To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist Korakrit Arunanondchai and curator Devrim Bayar to filmmaker Sam Green—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is a performer, poet, sound artist, and—as Shannon Gibney put it in her Walker interview with Diggs last March—an “intercultural mestiza, at once an interloper and a translator, an authentic and an inauthentic voice of ‘the Other.”” A prolific producer, her projects range from the poetry volume TwERK (Belladonna, 2013) to chapbooks, including Ichi-Ban, Ni-Ban (MOH Press), to the album Televisíon. Diggs’s interdisciplinary performance work has been featured at The Kitchen, Brooklyn Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Pillsbury House + Theatre, and the Walker—where she performed a reading of TwERK in early 2014—among many others. A native of Harlem, Diggs is past poetry editor for the online arts journal exittheapple and founding editor (with writer Greg Tate) of YoYo/SO4 magazine. In October 2014, she shared her thoughts on her first encounter with artist Ben Patterson, whose work is included in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, as well her own Fluxus-inspired scores.
What is the ideology behind an exhibition space,
a ”best of,” a poetry reading, a film festival,
a performing arts venue, an “according to”?
In memoriam: Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou
Their contributions to African-American and American literature are immense. To persons of color globally, there are simply not enough words. Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou at times appeared to contrast each other in perception. That said, the two of them shared common goals, loves and commitments. It is because of their friendship that we have that iconic photograph of the two performing an “African custom of ancestral return” at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Widely respected and adored by their readers, their works both touched upon racism and the Black experience. Their activist work placed them in rooms working alongside leaders in America as well as in Africa. Both wrote and collaborated with a number of artists in the visual and performing arts. It is daunting to imagine African American culture without their mark on a great many voices. We came to love and demand that our blackness be celebrated within our communities. We became phenomenal. We became fire.
Bishi @ The Kitchen, May 16, 2014
Singing in Bengali, English, Bulgarian, and Biblical Greek, multi-instrumentalist Bishi’s New York debut of Albion Voice was beyond what anyone witnessing her for the first time could have imagined. And then there were those eight or more costume changes that invoked Diana Ross, Bollywood, Grace Jones, and David Bowie. Not only was there a brown realness in front of you exploring “personal and national identity” through projected video animation and voice, but also this striking brown buoyancy tracing the evolution of English as the medieval mongrel tongue it once was to what it is today. And then she strapped on an electric sitar like a rocker and ran it through effects. Only a fellow sistren could admire such bombastic flair and be so utterly star-struck on a random street in Brooklyn months later. And then she had a wind machine. She brought the “black” back to The Kitchen.
Final Days: Melvin Edwards at Alexander Gray Associates
Between 1972 and 2002, the sculpture Melvin Edwards taught at Rutgers University. Of the classes he taught, one in particular took on a different approach when teaching/learning art history. To interrogate and explore art from a “third world” perspective meant expanding outside the textbook’s limitations, thus allowing broader themes and formal qualities from elsewhere into the work. To ponder upon this as pedagogy and personal mantra, what we see in Final Days is the evolution of such. The careful studies of abstraction and minimalism are not the only items exhibited here. Should we tap into our innate ability to cross-pollinate “between cultural and social realities,” experience here the stories and anecdotes Edwards has come to learn. Occupying both floors of the gallery, these interactions become a sort of engine. His on-going Lynch Fragments—the series of steel wall reliefs that Edwards began during the Civil Rights era—take on names from Wolof, Kimbundu, Serer, Islamic Senegalese, Yoruba, and Kikongo cultures, among others. They also connect to the history of labor and the African Diaspora. As a distinguishable spade reveals itself in an entanglement of mechanical debris in Rouie Rufisque, one feels the letter V shouting from a conjoined padlock. Edwards is in conversation with his fellow artists. He is equally with the farmer, construction worker, weaver, and superintendent. How the ax merges with horseshoe, nail, hoe, machete, and wrench is complicated by either gridded frames or the convexed side of spheres. I feel he wants us to recover something. In one piece, Diamnaidio (2004), we are asked to contemplate on the affect and meaning of roundness nestled under this beautiful explosive tension. In Homage to the Poet Léon Gontran Damas—an installation that has not been shown since 1993—serves as a meditative counterpoint to Lynch Fragments. In this large scale piece, the use of shape, shadow and purpose are dictated by sunlight. Damas, by the way, was the cofounder of the Negritude Movement. And very dear to my heart is the single work on paper displayed: Untitled Portrait of Jayne (c. 1974). Utilizing spray paint and chains—a common source material in his Lynch Fragments—Edwards uses the silhouette of his late wife, the poet, activist, and artistic collaborator Jayne. A side note: This particular image of Cortez was also the cover art for her album Celebrations and Solitudes. For Edwards, one of the pioneers of African American contemporary art and sculpture, to stencil chains into the foreground creates a reaction near opposite its violent past. As the chains are disrupted by Cortez’s image, they become less weighted and their significance is radically transformed. In sum, much in the tradition of how a poet might use “words in poetry,” the sweetness of life and tribute are profoundly interwoven within the complexities of his work. His second retrospective, Melvin Edwards: Five Decades will open at The Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas Texas, January 2015. I need a plane ticket, folks. Hook me up.
