into the streets, and both passerby and pilgrim could be found wading inquisitively in its waters.
Led gaping-mouthed by Chiaka Lea, the owner of Cocoloves Boutique and a volunteer at the Centre, we were taken into the depths of the UK’s oldest purpose-built Caribbean community hub, amidst the joyous gathering of families and old friends. Ours was a wade through history. As we meandered, we learned of the late Herbie Higgins and his role in the launch of the Centre in 1977 and the Merseyside Caribbean Carnival in 1978. We traversed sites of struggle and resistance, where the efforts of young community members like Chiaka and Maleka Egeonu-Roby successfully defeated controversial plans to demolish the Centre to make way for unaffordable housing. We sauntered past arrestingly radical murals and painted and, in a sun-drenched hall lit by clerestory windows – echoing a chic Prairie-style architecture rather than the municipal modernism typical of many council-owned community assets of the era – we were permitted to retrace the innumerable ways in which, in a time when it was officially dormant, the Centre had been a space for important community gatherings, weddings, birthdays, and funerals.
“The unity is submarine” wrote Bajan poet and essayist Edward Kamau Braithwaite in a prefacing poem to his essay, “Caribbean Man in Space and Time”. Fittingly, despite the brevity of our dive into the African Caribbean Centre in Toxteth that day, our solidarity runs deep.
Brixton Passageway, London
IT’S NOT THAT I DON’T LOVE YOU, YOU KNOW HOW MUCH I DO
A long night of revelry etched into memory was waning at Brixton Passageway in South London, December 2017. Sound system icon ‘Sir’ Lloyd Coxsone spins one last dub for the late-night ravers and the electric crowd entered a heightened sense of collective euphoria. As the voice of British reggae singer Bitty McLean sweetened and stretched the lyrics of David Ruffen’s heart-wrenching ode, ‘Walk Away From Love’, Coxsone and the deejay beside him speak intermittently over the record. Each of these interjections stirred some new emotional state in the bacchants: zealous enthusiasm, unrequited longing, lover’s angst.
AND IT’S NOT THAT I FOUND SOMEBODY TO TAKE THE PLACE OF YOU
‘Brixton Passageway’ was coming to a close. For the month of December in 2017, the dusty, damp storage unit under the arches in Brixton Market was our Black chapel. There, beneath structures that consisted of hundreds of repurposed banana boxes from the market, we had attempted to create a platform for local artists and entrepreneurs, as well as a space for conversations, performances, exhibitions, food, and workshops. And its song was felt by those who gathered – the Zaineb Abelque’s, the Farouk Agoro’s, the Neba Sere’s, the Lex Amor’s – and it nourished us. Though our bodies writhed that last night in lovers rock, a Sola Olulode Blue tinted the scene. We wouldn’t rave again like this in Brixton for a while. Some haven’t since. The slow and excruciating battle for space in the area was once again making conscientious objectors of its crusaders and Brikky’s ever-changing town centre began to look less and less like the Holy Land. We could not have known it that night, but with time, as our surroundings became incompatible with the chapels we are all still trying to raise, we would learn to walk away from love.
RESOLVE Collective is an interdisciplinary design collective that combines architecture, engineering, technology and art to address social challenges. The Collective has delivered numerous projects, workshops, publications, and talks in the UK and across Europe, all of which look toward realising just and equitable visions of change in our built environment. RESOLVE’s founders and current members are Akil Scafe-Smith, Melissa Haniff and Seth Scafe-Smith.