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Thursday 28 May 2020
Institute of Contemporary Arts
July 2022

The week before the ICA closed its doors, we held Five Volumes for Toni Morrison, a three-day convening celebrating the life and work of the late novelist, essayist and Nobel laureate in literature, as well as her relationship with the ICA.
       Growing concerns about the pandemic started to affect our plans: participants from the US were unable to travel, and although we needed to adapt to the changing situation, Toni Morrison’s spirit is what drew people together. One highlight was watching the Guardian talk that Morrison gave at the ICA, followed by an intimate discussion with audience members. The richness of that conversation stemmed from the different positions of our audience, who talked about the impact of reading books such as Beloved – reflections from filmmakers, photographers and writers that reminded us of our intention to create this open space for encountering Morrison’s work.  
       Below is a selection of resources, including documentation of our programme, which will give you a sense of the defining aspects of this convening. We hope you enjoy them.
Nydia A Swaby and Ifeanyi Awachie, with support from ICA Community Arts Apprentice Aaliyah Kelly-Hibbert


This is a list of texts – essays, books and articles – that we read in the course of our research. It includes The Bluest Eye and Jazz, copies of which, along with other works central to Toni Morrison’s oeuvre, were donated to the ICA by Penguin Vintage to support the different study groups.


Farah Jasmine Griffin’s reflections on community forms of healing opened the convening – and right now this lecture seems especially relevant, applicable and sensitive. Unfortunately Griffin was unable to give this lecture in person, but she graciously pre-recorded the talk with the help of filmmaker Jason Hirata.

Inspired by Five Poems (2002), a collection of poems by Morrison with illustrations by Kara Walker, this evening brought together five writers – Ifeanyi Awachie, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Leo Hermitt, Selina Nwulu and Kareem Reid – who each presented newly commissioned responses to Morrison’s work, speaking to the afterlife to slavery and black women’s sisterhood.

In the ICA’s on-site archive, Ifeanyi discovered a DVD of Morrison’s Guardian talk. Wishing to continue our collaboration with DJ Lynnée Denise, who was involved in Pleasure Genealogies, we commissioned her to create a visual and sonic response to that video. Unfortunately she too was unable to join us in person, however, she has provided a caption, written by writer and curator Chandra Frank:
In this work, DJ Lynnée Denise offers a layered audio-visual response to the 1986 Guardian talk with Toni Morrison at the ICA. The visual essay brings together intimate reflections and propositions framed by Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz. DJ Lynnée Denise explores the Black Atlantic sound, visuals and craft to render the life worlds behind Morrison’s oeuvre visible. Morrison’s writing is expanded into a visual vocabulary in which transatlantic conversations and new connections emerge. A praxis in translation. Claudia Jones. Eartha Kitt. Fannie Lou Hamer. Lorraine Hansberry. Winnie Mandela. Sarah Vaughn. Lady G. Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Elizabeth Cotton. Augusta Savage. Judy Mowatt. DJ Lynnée Denise creates what Louis Chude Sokei calls a diasporic ‘echo chamber’ of Black women’s craft animated by the bricolage of drum and bass in which the sonic influences of Black Britain and Black America are an electronic undercurrent. The drum machine mixed with Morrison’s gestures, mannerisms, and reading speak to how Morrison’s is experienced through a multi-sensory engagement. In Morrison’s interview with A.S. Byatt, she references the important inspiration of paintings in her writing practice and the relationship between musicians and their audience. In this work, a visual remixing of worlds happens in which Black girls jumping rope, everyday live in Harlem, the market space in Brixton are the aesthetics to Morrison’s writing or in her words ‘the access to the scene’. In DJ Lynnée Denise’s rendering, ‘the scene’ is about Black wayward diasporic women whose craft is read through astrology, the politics of refusal and the secrets of Black social life.


We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

This audio recording of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech was recommended to us by Christina Peake of The Black Curriculum, who organised the study group on Morrison’s novel Jazz.  

Track of the Day

India Arie: Not Afraid of the Dark
Taking its key from The Bluest Eye, India Arie performed this song at Sheer Good Fortune, a celebration for Toni Morrison held at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2012.

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Toni Morrison. Photo: Michael Lionstar