Interview: Sonia E. Barrett with Agnes Stillger, Villa Romana, 2021

Sonia, your installation “Sky”, created on the occasion of Black History Month Florence, represents a decisive break in your artistic practice. You use artificial and real hair of Black women as sole material with which you are forming clouds in an imaginary sky. A material that is symbolically and politically extremely loaded. Up to this moment, I would classify your works – in short – as de- and reconstructions of everyday objects and furniture and the social concepts associated with them in an asymmetric, racially biased, global order. These rearranged objects often have anthropomorphic features and appear very fragile and vulnerable to me.

I feel that the work up until now has been a reconstruction but perhaps more of a translation. Whilst I do work with everyday furniture specifically from Black communities (see Rollaway nr 6) much of my work has been an articulation of 18th-century furniture that is made of tropical hardwoods, plants that were ripped from the soil when slaves were, as a part of triangular trade. The excess wealth created by the plants and people enabled the fashioning of the extravagant furniture that can be found in the great houses in Europe today. I work with this furniture. The work translates all of those actions into a kind of crime scene, providing a mournable “body”. 

The power of gathering is in my work a solution to objectification. Where the figure emotes feelings of being vulnerable as you suggest, is also partly because of their singularity. My work has always been exploring strategies of networked agency. How is it possible for objectified to counter objectification? Beyond objectification how is it possible to belong in a networked way without reinscribing Western notions of ownership and taking the territory? Clouds do that, they collectivise and belong to many territories sailing over borders releasing water in one place collecting and returning to the sky in another. They are authentically belonging to those territories and yet in a state of flow. The clouds were responding to the wooden floor in the pavillion. In this space, bodies were already present for me in the dark hardwood floor. The clouds are then somehow also like the water/spirit in the wood released. 

These gathering hair clouds, representing, as you describe, a collective force, were installed only a few weeks before COVID-19 paralysed life globally and also only a short time before the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum – two events that are closely related, also because the pandemic exposes the structural racial violence in Western societies.

I have been responding specifically to shootings (and lynchings) in America for years now (Works detained and steering identity). An androgynous performance of a chair was an attempt to fathom what is it that police see when they see a black child, woman, transgendered individual or man. I have also responded specifically to police violence directed at Black people in Europe (10 Kleine N***)

Climate catastrophy is definitely a driver of the imagery in Sky, COVID-19 is another result of our taking too much more than we need from natural habitats. This was also already a concern in the Yolk to harvest series and telling time. The fires that were consuming swathes of Africa, Brazil and Australia weighed heavy on my mind. Industrialisation and its smokestacks too. These are all the wrong kinds of clouds. 

Without oversimplifying it, the black cloud heavy and dark with rain a life-giving force is the right kind of cloud. I thought it was interesting to align an expansive understanding of Blackness with these right kinds of clouds. Especially now where Black people are the first to suffer from the wrong kinds of clouds those clouds of COVID and Carbon. 

For Black History Month I thought it would be powerful to fill the space with an expansive illusive Blackness and have everyone look up when they entered the room. Black communities are often referred to as “presences” in Europe. Sky also attempts to tackle this idea. 

You mean here by “presences” a lack of historicity juxtaposed with a white historiography?

“The black Presence in Europe” is a phrase that is sometimes used in when revising White historical biases in representations of Europe.  A presence always struck me as a kind of mystical disembodied way to invoke a group of silenced omitted mothers and sons uncles and grandparents. These clouds are a black space beyond the real estate of the wall or the floor. 

Can you talk a bit more about the concept of the cloud as a symbol of collective resilience and also as an alternative form of global community?

The cloud is a collective, it does not resist it flows from water to vapour to collectivise in the cloud then return as water.  However, this kind of flow of being true to your essential shifting self is a way of being that resists categorisation, it is expansive, changing, and indistinct. It is all this kind of expansiveness and inclusiveness that will make a socio-political resistance irresistible. It is in this way a helpful understanding of “black” that is indistinct but powerfully real. Moten talks about the under commons and that might fit with this collective. (1)  Sylvia Wynter writes “The white utopia was black inferno”.(2) I want to contribute towards a new geology that Katheryn Yusoff suggests. (3)  I wanted to respond to Tony Morrison’s call for complex metaphors for blackness instead of “metaphoric shortcuts” With Sky, I hope to address white metaphors about what is high good pure and celestial using geological experiences that we all have direct access to.  

Symbols of black identity have been something I have dealt with in my work for a while. Many furniture performances in effect are a visual flooring of the fist that when raised symbolizes black power. where bunched fingers are a meat clump the effortless cloud soft powerful inter- sufficient is another way. 

I don’t know if this is a model for a global collective, nomadic cultures practice this kind of way of life belonging to many landscapes in a state of reciprocal understanding with them all. 

1 Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred (2013): The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. (2013). New York: Minor Compositions
2 Sylvia Wynter (2003): Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation-An Argument, The New Centennial Review 3(3), 257-337
3 Yusoff, Kathryn (2018): A billion black Anthropocenes or none. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press