Two years ago I found out that Italian rapper from Brescia Tommy Kuti would go around wearing a t-shirt with written “Non sono straniero sono solo stranero,” an obvious word play. In fact the literal translation would be “I’m not an immigrant (straniero) I’m just too black (stra-nero).” Simple, clear, direct and playfully ironic, though on one occasion he told me that some Africans didn’t take it the right way, assuming his statement was a denial of his origin. Misunderstandings.
A few months ago, while I was surfing the internet I came across American artist Isaiah Lopaz’s Things you can tell just by looking at him, a project in which he wears t-shirts with printed on them some of the racist and offending remarks he has been told since he has been living in Berlin.
The worst thing he was told in terms of race was in a bar. He was in company of two German women and one of them, who is a director of a pre-school, said while they were talking about American culture,“…And You have no culture because you come from slaves.”
Lopaz is originally from LA, he comes from a modest working class family and lived the first years of his life in Watts, a residential district where also artist Kerry James Marshall lived, and that was at the time, the stage of a “legal” housing segregation that has been often portrayed in Marshall’s wonderful works. Others remember this neighborhood because of the “Watts rebellion” that took place in 1965.
I wanted Isaiah to tell me more about his life in LA, about why he decided to move to Europe, how this project is born and why even in the gay and queer communities of Berlin discrimination is strong, and finally, if there is a place where he could feel in peace.
GRIOT: You come from Los Angeles. How was your life there?
Isaiah Lopaz: Church, education, and discipline were the cornerstones of my upbringing, but I was always encouraged to write and eventually to become an artist.
My family inspired a love of reading, and my mother taught me that it was essential that I be satisfied with my work. When I would ask her if she liked something that I drew or wrote as a child she would answer, “It doesn’t matter what I think. What do you think about it?” We lived all over Los Angeles, and I love the city for many reasons, but mostly because it was a city where my grandparents felt that they enjoyed certain freedoms which they did not have in the rural American South.
What do you like the most about your culture, in spite of those who say you do not have one?
Black culture is always changing, and as a Black person I am more interested in defining what it means to me instead of contemplating or challenging what it means to others. We as Black people define elements and facets of Black culture in a multitude of different ways.
What I think of as Black culture might not be what you think of as Black culture, but I do fine that there are often moments of recognition, spaces where we speak the same languages and savour the same sensations.
Innovation, creativity, and wit seem to be cornerstones of Black culture. These are again, the elements that I find myself coming into contact with when I meet Black people from all of the world, and this is one gift that Berlin has brought to me: The ability to commune with Black people from all over the world! Sometimes we’re just in synch, and at other times the only thing that unites us is that we live in a racist society. That is what it is.
Why have you moved to Europe, to Berlin?
There’s a history of migration in my family, and I suspect that this has always been the case, barring the forced displacement of my African ancestors. As a young artist just finishing Art school, I knew that if I wanted to ‘make it’, I had to live in a big city where I would have a chance to develop myself and to exhibit my work.
In America it seemed like either you based in yourself in Los Angeles or you moved New York. Having been born and raised in Los Angeles, staying put did not appeal to me. Everyone that I knew who had moved to New York was hustling in a way that I did not want to hustle: Three jobs, cramped apartments.There’s nothing wrong with hustling by the way, I just wanted to choose my hustle.
We have some relatives living in Amsterdam and before graduating I went to visit them. It was my first time leaving America. I visited them and went to London for a week or so. Then and there I made up my mind to move to Europe. Paris, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Brussels… there were so many places where it seemed I might be able to succeed. I also had the impression that life for me as a gay man would be easier in Europe. I did not know that racism, would in many ways make me an outsider in gay/queer communities.
I had just barely revealed my sexuality to my family. It did not go well. Maybe I ran away from this, but this was not a conscious thought.
I had the chance to study in Germany, so I did a guest semester at Stadelschule in Frankfurt am Main. It wasn’t what I wanted, and so I moved to Berlin without ever having visited the city. It’s not always easy, but if I had it all again I wouldn’t change a thing.
Have you also lived in other German cities?
Most of my time here in Germany has been spent in Berlin. I did two guest semesters at Städelschule – Kalender. It was my dream to study with Wolfgang Tillmans. He did accept me as one of his students, but he left as I was coming into the program. I just didn’t jive with the new teacher, and I felt a conservative air in the atmosphere, and I had just graduated from a school with a similar climate.
Frankfurt was great! Through one of the students I met a group of artists, writers, and activists, and I spent most of my time hanging out with them. There also weren’t too many times where I found myself in real life racist narratives.
