To mark the launch of AJAMU : ARCHIVE we commissioned writer Jason Okundaye to provide a personal response to the book, which unapologetically celebrates black British queer bodies, desire, difference and pleasure activism.
The artist's book - originally published in a print run of only 500 copies - includes photographic works that have never been exhibited or published before alongside specially commissioned texts from Johnny Golding and Dr Sheena Calvert, contextualising Ajamu’s practice at this pivotal point in his career. While the book is now sold out, you can see a selection of images from the publication in our online image gallery. A limited edition print is also available to buy exclusively through Autograph's online shop.
To position ‘pleasure’ and ‘desire’ as the central impulses which define Black British lives and the shape and movements of Black queer men’s bodies is an urgent project. Too often the narrative around what defines a lifetime for Black queer people, and Black Britain at large, is one persistently framed around resistance and political insurgency. In decades of work, Ajamu positions Black British life as utterly devoted to pleasure for pleasure’s sake – the maximisation of that pleasure, and the refusal to belittle pleasure as a secondary narrative in the making of our image. In the preface for the AJAMU : ARCHIVE Ajamu writes that “threaded through and between the journey to this book, and the photographs themselves, are my true loves: Black men, the image, the book and the archive.” In my younger years, discovering Ajamu’s photographs between Google searches for pornography or Black erotica, I too fell in love with Black men and the unbounded potentials of our bodies over and over again.
“To position ‘pleasure’ and ‘desire’ as the central impulses which define Black British lives and the shape and movements of Black queer men’s bodies is an urgent project"
In the most immediate sense, the archive traces a process which ties together the various sensibilities of Black queer men and boys across generations – that love of the erotic, of nipples, kink, dress up, bondage, penises, asses, hair, veins, knickers and garters – whatever your poison. It is fun yet austere, distinct and yet limitless. But the AJAMU : ARCHIVE is not only a photographic history focused solely on the images of Black men’s bodies and our personal histories as Black queer people in Britain, it is a sensory voyage and a process of love-making itself: it is a voluptuous odyssey through textures, flavours, scents and pleasures – compounding to elate the senses through synaesthesic effects. You do not only read the book, you stroke it, eat it, and play with it.
The first archives we encounter as Black British people are often in the home – those strange and curious objects from our parents' past lives we find tucked away in some crevice, or the photographs, certificates and art displayed on the walls. As a boy, Ajamu writes, he discovered his love of those “iconic and questionable” images in his family living room, understanding them as “a place marker in the history of the Black British family.” In my own work I have come to understand the absolute urgency of these family jewels. Through the archive project I co-run with Marc Thompson, Black and Gay, Back in the Day, inspired by Ajamu’s own work curating the rukus! archive, the mission has been to orient history and cultural memory as that which is accessed in the private exhibition space of the home.
Black cultural memory does not, and cannot, depend on scrimping and polishing for the price of entry at exclusionary galleries, museums or heritage spots which define our lives as marginal to the nation. Rather, memory begins at the moment we say “here I am, here you are” and begin to share these fragments and pieces with others, no matter how few. As such the scarcity of the book should be noted – it has a limited distribution, making it a rare and precious object, not for ‘sale’ but for sharing amongst a network of those invested in the book’s construction. It is, like those strange and curious objects our mother’s prize in their homes, a place marker – it lives, it moves, it records decades of life, and yet it freezes time, says “here I am now”, and has no beginning or end.
Recently I asked Ajamu about the process of photographing Bodybuilder in Bra, from 1990, an image I revisit regularly as I find my relation to Ajamu’s work in the displays of muscularity as homoerotic. He said that the man was an unknown specimen, whom he had shot and never saw again. And so I cannot find or know this man, but he remains one of my own first loves, and the moment I think “here I am” when I visit it. This archive lives in transit, at various points you will stop the journey, get off, and think “here I am”, or “here they are.” Images which may refresh memories of an old friend or lover now passed on may inspire new confidence or creative imagination for another.
Jason Okundaye is a South London based writer with essays, features and profiles in publications such as the Guardian, the London Review of Books, British Vogue, GQ, and Dazed. Alongside Marc Thompson, he co-curates the digital archive Black and Gay, Back in the Day documenting Black LGBT life in Britain since the 1970s. His first book, Revolutionary Acts, a social history of Black gay men in Britain, will be published by Faber & Faber in Spring 2024.
Follow Jason on Twitter and Instagram.
A selection of images from AJAMU: ARCHIVE celebrating queer black bodies
A special 10" x 8" signed print of Ajamu's X's photograph available from Autograph
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