Friday, November 02, 2007

how does that sound look?

still from performance video marks (2007)

(writings about belongings, marks, and other new video works):

They’re first about land and the body, my relationship to land. What the land gives and what our bodies know (both being full of deep knowledge). There is also how we make marks, how we mark our existence in this world. I was thinking a lot about migration and immigration as well. Crossings. Of borders and seas. What is it to cross an ocean? Does the water remember our existence? And how? And how are our own bodies marked with the crossings of people we don’t know. People who we know could be us. Are us.

What is the rhythm of our presence in this world? When we walk does the sound reverberate infinitely, endlessly? How does that sound look?

And the masquerade. I am forever interested in the mask and where that takes us. The space between the body and the spirit. Covering and opening. And what it feels like for the earth to put a mask on.


I saw the "Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary" show at the Met recently. As I walked through the exhibit I kept thinking, I must not be remembering the definition of reliquary. We are walking through wooden statues dripping with oil, ancestor figures sculpted in metal, stitched dolls that are consulted for important community matters. From the museum catalogue:

“Yet another distinctive genre consists of Bwende and Bembe soft sculptures from the Republic of Congo, with their emphasis on a vibrant red palette, strategic use of contrasting textile patterns, and grand cosmic gestures that announce their role as active intermediaries with the divine. Among the most spectacular and rare examples is a life-size Female Figure by the Bwende master Makosa of Kingoyi that was collected by the Swedish missionary Efraim Andersson in 1938 (Museum of World Culture).”

Female Figure by the Bwende master Makosa of Kingoyi

Soft sculpture? Okay. With the bones of an ancestor inside. The figure, measuring well over 7 feet high is put into the earth during a burial ceremony.

And the un-burying? How does one ‘collect’ the body of another’s dead? What does it take to excavate something so large—both physically and spiritually. Is it excruciating? Does it require amnesia? Or the leaving of one’s own body? Complex like reparations and repatriation.

So, excavation. What do we excavate? And when and why? And how? Can anger be removed from the body? Cut out and photographed? Does it emerge lovingly? Makes me think of Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron and war. He also has a big heart. So while he is fierce and independent, he is very loving, sensitive. Thinking of creating a dance for Ogun.

(Must we undergo constant excavation? And taking, even after the body. Perhaps this is one of the roots that explains my mixed emotions when I come upon the works of Kara Walker and Wangechi Mutu and even Ghada Amer. What would you do without the oppressor? Or must we always be broken or breaking?)


I am deeply interested in how we, as artists, create, discover our own language. And how these languages become creoles. The crossings are the creoles that we speak. And so to Sun Ra and Maya Deren:

Sun Ra, from Space is the Place (1974)

Maya Deren, from Meshes of the Afternoon


That should really be the measure of success: if you can be in your body.

Nigerian Egungun Dancers

The Lovely Willie Ninja

New York City Breakers featured on Graffiti Rock

Ugandan Marimba Dancing

Ag'ya, Martinique's Combat Dance, 1936, filmed by Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham Dancing with Talley Beatty


Sunday, October 21, 2007

She thought the sea.

She began.

Ogun jí (Ogun wakes up.)

He visioned songbirds.

He stopped a war. He opened ceremony.

She thought the sea.

She moved the road.

She danced.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The floor of ceremony

still from earth puts on a mask (2007)

Maya Deren created a film with the dancer Talley Beatty in 1945. She first called it: ‘A study in choreography for the camera’, but renamed it ‘Pas de deux’ (step of two) because she considered the camera to be a partner in the dance:

This is the form I have always been interested in, camera as partner. As crossroads, as the floor of ceremony, full of traces and tracings. As colored people we have such complicated relationships to the camera. The taking, the shooting, the cataloguing. Tracking and surveillance.

I first began my journey as an artist as a photographer. I was interested in how to make photographs of people who lived before 1839 (the discovery of photography), how to photograph ancestral memory and deep knowledge.

from Woman who thinks she is Bird Woman (1999)

All begins with the body. The place where everything is infinitely embedded, the history of the world, politics, geography, crossings and returns. I was making glass negatives of spirits and stories, a kind of evidence, a way to talk about my visions, a way to mark history as I know it.

from Crossroads/Blood Diary/Medicine Bag (1999)

So I return to the camera, my partner, my dancer, my floor. Here are four works made in Spain and Austin (‘the return’ and 'infinite return'). (Of course, I stitched as well, but more on that soon!)

belongings and marks

earth puts on a mask

infinite return (bird on the sun)

