London-based visual artist Othello De’Souza-Hartley makes necessary art: the kind that moves the spirit and incites the mind, and never quite leaves you the same as it found you. His photography and video projects are weaved together with strong performance pieces, resulting in complex narratives that enthral and provoke the viewer.
His art navigates a zone where uncomfortable truths of our society are met with possibilities of elevation and empowerment. Themes such as masculinity, gender norms, and body politics are conceptualised and interrogated through often dark and dreary tones, in inhospitable spaces, and in strangely violent solitude.
We sat down with Othello to discuss his vision and goal as an artist, his points of inspiration, and his most recent project, Noise, a short film in which the tragedy of history and the sadness of the present are faced with an open question about the future.
Elena Stanciu: Tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
Othello De’Souza-Hartley: I am a London-born visual artist working in mixed media. I received an MA in Fine Art from Camberwell College of Art and studied photography at Central St Martins. My creativity has an impact on all aspects of my life, and I often find inspiration in my own experiences. I consider myself a visual storyteller, which allows for a very wide area of creative exploration.
ES: Your portfolio is packed with projects and artworks that go beyond aesthetics and have the capacity to participate in important social conversations. Do you feel that as an artist you have a responsibility beyond making art; that making art should change the people who see it and eventually the world?
ODH: Personally, I am very much interested in social and political issues, which I address in some of my projects, but I do not feel that it’s necessarily the responsibility of all artists, as they may have different interests, just as important. My goal is not to change people, but to start conversations.
ES: Gender and race are recurrent tropes in your art practice. Can you elaborate on what draws you towards these dimensions?
ODH: It’s not a direct case of pointing out gender of race, although these are of course central dimensions of our lives today. My art has more of an affective starting point – I explore my emotions on the subject at hand, isolate scenes that move me and I conceptualise these through my work.
ES: The series Masculinity Project has a very strong performance dimension to it, and I find it very interesting that the body is in positions of repose or inactivity, not fully matching the background. What is the concept behind this series?
ODH: I have a background in performance art and I studied physical theatre, drama and contemporary dance and I wanted to find a way to incorporate all these into my visual art practice. I use the body in instances that go beyond the physical, and I try to unravel the sensitive or what is considered the “vulnerable” sides of men. The settings are directly linked to places where men predominately work or gather, but they are also a reflection of my own interest in spaces and architecture. What I try to achieve in my work is a harmony between the subject and the environment, without hierarchy.
ES: In this project, the underlying question is “What is masculinity in the 21st century?” Has working on this project brought you closer to finding an answer to this question? Should we have a definitive answer?
ODH: The project made me aware of challenges men face today and of my own personal challenges as a man. It made me question aspects of myself, which I was holding back because I felt I would be judged as a male. I am lucky that being an artist allows for a channel to express my emotions and find new ways of being in touch with myself, which is not always the experience of men in our society.
One of the recurring topics that kept coming up is mental health amongst men and the relationships with their fathers. As a black male, these issues are intensified. There is a pressure on men to reach a standard in life, which is based on achievements, but which is actually harming in many ways. The decline of industries and the impact on working-class men have serious consequences, and we may lack the language to frame these problems. This leads to frustration that manifests itself through addiction, violence, or increasing numbers of suicides. The notion of “toxic masculinity” is a hot topic today, but I believe that labelling the effects is not enough, we need to go back and investigate the sources.
I don’t think there is a definitive answer as to what masculinity means today; it’s of course a combination of factors and circumstances not easy to define. But it’s worth wondering about.
ES: Your latest project, Noise, is a very touching work, comprising elements both of the history of enslavement of black people in the West and of contemporary instances of entrapment and violence. Can you elaborate on this? What is your intention with this film?
ODH: There are indeed elements of history and enslavement. There are extracts of interviews with black girls in Pretoria, South Africa, where their teachers told black girls that their natural hairstyles were not accepted. Then there are some positive things like Edward Enninful becoming the first black editor of British Vogue and an extract of the interview between Naomi Campbell and Virgil Abloh, the artistic director-designer of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection.
Noise is about all the things that are impacting on black lives around the world, from black people who came to England when their countries where still under the British rule and who have been sent back to their countries after a lifetime of contributing to British society; Black people being killed by the police in America, Donald Trump, what happens in Libya, what is happening to black people in Israel and the rise of right wing movements across the globe. There is a high impact on black people, as we live in times when fear and hatred are being openly cultivated, despite decades of fighting for tolerance and inclusion. There is a constant stress generated by the policing of our bodies and by being policed, always under scrutiny, which is visually rendered in the film in the final collapse of the body. How do we remain positive when there is so much negativity surrounding the lives of black people around the world? How do we keep going, and avoid collapsing?
ES: I noticed your projects have strong cinematic characteristics, focused on narrative and agency. Can you tell us more about this idea of using one’s own voice to tell one’s own story? Why is this important to you? Do you consider your art to be part of your story, or your story to be part of your art?
ODH: My influences come from film and paintings, which is quite clear in many projects. I do use my own story, in combination with the stories of people around me, to express a viewpoint on the world. It’s not of considered importance, but my art is shaped by my experiences in life, the place I grew up in, my peer group, things that are happening throughout my life, both socially and politically. I’m as much part of my art as my art is of me.
ES: Our world today is overflooding with narratives and scenarios, a lot of them impacting lives and identities in significant ways. As an artist, how do you see the possibility of curating stories to ensure empowerment, or enabling people to reclaim their voice in the discourse on their own lives?
ODH: A lot of history has been distorted and there is indeed a sense of overflooding our lives with narratives and scenarios, not always made up with good intentions. Nevertheless, I think it’s important for the next generations growing up or future generations that we start telling our stories and not rely on other people to tell our stories. This is of course closely connected with empowerment and making sure that those groups who need a voice the most will be able to find one and make themselves heard. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of silencing in the world today, but I do believe that art and creativity can open up channels for empowerment.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Artist: Othello De'Souza-Hartley