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Holly Graham

Momma . Me Mudder . Sis . Brodder . Sweetie . Carmen . Plummy

The Douglas Hyde is delighted to present the seventh of the screenings of Art from the African Diaspora as part of Alice Rekab’s multi-platform project FAMILY LINES: Petname: Momma . Me Mudder . Sis . Brodder . Sweetie . Carmen . Plummy by Holly Graham (2014).

A brother nicknamed ‘Brother’

A sister referred to as ‘Momma’

A grandmother whose name is ‘Aunt’

Momma Carmen Plummy looks at names and pet-names within Caribbean family tradition. Often eclipsing an individual’s christian name, these nicknames denote familiar relationships and reference familial structure. The story-tellers recall and recount personal narratives which nestle within wider cultural histories – of social positioning and migration.

Aiming to platform the voices of Black artists and artists of colour, and to represent intergenerational legacies of self-representation in the production of film, writing and visual art, Alice Rekab and The Douglas Hyde have invited Holly Graham to co-curate the screening series by selecting a film that has influenced and/or inspired her. Graham has invited artist Zinzi Minnott to screen her work Fi Dem II (2019). Fi Dem II will be screened online next month from 12 – 26 May. 

We will have a special in-person screening of Petname: Momma . Me Mudder . Sis . Brodder . Sweetie . Carmen . Plummy and Fi Dem II on Tuesday, 19 April at 6pm, Thomas Davis Theatre, Trinity College Dublin.

Considering the crossovers between Petname: Momma . Me Mudder . Sis . Brodder . Sweetie . Carmen . Plummy and Fi Dem II, Holly Graham has created the below introductory text to accompany both films.

Tongue-Tie and Loose Ends

When Alice Rekab invited me to contribute work to be amongst a series of online screenings as part of their FAMILY LINES project, I put forward my work Petname; a 12-minute film originally made for three-screen installation, and first shown at my MA Degree Show back in 2014. When I was asked in addition to suggest a work by another artist to form part of this programme, the ‘Fi-Dem’ series by Zinzi Minott sprung to mind. Alice suggested I accompany these with an introduction; nothing too lengthy or involved – Alice had written their own intros in the ‘Notes’ app on their phone while zipping around London on the tube and bus – but something that might help situate the selected works within the programme, something that reflected on why I’d chosen them. This text – a two-parter – is much longer than I anticipated it would be, but it is, nevertheless, an introduction…

Part 1

An Introduction

I’m writing at the start of spring and my mind feels foggy. I blame this on hay-fever, but perhaps that’s a poor excuse. Spring is for beginnings, but I’m struggling to start. I feel like something’s lodged in my throat. I don’t have any vocabulary. Language isn’t working. I wonder how I’ve managed speech day to day up until this point. I’ve cleared my desk of shrapnel, for the most part – no mean feat. I’m ignoring emails. I’ve pushed the day-to-day admin, that inevitably seems to accrue in maintenance of art-practicing, of side-hustling, of living, to the edges of my peripheral vision; in order to for a short while prioritise headspace for making, thinking, responding. Breathing room. It’s not working. Minutes crawl by and the fragmented groupings of characters that congeal on my laptop screen feel stilted and detached when read back aloud. They refuse to sit comfortably in any sort of order.

I speak to a friend about it: “Why is it so hard?”

“Writing is hard,” she says. She struggles with its linearity. Up here – taps temple – it’s all there, what you’re thinking, what you want to say. But it’s a web, a map, with multiple entry points, frayed edges and loose ends. There are numerous possible openings, so it’s hard to choose one.

