Breaking Single Story Dogma: UK Filmmaker Cecile Emeke & Her Stories Of Young Black Women

UK storyteller Cecile Emeke speaks to Okayafrica about her work breaking "single story dogma" in film and poetry.

Photo via Cecile Emeke

Cecile Emeke is a UK-based filmmaker, poet and multimedia artist whose video series Strolling and Ackee and Saltfish speak to experiences and concerns of British black youth. Emeke is especially interested in the stories of young women of the African diaspora, whose experiences rarely receive recognition in mainstream media and art. I first came across Emeke’s videos on Tumblr before I knew who she was, but being a woman, feminist and Black Canadian of Ghanaian descent, I felt an immediate sense of recognition in the experiences shared by her interviewees. Emeke’s work is nuanced and precise, and oftentimes explores themes of Black identity and representation that is strongly influenced by Black feminist thought. Needless to say, I was curious to find out more about the person behind the camera...

Adwoa Affu for Okayafrica: How would you describe yourself and what you do? How did you get started?

Cecile Emeke: I would describe myself as an artist. Right now I am primarily working with film. I've always been very creative but I got started with film earlier this year when I wanted to release a poem as a film, as opposed to just audio on soundcloud or text on tumblr, for example. I got a taste for film and I've never stopped.

OKA: Authenticity is a theme that runs through much of your work, and your poems like "Origin" and "Carefully Coiffed," for instance, suggest that that concept can be a loaded notion and one fraught with tension for Black Britons and people across the diaspora.

Emeke: I try to be honest in my work and I think honesty is what allows nuances of humanity to shine through. I stay true to myself and my truth, bringing another story and voice to the table, and therefore helping to break single story dogma, as opposed to trying to mold myself to what I think people want to see or hear.

OKA: Much of your work deals with feeling invisible or being erased, especially in places like Europe that ignore the history of Blacks within their borders. But do you think there may be some political value or potential in creating a politics rooted in being invisible or stateless?

Emeke: I don't believe in binaries or restrictive categories for being. Binaries of race, sexuality, class and so on and so forth are all human constructions. I do not think any human construction is able to fully encompass natural variation. So I think a stateless politics in that there are no restrictive labels and binaries, and that all human variation can exist freely is extremely beneficial in the long term or in a utopia.

However, I think in our current society, to advocate "stateless" politics is to advocate a set of beliefs that are inevitably in favour of CIS heteronotmativity, ableism, whiteness, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism and all of the other systems that our society are governed by invisibly. When we ask people who are oppressed by these systems to advocate "stateless" politics, we inevitably ask them to "speak all things to all people and speak everyone else's position but our [their] own", as Audre Lorde said. To create space that combats erasure is a reaction to the deliberate act of erasure. I think we should focus our energy on critiquing and dismantling systems that are acting out the abuse, not on those who are reacting to it.

OKA: You have mentioned in other interviews that you feel that the talents of Black creatives in Britain are not being recognized in all their fullness, and you argue that that is because Black artists are not allowed the space to fully realize their talents in the UK. As a young creative, what do you think would need to be done in order to create those spaces, and how can that come about without putting that burden largely on the backs of Black artists?

Emeke: I think the fact you have to ask me this question is extremely telling. You are having to act the victim of a problem what the solution is, because we all know those responsible for making things the way the are, are not held accountable for their actions. We know "they" won't do anything so we are left to ask each other "what shall we do?" That says it all for me. I think the lack of space and support for black artists in the UK is just one symptom of a much bigger and gigantic problem. There is a systemic and institutional problem at the foundation of British society and until there is a huge upheaval and change at the very core of society then we are left trying to dismantle the masters house with the masters tools. And we already know that doesn't bring a lasting or adequate change.

OKA: You have said that it is important to you to help fight the myth that today’s Black youth are disinterested in politics. How do you see participating or creating web series like Strolling as innovating on more traditional forms of political engagement?

Emeke: I'm not particularly concerned with encouraging young people to participate in traditional forms of political engagement which ultimately is comprised of several repackaged versions of the same elitist, unrepresentative groups. I'm more concerned with encouraging people to think critically about everything, including the current political system and whether or not it is serving its purpose, and alternatives systems. The advantage of addressing issues through voices of ordinary people is that it is actually relevant. I think it is odd to blindly listen to and trust those with money, resources and power that we can't imagine to act in our interest, when the oppression of us all is exactly what sustains their position. Strolling takes control back of our narrative and has our best interest at heart.

