Tanoa Sasraku (1995, Plymouth, Devon) works with themes examining the intersections of her identity as a young, mixed-race, gay woman and the endeavour to draw these senses of self together as one in 21st century England. Sasraku is based in London, England and her practice shifts between filmmaking and flag-making.
You’ve recently had your exhibition O’ Pierrot screened online at Lux. How did you get into filmmaking?
I was in my second year at Goldsmiths on my BA and was considering which tutor to apply to have in my final year, when I saw advertised that LUX were screening Rosalind Nashashibi’s film Jack Straw’s Castle. The film is an experimental work shot on 16mm film, which begins with a tender documentation of cruising rituals of gay men in Hampstead Heath and then expands through the Fourth Wall into an almost science fiction, wordless display of the crew working to light the woods on the Heath. I’d never consciously seen a film made on analogue stock before and was so taken with its aesthetic qualities, particularly the way light and colour are conveyed – it was just so gentle. I was lucky after that trip to LUX to be allocated Rosalind as my tutor for my final year at Goldsmiths. I was and continue to be so inspired by both her approach and her outcomes and at the time I just thought, “if I’m going to begin experimenting with film then it has to be now”, with her as a resource. So, I bought a Super8 camera online and it all continued from there!
What role does costume play in your work, what story does it tell for you?
A character’s costume does so much to facilitate both the actor’s performance and the audience’s ability to anticipate a character’s past, present and future, based on the level of detail woven into a garment. From the silhouette to the choice of textile to the colour palette and accessories, every element in the character’s costumes in O’’ Pierrot was thoroughly considered. In that work specifically, the costumes speak of stories of the British Isles, the Monarchy, submission, dominance, my own love life and African-American theatrical history. In Whop, Cawbaby - my first moving image work - my costume choice is subtler, yet speaks clearly to the presumed urbanisation of black people in the white, British consciousness.
The villain in your latest film ‘O Pierrot,’ who is played by Michael Workeye, is described as ‘a crazed black man in whiteface, driven mad by his own quest for British acceptance.’ He is one of the main characters in your work alongside ‘Pierrot Mulatto’ played by you. What goes into conceptually forming the narratives in your work and do you reflect on your own identity in the process?
Yeah, my work has and will always be heavily autobiographical and as with most artists, an exercise in understanding who I am in the context of the time that I happen to have been born into. Whop, Cawbaby is more of a diaristic work, I would say, whereas O’ Pierrot is driven by a fictional narrative. In both works though, my starting point was a sculptural work. I appliqué plain newsprint, which is treated with various chromatic and textural processes, transforming a throwaway material into these quite uncanny, ceremonial objects. By virtue of their scale, they have a strong link to the human form. In Whop, Cawbaby, the flags take on the role of shields or hazard signs, whereas in O’ Pierrot the flag takes on the role of a mask or the medieval stocks. I distil the notions conveyed through each sculptural work and then expand that into a chronological, visual narrative for my moving image works.
Your film at Lux often plays between satire, fear and dark humour. The environment in the film is dark and the quality of the footage grainy as if it was footage taken from an archive. How would you describe your process and aesthetics when producing film?
I think avant garde, surreal films are amazing. There’s something deeply unsettling about a hand-made dream/nightmare-sequence. Jean Cocteau’s Orphee and Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 are two films that capture the energy that I’m talking about perfectly and that I hope to be able achieve that in the darker acts of my moving image works. In terms of my use of grainy analogue film, although I was inspired initially by Rosalind Nashashibi’s 16mm works, I have to say that once I actually started working with an analogue camera, it was the mechanical process that kept me dedicated to the medium. The lack of playback when working on analogue is a real blessing to filmmakers who want to immerse themselves in the art of really playing within a scene. On the O’ Pierrot set, it allowed me and Michael Workeye to push our performances pretty far, because there was no opportunity for the vanity in viewing playback after every take and simultaneously, a lot at stake each time the camera started rolling, because we had such little film stock to work with. Essentially every shot you see in the film is every shot that was captured. It’s also such a beautiful surprise when you finally receive your rushes back after development and get to see all your footage at once.
What role does the relationship between flagmaking and film play in your practice?
Working between two mediums keeps me satisfied as an artist. Making a work like O’ Pierrot in such a short time frame, at times felt like more logistics than making – it was intense. Making the flags is a really tactile, meditative process and allows me to feel like I’m genuinely engaging in materiality and considering my creative process. That said, being on set with the crew on O’ Pierrot, once all of the pre-production was done, was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. The flags act as catalysts for the films and also respite from that intensive process, it’s quite a nice dynamic.
Historically, lesbians have always been an underrepresented category within the LGBTQ+ acronym and within the arts, how do you think representation and visibility is changing?
Hard to say. I guess I would probably say “no” to the question “is visibility increasing”. The conversation around queer identity in the last 5 years has largely been focused on trans identity and I think it’s really important that the question of “what does it mean to be a woman/man/non-binary person” is being explored and that the fight for trans rights has become really charged and visible. Incidentally, the question “what does it mean to love another woman” has seemingly become less interesting or important to most people and gay clubbing culture as a whole, is articulated via the white, gay, male lens. Also though, I know far more women who identify as “queer” and who date both men and women as opposed to most of the men in my life who identify as “gay” and exclusively date men. I’m interested in why that is and don’t have the answers (!) but I think it’s something that plays into the lack of visibility for lesbians and the hyper-visibility of gay men, amongst many other factors.
Your work often references ideas surrounding the UK colonial past, slavery and race. How do you use the British landscape in your practice to reference these histories and realities in 21st Century England today?
Terror and romance are notions that dance with one another to form Britain’s colonial history and those notions are certainly evoked when you stand before a sublime landscape. There is a sense that these rural sites, which we perceive as ancient and untouched, have witnessed all that has come before us, interchangeable, fallible human beings and there’s something alluring in that. It’s why I think that I would find it difficult to live anywhere other than the U.K, long-term. England makes me feel angry, embarrassed and othered so often, yet still, I feel deeply patriotic and like this country anchors my identity in a way that I can’t really explain. When presented with the bleak, silent drama of the rural British landscape, the viewer is forced to consider our archaic history. Place a contemporary image in the line of sight (a young, mixed race woman) and you’re now having a conversation about the tensions and realities present in modern Britain, without having to say a word.
And lastly what's planned for after the pandemic?
I’ve been really enjoying freeing up my thinking and making since lockdown began. I’ve been loosening up and slowing down, which has felt like a real privilege - it seems like since I moved to London in 2015, I literally haven’t stopped. I’m making work for a show in Berlin at the end of July right now and after enjoying the scraps that are gonna be left of the Summer after lockdown, I’m going to be starting on the RA Schools postgrad, which I’m super excited about!
Published: 08/05/2020 by Queerdirect
Edits by Tamar Clarke-Brown