And the sketches/poems that gave birth to the films, entitled:

456 fathoms the color of the horizon line
611 fathoms the color of the sea at night
with 305 fathoms the color of brown bodies
80 fathoms of Ogun’s colors
97 fathoms the reflection of clouds in water
92 my grandmother’s sunset
435 blood and the earth on the island of Santo Domingo
539 red sun

hold them
hold them
hold them
hold them
it is the sea it is mountains it is the sea
fathoms of black bodies
and two suns
i am carrying two
our world has two
i have drawn them this way
like that hold them hold them
hold them
drawings them sea them
mountains now crawling
am drawing
is moving
black bodies on the page
i cannot even imagine the falling
but your drawing
brings spirits into the room
and they
is moving
hold them hold them hold them
while suns are rising
while these bundles explode
you feel that drawing on your face?
it is the sea it is mountains it is the sea
it is your drawing we are dancing
this drawing
am drawing
am sea
am mountains
and we are wrapping
these two suns
hold them
hold them hold them

my belly drags
i have been pulling
across foothills
but the mountain is too close
my son so close
and where the horizon
covered by a woman on the street
shouting these people these people
this is how they are that is how they smell
how loud how dark how pushing
never want to wait in line
how they move they move
they move
this message in my hand
i am watching the horizon for my son
for a boat on the line of purple
it’s the wood of a boat
folded on the horizon
no it didn’t look like him in the paper
it’s a bird on the horizon
it didn’t look like him
a folded bird
folded crumpled in my hand
black and smelling
it is the wood of boatmakers
wood rotting
folded like that in the paper

flies incessantly cross my body
they tasting my sweat
dirt removed anoche
a big red ant is coming for me
bites edges of chancletas
skin is skin
she is coming for me
this ancestor is angry
she wants to tear my flesh
and spit it out
to rid me of ghosts i am carrying
she keeps asking why how
how whoever who
finds you crossing that desert
who whoever
has told you we haven’t made crossings already and who

back back drummers

who whoever
and you don’t
cruzamos como siempre
cruzamos como porque
ese dictador ya esta muerto
and and
we have made cities of people
of people
and people
who whoever

these flies will not leave my skin
and i am crossing
he burned but i am crossing
porque es lo mio
mi cuerpo
es lo mio lo que moscas
mark traverse forget
es lo mio
sudando quemando sudando

am sea sea
am hands
am threads am earth against earth
am drawings am women
how i always how this
how black my ghosts my drummers
on and on
one palomita ay
palomita ay palomita
these flies
these why
are born
but the flies

and her question?
¿com es diu això en català?
¿on li fa mal?
no it doesn’t hurt
she asked how is your work sacred
y te dijé

am sea sea
am hands am mountains
threads drawings
how this how black my drummers
volando volando
there are thorns and flies in catalunya
and las canarias and gibraltar and and
and serrated mountains and

incessant witnesses are coming for me
there are drummers coming for me


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

This is a cake, this is a nation, this is a body, this is infiniphonic

I’m off to Barcelona, then to the Can Serrat artist residency in El Bruc, land of the Black Madonna. One of my first stops in Barcelona will be Fundación Tàpies. It's the absolute best to be able to see the actual work. And I always find myself smelling paintings--as if they were books. I have decided to bring my ‘Converses amb Antoni Tàpies’ book, just in case I meet the artist. He is one of my favorite artists and deepest inspirations.

Antoni Tàpies
Cardboard and string, 1959
I am in the midst of packing, figuring out how much thread (can you ever have enough), what paper and how much. I am thinking large-scale drawings will be part of my daily ritual. Drawing is still so scary to me, and beautiful, and a change of scale seems a necessary path to explore. And then there’s performance.
I recently started making a series of performance pieces entitled:

of the black female nude
as told by herself

Still from Preparing for the Masquerade
(Chronicles of the black female nude as told by herself)

I use my body and bundles of thread, measured in fathoms, to talk about our movements, history, memory. I have been thinking a lot about how to encode history in materials. So the colors of the thread hold historical and memorical references:

354 fathoms the color of the deep sea
196 fathoms the color of the water off the coast of Santo Domingo
38 fathoms the color of a memory of blood in water

Thread Palettes

...Thinking of Threads and Ladders...
Artist Youmna Chlala and I have been developing a project entitled:

El movimiento del punto más cerca
The movement of the closest point
Le mouvement du point le plus proche
It is to take place in Southern Spain and Morocco, specifically looking at the Strait of Gibraltar and the cities of Ceuta and Melilla which are contested Spanish enclaves located in Morocco. The Strait of Gibraltar is important for many reasons. At its shortest distance it measures only 8 miles and is a place where many refugees—both from Africa and the Middle East attempt to enter Europe. The cities of Ceuta and Melilla are a way to enter Europe without crossing the Strait, though the high walls, fences and armed soldiers are just as dangerous as these waters. This negotiation of borders and bodies is reflected across the globe: Mexico and the United States, Israel and Palestine, Dominican Republic and Haiti, the list goes on.