Lemi Ponifasio / MAU’s Birds With Sky Mirrors @ BAM Next Wave Festival, November 22, 2014
The audience is haunted by the moving image of a pelican trapped in what appears to be an oil slick – an image that has become all too common of the impact of man’s destructive nature upon nature, of excess and consumption, of the loss of memory. Yet as we are continuously pulled away and abruptly hit with this image throughout the show, we are driven viscerally towards Ponifasio’s question: “What would the last dance on earth look like?” Behind this masterful blend of musculature shadows, ritual and community, the answer takes on an assortment of bodies and voices with an ensemble largely composed of men and three women. At times deliciously challenging and stunning, the choreography calls upon traditional Samoan, Kiribati (a Melanesian island that scientists report will disappear by the end of the century) and Maori song and movement to inform (or be informed by) Butoh. The effortless reversals of gender roles are trickster-like but service this illusive 90-minute performance luminously. In bare amber hues underscored by a transcendental sound composition, BWSM transformed the actual space into succulent yet defiant waves addressing us to contemplate upon our own humanity.
María Magadalena Campos-Pon’s Habla La Madre at the Guggenheim performance, April 27, 2014
Presented as part of Carrie Mae Weems LIVE: Past Tense/Future Perfect, at exactly 11 am, a performance/procession called to everyone’s attention the forces of nature that aid in our paths and to whom we must ask for guidance. Joined by an ensemble of Afro-Cuban musicians—which included master percussionist Roman Diaz—under the direction of collaborator and composer Neil Leonard and seven women in blue dresses, the Cuban artist María Magadalena Campos-Pon literally gave the Guggenheim a spiritual cleansing. In honor of the orisha Yemanjá and Weems, a cake and blessed water was offered much to the worry of Guggenheim staff. The cake was placed carefully beside the pond. The water—which was poured into the pond—revealed live goldfish! The Guggenheim was not ready. The procession began outside and entered into the main lobby. Once inside, the seven women recited a poem (written by Mike Ladd). During the recitation, Magdalena announced her prayers for Yemanjá and Weems. In a dress that almost resembled the museum’s architecture, Campos-Pon led the procession up the ramp and into each of the floors where Weems’s three decades of photography was on exhibit. In unison, the women and Campos-Pon sang a traditional Lukumi song for the orisha who represents the ocean, the primordial waters and motherhood. This was life altering and, no, the Guggenheim was not ready.
Two-thousand fourteen has been quite a year for the author of the acclaimed book Harlem Is Nowhere (2011). Her essays were everywhere they needed to be. “From the Desk of the Freedwomen’s Bureau” appeared in The Waiting Room Magazine (for Simone Leigh’s The Free People’s Medical Clinic). Another appeared in Creative Time Reports (as part of Funk God Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn, co-curated by Rashida Bumbray). Then there was her essay “The Worth of Black Men, From Slavery to Ferguson” in the New York Times. All the while Rhodes-Pitts—partly inspired by Pig Foot Mary, an African American woman who became an entrepreneurial success by selling pigs’ feet out of a baby carriage, and by the history of Black independently run bookstores in Harlem—created BLACKNUSS: Books and Other Relics, a pop-up bookstore on the sidewalk of 133rd and Lenox Avenue. So what is it exactly? A site-specific installation? An example of situational aesthetics? How about Kujichagulia, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa by way of shopping cart, travel suitcase, and camping table, ornamented with freshly picked cotton? What does she sell? Books. Some rare charms like a Bob Kaufman broadside. Essentials like luscious uncut shea butter from Uganda (which is now my special occasion shea butter … should I have a special occasion). Incentives for conversation and debates like special brewed teas and bean pies. She also does consignment. Rhodes-Pitts’s charge for empowerment and self-sustainability (emblematic in the African American community) set up shop recently at Asian American Writer’s Workshop’s Counter Culturalists Series and at The Studio Museum in Harlem. At SMH, Rhodes-Pitts premiered Moor’s Head Press of BLACKNUSS with three pamphlets of essays by Arthur Jafa, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Sylvia Wynter.
