Gaylene Gould is a Creative Director, broadcaster, writer and former Head of Cinemas at BFI Southbank . That’s one way to start this article.
All true, but those titles don’t quite encompass who she is, what she has done or the grace with which she has accomplished it. This isn’t about titles, but you should head over to her website to be impressed and encouraged by the possibilities she embodies.
Gaylene was on my dream list of women for these strong woman conversations. I’d met her in passing once or twice and seen her move through spaces from afar, each time making an impression without fanfare. This alone, made me positively curious.
Who is a strong woman for you?
I think it’s someone who is able to keep their heart open, even in times of real fogginess where you don’t know what’s happening. This is incredibly difficult, but it may just be the secret to life. I used to think it was enduring — standing firm like a weather beaten mountain but now I liken strength to the tenderness of a flower. Fragile as it is, it’s able to exist and bloom irrespective of the weather. So my concept of strength has transformed from a mountain to a flower.
This answer, equally profound and measured feels like the briefest, best summary of a process of becoming yourself. Interested in the pearls of detail stashed within the growth, I ask about the season of life in which Gaylene realised she had entered womanhood. “Today”, she says, and we both laugh but she is serious.
I suspect whatever day you asked me, even if it was a few years ago, I would have said today. Every time I think I get it, I mature a bit more and think,no, now, I get it. It’s a constant evolution. I’m 51 now and excited by this chapter of womanhood because it feels different. The older I get, the less sure I am of things, but the more confidence I grow.
If you aren’t paying attention, this sounds like a contradiction. In reality, it is the epitome of growth — embracing the fact that nobody knows it all and releasing yourself from the pressure of omniscience. That release made way for a woman who was more accepting of herself, to the extent of according herself the permission to be, do and try new things without the anxiety of younger days. People play pretend with that type of self assurance, so when it’s up close and real, wisdom dictates that interrogation is necessary.
Gaylene grew up in a council estate in Leicester during the seventies and eighties, in a National Front stronghold that demanded a level of toughness, especially if you were one of a few Black families around. By the time secondary school was over, so was any idea that she would fit anywhere.
I was always interloping. I think what people see as confidence is that if I’m out of water, I’m alright. It comes from a deep sense of aloneness and learning quite early to be at peace with that.
This resonates on a personal level because I too am a floater who has learnt from not fitting in, to just do what I want because I'm unlikely to curry favour or get ahead based on popularity. We start to explore similarities of experience and somehow Gaylene becomes the interviewer — calls attention to my own work in which she hears someone who is unafraid to explore parts of themselves. We discuss how this ‘deep sense of aloneness’ she referred to earlier can be the perfect ground for an artist in the way it helps to build independent thought,wrought from the fact of spending time sitting with & exploring yourself in a way many are scared to do. For her, in the teenage years when girls were dating, she was a Black girl in a white city who she says, ‘the boys must have considered sexless’ because they didn’t acknowledge her in that way. Left to her own devices, she had to find ways outside the norm to make sense of her world since she couldn’t locate herself in the dominant culture. She read books and later attended night classes with old white men studying Weimar cinema.
This loner experience, painful and uncomfortable as it may have been, appears to have been the perfect training ground for a woman who has made a career out of opening spaces, opportunities and conversations that allow those not within dominant culture to take centre stage in ways that feel authentic. If you ever went to the British Film Institute when Gaylene was in charge, whether it was for the Black Panther experience, Comedy Cuts or any of the other programs, there was always an experimental but vibrant energy. It’s almost as though having known the discomfort of being unseen, she’s become an expert in creating experiences that bring supposed outliers into mainstream spaces and making them feel like they have always belonged.
Digging for her inspirations as a means to gaining a more rounded understanding, I enquire about who comes to mind for her when she thinks of strong women. Gaylene mentions her mother and her grandmother. Listening to their stories I’m reminded of the mountain/flower analogy which sounds like polar opposites but really describes two sides of the same coin.
