by Ciarán Daly
“Wow, shit, I’m in the future - this is what the rest of the world will look like in twenty years!”
Johny Pitts has had a busy couple of years. Off the back of founding Afropean.com, a platform for documenting black culture and community across Europe, Afropean: Notes From Black Europe, won the 2020 Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year.
Beyond Afropean, he is fundamentally a radical visual artist and writer challenging dominant narratives around place, belonging, and nostalgia. For our latest issue, SOLITUDE, I caught up with Johny over WhatsApp to discuss Afropean, the Black Lives Matter movement, and his new project, The Sequel To A Dream: Ghosts of 80s Japan.
There's been a ton of focus politically on anti-racism in the last year. Is there anything you find frustrating about the media cycle around Black Lives Matter?
Absolutely, and the problem isn’t just white people, by the way - there are so many people, including black people, who suddenly see themselves as social commentators because George Floyd’s death is good for their platform or personal brand.
I don’t mean to sound cynical but some of these community spokespeople were nowhere to be seen just a few weeks ago when black suffering wasn’t ‘on trend’ - they were busy doing commercials or taking lifestyle selfies. It’s important that people speak up in a time of crisis, and I can accept that celebrities / people in pop culture play their part, but a weird sort of economy has opened up in the past few weeks that I find deeply troubling. I’ve never had more offers of work because of a white police officer choking a black man to death
Does that make you uncomfortable?
Yes, it does. I’m a dad supporting a young family so I can’t afford to turn down the work sometimes, but to be honest my style doesn’t really suit the knee-jerk reaction I’m so often called to deliver. When I can draw upon the work I’ve been doing for the last decade to make a point, I feel much more comfortable about responding.
So tell us about your new project. What happened in Japan in the 80s?
When I finished Afropean I felt a bit uncomfortable about an omission. I went to one of the ten worst performing schools in the country the year I graduated, grew up in Firth Park, where they filmed most of the Full Monty, and have parents from what might be described as lower-working class families.
That is all coherent and felt like a good jump off point. But one of the most amazing-and important-moments in my life was spending time in Japan as a child on and off between 1987 and 1990. My Dad landed a role in the Japanese production of Starlight Express, so I was lifted from a row of terrace houses in Sheffield and placed in five star hotel lobbies during what may go down as the most decadent moment of late capitalism
When I went back to Japan for the first time in 2013 there was something slightly off. All the landmarks and buildings were there but I kept waiting to feel that same sense of ‘wow, shit, I’m in the future- this is what the rest of the world will look like in twenty years’.
It was only then that I realised my time in Japan was marked by Something known as ‘Baburu Keiki’- the Bubble Economy, which made Japan the richest place on Earth. One estimate had the real estate of Tokyo alone as valued four times that of the entire United States!
The bubble burst in 1991, and the subsequent period is known as ‘The Lost Decades’ - so what I was witnessing in 2013 was a past future- a future as imagined by the 80s that was never really realised. That story is coming out of Japan a bit more these days, but because of Japan’s commodification of its ‘future culture’ - exported around the world as ‘Cool Japan’ many people still think Japan is super expensive and futuristic.
In reality, you’ll now find more of the future in Seattle. So in this project, I’m trying to grapple with something that bothers me: the happiest memories of my life belong to late 80s Japan of rampant capitalism and consumerism. I use the old family camera (which imprints its original date of manufacture -1988- on the photos) and old film from that era to glitch my nostalgia. At the end of the day, if I’m not willing to problematise my own sentimentality about an unhealthy moment that I personally benefited from, how can I expect, say, an upper class white person in their 60s to critique something like British Imperialism?
Does it feel strange at all to be exploring a place that's now very distant from the time you spent there as a child?
Yes. In 2013 I came back from Japan with bland digital images of the type of stuff you’d expect from Japan. When I found the old family camera, it evoked the soul of the 80s family photographs but made any images I took look haunted.
Also when I was there with my family I was living in the bubble of childhood, the bubble of VIP foreignerhood, and a bubble economy. When I go back to work on this project now it’s as a solo male in his thirties staying in cheap accommodation - it’s like the shadow side of Japan my childhood experiences were shielded from.
What sort of continuity do you see between Afropean and this new project?
It’s going to be a bit of a sell and I know I’m going to be having arguments with my editor about this direction. It really is an organic next step though. And while the website will always be there and I will continue to engage, I really do want to wriggle free from merely being a spokesperson about black issues. I think all the work I’ll ever do will be underpinned by that struggle but I’m really keen to take it in weird, unexpected or experimental directions.
I’d love to do an exhibition and a dedicated photobook. This theme of glitching nostalgia and failed futures is forming the foundation of a wider discussion - including but moving beyond Japan - that I hope will result in my next full length work of nonfiction.
Johny Pitts is a photographer, writer, and the founder of Afropean. This article is an extract from Issue #7: SOLITUDE - get your copy
Ciarán Daly is a freelance journalist and the co-editor of the Radical Art Review