I came across the news today that the Yams collective had withdrawn from the Whitney Biennale over the inclusion of work by a fabricated black female artist, Donelle Woolford, whose life and work are purportedly the creation of a white, male academic, Joe Scanlan, working with actresses. A polemic by Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandial, implicitly endorsed by the collective, and explicitly endorsed by other exhibiting artists, makes a powerful case. As with many fabricated artists currently in circulation (whose numbers, since 2010, have included Robert Holcombe himself) I’d been following the fictive career of Donelle Woolford mostly out of a straightforward curiosity about how (and why) others pursue the making of work under fictional identities. One point of interest was that in this instance, while the fabrication itself didn’t seem particularly compelling, the possibility that Woolford was not, in fact, Scanlan’s creation, fronted by actresses, but potentially the fabrication and creation of those actresses, Abigail Ramsay and Jennifer Kidwell – both involved with the project for many years – who were in fact using Scanlan as a front to manufacture Donelle’s physical artworks while they handled the performative elements…well, that possibility was compelling. Thinking parafictionally, this not only seemed possible but pretty much essential if the project were to mean very much at all beyond the banal points about authorship, race and gender it makes when taken at face value.*
Since November, these questions about Woolford and her highly ambiguous play on identity have became of somewhat more particular interest. After exhibiting at the Nottingham Castle Open in 2013, Robert Holcombe received the accolade of a new commission from New Art Exchange, which meant he’d be making a new work in the context of a venue where the questions of identity already implicit in the project (indeed, the very ability to choose an identity) required deeper consideration. Mainly focused on issues of class and post-war British history – what Fabricated Archives had defined as his ability to bring about “a distancing from the present and an estrangement of the recent past” – Holcombe’s is a parallel history, grounded in the actual but unrealised potential of the real one, then deployed as a means of countering claims that ‘there are no alternatives’ to our present state. This construct is now entering a context where willed suspensions of reality and, by implication, re-writings of the very real struggles factored into the construction of identity, are likely to be questioned.
For that reason, I’ve been grateful to my colleague at Primary, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, not only for his bemused comment on hearing about the commission (“What colour is Robert Holcombe?”) but for several conversations since, in which questions about how we might be responsible for a real identity, while challenging those identities imposed on us from outside, might all be navigated and addressed. I’d very deliberately conceived Holcombe to be of a similar profile to myself (white, male, raised in Midlands/Northern factory and mining towns, Methodist upbringing, working class) but displaced in time: he’s of my grandfather’s generation rather than mine, though my grandparents imagined as having had some of the opportunities my own never did. The decision to keep his profile close was pragmatic (I knew this world well enough not to need research to make it convincing) but perhaps also unconsciously linked to some felt responsibility to an actual identity.
Within that, however, are other threads and influences that I’m fairly sure I hadn’t been conscious of at the time, including the fact that I spent several years studying in Sheffield with E.A. Markham whose own career was marked by the adoption of a series of fabricated identities. Markham spent much of the 1970s and 1980s Living in Disguise (his collection owning up to these ‘other persona’ works used this title in 1986) most notably as a younger generation Black British poet, Paul St Vincent, and as a feminist poet, Sally Goodman (“She is Welsh, is young, is white, is blue-eyed, is blonde; is very much, in a way, like me”, he wrote of her). His personae appear to be responses to a feeling that voices and identities are malleable, and extending them extends our own understanding of others. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the licence to be other than oneself granted by Markham (the responsibility, even) had one source in Sheffield, though the link made by James Proctor between Markham’s use of “play and personae with his interest in Anancy, the trickster Spider-god of African and Caribbean mythology” just complicates things further.
That said, another thread leads back to that mythology, by way of a very formative work (a work that will, I think, be a touchstone for anything produced at New Art Exchange). This is the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952). I first stumbled on a copy (for ten pence) in a sale in the unlikely setting of Heanor library at the age of nine or ten and still regularly re-read it today. To those who know Heanor, this area of South East Derbyshire, and their reputations, the place where I spent much of my first decade has long been notorious as a stronghold for the National Front, the BNP and (currently) the likes of UKIP. That Tutuola’s book turned up there, and opened these other possibilities – the kind of possibilities that led, ultimately, and in very indirect and tangled ways, to working with E.A. Markham, making the work of Robert Holcombe, and thinking about the issues raised by the fabrication of Donelle Woolford – is almost too neatly poetic.
Today, I don’t remember how I visualised the characters in The Palm Wine Drinkard in my head that first time I read it: did I even know the book was Nigerian or understand what that meant? What I do know is that I fully immersed myself in its story, and identified with its characters, even as I almost certainly failed to understand any of the book’s real context or meaning. In the same way, whatever my own take on Holcombe’s work might be, and whatever framework I construct around it to facilitate that meaning, there is a near inevitability that it will, eventually, escape that context and be seen as it is, just as ‘real’ works invariably lose the cultural and temporal contexts that define them and find themselves read against the grain of their makers’ specific intentions. Any parafictional project is ultimately founded on the belief that shifting the context changes and extends the work’s meaning and such work aims, however briefly, to make itself appear real, to conjure a mirage or hallucination even as its fabricated nature remains explicit. What happens when our fictions escape those framing contexts might be largely out of our control, but remains our responsibility.
Note: *I have no idea if this is the case or not: it’s entirely possible (and wouldn’t be the first time) that a project had been oblivious to its own potential, or had been made for banal or spurious reasons.