It is really hard to begin to find the bravery, confidence and strength to talk when you have been silenced. I have wanted to write this for weeks, months — years even. The list of people, curators, institutions, organisations, groups and spaces which have silenced me has gotten longer and longer, and I was being corrosively broken. For the past 10 years I have been saying I cannot take anymore. This year is a toxic blend of institutional, community group, individual curatorial failure and violence, lack of care, abuse of power and negligence all collectively helped me find the end of my psyche and I had a breakdown. The last year and those involved were the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Since I had my shows taken from me, I have been quiet; since I lost my job, I have been quiet; since I left the community group I helped start, I began to do the work of the silencers and stopped speaking. I was tired, my brain hurt, I cried and cried and cried and cried for the loss of hope they all dangled in front of my face. I felt humiliated, embarrassed and demoralised so I hid. Regardless of how we got here — I did not and do not deserve that.
All of the energy I had used during lockdown after lockdown to keep meeting, zooming, keep drafting, keep making, keep proposing, keep training was for nothing and in the blink of an eye.
For one of them I was not even paid.
It is not possible for me to be an artist and live in fear. I feared my curator’s power to cancel my work. And they did it anyway. I feared the institutions’ ability to take away my work, and they did it anyway, I feared the community groups inability to hold my identity and they didn’t anyway. I will not be ruled.
Fi Dem is an annual work, the bedrock of this work is the durational, repetitive, exhaustive act of it. This work rocks me to my core with what it asks of me year in and year out. I mistakenly entrusted this work to the wrong people, and the wrong institution and as a result this work has not been seen publicly this year because the people who said they would hold and care for this work, simply changed their mind. To be clear, I am not for one minute suggesting that there is no blame on my side. Perhaps upon reflection I too could have done things differently. However, I am still a worker with rights and there should be some process in which we resolve these issues in a fair and objective way.
The power dynamic at play means they could take out their frustration to cancel me, take away my work, take my money and show. This is unfretted, unfiltered unchecked power, and it does not matter the colour, gender, or sexuality that wields it. We need more objective, collective accountability, we need to plan what we will do when things go wrong and we need to be as radical and abolitionist when things go wrong as when they are going right.
It is terrifying to learn in real time that Black power and white power work in exactly the same way. We, and I mean we are not prepared for how we will respond when we finally get the power, we have criticised others for having. It seems that what we will do is re-enact the abuse that has been done onto us without any sense of reflection. Silencing and censoring the work of Black women is at the bedrock of society. I will not be ruled.
Our industry is a mess, the actions of people, curators, institutions almost cost me my life this year. No one should ever be treated so badly at work that they feel their life is not worth it. Our working practices, treatment of Black, Queer, working class, darkskin women must change. I’m disgusted by us. Common practices such as contract withholding which as my agent told me is actually a form of bullying, low balling fees, lack of structures around conflict, and disagreement at work mean that artist work in fear and can simply be ejected when they have invested in for weeks, months or in my case literal years at the whim of people, curators, institutions with no recourse. Often, we have less rights than the people engaging in our work. We are not employees and they know and rely on the fact that they can eject us whilst still collecting their PAYE whilst we have little or no recourse. The way we work is unsafe for artists and I am writing this because I believe that it has the capacity to actually cost artists their life. It is my hope that someone will read this and make considerable changes to their practice. And to unburden myself from holding the shame for others for how they treated me.
Accountability is not just something one chooses, or even chooses who to take it from. It is something one is held to because one has caused harm, and I hold those who hurt me to account for the harm and lack of care caused to me as well as the impact to my career. I will not be silent for you. I will not allow myself to be punished for asking for more care and better treatment of me or my work.
I have spent the last few months rebuilding my mind, I am still very fragile. My mind is riddled with anxiety and panic attacks, I cry a lot less now and writing this is a new chapter. I know this now at least. I will not be censored. I will not be ruled. Fi Dem is bigger than me, than any curator or institution, My practice is bigger than me, any institution, any curator and it shall not be ruled.
Zinzi Minott aka The Unruly Body