This Is Dangerous: In Conversation with Topher Campbell

Updated: Feb 21

by Matthew Magill

 
"Creating really honest, disruptive work from a Black perspective is dangerous. I mean, actually dangerous."
Portrait image of Topher Campbell.
Pictured: Topher Campbell

Topher Campbell is not just a filmmaker, writer, and artist. He’s also the co-founder of rukus!, the Black LGBT archive, which aims to build a ‘living history’ of the UK’s Black LGBTQ community by exhibiting the work of marginalised activists, artists, DJs, and even club promoters over the years.


Matthew Magill caught up with Topher to discuss his new short film, ENCOUNTERS; the state of queer arts in the UK; the challenges of building the rukus! archive; as well as the danger surrounding his work.


How did rukus! get started and what does it mean to you today?


rukus! was named after two things: causing a ruckus, which in Jamaica means to make noise, and also the Black porn star Rukus with a 10-inch dick. Then because I’m a Trekkie and wanted to emulate the futurists, we called it a Federation.


It really came out of a friendship between myself and the photographer Ajamu X. We wanted to create a space for conversations of play and discovery and creative expression. So that's what we did with rukus! Federation at the ICA in 2000 - the first Black LGBTQ takeover of an established arts venue anywhere in the UK.


After three or four years, we had all this perishable material in a basement, and eventually the London Metropolitan Archives offered us a very small deposit to become the new home of the rukus! archive. Anybody who wants to know about Black UK queer history and culture should go and check it out because it is phenomenal.


What are you working on right now?

I'm officially working on a documentary project which I can't really talk about right now, which is going to be on UK Black, queer culture. I'm also working on a project for the charity Visual Aids in New York.


That’s a project around HIV, stigma, and desire, that’s a very personal project. I've also been writing a memoir of some kind called ‘Battyman’. I'm not a writer. But this particular book I do want to write.


The mission though is always trying to find a way to bear witness to the existence of other people as marginals and on centering on stories of others who are Black and queer, especially those of us who are in Europe and the UK.


What led you into creative work?

When I was living as a teenager in Coventry there wasn't really much to do. We would be sniffing glue, drinking, hanging out, or getting in trouble. So I felt that theatre, basketball, and English were the things at school that really kept me going and sort of saved my life.


From there, I went to university and I joined the drama society where I caught the bug for directing. That's how I got into it really. I kind of had an instinct as a queer person then that basically, there wasn’t a space for a Black gay actor in the 90s. I felt that directing was my way in.

 

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How do you see the current queer arts and culture climate?

The arts generally in the UK have become a very corporatized, right-wing project. I think this is no fault of individuals - it's just very focused on justifying how money is spent. It's not a space for agendas, defiance, resistance, surprise, messiness… it’s a space for convention.


However, there are other kinds of spaces that are popping up. So you can talk about Queer Circle and Queer Resistance. The collective BBZ, the ADA Magazine, Batty Mama, rukus!, Black & Gay Back In The Day, and Evidence to Exist. There’s things happening in Manchester and Birmingham we're creating - the Homotopia fest and the Fringe Queer Festival.


The space that intersects between Black and queer is always very disruptive, because Black and queer interrupts the nice, smooth narratives of respectability within mainstream circles. But creating really honest, disruptive work from a Black perspective is dangerous. I mean, actually dangerous. You have to be very careful about the ways in which you position the work and who you work with. We are in Brexit Britain and Brexit Britain is a right-wing project - and it is winning at the moment.

A black, male couple laughing and holding hands in a park.
Credit: Mae Kabore

What advice would you give to queer or Black artists trying to break into the creative sphere?

DIY. Do the work and do it any way you can. That's the hardest step in terms of cultural production. It is very difficult if you have come from the Black and brown global majority, or are queer, trans, or a person of colour.


You're trying to create work which doesn't naturally have a home or isn't naturally going to be encouraged or received.


I say to everybody, all of you out there, who's made a piece of work, finished a book, written an essay, created a play, made a film, created an event or an exhibition: that is a real major achievement.


It encourages you to keep going because making it happen makes a difference. Someone's watching; it makes a difference to somebody. So that's my biggest thing: persevere and do the work. It will embolden you, and embolden others.


Check out Topher’s new short film ENCOUNTERS, which explores the stigma of living with HIV.

 

Matthew Magill is one of the Literature Editors of The Radical Art Review. Reach him at info@radicalartreview.org or follow him on Twitter.