Thinking About Home With Jeano Edwards
Interview by Alice Otieno
There’s much more to Jeano Edwards than meets the eye. For the Jamaican born film-maker / photographer, everything is a matter of perspective. His thoughtfulness and sensitivity in how he views the world is more than evident. Though having briefly met a year and a half ago, our conversation was very different from the first.
His project, ‘Familiar Strangers’ (2019) takes us on a journey of reconciling with a cultural split, of having been born in a different country than the one you reside in currently. It explores the fluidity in identifying with one’s cultural heritage and using it to ground oneself in a sense of belonging. Recent collaborative films ‘Thinkin’ Home’ (2020) and ‘Adidas Originals by Wales Bonner’ (2021) highlights the value he places on documenting both, what being Jamaican means to him as well as capturing the scene in Jamaica as it is now.
We talk about home, belonging and the importance of taking time to think when making work.
MW: How's it going, how are you?
JE: I’m good! It's nice here, finally. I've just been working and planning on moving out of New York. Just kind of getting some stuff together in life, so it's good.
MW: Have you been in New York for a while?
JE: Yeah, I moved to New York State when I was sixteen. I've been in New York state since then, but I moved to New York City maybe eight to ten years ago. So, I've been in the States for like twelve years now.
MW: That’s quite a long time. I don't know if you remember this—
JE: No, yeah I do. We met at the Haggerston.
MW: Yeah! I’m glad you remember, I was gonna say if you hadn’t it would’ve been so awkward (laughs)
JE: No, no we met at the Haggerston in 2019.
MW: It's so interesting how the world works and how you end up reconnecting with people!
JE: Yeah I had no idea until I got on the call and I was like “it’s that girl”. I’m pretty bad with names, but I’m good at remembering faces. So if I’ve seen you, I’ll know where and I’ll know when.
MW: That’s good! Because sometimes you meet people and they’d be surprised that you remember these really small details and they would ask, “why do you remember that” and it’s like my brain just stores the memory (laughs)
JE: I fully get that! How have you been though?
MW: I’ve been good. Answering this question throughout the past year has definitely been strange. It’s like do you unpack the full thing or answer briefly but leave everything else out?
JE: The last time I saw you, you were in uni right?
MW: I just finished recently, but yeah I was at London College of Fashion. Were you studying in London as well?
JE: At that time I wasn’t, but I was up until the end of 2018; I was doing a master’s at Goldsmiths for two years.
MW: What was that like? I feel like not as many people in the creative field do masters anymore.
JE: That's the thing with Goldsmith's, it's a really special place and I think they nurture having a critical outlook on making work. I think it’s an important thing that’s really missing in America. In that you don't tend to have that sort of critical outlook on how you go about making work. So yeah, it was great. I think it was one of the best experiences I've ever had.
MW: Having a critical outlook on things is so important. I feel like these days when you have a strong opinion, you’re often met with “you can't say that”. There’s sometimes this tendency to kind of push away from theory as we’re constantly told “practice practice practice” but they work together. Thought always comes before action.
JE: Yeah, I feel like that’s it. Thought always takes time. It takes time to even understand what you're thinking or how that makes sense. So I think, because everyone is on this really compressed way of making work where I need to put things out rapidly—
MW: Like a hive mind?
JE: Yeah, you know? So then that process gets so compressed that thought gets scrunched up. I feel like it's too fast paced to really think about what you're making, and take time to even understand because half the time, you don't really understand the work until much later. You know what I mean?
MW: I think everything is always in retrospect. It’s only when you look backwards, that you’re then able to see the little fragments that have been leading you up to where you are now. Even with the ‘Familiar Strangers’ project, I could see that process come through your work.
