Backstroke of the West: Reflecting on Demanding Memory

I was able to experience Backstroke of the West by Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I have been wanting to experience the exhibit since seeing this description:

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"Also on view are Spoils (2011), a project that saw the artist serve Iraqi date syrup and venison on Saddam Hussein’s very own china, and The invisible enemy should not exist (2007–ongoing), a lifelong project to fabricate at full scale every single item looted from the Iraqi National Museum."

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I am fascinated by the idea of fabricating what as lost, to scale. So you know what was lost then? Imagine that. About 2 or 3 month's ago I asked my mother to record a conversation with me. "I need to capture your story." She flat out refused. "I have no interest in that" and continued playing solitaire.

I wonder if it is the DNA of capitalism to preserve and catalog for no other reason than to prove its existence. Black people know all too well the horrors of a lost (pre)history. So I have to see these for myself, all the while wondering if my mother's inclination is the truer to my (pre)colonial self. What is our attachment to these relics of the past and how does Rakowitz's work interact with that attachment in light of the cultural genocide we know as the afterwords of their destruction.

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Rakowitz's work reclaims the dialogue and holds a place marker for the culture while still allowing it to move forward, to acknowledge the connection between the past and the present. I distinctly Iraqi present even if fingered by the west.

Michael Rakowitz is also responsible for Enemy Kitchen (2003–ongoing), a pop-up food truck that serves Iraqi dishes by the way.

 

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Sites, Sounds, Lessons from Mana

Chicago - I headed to Mana Contemporary for their last open house. Grateful for the time alone. Eight year old boys do not always make the best company.

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Her studio was a juxtaposition of the best and worst of contemporary life.  I am starting with Barbara Hashimoto because I love clementines and I still have one more bag of junk mail to shred.

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Barbara used junk mail as her medium, filling a large room with four months of junk mail. Her work shows how overwhelming junk mail, bill and debt really are. Congrats it's not all in your head. Before I headed to Mana, I asked my friend to borrow his shredder so I could attack my pile of mail, three bags at the time. I actually packed a box of junk mail and old bills when I moved to Chicago two years ago. 

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Mail makes me panic, paper makes me uneasy. Even catalogs all of piles and threatens to bury you. I am one of the many turning to minimalism to work dig my way out of the pile of shit that consumes us.  I avoid mail which only means it piles up. Here is a woman taking charge, during piles of credit card solicitations and ads into art. Seeing shredded junk mail used like this was deeply symbolic for me. Seeing it erased. The idea that it could exist in such a serene space without disrupting the energy adding to the creative process rather than just causing paralysis. Two bags of shredding happened as a result of this studio visit. I considered throwing it about my apartment but I settled on watching the video again instead. 

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The juxtaposition of these three balls, the stages of turning junk mail into bronze and this box made of credit card solicitations entitled, In the Red. A video from this series shows mounds and mounds of shredded paper, enough to fill a large room. Slightly stressful to watch tho.

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Let frustration fuel creativity. Burn it away.

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The Transition to Power Series by On The Real Film explores artist reactions to the last presidential election. This series is a great place to start if you want to pull the string on your feeling surrounding the election. This entire presidency is one long sustained trigger for many people including those who are not traditionally marginalized and are therefore enjoying the privilege of being new to the shock of unstable ground. Things are shifting rapidly and the question is will we be mindful enough to lead a revolution that changes the paradigm rather than keeping our exciting power structures and just flipping who benefits. That is not a real revolution.

I am moving and packed away the notebook containing my initial thoughts about the three videos I watched during my visit which is probably for the best. I left, I was writing too many things in my notebook and didn't have time to think between films. I have not processed fully the gravity of the words spoken and the pace was too rapid. If you want to watch, I recommend starting here or here.

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 photo from  here

photo from here

I would have moved into this space if possible, it was crisp but not sterile. Inviting but not too comfortable. The kinds of place you go when you want to work towards your legacy, submerge yourself in a topic or take great Instagram pictures. Everyone loves large picture frames and hardcover books. The way the spine screams to welcome you. I always imagine it like an old friend calling out "GURL" when we meet up after some time apart. The beginning of a long conversation.  

