surprising photos of britain's subversive dancehall parties
Lua Ribeira's series 'Noises in the Blood' explores the clash between Western mores and Afro-Caribbean empowerment.
Dancehall has its roots in Jamaica, but Lua Ribeira isn't really interested in traveling to the Caribbean. Not as a photographer, anyway. Ribeira's dancehall series Noises in the Blood explores the community squarely as it exists in Birmingham, where the Spanish photographer now resides, and where Jamaican culture clashes sharply with Western mores. The unapologetic expression of female sexuality in dancehall is often seen, from a European perspective, as vulgar or violent. Even in mainstream pop music this policing still persists. "The UK is a super multicultural place but multiculturalism is consumed in a very commodified way — a 'clean' way for us to consume," Ribeira says. "In houses, or in the social clubs, things are happening that are under the surface."
The photographer's captivating series is not an attempt to explain what, exactly, lies under the surface. Through a seemingly random assortment of scenes — contorted female bodies, elaborate costumes, half-obscured faces, and faux-tropical plants — Ribeira relishes the visible clash of cultures, and the difficulty of fully understanding dancehall's rituals. She wants to feel awkward. "I came across [the artists] Spice, Lady Saw, and Vybz Kartel, and I really liked what I heard," Ribeira says of how she first discovered dancehall. "It was very sexually explicit and there was something going on there. It can start to feel like too much, and I was interested in why it felt too much for me."
An exhibition of Noises in the Blood opens at London's Fishbar gallery tonight. Ahead of the opening, we talked to Ribeira about her own preconceptions and dancehall's assertion of female power.
Noises in the Blood takes its title from an academic text of the same name. What about this text resonated with you as a photographer?
[The text is] by Carolyn Cooper, a professor of cultural studies. She was making a big effort for dancehall to be part of the academy, and analyzed it from an academic point of view. She argues that dancehall is not just about violence and sex. She started to question ideas of how women dress in dancehall, and its origins as they relate to Carnival and the African diaspora. She says that [what is seen as] violence can be a political reaction against a set of morals or values that doesn't work for everybody. It's a very transgressive discourse. When I found the text, it put in words everything that I had understood.
What does it mean that the series is shot in Birmingham rather than Jamaica?
I'm interested in what's happening in the house next door, in the same sort of house as mine. I don't think I would ever go to Jamaica to shoot for this series. I'm more interested in what's happening here, and its relation to the British Empire and colonization. There's a lot of tension with that in the UK. The British culture is polite so there are always things that are not spoken aloud. In Jamaican culture, they are not like that.
How does that western perception relate to gender? In Carolyn Cooper's text she talks about sexuality and the concept of female divinity.
In dancehall, the center of the celebration is always the women. The women are the ones on display, but they have a lot of control over what they do. For people from European backgrounds, dancehall can be condemned as sexist. But who is the sexist? It's much more complicated than that. The women, in dancehall, are defining their own sexuality.
How do your images explore the women's clothing, makeup, and wigs?
It's a lot about transformation. Clothes and accessories are used very creatively, the outfits will not be worn twice, and there is always this sort of great expectation to see how girls are coming to the parties. It is true that the body is graciously displayed in very different ways, and it is because of this that it is often judged from a Western understanding of femininity. I believe it should be looked at from a point of view that takes into consideration the idea of Carnival — dressing up and transforming into someone, or something, else. Nigerian cultural critic Bibi Bakare-Yusuf said, "One of the things to continue to fascinate me about women in dancehall culture is their use of the mask, spectacle, and the assertion of female power in all its diversities and complexities."
What is the role of men in dancehall, and in your series? I kept going back to the random older man sitting on a chair behind the table in his house.
I have a few pictures of men. That is how they are in dancehall, they're behind the scenes.
Most of the portraits are shot in industrial or residential locations, but they are often juxtaposed with photos of tropical plants. Why did you decide to include those?
I started to go into the botanical gardens. In the UK they have these gardens dedicated to tropical plants. Not all of the plants I shot are tropical, but some look very tropical. I kept them because it felt right. I was working a lot with stereotypes and clichés.
The project seems to explore your reaction to the community as much as it does the community itself. What did you learn about yourself?
I always like to feel like I'm in the wrong place a little bit. That awkwardness is really interesting to me. I'm learning about what sort of pictures I'm interested in making, and what sort of relationship I'm establishing with the people who I want to make them with. In a way, I'm not that interested in the culture in an anthropological way. I am as a person, but my obsession with creating the images I want to create is more powerful than that. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what the subject is. What is interesting for me is how I get the picture I want. More recently, I have been making friends within the dancehall community and going to the parties.
So you're still close with the people you have shot?
Yes. I'm actually working on a new project with some of the people from Noises in the Blood. This time it's not a dancehall project. I want to mix [this community] with completely different people as well — people from other backgrounds and other cultures. I'm interested in structure and narrative, so I'm playing with ideas of fiction and the labels between what is real or documentary and what is not.
"Noises in the Blood" is on at Fishbar in London from May 11 through May 21, 2017.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Lua Ribeira