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‘We basically share one brain!’ a Q&A with Alberta Whittle and Farieda Nazier

Seven years ago, artists Alberta Whittle and Farieda Nazier produced the first iteration of their collaborative performative intervention, Right of Admission (RoA). Now, as the duo works with UJ Arts & Culture to present a monumental and multifaceted retrospective at the institution, we caught up with Nazier and Whittle to find out how the project has changed over the years, how they’ve navigated their cross-continental collaboration, and what an exploration of the negotiated presence of blackness within racially stratified spaces can look like in a time of social distancing

Right of Admission has been an ongoing project since 2014. How would you say the work has adapted or shifted over the years?

The work that we make is always very responsive to the accelerating racial dynamics of our times. We deliberately insert ourselves into institutions or informal spaces where we can speak directly to the conversations that are often missing around who is considered acceptable or welcome. We have consistently reflected on the different sartorial and grooming trends that demonstrate body politics, paying close attention to social media phenomena, pop culture and encounters we overhear and participate in.

Right of Admission Alberta Whittle Farieda Nazier
Right of Admission IMAGE courtesy of the artists
Similarly, there have been various local and global events over the years that have held a particular resonance with the work (you mention Black Lives Matter and the ongoing issue of access to vaccinations, for example). How have these events and social conditions influenced the work?

At the very essence of our work, we respond spatially, bodily, architecturally to ongoing global and local conversations and forms of resistance against racialised oppressions, therefore global events such as Black Lives Matter or the vaccine apartheid are impossible to ignore. In fact, they are present throughout in terms of our approach to developing this body of research and how we understand how critical research on technocracy, critical race theory and abolition ground our work.

How has the growing body of work that is RoA impacted your own work as artists over the years?
Strategic Hairstyles IMAGE courtesy of the artists

Somehow after such a long time working together, a synergy in our thinking and approach has magnified over the years. We basically share one brain! We mean this seriously. The shared experience of making and thinking together means that in our own practices sometimes there are overlaps which we are not even aware of until we see the finished work or work in process – and then it’s so clear the impact of the other’s work! There is such a sense of reciprocity in our process where we are always bouncing energy and ideas back and forth, making space for the other person continuously so the ideas just flow. This collaboration feels so natural and right with the ease that it manifests!

The work has traditionally held two components, ‘The Office’ and ‘A Journey of Aspiration’. How do these components fit into the greater retrospective being exhibited at UJ?

‘The Office’ historically has insisted on close proximity between bodies during the appraisal and the grooming components. However, with the necessary social distancing restricting our intimate engagements of grooming and appraising with the audience we have adapted our approach.

The installation for our RoA retrospective is the first time we have ever planned and delivered the work entirely remotely. Due to the SARS Covid-19 pandemic, Alberta has been unable to travel to SA so we have spoken over Whatsapp, done zoom calls and emailed vigorously. We consider that this new method of working mirrors the new modes of remote working practices which have made our private and public lives entirely intertwined.

The impossibility of movement, with confinement and quarantine restricting our journeys means that the symbolic journeys we would take in earlier works are now impossible. Does the violent surveillance of the Black and PoC bodies whose movements are aggressively policed both in SA, in the UK and the Caribbean mean that even short journeys become acts of fugitivity? Police blockades, border closures and curfews are now newly normalised occurrences. With this in mind we now consider our new ‘Journey of Aspiration’ taking place when Alberta can finally travel to SA and we can perform our theatre piece at the UJ Theatre.

Right of Admission Alberta Whittle Farieda Nazier
Left: Alberta Whittle | Middle: Right of Admission, performed at ROOM Gallery, Johannesburg in 2014 | Right: Farieda Nazier IMAGES courtesy of the artists
While this is a retrospective of the body of work, RoA is still a growing archive of work and research. Where do you see the project going in future?

We are busy developing our theatrical performance for the UJ Theatre in collaboration with Pieter Jacobs and his incredible team at UJ Arts and Culture. In addition to this new work, we are developing a book project, hopefully to be launched before 2023.

Premised on the archival record and shared experiences and resonances of the various iterations of the duo’s collaborative performative intervention, Right of Admission, will feature performances on 15 and 20 August, a virtual walkabout on 19 August and workshops on 21 August. Find out more about RoA on their website.

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