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Your Space Or Mine

Tanaka Saburi is the art curator making space for underrepresented artists on his own terms

We spoke to the art curator and tailor about his second collaboration with BUILDHOLLYWOOD and how he defines success for himself.

While the last month finally saw the grand return to art galleries and creative spaces, the process of going and enjoying an exhibition is still not quite as accessible as it once was – with the backlog of exhibitions creating an extremely long waitlist for tickets. However, thankfully for art lovers all over London, curator Tanaka Saburi has collaborated with BUILDHOLLYWOOD for the second year in a row to bring an exhibition to the most accessible location of them all, the streets.

If there’s one thing, in particular, that is clear when talking to Tanaka Saburi is his naturally determined and hardworking demeanour. Born to a Zimbabwean family and raised in Birmingham, he attended Keele University to complete his undergraduate degree in Law and Liberal Arts. With the initial intention of becoming a painter, Saburi’s interest in curation was birthed when he moved to London in 2017 to work on Savile Row. Since, Saburi has occupied important roles at Paul Smith, Joseph and Richard James (where he currently works through the week). Extending beyond tailoring, his responsibilities have included working on merchandising and PR. “I used to go to all the northern cities and show them how to display Paul Smith suiting in certain ways, how to show it off and understand the mix between art and fashion for him in his context,” he explained.

Launched last year, during the height of the pandemic alongside designer Nina Kunzendorf, The Molasses Gallery is a space to promote the work of young artists of colour. The first iteration of the collaboration with Your Space or Mine featured 12 artists, with a theme inspired by the 1975 poem “To a Black Artist” by Gordon Parks. This time around the exhibition entitled ‘commodities’ focuses on the relationship young up-and-coming artists of colour have with the concept of value and commercial success.

12.08.21

Words by Habi Diallo

Following suit of the last exhibition, this year’s selection of visual artists cross over all mediums.  As the winner of the Molasses Gallery Submission contest, 20-year-old Miles-Jaye Clement’s ‘Red Lady’ depicts a highly detailed painting of his mother. Also, channelling her skill in this medium fellow oil painter, Okiki Akinfe’s painting ‘Magdalena’  focuses on the effect of racial and cultural differences on current social landscapes. Elsewhere, photographer, video and performance artist Tejoso “Plantation” Ayomide used her body to communicate her thoughts and perceptions in her piece ‘Black sex is forbidden’.

“Red Lady” by Miles-Jaye Clement
“Magdelena” by Okiki Akinfe
“Black sex is forbidden” by Tejoso “Plantation” Ayomide

Tapping into the notion of identity politics from their unique perspectives, Tulani Hialo, Jessica Gianelli, Leah Hickey, and Shaye Gregan’s work all dissect the multi-layered aspects of the black experience, in regards to gender, sexuality, appearance and culture.

“Papiyon 21” by Jessica Gianelli
“Untitled” by Shaye Gregan
“EXOTIC / EROTIC” by Leah Hickey

Photographers Casper Kofi, Xavier Scott Marshall, Matthew Manning and Nick Goulden all turned their lens towards more experimental perspectives, expressing the overarching sentiment of the exhibition. Other multimedia visual artists featured in the exhibition include Rene Matić, Ryan Christopher and Nahuel Conteras.

 

“MAMADOU” by Casper Kofi
“akwesi” by Nick Goulden
“Touch starvation” by Nahuel Conteras

Alongside a plethora of artwork going on display, the exhibition also features a series of social commentary on the theme written by a selection of artists. Key members of the Molasses Gallery team including Jaafer Al-Khafji, Nina Kunnzrndorf and Saburi himself all contributed to the array of social commentary. Each piece of writing unpacks the artists’ sentiments towards the theme ‘commodities’. Filmmaker Iggy Ldn’s ‘Dear Brands’ perfectly articulates the sentiments artists of colour often have towards many companies – stating that their “conversations on inclusivity are often boiled down to nothing more than strategic ways to build a following”.

Amongst the other creatives chosen are: Photographer and stylist Bevan Agyemang, photographer Kevin Lanre, artist and business director Mia Powell, Cherelle “Coco” Janay, writer and cultural producer Kennedy Jopson. Discussing the decision to chose these artists, Saburi said “they’re very vocal in their opinions of the scene. I thought it would probably be better off to get their words or their notions instead of their pieces. Words are more impactful sometimes and I think their work speaks for themselves.”

With the artwork and social commentary on billboards all around London until 23rd September, this exhibition aligns with the values of Your Space or Mine in giving a platform to the underrepresented and amplifying voices which ordinarily may be disregarded. At a time where the traditional artist portfolio has been traded for a social media feed and a fixation on online engagement, Saburi remains true to what is often easy to forget: the internet is not real life. “I think the industry now and just society in general, is making artists and anyone who creates anything into content creators”, he shared. “And if it’s not seen to fit into a certain bubble, you won’t get the retweet or the share or whatever that it takes to be seen as successful.”

