Artist Othello De'Souza-Hartley speaks with Renée Mussai about the process of making Blind, but I can See, and how he uses his creative practice to reflect and mediate grief.
In the spring of 2020, artist Othello De'Souza-Hartley unexpectedly lost his father, Nevil Hartley to Covid-19. Shortly after he began a collaboration with Autograph, as one of the ten artists creating new work for our commissioning project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other. De'Souza-Hartley used the commission as a way to mediate grief through his creative practice, and to reflect on ideas of stillness, presence and absence.
Using photography, video and painting, De'Souza-Hartley created a new body of mixed media work Blind, but I can See. These works emphasise the inevitability of change, and express the artist's desire to locate tranquillity and beauty in the everyday, especially amidst the personal and collective crises we are living every day.
Autograph's senior curator Renée Mussai has worked closely with De'Souza-Hartley throughout the commissioning process and spoke at length with him about this new work.
Renée Mussai (RM): Othello, thank you so much for working with
us on this commission; it has been a pleasure to collaborate with you. Your new body of work comprises still and moving images, as well as painting – the works are collectively entitled Blind, but I can See. Could you, firstly, unpack the title for me please, and perhaps elaborate on the notion sight/sightlessness implicit in the series’ title? And secondly say something about why you decided to approach the commission’s theme through different art forms?
Othello De’Souza-Hartley (ODH): The series’ title Blind, but I can See relates to the period during the first national lockdown in March 2020, when I felt a sense of stillness, both internally and externally, which gave me a chance to observe the environment around me in a way I had not done in a while. I started going for a bicycle ride a couple of times a week around my local area, and each time I noticed things I had never seen before, or never took time to observe properly: the architecture, the small park in our neighbourhood, all the different textures and colours, and so on.
I have been working with various mediums over the past three years, including making paintings. I also make art videos, but not a lot of people know that I work in mediums other than photography. I felt this was an opportunity to bring all these modes of expression together and see how one idea could translate across different art forms. It is the communication between these mediums that I wanted to explore, and to push myself further.
RM: I remember us speaking about your desire to use your practice to enter a space of stillness, to reflect on, and escape, in your words, the ‘treadmill of life that never stops’. I believe we had this conversation in the early days of the pandemic, just as we were conceptualising this new series of artist commissions. How does the series encapsulate this sentiment for you now? I am thinking, for instance, about the symbolic moving imagery of the tree, and in the other works as well – a movement towards a space of transience, an acceptance of the here and now, and also an illustration of slow but inevitable change and transformation.
ODH: For me, the ‘treadmill of life’ is how we keep on running, and we never stop, always working or occupying ourselves with things to do. As an artist, conversations often start with people asking, ‘what project are you working on?’, and often I feel like saying ‘I’m just reflecting right now’. There is this misconception or false belief – or expectation, maybe – that artists are constantly producing artwork, which is not always true. I find that sometimes doing nothing can be the most creative time for generating ideas naturally: the notion that stillness provides a pause in which to not just think about the future but also to appreciate past accomplishments, as well as the present.
In terms of transience and transformation, working on this project has helped me heal, as I was overcoming personal grief. Throwing myself into the commission enabled me to take my mind somewhere else. I also started drawing more, which was fun; I read books I had wanted to read but never got round to and watched films. I was enjoying my practice without pressure, and as I reflect further, and thinking about change, I know that I do not want that self-inflicted pressure to return. I feel I have gained the confidence to enjoy working more playfully, and I aim for more simplicity in my life. I am also aware of the importance of mindfulness – of looking after our mind and body and taking time out for self-care.
RM: Tell me a little more about the tree, and the moving image piece please. What does it symbolise for you? And was there a particular inspiration for this element of the series?
ODH: The story of the tree. I have always admired it, and one day a neighbour was telling a representative from our landlord that the tree was ugly and blocked the light, suggesting it should be removed. I objected to this as there are very few trees around where I live. During the lockdown, I spent lots of time gazing out of my window at the tree moving in the wind. It was like a meditation ritual, and I found it comforting and calming. I felt a strong desire to connect with nature but in an urban space, and at home, too – I bought more plants for my flat, for example. In an ideal exhibition environment, I envision the piece projected onto the ceiling, with audiences viewing it while lying down and looking up: stopping for a moment, taking time out… almost like a collective moment of reflection, inspired by the slow movement of the tree’s green foliage. I would love to then film this, as another layer to the piece. When I recorded it, I had to be very still; things were really quiet around me, and I began hearing noises to which I do not usually pay much attention, picking up sounds through close listening. The soundscape/audio for the piece was recorded multiple times, then reversed to make it more abstract, and stripped back for simplicity. I imagine it playing on a loop, like a mediation.
