Rita Keegan was born in The Bronx, New York City in 1949. She went to school and art college in America. She has been based in Brixton since the 1980s.
Rita was involved in 198 Gallery and in setting up Brixton Art Gallery.
Her work explores issues of identity and representation, and the use of family narrative and autobiography feature strongly in her work.
Below is an abridged version of Rita's interview:
00:00 Rita talks about her educational background and career path.
04:13 In a way nobody belongs here, black or white. It is easy to belong here because everybody has that point of difference. I stayed here because I was really excited about the funding for the arts, the vibrant scenes here. Getting involved with a collective gallery, learning how to put on exhibitions and meeting people from different parts of the world, gives you more of an understanding of who you are.
05:02 There are different communities in Brixton, and the sense of community alters depending on the catalyst at the time. I was here for various uprisings or riots. That’s when you see a type of community that is not necessarily race-led. Being involved in positive events, you get a sense that this is a very interesting village.
06:25 I was involved in the setting up of the Brixton Art Gallery and 198. I have always cared about the level of creativity and the access to creativity. It is for somebody else to gauge whether my part is big or small.
06:56 Creativity is the most important thing in life, outside of food and a place to stay. It gives you real value. If people have an outlet for their creativity then that’s where they put it. They don’t put it into frustration, violence and pain. If it is painful then you turn it into art. You turn it into something valid.
07:30 I use a lot of family photographs in my work. I am lucky enough to have a family photographic archive that goes back to about 1870. I like to use it as representation. I remember, when growing up, the only representation you saw of black people was in the cotton fields. But not every black person was in the cotton fields. I think it is quite important to show that we have been here, we have lived in different ways. We are as diverse now as we were then. For me a family is larger. It is not just my family it is the “World Family”.
08:42 If you know where you come from and who you are then you can figure out who you are going to be. I think it’s really important to see positive images of yourself. If all you see, the only way you have learned how to be, is a negative image then that is all you have to achieve and strive for. You don’t think it’s possible to be anything other than “hoods” or “whores” or “poor folk”. That does not really reflect the world. If you don’t see yourself reflected in those images then you have to fight harder to be something other than what you see.
09:36 I have done a lot of self portraits. I started painting myself because as a portrait painter you would ask people to sit and they would not necessarily show up. I used my image as an exercise at first and then the different ways that one changes and how you can change your image yet still retain who you are began to interest me. I have always played with my image, with clothing and hairstyles. I find that quite interesting. How people perceive you depending on what you are wearing. Then because I use family photographic images I quite often included myself in those images. Memories of the past and your family, whether you love or hate them, they go in to making up who you are.
11:13 There have been so many events, good or bad, that it is almost impossible to pick one. I remember going to Bobby Seale’s house in San Francisco. It had recently been burnt by the police. He was a member of the Black Panthers. As you walked into this burnt out shell, you could still feel the tear gas. Your eyes still burned. That was an amazing experience. Marching against the war in Vietnam. That was an amazing experience. Going to Altamont and watching the Hells Angels throw full beer cans. That was an experience. Getting overdressed and partying till I couldn’t party anymore, those were great experiences. I don’t think I have one defining moment. I am hoping to keep on having more because if you don’t then you are dead!
12:42 Feminism has been really important in my life. I guess that stems from equality. Hoping and working towards equality, whether it is race or gender. Hoping that generations that come after me will not have to suffer and will find that there is equality. Not having to deal with racism. Not having to constantly battle an invisible foe, that’s what I would like to see.
13:26 There is very little for the youth to do. You have to invent it all for yourself and you have no place to go. Growing up in New York there were neighbourhood centres. I was really lucky. Growing up in the South Bronx, you can’t really get much worse than that, but there were still schools that had afternoon centres where I could go and do art, do theatre. There is nothing here. Where do you go? How can you find your creativity? That I think is the main problem. It is not the youth, it is the facilities. It is not the youth, it is the society that doesn’t seem to remember what it was like for them. I used to use my bus pass and ride from my high school in mid-town Manhattan just taking the bus all over the city. I would go to Central Park, or the museums and galleries. That’s why something like this place (198) is great. You need more.
16:06 My message for the youth of today is that I would like them to find their own spaces. To have some energy. To not be afraid to say what they need to say. To not expect anyone to do it for them because obviously no one will. I would like to say; “Get off your ass and do some stuff”!