A conversation with Shoichi Aoki, FRUiTS
DF: When I started going to the nightclubs in the ‘70s, I didn't coordinate that with my history. I just knew I had to paint this, and that it meant something to me inside. The nice thing about the blues club – they used to call all the reggae clubs ‘blues clubs’ – probably 80 percent was Rastafarian. They were very nice people. They were very friendly, as opposed to the more commercial club. They allow you to take pastels, pencils, paper, whatever.
EW: What would a normal night be?
DF: The club is split into two sections. There's a beautiful dance hall on the first floor with a stage bit, and I'll stay up there til Jah Shaka comes after twelve. I'll warm up for two hours in my drawing skill, getting warm up for the main event, which is Shaka downstairs and come 1 a.m. I'll move downstairs. It was so jam-packed the only place for me to stay was behind the bar. I was standing for three or four hours until five o’clock in the morning. I'd be leaving and they'll be still carrying on.
EW: Could you tell me a bit more about the connections you saw between your childhood and these dance floors?
DF: In the West Indies they [calypso musicians] practice every weekend at, like, a junction place in the open air. You'll turn up, beneath the moonlit sky with people playing the steel band and making up the new dance and whatever. So when I went to this club, it was reminiscent of that. The Rastafarians, they were linking their contemporary history with the past. Probably it was the first young generation of the West Indies that had an education through just listening to records because schooling was pretty ... [raises eyebrows] ... well, you wouldn't learn much about your Black history.
EW: What about your own dance background?
DF: I love dance myself. I came to London when I was about 11 and a half. I did pretty bad at school, mainly because there were lots of people like me in my class and they were really in a state of shock. Most of them were country people and suddenly you landed in a massive big city. Your parents, they had their hands full. I was surrounded by all these different nationalities, so I was entertaining my- self, looking at all the different cultures, mainly the English, the white culture – fascinated. After about a year, I realised: ‘God! I'm in the dunce class!’ In the West Indies, I was in the bright class. There's nothing you can do, you just have to stick it out for the next three years. I was the first generation who went to further education college.
EW: What did you do there?
DF: I did all the arts, so I did dance. And at the time we had a lot of people teaching contemporary dance, which was nice, mainly to rock bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I did photography, pottery, painting and academic stuff like British Constitution, literature. My first love was dance and pottery.
EW: I imagine this parallel universe where you’re a potter! Can you tell me a bit more about what kind of dancer you are?
DF: I think I'm a more experimental, spontaneous dancer. I like free-form dancing, but still with re-repetitive movement. I was my mum’s DJ in the ‘70s, West Indian-type party in the front room. I grew up with that close dance where people used to hug, come close together, and do [close partner dance style] rub-a-dub, pre-lovers rock. But there wasn't room, you see, so people had to dance like that. If you go back to the West Indies, people were freaking out with free-form dancing, but when they came to London, you had a bloody tiny front room. You have about 20, 30 people in it, plus the furniture and the gramophone. I'd be playing music to adults. They always went very smooth, you know, lovey-dovey stuff. That was an exciting thing about dub and heavy reggae: you could express yourself. They went down on the floor and fell on the hands. I was just gobsmacked and I was so excited.
EW: I did a talk recently at SOAS [The School of Oriental and African Studies, London] with Elijah who is doing some powerful thinking aloud about culture and creativity. Your name came up and, in response, someone mentioned the many elders walking around with incredible sculptures, paintings, in their attics – and it’s all invisible.
DF: I've been working for 40 years and it’s only one person who got me recognised – Peter Doig. Without Peter Doig, I would have a room full of all these paintings still. That's what I'm saying about the people who are doing the superficial thing, getting all the limelight in all the museums and galleries. Whereas people who are doing amazing work from within their soul and heart – and it's stuck into a bloody storage space. You just hope someone will come along and get it out there, get it seen.
Excerpt from Middle Plane Issue No.7 (Spring Summer 2023). Read the full interview in the magazine by ordering your copy here.
Photographer: Bruce Usher