Hailing from Galicia – an autonomous community within Spain with its own language, culture and traditions – photographer Lua Ribeira believes that her own roots have fed into the kind of situations and scenes she is drawn to documenting. “Galicia used to be part of Portugal before it was colonised, and we still remain closer in identity to Portuguese than to Spanish.” Moving to the UK via south Wales to study, Ribeira notes that when she arrived, she became acutely aware of the way different cultures coexist within the same spaces, and after some time, honed in on the British Jamaican culture she kept encountering. “Coming from a place like Galicia, where our culture has been oppressed throughout history, it made me sensitive to Jamaican expression within the UK.”
Ribeira made friends within the UK’s Jamaican dancehall scene and began to work with them on a series of collaborative portraits and images entitled Noises in the Blood. First arriving in Bristol, she met a young woman from Birmingham who told her that the scene is bigger in the Midlands and in London. “I started to listen to dancehall music, and when I listened to the lyrics – how explicit they are and how strangely puritan they made me feel – I became really interested.” Ribeira acknowledges that the project was in part a sort of mirror to realise her own Judeo-Christian background and the cultural values from which she had felt removed until that point, as well as a study on femininity and how it’s perceived across cultures.
Noises in the Blood takes it name from a book entitled Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture by Dr. Carolyn Cooper, professor in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies. The book surveys the way women transform themselves within these spaces, the apparent sexism within the culture, and the Western prism through which it’s often judged. “When I read Carolyn's book, all of the intuitions and thoughts I was having when experiencing this scene were so well articulated in her writing,” Ribeira explains. “She speaks about dancehall as a culture, in relation to Afro-Caribbean tradition. All the moves, the manners, the rituals or the outfits had reasons and a long history behind them. I engaged with it because I felt ideologically in tune with her discourse.”
When asked how she would attempt to characterise the scene as she encountered it, with all of its rituals and traditions, Ribeira says there is no better way to understand it than with the pictures, which are colourful, playful celebrations of the people that attend these spaces of social gathering. “However,” she says, “if I had to explain to a Spanish person, I would make a comparison with flamenco, and its viscerality and grandiosity – something not possible to commodify. A sacred space. I perceived it as an important cultural expression.”
Ribeira tells us about the development of the project, and the stories of the people she met along the way.
“In Jamaican culture, Cooper mentions that the dancehall is a space where women can leave their roles of being ‘guardians of society’s morals’ at the door. Their moves, their gestures, their outfits – which are never worn twice – are all explorations of their own femininity, identity and self-expression."
Wearing clothes and accessories they’ve often made or customised themselves, women transform themselves in an almost ritualistic fashion for the dancehalls, and explore their sexuality through metamorphosing into different characters. There’s always a great build-up to see how women are dressed when they turn up to parties.
“The transformation is carefully done and it has a very creative input,” Ribeira says. “There are many accessories and elements of appearance specific to dancehall culture, like the rigid hairstyles for instance, and women work on their unique appearance down to the smallest details. I think in all societies, carnival and impersonation is used for comment and dealing with social structures. I think there is also an idea of empowerment in becoming ‘someone else’ by transforming the appearance.”
Ribeira conducted visual research into the mysticism and folklore of Afro-Caribbean culture at large, and worked that into the portraits she made of the women, alongside influences from painting, film and fashion. Each session she had depended on a personal connection between her and her subject.
“My way of photographing is very collaborative. It’s an organic process and depends entirely on the person in front of me. Of course, all of the women were different, and wanted different things from the images. I established relationships with each of them and then it was about how we played with the experience together.”
“This lady had a huge collection of jewellery. I went to her house and photographed her many times, always feeling disappointed with the images somehow. She used to show me her collection, which I adored. One day, we got this idea of laying her on the floor and draping her whole body with the jewellery. I think this is one of the best pictures in the project.”
“This is my friend Dinah Larmond, and she is a real dancehall queen – an incredible dancer with flexible skills. The first time I saw her doing this twisted position, she walked with her hands across the floor towards me. It took me a long time to find the right image that really captured this great movement.”
“This is the daughter of a friend I photographed often within the project. I remember thinking that she could be the best fashion model – she was so serious. When I photograph each woman, I always need to wait until they are ready – to apply their makeup and put together their outfits. They are extreme perfectionists. In the meantime, I always end up playing with the children in the house. This time, I brought some handbags from Carla Lopez, a Spanish brand that had asked me to try and make some images for them. I loved this image. When I took it, she had such presence, and suddenly appeared like a giant in the room.”
“I spoke many times with the women I photographed about their condition as women in the dancehall scene. Norman Stolzoff wrote a book about dancehall history and in it, he mentions that dancehall production is overwhelmingly male-dominated and women are discouraged from becoming singers or DJs. I guess it’s similar in Western culture in many fields. However, I look at women like Lady Saw or even Spice now, and they're powerful women who are a great deal for dancehall. So their expression and what they are saying is very important in the face of that sexism.”
“By my own personal experience, I have met women that, in comparison with my own culture, have less worries about the display of their body and the playfulness of their sexuality. Just like in any culture, dancehall is a space of celebration and social gathering, and the rules and roles established there are part of that society as whole.”