Photo by Heather Agyepong

Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here focuses on the work of Aida Overton Walker, the celebrated African American vaudeville performer who challenged the rigid and problematic narratives of black performers.

She was known as the Queen of the Cake Walk, which was a dance craze that swept America & Europe in the early 1900s. The Cake Walk was originally performed by slaves who mocked and mimicked their slave masters and high society.

In 1902 things changed. Aida Overton Walker reinterpreted the dance into one of elegance, skill and accuracy in her performance in the musical In Dahomey. She received acclaim and praise for her rendition and soon became known as the Queen of the Cakewalk.

She became so famous that she performed at Buckingham Palace in 1903 for Prince of Wales’s 9th birthday where she taught high society how to do the famous dance. Although she was limited in freedoms and expressions, she was very outspoken in how she wanted to be represented.

She challenged the status quo depicting black women as cultural producers and drew attention to the limiting embodiments of her status as a performer. During the turn of the century postcards depicting Cake Walk dancers were distributed around Europe where negro-philia was taking over the Avant Garde. The postcards were often grotesque and offensive with the allure of spectacle where the performers lacked agency.

Wish You Were Here uses the figure of Overton-Walker to re-imagine these postcards as one not of oppression but of self-care with a mandate for people of Afro-Caribbean descent to take up space. The images explore the concepts of ownership, entitlement and mental well-being. Each image is layered with symbolism to illicit a conversation about the boundaries of how we see ourselves both in real and imagined realities.

By embodying Overton-Walker as guide, ancestor and advocator, the series uses satirical commentary and depictions of radical self-worth in an attempt to disrupt the roadblocks affecting our collective mental health.

Wish You Were Here by Heather Agyepong was selected by FORMAT 21 Open Call Juror – Simon Bainbridge, arts educator and writer.