Tanoa Sasraku isn’t the only 25-year-old in London to have had her plans for the past year completely disrupted. But working, as she says, “from various bedrooms”, she’s making the most of the mess we’re in. “I’ve split the new film I’ve been developing into two parts,” explains the artist. “I’m writing it as two screenplays instead of one, digging deeper, telling both a back story and the main plot.” You certainly can’t accuse her of lack of ambition, or wasting time.
In fact, if 2020 had turned out differently, Sasraku would be back in full-time education now. She had secured a hard-to-get place on the postgraduate course at the Royal Academy Schools in Piccadilly, but the institution postponed its September intake by a year. She should have had an exhibition opening this coming March, too, at the Old Sorting Office in Chelsea, where she was planning on making new sculptural work in the vast space. “I wanted to capture the building, to make something at an architectural scale,” she says. “But instead I’m making peace with not being able to stick to timelines and deadlines.”
Making peace, or at least coming to terms with things, seems to be a driver for Sasraku. Her biracial British/Ghanaian and gay identity is fuel for her artistic practice. In her films — which can be diaristic and location-based, or highly choreographed studio performances with complex costumes and scenery that recall the radical queer cinema of Kenneth Anger, as well as Jean Cocteau and Georges Méliès — she confronts head on the complexities and scars of growing up in the dazzlingly white depths of Devon. With her massive 5x4 metre flags, composed of layers and layers of newsprint stitched together until it takes on the quality of a sturdy fabric, she refers to her father’s west African heritage, where the Asafo flags made by the Fante people traditionally told the story of colonial subjugation on the Cape Coast. When she brings the flags into the films, they become the physical legacy of postcolonial grief.
Sasraku grew up in Plymouth, returning there from Ghana at four years old, with her mother, and two much older brothers. (One, Joey Ansah, has become a successful actor.) “I didn’t realise I wasn’t white until I was nine, and I started being taunted at school,” she says. “From then on, I had an intense desire to escape, though I knew that wouldn’t happen until I was 18, so I started mythmaking in my head.” She also joined the Air Cadets, drawn to the intense physical experiences of weekend treks across Dartmoor, the landscape that provides the setting for her 2018 film Whop, Cawbaby. (The title is composed of two words from an old Devonian dialect; the first an onomatopoeic one for “to hit’, the second meaning a timid child.)
In it, Sasraku attempts to hold up one of her huge flags, decorated with images of gorse, as the wind tears across the bleakly beautiful terrain. “It’s my trauma,” she says. “Trying to assert your place in a hostile environment. The British countryside is an experience not reserved for people of colour.”
Finally managing her escape, first to Loughborough (“surrounded by meat-headed rugby lads, I realised I needed to go to a bigger city”), then to Goldsmiths in London to study fine art, Sasraku credits her final year tutor Rosalind Nashashibi — herself a film-maker, and Turner Prize nominee — with opening her eyes to moving image.
“I got hooked on what analogue film can do,” she says. “I started watching Cocteau’s Orphée, and Fellini’s 8½ — that was the first experimental film I saw.” The influence of these is clear in the black and white and silent O’ Pierrot, which she made in 2019, during a four-month residency at the film and theatre specialists, Academy Costumes in Southwark.
“I taught myself to make clothes, and created all the costumes. It was finally creating a link to my father, who had been one of the first black fashion designers in London,” she says. Kofi Ansah had studied at Chelsea School of Art in the 1970s, and ran a successful womenswear business in London until the 1990s, when he returned to Ghana. “I think the connection to textiles comes from him,” she continues, “though the obsession with tartan, which makes up part of the Pierrot costume, comes from my girlfriend, who’s Scottish. I love its tribal, regional origins.” (A professional musician, Kirsty Miller also provided the soundtrack.)
Through her own character of Pierrot, Sasraku once again explores the dilemma of race — both her costume and her make-up are expressions of duality — but against a surreal and dreamlike background, her character “perpetually shrinking and terrified, and that really isn’t me”. Meanwhile, her nemesis Harlequin Jack is a black man driven mad by his desire to assimilate into white society. “I wanted to show how destructive that feeling is,” she says, “but also to show a black villain, who has delusions of heroism. I’d like to create a new shift in the canon, and play with black villainy. Villains are the most compelling and dramatic and vulnerable characters.”
Along with Whop, Cawbaby, the film has attracted considerable attention among those who are on continual high alert for fresh artistic talent, including Andrew Durbin at Frieze and Benjamin Cook at Lux. It is no surprise to see Sasraku’s name among the four black female artists lined up for the visual arts category of this year’s Arts Foundation Future Awards, which makes the winner £10,000 better off, while all the others receive £1,000. Next Wednesday, when the awards are announced she will find out if she’s hit the jackpot.
Meanwhile, back in her bedroom, the new two-part project is taking shape. It is derived from the Orcadian myth of the selkies — creatures who appear as both seals and humans. And perhaps, if the rest of this year turns out to be a little kinder than the last, it won’t be too long until we get to be impressed by that as well.
The AFFA awards evening is online on January 27 at artsfoundation.co.uk/affas/2021
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