A still from a film made by artist Alexandrina Hemsley

Together, we cast long shadows: A Letter from Alexandrina Hemsley

01 Jun 2020

Part I

You tell me you do not enjoy kissing me;
The pink gem of us crumbles

–  collapse, 2017


I cannot stop dreams of you falling into my palms at night.
I cannot keep the missing of tender times; soft voices passing between close lips.
I do not know how to soothe the tender hurt we caused each other.

I cannot stay confused by the different versions of us.
I cannot keep sending my smiling representative* strutting (tumbling)
into social settings where you still scare me.

I will not silence myself because you move quicker,
Or once told me to ‘breathe’ through a slicing, piercing pain
Your hands caused.

I will not smile with warmth and be met with derision;
I do not wish to speak to you until we can both hear one another.
Can I ignore you and be waiting for that moment?

I do not wish you harm.
In trying to extract myself, I have held you longer
In my mind than I would have liked;
Fear is addictive.

I know at one point I wanted and was left wanting.
I know at one point I neither get over, nor get past you.
I know at several points, we shared in spirit breaking.

I wish to be in a series of impossible conversations,
Where we think with gentleness and read unsent letters.
I wish to find the birthday card I sent you which got lost in the post,
A few weeks before a full moon brought more, deep betrayal.

I wish to know if writing of these embers, these whispers, will
Make the healing real, or finish the trauma-fade?
My body rests, open and hopeful of either outcome.
I wish to finally fold this history into the red soil of grounded memory

Warm-up, 19 May 2020

As the British government turned its arrogant eye towards the Covid-19 pandemic and the personal and professional lives of the population became forever altered, the invitation to write a letter as part of Somerset House’s season on care, provoked questions I shared with the curators about the desire of arts institutions to ask an artist to create, be creative and undertake labour at a time of such upheaval and tragedy. 

Relationships to the word ‘care’ are under sharp, renewed, necessary reflection. In particular, how do artists continue our careful work; work which tries to embed caring ethics within our communities and sector? How do artists respect, hold, step back or step into the ways their practices resonate with the word ‘care’, at a time when key workers, and artists who may also have employment as a key worker, are - as ever - dealing with the practical, tangible, reckonings of a word which has so recently become super trendy among mainstream arts programmes and the wellness industry?

I worry that in demanding a product, a funding application which asks for competition, a ‘new’ idea,  institutions are failing to allow this multiplicity of being in relation to care. The stream of commissions out of crisis and the rush to digitalise ephemeral practices, grates against remote caring for vulnerable relatives, private grieving and wider collective grieving…we are each holding and orienting our bodies around these desires, duties and weepings. 

For this letter, I proposed that I share and reframe some of my existing writing from a collection called Embers. I wrote:

By reframing/making small edits to existing writing I can balance my own labour efforts/energies in a way that feels most fitting to me at this time of needing to care for myself and others, I can politically align with the problematics I see in art institutions commissioning out of this crisis, and I can still add a voice to the programme?

Attending to and voicing multidirectional needs and desires is the reparative work I’d like to bring to the surface. The collection of writing I share here is from the years 2017/18 and has mostly been kept private or self-published on my blog.  Embers was written from a place of deep and dark murmurings and occupies a time of needing to sincerely turn inwards. It is both a past and a present landscape, roaming through my body and in that way connects to times of unknowing, ruptures, the consequences of a lack of care (personal, relational, institutional, systemic), and times of wondering whether life would spark again or fade/smother out.

The privacy needed for writing to be part of healing the long shadows of injustices is something I have both felt and punished myself for. While I can see now that I was quietly doing my work of repair, keeping words in notebooks felt too close to the silencing that shame encourages, the labour of keeping secrets, being complicit in the sector-wide camouflaging of abusive behaviours - interpersonal and systemic. I am a survivor** of sexual assault, rape and emotional abuse. These instances of violence thread through from childhood to adulthood. My body think-feels the physical silencing and disembodiment from lack of care while also needing the care to remodel relationships to self, intimacy, care, consent, justice and voice. These relationships operate and network between the personal, institutional and systemic.

The works from 2017/18 are not necessarily how I would write today and in that way, may be a bit embarrassing! Now, some feel a little direct or a little flat, but I hope they also provide glimmers of a stumbling body in process. I offer them as a way to value think-feeling over time and in some poems, healing over time from heartbreak. Again, heartbreaks residing in the overlapping spaces between the personal and political confrontations with the swarming mesh of marginalising systems of oppression.

2040AD; A nocturne

by Alexandrina Hemsley, 2018

The world is burning up and we are burning out.
Our lights flicker as we interconnect with a sigh;
an extended exhale,
after a gasp that started decades ago.

Performance artists tie lilac, silk fabric to driftwood, marking where coastal land has washed out to sea.
Trees arc under the weight of infinite years. Forests are close to giving up.

The future of dance looks like midnight;
the inky nighttime where bodies suspend their desires and tensions,
or allow them to play out in dream-waters -
softer spaces.

The cusp of a new day lies for a moment next to the underbelly of history;
Sharing a bed.

Dance gets interesting again.
Dance acts now or never.
Dance assembles fleeting gestures and full-blown 3hr concerts
 - no interval -
kind of like back in the day…

There is an onstage downpour of glitter and ice.
A man sobs with relief as
the patriarchy untangles.

The collective sigh expels threads of resistance from open mouths
where bodies are supported in their restlessness
rather than trying to be tireless.
We - in our differences - loop and negotiate.

We - in our differences - observe the dust.

The never-ending continue and exposure finally stops.
Or rather, these nighttime worlds are full of
slippery slopes to the nowhere we won’t have seen yet
mountain wide strides to the everything we have always felt here.

Pastels are out.
Mindfulness is out.
Mess and continuously cracking walls are really in.

We pound it all out
and down the walls come;
patiently and explosively,
impossible i know.

Like cells finding simultaneous rest and rebirth,
down the walls come
and systems where bodies are assaulted by a gaze, abuses of power, a touch
or a word that whips,

We - in our differences - observe the dust.
A final spasm -
Our finale.

Poems from 2017, slightly reworked in 2020

Take up the space
In awakening yourself to the politics
Black womxn have lived through but still
Find themselves minimised
- White cis-male ableist patriarchy as pathogen

Your arms held me together
While medication and loss inspired all of my endings
You must have been exhausted and terrified
And yet you pulled me closer
- night sweats

I recover and no longer fall into you
I want to lie with you in my wellness
So many pushes away
- a man’s heart turns to ice

* Glennon Doyle Melton, Love Warrior (2016)
** I have been thinking about the term ‘survivor’ and at times prefer the gentle movement of the word ‘survivorship’. I have also been wondering how the word ‘endurer’ might sit within this identity. The ways of giving language to lived experiences are, for me, perhaps fittingly and importantly, in flux. Without a sense that language is unstable, words can too frequently, collapse, imprison or fix experience.


100% of the fee from this letter has been split and donated to the following three organisations:

The Care Workers Charity

Campaign Zero

Emergency Fund for LGBT Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the UK During COVID19 by Out and Proud African LGBTI