“Black Women For Each Other”: Rebecca Bellantoni and Imani Robinson in Conversation
We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other.
—Audre Lorde, 'Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger' (1984).
It is in your self interest to find a way to be very tender.
—Jenny Holzer, 'Truisms For Survival' (1983-1985).
Rebecca Bellantoni: Exactly. Well, I feel it. I don't know what the reason is, but I know I have to stop.
RB: So I will.
Imani Robinson: Okay sounds good. So.
RB: I'll start. Do you want me to start? Because it can be difficult to start. I’ve been seeing you recently speaking the word tender and I just wanted to ask you what the word means to you? To be tender.
IR: To be tender?
IR: Well, I think. In my memory and I have to check, but in my memory, “we have to find a way to be very tender” is a misremembered quote from Audre Lorde. I think tenderness is an intentional practice and it's very easy even when you really love somebody or you have lots of compassion for them, to get irritable or irritated or to forget that that we have such a capacity to be tender and kind and gentle with each other, and we need to do that right now, even when it's really, really hard. I guess it's also just a kind of mindfulness, in how we treat each other. This is a really difficult time; there are lots of people who are really struggling. And actually I want to be a kind of tender presence in their lives rather than to forget that - to be mindless. Perhaps the difference between right now and previous times is just that basically all of my loved ones are dealing with incredibly difficult circumstances. And so whoever I'm speaking to is in some way, I don't know... It's just the kind of intent, a willingness to be, yeah, as tender as possible, as kind and as aware of where the people might be at as possible. When people are not conscious of that or when people are not mindful of where another person might be at, I find it to be an acutely harsh experience. And I know they're not meaning to be in that way. But I'm very aware of how sensitive I'm feeling and how much is kind of being triggered in this moment, being kind of brought to the surface. We collectively are dealing with a lot of grief. In all sorts of ways, even just for kind of a lost way of interacting and being with each other, you know. Like this was never conceived of, you know, in our minds really. We were not prepared in so many ways. We couldn't have been prepared for this. And inside our bodies, there's also a lot of shock.
RB: Yeah, yeah, I can see that. I can see so many people that I know are in real shock. You know, I remember speaking to you at the beginning of this happening, sending out a message to you and other people, to keep in touch with me because I didn't want to become reclusive, because it was such a shock for me. And I don’t know what I was expecting. I haven't actually found it difficult to stay at home and to be with my family. But I think that what I have found difficult, conceptually, is not being able to choose.I was at home before and it didn’t feel like a definite choice anyway. Working from home.
It now feels, not as much now, but in the beginning, it was difficult to get my head around the fact my working routine would change.The changing routines were hard and tenderness is a thing I've been trying to show myself, some tenderness. I think the tendency of tenderness, as practice, as a way of being, as a fact is an option. Maybe, I’m better at that with other people and less with myself. The fact that I haven't been able to fulfil the amount of time I set myself to write every day or to be able to draw or do any of the things that I ordinarily do, has at times made me feel a little bit lazy. Saying to myself “Why would you stop?” “You must find a way to get on”, while knowing there must be space. So, I’ve been practicing tenderness with myself, which can feel strange in a way.
IR: I think also in order to be tender you have to - or being tender allows you to really listen to what is needed. I'm also thinking about this in terms of, like how you might care for or be tender towards your inner child. And so especially in terms of the pressure of productivity or more simply the ability to get things done in this moment, you know, sometimes being tender is like supporting yourself or encouraging yourself to have some careful discipline, some sort of routine as a way or mode of caring for your well-being in this moment, in the most tender way. To say, okay, you know, “do you feel like you want to just do nothing right now or do you feel that you want to do everything?” There needs to be some, you know, some real tender reflection about what it is that you need, what it is that will keep you feeling cared for, what your capacities are to show up for others in this moment.
RB: Yes, I think consciousness is really important at this time in many ways, in all the different ways that consciousness can be used and exist. This is a learning time. Have you ever read any of Ben Okri’s books? He has this cycle of books called The famished road and it's set around this young boy called Azaro. He is a spirit child essentially. So he dreams and goes in and out of the spirit world. I think it might be the third book, Infinite Riches, early on in the book, there is a section where his father is dreaming.The local carpenter has been murdered, his best friend’s father. I mean its intricate, there are three books in but the local carpenter has been murdered and there's a point when the father of the spirit boy is overtaken by his dreams and his son joins him in the dream, and his dad is asking him a series of questions that revolve around him being awake and trying to figure out if they are living in this dream, or is that outside of the dream if they're in a dream forest, or a real forest. If they are in their home. So there is a veil, but the essential question I feel is being asked is, “Son, are you conscious of your behaviors?, but not your behaviors outside of yourself? The behaviours inside of yourself?" And I mean, I don't know why that's been coming so strongly in me, but it feels like I had to ask myself that question. How real?What is my tenderness? If I do not show it to myself. You know, real questions, that this moment has brought, pulled out of me. I think that's why we were saying earlier how difficult it is to speak about practice right now. Why now? Because actually practice comes from self. And it's a way for me to question the world and my view of the world and the way that I see myself experiencing and other people experiencing it, but I'm not sure where I've been watching those things from right now. So I know it's just a very topsy turvy time, you know?
