SAPPHIRE (9mins 32secs) is a video work by artist NT for Aspex’s 40th anniversary programme of digital commissions, Aspex (life begins) at 40.
NT is a multidisciplinary artist whose work often utilises performance, film, sound, and print. Their work has been shown throughout the UK and internationally. Amongst NT’s interests is the idea of watching; the ‘awareness’ of the gaze; and the aspect of looking – whether it is by the artist; the viewer; or the camera lens. As well as the tension that arises from courting the gaze by the subject, artist, and/or lens. NT is also interested in historiography: how history is made and interpreted, and uses appropriation as a means of disruption, re-interpretation, and re-evaluation of the past.
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SAPPHIRE addresses negative gendered, racial stereotypes portrayed in the mainstream media. The central figure takes her name from a common caricature; the two-dimensional, loud and angry black woman, unmistakable and pervasive in contemporary film and television. In NT’s film however Sapphire is an articulate and measured protagonist. Confident and self-assured but also intelligent, sensitive and sympathetic.
As Sapphire moves around a highly stylised domestic interior she speaks directly to camera, breaking the fourth wall of the film set. Although talking to us, it also becomes clear that she is simultaneously speaking to someone else; or is perhaps rehearsing a difficult conversation with her ‘older sister’, ‘Mammy’. Now considered bogus and archaic, the Mammy character often portrayed as a maid, was popularised in films such as Gone with the Wind, Imitation of Life, and TV series like Beulah.
Sapphire speaks to Mammy like a relative, or a close friend or other loved one. She is kind but critical, her comments are heartfelt and come from a place of caring but she is also firm and speaks with conviction. “You are no relation of mine”, announces Sapphire, “You were never here to comfort me”. Throughout the script NT exposes the two caricatures as false inventions, created and conventionalized by white people. Sapphire is troubled as she considers this, walking from room to room, exasperated. She seeks to understand representation better by reading about Sylvia Wynter, and she questions the familiar figures from the advertising images of her own childhood, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.
SAPPHIRE responds directly to Harold Offeh’s artwork and 2004/5 exhibition at Aspex, Being Mammy. Commissioned by Picture This and developed during a residency researching the life and career of actress Hattie McDaniel, Being Mammy explored role-play, identity and stereotyping. For this Aspex at 40 commission NT considers the legacy of the Mammy and the existence of other commonly known tropes of women of the African diaspora.
In the second half of the film Sapphire relocates downstairs and turns the mirror on herself; “I’m not going anywhere” she says, “I’m enduring”. Racism still exists and as with historic criticism of Hattie McDaniel, many people of colour are questioning the complicity of the present-day film industry and screen and print media in perpetuating negative racial and gender stereotypes. In her closing provocation Sapphire steps away from the mirror and stares into the lens, “The power was never in our hands,” she says, “What must we do to make our new sisters arise and thrive?”
NT is based in London. Recent commissions include Greta (2021) for UNTITLED at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and Fox (2018) for Deptford X festival in London. They have presented work in exhibitions at Beaconsfield, ICA and The Showroom, London; RWA, Bristol and New Art Exchange, Nottingham; and shown videos for screenings and festivals including Encounters Film Festival, Bristol; BFI, London; European Film Festival, Kenya; and Art Basel Miami amongst others.
SAPPHIRE was commissioned by Aspex and supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. It is part of Aspex (life begins) at 40, a programme which also includes digital commissions by Bettina Fung, Jaf Yusuf and Hardeep Pandhal.
NT interviews Harold Offeh
To complement the digital artwork NT has interviewed Harold Offeh about his work and exhibition at Aspex, Being Mammy. The transcribed conversation is available to read as a downloadable pdf or Google Doc, and is the fourth recorded conversation between the artists commissioned in 2021 and the artists whose work they have connected to in the Aspex archive.
By Shephard Manyika
A learning resource for young people created by Shephard Manyika in response to NT’s digital artwork SAPPHIRE. The work interrogates the idea of the Mammy and her lingering legacy: her dethronement as the acceptable presentation/’face’ of black women in the form of the SAPPHIRE. This resource invites viewers to confront the themes posed in SAPPHIRE in more depth.