Johny Pitts was born into a working class home in Sheffield at the same time Maggie Thatcher was in Number 10. He is the son of an African American father and a white English mother. As he writes in the prologue of Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, it was a time when "the older generation of black Northerners, who had to survive in smaller enclaves of otherness than their London counterparts" were "attempting to ingratiate and integrate themselves into their homeland." With the term 'Afropean' though, he found something "whole and unhyphenated; a space where blackness was taking part in shaping European identity at large." The word was satisfying, and encompassed his identity.
In Afropean, Pitts sets out from his hometown to explore the state of black culture and identity in Europe today. Starting on the streets, he meets Europeans of African descent who are negotiating their own allegiances, visiting communities such as the Cape Verdean favela on the outskirts of Lisbon, the west African students at the former Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow and political activists in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.
The book is a natural progression from Afropean.com, the website exploring the interplay between black and European cultures which Pitts founded in 2013. Pitts is a writer, broadcaster and photographer, and in October 2018 he organised the Looking B(l)ack Symposium at the Bozar cultural centre in Brussels – a weekend of talks and performances dedicated to the notion of black travel. Over his career he has received various awards for his work exploring African-European identity, such as the Decibel Penguin Prize and an ENAR (European Network Against Racism) award.
Interspersed within Afropean are original portraits of Pitts' subjects. Shot in black and white, they document the everyday black experience: workers commuting, a woman waiting at a bus stop, a couple having a chat over coffee.
Here, Pitts tells us the story of his journey and shares some of his favourite pictures from the project, focusing on images of black womanhood and what he learned from these encounters.
"I was taking a decolonial tour of Brussels – that is, a tour that disrupts the usual tourist trail and reveals the dark roots of a city’s wealth born of Empire – and took this photograph as we entered Matongé, the city’s Congolese neighbourhood. As well as learning that Belgian chocolate was only so good because of how the country had exploited the natural resources, labour and ingredients from its colony in Congo, as we walked through a group of young black men smoking weed, the guide told us that a recent study revealed an estimated one in four young black men possesses a master's degree or higher, yet in Belgium young black men are also the most likely to be unemployed. As the guide was speaking I saw my friend Ayoko watching with her son, and we both knew that she was going to have to prepare him for a world where meritocracy is a myth."
Staples Corner, London
"I was wandering through Staples Corner in London, when I saw this student walk past. I like the quiet banality of the shot – blackness is so often reduced to villainy or victimhood, or superlatives… "We’re either niggas or kings, we’re either bitches or queens," to quote hip-hop artist Mos Def. I search for nuance and subtlety. Nothing much is happening here, and yet there was something poignant and enigmatic about the young woman’s eyes and Mona Lisa smile that made me ask to take her photograph. I couldn’t quite work out whether her expression was full of resignation or determination, but it spoke of a maturity and wisdom beyond her years. When I showed this photograph to my mom, it made her cry because it reminded her of my niece, who was about to leave school and was trying to work out what she was going to do with the rest of her life as a young black woman."
"This was taken on the Champs-Elysées shortly after world-famous French perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain had appeared on long-running French primetime news and culture show called 13 Heures and said, without blinking an eye, 'I worked like a nigger [on my new fragrance]. I don’t know if niggers have always worked like that, but anyway...' To 'work like a nigger', Guerlain later claimed, was a harmless phrase used commonly by people of his generation, you know, back in the good old days, when it was okay to be racist. A group of black activists stood outside the brand’s flagship store, all with the same look, and the scene reminded me of a '70s Black Panther rally: the form was important to the function of the words; the group emitted angry but composed and intellectual black power. They were all dressed in black streamlined clothes, rollnecks and leathers, Afros and braids, and the gathering crowd and activists all appeared to know each other. In Europe, I don’t think I’d personally ever witnessed a scene so black and organised and beautiful."
