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I have drawn the Shadow of my brother from the river of the dead. And still I ask myself: whose Shadow? whose brother? whose stranger?
[...]
Is it the anatomy of the abyss that I glimpse in myself, in him, in nameless others one bears — who bear one — into the parentage of Being? Have I borne a spatial being that is capable of taking upon itself familiar/unfamiliar resemblances? Does the burden of art involve a confrontation with an ultimate loss of fear?

Wilson Harris: The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990)

Thirteen years my elder, my brother has always been a somewhat elusive figure in my life. My earliest memories of him are of this tall stranger that used to come to the house and sleep in the spare bedroom across the landing from me. I would quietly open his door and peer in, marvelling at how big his shoes were. In my mind, he was this great, brooding giant, with dark eyes shadowed by a black fringe, and whose origins I couldn’t recall.

Throughout my life he would sporadically appear at home, and as I got older I went to visit him with mum when he was in prison. We would hug and then talk for two hours, drink cups of tea, eat bacon and egg sandwiches, chocolate bars and sweets to feign some sense of comfort. I would admire my brother’s tattoos, new trainers and gold teeth, and listen to his stories of cooking curry in a kettle on a Sunday to share with friends in prison. I remember feeling such pride at being this man’s younger brother, yet I always left the prison visitor’s centre with such a heavy heart; so tragic to have to say goodbye and walk out into the dull grey light of the car park, somewhere in Norfolk, leaving my brother behind to return to his cell.

Over the 9 different times my brother has been in prison throughout his life, I have visited him on various occasions, but it was certainly never enough. This is sad, but it’s something I hope I don’t ever have to rectify through more visits – ideally he will stay out of prison now for the rest of his life, but this is not so easy to determine. Prison is not something one just chooses to stay out of. The reasons behind recidivism are varied, in my brother’s case they are complex, traumatic and run very deep, and imprisonment always exacerbates them.

The prison system actively encourages drug use, refuses to recognise mental health problems and ruins all hopes of rehabilitation. Every time I visited my brother and saw and heard the conditions of his imprisonment, I was reminded how his situation in life was not entirely his fault, but that it was the result of a drastic institutional failure at every level; a failure of the prison system, the probation services, health services, social services and the police.

The insidiously violent nature of the English middle class

After my last visit in 2019, just before he was released on parole, I remember sitting in the passenger seat next to my mother and looking at her, wondering if perhaps the first institution to fail him was our family. We both come from the same family but experienced that family very differently. My brother, coming from a different father, who was from another country and spoke a language foreign to the one we shared, was perhaps always marginalised within our strict family structure. Whether my extended family members think this is true or not, it is what came to be, and my brother’s emotional and cultural distance from our family increased over the years.

Growing up, I always felt there was an insidiously violent nature to the English middle class family, expressed through the ideals and expectations it projects onto its members. There is this constitution of a ‘We’ that doesn’t allow for or accept difference, in the sense that “we say sofa, we don’t say settee” or “we eat supper, we don’t eat tea”. What I mean here is that the English middle classes are obsessed with differentiating themselves from both the working classes and the upper classes.

They do so through things as banal as whether you add milk before or after you have poured your tea, how words are pronounced, how objects are named, which newspaper you read, how you (mis)use grammar, what you drink in the pub, which pub you drink in, if you shop at Asda or Waitrose, if you like football, rugby or cricket. But what if you dislike all of this and everything it contains? People may laugh at the absurdity of such things, but I believe it masks a deeply rooted hatred and fear of difference in English society; as if the only way to know that you exist is to negate the ways other people live otherwise.

The privilege of the neutral accent

It is commonly believed in England that one can identify which class you come from by the accent you have, or in the case of the middle classes, the accent you don’t have. The middle class English voice that I speak with has a plain and ‘neutral’ accent, devoid of any geographical specificity within the country (apart from vaguely being from the south). This geographical neutrality is what partly affords the middle classes greater privileges and representation across various sectors of society, to the extent that people with regionally specific accents are sometimes considered less educated and of lower social standing.

I believe that this is a particularly English type of snobbery that, in its divisiveness, is a form of ruling class oppression, and as such I would like to extrapolate that it is guided by a capitalist imperative that negatively sets up difference as a way to undermine the potential for forming a basis of intersectional solidarity.