"in moments of grief, I can turn to my creativity and pour my emotions into my practice"
RM: The notion of grief and loss is central to this body of work. You lost your father Nevil Hartley to Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic. I had the great privilege of meeting him on several occasions, including when we filmed the BBC Culture Show during which he and your mother – Lena – kindly shared their family photographs. I often think back to him speaking on the programme about the importance of photography as visual evidence – for the Afro-Caribbean community especially, illustrating, in his words, that ‘we were here’. Photography performs this function so well: the capturing, evidencing and commemorating of presences. Roland Barthes has famously described this as photography’s ability to issue a ‘certificate of presence’  , which is especially important, of course, for communities historically rendered invisible, routinely misrepresented and/or marginalised. You poignantly play with notions of absence and presence in the still life of the empty chair in the garden, and in the self-portraits amidst some of your father’s personal possessions – his hat or his books, for instance. What is’ the symbolic significance of these objects for you?
ODH: My dad was a very private person. Before I received the commission, I was thinking about ways to honour him, and how I could process my grief at the same time. This body of work is my homage to my father. Somehow, the week after he died, I felt a desire to photograph his room. I went to the house, which was empty as my mum came to stay with me, and I started photographing on my medium-format camera. And then when I was offered the commission, I went back to the house several times and felt his presence through his objects. My dad loved wearing hats, so I put his hats in different parts of the house that had connections to him. He also liked keeping the garden tidy: a few weeks after he died, the weeds began to grow so I decided to place his hats in the garden, on his favourite chair. My dad enjoyed reading books that offered an alternative perspective on life and how the world works, which was reflected in his own open-mindedness and unique attitude. For me, this was my way of dealing with my loss, and grieving for him.
RM: I can imagine that it must have been both healing and a very difficult thing to do, especially the self-portraits. Can you speak a bit more about the experience of staging these self-portraits on your father’s bed? The intimacy, familiarity and mediation of loss and love conveyed is incredibly powerful and deeply moving – the presence channelled, the absence embodied, the beautiful stillness captured in this photographic encounter.
ODH: Yes. Like my father, I am quite a private person too. When he died, I did not post anything on social media, nor did I share the news widely; I spoke only to those closest to me. I have never been challenged as much as photographing myself in my dad’s room. At first, nothing was turning out the way I wanted it to. At one point, I thought the bed was trying to tell me something, almost as though it wanted to be photographed by itself, without my presence intruding, interrupting its emptiness, its stillness. I kept going back to understand what I was trying to achieve, just sitting in his room, reflecting. I had conversations with friends who kept me on track with what I was striving to accomplish; they also helped me deal with the grief I was feeling. I experienced moments of insecurity about my practice and went through some very low periods, spending time with these objects intimately connected to him – his clothes, his shoes, his books, toiletries – and the realisation that he is no longer here, no longer with us, was hitting me hard. It was difficult emotionally.
I understand… Why the triptych format of the self-portrait? How, when and why did you make the conscious decision to split your body across different image planes, if you will? I am also thinking about the simultaneous splitting and doubling of the body that ensues.
ODH: The idea of splitting the body and making a triptych was not decided until the sixth or seventh roll of film, when everything started to come together. I initially made a self-portrait sitting on the edge of the bed with my back to the camera, and finally I understood what I wanted. I really liked the self-portrait from that day, and thought I had the picture I was looking for and was going to stop there. Then you and I reviewed and spoke about the pictures, and you suggested I return one more time, to try something else, to gently push myself even further. I thought about it for a while and decided to return to the house. I was on my seventh roll but felt there was something magical that day. I got up early and meditated, which is how I normally prepare myself for doing self-portrait work. Because I was never fully comfortable on the bed, the portraits ended up ‘tentative’ and fragmented: held together by the emptiness of the bed, and the sense of moving in and out of the frame, with only parts of my body in the composition.
RM: And that vulnerability comes across very beautifully and powerfully, resonating quietly with the desire for stillness you described earlier. Your body becomes a kind of vessel, the portraits perform an act of embodiment, mediating notions of self and other, presence and absence: your presence and your body on his bed, communicating, visualising and mourning his absence. I have always admired your courage and the profound generosity of your self-portraiture, and the way it opens up multiple and nuanced modes of engaging with the black, male, nude body symbiotically in different environments, both private and public, domestic or industrial; this is especially poignant here too. Could you speak a little about the meaning of performative auto-portraiture in your work in general, and in this work in particular?
ODH: My interest in auto-portraiture comes from when I was a teenager: I was interested in drama and went to a performing arts school on the weekends. I loved performance, but I did not want to become an actor or a dancer. Since becoming an artist, I have always wanted to figure out how I can bring performance into my photography. When I was working on my Masculinity (2010) project during the past ten years, I simultaneously began experimenting with performative art videos and started putting myself in the frame.
As I did not want the main focus to be on myself with this series, incorporating self-portraiture challenged me deeply. In my previous self-portraits I tried to create harmony between the body and the environment without hierarchy. Knowing where the body should sit in relation to this space so intimately connected to my father was, I think, one of the greatest challenges for me. The key symbolic gesture is the crossing of the legs: apparently, my grandfather crossed his legs a lot, my dad told me, who also crossed his legs in the same manner; as do I, it seems.