On one occasion a woman saw me putting my groceries in my shopping bag which some people do here in Germany because you have to bring your own bag to the supermarket unless you pay for a new one. She said to me in German, “You should not do this because you are Black.” She wasn’t mean or condescending. I think she knew that there could be problems if an employee saw me doing this, even if White customers were allowed to get away with it.
Sometimes I wish I had stayed in Frankfurt and finished the program, but it’s pointless to dwell on wishes like these. I did what I did, and I am where I am because of the decisions that I made to leave.
When you moved to Germany you were 26/27 years old. What has changed in Berlin since then?
I’ve lived in Berlin and have witnessed several changes in the city. When I moved here in 2007, I remember feeling like there was so much space! You could walk down the street during the middle of the day and not run into anyone for several blocks.
There’s been a lot of development, a lot of construction, and I have the impression that there was a big boom in industry here. I remember when the financial crisis exploded. We didn’t really feel here. When I arrived it was more difficult to find a job, and now I think it’s a bit easier. When I moved here I wasn’t in touch with a lot of Black people.
I didn’t see very many in my day to day life, but this has changed as well. There are many of us here now, and I feel like I’m part of a family, part of a community, and that we are here to love, support, and inspire one another. This is what I currently love about Berlin.
To this day you’ve produced 23 t-shirts, each tied to a racist episode you faced in Berlin. How and when have you started this project? What have been the most offending remarks you have been told?
Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Him documents racist comments, microaggressions, prejudices, and racial slurs directed at me personally over the last nine years. All of these comments were made to me in English, and there are many other incidents that I could not print onto t-shirts because it might be difficult to put them into context.
At the moment this project focuses on how race and racism move through language. In the future I would like to explore ways of illustrating moments where racial oppression is enforced without words, but through gestures, movements, and “performances” steeped in White privilege and White supremacy.
It was very clear from the beginning that Berlin was not like any of the other European cities that I had visited or lived in. Blackness was something that many White Germans and other White Europeans felt compelled to explain to me. I wasn’t really from Los Angeles, I was from Africa.
Of course people thought that I was a drug dealer, I’m Black and lots of Black guys sell drugs. The young girls that I will be teaching at my new job will automatically love me because I’m Black.
Having a potluck where everyone is supposed to bring food from their country! ‘Great, Isaiah can bring African food.’ Not Nigerian food, not Ethiopian food, but African food.
My first two years here were very lonely. When you move to a new city you want to get to know others, but for many people I was their idea of Blackness, and not my idea of Blackness, or even myself. That’s what racism does: it doesn’t allow non-Whites to be human, to be seen as individuals. Looking at the project holistically this is what I see.
I see that racism in a very calculated manner, seeks to undermine my sense of self so that I can be controlled, and aware of my place as a thing, subordinate to whiteness and white supremacy.
There have been some misconceptions about my experiences with racism in Germany. I did have beautiful, long locks, which I decided to cut for many reasons. I knew that as soon as I cut them that there would be a bit more peace in my life, but this was not my sole reason for cutting them and ultimately it didn’t help much.
People still approach me on the street, in bars, or at parties to ask if I have drugs, and so I’m grateful that I had other reasons for cutting my hair because it would have felt really awful to actually believe that there’s anything that I can to do to make myself look like a better Negro. I wholeheartedly reject this idea. There’s nothing that I can do, because the problem is race.
The problem is that I exist. The problem is that I am alive and I will not go away, and these are problems because I live in a society that cannot fully oppress me, but can reject me based on their concept of my identity.
People imagine that such remarks come only from the “privileged people,” from those who have never experienced discrimination. Yet, even in Berlin’s gay/queer communities you have dealt with a lot of ignorance due to the fact that they did not believe you are homosexual because you are black, and in some clubs you were said that hip hop was not played because it is a genre too sexist and aggressive. In your opinion, why such ignorance?
What I understand as someone who is racialised, is that racism as a system of oppression benefits whiteness. Poor whites are still white. Whites who make up the LGBTQI spectrum are still White. Whites who have committed crimes are still white. I have long abandoned the idea that an inherent solidarity exists between marginalised groups.
The world might be a very different place if this were fact, but it is a fiction that does very little to advance us. I’m not sure I ever expected gay White men to immediately feel a sense of solidarity with me. Race cuts across class, religion, ability… and so white people who are marginalised have to do the work to arrive at a place where they understand or feel compelled to disengage from contributing to racial oppression.
A good example of this from my personal experience involves a very pervasive outlook on homophobia in Germany. Homophobia is largely written about or spoke of as an Islamic, Arabic, Turkish problem which affects gay men. White gay men. This discourse ignores that there are of course Muslim LGBTQ from Turkey, and countries where arabic is spoken, folks who also face homophobia, but there’s something else which I find dangerous about this rhetoric. It localises homophobia in non-White communities. It ignores that homophobia continues to be a major issue which impacts (or can potentially impact) the lives of a global LGBTQ community.
