Valerie Ebuwa: Body Data

  • Photography and Words  Henry Gorse
  • Featuring  Valerie Ebuwa
  • Creative Assistant  Sarika Thakorlal

I was lucky enough to meet Valerie when I collaborated on a project with her and several different dancers a few years ago. Her energy is infectious and with a smile to own the world we have created many portraits together since.

After a catch-up and a long chat, we decided it would be a nice idea to shoot a series of images to accompany Valerie’s performance ‘Body Data’ at the V&A, her first performance at the museum.

Sadly due to the global pandemic, Valerie’s performance will not be happening. Luckily, we managed to finish most of the images before all the madness kicked off.

As well as being a contemporary dance artist Valerie is an activist, her short film explores a fresh perspective on the naked black female body and as well as a performance Valerie was due to deliver a V&A Artists talk around brown bodies within institutions.

The Project we were shooting together was deadly serious with Valerie’s message but we found a way to be playful creatively without taking anything away from an important underlying message, it was essential to express ourselves in a positive playful way whilst still keeping true to the context of the body of work, which is to challenge.

Introducing Valerie Ebuwa!

Hello Val! Please tell us a bit about yourself as a dancer and performer, how would you paint a picture of your style?
Heya Henry!! As a dancer, I work across many mediums, mainly dance theatre for contemporary dance companies. I do the odd music video here and there just to keep myself guessing/growing. I don’t like to be boxed or to box myself so I am constantly changing and trying new things. I’ve performed in galleries and sang on stage a few times now also. I’m a bit of everything I think! That’s my style. Picture perfect? 🙂

Balloons have become a trademark of yours, what do they represent within your performance?
I think they represent that I’m always ready to party!! Haha. They represent celebration and remaining playful but it’s super interesting how just a change of colour, for instance, can scream gender reveal party or a different shape can make it look like gum or taffy. It’s funny because I don’t think the choreographers I have worked with realise that balloons are generally involved somehow. It’s nice for me because it’s become a huge part of my story.

I was super excited for your first performance at the V&A, will this still be going ahead in some capacity?
I was excited too! To be honest with this current corona situation who knows what the state of the museum and art institutions, in general, will look like. I’m remaining positive though. If it’s meant to happen it will and if not, the work will have another journey which is also exciting.

We spoke about your opportunities within the industry and the typical things you witness as a black artist/performer, when did you realise as an artist it was important to react to these experiences?
This is an amazing question. I think I have always known that it’s important but I think in 2018 I really kicked off. I had performed in a show for a well known contemporary dance company here in London and the reviews were so clearly racist. The language they used for my parts in the show and the language they reserved for the other dancers was completely different. It was really offensive. I couldn’t believe the ignorance of the people who have pretty much dominated the reviewing of the entire dance industry. I realised the only way to combat it was to speak out and make work about it. As well as being a dancer I am a writer so I wrote an article asking reviewers to review their own writing practices because the racial bias doesn’t allow dancers of colour to be accurately reviewed or treated equally to their white counterparts. Writing that article has actually allowed me to talk within many institutions about the many errors they make because their systems are fundamentally wrong.

I think it takes someone special to speak up as so many are scared of disrupting the system, and the potential ramifications that come with that. What does the black female body mean to you?
It can be scary indeed but I feel silence is way scarier. Silence aids complicity which leads to erasure. If we don’t speak or try to spell out the issues then nothing gets changed and to be honest how do we expect it to. So in some ways, I don’t really feel like silence is a privilege I own. I also don’t expect people to speak for me because I have a mouth. My lived experience is black and female so the black female body to me means existence. If I don’t try to disrupt the system then I and others like me fail to exist because no one really truly sees us. Our histories become erased and what a shame because there are so many incredible black female bodies that deserve a spotlight. So I try to use my voice as best as I can. I don’t know if I always get it right but trying is important. I use my own body also. You have to use everything you’ve got.

The COVID-19 situation has affected us all in different ways, how have you managed your days?! Have you found any inspiration in the form of dance?
Hahaha, I have definitely had gin days and bad days!!! But generally, if I am honest, it’s the first time I’ve had a chance to slow down and refocus and I am really appreciating it. Of course, it’s hard not to be in the studio, money etc but I am always dancing at home, by myself, trying to figure out what my body likes today, what it liked yesterday and what it will like tomorrow. Lots of things inspire me to dance or make dance. Music is probably my biggest inspiration so it’s been nice to have time to look for more and figure out new phrases and choreographies without the pressure of a deadline or making it shit hot. It’s a nice time for play and possibilities. Also, there’s loads of content that’s being released for free like Revelations by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater which is super ace.

The images we shot together, do you feel they echo the message of your work or give a different perspective on it? I find it interesting that the bubblegum pop made the white mask over the mouth considering our previous chats
My work on this particular project is about presenting new references for the nude black female form. The shots that we did together are nude shots that include other objects that are either placed around my private areas or creating the backdrop to isolate my naked form which is super interesting because my naked film Body Data is the reverse. It’s my body and my movement being placed in a stark empty space. It’s definitely an interesting perspective and way more playful than the rest of the work. The nude is often uncomfortable for people I feel mainly because it can trigger reactions of comparison which is why we tend body shame others or the majority of the time ourselves through our own negative body rhetoric. Also in the mix is this ridiculous culture particularly here in the UK that nudity and sex are inseparable. I don’t know if it’s porn or religion that has heightened these ideas but I have always found it super strange. I think the objects we use have almost stripped the hypersexuality that is almost always placed on the black female body. Our images are beautiful and also grotesque, absurd and weird. I love allowing all of these things to coexist because they can. It’s possible.

A white mask trying to cover a black woman’s mouth is definitely a visual metaphor for racism and also coincidently very timely with the crazy virus that’s got us all wearing them. Go us!! 🙂

The Grace Jones ‘Island Life’ photograph we recreated I think came out really well. To me that original photograph by Jean-Paul Goude is a big moment in black beauty history, everything is perfect it became iconic. I thought I would tell you the original was photoshopped, you achieved the impossible! Ha
Haha to be fair my grip is slightly different to Graces so it allows me to get my leg higher so it’s a bit of a cheat really but hey I will take it!!!

We spoke briefly on this but I guess some people would think using a white male photographer to photograph the black female body is a controversial decision?
Yes indeed it is controversial but what I love about this project is that the subject-object relations are totally being challenged. Even though it’s a collaboration, I am curating how I want to be represented. I think the problem has always been the lack of autonomy black women have been given to tell their stories honestly and justly. My body is the object indeed but I get to chose how the subject depicts me. It’s also my choice to use my body as an object to dismantle contemporary hierarchy or unbalanced power dynamic. I think we have to unbuild these ideas together. Black and white people. It’s our job to figure out how we can do it together.

Do you have any advice for younger artists fighting against the ‘norm’?
Normal is boring. Being yourself is always going to be more interesting, so invest in that and the rest will follow.

To see more of Valerie’s work click here for her website, and here for her Instagram.

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