INTERVIEW: Jhanee Wilkins | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Being Black and British is to have two identities, but people only see the Black not the British, because you can’t possibly be Black AND British. The melanin in my skin does not cancel out my Britishness, nor is it a threat to yours.

West Midlands-based visual artist Jhanee Wilkins’ work explores autobiographical subjects which relate to feminism, identity, immigration and racism, presented in two exhibitions at NGCA in Sunderland. Black Britain is a photo-documentary series which draws on the experiences of growing up in Britain, while Likkle Paradise celebrates the Windrush Generation and her Caribbean heritage through a series of images taken at her local Caribbean food shop.

Black Britain came out of my frustration of realising even though I was born and bred in Britain (specifically the Black Country) I would never be seen as British. I would tell people where I’m from and because of my skin colour they were never convinced. I started to feel like being Black and British was almost a polarity because people just couldn’t accept that I was somehow both.”

Jhanee explains how the conversations she was seeing online echoed her own feelings. “I decided I wanted to make space for Black people to freely share their experiences, because a lot of the time when we try to speak out we are met with ‘if you don’t like it here then leave’ or being told there’s a chip on our shoulder’. I wanted Black people, and even people from the wider global majority, to find comfort in our experiences being shared and I wanted to open the eyes of those that do not feel like we belong.”

I started to feel like being Black and British was almost a polarity because people just couldn’t accept that I was somehow both

At the heart of the exhibition are stories around the Black British experience, taking in childhood memories, Brexit and racism. Many of the stories are upsetting, as her subjects reveal often shocking mistreatment, with many people that Jhanee interviewed talking about feeling unwelcome and unrepresented. “Unfortunately, because these stories are so universal for people of the global majority, there wasn’t much that surprised me during the interviews. I would say the biggest surprise for me was from Kae’s story. Kae is my mom, and I didn’t know that she had gotten fired for attending to me after I’d been hit by a car until the interview. I understand why she didn’t tell me at the time, but it shocked me more that someone could have so little empathy in a situation like that and fire her.”

Jhanee’s exhibition at NGCA comes two years after she graduated with an MA in Photography from Sunderland University and, while she’s quick to praise the support of her lecturers and the friends she made, she admits that in moving from somewhere as diverse as the West Midlands to the North East that she felt the difference. “I was often the only Black person in a lot of the spaces and due to that I often felt like an other. I got tired of trying to dilute myself and decided I would celebrate my Blackness and share my experiences to give people insight and open their eyes to cultures they might not understand. This is when I chose to start making work that was a social commentary on not only my Blackness but my culture and my womanhood.”

Black Britain and Likkle Paradise by Jhanee Wilkins is on display at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland from Saturday 28th January until Sunday 16th April.

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