Today It’s a veritable alphabet soup, and in amidst it all, swims a cloudy déjà vu. In trying to write about this work, in retracing the motivations behind it, the anecdotes of its inception, I realise I’ve written about it before. Back in 2020, at the very beginning of what we couldn’t have understood then would be two long years, studded by lockdowns aimed at defusing the global health crisis; I wrote a text – a substitute for a cancelled event – to mark the culmination of a research residency I’d undertaken with Southwark Park Galleries the previous year. The focus was on food and migration, but the essay touched briefly on this body of work, and perhaps offers a way in to reflecting on it. I write:

A few years back, in fear of the potential of generational amnesia, I instigated a project of opening up conversations with my family members; to trouble stuffy silences, and eek out space within them for voicing previously unanswered questions and listening for responses. What came forth sounded, to me at least, like a sigh. An exhalation of tension, a releasing of kept personal knowledge. The series of oral history interviews were conducted in pairs, threes, and sometimes more, where family curiosity piqued and bubbled over into determined sit-ins. Grandad William’s interview along with his three sons garnered a whole audience of partners and grandchildren, eager to hear the measured words of this serious and guarded man, whose upbringing and motivations we realised we knew very little about. The conversations provoked an unravelling of names and pet-names, lost and found siblings, lost and found mothers, adopted parents and cross-generational care, knitted together and suspended in the frothy web of transatlantic crossings.

Writing two years on, it feels safe to say that this fear that had fuelled the project was not unfounded. My grandfather passed away at the end of last year, the day before New Year’s Eve. He was approaching his 95th birthday – almost a century of life lived between Jamaica and England.

Another Introduction

We were never particularly close. And I’ve realised in recent years, that that’s a reflection on my dad’s own relationship with his father – fractured as it was by a series of lapses in physical proximity – a gap of 5 years between the ages of 2 and 7, when my grandad went ahead to England to settle; and subsequent absences from the family home that followed later down the line. They were not close and therefore we were not close, in spite of geographical proximity, my grandad living only a 20-minute walk away. As if in a bid to remedy this inherited distance, to temper it, my grandfather told me the story of our very first encounter several times over years of brief visits to his small assisted-living flat in Brixton.

On those occasions, it would go like this:
My grandad would tell me how happy he was to see me, how my sister and I were his favourite grandchildren – something he surely told us all. He’d recount his memory of meeting me for the first time, in St Thomas’ Hospital, London; a new arrival on the maternity ward. He had a hand injury at the time, he’d tell me. It was all bandaged up. But he held me – baby me – cradling my head in that same injured hand. “Let me introduce myself…” he said. He’d recall how glad he was to meet me.

In spite of this tender overture, we never moved much beyond that point. We were stuck on loop, in a nervous habit of repetition. I can’t recall much else of what we talked about. The TV was generally on. The central heating set at max would press in on my skin as if trying to replicate the tropical climate of the West Indies. After a time, I would make my excuses, and leave.

My grandfather William Graham was, as I later discovered, a tailor, a taxi driver, and very much of a ladies’ man. He was also a pastor, a man au fait with preaching to the masses. But I knew him as a man of few words.

In the later years of his life, he was in and out of hospital. On one visit, perhaps realising how little I knew about my grandfather, and how little time I might have left to find out, I tried my hand at progressing the narrative beyond the tale of our first encounter. Assuming the role of casual acquaintance, I attempted what many may consider small talk:
“Do you have any siblings?”
“And how many?”
“What are their names?”

A day or so later, a chastisement reached me, carried along the grapevine of family phone calls: “Apparently you were grilling grandad”.

Half Laugh

I imagine it was around this same time that I started interrogating my paternal grandmother with similar gusto. Separated from my grandfather when my dad was young, she’d lived in the same house in Thornton Heath, Croydon for as long as I could remember. When I was in nursery, my parents and I moved in with her, with my uncle and aunt and cousins living just next door. We spent various stints of a year or two at a time there throughout my childhood and adolescence, my dad shuttling our small family unit back and forth in a dance that told me that you’re never too old to move back in with your parents. Until one day, the tables turned and grandma came to live with us in a new flat we were renting in Streatham.

