Sara Myers. Photo Credit: Mike @People Pictures
The name Sara Myers has not only become synonymous with the forced closure of a highly controversial art installation but has also come to denote the spiritual embodiment of the African voice and the fortitude of the Black female against all odds. I remember seeing the outrage of Sara Myers build as she took to social media to voice her disgust that a privileged Caucasian off-spring of South Africa’s heinous apartheid regime would even consider dropping his mise-en-scene of enslaved Africans in the middle of central London with the backing of one of the largest art institutions in Europe. Bravely raising her head above the parapet Ms Myers managed the remarkable feat of galvanising the armchair revolutionary as well as the long time staunch campaigner.
I was touched by her protective instinct as she sought the advice of others for ways in which to get the spurious art show stopped. Listening to suggestions that she start a petition, and then contact the Barbican directly. Others on the initial (Facebook) thread, suggested direct action; ‘to jus’ lock di ting off! No long ting!’ But it was Sara Myers who acted, and as the metal barriers came crashing down outside the doors of the commissioned horror show on the 23rd September 2014, it was obvious to all, that Sara Myers had been fundamental in orchestrating an historic victory in the battle for Black self- empowerment.
I was interested in speaking to a woman who has polarised opinion and has garnered both respect and ridicule as she stood up and shouted when many would have found it easier to stand still and remain silent.
Sara. You came to the attention of many people due to the Exhibition B campaign.What was it about this exhibition that pissed you off so much?
It was taking our narrative and interpreting it their way. ‘We’re slaves, we’re powerless’. Not telling people that we were once powerful people. When I saw the (promotional) picture of the Black woman about to be raped, chained to the bed. I remember phoning a friend saying. They’re taking the p.s.! I meditated. If it was me one outside the vault then it would have been that. I never envisaged the campaign to be that big. I truly believe our ancestors backed me. I think they were saying someone had to stand up. As a woman, as a Black woman, I had to stand up. It could have been anyone.
I saw your initial outrage on social media and could see you wanted to do something. Did you have a clear strategy?
Not really. The strategy was basic. Start a petition. Share my outrage Get as many people I know whose campaigns I’d backed. Speak to them. Then there was a group message and people started to give suggestions.
From that, a campaign meeting was started. I couldn’t have done it on my own. It was a community campaign.
Exhibition B protests. September 2914
Black people tend to be suspicious of signing their names to petitions. Is that changing Are petitions now a black thing?
Mary Seacole, Cherry Groce, Black History in Schools. It was not about agreeing with the idea of petition per se but they create awareness along with other strategies. We started a (Facebook) ‘Friends’ page. Mike Blythe (Photographer) helped me construct a petition letter. We shared the image of the Black female chained to the bed on social media and slowly people started to listen. I must admit I was prepared to lie down across the floors of the vault to stop this thing! Well not me! I would have got my mum to lie down on the floor of the vaults. She’s 72! No one’a stepping over an old black woman! My mum was up for it! (Laughs). But the brothers weren’t too pleased with that strategy.
When you saw the numbers on the petition rising beyond 20,000, what were you thinking?
At that point it was, wow! People actually agree with me! I was trolled though.
I was called a nigger. I was called ‘pro-censorship’. ‘Art philistine’. But the numbers didn’t lie. Both Black and white disagreed with (artist) Brett Bailey’s narrative.
Why did these impressive numbers not manifest themselves to the streets when you first marched to the Barbican and again on the final march to the exhibition itself where less than 200 people eventually forced its closure?
I think technology in terms of activism has dumbed us down. Many of us are now armchair activists. It only takes a couple of clicks to protest but to come out and march takes a different type of energy. Maybe people are scared of the police, don’t think marching works, I’m not sure but if I expect others to be on the battlefield then I have to be on the battlefield with them.
You cite African spiritualism a lot how did you bring that into being?
I needed to do a libation before the protest. It might sound flaky to some people but if you look at the Haitian revolution, they poured libation and honoured the ancestors. They had a ritual. This was fundamental in their victory against the invaders. Sometimes we take our emotions into battle and not our spirituality.
How do we rise above the crisis in the Black community?
Principled based community. During the campaign, we didn’t all agree but we did agree with the cause. There are a lot of us who don’t agree on certain issues. This one is Rasta. This one’s Muslim, this one’s Nuwaubian.
If we agree on the fact that someone is attacking our heritage, then we have to put aside our differences and look at what we agree on. I’ve read (Marcus) Garvey and he says, ‘focus on what we agree on and not what we don’t agree on’. I met people who said ‘I don’t do petitions’, I said OK. But please share it. I met others who said ‘I don’t do marches’. I said OK but let people know when it’s happening.
How did you keep your voice above the voices of men?
By harnessing my femininity. I don’t want to compete with men. Our men are leaders. I remained myself. Did I rant? Cry? Curse? Yes! But behind closed doors. The team backed me. I didn’t speak with the voice of masculinity. I didn’t try to be a man. The best piece of advice I got was from close friend Dr Martin Glynn. He said don’t try to be an art critic just be Sara Myers. So that’s who I am, just an ordinary woman.
Protests outside the Barbican’s Vaults in London. Photo: Fiona Rutherford
Why do you think those at the Barbican did not seem to understand the offence they were causing a section of society?