What was so unadulterated about Rashida Bumbray’s piece is her ongoing homage to tradition. Even in the description, contemporary art curator and choreographer Bumbray credits her choreographic lineage: Margaret Christian, Syvilla Forte, and master improviser Adenike Sharpley, with whom she is featured in the performance. Tap and ring shot are evident. Also are the slender divides between the secular and sensual: the church lady and the juke joint fever pitch. Choreographed to Jimi Hendrix’s recording of “Red House” (1970), the performance was the amen-hallelujah-oh no she didn’t-get it girl moment of the evening. The brevity and complexity within the vocabularies Bumbray used signaled to the audience to do nothing else but combust into a flurry of call and response. It was an enduring blood memory; a repossession of identity and migration that without delay sang of good times. We were in the waters of William Henry Johnson’s I Baptize Thee. Presented as part of Harlem Stage’s EMoves, Little Red Rooster earned Bumbray a nomination for a 2014 Bessie for NY Dance and Performance Award for “Outstanding Emerging Choreographer.” Now we need to see this full scale. Bring her to the Walker Center for reals.
Language, Politics, and Resistance
Or, why Marie Wilcox is my latest hero
The 1996 Dover Thrift Edition of Native American Songs and Poems contains 15 “traditional” songs from 15 indigenous nations within the US. What are absent from this anthology are the actual languages these songs originate from. Could we therefore present this as a minor-yet-compelling argument for language revitalization? For many folks, the subject of Christopher Deschene, a presidential candidate for the Navaho (Diné) presidency and the issue of language fluency as an eligibility requirement in Navaho elections were introductions to the sociopolitical and cultural bearings associated with First Nations languages. This same year, Alaska became the second state (Hawai’i is the first) to officially recognize some 20 indigenous languages with the passing of House Bill 216. Included are the Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unanga, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian languages. And somewhere in between, a New York Times documentary about Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language in California, seemed to flutter about in social media. In 2000, it was reported that of the “211 indigenous languages still extant throughout the United States and Canada, only 20 of them are spoken by the youngest generation of their communities.” And in 2014, another article stated “according to Unesco, more than 130 (other articles cite 175) of these languages are currently at risk, with 74 languages considered ‘critically endangered.’” Whether or not these numbers are accurate, perhaps it is time for Americans to care about this. The question one wonders is: Will other states follow Hawai’i and Alaska by officially acknowledging languages like Yurok and Wampanoag where, within these communities, First Nation peoples are working tirelessly to retrieve and retain their ancestral tongues?
Martha Redbone & Aaron Whitby, A New Musical (a reading), Joe’s Pub’s New York Voices Series, December 2014
Receiving a last-minute invitation, I understood this to be a workshop. That said, what I experienced was enough for me to fight back tears as what was being witnessed had not before been told in this format or setting. Commissioned by Joe’s Pub and with direction by Roberta Uno, this latest endeavor marks Martha Redbone’s premiere musical theater production. Tracing back her lineage to the mining camps in the Appalachia and her African/Cherokee/Choctaw/European roots, the voices of her ancestors tell a deeply charged story of family struggles and triumphs. With just a sampling, the presentation situates the audience enough for what will be revealed later once the musical is complete. From North Carolina to Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Brooklyn, these already dazzling songs and storyline are profoundly emotional and are at times hysterical with slanted humor. Redbone and Whitby’s musical references are expansive. Bluegrass, gospel, R&B, traditional and contemporary Cherokee (Tsalagi) are mere hints, as are the renditions of “America (the beautiful)” and a starry-eyed reference to Nat King Cole. This is a story that has been missing from the popular American narrative, a narrative that the playwright William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. would be proud of. The project will be workshopped again for three nights at Joe’s Pub in February 2015.
Bill Bragin named executive artistic director of new performing arts center in Abu Dhabi. Bilmo follows.
