Interview with Jade Blackstock
Fink’s Cafe, London
Issue 1

Last spring, we were struck by one particular performance piece at the RCA Degree Show. During Black River, the artist lay motionless as molasses seeped slowly from her mouth. Though such a minimal act, it aroused deep melancholic feelings, a visceral response to the intimate links between race, violence, and colonialism. Many others, as it turns out, felt admiration.


Three months later, the artist, Jade Blackstock, is moving into her new studio, provided through the prestigious Studiomakers Prize funded by Tiffany & Co and Outset. She is not quite settled, having not yet acquired a desk nor a chair. Instead, we caught her for a chat in Fink’s Cafe to hear about how she has become a sharp and daring artist.


What brought you to the RCA?


The first thing was my tutor from my BA course who suggested I apply because he used to study on the painting course... I would never have applied.


What did you do for BA?


I did Fine Art Practice with Psychology... I couldn’t decide between the two.


Where?


It was at Worcester. The middle of England.


That sounds really interesting.


The Psychology bit, no. It was so boring. A lot of time I used to skip my Psychology class having gone to the studio, and just spend all day there. If I did another course, it would have to be art.


How did you get into performance?


During my BA I kind of realized that performance was the most appropriate form for my work and what I wanted to express because in my opinion, the rawness of the form really appeals to me. I think the themes I really look at, myself, I really didn’t want to pretty them up, feelings of racism or identity or ideas of the female body and what is imposed on the female. It was the best way of expressing those ideas and it kind of took off.


Were you doing performance in your BA?

Yeah, during the end. I started off with painting and drawing and then it kind of moved on to sculpture. By the final year, it was just performance. The first performance I did, I painted my whole body white and had this awkward swimming cap and leotard thing and I walked through the town, waiting for the bus. And I kind of extended that my buying a foam machine and plugging it in and standing and getting blasted by the foam. I kind of didn’t really realize the health and safety issues of being blasted by foam but it made a good image [laughs].


What do you think about the RCA as this established institution...I feel like performance is one of the more radical art forms, so how do you think the RCA influenced your art?


On a personal teacher level, we were always encouraged. We always had that support with exploring ideas that were not pretty all the time. But it felt like a struggle with the institution. There were a couple of times where I felt like it really affected my confidence and my role and my belief in what I was trying to convey. Things like nudity or possible health and safety issues kind of inhibited me from really getting to the bottom of what I was trying to say. There was an incident when I performed partially nude and there was a complaint which kind of extended to numerous people being upset. After everything blowing up and having to do apologies, it made me question what was acceptable in terms of my body in performance and I really started to wonder what [it means] to be a woman and a black woman in performance in the nude, I wondered if those issues were being explored not just through the work.


Do you feel like the RCA inhibited you?


Yeah I do. Because of the person who complained from the public, they had to act upon it. Blinds were put down... I honestly thought I would be kicked off the course because of it apparently reaching the MP.


Do you want to tell us what your performance was?


Basically I had a jar of jam and I beat the jam out of the jar and pulled down my trousers with my face to the floor and kind of just dragged the jam into the floor with my face and with my bare ass within view of the window and this woman walked past and then it was just chaos. It was interesting to test that because I kind of had done similar performances on the street and nobody questioned it…


Because we saw one of your performances on a flat screen TV, I was interested to know what you think about media and the Internet and how it can be used to create a larger audience for your work. Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?


I think both. There are so many things that can’t be picked up though. The presence alone is quite...it’s something. And then a lot of the materials I use have quite strong smells like if I have a dead pheasant, then no one’s going to smell it in the video. So a lot of the time it’s live...But I thought that video was really effective because it was only two minutes so kind of a quick byte and when that’s disseminated you kind of get the message very quickly rather than having to invest in making sure you’re at the right place at the right time. A lot of time it’s really hard to be there at the specific time and place especially because sometimes I don’t know where I’m going to perform, so how are people able to watch it? I think having footage of it, people who didn’t see it can still actually get something from it so I do think it works in that way.


Can you tell us about the Black River?


Molasses...is a beautiful material. My background is Jamaican. The North Caribbean Islands were effectively just sugar making... So approaching that through the use of molasses and using the mouth and gagging is to do with conflict with a history that I kind of don’t know, I was born in the UK. But it’s clear that I’m female. It’s clear that I’m black. There are conventions that sometimes play into it...


What themes do you work on and why do you choose to work on them?


I would say the biggest ones are identity and race. There have been many moments in my life when race has really dominated my thoughts. I feel like in the UK sometimes it is perpetuated even more. Even being at the school, I would say I met three or four black people in my whole Fine Arts school. It was like wow, I’m kind of not making it up. Representation is a big deal. It took up a lot of my work.


The clothes you wear during your performance are traditional. Does that play into it?


I really didn’t want to fetishize the idea of exploring my race and culture. Wearing something that’s really plain doesn’t really give much indication…They tend to have been clothes that I used to wear.


Are there people you can talk to about your practice both inside and outside of the RCA?


Yeah especially in the RCA. We all have this understanding of dealing with certain heavy issues....Ideas of sexuality and identity, gender things like this…


You mentioned this new studio you are going to work in which is quite amazing. Have you achieved a satisfying balance between living in London and earning a living wage and also having time to make work?


Not yet. I work full time. During my MA I was working four days a week. I have not found a balance at all...I need to find the time to actually work there. There are a lot of sculptural elements that I really want to develop.


Do you think the other people in the studio will change your work in any way?


I was speaking to one of the guys who is a sculptor and his works are really minimal and clean cut and he was actually going, “Oh we should collaborate on something!” And that’s really cool because we’re from completely different backgrounds.


What do you think is the essence of your work? Is it about raising awareness or is it about self expression?


I think it’s a mixture. It’s kind of like discovering myself but also raising awareness of certain issues certain people don’t like to talk about….


So it’s like a form of communication.


Yeah.


What are your favourite venues in London?


...There is the place in Brixton called Cultural Black Archives which I had never heard of in my life until a few months ago and I went there. It has archives and then they have an exhibition...It’s kind of like the Tate…Soul of a Nation [exhibit]...On my way, I found a market that sells sugar cane and I bought like three five-foot-long sticks of sugarcane and I walked through Brixton and all these Jamaican men were like “Oh my god you’ve got cane, you’ve got cane!” They were mystified by the fact that I was walking around with three giant sugar canes.


Did you get them for an art piece?


Yeah. I used to eat them at my grandma’s house in Jamaica.


Is there anything you want to say to the current students of RCA, any words of advice?


I was often told by my tutor, “It’s better to apologize after than to ask for permission!”



          Rachel Yalisove

Photograph by Gueorgui Tcherednitchenko