Like many children of the diaspora, my questions of migration and cultural identity began in conversation with my personal and family histories. Having immigrated at two years old, I was too young to recognize the milestones of assimilation — like only speaking Chinese in daycare to reading English fluently, like it was my mother tongue, by grade school — but these moments still marked my understanding of my self, my family, and our place in our environment, our nation.
These questions became more complex as I met other migrants, not only those whose histories mirrored mine, but also those who were forcibly displaced generations ago by colonial force, leading me to grapple with the positioning of Asian-American identity in our racial dialogues.
I wondered about national alignments and how the migrant forms hybrid cultural identities. Especially when these questions are taken into the realm of contemporary art, where does the diasporic artist fit in? Is it a possible pitfall to (re)appropriate or (re)imperialise one’s own culture as leverage for personal career growth?
Around this time, I stumbled upon the figures of the British Black Arts Movement from the 1980s, especially filmmakers like John Akomfrah and the Black Audio Film Collective. Here was a group of artists and thinkers who’d grappled with the same questions of race, gender, displacement etc. through the postcolonial lens — nearly forty years ago.
In the wake of a protest-filled year, I watched Akomfrah and the BAFC’s Handsworth Songs. Filmed after the 1985 Handsworth riots in Birmingham, England, Handsworth was a site of extreme racial tension between the majority Black and Asian residents and the police. Handsworth Songs montages images from newspapers, video clips of news interviews, and sound, bowing not to narrative time, but to the “fractured narrative of the riots,” as UbuWeb describes it. A newsreel clip of a woman interviewed after the riots responds, “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.”
It certainly felt that way, looking back on a city riled by Thatcher-era anti-immigration sentiments, having just emerged from a Trumpian hellscape. It certainly felt that way, after a 2020 summer that erupted in protests, spreading across the Atlantic, that were sedated as the cycles of social media activism cooled down and 2021 resumed. It certainly feels that way now, too. Even as the purported hope of the vaccine and stimulus checks, I wonder about the internal riots of rights and demands yet to be met — and what ghosts of other stories still linger.
I went on to watch Signs of Empire, created when Akomfrah and the other members of BAFC were still undergraduates, the two part film-essay overlays archival images with text, pairing it with audio clips and music. Signs begins with images of statues and monuments of men in suits with curly wigs — a “Founding Father” type look. The text reads in fragmented slides:
“In the beginning” / “The textual”/ “The archive” / “Imperialism, ” before starting again, “In the beginning” / “The hinterlands of narrative” / “The impossible fiction of tradition.”
As the orchestral music builds, images of European colonizers amidst the Other and ethnographic photos that primitize and reduce are dispersed into the textual narrative. Near the peak of the crescendo, a photo of a woman and man, formally clad in dress, hat, and suit, proudly standing behind a dead tiger, is shown before the scene fades to black. A dreadful, anxious sound starts to build. A male narrator continues speaking, “I think they don’t know who they are. Or what they are.”
What Signs does so beautifully, is communicate the burden of history — especially histories of colonialism and empire and the legacies they impart on members of the diaspora. Images of tea, labor, the colonizer, and the colonized are paired with repeated audio about a “multiracial, multicultural” hope for the future. In conversation with England’s past as an imperial power and the (then) present stir towards a neo-liberal diversity, Signs complicates and questions England’s national identity, asking the viewer to probe multiculturalism — and England’s — promises for a future that reckons with the past.
At times, watching Signs of Empire and Handsworth Songs left me frustrated in the face of the seeming lack of difference between the realities experienced by the British Black Arts Movement forty years ago and today. But it also left me with a certain comfort, that the stories of today truly are the ghosts of other stories — stories that have been ruminated by so many thinkers and artists before me. This history may be one of burden, but it is also one of relief.
Cecilia Lu is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at email@example.com. Breathing Room runs alternate Thursdays this semester.