Between What We Make And What Makes Us

Between What We Make And What Makes Us

Written By Adjoa Armah


         I needed to paint what I felt I needed to see, what I felt inspired by, to remember why.

- Cece Philips

To proclaim, I see in colour, is to reject the notion that your invisibility is a condition of acceptance; that you are being extended grace in the denial of full recognition. It is to dismiss the idea that only what was recorded, or has been made readily available, forms the ground on which we stand. It is to see the omissions that dominant narratives use to sustain themselves. It is to imagine vividly. To see in colour, to see beyond the narrow spectrums of sepia tones or grayscale, is to choose possibility over a broad terrain rather than accept what may be enough along a line. In her first solo show, Cece Philips makes this proclamation, evoking its possibility, a sense-making in the entanglement between the self-conception of nations, official records, historical traces, family stories, personal experience, and imagination. To see in colour is also to create in colour, to make the world in a fuller scope of experiential possibility. Approaching archival material in colour is to acknowledge that history does not fully pre-exist the vision we come to it with.

Drawing on well-established associations and adding her own, Philips develops a personal colour language that can be traced across the canvases; yellow for prosperity, a prosperity that at times speaks to the promise of Britain as the mother country and at others Black cultural wealth, blue for togetherness, green for growth and nurturance. In some moments the significance of these colours bleed into each other, fixed meanings giving way to evocations of the elsewheres beyond these shores that many elders still carry with them. In Cricketers, the pink sky suggests Caribbean heat rather than any English cricket grounds.

Originally trained as a historian, then working advertising before becoming a painter, what I recognise in Philips’ colour is a speculative historiographic orientation. African-descended people in Britain receive the same narrow history as everyone else. Unless we seek out different narratives, Britain is the war, the Magna Carta, the wives of Henry VIII. The history we are taught implies we weren’t here before Windrush, and where we were, it was as nondescript bodies on packed ships, but the packed ships never brought anyone to these shores, and anyway, William Wilberforce did away with all of that. If we acknowledge that histories not only tell our pasts but shape our present realities and imaginative horizons, what does this history foreclose? In her colour vision, and colour creation, as historiographic technique, Philips does not create a revisionist history that replaces one story with another, but a series of fragments that allow various snippets of experience, moments, events, encounters, desires, and achievements to emerge.

In one of the earliest paintings from the show, Hingland, painted from a photograph taken at the Tilbury Docks in 1948, three gentlemen appear. From left to right, boxer John Hazel, case maker Harold Wilmot and carpenter John Richards. Philips paints the men in rich, warm tones. However, even in this moment of joviality and pride between friends, Hazels muted pinks perhaps point towards how the promise at arrival for some of this generation would never be quite fulfilled. The background of the docks and ships is replaced with one evocative of the streets of Notting Hill, a key community likely to sustain these men.

The painting itself prompted a relationship, creating the conditions of its elaboration by allowing Philips to connect with Harold Wilmot's granddaughter. Offering more than the archive could, this encounter facilitated by the painting allowed the family to pick up where the archive left off. Revealing more about the man, Harold becomes Harry, his granddaughter brings his music to the streets of Notting Hill Philips places him in. Family reveals a musical career, the deep bass of Harry's voice singing with The Southlanders, a British Jamaican band he joined in 1950 with his brother Allan. Family reveals stories of serendipitous encounters and connections over decades, pointing Philips towards footage[i] that gives voice to a man first encountered as an image.

In her approach to portraiture, Philips recognises the limitations of exact representation, foregrounding instead ambiguity. Historical figures and family members are simultaneously themselves and inexact enough to allow room for our projections; they welcome our projections. In Moment of Solitude, a painting originally inspired by Claudia Jones, Philips works from a sense of her presence and not a likeness. A figure who brought together shared cultures at a local level, connecting them to international struggle, but not allowing our cultures to be solely defined by struggle, this avatar for Jones is presented in quiet study. I see the artist herself, not in likeness, but in the hours of unseen quiet contemplation, of looking and learning, of searching. Though the sum of our work is understood through outputs and events, it is the sitting, the being, with ourselves and each other, with our material, that constitutes our lives and work. 

In Two Barristers another, lesser-known story of Black women in Britain is revealed. The painting shows a figure inspired by Stella Thomas and an unnamed companion. A powerhouse, Thomas came to Britain to study at the University of Oxford in the 1920s. Someone of many firsts, she was the first African woman to be called to the British bar in 1933. On her return to Nigeria, she became the first female lawyer in West Africa and by 1943 was Nigeria’s first female magistrate. Well known for a 1934 speech in which she publicly criticized colonialism in front of Lord Frederick Lugard, British colonial administrator and last Governor of the Southern Nigeria Protectorate, she was known for her political activism. In her address, she said: “you have made puppets of African Chiefs. Progress shall come from real understanding and cooperation, not by your dictating to African nations. We do not need you to send more anthropologists to Africa to advise on development. We Africans, with education, are able to develop our own systems and determine what is best for us.”

Another figure, one of many who returned home after study in Britain in the early 20th century, a key figure of African post-colonial state-making, is Dr. Herbert Bankole Bright, painted here in a portrait titled after him, his dark suit becoming yellow. Dr. Bright here tells his own story as well as that of myriad elders of his generation. Along with many of his peers, such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and J. B. Danquah, of the West African Students Union, he became a key political figure on his return home to Sierra Leone. His story of Black Britain, or Black people in Britain, cannot be contained by the geographic limits of this island. It is a story of Africa and the Caribbean, a story of resistance and independence movements, of friendships that remade nations. His is also not a story that should be taken as representative as good for all of us; an ardent nationalist, increasingly conservative with age, his is the fullness of our stories, which to know with clarity is to know that not all parts are to be replicated or looked up to.

It is not only well known historical figures that are allowed to carry both their presence and that of a broader community. In Harry, Ivan and Monty, Philips’ paternal grandfather and his nephew appear under a striped parasol. This is a fragment of a scene, some of the details perhaps half-remembered but seared into memory. The men appear with the radio, a bottle of whiskey and a sleeping dog, the Cardiff garden they are sitting in disappeared with only shadows to place the men in space. This painting speaks to the imprecise memories we have of loved ones, their presences undeniable but details fading with time, images we remake as much as images as they were.

One of the later paintings produced for the show, Holding the flag, is set apart from many of the others, both stylistically and in terms of process. Like Harry, Ivan and Monty, this painting is not situated in a recognisable place. Inspired by a 1950 letter from a Nigerian stowaway who was subsequently deported but wrote, “I am coming back because I am under the Union Jack”, Holding the flag speaks to the unfulfilled promise of this flag for colonial subjects. A figure in a subdued pink suit, the yellow of prosperity muted, against a grey background, his face and shoulders downcast, is presented with only the flag that has failed him. There are no accoutrements of living to ground him, only the disappointment of the mother country and the revelation of her fictions.

In her responses to archival material, Philips allows herself, and us, to enter into history more vividly than we can through the outlines we are given by dominant histories. The stories and memories of our elders provide material to fill in these outlines. Our imaginations can fill these outlines too. Philips reminds us that there is room to find what we need, that we do not have to begin with hardship, can allow it to be part of our stories but not their entirety or driving force. She reminds us that we can look at our elders and fully recognise their achievements and joys without ignoring where they fall short. Colour can fill as well as enhance, it is what the records had little room for. Philips reminds us that we can go looking for it and can create it if we must.

[i] Harold Wilmot is interviewed at around 1.35