Exclusive Q&A: Ideas Tap Producer’s Brief Winner Janine Francois
Creative? Take note, Janine Francois tells us how she managed to shed light on a truth hidden in the media’s blind spot. With a strong theme and keen creative vision, there were no raised eyebrows when Janine won the Ideas Tap Producer’s Brief 2013. Ideas Tap, a platform for creatives, held its annual Producer’s Brief competition last year and we talk to Janine about her winning retrospective project. Cue the West African Goddess Oshun, misperceived sexuality and a damn good eye for producing…
Firstly, congratulations on winning the Ideas Tap producers brief! What a fantastic opportunity to get your work out there, did you find the 10 day exhibition and finale at Lyric Hammersmith theatre got across your vision about the Oshun?
Thank you! Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I was able to put something out there and work with a good bunch of people where visitors responded to it quite well. Even with its limitations, in the grand scheme of things financially it was a low cost project, considering its length and the number of artists involved which was over 20. Seeing as it was the first time I delivered a large scale project it wasn’t half bad!
Then no, in my head I had rather grandiose ideas and it was financial issues that held things back. Although Guest Projects were really helpful, there was still a limitation on the space as they have a fast turn around from one project to another so we couldn’t do the more far-fetched stuff. Also we lost a day due to setting up the installation of prints so more time was definitely needed!
With Lyric Hammersmith it was a really bizarre dynamic as I felt the show was really shit! But it sold out and people really liked it! I personally felt the quality of the night was lost as the support needed for development was not there, which I felt was a shame as it could have really been something magical. But I hope people were able to understand the interpersonal histories surrounding Oshun in the context of cosmology, colonialism, feminism and aesthetics.
Can you tell us a bit about the key points of the brief you pitched to Ideas Tap when applying?
There was no beating around the bush! I explained that the project was feminist and looking at black women’s bodies and sexuality. The exhibition and the Lyric Lounge event will bring these themes to life through narrated performance.
The Oshun, the West African goddess is the theme of the exhibition, tell us a bit about it, what was it about the Oshun that inspired you to do an exhibition?
As a creative thinker, I am interested in presenting “politics” in more nuanced ways; less obvious ways. I’m always looking at the layers of these politics and wanted to do an exhibition on black women’s bodies. This gave me a trajectory or a lens to examine this with. It’s highly ironic, but hopefully this can reclaim power of presenting black women’s bodies as goddesses rather than sexual ends. In my view our bodies are constantly under interrogation of being sub-human. I was researching about different African cosmology and mythologies when I came across Oshun. She introduced herself to me or re-introduced herself to me (perhaps I knew she existed but forgot?!) anyway, when researching her I really liked what she represented and personally identified with her “responsibility” and “manifestations”. Oshun is a very complicated Orisha (deity). This is not to discredit the others, but she is both a warrior and feminine, seductress and manipulator. I find these binaries really fascinating. She yields so much power especially over the male Orishas but not by using traditional masculinities to exert this power. It made sense to investigate the topics of body politics and sexuality through Oshun.
What truths are you trying to reveal through this exhibition and how did the Oshun represent these?
Oshun represents beauty, wealth, seduction, intimacy and love as a patron of creativity and the arts. Here she is represented by peacock feathers, brass and flowing rivers as well as vivid colours like gold, oranges and yellows. A vast majority of these themes were connected to the exhibition. I made the executive decision to print on organza fabric to represent the idea of flow and movement, but also the subjects in the photography were active and moving as I wanted to highlight this dynamic. Oshun has also traveled across the sea to Latin America and the Caribbean, so we chose to represent her in different ways using different women to do so. We also had a sacred circle, as circles are key to the Yoruba cosmology in ritual performance. It was important to me to hold this context it sat within and not to look at her as separate from the cultural belief systems she inhabits.
In a nutshell, the truths are that black women are complicated beings as with everyone else on the planet! But our stories and representations in the world are never told in that way, it’s very superficial how black women are represented and this feeds directly into damaging sexual stereotypes that dehumanize us. A veil has been cast over the real truths of black women and I wanted to reveal these truths through multi-disciplinary mediums.
Are black women’s bodies perceived or celebrated in a way that doesn’t reflect the true roots of black West African women? Black woman’s bodies have a negative history of sexualisation attached to it, from the transition days of slavery, rape and forced labour depriving women’s control over their bodies, to modern times in the media where they tend to be pigeon holed in a sexual light. Is this a fair observation or is there something we’re missing?