 
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Do you know about Moishe Mana? Moishe’s Moving? With that Cormac started teaching. I had already received a warm welcome and gained some insight into the realities of being a musician from his dad. He let me know he quit the business as soon as he found out he would be a father. He wanted to be home. He looked the age of man from the time when men stayed far away from home even if the came back every night. A trailblazer, he was the one playing the piano in the music that filled the studio. Cormac told everyone who came in the room to listen out for his father. According to his father Cormac has always had impeccable taste, "he has an eye for these things."  The two were quite a pair and then there were three. Three generations sharing space. Gentle banter about events I wasn't present for but grazed against my entrence.

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Family magnifies all other success.

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I was beaming when I stood in front of his open studio door. I actually wasn't sure I could go in. I was green and wide eyed, probably for the duration of my time at Mana and especially for this first studio visit. As soon as a I saw his space I knew I needed to create images and write. This was just too good. Rory wrote copy for Leo Burrett before he moved on to his next great life. We talked about how he doesn't consider anything but the art he wants to create. He creates constantly and openly. The work is infections, delightful and another word but it escapes me. Something foreign that captures a feeling but doesn't translate. the feeling when your stuff is moved in but unpacked and your alone in your dorm after you first arrive for college freshman year. Imagine that as one word // I accidentally said, "I'm nervous" to which he replied, "Be brave." // He encouraged me to call myself an artist, a writer. Which I did in every other studio. In retrospect this was the perfect place to start my journey on that day.

You can live many great lives in one lifetime [say what you are or someone else will define you].

All photos were taken by me unless otherwise noted.

Old Black Magic

Today my son repeated a part of a poem we heard during Old Black Magic almost a week ago.

"Preacher Man says you can have peace if you believe in the same God. Politician Man says you can have peace if the price is right."

We tried to remember if that is exactly how it went and then he casually mentioned "how good" that poem was. "That guy was cool," before walking off to brush his teeth before bed. We consume a lot of art, and I sometimes wonder what he things. What sticks, what matters to his young mind.

I have said before that I want him to know that there are many ways to be a person, a healthy human. There is space to be yourself in artist communities, and Chicago has an exceptionally vibrant artist community. He also got to take a picture with Sam Trump after listening to him accompany an immensely talented dancer.

My experience at the event confirmed the effectiveness of the energy work that I have been doing. I felt significantly less social anxiety. I committed to embracing "black magic" last year. By that I mean, pre-colonial spiritual knowledge as just that. As someone who studied religion in college, I know that modern Christianity incorporated pre-colonial rituals and a strong argument can be made that it is an evolution of our understand of God but that only made decolonizing my religious practice slightly easier.

Old Black Magic was right on time, for both of us. Art is a vital part of deconstruting what harms us. 

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 Check out @ProductionColors

Check out @ProductionColors

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I made the mistake of not bringing a snack, so we ended up at Pleasant House Pub down the street. The drinks alone are worth the trip, and the bathroom is an extra bonus. I know, but the bathroom is unnecessarily beautiful.

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We all ended up heading to Hidden Figures after this. Long night, but worth the 4 hour nap I took two days later (the next day was lit too). Hidden Figures is a topic for another post tho. If you haven't seen it please do.

Reflecting on What The Body Knows

You could learn to fly if it meant you would live another day.
— Maame, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

More Information about Barak Ade Soleil

The space was hollow and small. glass doors on one end, wooden doors on the other. behind our seats, a row of windows overlooked large spotlights, the source of the other worldly light.  We were standing on the stage but we didn't know then we where a part of the performance. We would be moved in every sense of the word. On paper the performance was about exploring the interaction of race and disability thru dance. I am not sure that description does the depth of the work justice. I saw it as an essay in three parts.  

