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What is it to be Fierce? The photography of Ajamu

Fierce: Portraits of Young Black Queers is a record for generations to come: images that capture the next generation of Black LGBTQ educators, artists and activists.

Zia X - activist and psychogeographer. From Fierce, by Ajamu. Zia X - activist and psychogeographer. From Fierce, by Ajamu. All rights reserved.

I'm sitting for Ajamu, for a portrait for his new series: Fierce: Portraits of Young Black Queers. As a half-caste camp kid, I'm used to being observed. Eyes have expectations. They try to school you. How to walk, talk: your presence in most public places is greeted as a question. 

So I'm nervous. I try to stare Ajamu down behind the lens of the camera, attempting to shake the stiltedness. He's tall-ish, a stocky punk, with a silver nose stud and Docs. He's quick to smile, and never too far away from a laugh. Soon I'm laughing too. Before I know it, he's got me striking poses, slapping on make-up, flinging on outfits I've brought along.

By the end, I feel stunning. I'm wearing a beaded dress I inherited from my mother, and a spot of golden lipstick. My eyes are darkened with eyeliner. He's behind the camera, snapping away, and I reflect on the project, on what it means to be Fierce.

Ajamu's work explores, records, represents and challenges the diversity of what it is to be queer or trans and black. Fierce: Portraits of Young Black Queers is, in his own words, trying to address “a paucity of celebratory, distinctive and aspirational images across the UK which reflect the richness and diversity of the Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer lived experience.”

The exhibition is a record for generations to come: portraits that capture the next generation of Black LGBTQ educators, artists and activists. 

Skye Chirape - activist and fashion designer. From Fierce, by AJamu. Skye Chirape - activist and fashion designer. From Fierce, by Ajamu. All rights reserved.

Huddersfield-born and London-based, Ajamu is a fine art and commercial photographer of international renown. Over nearly 30 years his work has been exhibited in galleries, museums and other alternative venues around the globe, including New York, London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Senegal. 

As a community organiser and artist, Ajamu was co-founder of the dynamic organisation rukus! Federation, whose archive, launched in 2005, collects, generates, preserves and makes available historical, political and cultural materials related to the lived experience of Black LGBTQ people in the UK. This is Fierce. 

The transformative act of loving and making his communities visible is key to his work. By his presence, actions, involvement, kindness and encouragement, Ajamu is a guiding light of political and creative energy in the British Black and queer communities. This is Fierce. 

From the 90s onwards much of his photographic work explores Black male bodies, and the kind of tensions that play across them: of erotic desire, dress, sexuality, of masculinities and femininities. The photos are exciting, titillating, but not in the ways popular culture has come to demand we find Black men’s bodies horny.

These are images produced by, for and with black bodies and subjectivities at their centre. His early work explodes preconceptions, destroying the myth of the bestial Mandingo constructed by feverish white imaginations. This is Fierce. 

Ajamu's politics and aesthetics are inseparable - a desire to acknowledge, celebrate, register. 

Evan Ifekoya - fine artist and art educator. From Fierce, by Ajamu. Evan Ifekoya - fine artist and art educator. From Fierce, by Ajamu. All rights reserved.

History

Fierceness has a history and canon we are still trying to tell. Fierceness has a different history and a different canon to the one you are taught in schools.

As queers, our histories have been hidden from us. There has been a long, concerted effort to erase our identities: governmental, medical and religious.

As people of colour, our histories are obscured because of the forces of colonialism and human slavery and the delegitimisation of our cultures and traditions as barbaric by Western society. Our names and lineages are consciously suppressed.

These pasts, their dissemination, our existences before we understood them, are erased and ignored, or firmly rooted in a past that it is suggested has no relevance to today. Fierce is not the pornographic aide to white guilt that was the historical suffering of black bodies in 12 Years a Slave or Exhibit B: Fierce is a joyous history.

The show was first exhibited in the Guildhall Art Gallery. The gallery swam in an atmosphere that was refined, posh, had all the associations of white elite cultural power.

Fierceness is also an aesthetics of space, presence, body and attitude. We took up that gallery. Our images made it ours, in a not-always-comfortable, but necessary way.

Ajamu’s work is a transformative act of iconography, celebrity, a slicing out of time. Our respective journeys had been marked out; our participation in Fierce was recognition of what we each had achieved. But we had been chosen, and some of us guided, by Ajamu. We stood on his shoulders. In turn, Britain and its institutions was built on the labour of people, the poor and the global poor, colonial subjects and those enslaved-proper, many of them our forbearers and ancestors. 

Britain is here because of them, though they may not have known the fruits of their labour. We were there because of them.

To be Fierce is to dare to uncover and face alternate histories, and to dream fabulous futures.

Julius Reuben - model. From Fierce, by Ajamu. Julius Reuben - model. From Fierce, by Ajamu. All rights reserved.

Cool

If coolness is the utilization and deployment of slackness within supposedly-rigid systems, or as the perfectly calculated expression of effort towards seeming effortless, then to be Fierce isn’t cool. Coolness, along with its smarter, more ironical cousin, hipness, is frequently white majority (sub)culture taking the styles and fashions of a non-white minority culture it finds palatable.

To look cool is the Bindhi without the religion, dreads without having to deal with the systematic racism, London's Brixton market without the ghettoization, rap without the revolutionary politics. It is measured in detachment and distance. 

Fierceness is precisely not slackness. It does not deal in cool detachment. It is hot, an articulation of determination and presence, one that fights erasure and invisibility.

One of the maxims I have tried to instill in myself was passed on to me by Ajamu: “Write and record everything you do; no-one is going to write our histories for us”. Ajamu’s work may be beautiful and erotic, but more than anything it is a testament. It seeks to build a future by establishing a present, and re-discovering a past.

Sirena Reynolds - poet. From Fierce, by Ajamu. Sirena Reynolds - poet. From Fierce, by Ajamu. All rights reserved.

About the author

Zia is a fantasticist/ generalist/ meliorist/ dramaturge/ receptionist/ barback/ erotic dancer/ idler/ naked reader/ sometime student/ would-be superhero/ dyslexic/ derealised/ queer Brixtonian, who doesn't really like labels.


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