“She does the work”. That’s the first phrase that popped into my mind when I first stumbled across Christina Poku. I was instantly hit by the variety and consistency; at first glance, one can immediately tell that Christina is an artist that does work. Born and bred in the UK, Christina Poku is a photographer and multi-media artist. In a field where people expect to be handed success without doing quality work, she is a breath of fresh air. Her meticulousness and attention to detail is almost palpable while glancing at her portfolio or her site, or even just looking at her. I had the chance to link up with the Londoner and talk to her about girlhood and race, consistency, and the current state of photography.
What are some themes that are always consistent and that you always try to portray in your work?
Loss of innocence, a looming sense of tragedy, mental health, challenging rape culture, perceptions of beauty and addressing the lack of, and how, diversity is shown. I’m interested in readdressing stereotypes by focusing on the grim reality of life and fusing this with the complacency of the beauty obsessed consumerist culture in which we live.
The project I’m currently working on for my next exhibition is the last film in a series I’m doing exploring the lines between the abject and seductive. Repulsion and attraction. Clarity and the obscured. It explores the fine line between these parallels and plays with repeated imagery and suggestions to explore the correlation between these evocative poles. It’s a criticism of those complicit to rape culture and a voice for those who have been forced to be silent.
The thing about photography is that people expect consistency and to a certain degree, that is good; one should be able to tell your work just by looking at it. But as young people we change, we are constantly evolving and constantly switching. If we don’t like something we buck it and try to find something that represents who we are at that exact time. How has your work evolved so far? Do you ever pressure yourself to make something even if it doesn’t feel right?
I wouldn’t consider myself a photographer anymore. Well not just a photographer. It was my focus and chosen specialism for a long time alongside doing set design for my own work and other people, but over the last few years I think my style has developed a lot in terms of presentation and through that I’ve moved away from photography. I do as much film as I do photography now and my more sustained projects are actually all film based. When my work was heavily photography/set based I felt the way I was presenting it – in books, as zines, as prints, even photos within installations, sometimes took away from how free and tactile the set up was. Working more with installation and film has allowed me to be playful with my work once more, right until the end, rather than feeling the final outcome is a reserved image of what I intended. Of course I still do photographic projects, it’s just the power I’ve gained from becoming comfortable with film means I can select what’s more appropriate for the context perhaps. Sometimes taking a photo is still more relevant for what I’m trying to say and if it is then of course I’ll stick to photography, but now I don’t feel constrained about capturing and displaying what I want.
I’ve always experimented with varying forms of art; sculpture, painting, prints, digital and analogue. For me the changes have been more in voice rather than context perhaps. I think my struggles as a young woman of colour speaking out about injustice has gone alongside the methods and materials I’ve used. The more I’ve begun to directly and unapologetically talk about and question serious subjects, the more I’ve ensured the final presentation of my work is true to the context.
At the moment I’m working with lots of mirrors, projectors, cave like spaces, sound and LED sculptures. I think the stills from the films are certainly inline with my photographic style. My work from my last exhibition was described as a “multisensory onslaught” that’s my favourite thing anyone has ever said about my work and is the direction I hope to continue in.
The correlation between girlhood and race is one that is so palpable but people don’t talk about it or portray it enough. How do you manifest this correlation, not only in your work, but in your life and in you taking up space in the art world?
At the moment girlhood, specifically in relation to race is something I’m so concerned with. Definitions of gender, and how femininity and race are defined is important to me as a person. Girlhood and those denied their time of innocence has always been an important part of my work. There’s a real problem in how black women are portrayed, sexualised and demonised within society and the media, which of course splays over and directly affects young black girls. Often they’re made to feel that they should portray themselves in a certain way to not be seen as aggressive, or sexual. It worries me how your femininity can often be shaped by your race. I think often young black girls aren’t seen as children or teenagers before they’re hindered by the fact they’re black. Their ethnicity is used to strip away their innocence and I find that such a terrifying thing. Even in terms of occupying space and having a voice, even within feminist zines talking about inequality and diversity, I still find it’s rare that the person given the voice to speak about this is from the minority in question.
I think for a long time when I first started out I tried to fit into portraying what western society tends to define as beautiful because that was all I had seen growing up. When I was working on shoots I’d do test runs using myself then for the final thing I’d replace myself with someone who fitted the typical model look or western view of what beauty was – even if it wasn’t a fashion shoot. The more I stepped away from fashion and slowly began to look at the issues I was concerned with, the more I looked into the portrayal, (or lack of), for these minorities. I explored it more with installation/zine type work at first. Making collages and prints with written words.
My shoot, ‘Solidarity’ was an important one. I was looking into how black women are portrayed and questioning why I was, (at the time), fighting to work in an industry that more often than not said that everything I am, everything I represent isn’t “beautiful” or “worthy”. My height, my skin colour, my features, my shape. It was also just after I’d shaved all of my hair off as a fuck you to those who had invaded my being. I had done it to liberate my body but was still quite surprised by the reactions I got from strangers at what was deemed as my newfound “aggressive presence”. It was also in a time where much larger and truly tragic events were taking place and the portrayal of black people meant that we were being murdered and demonised without receiving any form of justice. This has still not changed and I fear it won’t, not fully, any time soon.
Both within my work and life now I ask for volunteers for projects through various social media platforms, I also put myself in my work a lot more. I find putting myself in my work an interesting thing to play with because I’ve always been very concerned about the way I’ve tried to portray myself. I’m a believer in shine theory. I think challenging how you’re raised to see competition is vital in terms of occupying space as a woman of colour and an artist. It’s meant unlearning and learning a lot of things and seeing the strength that comes from having inspirational people around you has really motivated me to continue to challenge myself and where/how I present these key issues.
I know that you are a born and bred Londoner. How does the environment and culture(s) impact your work, if at all?
In all honesty if anything I think the lack of diversity where I grew up is what impacted me most. I’ve moved around so much and lived in different areas of London and it’s been great to live in areas where there’s actually a mix of cultures. At the moment I’m in South East London and our weird flat conversion/creative cave is in being threatened with the dreaded demolition to make place for the building of luxury flats. Every area I’ve moved from/to has become so morphed by gentrification. I’ve been contemplating moving out of London to somewhere else. Somewhere that will allow me to have time to make work without having to work a shitty job that I don’t want to do for pennies just to scrape enough money together for rent…But I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the UK. As much as most Londoners complain about it even those that do leave tend to come back eventually.
Where do you seek inspiration from?
In terms of context – my own life, whether its something I’ve experienced personally or something I’ve witnessed that I feel needs to be raised and shared as an issue. I find in terms of being unapologetic in what I want to say and drawing courage to complete work with perhaps a more difficult context, in times of doubt, I draw a lot of courage from those around me.
I’m fortunate to have one friend in particular that I met through my degree who has always inspired me to say what I feel needs to be addressed. Laurèl Hadleigh, she models for me a lot too. She’s part of the Sorryyoufeeluncomfortable collective and a powerful and influential person and artist. Our working styles and visuals are very different but we’re planning some collaborative work that I’m beyond excited about. I’m really grateful for her presence in my life. Through my blog and various platforms online I’ve had people reach out to me about my work and things I’ve written as well as sharing pieces they feel may be helpful for me. I find it so humbling and also empowering the solidarity and genuine support I see through specific intersectional communities online. It gives me hope; to not only continue my work but for those who otherwise don’t have access to this type of community.
Words by Fabiola Ching