Hello Ajamu. Thanks for being Felix’s latest interviewee.
First of all, could you tell us a little about yourself, your background, and how you became an artist?
I was born and raised in Huddersfield to Jamaican parents who came to the UK in the early 1960s. When it comes to photographing, I have these fond memories as a kid dressing up in my Sunday best for the local photographer. It was the anticipation of waiting weeks later for him to return with this thing he called a photograph. Decades later, I co-founded BLAC magazine in 1985 and needed a photograph of an article I was working on, which included attending a bodybuilding competition. This was when I was given my first camera. I was also photographing Black guys from around Huddersfield I was attracted to without knowing my sexuality, in my bedroom, which I turned into a makeshift studio. I studied an ‘O ‘level and ‘A’ level photography at Huddersfield Technical College and eventually moved to Leeds and went to Leeds Kitson College to study Photography, Printing and Design.
How do you describe your practice – artist/photographer/cultural worker?
I see my practice as an artist/photographer/cultural worker as creating images I need to see within the context of someone born and raised in the UK. Far too often, our Black queer narratives, complex and nuanced experiences are excluded from the social and material histories of the Black community and the broader white LGBTQ community. When we appear with the national narrative, those representations are incredibly narrow at best and seriously one dimensional. Through a fine art lens, my practice is to capture ideas and develop my own philosophy around the Black Body, the erotic, desire and pleasure as activism without apology.
You work mainly in photography and create black and white images of Black queers. You use the genre of portraiture to create and enlarge a Black queer cultural space. What is the reception to your work and that of others by the gatekeepers of the cultural spaces? How has this changed since you started out?
The reception has changed to some extent. However, I still believe that we live in a culture that is erotophobic, and our Black queer experiences are still framed within an oppression-based narrative. In the early 1990s, a selection of my images was censored ironically at a queer art exhibition.
In 2019 the same image [Cock in Glove, 1993] was shown at the Hayward Gallery in the Kiss My Genders Exhibition. In August 2020, as part of the Channel 4 Documentary Me and my Penis, it was shown, and I was responsible for the first aired erect Penis on British TV. My politics is this, we should never lose sight of what is done to Black bodies or how we are misrepresented, and also, we should not lose sight of what we want to do with and through our own Black bodies.
Your work is visual. The Black male bodies in your photographs are gorgeous, very sensual and tactile. Can you say a little about Beauty, and what it means to make such arrestingly beautiful images.
The aesthetics of the work are just as important as the philosophical and political drivers; however, I feel an overrepresentation of black and brown queer artists work through the lens of its content; in other words, our work is pulled through sociology /anthropology. What is missing is the material processes; photography is a craft, a technology and a discipline. Beauty is seen as a dirty word, and this whole notion of beauty that exists only in the beholder’s eye is misleading, as beauty is never innocent.
Your pictures are playful and sensuous. There is often a feeling that something is about to happen or has just happened. A performative aspect in which the viewer is somehow a voyeur and encouraged to fantasise. There is also a strong sense of the intimacy of the image and the delicate fragile fleeting moment. When you work with someone and take photos of them – how much is planned and how much just ‘happens’ as part of your collaborative process? Are you surprised when you look at the images afterwards – is there a meaning or sense of something there that you were unaware of?
Playfulness and theoretical troublemaking are key to my practice. I grew up on British comedy, especially Carry-on films and seaside humour, and I remember how much of my parent’s music, Ska and Bluebeat, has this double entendre running through. Playfulness and salaciousness inform part of my work, and of course, some of the images are in-jokes. Not everything about us has to be translatable, we have the right to opacity as Black queer folks.
I do lots of planning and research, mainly via art books rather than photographic books; however, this depends on the project I am thinking through. There are also works in which friends drop by the studio, there are props, and we just play around with ideas and see what happens. In some cases, the model gives me the idea, and I just run with that. I still work on the premises from the early days till now. If I have one idea, I push it as far as possible. The photographic process is always collaborative, whether it is the model and me, or me and my equipment. I am drawn to intimacy, sexual or otherwise, which has to be conveyed in the image.
You are in the process of producing a book of your photographs. Tell us how this come about?
The book called AJAMU: ARCHIVE will include images from my back catalogue, some of the photos are well known, and some will be published for the first time. Johnny Golding, Professor of Philosophy & Fine Art and senior tutor at the Royal College of Art, London, wrote the coda and the book is designed by a long-term friend, philosopher and Designer Sheena Calvert. This book is the inaugural publication by Ajamu Studio.
You have a show on at the moment at Cubitt Gallery in Islington. You’ve included in there some vitrines which contain old photos, flyers and objects from your youth. What made you want to create a personal sculptural piece? How do people react to it?
For me, this piece is not that dissimilar to how I sculpt with light when I am taking a photograph. I wanted to bring another dimension to my work as an archivist. Archives are usually ordered and structured, and I am drawn to the notion of the un-archive, which is not reliant on time as linear or black queer histories as chronological. I like the idea of juxtaposing items and objects, personal and public, from across time and space. In a sense, many things cannot be funneled into and only through a Black and queer framework, so I like the idea of my personal archive being a lot more messy, unruly. Over the last few years, most of my thinking is concerned with what is excluded from our Black queer archives and archival activism, and the Vitrines form part of this thinking.
Is there anything new in the pipeline which you’d like to tell us about? What are you working on at the moment? What are your plans for the next couple of years?
There are many things in the pipeline. I will be opening up a photographic studio in Brixton by the end of Summer. The studio will be for hire, and I will also be running a series of masterclasses focusing on portraits and nude and artists in a residence where queer artists of color can access an affordable studio space to experiment with ideas. Another book is being planned, which I am excited by, working with a Dutch publisher, and this work will be highly erotic for the commercial and the sex manual market.
To see more of Ajamu’s work…