What I also find very, obviously problematic, is that it ignores homophobia practised by the dominant society which in my case, is comprised of White Germans. Race invites those who subscribe to this rhetoric to disengage from solutions or strategies which undermine and abolish homophobia (I’m not sure that this should be our fight, let me say,) but it certainly prevents us from speaking about homophobia as one problem.
Race allows a disconnect, and creates a focal point where their anger, frustration, and fear for their very lives can be directed at non-Whites. Nevermind the historical roots of homophobia, or a nation which is predominately White, who’s current political leader belongs to a party called the Christian Democratic Union. Race allows for homophobia and transphobia to be exported, to be compartmentalised and never viewed holistically. This is just one example. There are many more that I could give.
After the recent Berlin attacks, would you still wear your t-shirts down the street?
I’m very sorry for the victims who lost their lives during the recent attacks. Just to be clear, the t-shirts featured in this project are not worn on a daily basis, nor are they for sale. I think that would be irresponsible. I don’t wear these t-shirts in my daily life because they are not meant to provoke members of the predominately White society that I live in.
Race as a social construct is projected onto my body on a regular basis, and I know that no matter what I wear, how I speak, act, or behave, that there is nothing that I can do to prevent this.
What I don’t want, is to create uncomfortable situations for myself or other Black people because of this project. There will be some uncomfortable, awkward moments, but I do my best to minimise this.
What about Him Noir now?
Him Noir is expanding! I’ve received partial sponsorship and have had several requests for collaborations. I’ve been invited to exhibit the series Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Him, and I have a host of artist talks scheduled.
Currently I am planning to travel around Europe with this project to document the experiences of other Black people living in Europe. I will come to Italy. It’s just a question of when. There are also other ways of using t-shirts to speak about race and I am experimenting with this at the moment.
I’ve just found out that you are working on a new artistic project related to adv campaigns that deal with development aid. What is it about? What have you been tasked with? What is the goal?
Glokal and the ISD asked me to create three images which critique illustrations and photographs used in development aid campaigns. I was given total freedom, and I hope that the images used as part of this campaign will also inspire debate and critique centred around narratives of power and poverty.
Out of the three images that I created, one was chosen to be featured on a billboard. I’m very proud of the work that I did for this campaign. The piece that I created is titled, “The Myth Of The Great African Handout.”
There may potentially be some public discussions organised by the Glokal and the ISD around this topic, but I am not too sure at the moment. I would be happy to create more images which critique how Black people are represented in visual culture.
Berlin for you is home. You met your best friends, but in an interview with the NY Times you said you don’t see yourself staying there long term because you want more for your life. Where is the place where you can be another face in a crowd?
Everything comes full circle. My Grandparents left the American south for the American west for adventure, but also for better opportunities. They wanted to experience less racism, and the west offered that. Notice that they said that they wanted to experience less racism, but that they knew that racism would always be a part of the deal, no matter what city they lived in.
Sixty years, in a land far far away I am dealing with many of the same problems. I often reflect on the racism that I’ve dealt with here and wonder how it is similar to what they experienced. I have the impression that people feel like my being here is somehow the result of a favor that’s being done in my name, and that I should tolerate their attitudes and behaviors because Germany is better than whatever country they think I ‘come from’.
Berlin is my home, but I have never felt at home in German culture, and the disconnect for me is how I am treated as a non-White person. People have often commented, “Well why didn’t you just leave. If you don’t like it, Why have you stayed?”
This mentality never addresses the issue, it suggests that the real problem is my problem, it also suggests that I have the luxury of leaving. People don’t always have the luxury of leaving. We stay for love, for education, for our careers. Sometimes we stay because we don’t have homes to go back to.
If I leave Berlin the racism that I deal with will be different, but my reasons for leaving won’t change. Those who tell me to leave will live in the society that they lived in before I left, one in which they had nothing to lose while suggesting I leave, and they will have nothing to lose after I’m gone… except the immeasurable value that I might have been able to contribute to their society. That’s another thing that racism does.
There is one place where I feel free. The racism that I’ve encountered there is racism that I can deal with. I’m not saying where this place is at the moment. I will keep that to myself. There was perhaps a misunderstanding when it was reported that I want to be just another face in the crowd. I want to be myself without the limitations and the violence that a racist society imposes on me.
All Images | Courtesy of Isaiah Lopaz
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Visual and performing arts, culture and music, traveling: I could just live on this. Graduated in International Cooperation and Development, I am an indipendent Culture Curator and Producer, and Artistic Director of GRIOTmag and Spazio GRIOT.