 

 

Below we discuss his upbringing in the Midlands, defining success in the art world and his latest exhibition.

Tell us a bit about your background. What was it like growing up in Birmingham? 

I would say the whole city is like a together community. Unlike what one area in London is like, it doesn’t feel separated at all. You have the Caribbean diaspora, Asian community, everyone. Everyone seemed to be very alike and working together. There was not so much disparity between the classes or the ethnicities, as much as I think I feel here. I think that is the most distinguishing difference between the two.

How did you find your footing in the art world once you moved to London?

I think moving here, I do not really think of the art industry in a way. I find it such a daunting prospect to get in an exhibit and be seen as valid that I’ve kind of now just shunned it. I, as others do as well, think if you have your own community and you have your own structure and network. I do not think you need to go knocking at the doors of the art industry in London. And I think that’s a mindset that I’ve evolved into rather than thinking that’s the only way you can be successful here. It’s a very Brummie stubborn way of thinking to be honest because if no one’s going to help you out, you just have to do it yourself. It doesn’t really matter if there’s someone to exhibit it; you exhibit yourself. You just do things yourself or you do it with your friends. The ‘cliqueness’ in Birmingham is more all about sitting down and having a pint to accomplish anything, while I think here it is more tedious and a bit harder.

Do you think that tediousness extends to different parts of the creative industries here?

Yeah. I actually think everyone feels it, but they also contribute that kind of closed door policy to everything. It doesn’t make sense to me just because of my upbringing, but I think it does make sense in terms of quality control. But even then, so many people get missed out or don’t fit in a box. In this case, not even ethnically as I don’t think it actually does matter about your skin colour or anything like that. I think it’s sometimes which people you hang around, who’s in your friends group, or who you first met when you were first here. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Holland or Italy, I think everyone who travelled to settle here and wants to make a name for themselves creatively just finds it a shock.

What made you want to start curating?

It is a mix of two things. In the pandemic, obviously, there was George Floyd and just general joblessness. After I finished my law degree, I never went into it. Instead, somehow ended up in the tailoring industry and working on Savile Row. Obviously, you get free suits and when I was thinking of starting my law career, I thought instead of buying suits hopefully if I did it for long, I would have enough suits to look like a competent lawyer.

Being on Savile Row when I decided to move from Birmingham to here, the opportunity was so big. You get a chance to meet artists and musicians daily, it is almost ridiculous how daily it is. The space that I had was with Joseph gave me flexibility to curate some of the displays, but the displays would be with artists. I think my first foray was just talking to a few artists that I liked and I thought the brand would like, and getting them to sell their art in the store. That’s kind of how I got into realising curation was actually a career or something to do. I also always thought it was kind of reserved for highborn, the elites, who probably are always at dinners and meetings with their family members who buy and collect. Your middle classes are not really thinking about collecting art to go in your house, they’re just going to IKEA. Being there, coined with being jobless in the pandemic, I was reading up about Noah Davis. I never completely read up on him when I was younger, but his life kind of fascinated me. He started the gallery in LA and he found some of my, quite literally, my favourite artists of all time. He died at 30 and I was 30 when I thought about starting this. I thought if I die now, maybe it would be a good idea to do that. It’s a bit of a crazy, deep thought but we were all kind of like that in the pandemic.

With your work with Molasses Gallery, how would you describe your work and what does it represent to you?

I think initially, the last time we worked with BUILDHOLLYWOOD, it was more just a tool to make people’s spirits get lifted. It was just trying to uplift, educate kids that are passing and show them that there are black artists who are different, successful, bright and colourful. It was not really something which I thought would continue until I got sort of a lot of feedback and a lot of accolades. It became more personal because people would say, ‘Oh, I saw this made me cry’ or ‘I saw that and I got to know that artist’ etc.

This time and from now on, I think it’s just about providing for artists who are doing well in the scope of being an artist in London but also for when it’s not that easy to pay your rent or people want to do commissions but for free and for charity. It is a little bit redundant to approach, especially artists of colour, for anything like that for free. It just makes no sense, it’s emotional property. It means so much when you’re doing it just for the love and for what it means to your ancestors and your family; going against the grain and sticking to your guns in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I find it a bit derivative to celebrate all the biggest, most mature eyes and not look at people in their 20s doing really really well in big innovative things but not really being seen.

“Champion Snoot” 2nd by Tulani Hlalo

How did the collaboration with BUILDHOLLYWOOD come about?

