The Inside Story of Black British Queer Pioneer, Ajamu X

From https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/13098/the-inside-story-of-black-british-queer-pioneer-ajamu-x-archive-interview

Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography

CL Mayers has an audience with Ajamu X, the underground artist and archivist, who has an exhibition and book both around the corner

FEBRUARY 08, 2021

TEXT CL Mayers LEAD IMAGE Ajamu X, Circus Master Series, 1997 Courtesy the artist

DICKPRINT editor, CL Mayers, spoke with Ajamu X for the magazine’s inaugural issue back in 2019. Published online for the very first time, with updates on his latest exhibition Ajamu: Archive Sensoria, he speaks with Ajamu X about founding the Black Perverts Network, kink and fetish within the Black queer community, and his upcoming fine art book Ajamu: Archive.

In the basement of 9 Brighton Terrace in Brixton, the nightclub and cruise-bar Substation South used to host an underwear-themed event called Attitude. Monday nights here would witness an audience comprised of “99 per cent white men,” Ajamu X begins. “Roughly, at the end of the night, Black men would always congregate in a corner having sex with each other. White guys were slightly on the outside.” Suzie Kruger’s monthly fetish club night Fist, established in February 1994, would also hold its “sleaze pit for dicks and clits” – as advertised on their flyers – at Substation South too. Now though, the long-gone venue is an assortment of co-working spaces touted as a “vibrant, cool and contemporary workplace, a creative social campus – a landmark in the heart of Brixton”. In reality, it’s another queer venue fallen victim to a wave of high rises and higher rents. But an oral history, one which Ajamu recounts with glee, isn’t as easy to erase.

“I tried to get into Fist one night, and I was dressed in a full-length garment – you could just see my eyes,” he remembers. “The guy on the door was in a Nazi uniform. On one level, I found the image problematic but I could kind of work with it because it was in that space. I was dealing with it in the context of fantasy. This guy in the Nazi uniform then says to me, ’I cannot come in because I am not in fetish gear.’ I said to him, ’Call your manager!’ I’m not going to have somebody tell me what my fetish is or (what it) can’t be. I would argue that predominantly white gay men have colonised what fetish wear is. From the 1960s onwards, there has been a specific type of look.”

“I would argue that predominantly white gay men have colonised what fetish wear is” – Ajamu X

Ajamu is alluding to the dickprint-inducing Levi 501 jeans immortalised by urban gay men in the big cities and trickling up to films such as Cruising (1980). Or the leather-festooned folk captured in the photography of Hal Fischer and Robert Mapplethorpe – then shocking images that penetrated the public imagination and dominate the fetish and kink identity in the mainstream to this day. Ajamu feverishly notes that fetish goes beyond the stereotypes: “I think anything can be a fetish, period,” he offers curtly. In the early 90s, Ajamu visited America and attended Black Jacks, an event hosted by Alan Bell. Formed in 1986, this space was a safe place for Black gay men to meet up and engage in safer sex parties on the first Friday and third Saturday of each month. “I came back to London fired up thinking about how I and Black men take up spaces in white gay clubs and issues around having to justify one’s fetish at a fetish club.”

Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography
Ajamu X, Seyon, 2020Courtesy the artist
Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography
Ajamu X, Boots, 2020Courtesy the artist

I’ve nestled myself in the corner of Ajamu’s sofa, flicking through piles of memorabilia. Ajamu had invited me over to his place for our chat, granting me access to a daunting array of material: stacks of porn magazines from decades prior; queer and kinky zines; a ceiling-skimming bookcase and some notable documents and paraphernalia. Trains whizz past his back window, punctuating moments of silence in which he weighs his choice of words. He is charismatic, cheeky and mischievously flirtatious, but all in good nature. He pays complete attention throughout our time together and manages to jump between flippant quips and real earnestness – indulging me in a multitude of stories and histories. Every so often he retrieves books and artefacts from his encyclopaedic shelves to illustrate the conversation. Sensational Flesh by Amber Jamilla Musser, he tells me, is a “must-read”. As is Coldness & Cruelty by Gilles Deleuze. There is an audacious confidence about Ajamu as he details the scenes of his more radical endeavours. An audacity that you must need to establish a community like the Black Perverts Network.

“My politics have always been to create the space that I needed to step into first and then create a space whereby Black men could come and talk, connect, play, fuck, eat, drink, get tied up, get pissed on if they wanted to”

Founded in 1996 and operational until 2000, Black Perverts Network (BPN) was an organisation founded by Ajamu as a form of resistance against a community which he often felt ostracised from. It was a place of liberation for a cohort of Black and Brown gay men who felt isolated by their kinks and fetishes. The artist James Belasco illustrated all of their flyers with all events held within the same Brixton residence he currently resides in. “It was not only about creating this space for Black men into leather, rubber, PVC and water sports, it was also about playing around with this double negative. Black, I would argue, is still a word that has negative connotations. And then pervert is a seriously loaded word. So, Black Perverts Network! My politics have always been to create the space that I needed to step into first and then create a space whereby Black men could come and talk, connect, play, fuck, eat, drink, get tied up, get pissed on if they wanted to. Without being judged. That was the Black Perverts Network.”

Flyers were handed out to friends, fuck-buddies, and men met at saunas and cruising grounds, which have long ceased to exist. It was strictly invitation-only with the number of tops and bottoms needed for a successful night worked out by mood and day. Friends could invite friends, although he tells me that “If somebody just turned up it’s because they’ve heard through the grapevine … I would turn them away because it is still private property.” Some of the attendees would ask if they could bring their partners who were not Black or Brown men. Ajamu would tell them that it is a space for Black and Brown men only and rejects any claim of reverse racism with a poignant “Bollocks!”

Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography
Black Perverts Network flyerIllustration James Belasco, courtesy Ajamu X
Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography
Black Perverts Network flyerIllustration James Belasco, courtesy Ajamu X

“I think sometimes we have a fear of creating our own spaces because people push back against Black and Brown folks. A question is why are Black and Brown folks creating their own spaces?” On one hand, the majority of Black British spaces cater to heterosexual audiences predominantly. Here in the UK, a majority of queer spaces are often overwhelmingly white. It is equally as tricky within the context of kink and fetish. “The Black Perverts Network space was about me feeling less isolated as a Black gay man into kink and BDSM,” he starts “For me, when I have 25 Black men from the States, from Europe, in a room talking, some fucking or whatever – that proves why this space is needed. It’s as simple as that. It’s just there and for me, part of my politics. I’ve never been one about waiting for someone else to come along and do the space. I’m not from the school where I need permission, where I need validation, I just create the spaces that I need to create. Those who come, come. Those who don’t, they don’t. And that’s OK.”

“I recognise that lots of us don’t have our own spaces to bring men back to, and so once again, that’s part of my activism – to create a space where brothers can have pleasure” – Ajamu X

Historically, the Black body has been subject to both fascination and fetishisation. In English novelist Colin MacInnes’ 1957 novel City of Spades, he tells the stories of a burgeoning Caribbean community in West London. His fictional retelling has a lustful layer to it which perpetuates the same racial fetishisation and sexualisation that both Ajamu and myself still experience decades on: details of the “coloured boys” and how they “are wonderful fighters. You’re the tops”; characters who engage with Black men by “delicately feeling his bicep”. Darcus Howe, the civil rights activist and writer described MacInnes as “a sexual predator”. “He made a pass at me when I was working at the Mangrove [restaurant] and I told him to fuck off,” he says. “A fiver was a lot in those days and he paid at the top end. That’s how he was seen by the hustlers – give him what he wanted behind some dustbin and take the money – he wouldn’t have had a clue about the West Indian woman. It was all about men, Black men.” In the same Guardian article by Ed Vulliamy, he notes MacInnes’ “stereotypical view of Blackness as sexually exotic” and how it “seems, according to some accounts, to entail objectification.”

Today, although BPN has ceased operations, its spirit lives on. “My flat is also a refuge for when some brothers cannot accommodate,” he explains. “I recognise that lots of us don’t have our own spaces to bring men back to, and so once again, that’s part of my activism – to create a space where brothers can have pleasure.” In 2020, he teamed up with Channel 4 to release Me and My Penis, a documentary exploring the relationship men have with their penises, as well as the taboos surrounding it. In true Ajamu style, it notably featured the first fully erect penis to be broadcast on British national television.

Ajamu X archive Black queer art photography
Ajamu X, Seyon, 2020Courtesy the artist

This past January saw the reveal of his Frieze magazine cover, picturing his new muse, Seyon Amosu, in nothing but a pair of Vetements heels. “I capture what I find sexy. I think people can pick up that energy that I want the work to have. Ultimately, it is about what I find desirable in Black men and so my pictures are going to capture that,” he explains of the eye-catching cover. “What the image does actually … is gentle. We are used to images of Black men being aggressive, being violent, hyper-sexual. We also see Black men being quiet. This image is still quiet yet sexy, and then it does everything else. Also, people then read into what they want to read and add what they want to add. So basically, the image should never try to resolve something. It’s there to keep everything open and constantly moving.” This is only a glimpse of a range of new work that he has been producing. It’s had him revisiting some of his reading from the 90s and achieving that particular energy he is so fond of. “The challenge is how people can get a sense of the erotic or something sensuous. Even if the person is not naked. Even if they are clothed or covered in a sack from head to toe … how do they feel the different sensuous things about this. What’s erotic about him?”

“The challenge is how people can get a sense of the erotic or something sensuous … Even if they are clothed or covered in a sack from head to toe” – Ajamu X

It all seems to be leading up nicely to his upcoming exhibition at Cubitt in London. Initially set for a January reception, Ajamu: Archival Sensoria is rescheduled to open from 31 March to 23 May, 2021. Expect to encounter an array of his images at this show, with both young and old subjects, and work dating from the 80s and onwards. The exhibition will be soundtracked by Calvin Dawkins, whose curated a selection of songs “we used to jump around to during the 80s and 90s,” Ajamu explains. “As the people come in, they will hear this music and so really, a lot of my thinking is how we talk about the archive through the senses, not just a visual.” This sensory exploration ventures as far as his plans for his own fragrance. “There’s a project coming up! I will create a fragrance called the Darkroom. That’s all I’m saying! Hopefully, by the end of the year,” he teases.

In the meantime, we can look forward to Ajamu: Archive, his limited edition fine art book, crowdfunded with his £15,000 target being achieved in a mere six days. It will include close to 90 images: new, old and unseen – until now. Alongside this is a specially commissioned contextual analysis of his work by Professor Johnny Golding, Ajamu’s supervisor at the Royal College of Art. “I am working with Calvert Press who have a long history of working on artists’ books,” says Ajamu. “There’s one version that is regular and another that is leather-bound. There are only going to be 30 of those in the world. These are the ways I like to talk about how we are in the world, through the senses. Smell, touch and taste even … that’s where these ideas excite me more. There are these other ways which we also are in the world.” It would be easy to assume that times are indeed changing, and there have certainly been strides since his earlier 90s exhibition’s famously banned from exhibiting by the police. However, he is quick to note that although things may seem like things have progressed, there is still a lot of work left to be done. “If you pass laws on diversity and inclusion, people then think everything has shifted. However, laws do not move at the same pace as culture so then actually, we’re still dealing with that cultural experience.”

Head here to donate to the Ajamu: Archive Kickstarter campaign.