In spite of all this time spent in my grandma’s company, I found our communications faltering too. When I asked her questions, she would answer them kindly, but succinctly and without elaboration, so it would feel as if I were tugging the conversation tentatively along. She’d trail off with a laugh, a “well…”, a familiar chuckle that felt more like she was laughing to herself that with me. What’s the joke?, I’d wonder. Then again, perhaps I wasn’t listening properly anyway, because afterwards, I wouldn’t be able to remember the answers. Was it 9 of them there were altogether? Or was it that she had 9 siblings, so there were 10 of them in total? It probably didn’t help that she’d looked confused when I’d asked and queried those same questions herself; counting their names on the tips of her fingers: “Brother, Monica, Sweetie, Carmen, Plummy…”, a pause to register her petname – then: “they call me Plummy”.

My grandma, Cynthia Graham, came from a family of teachers, a highly respected profession in Jamaica which at the time channelled a colonial curriculum moulded in the image of the ‘mother country’. When she moved to England in 1964, aged 35 and hoping to continue in this line of work, she was told that her teacher training didn’t count for anything over here, and to consider instead seeking work on the buses where many recent Caribbean migrants were finding employment. In defiance, my grandmother retrained, and was eventually able to find work as a teacher in Peckham, south London.

She went on to co-found the Croydon Supplementary Education Project (CSEP) in 1982, a Saturday school formed to support black children who were largely being failed by the British education system. The CSEP was one of as many as 150 supplementary schools that were set up across England in the 70s and 80s. The flurry formed in the wake of public outcry, sparked by a pamphlet circulated amongst the black British community at the time of its publication in 1971. The pamphlet written by Bernard Coard, and titled ‘How the West Indian Child is made educationally sub-normal in the British School System’, features in Steve McQueen’s semi-autobiographical Channel 4 tv segment ‘Education’ that forms part of his Small Axe series; referencing some of these historical failures. Musician and writer Akala speaks in his book ‘Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ about his own first-hand experiences of navigating the British education system throughout the 80s and 90s, and of the support that black-run local community Saturday schools offered him and his peers. While growing up, I’d hear my grandma talking about “Saturday school”. I don’t think I ever went, and always felt lucky, sly even, to have evaded yet more school at the weekend. But perhaps the joke was on me. Until we sat down together, with a camera, audio recorder, and print-out of my typed list of questions, I didn’t understand its significance or reach. In fact, I think I only really understand its wider context in full now.

Ellipsis

Just a month before my grandad died, my great aunt – Aunt Carmen, as she is referred to in the film – also passed away. About four years ago, my sister and I moved in with her; into her tall Victorian terraced house in Brixton Hill with a colour palate of mauve and browns. The mauve was presumably a later modernising update, as the texture of the wallpaper belied a jazzier pattern beneath the painted surface. The house was decorated with crochet doilies on the leather settee, ceramic figurines lining cabinets, wall hangings reading ‘JAMAICA’ in what looked like glittery coloured gel pen on black velvet, and a print reproduction of a painting of a blond-haired blue-eyed messiah – arms outstretched, quelling a storm – hanging in the dining room.

Houses like these were once filled to the hilt with multiple families, recently located to England and squeezed into one or two bedrooms of those who’d have them, those who didn’t subscribe to the “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” maxim. I imagine it was a little later – as the fruits of pooling community resources via pardner schemes enabled increasing numbers of recent settlers to toe a wrung on the property ladder, shifting residences from house-shares to singular family abodes – that the interior design aspirations of my aunt and her contemporaries were really given the space to come into their own, floral wallpaper and all.

By the time my sister and I joined her, the house had been occupied for several years by her alone. She seemed happy to have us, glad of the company, and very proud to introduce us to her carers as “my grandnieces”. In her early 90s, she was incredibly fit, undertaking three flights of stairs with relative ease; but she was suffering from dementia, and was often confused. “How’s your brother?”, she would ask me, presumably referring to my dad. Conversations were spirited, labyrinthine, and structured by non-sequiturs. There were lots of pauses.

Aunt Carmen features in the film, shot in 2014, several years before the dementia took hold. She sits in her living room with her daughter Shirley. As a guest passing through back then, I did not have the same attachment to the house then as I do now. I hadn’t yet had years to sit in it, and think on it. I’m not sure if I registered it as part of a wider story. In fact, for many years prior, even the relationships between these not-so-distant relations of mine were a mystery to me. Until not long before that point, I hadn’t understood that Aunt Carmen was Shirley’s mother, due to the fact even her daughter called her “Aunt”. And this visit was really the beginning of a much longer conversation.

