The idea that two women, from different continents and very different backgrounds, could connect and develop a remarkable friendship over many years, may be surprising to many. When one of those women is Dr. Maya Angelou, the American poet, novelist and mother who was born in St Louis, Missouri in the United States and the other is Margaret Courtney-Clarke, writer and photographer who was born in Swakopmund, South West Africa (now Namibia), the unexpected friendship and the conversations that ensued, offers those of us looking for hope and other ways of being, fresh impetus.
Although the poetry and writings of Dr. Angelou and the photography of Margaret Courtney-Clarke are distinct, their forms of responses to the crises of the times echo the shared meanings evident in their friendship, which began in 1987 and spanned twenty-seven years until the death of Dr. Angelou in 2014. The scope of Dr. Angelou's writing, which often began its early life on yellow legal notepads, is vast, each penned word powerful enough to evoke, to resist, and to imagine. Courtney-Clarke's photographs of the late poet and writer are not only arresting in their photographic right, they speak of comradery, love, and respect. These images are infused with a whimsy and charm that allows for a moment of respite and to breathe, especially necessary in a time such as now.
The rhythm, inflection, and pitch evident in Angelou's poems dance in tune with the exposure, composition, colour, and implied movement of Courtney-Clarke's photographs. These make the point that perhaps things are not as dissimilar as they first appear to be for those of us reaching for connections in a world where everything is in flux. Patterns and emphases in the poems selected for this exhibition urge us to coalesce around a mutual vision and dream of what it would feel like to be truly free, safe not only from physical harm, but being in a world where difference is celebrated, unkindness and injury are shuttered, and points of convergence are treasured.
Much has been written on the relationship between the photograph and death, the latter no small matter in a world held to ransom by the Covid-19 pandemic that has illuminated – like the flash of a camera – the persistent lines of global inequality, violence, and injustice. In sharp contrast, Courtney-Clarke's collection of photographs and memorabilia gestures towards key moments that constitute life. The exchanges of friendship between the two women offer hope to those of us who are interested in the business of being human, the opportunity to see what is possible when unexpected bonds are allowed to take root. Each item in this exhibition bears testimony to women who share values of courage, joy, compassion, and strength and the power that these hold in addressing fault lines that exist as a result of history.
I imagine that if I listen closely enough I will be able to hear the laughter and the small-talk of three extraordinary women - Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Dr. Maya Angelou and Professor Eleanor Traylor - peering through point-and-shoot cameras, this moment of chatter that silences, even momentarily, the demons of a racialised past that separate the whites, the blacks and the greys in between. I imagine playing dress up in the much-loved red dresses of Dr. Angelou, in search of layered traces of fortitude and resilience that were passed onto her by countless women through the decades and centuries that came before.
In these photographs by Margaret Courtney-Clarke and in the poems of Dr. Angelou that speak particularly to and of women, we are left bolstered by the pen of a legend, safe in the knowledge that anything is possible if we dare to dream large. Furthermore, if we stand together and insist on the settlement of the debt that we are owed, we may yet enjoy the life that women would want to bequeath to all – a legacy of freedom and unfettered, dance-filled joy.
Text by Siona O’Connell