Through this series of blogs we’ve been looking at the impact of Covid-19 on society, health and wellbeing, looking at these impacts through photography and photographers. Some of these stories have been painful; this is one of them and we are grateful to Othello De'Souza-Hartley for sharing his story and thoughts on managing grief.
In the spring of 2020, artist Othello De'Souza-Hartley unexpectedly lost his father, Nevil Hartley, to Covid-19. Shortly after he began a collaboration with Autograph, creating new work for their project Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other. Othello used the commission as a way to mediate grief through his creative practice and to reflect on ideas of stillness, presence and absence. He created a new body of mixed media work “Blind, but I can See”. These works emphasise the inevitability of change and express the desire to locate tranquillity and beauty in the everyday, especially amidst the personal and collective crises we are living through.
Autograph's senior curator Renée Mussai has worked closely with Othello throughout the commissioning process and spoke at length with him about this new work, the full interview is available on Autograph’s website https://autograph.org.uk/blog/in-search-of-stillness-in-conversation-with-othello-de-souza-hartley/
Othello said “The series’ title relates to the period during the first national lockdown in March 2020, when I felt a sense of stillness, both internally and externally, which gave me a chance to observe the environment around me in a way I had not done in a while. I started going for a bicycle ride a couple of times a week around my local area and each time I noticed things I had never seen before, or never took time to observe properly: the architecture, the small park in our neighbourhood, all the different textures and colours, and so on.
I have been working with various mediums over the past three years, including making paintings. I also make art videos, but not a lot of people know that I work in mediums other than photography. I felt this was an opportunity to bring all these modes of expression together and see how one idea could translate across different art forms. It is the communication between these mediums that I wanted to explore and to push myself further.
In living our lives, we keep on running and we never stop, always working or occupying ourselves with things to do. Conversations often start with people asking, ‘what project are you working on?’, and often I feel like saying ‘I’m just reflecting right now’. I find that sometimes doing nothing can be the most creative time for generating ideas naturally: the notion that stillness provides a pause in which to not just think about the future but also to appreciate past accomplishments, as well as the present. Working on this project has helped me heal while overcoming my personal grief. Throwing myself into the commission enabled me to take my mind somewhere else.
My dad was a very private person. Before I received the commission, I was thinking about ways to honour him and how I could process my grief at the same time. This body of work is my homage to my father. Somehow, the week after he died, I felt a desire to photograph his room. I went to the house, which was empty as my mum came to stay with me and I started photographing on my medium-format camera. And then when I was offered the commission, I went back to the house several times and felt his presence through his objects. My dad loved wearing hats, so I put his hats in different parts of the house that had connections to him. He also liked keeping the garden tidy: a few weeks after he died, the weeds began to grow so I decided to place his hats in the garden, on his favourite chair. My dad enjoyed reading books that offered an alternative perspective on life and how the world works, which was reflected in his own open-mindedness and unique attitude. For me, this was my way of dealing with my loss and grieving for him.”
Othello staged a series of self-portraits on his father’s bed. The intimacy, familiarity and mediation of loss and love conveyed is deeply moving.
He said “I have never been challenged as much as photographing myself in my dad’s room. At first, nothing was turning out the way I wanted it to. At one point, I thought the bed was trying to tell me something, almost as though it wanted to be photographed by itself, without my presence intruding, interrupting its emptiness, its stillness. I kept going back to understand what I was trying to achieve, just sitting in his room, reflecting. I had conversations with friends who kept me on track with what I was striving to accomplish; they also helped me deal with the grief I was feeling. I experienced moments of insecurity about my practice and went through some very low periods, spending time with these objects intimately connected to him – his clothes, his shoes, his books, toiletries – and the realisation that he is no longer here, no longer with us, was hitting me hard. It was difficult emotionally and hard to continue.
I thought about it for a while and decided to return to the house. I was on my seventh roll of film but felt there was something magical that day. I got up early and meditated, which is how I normally prepare myself for self-portrait work. Because I was never fully comfortable on the bed, the portraits ended up ‘tentative’ and fragmented: held together by the emptiness of the bed, the sense of moving in and out of the frame, with only parts of my body in the composition.
Over the years as I was finding my voice as an artist, my father kept telling me to believe in myself and work hard. So, for me, my practice is, essentially, a homage to my father. I think that is another reason why I picked up the camera after he died, because I know that is what he would have wanted for me: to be creative, rather than dwell or lose myself in grief. Those words kept resonating with me, as I worked on the commission. And it is times like these when I appreciate being a creative person and, fortunately, in moments of grief I can turn to my creativity and pour my emotions into my practice. Also, when producing new work there is stillness, as everything else in my life is put on hold.
To me, the commission theme means to care for other people and to care for the self: to not only be aware of our mental states during this particular time, but also our mental state when we are back to ‘normal’ or the ‘new normal’; to take time out for self-care and give yourself time to rest. I think the most important thing to come out of lockdown is that it has made us ask questions about the type of lives we want to lead after this period.
There is an increased sense of community thanks to Covid-19: I have never experienced so much love from the people who live around me. For example, one day a neighbour brought food to my flat saying he had overcooked that night, asking whether I would like some? Another neighbour, after hearing mum was staying with me, left chocolates outside my door. Someone else in our building left a shawl for my mum, to keep her warm. Another neighbour gave her a mask for protection. Simple beautiful acts of human kindness.”
What I have learned from this period is to live the life you want, try to let go of negativity in your life, have an open heart, make time for self-care, take time to breathe, and appreciate what you have.”
Images and text with kind permission from Autograph and Othello De'Souza-Hartley.
See the commissioned work here https://autograph.org.uk/commissions/othello-de-souza-hartley and https://autograph.org.uk/blog/care-contagion-community/
Other blogs in this series: