On Between You and Me - Monique Todd
Dance floor sweat facilitates shared embellishment, everyone’s cheeks and lips shine with the same glitter by dawn. Skin is newborn soft from heat - a risky language that, on the best nights, facilitates blissful, easy exchanges. Some post-party aches can have a romance about them too, and often those aches begin at the waist, where all this unravelling orbits, spiralling a club into chaos as soon as the body folds in rapture. Four of Bernice Mulenga’s photographs locate this bend amongst friends, cheered on by a small circle of mates, waists gripped by grateful hands. The loose activating postures centre the frame, with co-conspirators taking to the front or back. In one of the smaller prints featured in the series #friendsonfilm, manicured fingers steer hips clad in fluorescent green, their rolling synchronicity captured from the waist down.
There are many ways to slot two bodies together on the dancefloor, none of which are nearly as perfect as when the ass of one person meets the groin of another. Even more magical is how that temporary joint might devoutly follow the DJ’s prompts or refuse such signalling altogether. Grinding slow to a rapid beat (or the inverse) is a task taken by pairs (or possibly threes, fours or more) who desire to trace the shape of their partner/s through personal, shifting tempos – I imagine the duo pictured took matters into their own hands like that. L.H. Stallings writes in Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures that taking seriously one’s own cravings allows for the cross-temporal satiation of ancestral appetites - a generosity that starts at realising (im)possible pleasures. ‘My ancestors were superfreaks, and I have clearly become a conduit for their continued activities in the afterlife. We have an understanding.’ A superfreak geography is at the waist, it etches frenzied territory in the dark.
In another print, Mulenga sees a friend leaning against a wall with their cap tilted downwards, a peace sign gestured towards the lens. Some of the most pleasurable moments in the club are spent at a far corner or on the dancefloor edge, solitary (if only for a few moments) but fully participatory, where even vigorous BPMs caress the skin like sputtering rain. And then there is opulence, show stopping sartorial flourishes and low-key accessorising that overturn the fridgity of day-to-day routine. Becoming yourself doesn’t automatically start with removal, and excess rarely hides what’s underneath. ‘Night is not merely a time or place in which the opportunity to be queer arises, but rather a pedagogical method for imagining, practicing, and sustaining queerness itself’, writes Eddie Gamboa in Pedagogies of the Dark: Making Sense of Queer Nightlife. ‘[...] In the dark, senses are reoriented, and we learn to sense differently, meaning that we learn to make sense queerly.’
A sublime highlight of the #friendsonfilm series sees an angel secured with the fluffiest white wings, their wrist angled and held skyward with fingers pointed towards the face. The angel is a painting, how else to describe their regality and celestial poise? Where else, too, can one arrive as an angel and be appreciated as such, not as a cosplay or impression of an angel but as an actual angel (because they do exist)? Their luminescence is hardly performative, you can’t fake that kind of light.
Mulenga’s archival practice is sensitive to such moments, no less due to their own continual participation in the communities they document. ‘There is the persistent nature within the eurocentric context that the portrait is taken. In actual fact it’s given. You know, it's an exchange.’ Photographer Franklyn Rodgers is speaking about his documentation of the Vox Club, an underground spot in Vauxhall, South London, where he photographed and danced between 1992 and 1994. The Vox, like its many contemporary descendants (Queer Bruk, BBZ London, Faggamuffin, A Bit Of Everything etc) held Black and brown expressivity and invention. They are nights that archival ‘capture’ would precisely erase. The work of Rodgers and Mulenga are evidence of accepted invites handed to them by the friends and spaces they love.
Between You and Me is an exhibition of proportions. #friendsonfilm sprawl across mammoth prints whilst Mulenga’s self portraits are revealed through polaroids and small snaps. Taken between 2019 and 2021, these tender reflections story growth, pause and desire. It’s hard to locate which shots were taken pre-COVID, I found myself trying to sort a chronology as if to grip my own slippery self image over that similar time frame. But then, everything and nothing has changed, and if the body abides by any temporality it’s the one we convince it to follow. ‘This piece of imagery is really about looking out, straight out at the world,’ the Bicester-born artist Joy Gregory mentions in a conversation with Yale British Art on her 1990 Autoportrait series. The ‘looking out’ resonates in Mulenga’s work. Looking out towards what can’t be pinned but only traced back. Looking out to survey and trouble the frame. Looking out to be seen, not undone. Looking out to pry open the gaze received. Mulenga’s ‘looking out’ is soft, assertive, curious and tender in this way. The self portraits are taken as if by a friend, with the attentiveness and warmth that a good friend would offer, an energy we might not always show ourselves. The distance between you and what you love, between you and what you want to love and try hard to love and are successful at loving some of the time, is best occupied by that often underestimated quality of friendliness. It’s an invitation to get closer, because that’s all we can do.
Stallings, L.H. Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures
Gamboa, Eddie, Pedagogies of the Dark: Making Sense of Queer Nightlife
Franklyn Rodgers: The Vox, (Autograph, 2011)
at home: Artists in Conversation | Joy Gregory, (Yale British Art, 2021)