Louisa Robbin’s simple and starkly affecting piece, to care, is described as’ a process, a ritual’, and indeed it is – the making of a body butter from oils and fat, the creation of a product for ‘self-care’.
Robbin, a self-described multi-disciplinary artist and writer, plays out this ritual in front of us, on an industrially unbeautiful stretch of black plastic, crawling from corner to corner and mixing the ingredients by hand in an old bucket. It gives the lie to all the notions of these products as romantic, beautiful, glamorous – this is making as a desperate distraction from Robbin’s mental soundtrack of self-loathing, the absorbed hatred of living as a ‘queer black woman’ and struggling with depression. We hear this inner critic articulated, as if by a particularly harsh friend (“have a bath, and cut your fucking toenails), mixed with lists of ‘things I would do if I were well’, a song to hope and possibility. Darker still are quotes from anthropological texts describing the physiology of “the negro…lustrous skin…curly hair…swollen lips”. As she spreads the thick butter over her naked body, an act both erotic and faintly repellent, we begin to feel the contradictions of living within a skin such as Robbin’s – politicised, objectified, desired and rejected, both by the artist and the world around her.
The piece is short, at 35 minutes, and in some ways slight – but highly charged and raw with emotion. It ends with Louisa suggesting we all get up and have a party – a little dance to celebrate our bodies, and still being here, if we want to. It is a lovely touch – and strangely intimate, as dancing always feels like a performative act, as well as something intensely personal; and it shows a glimer of Robbin’s true personality – clothed, her confidence, power and humour returns. Before that, though, Louisa read from a manifesto which, she said, she hoped would prevent this performance sending her into another depressive episode, which had always been the case so far. I can only hope it does.