GET FAMILIAR: JOHNY PITTS
In the context of the G/D THYSELF program, we had the honor of interviewing Johny Pitts, the UK writer, photographer and journalist. John is the curator of the online journal Afropean.com, a platform dedicated to the Afro-European diaspora. In his book, Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, he shares a powerful personal story of exploring Black experience in various European cities. You will be able to visit the exposition curated by John at FOAM Amsterdam from the 18th of Septemeber till the first of November. This program forms part of the festival Forum on European Culture.
Johny, please introduce yourself to our readers who may not be familiar with your work.
I use a camera and a pen to basically do the same thing; tell underrepresented stories that I feel are essential. In fact the visual and the textual sometimes get blurred. I often feel I'm trying to carve narratives from photographs and create visuals with words. But yes, words and images from liminal spaces - that's me.
Where did you get the idea for Afropeans?
It emerged from music culture, initially. The term actually arises out of what I would describe as the ambient world music boom; it was coined by David Byrne and Marie Daulne AKA Zap Mama. I found out recently that Marie was very much influence by what Brian Eno, Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne were doing in the early 80s, as well as the Polyphonic vocals the pygmy tribes used in her mother's ancestral motherland of Congo. As globalisation creaks it's easy to be cynical about that 'world music' moment of the 80s and 90s now, but here was an arty, optimistic coming together of cultures that I found attractive. When I tried to apply it onto the lived experience of everyday people, my understanding of the term needed to be broadened and deepened, which is what I hope happened with the book I made.
For your book, you’ve visited a specific set of places, are there any you haven’t visited or highlighted but feel deserve to be highlighted at a later stage?
So many. The problem with books is that they have to begin and end somewhere. Stories are enclosed within a finite space...even though in my case that finite space is actually quite wide. That's why it's important to mention that the book comes with a website which is user-generated, so that anyone for whom the term afropean resonates can share their story. With that being said, I would have liked have visited more coastal cities, which have an obvious connection to Europe's slave trade. In the UK this would mean a place like Bristol, or Liverpool. In Portugal a place like Lagos, in Holland Rotterdam. I would also like to explore Central and Eastern Europe more, and then also cities in Africa that are encoded with a certain 'Afropean' flavour, like Addis Ababa, Jo'Burg and Freetown. It is endless, really,
How did you select which places to visit and did you feature every place you visited?
Yes I featured everywhere I visited, and my choices were guided by my (lack of) funds and basically where the largest black communities were. I slid in other cities such as Stockholm and Moscow because, even though they don't have black communities the size of somewhere like Paris, they offered interesting historical stories. The book is a contemporary portrait haunted by history, so the black narratives I found were sometimes thought of the dead.
What does it mean to be Afropean?
Many things, but I would say it revolves around communities grappling with the legacies of colonialism, communities who feel of and not of African and Europe; both and yet not fully either at the same time.
What are some of the gifts and the curses of having to juggle multiple allegiances and forging new identities?
There is an innate creativity in the blurring of cultural identity. It offers a spring board into very human questions of place, belonging, cultural coherence, identity, borders, geographies. I like what the writer Amin Malouf says; it's a position that is 'peculiar rather than privileged' but offers a portal into these elusive human desires.
The recent Black Lives Matter protests across Europe and the discourse around them have laid bare how far Europe still has to go when it comes to race relations.
Could you discern a “best” and a “worst” place to live as an Afropean? How so?
Well, it's very personal of course. I found Moscow a very difficult place as a black person - though it wasn't all bad. Every day people were down to earth and friendly, but some of the political and cultural forces lurking behind the scenes are producing a scary sort of Nationalism. I encountered Marseille for the first time on my trip and fell in love instantly - and in fact moved there to live. It isn't perfect but if Afropean has a Mecca, it is surely this space that so personifies what Paul Gilroy entitled 'The Black Atlantic'
In the European parliament, nine far-right parties have formed a coalition, named Identity and Democracy. Could you see the Afro-European diaspora band together and form a bloc of their own?
Not only could I see it happening, I think it's absolutely essential. But this bloc must not fall into the same kind of ethnic essentialism that the far right falls into. As Audre Lorde once wrote; 'we can't tear down the master's house using the master's tools'. If we are to fight this rise of populism then we must build something translocal and fluid; that seeks solidarity instead of silos.
Personally, as a Afro Caribbean Dutchman, while living in Berlin, I learned how Dutch I actually am. On your travels, what did you learn about yourself and the place you are from?
You see I really don't feel very British. I'm even on the periphery of Black British identity, because I can't really route my blackness anywhere - I'm not from the Caribbean, and Africa was stolen form me by the Transatlantic slave trade, and I wasn't born in the States, where my Dad is from, and there's no real coherent African American community in the UK. What I realised in the end is that I'm from Firth Park - the multicultural area I grew up in in the city Sheffield. And the great thing about Firth Park, because it isn't part of the reductive notion of being 'British', is that there are Firth Park's everywhere! That's what I found on my trip. I recognised Firth Park in Biljmer in Amsterdam, in Matonge in Brussels, in Rinkeby in Stockholm and Wedding in Berlin. Places where cultures from across the world live together and form an identity that it is at the same time diverse and coherent.
Do you have any thoughts on “the new migration”, that sees members of the African diaspora relocating to places like Ghana or the Caribbean?
I think it's very exciting. West Africa is a dynamic place of entrepreneurship and innovation - always has been - but I think now, as people are able to cut out the middle man with their own platforms and work remotely with powerful technology such places could only dream o a few years ago, there is a real opportunity to empower Africa. I say that with caution, because of course the very technology that can empower can also crush, and I hope virulent neoliberalism isn't installed with it. But I see so many young people doing incredible things from Africa and the Diaspora - and yes I know Africa is a continent not a country - but why not pull the continent and its diaspora together in this dynamic moment and share knowledge? This is certainly how Europe empowered itself.
You reference music a few times on your platform and in interviews. What would an Afropean soundtrack sound like?
I'm going to share some of the classics, so it will have a slightly old school flavour:
Les Nubians - Makeda FR
Zap Mama - Bandy Bandy BE
Iam 'La Saga' FR
Buika - 'New Afro-Spanish Generation' ES
Joy Denalane - 'Was auch immer' DE
Opgezwolle Feat Winne 'Volle Kracht' NL
Stephen Simmonds 'Alone' (Lord Finesse remix Feat Big L) SE
Parrowdice - Kalashnekoff UK
Valete- Nossos Tempos PT
What’s next for Afropean.com and Johny Pitts? Are you working on a follow-up book?
A friend told me recently that 'the real language of Europe is translation'. So translations into German, Spanish, Italian and French will keep me busy for a while, and hopefully encourage readers and writers from those countries to continue to the website. There is a bit of heat on the photographic element which is nice, because I couldn't express that as fully as I would have liked to in a book that was driven by text - so a few exhibitions are on the horizon, and hopefully a dedicated photobook will emerge.
I'm in the process of putting together a second book - it's very early days but all I can say at the moment is that if Afropean was an attempt to reconcile races, the next book will be an attempt to reconcile generations.