Interview: Pogus Caesar on photography, representation and joining the dots

Pogus Caesar is a living legend in Birmingham’s art scene. A prominent photographer and conceptual artist, he speaks to us about providing more representation from the black perspective.

Interview: Pogus Caesar on photography, representation and joining the dots

Pointillism

When Pogus Caesar spoke to his school careers advisor about pursuing his vocation in art, there were no references of black artists to be found, so he was carefully steered in a different direction. After completing his education, he instead became a chef, painting in his spare time using charcoal and crayons. Pogus tells us that it was a documentary on Pointillism and the work of French impressionist artists Georges Seurat and Camille Pissarro that saw him commit to life as an artist, foregoing the expensive paints and brushes for simple fountain pens.

While this practice was only to last for a few years, due to its effects on his eyesight, it was photography that would reposition his vision, and in time, his work would become well known – he is receiving an honorary doctorate for his contribution to art from Birmingham City University this summer. 

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The pocket camera

In 83' Caesar arrived in New York, and inspired by a book of Diane Arbus’ work, bought an analogue Canon Sure Shot. “Her images really moved me – that she could take photographs of people that society often rejects, her subjects were given a voice.”

Slipping the Canon easily into his pocket, “I need to be able to walk freely and not force myself into peoples’ lives,” it’s the same camera he still carries with him today. A flaneur and a stroller, Caesar’s voyages across the globe deliver moments of humanity that he never took lightly: “There is humility in everybody and every society".  "I have a habit of sitting on negatives for years before revisiting them, self-discovery needs the correct framework.”

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Providing representation

A conscious element of his work is about providing representation, having grown up without it. His work therefore relates to the black experience and it was he and Lubaina Himid (Turner Prize Winner 2017) who curated 'Into the Open' 1984, a significant exhibition of black artists that toured at the Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, as well as other venues. “All the artists in the show communicated aspects of the black experience that other societies may not be familiar with.”

Caesar has also photographed a myriad of subjects including Sonia Boyce, Benjamin Zephaniah, Donald Rodney and Rev Jesse Jackson. His photojournalistic work covering the 1985 Handsworth riots provide an important document of upheaval in post-war Britain. Other photographic series such as 'Muzik Kinda Sweet', 'Schwarz Flaneur', 'Into the Light' and 'Righting the Wrongs' provide an insight to his artistic output. "Communicating what's inside the brain and turning it into art has its challenges, you just have to work it out."

He has also authored two photographic books, Muzik Kinda Sweet and Sparkbrook Pride. In his foreword for the book, poet Benjamin Zephaniah says: "I love the 'rawness' of these photos, they have a sense of place, yet nothing is staged, and the only information Pogus gives us about those featured is how they define themselves, nothing more. We need no more."

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Joining the dots

In recent years Caesar has moved into a more conceptual realm, using various media - ripping up and sandpapering his images, adding text, convoluting them on obscure computer programs and exposing them to outside elements, applying resin and re-photographing them –  just to see what happens. “I’m still a child in art, learning everyday” he says. An aspect of 35mm film that he loves so much is the inherent graininess to it. As he reflects, his artistic journey has been one through dots, points and grain, from pointillism to his own enduring mark on photography.

Caesar is receiving his honorary doctorate from Birmingham City University on 24 July 2018, in recognition of his exceptional contribution to the visual arts. He will also feature in a forthcoming BBC 4 documentary about Black artists.

View all of Pogus Caesar’s images here, or browse a selected few below:

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God Aim Destiny, 2017

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Nicodemus, Mathraki Island, 2006

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Untitled, 2017

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Black Skin, White Palm, Same Blood, London, UK, 2008

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Avenida de las Rosas, 2016

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The Diver, Asilah, Morocco, 2007

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Images: Pogus Caesar, photographed by Brian Benson for DACS. Photograph © Brian Benson, 2018; Woman, 1985, from the series Into the Light © Pogus Caesar. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018; The Wrong Man, London, UK, 2007, from the series Schwarz Flaneur © Pogus Caesar. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018; A Yu Dat, Jamaica, 2008, from the series Schwarz Flaneur © Pogus Caesar. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018; God Aim Destiny, 2017, from the series Righting The Wrongs © Pogus Caesar. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018; Nicodemus, Mathraki Island, 2006, from the series Schwarz Flaneur © Pogus Caesar. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018; Untitled, 2017, from the series Righting the wrongs © Pogus Caesar. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018; 
Black Skin, White Palm, Same Blood, London, UK, 2008, from the series Schwarz Flaneur © Pogus Caesar. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018; Avenida de las Rosas, 2016, from the series Righting The Wrongs © Pogus Caesar. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018; The Diver, Asilah, Morocco, 2007, from the series Schwarz Flaneur © Pogus Caesar. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018.