Youmna began this project in California at Headlands Center for the Arts, located on cliffs above the bay:

Youmna Chlala
Some of us are made of bone (1)

I used to think that our relationship to land determined everything. Being able to touch or return to ancestral lands, the process of creating homelands, walking on earth, our relationship to food and the dirt. Now I am thinking about our movements. I think of the work of artist Lisa C. Soto. Her work is cartographies of moving lines. She records the globe opening and closing, breathing. And countries in constant motion. In her drawings, the boundaries of countries are always speaking of their own creation and demise. Perspective moves from the microscopic to the infiniphonic* and back again.

*A brief note on the INFINIPHONIC: this just came to me recently (mad props to AL, SB, KH, and a dimly lit car outside of Austin’s Victory Grill). Infiniphonic describes the sensation of listening to multiple sounds, music, stories, to what is heard and yet to be played, it is hyperbolic notes and a playlist of voices and all the beauty and possibility that that implies. You know it when you hear it. SNAP!*

The visual may also be infiniphonic:

Lisa C. Soto
Moth, Hummingbird, Pathways

Lisa C. Soto

Lisa C. Soto
Untitled II

Youmna tells me that the city is becoming the new nation. Rather than talk about countries, people refer to the metropolis as the center. So you live in Day Effé or London or Sao Paulo or Bangkok or Austin (does that count?!). The country itself dissipates and hovers while the metropolis grows.

Youmna Chlala
This is a cake, not a city

And then there’s the body.

I am thinking that perhaps it is the body that is the new nation. It is a place of borders, histories, politics, landscape, spirit. It is sometimes all that we have and all that we bring. And, if the body is the new nation: where does it move, who are its allies, what is its architecture, landscape and geography? How does that nation express desire? How does it survive and is its survival important?

Is it in our bodies where the fall of the nation-state will happen?
Is that where change happens--through our movements and journies and landings?

I find myself pulled to these stories of where we are not allowed to go or not supposed to go.
And go.

Still from Shoes (Chronicles of the black female nude as told by herself)


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Bird Woman

I was recently asked about the inspiration for the piece bird woman (see is the first image):

I had been sketching birds in my studio, as a way to begin the day. The connection to birds is spiritual in the sense that i have found bird feathers (owls, blue jays, flicker--it's like a woodpecker) for many years. This has also been possible because of my deep connection to land and the forest-- i spend a lot of time hiking and listening. I am also fascinated with the way birds seem to be both physical and spiritual--flying and singing--how incredible, that really is the ultimate. The bird sketches are also ways for me to look at gestures, significant gestures and then to translate those onto figures. So, for example, dancing/fighting birds and rituals of courtship. Or the shape of flying--towards the sky or towards the sea. With this piece I wanted the woman to more directly embody the gesture/the bird. She becomes, the bird becomes. And they are both divine.

...this was a really hard piece for me. When I made it I had such a hard studio day, nothing was flowing and I was actually going to put it away in a pile of mistakes that i have. But then a friend entered my studio and really loved it and that gave me new eyes. And then, as you know, I thought I would sew the entire piece, but the white of the sketch really grew on me. And I began to really understand the importance of the sketch, and the partly-stitched image, the way that it allowed for movements and openings in the work. The piece became very significant to me--it is a legend of sorts for other work. I still feel I have a lot to learn from it. Oh, and it is also about vulnerability, being open to being a vessel, to change, to being physically embodied, to being divine. All that is about vulnerability I think.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

birds, women, conversations with elegua, and a list of the impossible

These are my winter to spring stitches, along with a short film of me sewing:

And a favorite question from my sketch journal this time around: what
is impossible? what would it look and sound like? write about it,
then do it.