Part I :

He pushed thru the curtains without announcement. He didn't to ask for silence,  his silence demanded it. From the beginning his movements demanded so much from the audience. They reminded me of the yoga poses I hate to press myself into. Uncomfortable and peculiar but opening spaces within you that would otherwise go unexplored. The sounds of discomfort was part of the dance. The sound forced the discomfort back into your own body. He grunted and moaned, resurrecting the familiar ache of depression.

The Body Knows the Mind is in Control.

We confronted the sound of discomfort but also defiance. The frantic nature of determination when your mind and body are both enemy and ally.

ade Soleil pushed us to see him beyond the discomfort of movement, the story did not begin or end there. We watched him dripping in gold, slow winding in the familiar ecstasy of freedom. Bare chested and looking you straight in your soul, he dared you to look away. He forced each of us to confront what ever it was you felt watching him come thru like the dance hall queen completely owning his body and his sensuality. Edgeless and feeling triumphant, I couldn't have been prepared for the final chapter of part one.

I still don't know exactly what to make of the closing. It didn't understand why. What happened. I wish I could say it didn't invoke another familiar feeling. If you have ever stripped yourself bare you may understand it too. Some people see you as a full person others use it to dehumanize you. I felt like I was looking at that dehumanization, he pressed it into us. He made us think he needed us to hand feed him, made us feel sorry for him, for ourselves. I silently begged not to be chosen, felt frustrated by the variety of responses of those who were. No one spoke but everyone communicated. Shifting, avoiding eye contact, delighting in the feeding, contorted faces, "reading" the program, every movement communicated something. All different all telling.  He was watching us, we were performing too. He danced a complex set of emotions, unraveled a complex humanity and focused us to reconsider ourselves and our way of relating, rationalizing, hiding.


Part II

Jerron began his performance from the opposite side. The glass doors. Standing tall and straight. He marched in with wide steps hitting the floor hard. Each boom shacking the foundation of our expectations. My son whispered, "he doesn't have a disability."  I contemplated what my silence on disabilities had thought my child as I watched Jerron work to get his hand in his pocket, considered the beauty in the movement.  It wasn't swift or effortless and that's what made it such a beautiful part of the performance. Disability usually comes up on an as needed bases, to explain why accommodations are needed or to prevent my child from saying anything insensitive or looking too hard.

The Body Knows that if Used Carefully it Can Control the Mind of Another.

Jerron's performance took up a tremendous amount of space. His movements where large and his interactions with the audience were genial, in sharp contrast ade Soleil's solo performance. The privilege of taking up space, to move around as much as you like meant he stood directly in front of me but did not see me. He was in a world all his own. A world in plain sight I had never taken the time notice but have no access too. My approach was wrong, I had taught my child to see but ignore a type of difference.


Part III

The spotlights cast multiple shadows of varying density for each dancer. Amplifying there movements. What does movement cost us? Watching both men drip sweat, pushing , pulling, and twisting. The two men shared a stage. There movements were about relationship. Each performer relying on the other for support. Engaging the floor and wall as part of the dance. Their proximity to each other's bodies struck me a particularly bold, two black men are rarely seen in this way. They are not allowed to be so free they love their mirror image. They are not allowed to hold their sons so tight for so long. We allow them sexuality but never intimacy.

Even in the mist of such heavy emotion finding peace in the base and the bounce. I loved the abrupt change to club music, watching both men bouncing to the base. Feeding off each others energy reminding me to get out my feelings and enjoy the moment. I needed those breaks. Music that is all too often hyper masculine and problematic but so #unapologeticallyblack it still creates a common ground.

The Body Knows the Power of the Mind is Not Absolute.

There was much more to the performance than I am able to capture. As a parent I can't help but wonder what was going thru my sons mind and he watched with furrowed brows. I do know that conversation the dance inspired between us was much needed and one of the longest we have had in a while. I decided I wouldn't attempt to explain the dance. Really how could I pretend to know what the artist was thinking. What emotions he wanted the call forward? Maybe my explanation would spoil his insight. Instead we talked about the power of the mind, the need to consider the complexity of each persons identity and the need to be honest with yourself about your own complexity.

 

 With Jerron

With Jerron