Metaphors for a malleable potential
During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncoloured margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow colouring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the colour had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly colouring it. I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colours my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitises and strengthens all my experience.
Audre Lorde, The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power
Phoebe Collings-James’s ceramic sculptures are embodied and fragmented, disobedient objects that break away from the formal conventions of a medium historically rooted in classist ideals, gendered domesticity and functionality. Embracing ambiguous and liminal spaces, they reposition the image of the maker as a Black queer woman and are imbued with performative gestures pertinent to their creation. Traces of the maker (hand, touch, imprint) are still evident even after surfaces have been glazed, fired, marked, inscribed and painted on. They are highly personal in both their subject matter and physical form.
My first introduction to the work of Collings-James was through Emmanuel, a mutual friend, who suggested initiating a studio visit during a trip to New York in 2017. This encounter never happened, but I did look her up online, discovering a sculpture-centred practice extending to film, performance, drawing, sound and ceramics. I was struck by her fleshy ceramic tongues, sensual yet assembled as if they had been violently removed from a body. She has since returned home to London, extending her personal ceramics practice to Mudbelly, an explorative pottery space encompassing a shop and roaming teaching facility offering free ceramics courses to Black people, led by Black ceramicists. Her approach draws inspiration from the legacy of African-American ceramicist Doyle Lane, whose innovative and visceral ceramics practice allowed him to create a socially conscious and sustainable business for himself, which was a vital contribution to West coast ceramics and a remarkable achievement in the face of the racism and economic inequity that surrounded him in 1970s California.
Collings-James’ anti-disciplinary approach is defined by distinct vocabularies, frameworks, and methods that are intimately related to the process of working with clay, as well as to individual and collective vulnerabilities understood through Black feminist writers including Audre Lorde, Slyvia Wynter, Dionne Brand, Alice Walker and Octavia E. Butler.
Wynter’s intellectual project, in particular, is worth mentioning as a reference, due to her ‘conceptualisation of the human which generates a discordant symphony of (post)humanist thought that enlivens and “wakes up” our thinking of what it means and has meant to be human beyond the genre of white, European, heteronormative “Man”.1 Wynter also speaks about being ‘hybridly human’ an idea Collings-James embodies in her sculptures as a way to envision new futures of being beyond the category of Man, which point to epistemic pathways of decoloniality not predicated on anger. She writes:
Human beings are magical. Bios and logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialised in deeds, deeds which crystallise our actualities. And the maps of spring always have to be redrawn again, in undared forms.2
Vessels, flesh-y, suspended in a state of becoming
‘The tongue is a sharp and perilous weapon, which we are bound to keep up in the sheath.’3
‘The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.’4
‘The tongue is a muscular organ covered with mucous membrane, and is richly supplied with blood-vessels
The works I encountered through my screen-based research were from the artist’s solo exhibition Choke on Your Tongue at the Italian Cultural Institute, London, in 2015. These works, I have since found out, marked the first time Collings-James worked with ceramics as the result of time spent on the NUOVE//Residency in Italy – a programme aimed at international artists interested in gaining skills and experimenting in the medium.
Ten bright flesh-coloured tongues bearing the title Lingua (2014) were scattered on a low-level white plinth, whilst with Medusa (2014) smaller red flickering tongues burst out of an ambiguous (torso-like) vessel trying to contain them. A lone, larger, muscular tongue titled Creep (Orange and Moss) (2014) was placed casually on a gilded cream and mint chaise lounge, as if left behind. But by whom? Severed by whom? All of these sculptural objects exist in their own agency whilst performatively escaping the bodies that once contained them. This brings to mind the phrase ‘severed tongue’, which might be read as a metaphor for emancipation from the heaviness of language and speech, as Moses declared to God: ‘I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.’6
Fluctuating between specimens and relics, the sculptures in Choke on Your Tongue deconstruct the human form into fragmented parts, revealing a distorted but familiar anatomy. The fleshy, organ-like, slippery and sexual qualities of the works suggest an unseen body and thus acknowledge the historical framing of the human body as a tension between scientific endeavours and religious systems of belief. The performative object represents a ‘curve of tension’ that confronts the viewer with a situation that unsettles normative action or thinking, leading one to question, reflect upon, and re-shape one’s interaction with such an object.
In her most recent ceramic objects, sculptures and installations made while in residence at Camden Art Centre for the exhibition A Scratch! A Scratch! Collings-James weaves elements of personal narrative, myth, history and interpretive analysis into a vibrant tapestry that reflects the textured, embodied, and performative nature of working with clay. These sculpted, metaphorical clay vessels reveal tensions between the private and the spiritual, the public and the political, rejecting normative theories about the human body and object histories. They rupture both form and function. Floating gender-fluid glazed armours; vessel-like forms; a head with a braided rod projecting from its nose; wells doubling as sounding devices amplifying an audio work of composed and recorded sounds; large tile-like scrolls with motifs on their surfaces ranging from lines to incisions, scratches to symbols from Ashanti folklore (Anansi the spider-trickster); abstract swathes of paint expressing movement and action: all reflect the entanglements within several domains of practice (erotics, violence, sexuality, desire) of everyday or familiar looking objects with the repetitive practices of working with clay.
Heartbreak and its resulting solitude is a thread the artist cites as connecting these bodies of work, and serves to motivate and organise a heterogeneous array of shorter tales, anecdotes, and parables. The exhibition takes its title from Act 3, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, where a scene of sudden violence and fatality underscores the masculine notions of bravado, status and ego that permeate this tale of love. As the artist notes: ‘The abundant metaphors move both tenderly and violently through the body, in the play, and in the ceramic sculptures.’ The suspended pieces of armour, some dripping with cream, blue and white glaze bordered by woven plaits, reflect the complex matrix of homoeroticism, desire, obedience and suffering generated by the power inversions and transgression in this sub-tale in Shakespeare’s play.