RB: Maybe not so much emotionally because actually I feel quite grounded emotionally. But in terms of my view of the world and how my concepts seem to be shifting in a way that I hadn't expected to happen at this time. Because I felt quite sure of it. I kind of was at the end of, maybe two thirds through a deep thought. It's veered off now and it's causing me to be thoughtful in a different way. Slower.
IR: Yeah. You know, you want to say more?
RB: I don't know, there is so much to say, but it's so fractured because that what's happening with certain thoughts. I can. At the moment I can look at something and my mind goes to places it never would have before, when looking at that object. I feel that anything that I do say now, that by the time this has been shared with people, I would be so, so far removed from what I may be thinking at this time. It's difficult to tie myself down. But I'm enjoying this change in process actually. It feels like…
IR: A time of reflection?
RB: Of reflection and it feels like growth.
IR: I definitely feel this is a very challenging time and I feel very grateful for all of the ways that I'm able to support myself and to accept support from others. In terms of how we respond in this moment to this challenging time. You know, I'm at home most of the time, and I'm here with my partner and so it's also been a kind of exercise in holding space for all of the things that you're collectively feeling and experiencing. All of the things that that other person is feeling and then recognizing that also everybody we know, everybody is being forced to respond in some way. And so the kind of practice of thinking collectively has felt in some ways a lot a lot easier because, I don’t know, maybe it isn’t necessarily easier. But I haven't experienced a situation like this in my life where I've had to think and communicate so collectively. If I'm thinking about this pandemic and thinking about its impacts, there are so many people reeling from its effects. And so thinking about it is a way to also really have some perspective on the people in my life, the communities I am tethered to, where we all are, how we are doing, or coping. And yeah, I guess I am finding it a really useful moment to think collectively. In the end, it doesn't make sense or is actually really scary to think in isolation because I can't survive this without other people and neither can anybody else survive this without empathic relationships, without, you know, real mutual aid. And so in some ways it's a chance to also practice, you know, building the kinds of worlds that we want to exist in after this moment and as things change, as our lives kind of shift to something different. This time has helped me to also kind of prioritize who my chosen family are - who I would really put myself at risk for and who I don't want to spend too much time on.
RB: That is completely understood. I mean, I recently moved to a new area where we don’t know anyone, so the idea of community has completely changed, especially in this time because my everyday community right now is very, very small. Three people and actually, strangely enough, what's happening is we are coming closer and becoming more of a community that supports each other in our own individual decisions. But then on a wider scale, what I have realized is that this move to digital communication has really allowed me to see the same issue. I think, you know, there's a lot of energy that has to be expended on a Zoom call. You know you haven’t prepared yourself for the outside because you're still inside. Who do you feel comfortable speaking to in that position? Exposing your home, your life to. I mean, I knew already in large part but there have been some surprises and that's helpful. And I think that's playing Into my work, into the work. You know, I'm thinking of the things that roll around in your head with no use now but you know they will be used later. They’ll come out. Surprises. Other things that kind of lay around in your head. You know, you're not going to put into action, but they live. They'll come out. They’ll be there.
RB: Yes. You know, I'm starting to think about how I look at all kinds of labels. The labels, I'm going to take off of myself. I've just realized now that some labels must come off of myself because they're not helpful for me or for other people.Thats a very good feeling because now I am making my work for a broader group of people and that feels exciting. That feels exciting. It really does. I realize that many more people go through the same things that I thought, not that I thought only my community went through, but I'm more interested in growing my community and into it.I don't think that there's any growth for me in shutting down.
