‘Black Faces in White Spaces’: Spotlight on Rhian Spencer

 (BA Drawing, Camberwell College ’16)

Rhian, Photo courtesy of Jay Lee

Rhian, Photo courtesy of Jay Lee

At first glance, the 10 portraits in Rhian Spencer’s degree show at Camberwell College, ‘Black Faces in White Spaces’, look like charcoal drawings. But linger a few seconds longer, and his subjects—quite literally—come to life. Their movements are subtle, nothing more than blinks and head tilts, but effective.  

The 22-year-old artist feels his work is ‘about making invisible people visible’. And it is no coincidence that the first portrait Rhian worked on was his own.

 

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‘Black Faces in White Spaces’, Extract courtesy of Rhian Spencer

“Intimidating”, Rhian laughs, “sitting in the canteen, so intimidating”. We’re sitting in a small cafe in Elephant and Castle, where Rhian recounts classmates’ descriptions of his first-year self. Throughout our conversation—he speaks with a smile. In explaining incidents of racism or prejudice that he’s faced, Rhian is equally concerned with understanding the mindset of the tutor or student in question. Born and raised in East London, Rhian started drawing to communicate at a young age, because he was born hard of hearing. But at age 16, he started taking his work seriously. “I was really excited to go to Camberwell when I first applied.” By the end of his first day, Rhian felt isolated within his BA Sculpture class. “Being the only person of colour, or the token person in your class…it was kind of hard to connect us”. Friendship groups quickly formed based on geographic backgrounds—and Rhian was ‘the one person that didn’t know where to go’. When I asked him why people grouped off this way, he replied: “I don’t know. Maybe it’s—I’m just making assumptions—maybe it’s not the best thing. But the way I look back on the situation now is: they made these friends that they had more in common with. And, the way I kind of looked, and kind of acted—like I’m from London, from a working class area. They were a bit more sceptical to hang around with me. A bit more—scared. Intimidated. Which is fine, it’s alright.” But being on the course made him feel lonely. Worried about coming across as ‘the angry black man’, or as being ‘too black’—he stayed out of the studio for much of his first year.

Rhian, Photo courtesy of Jay Lee

Rhian, Photo courtesy of Jay Lee

After encouragement from the course leader, Rhian decided to transfer onto the Drawing course at the start of his second year. He also started directly addressing race in his work. Rhian explained that he was initially hesitant, because “I don’t want to be the only black person in the class making work about black issues because I’m black. I don’t have to be like the token representation— addressing these issues.”

But the more he read, the more the subject of race came to the fore. After looking at the ways in which “mass media can create a negative perception of black people”, Rhian was inspired by Black British artists, like Keith Piper and Sonia Boyce, who were trying to change these negative perceptions through their work in the 1980s and 1990s. “That was so long ago,” he reflected, “and I still relate to how you were feeling then”. And yet at Camberwell, he felt no “presence” of people wanting to talk about racial identity.

Rhian’s tutor suggested he combine his technical drawing abilities with his digital literacy in his practice. After drawing a self-portrait on an iPad Pro with an app called Procreate—he made his drawn face move using Motion Portrait. Rhian figured: “the best thing I can do now is create a series of drawings called ‘Black Faces in White Spaces’ and actually go around talking to people.”

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‘Black Faces in White Spaces’, Extract courtesy of Rhian Spencer

 

He chose ten people of colour on campus: students, and faculty working in the canteen and Administration office. Despite having no BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) tutors, Rhian said, “we had people that worked in the canteen. Worked in Administrations. And, in the beginning of the first year—when I wasn’t really feeling best in my class—I was going to them anyway. So I had a really good relationship with people outside—those kind of staff members. I think the main thing with the project I was trying to do is make people that weren’t visible—visible. That was the main thing.”

The work Rhian was creating at Camberwell was supported by faculty members typically excluded from gallery openings and degree shows on campus. Rhian then applied for funding from Mark Crawley, the Dean of Students at UAL,  who agreed to fund the whole project. Displayed on an iPad with a wood frame that matched its host wall, these digital portraits were placed in the parts of the college ‘associated’ with its subject: people in the Administration near their department, students in their departments, and so forth. “So this experience of walking through the building”, Rhian said, could be like “meeting these people for the first time”. The digital animation was a way to foster a connection—to make it more than just a drawing—to humanise his portraits.