It’s strange to watch the video back now. There’s a moment in the edit when I play on a pause, accentuating it.

Aunt Carmen: “When she asking me now “who am I”, what mus’ I say?”

Shirley: “You nuh say yuh name?”

A pause… Aunt Carmen turns her head to look at Shirley, and the right-hand screen cuts to a close-up, the head turning to rest in profile. The colours are dark, so you have to look carefully to make out her features. I think there really was a pause at that moment, but I don’t believe it was that long in real life. In fact, in writing this text, I watched that small section back on repeat, squinting at the screen to verify that, yes, I made an edit, stretched out that moment. And it’s clumsy really, but I think it passes.

Aunt Carmen: “I am Carmen Reid.”

To watch it back with the later knowledge of Aunt Carmen’s later illness feels weirdly unsettling; like it’s a sign of the break and slippage to come, a harbinger of memory loss. Perhaps in a way it is, but the prognosis is one that we all in some way fall victim to. The drive of the project is an effort to counter this to a degree, to slow the process of forgetting to whatever extent that is possible. I’m glad I sat and spoke with Aunt Carmen when I did.

Loose End

It’s perhaps unsurprising to encounter a failure in language, a lapse in memory, to struggle to start, or to stumble on repetition, when attempting to articulate something about work that is itself rooted in struggles with communication; ruptures, breaks and slippages in speaking of past events.

The Petname project began as an excuse to formally interrogate or “grill” my family members; ‘joint statement of consent forms’ in tow. I pitched the project as a family tree of sorts, and within this, the name became an obvious marker or index, a point of focus – at times a truth-teller, and at others a misnomer, slippery and evasive; at all times a signpost that points towards something else. Within the edits we see, there’s lots that isn’t said, lots that exists outside of the frame.

And this outside of frame is twofold. In a very literal sense, there’s a bulk of unedited material that didn’t make the cut – megabytes, or gigabytes more likely, of recorded audio and video footage that I hope to return to at some point. I didn’t transcribe any of the recordings at the time, something I’m now kicking myself for. So when I do return to the surplus material it will be via a slow and steady real-time viewing and listening, sitting in the room with the full conversations. And then there’s the outside the frame, as in the notes in the margin, the unspoken toll of periods of familial separation; the failures of British schooling for black children; the ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’; the institutional racism embedded in employment in the 60s, in policing, in immigration policy; reverberating through to the Hostile Environment policy to come that would create the conditions for Windrush Scandal in 2017/18. These marginal narratives, inscribed in the memories of an older generation of family members, nestle in the gaps.

The project granted me permission to rudely ask some of the questions I wanted answers to – many just small entry-level queries, but also more complex ones, difficult questions. The project pierced through a film of silence, a tacit agreement acknowledged by my grandparents’ generation and their children; a Victorian legacy of youngsters being “seen but not heard”; a “hush, the adults are talking”. It opened up space for inter-generational dialogue that it turned out others in the family were also craving. It loosened tongues.

When Alice got in touch with the invitation to contribute to the FAMILY LINES programme, Petname struck me as an obvious choice. It’s felt really valuable to spend time sitting with the work, and reflecting on it, thinking about what I knew then and what I know now, channelling gratitude for words exchanged with individuals who are no longer here to share their stories. I started working on the film towards the end of 2013, nearly 10 years ago, but as a body of work it still feels potentially open-ended. The chapters operate like modular segments, that might be taken apart and reassembled in a different formation, or added to. And you’re invited to join the conversation. The work was initially shown on three Sony cubes at head-height, so that in some scenes the sitters can eye the viewer almost one-to-one – you’re in the room with the speakers. I hope the online screening, perhaps viewed in a room of one’s own on a laptop, or in the palm of hand on a phone screen, might offer a different intimacy; and that this text might operate as entry point of sorts, another way into the work, a note in the margin.

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