IR: Another feeling or kind of character of this time is just about humility. I'm really feeling, it's sort of… I don't know how to explain it. I guess it's a kind of an invitation to feel really, really humble and curious and malleable rather than to sit in a kind of fixed arrogance. A lot of us are feeling very angry right now and we have absolutely every reason to be angry at the sheer scale of injustices that are happening. You know, things don't feel good. And there are many ways that we know these things could be changed, that we are practicing changing ourselves. There’s politics going on that is killing us and killing our families and our communities and you know, in the past it’s felt quite difficult to hold and embody the knowledge that we have in our communities, sometimes I’ve even felt like that knowing has has put me in a little bit of a harsh, hardened, arrogant space, of being angry that the knowledge is not heeded, the changes are not being made. And there's still that, there's still that anger and righteousness, which is, I think, totally valid, especially for communities of color. Our anger can save us or be our undoing.
RB: It's completely justified to feel this way.
IR: What did you say?
RB: I said, it's completely justified to feel this way.
IR: Yeah. And to feel also like, you know, doubly, like you have to you have to assert that, you have to be assertive around that because you're essentially being gaslighted. And you have to wrestle with that knowledge too. And every everywhere around us is the evidence of white supremacy, is the evidence of anti-blackness. Such a deep lack of care where there could be so much. There is so much that needs to be done and in this moment, you know, and we are in shock. We are dealing with so much loss and grief and pain and violence. And I really want to stay in a space of, not hope, but in the space of kind of curiosity and discipline, in a space of openness. So that the people we think of as our family and, you know, that doesn't have to be people that we know personally, but also, communities of people who are being impacted in very personal ways, who may not have even really been on our radar are now expanded into our family, our community, our care. You know, here with us, when we're talking about who this is impacting and building a world that demands more care.
[At this point the conversation is interrupted by Rebecca’s daughter]
RB: Sorry about that.
IR: No problem. You were talking earlier about who you are okay to Zoom with and really invite into your home and there is this very strange thing of all of this technology being very impersonal and at the same time, actually quite intimate.
IR: I'm working Monday through Friday and having Zoom meetings with all of these people who I would never invite into my house. There’s a sort of public / private work environment, it's sort of being invited into my home or, you know, somebody I was on a call with the other day said, “It's so interesting to see where everyone lives, their rooms, their houses and I just felt…
IR: Yeah, it can feel very exposing. And also, I'm having some meetings with a lot of people who are sharing space with children, either their own or other people’s and that also invites a kind of witnessing, right, of your being a mother. Of the way you interact with other people, how you manage difficult situations. And even just generally how people are dealing with this kind of crisis. It can feel very, very vulnerable.
RB: I think so as well. I know that so many people, you know, online,I can see many people are feeling exposed because they are hiding their homes. You know, things have become so close. I'm a very intuitive person and an empathetic person, so there are things that I see that others may not and I accept that at this point in my life. I can see that a lot of people are hiding where they are. And I completely understand the anxieties and that is about class. It's about where you can afford to live and how nice that place is and how much that exposes who you really are.
IR: Yeah. Absolutely.
RB: You know? I had realized and I think in this art thing, I see more and more, that there are many people who, and people have the right to present themselves however they want to and I think we should all do that but, I realized there were a lot of people going through things on an everyday basis that are only being exposed now because of Covid 19. They are stuck at home and are not able to leave home to create the life that they need to sustain themselves. I don’t only mean in a financial way, I mean in an emotional way. You know, you want to be around certain people. You want to engage with certain types of energy. You want to go to a museum, a gallery, you want to have a conversation with a stranger, you might want to bump someone on the street. Some people do that on purpose. There's no way around it. You know, different places. Different things. Like, for example, when I'm in Peckham and I'm walking down the street and I get bounced by an African woman. That to me is no problem. You know, because I know that that's just its own thing.
IR: They’re still out here bouncing! (laughs)
RB: I just feel like they're going about their business. And I see it. I see them do it to everyone. It's like, okay, you know, makes me feel love in a way, you know? I mean, it's like an acceptance that you're there. You call this community, you're going to get bounced too, but then the other places where you go and you get bounced and I don't know, I have the feeling that the person just bounced me because they wanted to touch someone, but you can't just stroke a person. But now they are home with no touch.
IR: It's a touch. Perhaps a craving for proximity as a kind of intimacy.
RB: Yeah and I think that a lot of people must be suffering from that and it's awful that where they are, may not be the best place.That makes me. That brings me down,in the spiral of thinking but then there are moments when I'm like, wow, this is an amazing opportunity to sit with yourself, spending more time in your home. I know those kinds of things. But then other people. That's the farthest thing away from their minds, you know.
IR: Mm hmm. Well, I mean, it's not available to many of us.