JE: I was just thinking about how I was talking to my friend, just now like five minutes ago. He had posted this video from an exhibition showcasing John Akomfrah. We started to talk about his work and how sensitive and critical it is. Then, I started thinking about the first time I saw his work, which was at the MoMa, in New York. That was my first introduction to Stuart Hall, he had this video installation there,‘The Unfinished Conversation’. It was basically about his life, which was really interesting to me. Being Jamaican and never having heard about him, then seeing that he's someone that was really important to this culture, both in London, but then seeing that feedback loop existing in Jamaica, was really special. And the fact that he became relevant enough in Jamaica for us to even learn about. I think the way that John makes work, and the way that he presents it is so rich and immersive; it's really difficult to leave and not feel intrigued by the stories or the characters that he's talking about. It left me intrigued about Stuart Hall and that was where the entry point was for me. Given that I've lived outside of Jamaica for much of my formative years, it left me having thoughts about my own identity. Reading his work and seeing how he wraps up some of his ideas and thoughts in a way that was much more palpable than how I was able to. That's how the project even came about. It was me trying to dig through and understand the split between living in these two places—living in America for twelve years, but also growing up in Jamaica. Coming across this person who is just so brilliant kind of saved me deconstructing that whole thing, and allowed me to make it into something that feels real and well placed.
MW: Given that you have such a passion for critical theory, do you sometimes find it difficult to translate everything in its [full] complexity into an image?
JE: Of course. I feel like that's a boundary that can't be broken or ever really cracked. You’ll always be leaving some things unsaid or leaving some things for people to interpret and mirror their own experiences onto. I feel like, unless it's words on paper, where it's so direct that okay this is exactly what I say, there's so many things that are not being said. I think it's impossible.
MW: But even then, it's so difficult isn't it? I remember reading an article on Nataal, and you were saying how the project is formed around a question that you're always coming back to. It reminds me of this idea of having a life-long learner approach, where it’s as though you're doing one big research throughout life and you just keep coming back to that question. I guess it's never one body of work which can explain the full complexity of who we are but it's more about building up that piece over time. Knowing that allows you to relieve the pressure that can come from it. I love critical theory as well and I always think to myself, how am I going to put all these thoughts and all these things in one body of work in a way for people to understand it? But then when you free yourself from that, knowing that people will just pick what they want and leave whatever they don't want, you're like, I'll just put it out there.
JE: Yeah, literally. And especially with being in the visual arts, where I feel like so much of the work is definitely being left for people to try to interpret. It's not like a novel or what Stuart Hall used to do where he'd write these essays you know? Sometimes it’s about acknowledging that what I’m saying right now, isn’t always definite. Sometimes I feel like I'm a bit unsure of what I'm saying. I think that I might make this right now and then maybe six months later, I think "yeah, I don't feel so strongly about that thing"—which is fine. I mean, even with this project right now, or all these projects that I've done in the past three years where I've been doing projects about Jamaican poetry. I feel like I'm at that point now, where I'm okay with the topic. I'm okay to move on from it as I feel like I've kind of scratched that itch. But I think that takes time to get to, and I don't think that I have an answer even after all those years. But it's a practice, and that means that you do it over and over in different ways. You get a little bit from here and a little bit there. I feel really content with that topic now, I feel like I can move to doing other things.
MW: And I remember you talking about this process of dis-identification and it kind of links to this idea I've been thinking about on place-lessness and being comfortable with that. I wonder if it's an age thing, because I look at my brother, who’s a lot older and realize he's a lot more grounded. Whereas, I seem to have more of this fluid way of looking at the world where home sometimes feels more like an internal sense of being as opposed to an external fixed state. I’m curious to know where that entry point was for you. When did you begin to explore what home feels like to you?
JE: I think it's very strange because on the one hand, I have this very strong idea of home. Even when I'm back there (Jamaica), I feel very much at home. I feel like I can see myself 100%. Versus being here, where I feel like I'm playing a role. Even speaking like this is me sort of playing a role.
MW: Do you think you're playing a role right now?
JE: Yeah, we both are.
MW: In the sense of playing a role or performance?