RM: I love this idea of a gestural-patrilineal lineage visualised within your body language... I was thinking earlier how, in the portraits taken in your father’s house, as well as in the moving image piece outside your own home, while a sense of presence is evoked, the acute absence of the human is equally palpable, more so than in your past work. Might this be a new direction, perhaps a more conceptual approach in your practice? I was struck also by the simplicity of the painting: the confidence imbued in the deep black background and linear green strokes. In fact, the colour green is dominant in several of the works: in the film, in the painting and in the garden portrait.
ODH: Yes, the more I experiment with my practice I realise I am becoming more interested in a conceptual approach and strip all the elements back. I want to give the audience hints about the intention behind the work, but equally I want viewers to find their own meaning, and maybe locate a different narrative. I was thinking about this before, but this is the direction in which I am now moving, and I want to keep exploring other mediums, too. I do not want to stay in one place with the work I produce, and I want to keep pushing myself, to move outside of my comfort zone, to learn something new.
We spoke earlier about my desire to introduce more plants – more green – into my home/life. Green is generally associated with tranquillity and a sense of calm. My father’s favourite colour was green and he was going to paint his office green before he died. So, the colour has become a kind of thread, chorus or leitmotif throughout this body of work. It quietly connects the different parts, although this might not be obvious to the viewer as such.
RM: Green is also the colour of hope, often associated with spring and renewal. You and your immediate family have been affected deeply by the pandemic – my sincere condolences, again – and the Afro-Caribbean community, as well as other Black and Brown communities, have suffered disproportionately. And yet, looking at the works that make up Blind, but I can See, while imbued with melancholia and grave reflection, naturally, there is also a sense of hope, and light, a kind of quiet optimism. Would you say it was therapeutic to create this body of work, during this difficult time, to process emotions through the prism of the photographic lens, using photography as a way to (re)mediate and navigate grief?
ODH: I guess the sense of hope you refer to goes back to my father because he was a very positive person. He never stopped believing in change for the better, and always encouraged me to persevere, to stay focused, to continue to create high-quality work. Making new work for this commission was the best way to honour him. Over the years as I was finding my voice as an artist, he would say to me, ‘Othello, you know you’ve got something; just keep doing what you’re doing’, which was the opposite to when I was at school, as he was initially against me becoming an artist. His attitude changed as he saw how much I loved art, and he kept telling me to believe in myself and work hard. So, for me, my practice is, essentially, a homage to my father. I think that is another reason why I picked up the camera after he died, because I know that is what he would have wanted for me: to be creative, rather than dwell or lose myself in grief. Those words kept resonating with me, as I worked on the commission. And it is times like these when I appreciate being a creative person, and fortunately, in moments of grief, I can turn to my creativity and pour my emotions into my practice. Also, when producing new work there is stillness, as everything else in my life is put on hold.
RM: Lastly, what does the commission theme of ‘care/contagion/community’ convey or represent to you at this time – in relation to the series, in your wider artistic practice, as well as in a more generic sense in this current crisis that we are all experiencing to different degrees, both individually and collectively?
ODH: To me, the commission theme means to care for other people, and to care for the self: to not only be aware of our mental states during this particular time, but also our mental state when we are back to ‘normal’ or the ‘new normal’; to take time out for self-care and give yourself time to rest. I think the most important thing to come out of lockdown is that it has made us ask questions about the type of lives we want to lead after this period. Most people I have spoken to want a simpler, quieter life, including myself. I have been thinking about my childhood and having fun with my work. The other day I went out with my camera, trying to understand why I have now developed an interest in low angles and off-centre compositions. I realised during lockdown I seemed to be drawn to watching films that also used this perspective. I am going to experiment with adding a conceptual element to it. I want to maintain this playful approach to my work, while living a simpler life.
Also, there is this sense of community care: I have never experienced so much love from the people who live around me, showing compassion and care for one another. For example, one day a neighbour brought food to my flat saying he had overcooked that night, asking whether I would like some? Another neighbour, after hearing mum was staying with me, left chocolates outside my door. Someone else in our building left a shawl for my mum, to keep her warm, and another neighbour gave her a mask, for protection. Simple beautiful acts of human kindness.
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill & Wang, 1980).
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Image captions: Works from Othello De'Souza-Hartley's commission Blind, but I can See, 2020, © and courtesy the artist, commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other: 1) Film still from: Blind but I can see, 2020. Video, 5' 44". 2) Room, 2020. C-type print, 20 x 24 inches. 3) Study 17 (Blind, but I can See) [detail], 2020. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. 7-9) Absence, 2020. Triptych, C-type print, each 20 x 24 inches. 11) Garden [detail], 2020. C-type print, 20 x 24 inches.
Other page images: 4) Nevil Hartley, London, 1960. Courtesy of Nevil Family Archive. 5) Lena and Nevil Hartley in Shepherds Bush, London, 1966. Courtesy of Nevil Family Archive. 6) Nevil Hartley, London, 1960s. Courtesy of Nevil Family Archive. 10) Othello De'Souza-Hartley, Steel Works from the series Masculinity, 2013. © and courtesy the artist.