‘Typhoon coming on’ is the first solo presentation of Sondra Perry’s work in Europe. For those unfamiliar with the artist, one may find themselves swimming against the purple ocean waves projected across the gallery walls in search of Sondra – in search of healing that feeling of uncertainty in an art gallery, amplified by the disorientating, dizzying, environment we’ve found ourselves trying to navigate. Often the assumption of being a black and female artist is that the only story you can tell is your own. In the case of Perry this is a story about agency and the agility of blackness.
‘Typhoon coming on’ is an immersive environment including the artist’s signature chroma key blue walls (an animation and post production technique that allows the composition of videos and images), and a series of video projections seamlessly woven throughout the gallery. The video begins with an animation of an ocean created in the open source software Blender. Bright purple waves crash into us, evoking a feeling of fight or flight. Our instincts kick in and we have to keep swimming, instantly transforming us into participants of the work. As the purple waves blend into a swampy animated sludge, now we’re not swimming but wading. Wading through our murky colonial history, represented by a digitally manipulated version of JMW Turner’s 1840 ‘masterpiece’ ‘Slave Ship’. The original work depicts the drowning of 133 slaves by the captain of a British slave ship to claim compensation for ‘lost cargo’.
‘Wet and Wavy – Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation’ is a water-resistant rowing machine filled with the icy blue hair gel instantly recognisable to those with afro-hair. Across the three screens are the purple computer generated waves, and through headphones we hear a distorted version of Missy Elliot’s ‘Supa Dupa Fly’. ‘Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation’ is modelled after a bicycle workstation and confronts the viewer with an avatar version of the artist giving a monologue about capitalism. Both works require physical labour from the viewer but not for any purpose, further commenting on the importance of productivity in capitalist society. Any time spent, should be spent working. Throughout history, whether slave ships or culturally appropriated and perfectly packaged, blackness = profit.
By setting up arenas for empowerment Perry asks how we can use our bodies as a tool for change. Demonstrating this in ‘TK (Suspicious Glorious Absence)’, Perry turns an extreme close up of her skin into a rippling animation as the backdrop to a monitor playing Eartha Kitt’s ‘I want to be Evil’. As Kitt reclaims the notion of people of colour as wild, untameable beasts through song, Perry reclaims the fetishisation of skin colour and subverts it into an abstracted form.
Perry says she is interested in how ‘blackness embodies technology to combat oppression’. By abstracting and re-presenting elements of the black experience in her work she allows them to exist freely. This is reminiscent of Aria Dean’s ‘Eulogy for a black mass’, a video work about the black meme and the home of blackness being in its circulation – its ability to travel independently of black people whilst still disseminating as an aesthetic and social force.
Throughout the show Perry demonstrates how images have partly crafted our reality throughout history, by removing or abstracting and allowing us to connect with these narratives without any preconceived racial prejudices. Perry illustrates how technology and bodies are entangled, whether the medium is paint (in the case of Turner’s slave ship), Fox News or civilian videos of police brutality. Perry does not explore blackness in a way that is nostalgic, nor does she offer us a new outlook. Instead she offers us a blue screen on which to be an agent of a new narrative and create a new set of standards.