A few days after our interview at Alice Yard, where he has just appeared as the first Caiso-endorsed artist-in-residence, Ajamu e-mails some images of his work. They are black and white photographs with a sense of poignancy—perhaps the first time the word “poignant” has been used to describe a self-portrait of an artist dressed in fishnets, a leather gimp mask and high heels.
If the first image is provocatively humorous, the second is tinged with sadness.
In the other pictures, his models are posed in various costumes (some overtly sexual, some nude, some more “traditional.”)
They represent a timeline of his working life.
Ajamu, the Huddersfield-born British son of black Jamaican immigrants, adopted his African name in 1991.
“It was given to me by one of my mentors,” he says. He won’t reveal his former name. “That has no bearing,” he says, then laughs loudly, saying, “only to my family.”
“A lot of black men and women were embracing a pan-African perspective in the 80s and 90s,” he explains, “getting rid of eurocentric names. Ajamu means He fights for what he believes.”
One imagines that a gay black man growing up in the gritty and macho north of England in the 1980s might have had a fair few battles to fight, or struggles to overcome. But Ajamu says family life and social life in Huddersfield was quite normal.
His grandparents arrived in England in 1958, the year that vicious race riots broke out in Notting Hill as white gangs of Teddy Boys, urged on by British Fascist politician Oswald Mosley, attacked Caribbean immigrants. His parents followed in 1962 and Ajamu was born a year later in 1963.
He describes Huddersfield as “a small town where, during the 60s and 70s, a large black population, mainly Jamaican and Grenadian and a small number of Trinidadians and Asians formed a tight-knit community where everybody knew everybody.”
He came out to his parents, brothers and cousins as gay in his late teens.
“They had no problems with it whatsoever. I wasn’t surprised by their reaction but I had built it up for months and months and then I came out and it was like, what was all that fear about? They know the work I do, they know my partner, he’s part of the family.”
He says he had a fear of rejection prior to coming out. Put to him that Jamaicans have a terrible reputation for homophobia and that his family’s reaction was impressively progressive for the times, he says “I challenge that narrative of Jamaican homophobia because, actually, I don’t think it’s particularly in any specific culture. Homophobia for me exists in all families, all communities, all societies and it doesn’t serve anybody to say this country is more homophobic than another country. It just sets up these weird paradigms. It’s an illusion to think just because Western countries have rights everything is hunky dory. It’s a dangerous narrative to create that hierarchy.”
He has been to Jamaica and says next time he goes he would be openly gay.
“It’s not something I can turn on and off and, also, some people might not read me as being gay.” It’s a bold stance in a society where openly gay and transgender men are currently living in a drain in the capital, Kingston, shunned and rejected by society and liable to be attacked.
He says he had a great time there with his family and grandparents in 1999. He even visited a gay bar but he thinks it might no longer exist, amidst the rise of anti-gay sentiments. Homophobia, he says, is on the rise all over the world. Even in the UK.
Giving a voice to the black British gay community
Part of his work is to represent black LGBT men and women—a section of British society he feels are often silent or marginalised.
“We don’t hear the voices of LGBT people who are “out” in black families. We don’t hear the voices of our aunts and uncles and mothers and dads and grandmas who are perfectly happy with their sons and daughters being lesbians and gays. Those narratives are missing,” he says.
He moved to London in 1988 in his mid 20s, after a four-year spell in Leeds. The move came after attending the first National Gay Black Men’s Conference at the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre in Camden in October, 1987. An event, he says, which has never been repeated.
Until the conference he’d only ever met a handful of gay black people. One of whom was his first lover, from Huddersfield.
“I met him at the bar at the Gemini club.” A quick Google search turns up references to this club on the Huddersfield Daily Examiner’s Web site under a list of “Great lost night clubs”. It is also referred to in a book called The Homosexual(ity) of Law by Leslie Moran in which the law professor describes how it was raided repeatedly by police in the early 80s who were attempting to gather detailed information about the gay community in Yorkshire, a county synonymous in the UK with being intolerant of anybody who appears to be different.
“It was a small town, there was a whispering culture which was how you would find out about other gay people,” Ajamu says.
But most people who are “different” in England inevitably leave for the big city sooner or later.
He studied black history and then photography in Leeds. In 1985, with two other friends, he created a magazine called BLAC. The acronym stood for Black Liberation Activist Core.
“That was some of the politics I was getting into at the time,” he explains.
He needed to create an image for an article and describes himself as “falling” into photography that way.
His career brought him all the way to Trinidad for a two-week residency at Alice Yard, an artistic space for nurturing talent.
While here, he facilitated a two-day photography workshop. Ajamu led the participants in a dialogue about the socio-cultural biases—gender, race, class—a photographer can bring to the act of taking a photograph.
The themes of his work he describes as “black imagery with a focus on sexuality, race, representation, identity, pleasure and desire.”
There is a sexual nature to the images. The leather, the nudity, the taut muscles, pouting lips, seductive gazes and even graphic representations of the body (a 1993 close-up of an erect penis, called Cock and Glove, is startling in as much as it takes a second to work out what it is. Perhaps that’s the point.)
I ask whether focusing on black physicality and identity in an predominantly white European society like the UK speaks to the politics of displacement and belonging. I put it to him that French photographer Frederique Bornier spent years in Paris documenting black immigrants from West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East because she felt their demeanours and facial expressions spoke of a deep unhappiness, tension or frustration.
But his work has a much more positive attitude than that.
“It’s about celebration and aspiration,” he says. “Growing up in the UK in the 1970s and early 80s, in mainstream popular culture, all the images of gay men were white. John Inman, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams and so forth. Images of black men were always sports stars or in relation to confrontations with authority. So for me there were very few images I could relate to. So in a vague kind of way I created images that just weren’t there.”
In the gentle and sensual approach to his work we also see a challenge to the stereotypical images of black masculinity which he describes as “fear, threat and fascination.” He talks about iconic images like the beating of Rodney King, the violence of Mike Tyson or the one-dimensional representations of black men in porn.
“These ideas didn’t generally come from black men themselves. So my work is what I need to see, as a black gay man.”
He says there’s a history of narrow stereotypes he is born into which he has to unpack. Particularly problematic for him is the application of stereotypes to all black men and thereby creating a dominant, unchallenged narrative.
Near the end of the interview he’s asked about his self-described “sex activism.” He had mentioned it in his introductory speech at Alice Yard and it’s a phrase that sticks in your head. But what does it mean?
“I run private sex parties for men who want to have sex with men. Since the late 90s, on and off,” he says bluntly. The candidness is refreshing. There’s none of the caginess which usually accompanies such statements. No tabloid style descriptions of murky sexual underworlds.
“Part of my work is academic, another part is about how we actually experience our own desires and fantasies physically through the body. And also coming together to talk about our desires and playing them out.”
How many men? “I can get about 30 people, 50 people. It depends on the location.”
After probing further, for want of a better word, Ajamu admits that he is careful about what he says. It’s not just his life but other people’s privacy at stake.
For him, however, the physical side is one aspect of the creative side, not too different in his eyes from a spoken word poetry slam. The expression of sexuality is part of his art. It’s what he does.