One of the noticeable differences between me and my brother is that whilst I have this middle class non-accent, he speaks with a strong regional accent from Norwich where our parents moved when my brother was 11 years old. Yet my brother was born and raised between North London and Malaga, and I was born and raised in Norwich.

My brother and I went to the same secondary school in Norwich, a state school on the border between an affluent middle class neighbourhood and an impoverished working class one. My parents used to say that my brother started to change after he went to that high school, and it seems that through association with a set of people from a different social standing, my brother was to eventually leave behind the characteristics of the class he was born into and began to adopt aspects of the working class culture he surrounded himself with.

Gradually my brother became a “shady character” and became further situated within the shadows of our family; we sadly lacked the sensitivity to see that it was in fact our family that cast the strongest shadow. Somehow, I sincerely believe, this particular version of ‘downwards mobility’ on the part of my brother was seen as a betrayal to the projected ideals of our middle class family, as if he was a class traitor. But I think conversely that the betrayal and treachery were entirely on the part of our family; we failed my brother.

Genuine solidarity

What we lacked as a family was precisely the kind of solidarity that post-Brexit society (for example) needs right now; a solidarity that seeks genuine unity against ruling class oppression above and beyond the stereotypical definitions of which class we have been associated with. Whilst I don’t want to suggest any kind of flattening equivalence between my brother’s socioeconomic situation and my own for example, I would argue that we both have to sell our labour for food and shelter, do not own any property or have any family money, thus constituting a similarly precarious stratum of society that is exploited by the ruling classes.[1]

Solidarity doesn’t mean that we need to be equivalent, but it should encourage unity around shared experiences and common interests. I certainly experience the violence of structural poverty in a very different way from my brother, but if I don’t use my easier access to resources (as a university-educated, white, middle class, male artist) to unconditionally care for and include him, I am essentially complicit with the system that imprisoned him.

How can I refuse this? Perhaps to begin with, what is needed is a thorough reconsideration of the work I do as an artist in this society and the particular system of artistic production in which I find myself. This could entail, for example, practising true solidarity and support within the artistic communities we work in, which means stepping out of the false pretences of the shadows and simply having each other's backs, not stabbing people in the back.

This lack of solidarity between the very people we work with is a tragic intoxication of the competitive spirit of capitalism. It should be exorcised from our bodies. In addition, it is vital to maintain a clear position concerning the complex of support and funding that comes from institutions, corporations, governments and, sometimes, tax-evading billionaire ‘philanthropists’. We shouldn’t ignore, accept or work for art’s complicity with the violence of structural poverty.

The position I want to uphold is one that refuses to engage with and support those practices that exploit, exclude and marginalise people, and therefore I would say yes “...the burden of art” does indeed “...involve a confrontation with an ultimate loss of fear”. Perhaps what has to be lost is a fear of not being seen, a fear of being irrelevant in the eyes of the powerful. Losing that fear might just open up the way to a cross-cultural imagination that could help us to know how and when to stop feeding this system and to change our methods of creation.

Louis Henderson is a filmmaker and writer who experiments with different ways of working with people to address and question our current global condition defined by racial capitalism and ever-present histories of the European colonial project. Since 2017, Henderson has been working within the artist group The Living and the Dead Ensemble. Based between Haiti and France, they focus on theatre, song, slam, poetry and cinema, their first feature film Ouvertures was awarded a FIPRESCI special mention at the Berlinale Forum 2020. His work has been shown in various international film festivals, art museums and biennials and is distributed by LUX and Video Data Bank. He lives and works in Paris.

[1] These ideas are indebted to the work of D. Hunter who, in the short essay “Class Traitors”, writes: “The definition of middle class appears to have become too vague and nebulous, too recuperated by the liberal discourse to be of any use to me. Instead, I’m going to work with the notion that all of us who are in the position where we have to sell our labour (or are excluded from doing so, due to the oppressive social system we live within) in order to ensure food and shelter – no matter how well financially rewarded – are part of the working class.
But those formerly middle class folk join working class folk who hoard their resources, engage and support practices and process which marginalise, dehumanise or exploit fellow members, and will now be referred to as class traitors.” www.freedomnews.org.uk/2020/01/16/class-traitors/ (Last accessed: 6 May, 2021)

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