Gaylene’s mother, a young Caribbean woman, came to the UK alone at 16. In time, she was married with three children and a husband who was violent and gone by the time Gaylene was three. All about her children, she worked three jobs and still found time to assist with homework, put food on the table, and show a love not weighted down by the stress she was holding. Her grandmother in contrast, was very much about herself. A Caribbean woman in the sixties, she travelled and lived around the world, as far as China and did things on her own terms. With 9 children who were left in the care of others, this created a problematic parental relationship but as a grandchild, Gaylene recalls a lovely relationship with this woman who was fascinating in how self-driven and bold she was. Both women have influenced Gaylene’s view on strength and womanhood. On the one hand, a mother who through her actions, taught her a lot about love and on the other a grandmother, who showed her that it is possible to create the world you want to live in. Finding the balance is something that aunties and female friendships have contributed to. Reflecting on the importance of female friendships, Gaylene mentions Thelma, her oldest friend who she describes as a a generous, gentle soul who is loving. She also mentions Nana, Fola and other women, concluding as she speaks, as though realising something she has always known but never stated concisely:
all these women are introverts — gentle, reflective women. I’m attracted to sweet women who love deeply. I think that’s what I like about them.
What does sisterhood mean to you?
Sisterhood is a safe permissive space held deeply by love. Nothing matters in that space except the fact that you are okay. Because it is a safe space, it can also be a space where our traumas appear, and if we haven’t processed them, or haven’t learned how to live with them, we can see someone who looks like us and project our traumas onto each other. So sisterhood can be both terrorizing and beautiful.
This brings to mind the human experiment — the fact that in all of us is goodness and horror. Chewing over the ways that a good sisterhood enables us to embrace the multitudes in ourselves, we meander into Gaylene’s expertise on film which illustrates an example of why such spaces are needed especially as Black women.
We are not permitted to have a full range of emotions and still be loved. This is reflected through much TV and film where white women can be drunks, mean, selfish, and someone will still love them. Rarely is a Black woman able to do all that on camera and not be consigned to being a bitch or becoming a representative of that trait who then isn’t worthy of love. In real life, this means that as Black women there is a strong expectation to present as perfect and we don't want to let that down. So we can end up managing our own behavior because we don’t want to appear to be the horror.
Thinking about this pressure to present, takes me back to Gaylene’s earlier answer about how her current sense of freedom is boosted by releasing herself from the pressure of having to know everything. This prompts my regular dive into the ways women are conditioned and the things we unlearn to truly step into ourselves.
I was told about all the things I would have to do — make sure you are good at school so you can get a good job because you cannot rely on any man or anyone. Learn to cook, clean, etc. It’s all taught from a place of love and what elders know, but the underlying message is do it because you won’t be cared for. It means I’m super capable but one of the problems it creates is with asking for help or even knowing that I need help, let alone asking for it. It’s been a major unlearning, admitting my own vulnerability.
Nothing in the facts of conditioning here are new, but I don’t know that I’ve ever analysed the undercurrent of all those ‘be super-capable instructions’ in a way that has ever made this much sense. Given that Gaylene is very capable and evidently accomplished, it would be expected, forgivable even, for her to have some airs. Just a little ego as a symbol of her accomplishments but it’s not there. In fact one of the most endearing things about her is its absence and how that translates into how she sees people for themselves in a world that sees people only through the lenses of hype. I get a little emotional telling her what that means to me as a younger Black woman in the UK, to see someone at her level who seems intentional in their accessibility and also in authentically creating spaces for new voices. In natural progression, we discuss purpose.
Ego feels like a waste of energy. All the stuff I do is less important than why. What drives me is how my actions can open up the world for more people and for the people who most need it. What people don’t often see is my rage, because I do things with it.
I’m enraged that I live in a so-called first world country where there are food banks on the street corners in 2020; that a footballer has to beg and borrow to get children fed... I remember lovely people who didn’t have enough to eat when I grew up. So what grounds me is not the cultural world I am in, but the world I came from. The reason I left the BFI and other jobs after a couple of years is because it feels far removed from a certain frontline where I think, now more than ever, we need to be showing up. I’m always trying to move back to that frontline.
Using the arts as a tool on that frontline is quite niche especially at Gaylene’s level and recalling that she grew up in seventies working class Britain which wasn’t aspirational, I want to know how her trajectory came about. I want the masterplan. Without irony, she refers to the concept of guides beyond this realm whose actions materialise in a chain events that can only be described as magical or fate. Her tepid A level results meant she tried unsuccessfully to get into any of the five media courses in the country and ended up working in a call centre. During a lunch break, a man she now knows as Kwaku Ampomah beckoned her across the street and for some reason she went. He probed on why she wasn’t in college and whether she liked the arts. He was doing an arts administration course at Leicester polytechnic and he encouraged her to sign up.
