“How should a bi-racial person with light skin express themselves about racial oppression . . . ?” asked Amber Ablett in the text for her recent show “Rehearsal for A Change Gonna Come.” This was the question underpinning the only work in the exhibition, a 2021 video installation of the same title, which consisted of three freestanding screens in the darkened exhibition space. Each screen showed the artist in front of a projection of a different amateur video in which a young Black person is singing. Their figures are superimposed on the body of the artist as she tries to copy their movements while lip-synching their words. Portions of the videos have been slowed down and speeded up, resulting in a distortion of sound. In the installation, fragments of the individual performances overlapped in varying degrees of disharmony. Still, visitors could discern the song by the three performers—Destiney Brooks, Dwayne Cooke, and Xavian D. Lewis—as Sam Cooke’s 1964 classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” (the modification of the original title in the name for the exhibition went unexplained). As a biracial person who grew up in London, Ablett occupies a position in relation to the themes addressed in Cooke’s anthem—the long-running history of racial oppression in America and the demand for a different future—that is not as direct as that of the singers. Yet through her performance she attempts to embody their relationship to the lyrics of the song and, through this effort, to find her own connection to it.
To try to gain access to someone’s firsthand experience through the act of mimicry, as Ablett does in Rehearsal for A Change Gonna Come, can seem counterintuitive. Sitting in the darkened exhibition space, I was struck by the self-consciousness Ablett’s body betrayed as she attempted to copy the three performances. Her presentation was a kind of awkward corporeal karaoke. In sections where close-ups of Ablett filled the screen, her facial expressions and body language gave the impression of someone at a loss, or who was simply confused by her own undertaking. Rather than allowing her to merge with the original performers, the artist’s stilted movements and lip-synching widened the perceptible gap between her and them. The young people’s singing is heartfelt; they seem to have a direct line to the song’s original message. Lewis is surrounded by people filming his performance and cheering him on, making the contrast with Ablett’s isolated replication especially vivid. In this way the work underlined the confusion and disorientation of living in an in-between state, creating a slight dissonance with the artist’s intention to comment “on how white-passing Black people can use their position to support others in their community.” This purpose found a more direct outlet through the series of discussion workshops with Gestalt therapist Vikram Kolmannskog that Ablett facilitated in conjunction with the exhibition. Here, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color were invited to discuss the state of in-betweenness inherent in a two-culture or dual-identity background. (Charts drawn onto the floor, notes, and drawings from the first workshop could be viewed in an adjacent room.)
Despite the difficulty of squaring the video installation’s content with the exhibition’s stated aims, there is nothing disingenuous about Ablett’s performance in the videos. Some of the questions she asks about finding her own voice in the conversation about Blackness, race, and the fight for justice might remain unanswered, but by turning her own body to the matter and showcasing her own vulnerability, she points to the necessity of balancing human empathy and group solidarity with an openness to what is unique in the experience of living with an intermediate status.