JE: Both! And it's something that is very necessary because I can't just talk patois to you. I can't just start speaking it because you won't understand. So in certain ways, where I would like to express something, I have to reform it in a way that you can understand. Also certain mannerisms have developed from playing this role which is different from who I was growing up, or how I am when I'm intimate. I move differently, my body language is different. That's why I'm also okay with not having to physically be there as that's home. And obviously, I'll have to form a place outside of that, which could be anywhere for me. I feel very comfortable. I think I'm just very curious about the world and how to upgrade different places, and I feel very strongly about my Jamaican-ness. I feel like that's a part of me that won't go anywhere. So, it really doesn't matter where I am, I'm going to be me.
MW: I wanted to shift the conversation slightly and talk about the dialogue in your films. It seems to play a crucial role in your work. I was thinking earlier if you were to just film the different people without them speaking, you'd be left with so many questions. I mean, we're still just left with questions but the dialogue just adds another layer of depth to it—it seems so intentional.
JE: It's interesting because that came first. It started off just as conversations with different people. So that film I made in 2019, when I was there in 2018. I was having somewhat similar conversations with them. And that was the entry point into wanting to make a film; feeling like those are very rich and very complex ways of thinking and ways of expressing things that were happening. So yeah, that's what came first for me. And that film was obviously really organic. You can tell by watching it. Like, I'm there, and they're doing this and I’d tell them “I really like how that looks, don't move, but just keep doing it as if I’m not here filming”
MW: Those types of films are always the best. Even the guy who was talking about how he's just gonna get his notebook with his Bible and just gonna gather some knowledge—it was so profound.
JE: It's crazy how interesting and smart these people are, how much they've thought about life. You know? Because I think that when you live somewhere like Jamaica, especially in the countryside, life is a lot slower.
MW: Yeah, it definitely reminded me of being back home. I was born in a coastal region too, and life is just so different there. And it's so interesting how knowledge is passed on through storytelling there. I feel like there's probably a lot of wisdom in such environments.
JE: Yeah totally! There's so many different stories and they're open ended as well -- you're always left thinking about what things mean. I think it's a really interesting way of viewing and approaching life.
MW: And along with dialogue, would you say music choice is a big part of your process as well? What does your music selection process look like?
JE: Absolutely! I would say sound is 65% of film for me, it's definitely a lot more important than the visual part. I think that the process changes based on the project or on the film. But I think that it's really important to work with someone who understands the sounds of that place that the film is set in, and someone who just has a wide range of interest in sound. Like for me, I know what I want it to sound like, but I can't tell you to mix this instrument with that instrumental or that instrument. It's more about going through certain means, vibes and references and figuring out how that particular era of music fits into the story. Bringing all of these resources to that person who has that skill set to break all of it apart and put it back together. It's a long process. I would say it's a very long process of back and forth between the two sides and trying to nail that. But yeah, I've worked with James William Blades on most of the stuff and he's just amazing. He has this way of just knowing and getting it. I would send him loads of references and field recordings. That's usually something that I do while I'm there, just loads of field recordings. I’d send him a lot of stuff that he can use to sort of place himself in those places. Based on the sounds that I'm sending, he can get the vibe of how it feels to be somewhere through music, and through sound, which I think is a great way to work. Because then, I feel like you don't have to have all the visuals there. You have the sound, which makes it easier to make something that feels a lot fresher.
MW: That's so interesting, it's like the image really is the final step. It's kind of like this transcendental experience where he's actually there or being taken to that place through sound. It definitely becomes a lot more organic.
JE: I think that's one of the things that I love to make sure I have in the films. I like taking field recordings, because I feel like that's something that you can't really replicate.
MW: I can just imagine your research and planning process. Less so, in relation to mood boards but more in relation to paying close attention to the fine details. It reminds me a lot of Grace's [Wales Bonner] process and of course, I'm curious to know how that collaboration came about. She's Jamaican too, right?
JE: Yeah, and I feel like that's why it was great working with Grace because we're very similar, and she does a lot of research.
MW: You can really tell from her archives and exhibitions.
