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:

IMG_5129.JPG

"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."

IMG_5140.JPG

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.

IMG_5141.JPG
IMG_5131.JPEG

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.

 

IMG_5138.JPG
IMG_5143.JPG

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.

IMG_4164.JPG

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.

IMG_4240.JPG

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. 

IMG_4165.JPG

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. 

IMG_4190.JPG

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.

IMG_4242.JPG

Let frustration fuel creativity. Burn it away.

IMG_4143.JPG

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.

IMG_4148.JPG
IMG_4145.JPG
 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.  

 
IMG_4144.JPG

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.

IMG_4151.JPG

Family magnifies all other success.

IMG_4139.JPG

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.

Blue Black: Moonlight, Mastry + Lightbending

I feel fairly confident a cultural revolution around body acceptance/love for Nigerian women, in general, won't come anytime soon. Nigeria isn't the only country with this issue, and it's not limited to groups of people with universally dark skin, we have all seen Asian women walking around with umbrellas on sunny summer days.

When I was growing up, I remember watching a news report about the lost boys of Sudan, then running into one working at O'hare. My mother pointed him out, but he didn't need an introduction, I had been staring at him long before she noticed him. He was a human giraffe covered in black panther skin. I couldn't decide if I liked how he looked. The white and red in his eyes made him look extraterrestrial, other-worldly. His skin consumed light; I could see it trying to escape, pooling and contouring at the rim of his skin. Otherworldly has never been a substitute for ugly in my mind, butI still wasn't sure what to make of him. That night I lay in bed wondering if I looked like him and why I couldn't decide if I liked it.

Looking back on the colorism that tints universal beauty standards and most African homes, I totally understand why I felt the way I did, but my initial characterization of dark skin itself has stuck with me. I spent years avoiding pictures because of the way my skin ate light. I spent the same amount of time in the grass watching how sunlight interacted with the tiny worlds I had created. Worlds where I was the light bending giraffe.

FullSizeRender.jpg
IMG_0631.JPG
IMG_0630.JPG

The current Black Renaissance has resurfaced my childhood fascination with how dark skin bends light. Like every real Renaissance, art is at the center of revolution.

Lynette Yiadom Boakye discussed how she studied lights interaction with objects and how to capture that in her art. Cauleen Smith shared her quest to master capturing dark skin in film. At dinner a few weeks later, a friend brought up how Atlanta successfully captures dark skin. I had gone to the advanced screening of Moonlight with high expectations, not only for the plot but how dark skin would be represented, that is what stood out to me the most about the trainer.  I asked Tarell Alvin McCraney about the meaning of the movie title, but I already had my mind made up about its meaning. The same as when I first saw the Sudanese man. Moonlight has plenty of emotional to explore, but the bending and consumption of light can't be ignored.

The allusiveness of the capturing dark skin in art is my new fascination; it affirms the magnificence of melanin for me. I can be sure there is nothing grotesque about what it does to light.

Witnessing Mastry by Kerry James Marshall cemented that. He treats darkness as something worth studying and honestly portrays its depth, something fashion magazine spreads never provided me. In Mastery blackness in and of itself is explored not used as a means or contrast to whiteness like most fashion magazine layouts. I would say the same thing about Moonlight. In Mastry and Moonlight darkness does not erase complexity, it heightens it. Both works demand that you look deeper.

This piece I saw on Son of Baldwin's fb page but now can't find (boo) brought to my attention the potential for blackness without darkness as the norm in society; The article talked about the preference for blackness without dark skinned bodies. I tried to imagine aworld without walking light-bends, our bodies once again confined to museums and books of curiosities.

All Images from our visit to see Mastry at the Museum of Contemporary Art In Chicago

Margins to Frontiers: New Paradigms of #BlackMagic

I had the pleasure of attending the New Paradigms panel discussion with Thelma Golden, Glenn Ligon, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, and Cauleen Smith on October 20th at the Art Institute of Chicago. Thelma Golden was a wonderful moderator. She drew her questions for ever dimension of this space time continuum them cast them like a spell drawing out pounds of marinated taught for our greedy consumption. It seemed as tho she could walk on the plane of thought pointing out nuances in the landscape we may have missed. Other times her questions provided a needed boundary for more targeted exploration.

The thing that still stands out to me was the discussion of what is means to be a black artist right now. It seems there is a critical mass of black art and artist. There is no longer a need/urgency for comparing black artists to white artists or framing the work in the context of the white gaze. It reminded me of an article I recently read in the Harvard Business Review about "New Power."

"New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it."

Her mention of margins and centers, which happens to be the title of a very personally influential book by bell hooks,  made me wonder if she would identify her source of power as "new." She is absolutely a disrupter in the field and I THINK forged in the fires of black feminist taught and critical race theory so her response to the first question by a gentleman about the "feeling of outsiderness' is something I will be mulling over for some time. Let me start by saying that every artist rejected the notion of being an outsider. Which, I think, relates to the very strong shared sentiment that there is a critical mass of black artists," we have our own" so to speak. Here my mind wonders about Solange, the success of her new album and the surge of collective black action in support of black makers.

So the question that sticks in my mind is "outside of what?" Thelma Golden flipped the visuals to what is in the margin and what is in the center. She said "we now know that we where at the edge and everything was moving in that direction." The edge, then would be the forefront.  Time has proved her and her contemporaries right. Those thoughts that had been marinating since the 80s and 90s are now highly prized for intellectual consumption by audiences of varying densities of melanin.  

 Charles hanging out with his book before the discussion started.

Charles hanging out with his book before the discussion started.

I think Lynette Yiadom Boakye response was the most soothing. For her, being an artist is about feelings of outsiderness. Artists tend to think themselves outside of something, whatever that something is. There is a deep preoccupation with inward thinking and a tendency towards introversion that is common in artists. An artists "something" then in a matter of scale and for this particular panel race relations/anxiety between white and black was the incorrect scale. A blanket of steaming complex black narratives. I think each arists response to what was critical influence for them revealed a bit about what they feel outside off and the rhythm that moves them.

I wanted to sit in my seat and watch everyone leave, their bodies would serves as the credits for a film a can never see again but I ran out, rushing Charles to be bathroom and worrying about how I would navigate the reception. I waited outside the bathroom stall contemplating my own outsider feelings. Outside of artist circles of any kind, outside of the Chicago academic circles, outside of black middle-class status. Outside of anything that seemed relevant in this space. I clumsily walked thru the reception putting to anemic wedges of pita on an absurdly large plate before finding us a quite corner to sit it. I tried to recap with my son who reminded me that he spent the entire time reading his book. We left shortly after. I felt desperate looking at the faces as they passed searching for an indication that they my be open to a conversation with a stranger. Troubling work in such a bright open space.

 

Glenn Ligon
A Small Band, 2015
Neon and paint
74 3/4 x 797 1/2 inches
(189.9 x 2025.7 cm)

Image from LUHRING AUGUSTINE

I want to talk endlessly about Glenn Ligon in this post but I am going to save it because i learned that he is currently installing this piece at the Stony Island Arts Bank! The Rebuild Foundation has already started advertising Ligon's presence in the space and I am really looking forward to attending and writing about the piece and the artist then. Stay Tuned.

LYNETTE YIADOM-BOAKYE, Citrine by the Ounce, 2014, oil on canvas, 21 7/8 x 17 13/16 inches, 23 10/16 x 19 9/16 inches (framed), LYB14.006, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

IVORY_ANTHROPOLOGY_white-out_on_magazine_tearsheets