"I deal a lot with smudges and reflections, bruised light and muddy frames in my photographs. This particular photo reminds me of a book by the African American scholar Fred Moten called Black & Blur, both figuratively and literally, and reminds me why I choose to shoot the way I do. The very notion of blackness is constantly on the move and unable to truly be pinned down. Many of my photographs, like this one, were taken in Europe’s metro systems because as well as attempting to capture the banality of blackness (commutes and everyday humanity rather than just festivals and fashionistas), I was exploring liminality – the feeling of being between cultures and continents, and the movement and transience of public transport became, I think, an allegory for the in-betweenness of second/new generation black communities living in Europe."
Student Protest, Rome
"This young woman seemed to me to represent the very notion of Afropean. We aren’t in North America here, it doesn’t look much like Africa – two geographic zones that tend to export blackness as part of their identity. I’ve travelled Europe for years, usually by train, and am constantly bombarded with the reductive writing and imagery I often see in the usual popular travel guides – Europe doesn’t generally export its blackness as part of the continental package. I like this photograph because there is something so European about it – perhaps it might be the cover of an alternative backpacker guide to the continent. And yet I wonder how many people would accept 'Rome' as this woman’s answer to the question, 'Where are you from?'"
Cours Julien, Marseille
"When I first visited Marseille, I was staying at a hostel near Cours Julien, a square covered in layers of years worth of sun-bleached graffiti, with drunks sharing the space with artists, buskers, a children’s play area and local musicians. When you look at the way the urban sprawl of Marseille has been built up organically by waves of new arrivals and undesirables from all over the world since Phocaean sailors set up base there in 600BCE, often arriving broke at the port and never quite making the 20-minute walk up to the train station to find anywhere else to live, you see that multiculturalism is embedded in the fabric of almost every arrondissement, and especially in the city centre. I sat there on my first day watching these twin sisters wait for the pigeons to settle to eat scraps, then race through them on their skates making the pigeons scatter, and knew right away that I was in a city of simple pleasures. From the first night I laid my head down in Marseille, I was completely intoxicated, and knew I would make it my home – which I have this year."
"I like the dichotomy between the corporate beauty on the billboard, with the beauty that I saw in the woman on the platform. I took two photographs of this scene – one with the lady with her eyes open and one with her eyes closed, which is actually a blink. I chose the second as a sort of riff on the idea of how we’re constantly bombarded with adverts telling us how we should look, what we should aspire to be through consumption. With her eyes closed, shutting out the suggestive semiotics surrounding her, this lady looks still and peaceful among the rush of city life."
"I met Hannah and her friends on a night out one snowy Christmas day in central Stockholm. They took me on an adventure to an RnB club on the outskirts of town, and as we made our way out of the centre, we passed through a labyrinth of concrete – an innovative intersection called Slussen built in the 1930s to deal with the rise of automobiles. A lot of Stockholm looks like a fairyland, but I was attached to this structure (which has recently been demolished) because it was the last bit of urban wilderness in twee Stockholm, full of great graffiti, a legendary punk club, and a place where emcees would cypher in the shadows. I like this picture of Hannah because it shows the fading B-side of Stockholm."
"What this picture symbolises to me is discipline. The discipline it takes for a mother to raise two children, and how lovingly disciplined the children seem. They look safe and guided in their mother’s arms. I can’t speak of this particular woman’s situation, but as the father of a 3-year-old, when I look at it, it makes me think of how motherhood, perhaps the toughest job on earth, is often invisible in our celebrations of what human labour looks like in a capitalist economy."
De Pijp, Amsterdam
"Wandering Europe, very often I was looking for national clichés, then attempting to find a way to quietly subvert them. Here we have the bike and the canal, but this scene of a blonde-haired mother with her dark-skinned daughter. I try to show how, actually, this scene is just as Dutch as anything else. The photograph was taken near an area called De Pijp, which used to be quite working class and home to a large Surinamese community. It has been gentrified and is now very middle class. I wonder how this young girl will identify when she comes of age?"
Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts is available from 6th June at Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, £14.