RB: Sorry, I got lost in my thoughts but we were talking about community before and what I am starting to think is that a smaller, focused way may be more effective. You know, if I worked with five young people, let's say two young people, and I focused some attention on those young people. What can I offer them? Seemingly, inevitably something like this happens again and they find themselves closer to another way, through support. Something else, you know. They don't have to stay in that place where they don’t have to stay because they have been supported to support themselves. I really think that there's some kind of everyday support I can give outside of the more esoteric support I try to give in my art. I don't want to consider myself an activist or anything. I just want that to be life.
IR: Yeah, I think that shift is a really important one, and something I’ve also been reflecting on. In some ways this moment is inviting me to prioritize the people in my life and where I want to put my energy, but also in terms of my own practice, there are ideas or, you know, creative ideas, things I would like to do that in this moment feel more important. And then there are things that are not even on my radar anymore. There are ways of building and developing a practice that make sense for this moment and there are ways that feel almost shameful. It sort of feels quite stark like this is something. There are some things that matter in this moment and there are some things that don't and the things that don't? I don't want to give them any space or breath. Do you know what I mean? I want my work to mean something and be important in the sense that it matters in a moment like this. If I'm going to be an artist, if I'm going to be a writer, I'm going to have something to say. I want it to be something worth saying, at least something that I need to say. That doesn't have to mean anything about who is reading it. You know, it's up to them whether it's important for them. I want my work to have integrity - I want these things to be meaningful in that sense. And I've always felt that any way. But I guess, sometimes this kind of need or desire for things to be meaningful has become like a barrier in the sense that sometimes it's difficult to know why or how this feels meaningful to me. But if it feels appropriate to be saying or doing this thing in the midst of this crisis, which is the ongoing experience of black life anyway, you know, I give myself permission to write that or to do that or to think or dream that, you know.
RB: Yes. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I mean, it's interesting that you have spoken about dreaming. I am doing dream paintings at the moment. How have you been sleeping?
IR: I haven't been setting alarms. But I have been waking up very early.
IR: Yeah, around my period I didn't sleep very well and I'm finding it difficult to lie in even if I’m tired, but I'm waking up at about 7:30 every day and I have also been doing an hour of yoga a day. This is what is helping me to survive the day, to balance my emotions, to feel strong in the middle of what is actually quite a lot of trauma. I'm finding ways to feel like if someone or something kind of pushed me, that I wouldn't fall to the ground.
RB: So you're finding your sense of your foundation.
IR: Yeah. You know, I wasn't waking up at 7:30 and doing an hour of yoga normally! And I can already hear myself making a judgment on myself for doing these things, but it's sort of like I'm doing what needs to be done in the few hours in the morning that feel okay. Yeah, but you know, obviously, for other people waking up at 7.30 and doing…
[Zoom call cuts out]
RB: Was that forty minutes?
IR: Yeah, I think so.
RB: Wow, excellent. And besides that. How do you feel about what you've been saying? Do you feel okay? Not exposed or?
IR: Yeah. Whoo! I mean, it feels in some ways like a really generous gift to share this conversation with anybody else.
IR: And then in other ways it feels like, you know, oh, we didn't really talk about this, or we didn't talk about that. One of the things I was going to say was that this has helped Rabz and I as curators to really focus and take stock of our commitments and values as Languid Hands. This has been a deeply reflective time in relation to our Cubitt Fellowship, which has obviously been impacted by what has happened. But we have are finding ways to, in a foundational tangible way, support the artists we’re working with. To help us to see where we can actually be useful and enjoy our work and be creative but also to really kind of take responsibility for the opportunities we have to support the work of artists we have around us. What does it mean to be a curator right now, when the artists we work with are sick or terrified or can’t pay their rent? I think I was quite proud of our programming, which is yet to be fully announced, in part because in this moment, the artists who we’ve chosen to work with are people who I politically and emotionally and creatively want to really show up for and support.
RB: It really is felt. I can speak for myself, that the intention is felt completely. I think in the time that I've been exhibiting work, I haven’t had any problems with anybody. Some slight situations but I do think that maybe, I have been lucky. But there have been two times with curators where I've felt so supported. Not just supported in the making of my work but in the emotional labour of the work. The foundations of myself that lead to the work. I think that is quite rare. I know that the idea of care and curation is being spoken about quite often but it doesn’t always make it through. I am so happy to see more people try to introduce it into their curatorial practices but I think, maybe it goes back to the beginning of the conversation, that in order to give it, you have to give it to yourself. If they are not caring for themselves as curators then how will they give it to the artists?
I never defined my practice as being one of care but I always try to approach my life like that anyway, so that even when I am working with a curator, or even an institution, you're still working with a person and I want to care for them too. Often, I imagine the artist can end up caring more for the curator because they are not able to take care of themselves even if they are able to do the job. I don’t know.