Image by Jonny Tanna
By Fikayo Oloruntoba
An hour before beginning to unhook, unscrew, and clean, I sat with Emmanuel Awuni amidst his first solo exhibition. The space was not particularly big; we took to the cream-white tiles opposite each other. Three fruitions are around the room, an unstained white cuboid. A painting that confronts your pause - hung facing the entrance; a sculpture that jugs your memory - hovered between two steel poles - to the visitor’s left; a piece of text that shows you where to start - framed to the right.
He describes the title ‘Hammer’, beginning at his first steps toward the peak of his idea’s descent: page 128 of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. He had been paying close attention to the tool and arrived at Toni Morrison’s words, loaded with thought. Our conversation began on words, folded into multiform throughout linguistic history to cradle thoughts with succinct candour.
During the interview, we were interrupted by familiar faces or ones that felt that way, paying a visit as relatives do, unannounced but welcome. These seeds of familiarity sprung as the project broke water; preparing and installing for the opening show the sense of urgency was never too taut to be broken for the questions residents had. Then the music came – the fleeting fourth fruition that signalled when to begin.
With the speakers set outside Emmanuel began the first sound performance, coordinating chants of Hip Hop and rap verses. The second performance came from OB The Swampman, referencing the UK’s bottom of the butter music. In the interlude, before Alabo’s summarising performance, Sinner man by Nina Simone sent the crowd into a circling march - in chase of her sinner’s prayer. At the summit of the spiritual high, Alabo steered sounds of the culture into street corners and our ear canals.
Each of these sounds and utterances breaks the rigidity of the English language, washed, of the musicality found in their native tongue - the West African grammatical structure. Displaced Africans rounded off the stiffness of western language with the fluidity of their mother tongue, illuding those with a square ear.
The men in the chain gang tied, figuratively and literally in their displaced state, would communicate with familiar tongues and beats to settle their heads, hands, and feet. One provided strength for the other, biding time with a firm grip singing to the strike of their hammers. When the sky tore open; the animals scattered east; labour became more than it was worth. The nine-day pour soon had their encampment entrenched. The gang, trapped in their cage, were eventually being flooded in the slime of the swamp. More poured on their cheeks from above, between the wood and iron. And when they tried to wipe the mud from their cheeks, the same slime strung through their hands.
By choice like Hammer, or by circumstance as these chain gang men, communication forms comradery; comradery breeds strength channelled in the same direction. In Beloved, it was a communication based on survival. They had to guide those new to the link; one could not do without the rest. The multiplicity of their experiences strung between them, ‘forty-six loops of the best hand-forged iron in Georgia’ - survive, run or die. You had to learn to fit yourself into the space without interfering with the ecosystem, the beat that predates you - and everyone else. Listen attentively, without haste, to understand what connects the last strike in the night to the first of the day; the tongue that calls attention to it; how it sings a simple but difficult song. Still, it settles a familiarity. And it is from there you find your feet with the choruses; the verses come eventually, with time and the familiarity that it brings.
For Hammer, the first performance called: ‘Hiiii’ to start; the second preserved their patience in preparation for the final upheaval. During the stomping march, synced in a circle; chanting repetitively to a prayer by a searching Woman, everyone found the same understanding; from then on, the music functioned as a mode of channelling all angst - a symptom of the drastic changes in our social behaviour over the previous 18 months. It tapered the stormy mind into something that we could all follow.
Although the show successfully nestled the exhibition into the Harlesden High Street neighbourhood, welcomed by its residents, it is easy to ruffle the feathers in a coop when bringing something new. Hans Rosling, a renowned physician, academic, and public speaker, describes a story in his book, Facfulness, as a Physician at the time, investigating an epidemic that caused an incurable, irreversible, non-progressive disease - selective upper motor neuron damage.
Over two years, they meticulously planned for all the approvals they would require, prepared for drivers, translators, and lab equipment. On the first day setting up, he had to get a reluctant generator to work before doing a test run. Eventually, he switched off the machines and finally heard the chaos that had been brewing in the raised voices of fifty people; upset hands pointing angry fingers or machetes. They had congregated by circumstance at the lip of the low-mouthed hut, converted to a clinic.
“When someone threatens you with a machete, never turn your back. Stand still. Look him straight in the eye and ask him what the problem is''.
The people had gotten the attention of Hans and the team. They outnumbered them and left them no room to give complete thought to an escape. Hans, finding courage beneath his fear, asked: “Can I explain?”. When he was through, their minds were still unsettled. Between the muttering voices, a scarred forearm had started to grow high with courage and began screaming again. A woman with a voice that held their respect enough to gather their minds and settle them in the same place rose out of the wall of people, like dandelions through concrete. She reminded them of a previous instance when measles killed children there until health workers and researchers provided a vaccine to the village. When this still met an apprehensive voice - she paused, stepped forward, and spoke closer to them. Reason eventually pulled away doubt and a line began to form behind this woman.
When Hans recounts this story in the book, the emphasis is on how in all their planning, they neglected that an idea, project, or even healthcare intervention is subject to communication because it involves people that have a prerequisite of understanding before acceptance or participation. If the basis of communication is unresolved in a rut of words - misunderstood and half explained, it makes ground for all seeds, for a flume of anxiety to wash the soil and borne high arms in the air, upset and angry. The current health crisis and its persistence is another example.
So it seems Emmanuel does not have much use for compromise in his practice. We touched on the efficacy of those who preceded him and the incremental space they provided. In the conversation, this is what we referred to as ‘the model’. With eyes brightly open, Emmanuel encounters works of these creators (artists, writers, researchers, teachers, etc.) “creating with love”, learning from their process - critiquing the work. And from it, he gains further understanding of the space provided to him and the effort required to make a mark. He swings (his) thoughts as they did, with the benefit of the additional freedom, also as they did, precision and accuracy - breaking ground to build on it.
The closing show was to relish the hospitality of the high street. During the day, before the show’s 6 pm start, the grey clouds that had patched a blanket in the sky began to seep rain. On the day, Emmanuel’s response referenced how the chain gang escaped - in the rain that threatened them with swamp water. And that when they did emerge, they hid in its cover. So for him, those that persisted through the rain were the ones who ought to be there. It was important not to let the energy drop even with reasons for justified frustrations; to maintain the energy required for the desired outcome of the show; for those who persevered to encounter it.
“Hammer” is Emmanuel’s swing of his tool, which he intends to keep swinging with each presentation of his work until the chain eventually forms a recognisable beat and a familiar song.