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On Being Still

9 November 2020

Kabe Wilson

Artist Kabe Wilson gives a diaristic account of his attempt to engage with Bloomsbury modernism over the lockdown period and against the backdrop of the global Black Lives Matter protests.

This piece contains racist language

March 7th. Back from Glasgow. Great trip, met Woolfians and their students, caught up with old friends, made new ones. Feels weird talking about old work, I try to convey that I don’t feel linked to it anymore. But they were all so positive, tames the regret. Everyone is so interesting and different, such a blessing to be able to connect with people through art. Nervous about locking down now, no more travelling or meeting anyone for a while. 

March 8th. Planning my next Brighton painting – a view of the coast looking east, Newhaven Lighthouse in the centre, Belle Tout further out. The two closest lighthouses to Monk’s House – they must have been the two Woolf saw most often. I found out Vanessa Bell painted Newhaven Lighthouse – it’s at Charleston. [1] Will try to see it when things are back to normal. ‘Would they go to the Lighthouse tomorrow? No, not tomorrow, she said, but soon, she promised him; the next fine day.’ [2] Won’t be able to visit Brighton for ages, will miss the sea so much. Hoping painting helps.

March 9th. Started painting. Will call it ‘Newhaven Lighthouse’ to link with Bell’s, and one I saw titled after Rottingdean Windmill even though it’s just a tiny figure on the horizon – excited to channel that. [3] Feeling uncomfortable making the Channel look still and beautiful. Mind wanders to migrant ships crossing further down, people drowning, or arriving and getting imprisoned. Indefinitely. Remembering a friend’s colleague saying the Eurostar should be sent through the tunnel to mow down the migrants to stop them coming. Trying not to think about that, I’m painting to stay positive. 

March 13th. Painting going well. Cases starting to rise. Staving off anxiety by thinking about Charleston. They were in creative isolation there in the war years, produced beautiful work. Fantasising about the idea of being there, remote. Thinking of Lily Briscoe a lot. Excited for the finishing moment.

March 23rd. Lockdown announced. Everyone in shock.

March 24th. Finished painting. Will start another immediately. Have to stay busy. Oh brisk, Briscoe! 

March 28th. News of a vulnerable young person going missing in Saltdean, one of the areas in the painting. Really upsetting. Starting to see signs of mental health crisis. Everything getting very scary.

April 2nd. New painting going well, a dark sunset behind The Angel of Peace. Found out that the statue commemorates Edward VII and his nurses. Feels appropriate with all the focus on NHS nurses – we did the second week of clapping tonight. It was unveiled in 1912 so have made a note to find out if Woolf went to the ceremony, or mentioned it in diaries. I like the idea of carrying the Bloomsbury link on through more paintings. Have barely left my desk in weeks. Routine is keeping me focused and anxiety in check.

April 3rd. Painting finished. Already decided on next one, the skeletal West Pier from the same angle Bell painted it in full pomp in the 50s. [4] Time Passes

April 9th. West Pier finished. Fully in the zone now, listening to music and painting all day, trying not to think about what’s going on. Meditative, feels healthily boring. Mind is quieter than it ever has been. Fiddling while Rome burns. Strange to feel like the world is ending but other anxieties are at an all time low. 

April 23rd. Bandstand finished. So many railings. The series is becoming a celebration of Victorian cast-iron beauty, dilapidated grandeur. Probably not what people would expect of a black painter in his 30s, but there’s charm in contradiction. My response to modernism, embracing what they were railing against. I’m not the child of Victorians, I don’t have to rebel. I want to reappropriate the infrastructure, make people see the heritage through my eyes. I can appreciate the beauty while being mindful of and fucked up by where the money came from. My irreverence is the very fact of my celebration. And less naively provocative than pairing Woolf with the Black Panthers this time. Akala does it with Shakespeare. Inspiration and appreciation where agreement or alignment clearly isn’t a given. I won’t reject something because it’s different to me, that’s weak. And boring. Why would all my inspiration be self-reflection? Are people really that narcissistic? I want friends with wildly different views and backgrounds. I want to be able to engage with anyone, feel at home anywhere. All parts of this ridiculous mess of a world. I’m pining for moving around the country again. Missing old friends, and making new ones. Thinking longingly of how much life we used to live. I used to move between worlds in one day. Waking up among people who have nothing in common with those I’d spend the evening with, the other end of every conceivable spectrum. People who’d probably never meet and wouldn’t know how to interact if they did. I get to know them all. Movement is a blessing and now I’m stuck. I can’t deal with the enforced segregation, I hate it. Being fixed in one world feels unnatural. Worrying we’ll all forget how to relate to each other. It’s bad enough already. Have to put all this liminal energy into the paintings, mustn’t lose it. We’ll see each other again. The next fine day.