OKA: I love that both “Strolling” and “Ackee and Salt Fish,” are focused on creating creative platforms in which black women can talk honestly about their experiences and concerns. Despite decades of Black women and feminists advocating for the same for decades, in 2014 the voices of Black women in the media or other creative realms are still hard to come by. Why do you think that still is?

Emeke: Again I think this is a symptom of a much bigger problem; one both imposed on society and one that has also been internalized by many of us for survival.

OKA: You have said that you do not intentionally frame your work around “blackness and womanhood” per se, but that you are merely responding to them. Would you mind explaining what you mean by that?

Emeke: So I was part of a panel at a talk recently, comprised of all black women, and we were all asked if we identify as black feminists. To my surprise I was the only one who did, though everyone seemed to identify with black feminist/womanist thought but they wanted to distance themselves from that term specifically for various reasons. Despite many of them having various valid reasons, it seemed to come across to onlookers as not wanting to call it what it is and shying away from the very directness of the term "Black Feminism," even though that probably isn't why they said what they said. In hindsight I can see why maybe my above remark may possibly be interpreted as a similar "cop-out" or "petty" distinction. But it's the opposite. I am very intentional in everything I do. So I would probably rephrase my answer if I were asked that again.

The question I was asked was "do you intentionally center your work on blackness and womanhood" and of course as a black woman my answer is "well I'm a black woman, so of course I'm going to talk about people like me in my work, how can I not?". And that was kind of what I was saying. But in the context of the anti-black, patriarchal society we live in where we are constantly asked to center people other than ourselves, the question was really asking "in a world where whiteness and masculinity are default, and all creatives are pressured to make creative work that has this white, patriarchal gaze in mind, do you intentionally center your work on blackness and womanhood or did you not get the memo?" And to say no to that latter question is to almost shy away from wanting to be direct about what I'm doing which is not me at all. I'm very direct. So I would change my answer to that question I was asked in a previous interview and say that yes, I'm just merely responding to my reality, but I am 100% intentional in that decision to center my reality, and reject the notion that I should speak all things for all people other than myself, and so yes I am intentionally focusing on blackness and womanhood in my work.

OKA: You have talked about how Angela Davis and Audre Lorde are two of your biggest influences, even dedicating your poem “Eaten Alive” to Lorde. But you also have discussed how important it is for you to help create a platform to young Black Briton’s to express themselves without having to latch on to an American or Caribbean of African identity, and Lorde and Davis works are based on their experiences of being Black women in the United States. How do you create work that speaks to the unique experience of being a Black European or British woman while at the same time underlining some of the commonalities of those experiences between Blacks across the Diaspora?

Emeke: I think people of the African diaspora of course have similarities in their experiences because of the global systems governing our reality, but of course there are also differences. I think its great to learn what others before you in similar situations have done, even if they weren't in the exact circumstances. I think people like Audre Lorde or Angela Davis have stayed true to their truth in their work, and much of it happens to resonate with me. Similarly I think if I continue to create work true to me, perhaps it will resonate with others.

OKA: You have talked about how when you were younger, that you thought it was your responsibility to change yourself in order to make others feel more comfortable with who you are. Your poems, like “Origin” and your films, for me, because of their bluntness and honesty achieve the opposite effect. Was that effect something you sought to do?

Emeke: I just aim for honesty in my work, perhaps that makes people uncomfortable. Perhaps that is politically useful for people to self-reflect on why honesty makes them uncomfortable and why our society encourages pretence.

OKA: Many of your poems, especially your recorded pieces, like “Legato,” “Real Recognise,” and “Casually Coiffed,” are set to beats and produced like pieces of music. How important or influential is music when coming up with a spoken word piece?

Emeke: Music is something I love and it really influences me. I think music can move and influence people in unspeakable ways that defies our own understanding.

OKA: In a recent post for Afropunk, you spoke candidly about how part of your goal for “Strolling” is to show that you do not need a degree in cultural studies to have nuanced and politically charged opinions about what’s happening on societal level and how that relates to individual experiences. How do the arts help fill in the gaps or outdo academia in this regard?