Gaylene went home, pulled out the yellow pages, got an interview the next week and was admitted. During the three year course in which they worked with Phoenix Arts centre, she learnt the ins and outs of running a venue and trained as a film projectionist. By the end of the course she was interested in Black cinema and did her dissertation on post-colonial cinema as it was then called. As you do, she wrote a letter on coloured paper to Third Cinema focus, Birmingham asking for an internship and ended up working there with Pervaiz Khan.
I met people like John Akomfrah from Black Audio Film collective, which I’d done my dissertation on. I didn’t have anyone on this earth guiding me, but somebody or something certainly was, because I ended up in the most rarefied of spaces without knowing they were rarefied at the time. I worked with the amazing June Givanni, the African Caribbean film unit of the BFI for 5 years and I was always writing and making my own films and documentaries on the side.
There was no plan, just a curiosity — I’m interested in unearthing things that haven’t been said. What hasn’t been shown and how can we bring those stories to light that will help connect and heal people?
Reflecting on the fact that Gaylene was taking night classes on film even when she had been turned down from all the university courses, or the fact that she showed up to the interview without quite knowing what the course was about or asking for an internship on coloured paper, what I’m seeing is the embodiment of her earlier statement on how being a loner can create a different sense mechanism that means the normal rules of the world, the usual self-permission mechanisms, don’t apply to you. I also see an innate boldness, a woman who like her grandma, curated the life she wanted to live whilst forging the path in her own way, so as not to compromise on living a life of embodied love.
Which women widen(ed) the sphere of possibility for who you are?
Sindi Gordon, another friend from Leicester. I’ve never known anyone who follows their nose, instincts and inspiration as boldly. She’s had an extraordinary life. When I start thinking small, she listens patiently and then goes, you don’t want to do that. I’m grateful for her tutelage and the sense of possibility she embodies.
June Givanni at the BFI is also an amazing exceptional woman. Guyanese, and a true pan-Africanist, she spent many years in different parts of Africa, particularly West Africa in terms of helping to develop African cinema. She set up the Caribbean Film and Video Federation. So she’s always had this strong sense of connectivity between the black triangle and preserving memory there which means she’s had an extraordinary life.
My friend Nana is also fascinating. She’s the type to say something random and then in two years, someone has commissioned her to do it. She reminds me of a clarity of vision — having an idea and then sitting with it for as long as it takes for it to manifest.
What scares you?
I think I’m scared of a certain kind of success and how it might change me. And spiders.
What armour do you wear to go out in the world?
Lipstick, until the mask situation and I like things that are well designed.
Do you ever think of legacy?
I think part of what I’m trying to do with my latest initiative ‘A Space to Come’, is something to do with legacy,solidifying my approach so parts of it can exist beyond me. I trained as a coach when I was 40 and it changed my life — taught me to listen. If there is a legacy I want to contribute to, it’s cultivating a new generation of people who listen really deeply to themselves and each other, without judgment, with openness and with curiosity. I’m interested in creating spaces that facilitate a new world that is healthier and more connected than the one that we’ve come from.
Speaking of a new world, I am reminded of one of Gaylene’s old interviews in which she stated that she wanted to start her own mini-revolution. We laugh at how big a responsibility that is, and though she can’t recall the interview, she clues me into what she meant:
How do we have a relationship with ourselves that is more truthful and then how do we have relationships with each other and the societies in the world. I am interested in that revolution. The dismantling of power only makes sense if these two things happen and I think it needs to be in this order. Every revolution has ultimately failed in part because we haven’t revolutionised our relationships with ourselves or each other. We haven’t learnt to listen.
I also think of Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, a woman who spends her whole life trying to do good and none of the things she has tried to put in place really worked out. It ends beautifully in that everyone who came to visit her still left feeling better about themselves and I think that’s legacy. If everyone after we’ve hung out, leaves with a little bit more bounce in their step, then that will do.
For the record, I left this conversation floating and remained in the clouds for a good while after.