The question makes me think of Elegua, the orisa of the
crossroads—choices and destinies, and also equinoxes and eclipses.
Rules and their breaking. I keep having this conversation with the
road about the impossibility of drawing. So I am following this
instruction from my drawing teacher. When you draw a face, or a body,
or anything really, try not to name it or think about it in words,
instead think about shapes, curves, shadows, lines, movement. So you
can get to know it without saying what it is, without limiting what it
will become. It's amazing to be able to engage in something so
difficult, to feel the near impossibility of that translation from eye
to body to pencil to page—and then, says my teacher, eventually you
become fluent in drawing the way YOU draw. Words of the divine
trickster I think.

so here is my short list:
running five miles a day
enemies loving each other (i am thinking a lot about laylah ali's work here)
me, a dj
and sometimes drawing

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The sky is earthbloodorange

I have just returned to Austin from New York and am waking up with a book about Tàpies called Witness of Silence by Alexandre Cirici (1972). There is such a freedom in the work of Tàpies that I hope to achieve in my own one day, a kind of trust for the unknown which I believe every artist should embody, walk from, live with. And then there are the colors in his work which move me so deeply. The oranges that speak of something pungent, internal, like blood or love, and also earth. I am staring at this piece called Painting.

Painting, 1954

There are artists that I come back to that I feel somehow related to—artistic ancestors—we have some kind of shared elemental connection—these include Antoni Tàpies, Ana Mendieta and (recently) María Magdalena Campos-Pons. We see their work and think ‘these are my people.’ It makes me think about this idea (this message I heard) that ‘there is no imagination without the ancestors and where we come from.’ And I am thinking of ancestors in all possible forms: blood relations and artistic ancestors as well as place and land.

¿Como Andas?, 2003

While in NY I had this amazing conversation with a friend of mine, Ayano Ohmi, who is a clay artist. She uses clay from all over the world and makes totems with that clay that she often installs outdoors in the same places where the clay was found. The clay comes out of the earth to find a home on top of the earth. How beautiful. So we had this amazing conversation about travel and art and Ayano said something that I keep thinking about: “Clay, fiber and glass are age-old materials, so I feel they should be together, must be together to make something very important.”

And we continued to talk about this elemental connection that we have to materials. The materials know us. We know them, but they have known us longer. Think about that. That the materials have sought us out. So our connection to the materials we use as visual artists stems from something very deep. Ancestral, elemental, fundamental. And so for our work to be powerful form must embody content. The form is history is our past, present and future.

And our deep love and excitement and breathlessness about seeing the color earthbloodorange used on a painting may indeed come from the fact that one of our ancestors was impressed by that color as it painted the sky with the setting sun hundreds or thousands of years ago. We must be incredibly old to be artists.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The birth of mythical birds

Sea Bird (2007), Thread on paper, 10 x 9 inches

Hummingbird (2007), Thread on paper, 10 x 8 inches

Hummingbird, Ruby throated (2007), Thread on paper, 10 x 8 inches

Bird (2006), Thread on paper, 9¾ x 8 inches

I recently began a daily ritual of stitching as a way to enter my studio and begin work for the day. I have been sewing a series of birds, mostly mythical birds (related--and not--to the phoenix, quetzalcoatl, sankofa, thunderbird...i’m sure there are more...) that have become the palettes for my other stitched pieces (Monuments) as my hand learns about gestures, movements, colors, and the meanings and language of different stitch lengths. The daily sewing is like a prayer which sometimes happens quite quickly (well, for sewing...1-2 hours) or can take much, much longer (like most of the day).

It’s amazing how the sketches, the prayers, these birds become the work itself—the sketches have a kind of opening and vulnerability to them—they seem to speak so easily about what it is that I’m working towards, their language flows without being self-conscious. So they are not only reference points for larger work, but I have become very interested in the visual language of the birds themselves and the stories they tell. The writer Ana Lara recently asked me if I consider the stitches to be poems—they are in many ways, certainly a language I am trying to learn, trying to speak, sometimes broken, sometimes fluent, all the while working to understand the thread and its ever-changing form and relationship to land and the body and the story.

And so I find myself in Austin, TX. Yes, Texas! A city of birds, hundreds of grackles break through the sky each night and hang heavy in the trees. Parrots stream through the sky with their bright greens, nesting in the electrical towers all over the city. A police officer told me the parrot ancestry goes back several years, that they were once pet birds that escaped. Some say they were waylaid on a journey south one year. Or maybe they weren’t lost at all, but arrived here because they had to. They had to return, remember, re-live something important and powerful. And this land is old, there are fossils every where you step—over 300 million year-old fossils that you can hold in your hands. It’s incredible. And I almost forgot to mention the wild peacocks. I actually found a peacock feather the other day. Sometimes the sky opens that way.