“The Tip of the Iceberg”: An Interview with Carmen Okome

Artist and activist Carmen Okome worked with two young women, Hannah and Lihem, to produce artwork for Leeds Museums & Galleries 200th Birthday exhibition.

‘Our Histories’ is a series of four portraits that show young Black women sitting at the feet of a drawing which notes the names, dates and numbers that reflect the British transatlantic slave trade. Alongside the piece, Carmen, Lihem and Hannah curated a cabinet which showcases African artefacts from the museum’s collection.

Carmen sat down with Ignite Yorkshire Digital Content Assistant Emily Main to talk about the thinking behind the project, curating with young people and what they wanted the final outcome to represent…

EMILY: So, first of all, I’d love for you to tell me about it from your perspective.

CARMEN: The project kind of has two elements. Firstly, we spent a lot of time in the stores and the Discovery Centre working behind the scenes. And from there, it was all about building and drawing out the stories that we wanted to tell based on the objects that we were interested in looking at.  It was led by the young women I was working with, Hannah and Lihem, and I took a backseat – on the basis that it’s much more interesting to get what they have to say than what I have to say, and the museum has to say. I think that happens often when artists are involved as we like to try and tell the museum’s story and our story, but I really wanted to focus on them.

So, it was a lot of thinking creatively, and talking really honestly to the museum curators and amongst ourselves about the collections and our personal experiences in museums.

EMILY: And what did the three of you choose to focus on?

CARMEN: We spent a lot of time responding to objects and slowly building a dialogue, and then I took that and said ‘Okay, what are the key moments we want to talk about? And what are the stories where we’re pulling on threads in the museum’s narrative where there is not a lot to pull on?’

We ended up pulling on slavery, just because of the blatant lack of information. And I think the girls would probably agree with me, that the reason why there wasn’t a lot of information on slavery and the city’s relationship to slavery, and the early experiences of people colour in Leeds, is because there’s just not a lot there. What we can find is colonised and is stolen. So we responded to these really troubling and absent histories, trying to deal with them as people who are alive now and what this means for us.

EMILY: How did you then decide what medium you wanted to present your response in?

CARMEN: From there, we moved on to trying to develop an aesthetic relationship. The girls spent a lot of time thinking about art, and artists and thinking about how artists have dealt with the histories of people of colour before. They were really fascinated with the medium of photography. From there we delved into how does photography tell a story in the simplest way? And that’s kind of where we went, we were so fascinated with portraiture.

All the objects we were drawn to initially were portraits. I think that comes from the fact that it represents a face from our often-faceless culture. And there aren’t a lot of moments like that in the collection where people of colour have faces and names, or they have faces and they don’t have names, or they have names, but don’t have faces or there’s just an object and there’s no name or face. For me as the artist, I really wanted to push back against that and to present this absent portraiture, and that’s kind of what we did. How do you do a portrait without seeing someone’s face or without seeing the entire picture? How do you do absent portraiture and still present that history and present that knowledge?

We landed on a couple of images and this idea of just bringing the girls’ cultures and the girls’ experiences and the girls’ stories into the museum and into the context of those histories and the work around them.

EMILY: What was it like for you working in co-production with Lihem and Hannah?

CARMEN: Co-production as a word is fairly new to me, but the concept of coproduction is quite old. The way it ended up working for us was like any other collaboration, we built a relationship and then worked together. Co-production, is just a very open form version of that:  you work with them, you respect them, they get equal say in what’s going on, they help direct it as much as you do, and you bounce off each other. It’s just this mutual respect of each other as creators…I think it’s a very wonderful and creative environment. To me, it’s just all about respect and response.

EMILY: Do you think projects like this are important?

CARMEN: Yes, they are. But I think there is a very specific way they have to be as they are incredibly valuable for future representation. But under no circumstances does that mean that you just dump a bunch of people of colour or minority people in the same room and go ‘do this’ and think it ticks a box. It is about mutual trust, the curators were allies to us and it was important for me to be able to be a champion for the girls and be like ‘No, what do you think?’ It’s not all about what I think. Everybody needs to be able to have agency in the room, to be able to say, ‘This is who I am, and this is who I am representing.’

EMILY: It’s really interesting to hear your experience within the museum, especially as an artist who is working in collaboration with one. Do you think projects like this will inspire museums?

CARMEN: It needs to be done more and more and more. But at the same time, I’m going to be real. This is just one section of one exhibition. It is a section, it is not a whole exhibition. And that is not enough by any means. And they know that, and we know that because we told them that. And we keep telling them there is so much more for you to do. There’s a lot more work to be done. And this is very much the bare minimum that could be done. I’m not saying that to downplay it, I’m saying it to show that there’s so much work to be done within this sector. It is important. It’s very much the tip of the iceberg. 

Thank you to Carmen for sharing her experience with us about her collaboration with Hannah and Lihem.

The exhibition can be found at Leeds City Museum from the 3rd of September 2021 until 9th of January 2022.