Poet Raymond Antrobus reflects on the shape of time and grief in response to Othello De'Souza-Hartley's new commission Blind, but I can See.
For Autograph's project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, we commissioned ten UK-based visual artists to create new bodies of work in response to the wider context of the global pandemic. We then invited ten writers – each paired with one of the artists – to produce a short reflective essay contextualising these new artworks made.
For his artist commission Blind, but I can See (2020), Othello De'Souza-Hartley used film, photography and painting to reflect on absence and presence, the loss of his father, and his search for stillness in the everyday.
Below, Raymond Antrobus considers ideas around loss, and how time and grief intersect, both in De’Souza-Hartley's work, and his own experiences.
The white crumpled bed, the hat, the light, the book and the long brown legs. The most present thing in photographs like these is the absence. Reflecting on the still and moving images in Othello De’Souza-Hartley’s new series entitled Blind, but I can See the gaze is fixed on the green shadowy leaves in the wind. I find myself drawn to an invisible element here. Time. How we experience time is subjective. While watching the film, do you feel serene, calm, patient, accepting or something else?
We know that grief changes your sense of time, but it also changes your sense of seeing. I lost my father five years ago. At this point my relationship with grief has changed shape. Longing for your dead, your eyes fill them into empty chairs and beds and garden paths like the ones captured in Othello De’Souza-Hartley’s still lifes, moving image works and self-portraits made for Autograph’s Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other artist commissions. I see the bed, the chair, the window, the book – and each of these objects becomes an invitation to contemplate or dream.
I occasionally dream of my father and I emerge from those dreams more grounded because I would wake thinking he was still with me, then I would be reminded that he is gone, transitioned into another realm. I write about my father often. Below is the first poem I wrote the week he died.
It is not him walking
up the road in that green,
but you follow his oak face
into the garden where his voice
is still slowly growing spaces
too wide without him.
The air is not his blue coat,
His coat is dust and wood smoke.
Hold your tremble
The man walking the road Is not
What is different about the shape of this grief is that the pandemic (although unstated) is reflected in De’Souza-Hartley’s images. Millions of people around the world are currently grieving a loved one lost to Covid-19. Funerals are now taking place online and so are therapy sessions. Mourners are left with trying to re-strategise their own counselling. These images enable us to connect with our own loss and may be comforting to those seeking solace, or a place to reflect, process and listen to yourself in the world and away from it. Because the images are quiet, the doors are closed, the curtains are open, the garden is fenced, an intimacy is created. Despite the ‘emptiness’ of the spaces, there is a ‘lived in’ quality to the images, a setting that is lonesome but not lonely.
As my father died years ago, I was able to speak in a church filled with people that knew and loved him; I was held by my family and close friends while his casket was being lowered, and that feels like such a privilege now.
Yet, I do not feel these images are dwelling on that, there is no sense of pity here, despite the atmospheric isolation: the wind in the tree, the green plants reaching towards the sky, the faceless body on the bed turned to the wall, the contrasts of overexposed and underexposed (indoor and outdoor) light. The power of these images to me is the sense that we can privately comfort ourselves if we practise being still with our grief, and that kind of solitude may bring us closer to our humanity if we find lighter ways to hold what weighs us down.
Below is the second poem I wrote the week I lost my father; I wrote it after playing one of his records before leaving his empty house for the last time. I think it speaks with and to the grief that is captured so viscerally by the artist’s eye.
I want to bury the sounds of living
in his ears with the birds,
and every little thing with a song,
where nothing is heavy like this place,
where someone I love is the shape
of a missing thing.
Raymond Antrobus is a poet, teacher and freelance writer, born in London to an English mother and Jamaican father. He is the author of To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken Press), The Perseverance (Penned In The Margins, UK / Tin House, US), All The Names Given (Picador, UK / Tin House, US) and children's picturebook Can Bears Ski? (Walkers, UK, Candlewick, US). In 2019 he was a recipient of the Ted Hughes Award and won the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, and became the first poet to be awarded the Rathbone Folio Prize. He is currently based between New Orleans, Oklahoma and London.
You can follow Antrobus on Instagram and Twitter, and see more on his website.
See the full artist commission by Othello De'Souza-Hartley
Read an interview with the artist and Autograph's senior curator Renée Mussai
Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...
Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project
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Image captions: 1) Othello De'Souza-Hartley, Absence (2020) [detail]. C-type print, 20 x 24 inches. Commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other © and courtesy the artist.
Other page images: 2) Courtesy Raymond Antrobus