Emeke: Lupe Fiasco once summed up my sentiments when he said something along the lines of academia being a place for "intellectuals to masturbate over their intelligence together." I think often it is the artist who bridges this gap. But we shouldn't need art to engage with people. Whats the point of a system that doesn't do what it's meant to do? Take your tax money, distract you and condition you. "Keep that nigger running" after GCSE's, A Levels, diplomas, degrees and job titles, meanwhile they keep you poor, uneducated, sick and depressed.

Adwoa Afful is a Ghanaian-Canadian fashion and culture blogger based in Toronto, who writes about fashion from a feminist perspective. You can follow her at her blog The Style Idle.

Artwork: Barthélémy Toguo Lockdown Selfportrait 10, 2020. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co

1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair Goes to Paris in 2021

The longstanding celebration of African art will be hosted by Parisian hot spot Christie's for the first time ever.

In admittedly unideal circumstances, 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair will be touching French soil in 2021. The internationally celebrated art fair devoted to contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora will be hosted in Paris, France from January 20 - 23. With COVID-19 still having its way around the globe, finding new ways to connect is what it's all about and 1-54 is certainly taking the innovative steps to keep African art alive and well.
In partnership with Christie's, the in-person exhibits will take place at the auction house's city HQ at Avenue Matignon, while 20 international exhibitors will be featured online at And the fun doesn't stop there as the collaboration has brought in new ways to admire the talent from participating galleries from across Africa and Europe. The fair's multi-disciplinary program of talks, screenings, performances, workshops, and readings are set to excite and entice revelers.

Artwork: Delphine Desane Deep Sorrow, 2020. Courtesy Luce Gallery

The tech dependant program, curated by Le 18, a multi-disciplinary art space in Marrakech medina, will see events take place during the Parisian run fair, followed by more throughout February.
This year's 1-54 online will be accessible to global visitors virtually, following the success of the 2019's fair in New York City and London in 2020. In the wake of COVID-19 related regulations and public guidelines, 1-54 in collaboration with Christie's Paris is in compliance with all national regulations, strict sanitary measures, and security.

Artwork: Cristiano Mongovo Murmurantes Acrilico Sobre Tela 190x200cm 2019

1-54 founding director Touria El Glaoui commented, "Whilst we're sad not to be able to go ahead with the fourth edition of 1-54 Marrakech in February as hoped, we are incredibly excited to have the opportunity to be in Paris this January with our first-ever fair on French soil thanks to our dedicated partners Christie's. 1-54's vision has always been to promote vibrant and dynamic contemporary art from a diverse set of African perspectives and bring it to new audiences, and what better way of doing so than to launch an edition somewhere completely new. Thanks to the special Season of African Culture in France, 2021 is already set to be a great year for African art in the country so we are excited to be playing our part and look forward, all being well, to welcoming our French friends to Christie's and many more from around the world to our online fair in January."

Julien Pradels, General Director of Christie's France, said, "Christie's is delighted to announce our second collaboration with 1-54, the Contemporary African Art Fair, following a successful edition in London this October. Paris, with its strong links to the continent, is a perfect place for such a project and the additional context of the delayed Saison Africa 2020 makes this partnership all the more special. We hope this collaboration will prove a meaningful platform for the vibrant African art scene and we are confident that collectors will be as enthusiastic to see the works presented, as we are."

Artwork: Kwesi Botchway Metamorphose in July, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957

Here's a list of participating galleries to be on the lookout for:


31 PROJECT (Paris, France)
50 Golborne (London, United Kingdom)
Dominique Fiat (Paris, France)
Galerie 127 (Marrakech, Morocco)
Galerie Anne de Villepoix (Paris, France)
Galerie Cécile Fakhoury (Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire/ Dakar, Senegal)
Galerie Eric Dupont (Paris, France)
Galerie Lelong & Co. (Paris, France / New York, USA)
Galerie Nathalie Obadia (Paris, France / Brussels, Belgium)
Galleria Continua (Beijing, China / Havana, Cuba / Les Moulins, France / San Gimignano, Italy / Rome, Italy)
Gallery 1957 (Accra, Ghana / London, United Kingdom)
Loft Art Gallery (Casablanca, Morocco)

Luce Gallery (Turin, Italy)
MAGNIN-A (Paris, France)
Nil Gallery (Paris, France)
POLARTICS (Lagos, Nigeria)
SEPTIEME Gallery (Paris, France)
This is Not a White Cube (Luanda, Angola) THK Gallery (Cape Town, South Africa) Wilde (Geneva, Switzerland)

For more info visit 1-54

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