April 30th. Lots of discussion about the higher death rate among ethnic minorities. Black and brown nurses are dying, not enough protection. Idea that we’re all in this together and all affected equally is coming apart. People starting to see that black lives don’t matter. New painting harder than the others, a beach scene. Much brighter, not sure the colours fit with the prevailing mood. Grant’s Brighton beach works are all on cloudier days. His aren’t at Charleston, private collections somewhere, doubt I’ll ever see them. 

May 5th. Beach finished. Came together with the railings, again. Keep comparing my scenes to Bell’s and Grant’s. The same beach, but they were there, and I’m not. I paint it hyperreal to recall the space in one exact moment. They had loose brushstrokes to give the sense of a day trip from Charleston. Would they go to Brighton tomorrow? I bring the metalwork into focus, to show my obsession with what it is, and was. They blur it to undermine Victorian cultural power. But we’re all artists drawn to the same spots. We all share history, all share space. Differently. 

May 7th. Started new painting. Level up. Hot day, solid blue sky, no wave detail, just entirely cast iron, half in focus, half camera-blurred. Will try to emulate Richter. 

May 15th. Painting finished, effective. Now I have a blurred pier in the background, like both Bell and Grant. Starting to fantasise about exhibiting them side by side at Charleston, to acknowledge the inspiration the idea of the place gave me in lockdown. 

May 20th. Started next – the Pavilion. No sea this time, but another Victorian lamp post. Amusing myself with how ridiculous the building is. Imagining Sussex students sitting in the gardens arguing about cultural appropriation in the shadow of domed colonial palace. Will add a seagull. 

May 25th. A video went viral of a black man named Christian Cooper who was birdspotting in Central Park when a white woman, also called Cooper, tried to get him arrested for asking her to put her dog on a lead. Won’t watch it, America is such a mess. Reminded of getting questioned by police when I was birdspotting. Trying not to think about it. 

May 27th. Another viral video from the US. A black man named George Floyd killed by a cop. Knelt on his neck until he died. Not going to watch it, find the idea that so many people are quite sickening. BLM protests starting up in the city where he was murdered. The pandemic and now potential riots, this year is so intense. Trying not to let it fuck with my head. Been reading more about Christian Cooper, turns out he’s a comicbook editor and introduced pioneering gay characters into Marvel and Star Trek. Feel guilty focusing on the survivor but he sounds amazing. New life goals – exhibit Brighton paintings at Charleston and go birdwatching with Christian Cooper.

May 28th. Race riots in Minneapolis last night. Painting the Pavilion’s minarets is draining, have lost momentum. Maybe it’s the lack of sea. 

June 2nd. Going slowly. Struggling a bit. Researching the Pavilion and found an article saying Labour cancelled a photo opportunity there fearing voters would think it was a mosque. So much talk about US racism as if this country isn’t fucked. We collectively decided Fortress Europe was too open. Keep thinking of the migrant boats again, even though I’m not painting the sea.

June 3rd. Really can’t concentrate on work. Mind is fixated on a memory of when a bunch of us asked a supply teacher how our old school was doing. 

‘Good, they got rid of a load of horrible black kids who were bullying everybody and now it’s doing much better.’

Repeatedly whirls round in my head. What happened to them, prison or homelessness? Is he pleased about that? And he said it right in front of me. Are we celebrating state failure now? Did colleagues congratulate the cop who shot Breonna Taylor dead? Makes me feel sick and hollow. Went for a long fast walk. Saw a kestrel hunting. Listened to an album then realised the lyrics are about Woolf, weird coincidence, though not entirely surprising given the musician. Nice to share inspirations though, gave me an hour of motivation.

June 4th. Trying hard to limit how much I see. So much talk about police brutality and black death. Terrified the US army are going to move in and fire on protestors. Waking up anxious every morning. 

June 6th. I’ve never seen anything like this, people are actually taking black life seriously. Genuine conversations about prison abolition. Feels like the status quo has been shattered. In moments I’m encouraged that real structural change is possible. Then I sink into depression that it’s wrought from martyrdom and pain. And still met with resistance. Realised the George Floyd photo people use was a selfie, something about that breaks me. Forcing myself to paint. Slow progress.

