So much to write about. My reading at BookWoman on January 31 in Austin was sweet. We ended up staying for a long time and having conversations about theatre and transnationalism. During the Q&A, KT asked inciteful questions about language, and my choices around use of language in Erzulie's Skirt. I could answer part of her questions, in particular, that I was very intentional in my use of language (I always try to be as intentional as possible). One, in using Spanish words and two in using Kreyol words. I cited conversations I've had with Y.C. about use of language in fiction - how she and I often get into the discussion where she ultimately points out "but if the novel's taking place in that language, why insert the word for the reader. It's already there?" and where I retort, "how do you then write a novel in English with concepts that don't exist in English, and when we as bicultural/transnational people don't live in English?" Myths of purity serve no purpose, really, but it's also not a closed debate.
Since then, I've been in NYC. I saw the exhibit at the Met titled: Flowing Streams - Scenes from Japanese Art & Life. There were many gorgeous illuminations and wall pieces, but one piece in particular (and if I had been smart, I would have written the name of the piece and the artist, but I didn't) startled me. Especially in thinking about Tu B'shevat and the unification of life. In this piece, the artist had drawn a scene in which several men, worshippers of the Buddha, are enthralled by a painting of the Buddha. So, first, I was moved by the complex layers of meaning within the piece itself - we are viewers watching viewers contemplating the Buddha. There is a large tree in the background, with tender willow-like branches. But, what blew me away was that the entire piece, all of the scenery, Buddha and all, was drawn by using and overlapping Chinese characters/writing. So the intention of the piece is not just its process or content, but the actual use of language to draw. Love that!
Yesterday, we all headed out to Newark to the show at Gallery Aferro to hear Wura-Natasha Ogunji. She was giving an artist's talk. The name of the show is Black rock: The Metamorphosis of Home from Isolation to Connection. She spoke about thread and connection and the ways in which Obatala, as an orisha in Yoruba spiritual practice, play into her thinking. Some of the pieces she showed included images from her Monumental series and some of her orgasm maps. To me, what's interesting to think about is how these might all be connected or speak to each other - the body, the breath, and the monumental.
Of course, this led into the years old debate between T.B., W.O. and me about the role of the artist in the world. Yes, this is a broad, contentious topic.
We always go back to Kara Walker. Dear Kara Walker. If you don't know, I am one of the people in the world who is highly offended by her work, and wishes that I was seeing her other work - the gorgeous paintings hiding out in her studio, for example (Kara if you ever read this, I'm asking that maybe, before a retrospective, you might consider this). This, in part, has to do with how I was introduced to it. I first saw her work when I was in Germany in 1998; I walked into a gallery and saw all of these caricatures of black female bodies (that's how I read it, since I don't read German and could only go off the visual). Not only was I disturbed by the work itself, but also by the fact that I was the only black female body in a white gallery space, feeling the white male/female gaze on me as I perused the work trying to understand its meaning and implications. Since then, I have seen her work in numerous other places, including the Studio Museum of Harlem. And I still find it disturbing and am still offended.
Well, for some reason, whenever her name comes up, this always leads our little trio into discussions on the artist's responsibility to self, work and community (it's usually, actually, the other way around - we start with that discussion, and then hold Kara Walker up as one of the people who is a polemic example; we've got to come up with other examples!). And to the deeper question of how do we talk about black female sexual subjugation in contemporary and colonial history? How do we allow for the artist's freedom and move away from violence and trauma? Is the point of art to investigate or reify collective trauma? Or is it to create new language? Or both? And why does the question of artist in community only seem to apply to people of color, or marginalized peoples? When in fact, we're never divorced from community or the responsibilities of that ever? And what does responsibility mean? Does it mean falling into essential ideas of what "correct" or "right" art is? Or does it always lead to censorship? And why has that been the response?
And for me, why does Kara Walker offend me and Laylah Ali does not? They are both dealing with histories of violence against black bodies. Is it about the audience response? The way in which our dismemberment continues to be an object for primarily white audience consumption? Then, if we extend these questions and analogies to writing and music, why is it so much easier to get mad about the commodification of hip hop and the implications of that on the integrity of the work? So then, is it about the market? Is it about how we as artists must function in a consumer oriented society, where art is divorced from practical application in a context where application is linked to productivity for capital?
What does it mean to make art for art's sake and who can do that and is that even possible? And why is this usually framed as a dichotomous debate?
I am of the opinion that art shapes our thinking and cultures in very fundamental ways, and that it's therefore really important for us as artists to know what we're doing. Whether we know that we're entertainers and that's what we are here to do, or whether we are interrogating history and must then research and know our subject matter intimately. We must know what we're doing and be willing to ask ourselves hard questions about how we are participating in the creation of worlds and cultural thought.
But, again, this is not a closed discussion, nor for me, a dogmatic one. I'm not looking for one response or one way of seeing the world. I'm looking for our individual and collective freedom and liberation. From trauma. From history.
Yesterday I headed to the Jewish museum and the Museum of Arts & Design. Despite myself I’m starting research on my third novel, which is leading me into an interrogation of Caribbean narratives around Jewish experience, Converso experience, migration, diaspora, land, faith. You know. There’s a show going up on comics, but it wasn’t up as of yesterday, so I’m sad to be missing that, as I’m a big fan of comic books/graphic novels. I used to be an X-men afficionada, via my brothers’ comic book collection. That was after Asterix & Obelix and Tin Tin – highly problematic comic books that I nonetheless devoured well into early adolescence; in my early 20s it was about Maus, Aeon Flux, Hothead Paisan – in that genre of future tripping and political commentary; right now, it’s about Bat Woman, Persepolis, the series coming out of AIDS Project L.A., Michelle Tea’s graphic novels, etc.
The show at the Museum of Arts & Design was fantastic. The title of the show is: Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting. There were three pieces, specifically, that impressed me. The first was a triptych of three panels where the artist, Piper Shepard, had hand cut lace out of three (at least) 14’ long pieces of muslin cloth, and then gessoed it so that it hung stiffly from the ceiling. Not only were the pieces absolutely gorgeous, but I have utter awe for the artist’s labor. I have no where near that kind of obsessive patience to hand cut lace out of cloth, so my appreciation for her work is deep. The second artist whose work really interested me was Henk Wolvers who makes lace like compositions out of porcelain. He has this one series of small individually designed squares that were not only sculptural in form, but also filmic in their layout. They created a beautiful dialogue with each other and the wall. And the third artist, whose work I can’t stop thinking about is Hilal Sami Hilal. His work consisted of these 2 cm thick cardboard lace panels, where the lace was composed of letters and words. But, he has layered the panels, so that as you look at them, it’s as if you’re inside a book, inside the letters. It’s both intriguing in the age of digital pixilation, and ephemeral to experience.
The Sephardic Film Festival's in town, so I went to a film last night (Shalosh Imahot/the Three Mothers), and am going to check out a couple of others as well. Later today I’m going to dive into the Archives at the American Sephardi Federation. Despite myself, I’m starting research for the next writing project.