On Blackness and Belonging in Berlin and Beyond with Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor

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Alice Finney

It’s an unusually warm and sunny spring morning in Berlin and, while the rest of the city head home after a night of clubbing, Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor settles down across the sofa from me in Prachtwerk, a hipster co-working and coffee space in the middle of Neukölln. The American artist, performer and filmmaker is a little pressed for time – what with recently becoming a mother – yet has agreed to meet me to talk about her latest film ‘Mütterede’ and her hugely successful salons ‘Black in Berlin’.

Whether it’s the sunny weather or the post-baby glow, or indeed whether, as I suspect, she always radiates this much energy and warmth, Jessica arrives positively glowing. She is currently enjoying a hiatus from her salon series, revelling in spending time bonding with her young daughter, a daughter who Jessica believes came as an act of “fate”.

“I don't think it can be ignored that I had a girl child,” she explains. A few months in to working on her new film, ‘Mutterede’, she coincidentally fell pregnant. “I feel like that whole process infused my pregnancy and my birth and my baby – she was definitely listening through all that,” she confirms. ‘Mutterede’, which was made in collaboration with filmmaker Astrid Gleichmann, traces the histories of five black femmes through in-depth interviews and discussions. It explores the rituals and teachings passed on through matriarchal lines, essentially becoming a celebratory archive for forgotten or repressed histories.

If it wasn’t pregnancy that gave Jessica the idea for ‘Mutterede’, then what was it I ask? Her response is given in typical Jessica form (measured, well thought out and well spoken): “When I had the idea for the project I was in my garden at the studio. I was thinking about gardening and my mother, and my grandmother, and about ancestry and matriarchal lineages. I was just thinking about the pieces of the puzzle that I don’t have, because of shame and trauma. She [her grandmother] had never opened up about her life or anything and I realised that that is a commonality among black femmes. And so I started the project”. So while the film is rooted in the personal histories and traditions of these five femmes, it simultaneously draws on political issues associated with colonial topography, landscape and power, making it a highly accessible, relatable watch.

The desire to produce such readily available work comes at a time when more and more people of colour are using the internet to find and form their own support groups. From global Instagram pages like ‘Women of Colour for Solidarity’, to national Facebook groups such as ‘The Black Berlin Group’, individuals are increasingly turning to online sites and apps for knowledge and to make connections with fellow people of colour. And as this shift continues, accessibility has become an increasingly important goal for Jessica. The medium of film allows her to reach a much wider audience than traditional art galleries, allowing her to “share the film with people from the entire African diaspora”. Upon realising that “there isn’t a lot of documentation of our [black artists’] work” due to factors like stress, trauma and erasure, Jessica has decided to release Mutterede as both a feature length film (which can be seen at public screenings or online on Kweli TV), and as episodes on YouTube.

In this digital era, how does something so rooted in the physical world, something like the ‘Black in Berlin’ salons fit in? “I think having that direct validation is important: seeing the words come out of those peoples mouths is something different than being online. After every salon I had black and brown German people coming up to me and say they’ve never been around this many black people before”. The salons are designed to be safe spaces where individuals from all over the African diaspora can come and discuss issues around a selected theme as well as form relationships and expand the community here in Berlin. Proof of their success can be seen in the attendee numbers, which have grown exponentially each year. As Jessica informs me, when the salon in 2013 it was “a group of 10-12 of us in a room”. Just three years later and the salons were being filled with around 70 people from across the city.

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Since starting out five years ago, I am keen to hear what else has changed for Jessica, both in terms of her Black in Berlin salons and indeed in her personal experiences as a black woman living here. “I have realised that since moving here my perspective on blackness is very limited. When I moved here my eyes were opened up to the vast multiplicities of blackness,” she admits. She goes on to highlight that the changing face of the city and the much talked about influx of foreigners here has prompted both positive change as well as creating an area of tension. “In the beginning, we were out here alone. It’s wonderful that the city is opening up. Now you see the occasionally black person. At the same time it’s like a pendulum - with newcomers and more refugees we have seen a rise in right wing politics. That’s something I notice – the city used to be a lot safer”. One can only hope that with people like Jessica widening the discourse around race here, this pendulum will permanently swing in the right direction.