JE: That was our entry point into even starting a project, through her sharing her research. She would have a project based on all these different touch points that are really relevant and important to her own process. And then, there would be the process of me going through all of that and trying to get through my own filter of being Jamaican—based on what I'm thinking about visually in terms of where Jamaica is at now. It’s really an interesting process. With Grace it's more of me going through her research and distilling that versus doing my separate research and deciding as well. When she brings in something we then both try to nail it down according to: what is important with this collection and what is important for where the culture is at right now? And then, that obviously plays back into the whole sound part of it because you want to reference things from the era that she's pulling her own inspiration from but then we also want it to feel and reflect the sound in Jamaica as it is now. It's a really nice dance.
MW: The way that she explores the black experience from such a diverse lens is so great. It's like these little pockets of information and references which are placed together to create the whole narrative. It’s something I've been reflecting on the past year, and the importance of reading and asking questions across the board when it comes to the topic of race. It's such a complex issue that I think we can't just view it from a sociological or singular perspective. I’ve just been thinking, surely there’s more to it than this fragment of who I am that’s based on an external self or even chance? And not to get really political about it but I just think it’s a question that we should create space for a lot more.
JE: Yes! I’m very big on that. I feel like black people limit blackness sometimes or sort of confine the topics that we can explore in our work. I also feel like that's one of the reasons why, even though I've spent like three years making my work, I'm very careful about how I move forward. Because I don't want to be that guy that people look at and think “oh yeah, that's the guy who makes work on Jamaica.”
MW: People love boxes. I feel like as humans we love to compartmentalise because it makes things easier.
JE: I feel like I'm very careful at this point. Especially now that I'm wrapping up this book, I feel like that's a good way to close out this chapter. I'm very careful with what I do next as a personal project because it's really easy for people to be like "that's the guy".
MW: There's something really special about you finishing off the project with a tangible thing. And maybe we can go into your book a bit more; what inspired it, and this idea of it being an ode to Jamaica or you giving something back? What prompted that sentiment?
JE: I love books, that's the first thing. I love things that exist in a tangible way. But I was just kind of tired of seeing images from Jamaica, by other people that are not really Jamaican. And of course, you see a lot of images online from Jamaicans as well. But in terms of tangible things, I haven't seen a lot of that. And then also just in terms of how I saw the island was, I think it's a lot different than how I see it being portrayed. I felt that instead of sitting back and complaining, I should just do it. It’s kind of coming from the point of view where I want tangible things, that embody how I see Jamaica, to exist. I think that process is a big part of it as well. Doing something that takes a long time and that has a lot of steps is really important for me as it allows me to understand the work. So a book for example, takes so much time to make, sequence and edit. It’s so much time sitting with the work and trying to understand it before I put it out. And as a result, I feel I have a more meaningful body of work, a meaningful representation of how I see my home versus if I was gonna take all these photos and post pictures (online) or something. I think it's one of the cases where it's good to put yourself in a box and know that you have to work under constraints.
MW: I think there is definitely a difference in experiencing something digitally versus having it as a tangible thing. It feels a lot more personal, like the person is handing you over a baton or a piece of memorabilia to hold onto even if you don't know them. It’s like the difference between reading an e-book and reading a physical book, where you get to underline it, hold it, even mark the pages if you wish.
JE: Definitely. It's been such a good process, it's so interesting because I'm also self publishing which is even more work. But it's fun. I just learnt a lot about my work in the process, and also a lot about how my work has evolved. I look at the images over this time period and think "I definitely shot that in 2020" or "I shot that in 2019". I could tell what it was based on the tones, based on my compositions or subject matter, how close I am to the subject—small things like that. It's like the evolution of your work.
MW: And what can we expect to see?
JE: It’s gonna be a lot of unpublished work. Some stuff that you’ve maybe seen before, but feels a lot different since I've changed my process a lot since the first edit. But yeah...you’ll have to just wait and see (laughs)
MW: Continuing with keeping an air of mystery (laughs) People are just gonna have to wait and see I guess. We look forward to it!