They fully understood the pain and the offence and distress they were causing the black community. They saw it. White privilege. White supremacy and white pride stopped them from backing down. They invested a lot of money in this thing. They knew full well what they were doing. They had no intention in backing down. I remember our first meeting with the director and members of the board. A representative of the Barbican described the Black community as the ‘Afro-Caribbean community’. I was sat next to Trevor Phillips, (Barbican’s only Black patron). He chose not to correct her. I told the rep, its ‘African Caribbean’ and that ‘Afro’ is a hairstyle. Although she quickly apologised, it was obvious when watching Phillips operate, that we have Black people in high positions who are choosing not to correct these people in their ignorance I remember, whilst I was talking to them, I could feel the tears coming. Although Mike (Blythe) Lee (Jasper) were with me, I felt vulnerable. I remember asking them with tears coming down my face…‘Do you really want people to look at Black people in cages?’
I could not understand why those people wanted us to relive that trauma.
Do you think the answer to Black unity is a leadership issue or do think ‘community’ is just an illusion that has now become impossible for any one person to define?
We have been sold this illusion of a saviour where we put people on a pedestal and then we vilify them. We need to get behind them. We need to learn to fight for the cause and not the personality.
Male or Female leadership? Which one works best?
Behind a male leader there is often a woman working with him and listening to him in the home. Likewise the woman leader will often have a man beside her, encouraging her also. It should not matter.
Name 3 U.K female leaders/campaigners you respect/admire…
Esther Standford (Xosei) is an inspiration. She gives me council. What she’s done with pushing the Reparations argument is amazing! (Pause) Even though she gave me the cold shoulder, Dianne Abbott because of her stand on education. Yes! I know she splits opinion but she has done a lot on education. And yes she did give me the cold shoulder! Stephanie Pitter, and again don’t necessarily agree with this sister and I confess, I didn’t sign her petition about getting Black history taught in schools but I did share it. I have respect for what she is trying to achieve.
Does female leadership have a different quality?
Yes, it’s softer.
Confessions of a former Drama Queen credit: Cipha Divine
How you mean?
We can lean on our femininity to pacify situations. I’m not saying we go up to the police and do the‘dutty whine’! (Laughter). Our experience with the police is often different. We’re not their friend but they don’t view us like they do Black men. For example, you were there, and you could see things were getting tense. There was a young man at the vaults and he was really fired up and he was not moving, even when confronted by police. He could have been my son! I pleaded with him to move so he would not get arrested but he wasn’t budging so I linked my arm around his and said if he was getting arrested I was going to get arrested to.! He looked at me as if to say “Are you for real?!” He cared for my safety and we moved together. I believe women possess a stronger duty of care. We have to use the skills that we have whether that be our mothering skills, our lover skills, our sisterly skills. We have to draw upon all skills.
You received a lot of vitriol, from both Black and white people. Did this affect you? And was this due to your gender?
There was racism. There were a lot of derogatory comments. But the Black females who did not agree with the campaign…Whoa! Bonnie Greer (play-write/author), Bernadine Evaristo (author). They were two of the worst! People were called ‘Sara’s disciples!’…saying ‘Sara can’t even speak properly!’ These people have reached high positions in which to enable the community but they choose not to.
You often travel with your mother. Does she have concerns for your safety, mental and physical?
Not really. She’s a warrior. She was always marching. She’s a bit of a hippy. She tells me to rest and not to burn myself out. She’s my inspiration. A true Lioness!
(reflective pause) We’ve made history and its great to have left a legacy that my Grandson can look at years from now and say ‘my Grandmum did that’!
Is there a crisis within the Black male, female dynamics or do you think t’was always thus?
It seems things have been set up for us to go to war with each other. The woman wants to out-do the man and vice versa we need to get the balance right. We need to look at the issues that affect our community and try and have a collective healing. There is a lot of misogyny in the community, which has been built up over 4-500 years. We need to celebrate our men and not be calling them ‘waste man’ and brothers need to stop calling women ‘hoes, bitches’… whatever. And stop the violence! If we can get to healing we’re going to be fantastic!
Tell me about your one-woman theatre show ‘Confessions of a Former Drama Queen’…
I started of writing it before XB (Exhibition B). Basically it’s about being a dysfunctional crazy woman. Every man’s worst nightmare! Stalking, harassing. Some real crazy stuff! I went through a life changing experience. I was sexually assaulted in my house. I talk about it online and in the show. I realised I had to revaluate my life. I started blogging. It was cathartic. I got a massive response from women who also wanted to change their lives. I did a bit of stand-up. The theatre show’s a bit like comedy but with coaching. After XB I’ve got a wider audience. The feedback has been really positive! I’m just tweaking it at the moment.
I’ve gone through counselling and realise I put myself in certain situations which made me vulnerable. Was I responsible for the sexual abuse? No. I’m on a journey of self-discovery and I now realise I was a bit of nightmare.
The show is to help other women. XB has given me confidence to be me!
The show is due to be on national tour soon. Check The British Blacklist and other such media outlets for more info
interview by Orvil Kunga / @kungadred – Founder/curator of Welcome to Busseywood, African Film festival 2014