Before Them, We: Exploring Lives, Legacies, and Intergenerational Relationships

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In conversation with cultural producer and artist Ruth Sutoyé, about her recent exhibition "Before Them: We" — a reflection on archiving and preserving oral histories.
Photographs courtesy of Ruth Sutoyé

Early August, in Brixton, the Black Cultural Archives unveiled their newest exhibition: 'Before Them: We' by British-Nigerian producer Ruth Sutoyé. An artist across many disciplines, Sutoyé often creates opportunities for conversation by weaving mediums such as photography, poetry, and film. This time, the conversation centers around history, tales of migration, and capturing stories before they are no longer within reach.

With generations birthed in the diaspora often being geographically distant from home, 'Before Them: We' shows us that collecting and sharing our stories brings home closer. It is a much-needed reminder that we all have a role to play in preserving our families' stories, and a call to reflect on how we may equip future generations with archives created uniquely for them. We spoke with Sutoyé about her art, finding inspiration through grief, and how we can respond to this reminder to preserve oral histories.

"Perhaps I'm obsessed with the notion of archiving and creating for when my children are older and for my future grandchildren and great-grandchildren. For when I'm no longer here, they can trace things and find work made here and now for them."

Let's start with place. Where are you from, where are you now?

I was born and raised in London. I'm Nigerian by heritage, specifically Ijaw and Yoruba by ethnic group. I'm from Hackney in East London. Although I've lived in a few other places around the world, I always ended up coming back home to London. I think British Nigerian is an identifier that I'm comfortable with.

How would you describe yourself as an artist? 

I'm a storyteller at heart and multidisciplinary in practice, working across different mediums. In the past, I've used poetry. Now, I'm doing more visual work, primarily through photography and directing. I'm a cultural producer, and I think that also feeds into my practice as an artist. So, I'm a multidisciplinary artist and producer if we were going to use labels.

You recently launched a new exhibition Before Them: We, could you tell us a bit more about that project?

Before Them: We is a project exploring the lives of African grandparents based in the UK and their intergenerational relationships. It's really about seeking out the stories of our grandparents and our elders before they established families. Who were they? What kind of lives did they live and fulfill before creating all of these legacies through children and grandchildren? 

This project has many layers; the exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives features photographic and audio interviews. I interviewed the families I photographed, doing these oral history interviews to learn more about their humanity outside of their families. I was really blessed to just hear the shared stories.

You chose to center stories of migration, home, relationships. Why the focus on preservation and history? 

When I think about my practice, there's the lens of being a black British artist and knowing there's a canon here that many of us contribute to, from many angles. And it's beautiful to see it continue to build. Any work I create reflects things I'm not necessarily seeing, but I want to see, and that's why I generated it. To continue contributing to the black British canon with our stories so that we're the ones telling them.

And why preservation in history? I think the intergenerational element rings throughout all of my projects — the longing to engage with audiences of all generations and keep that intra-communal dialogue between us, our elders, and our children. 

I think it's just essential to know that we live in a cycle; nothing is new. We need to continue to learn from each other. As a Nigerian — and many African and West Indian cultures can relate — much of our history is passed on orally. So the oral history element is vital, but it's also about the documentation of that history so that it doesn't get lost.

Perhaps I'm obsessed with the notion of archiving and creating for when my children are older and for my future grandchildren and great-grandchildren. For when I'm no longer here, they can trace things and find work made here and now for them.

"This provides nuance to their humanity outside of the narrative of them being matriarchs or patriarchs. It gives us more empathy towards them, our parents, and in turn, more empathy towards ourselves. "

You've described this as an "expression of your grief," could you share more about the inspiration behind this project?

My maternal grandmother and I were very close. I wasn't a photographer at the time of her passing. She used to live with us here before she went back home to Nigeria and then passed there. I was angry for a long time. Grief is not linear at all, you think you're over something, and then everything comes back afresh. When I started writing the brief for this project, it was from a deep place of grief.

I thought about the stories she told me before she had my mom: what she was up to, the businesses she ran. She spoke six languages. She was just so legendary to me. I was just very regretful that I didn't take photos of her more or record our conversations. 

I used to process things in essay form, and I was upset that I didn't document some of our conversations in that form. So I could cling to those when my grandmother would be gone. This project is an expression of grief and homage, and honor to her.

"Before Them: We" isn't your first time expressing your art through an exhibition format. Your 2019 exhibition Bald Black Girl(s) helped amplify stories of Black women who choose to shave their heads. Tell us a bit more about how and why you use the exhibition format to share your art.

I'm a producer, but I'm also a curator by nature; I enjoy creating opportunities for people to congregate. I don't know if it's the "first-born-third-parent" in me that just likes to rally people together. I've also been heavily impacted by art and through different art mediums from my visiting of exhibitions. So I think subconsciously, I lean into it as a primary way I share my art with the world.

When you go to the homes of elders, sit in their living rooms, view all their photos and family portraits, it's such an intimate experience.  I think this specific exhibition has leaned into that. The way I thought about the images and how Natalie has curated the space feels very intimate. I choose exhibitions because it creates the opportunity to gather.

As diasporas grow larger and broader, what are your thoughts on how we might all be able to preserve our stories?

The whole project is a call to action to start to archive conversations with your parents and grandparents. Record, record, record, take photos, take Polaroids, get your phone out, determine the things you want to find out from them, and let them know that it's crucial that their legacy outlives them. Ask them about who they were dating at 19, what clubs that they went to. Be respectful but don't be afraid to ask them the questions you want to know. 

In a way, this provides nuance to their humanity outside of the narrative of them being matriarchs or patriarchs. It gives us more empathy towards them, our parents, and in turn, more empathy towards ourselves. 

On a different note - what are you reading, listening to, or watching right now?

I typically watch things to numb myself and prepare to plunge back into things I have to do, whether that's my full-time job or freelance work. So, I'm rewatching Suits at the moment. Because I love Gabriel Macht. I'm listening to Made in Lagos, but I've been listening to the album for the last several months on repeat. It's one of my favorite albums from Wizkid; as a fan from the inception of his career to now, it's his most mature album. It's an album that goes with everything: if I'm washing the plates, if I'm driving, if I'm going for a walk. Made in Lagos goes with everything.

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Ruth Sutoyé is a cultural producer and multidisciplinary artist, whose work spans across photography, film and poetry.

A Roundhouse Resident Artist and Barbican Young Poet alumna, her work has featured in several publications and platforms including Peepal Tree Press, University of the Arts London and The Cob Gallery. She served as Project Manager for Heaux Noire, an organization amplifying the work of Black & Brown womxn artists in the UK.

Sutoyé has performed, showcased and produced across the UK and abroad, including Southbank Centre, St Paul's Cathedral and Lagos International Poetry Festival. Recent exhibitions include Lineage and Bald Black Girl(s), supported by Arts Council England.

You can keep up with Ruth Sutoyé on Twitter and Instagram. To attend the exhibition or related workshops, visit the Black Cultural Archives.