June 7th. Unbelievable, Bristol tore down the Colston statue, massive crowd, dumped it in the harbour. Iconic. Last time I was there I took a photo of Colston Tower, like a high-rise neon swastika. Wanted to mark the history that would hopefully one day change. I bet they rename it within a week.

June 8th. A friend wrote a great poem about the statue, video went viral. Exciting to see, but otherwise feeling very low, the culture wars arguing about statues has started. Feeling proud of Bristol. Missing travelling. 

June 9th. Reading Woolf’s letters to find references to Brighton for the exhibition idea. Found this quote about being on holiday in Hove

‘The place is swarming with actresses and females of all descriptions; we go for walks along the Parade and moralise and look at the Niggers.’ [5]

Completely throws me. moralise and look at the Niggers. So many painful twists of self-loathing and regret for attaching myself to and revering the work of racist white modernists. Yet feel grimly in awe of her prescience as ever. How could she so perfectly describe people’s use of the internet before it was even invented? Go online, moralise and look at the Niggers. Every newspaper every day, moralise and look at the Niggers. Take a job as a substitute teacher, moralise and look at the Niggers. You spend your life trying to understand how black people fit into this world and eventually have to face up to seeing that that’s what it is, just being a voiceless site of white moralising, then dying, early. Dying in the sea, abandoned by the state, sometimes lynched by the state. But still everyone wants to talk about you. Photograph you, write about you, protest about you. Make grand declarations on your behalf. I walked down one of the poshest streets nearby, ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ posters in most windows. A street on which I’ve experienced racial trauma. I don’t know how to read it. Who’s it addressing? I’ve been made painfully aware of the fact that they don’t matter, on that street. This year is too weird, I don’t know how to read any of it. 

June 10th. Self-esteem the lowest it’s ever been. Feeling like I’ve wasted years, nothing charming about contradiction, I’m a failure wallowing on the wrong side of history. Painted some of the Pavilion but mostly just lying in bed. OCD getting worse, stuck in spiralling patterns. Nearing the end at least.

June 11th. Finished it. Found out the Pavilion itself has just released a BLM statement. 

‘we are aware we have items in our collections which were acquired under conditions which would not be acceptable today.’ [6]

I do not understand anything that is happening anymore. I feel like I’m trapped in an alternate timeline.

June 18th. Managed to look at a new canvas. More nightmares about race war. I go for walks but feel so alienated by the BLM window decorations. I can’t see in but they can see out. Perfect vantage point to moralise… I should be encouraged that they’re saying they think they don’t hate black people, but why do some white people only prove it through moral peacocking? Wealthily parading the fact they have access to kinds of moral and political purity black people don’t. A4 paper virtue signal. Why is your comment on white racism about black lives? Do you connect with any? Or are they denouncing racism to perfect themselves? Some of us will never be perfect and have no virtue to display. We’re made of poverty pain and failure, and have no space to align within whiteness’ political infighting. I get lost in thoughts I don’t want to have – I hate thinking like this, I don’t believe in race and I don’t want beleaguered angry cynicism to distort my worldview. Despair and self-loathing continue to swap places repeatedly. I was kidding myself thinking I could paint again. 

June 21st. Still haven’t started. Stuck on Woolf’s ability to moralise. That George Floyd was born in a country that hated him, imprisoned him, eventually killed him, and now he’s only given virtue in death. Acceptable as a martyr, but wasn’t as a man. Horrible black kids. My friend called Mark Duggan a thug. The memories pile up, Pandora’s box is open. The background emotional chaos of being black is foreground now, headline news. Doesn’t mean that the shame, humiliation, failures, pain are going away. Just that race is a global horror, and now we argue about it incessantly. You can’t switch it off or focus on the rest of life. Or paint. I will really try tomorrow.

June 22nd. Can’t stop thinking about the police. Dark thoughts. I don’t want them. I want to believe in justice not vengeance. I don’t want to be hateful and I don’t want to be segregative. Online it’s all hostility, no one seems to believe in unity. Ultra-factional. Worse now we’re all isolated and only exist on the internet where we store the worst versions of ourselves. Hate begets hate. I don’t want to isolate. I don’t want a war, I want to be a pacifist. I don’t think I want allies, I miss all my friends. I want to fight racism by connecting with people and not letting it grow. But self-esteem is too low now to have the self-belief to think I can, or should. Easier to be angry at the world and withdraw. 