I think there’s a bit of both. On the positive side, there are lots of writers, academics, artists, photographers most of whom are black women putting out an alternative narrative to the one you highlighted in the above question. I think it’s great and there are many who have influenced and allowed me to understand how my personal history falls into a bigger canon of world history e.g. Toni Morrison. But as you mentioned there is still set narrative distributed in mainstream media that still fuels these ideas. I think the whole Miley Cyrus smacking that black woman’s ass and Lily Allen’s music video, as well as that creepy naked Oprah dress are all constant reminders that people feel like they have constant access to our bodies and image and so can do whatever the hell they like with it. It’s really frustrating as it makes conversation of moving past all this rubbish really hard for an emancipated and liberated society.
Would you say the media have a disabling impact on the perception of black women’s bodies rather than liberating?
I would definitely say mainstream media does have this impact, as ominous as it sounds I do think the media is designed to desensitize and dumb down people. But luckily there are strong alternatives that counteract this.
Is the purpose of your message then to re-invent people’s views of West African women’s bodies by shedding a different light on the subject? Or are you simply celebrating in an artistic way the already positive perception people have of bodies?
I would say it’s a bit of both. Its main intention is presenting black women’s bodies as majestic and beautiful through the trajectory of Oshun and hopefully in doing so it is de- establishing the negative connotations previously discussed that normally surrounds black women’s bodies.
What was it like working in an all-female collective?
It was great. It was all in the creation aspect (but there were 4 men involved, with really really miniscule roles!) I do think it’s important for women to tell their own stories through whatever medium their creativity finds itself in.
How did you use your mediums (photography, poetry, movement) to illuminate your message? Tell us in a nutshell the process of how you visualized your idea through the chosen mediums.
I was the Creative Producer/ Director for the project which meant I gathered together some of the best people around me to work with. A lot of the photography was done first, then I gave this to Belinda to write poetry in response to the visuals which I sent off to get printed on organza. The last stage was the installation of the prints which took ages…we had them suspended from the ceiling and created the circle out of granite dust, wrote some of the poetry on the floor and used an old wooden door I found too. We also had a video project and used brown parcel paper to create a 3D effect so it came off the walls with one of the poems on soundscape.
I really wanted to fill the space and have each one of the art forms in conversation with each other. This meant our audience was forced to engage all of their senses, touch, sight, movement and listening.
If you could pick one industry that you think could champion the essence of the Oshun, out of all the creative industries; art, modelling, poetry, dance, music, design and so on, which would it be?
Oshun in her very essence is all of these things which is why I choose to make it interdisciplinary, so it’s impossible!
In your opinion does London culture and lifestyle have any aspects similar to the lifestyle of an Oshun?
I think London definitely has wealth of things to offer for many different people. Firstly, I am not a practitioner of Orisha/Yoruba faith system but from my understanding Orisha’s in their very existence is a life force which inhabits and exists in everything, making it very transcendental. They’re not perfect beings and are answerable to a much higher spiritual force. I think on that note, London as whole does not inhabit the qualities of Oshun, who is about being loving, caring, sweet and seeing the beauty. London is a very hostile place; extremely decadent, materialistic and if we look at other social issues of poverty, sexism, racism, and homophobia the divide becomes clearer. I think if anything London/Londoners have a lot to learn from this culture and faith in terms of being more humanly compassionate.
The vibrant colours and bold tribal prints of African fashion is something I love, it inspires me in my own style! Do you use African fashion as part of your style and if so how?
I like Dutch Wax prints they are stunning, but then if I get political it’s so problematic. I try not to buy Dutch Wax print but on a superficial note, I do like to wear African print on daily basis as it can really accentuate an outfit.
What music nights do you like going to?
I’m really funny where I choose to go out, I rarely go out nowadays so when I do, it used to be a night called Nonsense at Plastic People run by Judah of Deviation, Femi of NTS Radio and Benny Blanco of Redbull Music. I also used to go to PutMeOnIt nights at market place and Living proof when it used to be there, but there’s so many teeny bobbers and faux trends I just can’t take it! When it does happen I go to a night called Yokoso by Eric Lau, Kengo San, Khalil and Mr Dex, it’s really good night and I definitely recommend it.
If you could combine your favourite artists into one epic night, who would you pick?
It would be a mix of artists across different genres and time eras. Marvin Gaye in late 60s, Grace Jones from the 80s, Ziggy Star Dust, Thee Satisfaction, Smashing Pumpkins, Daft Punk, Sa-ra Creative Partners, Wu Tang Clan, Camp Lo, 90s Lil Kim and the verse of Niki Minaj on Monster.
After winning the Ideas Tap producer’s brief has the journey changed your interpretation of art and how to visualise your ideas in the art world?
I’m not too sure of the repercussions of the Ideas Tap, I don’t think it has impacted my career so much – but who is to tell yet! It’s definitely made me think about exploring other avenues of performance and visuals and how to marry them together.
We’ll keep an eye out for you! What’s your social media links we can follow you on?