The lust and machismo of friendship.
The Chaos of Love.
Conflict without resolution.
They have made worms’ meat of me
Wetness and tensile materials
To take up working with clay requires an acceptance of dealing with constant ruptures (failures) in the making process as mishaps occur at any stage. It is a constant process of negotiation with the unexpected, from glazing glitches to cracked pots and dramatic kiln explosions, all of which are all-too-familiar to those who spend time working with a medium that demands a wealth of knowledge, patience and painstaking skills. Collings-James explained clay’s ritual (and repetitive) technologies to me in an email exchange: ‘I think of the fact that my wrist is currently strained from throwing, the anticipation and regular event of opening up a kiln to see that the forms have decided to twist or melt in directions opposite to my own plans for them … Clay is malleable, yes, but it also shapes you as it is reciprocal and it has limits.’ Within this context, her sculptures and objects express a certain level of self-awareness and at times their physiological expressions are serene, self-empowered and inviting, while at others they appear introspective, uneasy and distressed. The juxtaposition of performative gestures and lived experiences onto three-dimensional objects provides a perspective to remind us all that in seeking relatedness between objects, the tiniest detail can connect to a much wider range of semantics, ideas and social realms. This might lead to a shaping of self-perceptions of the body that oscillate between the physical, functional, abstract and spiritual.
1 According to Wynter, Man “overrepresents itself as if it were the human itself, and that of securing the well-being, and therefore the full cognitive and behavioural autonomy of the human species itself/ourselves.” See, Sylvia Wynter. “Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after Man, its overrepresentation—An argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3:3, 2003. p.260. [Google Scholar]
2 Sylvia Wynter drawing on Aimé Césaire, “Madman: Culture as Actuality and the Caribbean Rethinking of Modernity.’ in A. Ruprecht & C. Taiana, eds. Reordering of Culture: Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada in the ‘Hood’ Ottawa: Carleton University Press. 1995. p.35.
4 James 3:6, King James Bible
5 Albert F. Blaisdell. A Practical Physiology. N.p., Outlook Verlag, 2019.
6 In the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 4:10, quoted above), Moses is called “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”
Dionne Brand, An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2020)
Linton Kwesi Johnson, Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 2006)
Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest (New York: Berkley, 1976)
Audre Lord, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power (New York: Out & Out Books, 1978)
Harun Morrison, ‘When and Where to Become a Spider’, L’Internationale, 2020. https://www.internationaleonline.org/opinions/1038_when_and_where_to_become_a_spider/
Magdalene Odundo, The Journey of Things (London: InOtherWords, 2019)
Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar (London: Phoenix, 1989)
Faithless, ‘Miss U Less, See U More (Switches Chops)’, track 17 on No Roots (Cheeky / BMG, 2004)
Beverley Glenn-Copeland, Don’t Despair, (MajikBus Entertainment, 1970)
Janet Jackson, ‘Any Time, Any Place’, track 5 on Janet (Flyte Tyme, 1993)
Sarah Gavron, Rocks (United Kingdom, 2020), film
Baz Lurhman, Romeo and Juliet (USA, 1996), film
Jim McKay, Our Song (USA, 2000), film
‘You must harmonise your own heart,’ said Ola. ‘Only you will know how you can do that, for each of us it is different.’ Alice Walker
Phoebe Collings-James (b. 1987, London, UK) lives and works in London. Recent solo exhibitions include: The Amount of Love You Have to Give is More Than I Can Stand, Ginerva Gambino, Cologne (2018); Relative Strength, Arcadia Missa, London (2018); Expensive Shit, 315 Gallery, New York (2017); ATROPHILIA (with Jesse Darling); Company, New York (2016); and Triste Tropiques, Liste, Basel (2016). Recent group exhibitions Include Productive Image Interference: Sigmar Polke and Artistic Perspectives Today Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (2021-22), You Feel Me, FACT Liverpool, Liverpool (2019), In Whose Eyes, Beaconsfield Gallery, London (2018), After Cesaire /Modern Tropiques, Platform Southwark, London (2018) and Harlem Postcards, Studio Museum Harlem (2017). She has had performances and screenings at the Getty Museum, LA (2019), Sonic Acts, Amsterdam (2019), Cafe Oto, London (2019), Borealis Festival, Bergen (2019), Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge (2018) and Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2018). Residencies include Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge (2018) and NUOVE// Ceramics Residency, Nove, Italy (2014). Collings-James’s Mudbelly ceramics studio began as a personal practice and research outlet, but has since grown to encompass a shop and a teaching facility offering free ceramics courses for Black people in London, taught by Black ceramicists. In 2021, as part of the collective B.O.S.S. (Black Obsidian Sound System) the artist has exhibited in the Liverpool Biennial and has been nominated for the Turner Prize.
Jareh Das (MA, PhD) is a researcher, writer and curator who moves between Nigeria and the UK working on diverse visual arts projects. Her current research focuses on Contemporary Performance Art in West Africa.
Supported by Freelands Foundation.
The Freelands Lomax Ceramics Fellowship supports emerging artists working with clay. Between 2017-21, the Fellowship offers artists part-time six-month residencies at Camden Art Centre with an exhibition in the following year and also supports artists in spending a short period of their residency off-site, to develop aspects of their practices in a different context. In 2021 Camden Art Centre partnered with the Leach Pottery in St Ives, where Collings-James spent time working with their studio production team, gaining knowledge from their unique expertise whilst researching the legacies of Bernard Leach at the site considered by many as the birthplace of the British studio ceramics movement.