June 24th. Just going to paint the sea, there was too much history and rigid detail in the minarets, stressful. Seems like everyone is struggling even more now. Lockdown wasn’t the safest moment for painful reflections on racism. I still don’t know how to feel. It’s so hard to find hope. But I’m sure I used to have at least some. Much stronger people have so much more. How can I justify that weakness in myself? Read an incredible statement by Lyn Rigby, broke me. Thinking of Neville Lawrence’s faith in forgiveness. Lord give me the hope and strength of a parent whose child is martyred by hate. I know holocaust survivors who refuse to hate. I can’t lose faith in what’s right just because we’re all angry and stuck in the present. 

June 26th. The sea is soothing. Brushstrokes are forgiving. Reminds me of reading The Waves, age 19, sitting on Hove beach for the final lines. Life-defining. A century before, she was walking behind me to look at the Niggers. Realised it meant minstrels, probably on the bandstand I painted. We share space across time. She called Paul Robeson ‘a malleable nigger’. [7] What would she make of me? I think we’d get on. It doesn’t change my feelings towards The Waves, or the waves. Deep time is healing. 

June 27th. Watching the stream of Woolf Works as I paint. Calming, inspirational. Wishing I’d become a dancer. 

July 1st. Finished. Discovered a Duncan Grant painting from the exact same spot, we may have painted the same railing post. Sharing space, connected by inspiration. [8]

July 5th. Feeling low, but watched more dance. Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring, on a Senegalese beach at sunset. All African dancers. Reminded me of watching Kareem perform Stravinsky in a schools orchestra. Art begets art. We engage with history through art, rework it, face it down, make it our own. Read a poem that lists every time Woolf used ‘queer’, thinking I should replicate it for ‘nigger’, address it. [9] Make it new. Keep reminding myself inspiration isn’t always direct and doesn’t always make sense, doesn’t mean I will give it up. I want the strength to embrace complexity anew. 

July 12th. Researching Grant’s interracial erotic drawings, finding them very moving. Reading Gemma Romain’s biography of Patrick Nelson, imagining him at Charleston and walking on the Downs with Grant. [10] Becoming obsessed with the photo of Selassie sitting on a deckchair on the Pier. Sharing space, overlapping histories. Black lives mattered. Feeling more belief that art can help heal trauma. Keeping history fresh by finding spaces to exist and protest. Always complicated but worth the effort. If everything else has been stripped away maybe inspiration can still connect us. 

July 16th. Started the final painting. Victorian houses and the i360. Woolf’s famous luminous halo. Brighton isn’t all Victorian beauty, I won’t avoid painting the tower because it’s ugly. Life is ugly, history is ugly, we still take part. So glad I painted the waves. New life goal – an edition of The Waves published with my painting as the cover. No introduction from me, from now on I’ll only paint, words are so instantly regrettable. It can’t just be look at, I have to invite people to look with me – see history and the Channel through dark eyes.

August 15th. Finished, the whole series. Lily Briscoe moment. And finally moving – getting the train to Brighton in two days, I’ll feel like James on the boat. No visit to Charleston though, it might be closed for good. 

Time passes. 

Prints of the series are available here: artkabe.com/prints

Donate to the Charleston Emergency Appeal

Support Gatwick Detainees


Sources:

[1] https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/newhaven-lighthouse-east-sussex-73763

[2] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt, 1989), p. 116.

[3] https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-windmill-brighton-downs-brighton-downs-rottingdean-47354

[4] https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/west-pier-brighton-east-sussex-73777

[5] Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, eds., The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. 1: 1888-1912 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1975), p. 30.

[6] https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/2020/06/10/statement-george-floyd-black-lives-matter/

[7] Anne Oliver Bell, ed., The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 5: 1936-1941 (San Diego; New York; London: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1977), p. 99.

[8] https://www.mutualart.com/Artwork/Brighton/7504EE039D30ED05

[9] Jane Goldman, ‘Queer Woolf: two poems and a preamble’, in Wilson, N. and Battershill, C., eds., Virginia Woolf and the World of Books (Clemson: Clemson University Press, 2018), pp. 162-188.

[10] Gemma Romain, Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica: The Biography of Patrick Nelson 1916-1963 (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) 

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