Initially completely by accident. I now work with Nina Kunzendorf, who is my design lead – she puts all the pieces together with all the logos, the fonts, the sizing and quality. I think she was looking for someone to help her find artists, to display their work and just to lift spirits as well. We had a mutual friend and I got connected with her. When she said it, we were in exactly the same headspace but because of all the tumultuous things going on with George Floyd, I thought it should be more than putting pictures up. It needed to stand for something; it needed a brand, a name and a tone. Playing music on Spotify and sitting in bed, I kept on hearing the word molasses over and over again, in Solange’s music and Hiatus Kaiyote’s music. It just kept coming up and I remembered that molasses is black substance that is resilient. I thought that was the banner to fly. If you’re going to do this, even if it is for once, I think that’s the only way you’re going to make people pay attention – by giving it something more. That’s where the Molasses Gallery came from.

Why do you want your work displayed on the street? What do you want people to feel from seeing it?

I’m big into the idea of creating art collectors because the art collection industry is completely different. You’ve got private collectors, banks and hedge funds. It feels reserved for the rich, the affluent, and knowledgeable.  I want people to pay attention to something they should know about and that’s it. Gaining someone’s attention now is a lot more valuable than anything else, because they can then interpret it however they want to, and follow the artists however they want to, in whatever capacity. If I can grab the attention of someone in East London or West London to stop and think what’s this and grab their interest that is kind of half the battle. The rest would be to educate. The feelings I’m going to put to the side, because I think that’s for the artists to communicate. My entire job is to put them in a space, where they look huge and they’re respected and seen. It’s the stage; you need the lights and the smoke for people to realise it’s something important.

How did the idea for ‘commodities’ come into fruition?

It was deconstructing what the first exhibition was. I think there was a much deeper story in each piece that I wanted to exploit a little bit more. And I think that the notion of exploitation and being made into a commodity is pretty much what we’re doing right now. Everyone’s been rethinking about what their worth is and I think especially artists who are just halfway between quitting and constantly evolving, that is the value of them. The artists themselves knew what I was trying to do but I think the allegory is completely a mystery to them. The overarching story is that you can still create, but it depends on how the rest of the industry takes you – how they want to use you and how do you communicate your story or your vision artistically? That’s where commodities came from.

How did you go about picking the artists to be a part of it? And like, why them in particular?

Honestly, it’s a little bit of looking into my phonebook, scrolling through Instagram, looking through books, and looking at all the followers of the greats. I sent out a general call out for artists to see if anyone would fit that allegory and I got some really good responses. I think it is mostly the surprising characters that are in it. For example, Miles-Jaye Clement is 22, just finished high school and is in between uni and thinking of what he’s going to do. Funnily enough, he’s an amazing Fine Art painter who just doesn’t go to an Art University. I just couldn’t believe someone with this acumen at this age is unknown.

I think the idea is to mix those types of characters with some bigger industry type people. Casper Kofi is Dutch and moved here probably five years ago but he’s taken photos of Serena Williams, Tyler the Creator and he’s been in Vogue loads of times. But because of that, people see him as a fashion photographer and throw away the pieces that are deeply artistic. It can be lost in the fonts, and all the expensive clothes jargon. I thought it would be a great idea to picture him as an artist, and just not a photographer for whichever magazine or whatever publication. It’s that juxtaposition of you’re seeing people the way they want to be seen rather than the way everyone else sees them.

What advice would you give to young artists of colour who are struggling with finding the balance between creating art that feels authentic to themselves and creating art that fits into a box they feel they need to succumb to in order to make a living from their work?

I think it’s a lot easier. When I wanted to be a painter I wasn’t very happy with what kind of painter I naturally am, even when I try my best I can’t really communicate the things that I want to. I thought about it, and I was thinking, isn’t it funny that all artists feel a tension between if they want to show or pursue their passion, or just become a postman and just hide it away, stop thinking so much and just be another battery for capitalism. But I thought, if you’d set aside that tension and that juxtaposition and just work, I bet you your work will be fine and you’ll be happy. And I bet you even if it doesn’t get recognised until you’re dead, which is what we know of the greats, it’ll get eyes. That’s what it is, it’s just a waiting game. And I think your back catalogue means more than what people think of your recent work. It’s got nothing to do with where you’ll be, it’s more about the actual work. It’s fine. It may take five years, it might take 20, you might get big and start selling your pieces tomorrow or you might be doing it until you’re 50 or you’re 60 and get big then. But even without either of that commercial success, you’ve got it out. I think that’s why I thought if I’m going to be a curator, I’ll take it seriously. Even if I can’t probably pay my rent for however long, I made this and this is working. And if it works, that’s really it.

What’s next for you and Molasses Gallery? 

I had so many plans last year. I was supposed to do a playground with the council with some black and POC sculptors. But it takes a lot longer than you think, a lot of safety involved. I was also supposed to be curating a POC Film Festival, which was meant to be now in the summer, but the pandemic stretched a lot longer than I was expecting. It kind of makes no sense to have a film festival outdoors at the moment so maybe that can be shelved for a bit longer. Generally, it’s expansion and just destroying stigmas. I would love to get into sculpture and I would love to get into film and explore that avenue. What’s next is to keep expanding to Paris, New York or wherever it takes to franchise, and hire a bigger, international team.

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