Independence and Interdependence: An Interview with Barby Asante

Interview / October 2023
Independence and Interdependence: An Interview with Barby Asante
by Kristel Tracey

I was introduced to Barby's work after participating in the Declaration of Independence workshops for Transport for London employees, as part of a new commission of the project by Art on the Underground. Along with other Black and POC women from across the organisation who volunteered to take part, we were encouraged to explore and define our own declarations of independence. Being able to parse ideas and experiences that were deeply personal in a ‘work’ context was an enriching, unusual, refreshing, and affirming experience. Entering those workshops after a long day, taking off my corporate ‘mask’, and being vulnerable alongside the other womxn and non-binary people I had the pleasure of working with filled me with a sense of relief — like taking your bra off at the end of a long day. Metaphorical masks (and bras) aside, I sat down with Barby to talk about her work.

Kristel Tracey: Tell us about the genesis of Declaration of Independence — how did it come about and how has the project evolved over time?

Barby Asante
: In 2016 my grandmother died. She was an intimate yet distant figure in my life and lived until 102. Her passing made me reflect on the life she had led in Ghana and the historic moments she lived through; through pre- and post-colonialism and the struggle for independence. For example, it was in my mother’s, my grandmother’s home city in which the United Gold Coast Convention was formed. They lived about five minutes away from the exact building, in fact, and the convention which included the first Prime Minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, had played a really important role in Ghana’s struggle for self-governance and self-determination. It got me thinking about what my grandmother, and other womxn like her, would’ve been doing while these important conversations were happening within those walls. How we operate adjacent to these processes, playing a crucial role, but are ‘outside’. Even when womxn have been actively involved in these historic moments, we’re rarely seen or recognised for the role we play — direct or indirect.

Around the same time, I also came across the poem ‘As Always a Painful Declaration of Independence’ by Ama Ata Aidoo. The poem really spoke to me, because it connects the personal to the political — in terms of her connection to men and the patriarchy, her connection to colonisation and white people. In a way it's an African feminist refusal; she’s saying: “I'm gone, I'm done. This is my declaration of independence from all the structures and systems that bind me.”

This thinking and reflection led me to write a poem as a tribute to my grandmother, my response to ‘As Always a Painful Declaration of Independence’. In 2017 I created a work for the Diaspora Pavilion in Venice. I invited seven friends and colleagues into a recorded conversation with me about the pieces and their own relationships to their own post-colonial histories. To my surprise, they all responded with their own pieces and declarations.

That’s how it started. When I began, I didn’t know where it would end up, but it’s gone on a journey and I’ve had the chance to work with so many — more than 100 womxn, non-binary folx and trans womxn — inviting them to make their own declarations.

KT: Declaration of Independence has brought together a tapestry of experiences and expressions from womxn of colour. Have there been any common threads or common themes that have repeatedly come up throughout?

: There are definitely a few. Grief is one. Grief and loss. Whether that’s to do with the personal or broader issues like disconnection or displacement, ancestral grief, politics, the legacies of colonialism and slavery. Relationships with mothers and grandmothers come up a lot too.

Self-expression comes up a lot; like, how you can be in the world and be present in the world? Also on things like the persistent nature of racism and sexism, discrimination, homophobia, and also things like just being able to be to be fully yourself.

Celebration — a celebration of us still living, still being present, and also imagining the future. I think that's a very deep theme in this work.

Overall, I think what comes out strongly is that the declaration is not just of independence, but of interdependence — an acknowledgement that we need each other. Independence as  autonomy and agency of ourselves — interconnectedness because we cannot live without each other.

: You describe Declaration of Independence as a performative forum mirroring the conference halls used to negotiate and produce treaties of independence, coalitions, trade deals, manifestos and policies — traditionally the domain of men. What do these spaces (whether real, imagined, created) look like in this mirror-image?

: So much work has to happen outside of these spaces, right? It’s not always just done by the leaders in these halls; these places that are so exclusive and excluding. So the mirror is like… it's through the imaginations of people coming together, in the types of places that real change often occurs. It doesn't always have to be a big C change. However or wherever people get together, a forum is created — it could even be a dance party.

Interestingly, the last declaration was made in Berlin at HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt) which was a former conference hall and is now a cultural institute. It was the first time we've actually ever done a performance in a ‘forum’ space like that; I wondered whether that might present difficulties to the process or performance, but it worked really well actually.

: Could you talk about your work with TfL?

: The first manifestation of my work with TfL was the poster, which appeared on the network in March 2023. This poster came about as a visual representation of Declaration of Independence — it features a number of intersecting triangles and circles, which represent diasporan and feminist movements, and the way these moments move from the future to the past.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2023, I collaborated with workers at Transport for London to work towards a performative artwork, a new Declaration of Independence. We held workshops that brought Black and POC womxn and non-binary workers in TFL and corporate into a space for conversation, writing, collective thinking, ritual and re-enactment towards a collective public performance.

All this will culminate in a performance at Stratford Underground Station, with visual outcomes at Stratford, Bethnal Green and Notting Hill Gate.

KT: What’s your personal connection to TfL and how has it inspired this project?

: My connection is that I’m a Londoner! It’s been my lifeblood to be able to explore this city and know this city. It was just such an honour to be asked to do something for an organisation I've been connected to for so many years.

As part of this project, I also got the chance to explore the TfL photography archives, connecting histories of Black and non-white womxn workers to the present. It made me reflect on my own familial connection to transport, as a number of my relatives also worked in or around transport in different ways. For example, my mum worked in catering for British Rail at East Croydon and Waterloo.

: As someone who took part in the workshops, I found the most invaluable and surprising aspect to be the sense of safety, freedom, and sisterhood you managed to nurture in our circle. How much of do you think was by accident and how much by design?  If by design, how do you go about creating this? 

: As you know from the workshops, it’s about the experience of being together. I don't necessarily believe that there is such a thing as a safe space, but we can create safety — that's what I try to do. It’s about giving space to the voices of people who might not always be heard, or in the case of the work I’ve done with you all, it’s been about getting beneath the bonnet of the organisation to discover some of the people, stories, and voices within. From a Persian poet to a bubble-tea-lover with 13,000 followers on Instagram to you, who began your writing career with gal-dem! There is depth to every person who provides service to us in our day-to-day life. That’s what this project is about.

It’s also very timely that we also have these arts organisations and projects that want to support this and want to make this visible. That’s really beautiful because that also means that we have allies who ‘get’ it, who know that change needs to happen in these different ways and are willing to support it. That shows genuine solidarity. I’ve worked with Louise Shelley (AOTU curator) a couple of times on these projects, and she really understands the need for these types of projects to happen.

: What next for Declaration of Independence?

: I’m open to see what comes next. I have dreams of course… I was in Ghana this summer and met this really wonderful group called the Drama Queens. I would love to think about the possibility of working in Ghana. It would also be interesting to bring Declaration of Independence to the US, given the significance of the concept in that context. I’d also like to make a publication, perhaps an anthology — there have been so many contributions, it would be great to immortalise those somehow. Who knows what’s next!

Barby Asante's 'Declaration of Independence' 2023 will be on view at Stratford, Bethnal Green and Notting Hill Gate tube stations until January 2025. The film of her public performance in Stratford station in September 2023 can be viewed here

Barby Asante is a London-based artist, educator and researcher. Her practice and research are concerned with the politics of place, space, and the ever-present histories and legacies of slavery and colonialism.

Image Credits:

Image 1: Courtesy of Barby Asante

Video 1: Courtesy of Barby Asante