50.50: Feature

Uplifting the creativity of Black queer people in Leeds, Lisbon and beyond

Jesu Lopes explains why he set up ‘The Blacker The Berry’ and how it’s helping the wider Black community

Jamila Pereira
15 May 2023, 5.10am

Jesualdo Lopes | The Blacker The Berry

Bissau-Guinean filmmaker Jesualdo Lopes had long been searching for a way to realise his dream of a Black queer-led creative space in his home city of Lisbon when the opportunity finally arose.

While studying at Leeds University in the north of England, Jesualdo – or Jesu – discovered a friend had secured funding to make a short film. The pair realised they could kill two birds with one stone, using the cash to stage the community event they had dreamed of, and filming it as a record.

That gathering, ‘The Market’, helped fill a sorely-felt gap in Lisbon’s creative scene, despite ongoing pandemic-related restrictions, and the response took Jesu by surprise.

“I wasn’t expecting to receive such a positive response, especially beyond my close circle,” he told openDemocracy. “It was life-changing for me because that was the first Black queer-led event in Portugal, supporting Black-owned businesses and artistry, renowned and emerging.

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“The environment was filled with Black joy, through music, and talent, as ballroom performers and a fashion show by Kahumbi took over the afternoon with their excellence.”

Fast-forward to 2023, and Jesu’s vision has grown into a creative collective called The Blacker The Berry (TBTB).

“TBTB’s mission is to uplift and highlight the artistic work of Black queer, Black trans and Black nonbinary people, not only in the diaspora … but also in Latin America, Africa and beyond,” said Jesu, now 23 and working in Lisbon full-time as a filmmaker, producer and curator.

Operating between Lisbon and Leeds, the collective hosts events such as exhibitions, club nights, workshops and talks, and has a zine where emerging Black talent has the opportunity to showcase artwork through distinctive mediums.

“We highlighted artists not only in the European diasporan context but also in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean through zines,” said Jesu. “The submissions for the second edition were exclusively open for artists residing in those areas. [We] collaborated with 22 artists primarily from Nigeria, Barbados, Ghana, South Africa, Brazil and Jamaica.”

Jesu decided to centre the project in Lisbon rather than the UK, where he had been studying, because of what he saw as Portugal’s inability to acknowledge its colonial past, and colonialism’s ongoing legacy. It has provided a much-needed environment in which Black LGBTQ+ people can express themselves artistically while feeling protected – as well as giving both cities a hefty dose of malagueta (a Creole word meaning spice) and joy.

Like many others within the global majority, Jesu felt he was often expected to educate white people about his community’s socio-political history. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 made him feel invisible because racism and police brutality had gone unaddressed for so long. At the same time, as a queer person, he felt there was insufficient acknowledgement of the many queer lives lost prematurely every year.

“Intersectional empathy didn’t cater to anyone beyond Black cis men,” he said. “And overall, it was draining – no one paid me to be a teacher.”

Instead, he committed to investing his energy into his own community by creating TBTB.

“I want to bring everyone along by prioritising the artistry of Black LGBTQ+ people,” he said. “To create some intersectionality between the Black community in general, where we can coexist – because, at the end of the day, Black lives matter in unison. Black, straight, cis: every Black life matters.”

The collective took its moniker from the Kendrick Lamar song of the same name – but the Pulitzer-winning musician wasn’t the group’s only inspiration.

“I attended [an exhibition] curated by Black and POC students at Leeds Arts University,” he said, “and I recollect seeing this massive fingerprint stamped on a wall.

“To my surprise, there were quotes [written] within each line and also several lyrics by Solange Knowles, particularly parts of her song ‘Almeda’. That combination of Black flair instantly made my mind up [about following through with TBTB],” he said.

The project hasn’t been plain sailing – securing funding has been particularly challenging – but, Jesu says with a big smile, there is “immense joy from seeing people genuinely enjoying themselves and having the time of their lives. For many, it’s the first time they’ve been in such a safe space, with rules made to protect them – especially in Portugal. It’s been overwhelming, but in a good way.”

He says giving people the opportunity to showcase their work is crucial, because many might not have the confidence to do so in other settings, or might think their work isn’t developed enough. “TBTB shows you that expectations should not limit you,” he says. “Trust the process – go ahead and do it with confidence.”

The response, he says, has surpassed his expectations and left him feeling like a proud father. “It’s been great! People love and see it as a culture reset – especially following our artists’ retreat.”

Jesu is referring to TBTB’s spiritual retreat last year for ten Black Lisbon-based artists, among them musicians, film-makers, photographers, performers, illustrators and fashion designers, which ran for four days in Amieira, Portugal. TBTB’s second retreat is set to run in the summer.

The collective’s innovative approach has also drawn the attention of media outlets, including Notion, GUAP and Gay Times.

But as attention has grown, so have misconceptions. Jesu is weary of the perception that TBTB is primarily an organiser of club nights. “I’ve noticed that people engage more with club nights than exhibitions, although this collective is meant to support and uplift artists beyond music,” he says. “And that needs disassembling.”

Indeed, he has faced problems dealing with venues, especially in Portugal, where lusotropicalism - an attempt to legitimise and romanticise Portuguese colonial domination overseas - is still a significant factor within society. Discrimination against Black promoters is common in Lisbon – for instance, a renowned DJ recently had to cancel an Afro-Lusophone night after the venue refused to go ahead. Leaked messages appeared to show the venue’s administrator didn’t want African people partying there.

“They simply said [in the leaked messages] ‘I don’t want it,’ as if they were refusing poisoned food from someone. As an event producer and curator, those venues don’t even cross my mind as an option,” says Jesu.

Rather, asked about his favourite aspect of TBTB’s work, Jesu points to the zines it. “I love conceptualising zines,” he says, “because I have met so many people who have become some of my best friends, as well as other artists within our community and beyond, from Nigeria and Ghana to Jamaica and Barbados. That’s what brings me the most joy.”

The zines Jesu curated – and by curating he means “selecting the artists and their respective artwork and creating most of the visual components, occasionally alongside other graphic designers” – told different stories and touched the public differently too. There were three editions, all sold out, each with a different theme.

While the first one focused on presenting the collective and its upcoming work, it also included a list of recommended films and Black-owned businesses in Portugal and the north of England. The second highlighted solely African, Caribbean and Latin American talent, providing a platform for those living in countries with less meaning/artistic opportunities compared to their European counterparts. The third featured femme and nonbinary creatives from Lusophone African countries, such as Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe. Each impacted these artists as it was the first time that most had had their work published.

TBTB has opened doors for the Black queer community in Portugal while paving the way for other projects focused on marginalised communities. “TBTB was the first project in Portugal to introduce a safer space policy,” he says, “and seeing the domino effect throughout the country was bewildering. Because every venue, event or space now submits a safer space policy or manifesto, and that’s incredible. That has been the most rewarding thing, for sure.”

But he adds: “If I can do it – a Black, working-class, first-generation Bissau-Guinean – then surely all these institutional organisations can do it too? In fact, they could have done it way before me.”

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