As for the process of studying his subjects, although Rhian did a few observational sketches during interviews, he said that “really I would have a conversation with them about their experiences. Me opening up and them opening up. And talking about issues regarding race and diversity: their experiences at UAL working or studying.”

I asked Rhian if there was a notable difference in the experiences of students versus faculty on campus. “I feel like the staff’s experience was a bit more—they knew how to handle it because they’d been there for several years. They’d been there for over ten years. They could reflect on the experiences they had when they first got there. But they knew how to operate in that space,” he told me. Students are more openly frustrated. One of the staff members Rhian spoke to said “‘I can’t believe you as a student, as a black male, are still having these problems—when I was, in the 1980s, sorting them out.’”

Rhian thinks the lack of open dialogue on race is one reason so little has changed. The feeling that “no one’s really talking about it” at the school. Why aren’t people talking? “I don’t know—I can assume maybe it’s due to this London attitude of everything’s brushed under the rug, and kind of silent. As opposed to—look at America this year. Everything is really vocal. On the media, etc. Whereas, in Britain, it’s this kind of undertone issue.”

Rhian, Photo courtesy of Jay Lee

Rhian, Photo courtesy of Jay Lee

Rhian recalls trying to speak to some of his first-year tutors about the difficulties he was experiencing as the only person of colour on his course. “They were trying to say ‘there’s no problem’. The fact that you’ve got problems is in your head. So like, you should just stop thinking like that, and focus on other things. Where—that was like the main block for me. Like I couldn’t even get past it. I needed to address it in some way. And I failed to address it in the second year. Then I stopped, and I read a bit more for my dissertation. Came back and addressed it again. After I’d read a bit more and contextualised my idea.”

Around the same time, the #UAL so White campaign took off on campus. In 2015, UAL’s Equality and Diversity report showed that while 45% of UAL’s student population is of BAME background—there are only 126 BAME academic staff compared to 1,333 white staff. There is also an attainment gap for students: BAME students are 21% less likely to get a 1st or 2:1 in comparison to white students, and 45% of international students graduate with a 2:2 or 3rd class degree. When Rhian asked his tutor about the attainment gap, she thought that many of the tutors “didn’t know how to deal” with the content of the work because an inability—or unwillingness—to “get their head around these issues when they don’t feel like it is an issue”.

All the more reason, Rhian felt, to keep things simple. “Forget all the fancy digital stuff around it: Black Faces in White Spaces. This is how I feel.”

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‘Black Faces in White Spaces’, Extract courtesy of Rhian Spencer

 

I asked Rhian if he’d seen any progressive changes happening with the success of the UAL So White campaign, and endorsement of his show from Mark Crawley. Small ones—he says.

So what immediate changes could the University be making to support diversity on campus?

“UAL should care a bit more”, he replied, “Literally that’s all it takes.” He feels that if change in the faculty is expected to take 10 years (an estimate he heard thrown out at a recent Diversity Matters event), then the University should work even harder to support student action. Events around race and diversity should be advertised all over the University—and they should not be targeted at BAME students only. “It’s creating awareness of someone who’s trying to make a change. It’s not hard to me.”

What more does he suggest for aiding a sense of belonging—for both students and staff of colour—at UAL?

“Don’t feel alone. Don’t feel like it’s just you. Get out and talk to more people. Looking back on it I feel like I should have done it in the second year when I was feeling discomfort. Straight away I should have gone out and started talking to people about these issues.”

At Camberwell, Rhian and a group of fellow students meet once a week to discuss diversity activism, and share personal experiences, on campus. He’s hoping to get a designated safe space—“and it’s open to everyone” to engage in discussion. And in September he will be employed by Camberwell as a student mentor. “I had no one from a BAME background to guide me a certain way. Apart from the staffers in the canteen— or Administrations—that were really helpful.

Does he think a mentoring system could be applied University wide?

“I think so—let’s see how this year goes as like a pilot year. I don’t want to be there wasting anyone’s time. I actually want to help. In 6 months time—if it’s been effective, then definitely.”

Keep an eye out: UAL bought all 10 portraits from ‘Black Faces in White Places’ as part of its permanent collection. Rhian plans to keep adding more portraits across UAL—and with each drawing, he is working to make ‘the invisible visible’.