At Lincoln Center, as director of public programming overseeing summer programs like “Lincoln Center Out of Doors” and “Midsummer Night Swing,” Bill Bragin (along with his team) brought some of the best performances to LC’s audiences for seven years. So when the announcement of his new position as executive artistic director of the New York University’s Performing Arts Centre in Abu Dhabi came out, Bragin’s Facebook page encountered the type of online traffic that could have eminently shut down the site. As vocalist Imani Uzuri joked about at his send-off party on November 24 at (le) poisson rouge—the night’s music was a collaborative Spotify playlist Bragin invited folks to submit their favorite song to—almost every musician, programmer, arts presenter, curator and DJ in attendance had worked with Mr. Bragin in some capacity. And as co-producer of Globalfest, an annual showcase of new and emerging international artists, Bill will remain an integral part of New York City’s live arts scene. But the picture of Bilmo, his most trusted confidant, packing a suitcase? This might be the biggest upset. Bilmo, by the way, is not a puppet. Bilmo, Bill’s illusive half-brother, adorns a puppet costume in order to conceal his immortal arresting allure. He’s always been a bit shy about his good looks. More importantly, Bilmo felt we common folk would then surely pay less attention to the programmer extraordinaire we know as Bill Bragin. Which explains the reason why Bilmo sat off in the far corner of the stage atop of a bass cabinet at the send-off. But Bilmo, we see you, bro. We see you.
Chris Ofili: Night and Day, When Shadows Were Shortest @ The New Museum
In Trinidad and Tobago, the day length averages 12 hours, according to A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Trinidad & Tobago. With dawn and dusk occurring within an hour (6 am and 6 pm), it is no wonder how transition from light to dark with considerable layering of blue and silver may shift one’s perception of place. This much is embodied in Blue Riders Series, which occupies a portion of Night and Day, When Shadows Were Shortest, Ofili’s first major solo show in the United States. Known for his earlier paintings that utilized elephant dung, on display here are works ranging from painting to sculpture to drawings to costumes (on the fifth floor, you can see some the costumes and sets he designed for London’s National Gallery and the Royal Ballet). The visual samplings, collages that juxtapose cultural references (Australian aboriginal, hip-hop, expressionism) with religious beliefs and mythologies, are extraordinary. Perhaps my favorites are from the Afro Romantics Series, along with Blossom and his exploration of the margin through automatic drawing that nods to abstract expressionist Norman Lewis. But perhaps his most poignant work at this time is the painting of Doreen Delceita Lawrence, the mother of a black teen killed on the streets in South East London in 1993. Gazing at her tears and the small, almost deceptively miniscule images of her son, we are reminded once again of the problem of institutionalized racism. Just go see it.
Michael Brown, Amir Rice, Eric Garner; Palestine, 43 students abducted and found dead in Iguala, Mexico; 219 girls kidnapped in Nigeria;
1,000+ aboriginal women missing or murdered in Canada … I can’t breath … ana’akot noktiipa … inau teo aheahe …
How can one weigh in on the circumstances happening in this country and abroad? For me, it is troubling as any of these events, individually, could be deconstructed and pressed upon for months on end. What is equally disconcerting is that any person (and some have) can fall into the cracks and be forgotten. The underlying challenge here is emotional exhaustion: the feeling that one does not have enough breath for all that needs attention, that one must pick and choose in order to breath. In one breath, currently, Boko Haram militants have abducted more girls since April when they “kidnapped close to 300 from the Government Girls Secondary School” in Nigeria. Second breath: Do we know the names of the four Palestinian boys, between the ages of 9 and 11, who were killed during an Israeli naval and aerial attack on July 16? Third breath: Are we immune to the possibilities of loved ones being kidnapped, killed, and dismembered all because they wanted to protest cuts to their state-financed school in Iguala, Mexico this September? Four breaths: Remember, HR 347 was signed in 2012. Fifth: And how to comprehend the “systemic problems of gender-based violence facing the aboriginal communities” happening in Canada? Sixth: What is being acted upon or in solidarity when we bring attention to some 1,000+ missing and murdered First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women? Seventh: As reported from the neighborhoods of Ferguson, Staten Island, Oklahoma City—are we witnessing the evolution of mass lynchings? Eighth: Since the murder of Michael Brown, 14 black teens across the nation were killed by police officers. Ninth: Do we know the names of those Black women who were killed by law enforcement? Tenth: Is it time that we return to The Anti-Lynching Pamphlets of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1920 to begin reeducating ourselves? Eleventh: Something seems to be happening where, in social media, local concerns are becoming global matters and where we are witnessing and participating in mobilization more than we have in a dang long time. Twelfth: Can there be some form of connected resistance if we allow ourselves to bridge and resist invalidating one for the other? Twelfth: 141 dead in Pakistan. Thirteenth: I am losing my breath.
Madison Loves Books
In the midst of reports surrounding the murder of John Crawford III at the Beavercreek Wal-Mart and of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in the Cudell Recreation Center—both incidents occurring in Ohio, an open-carry state—a young girl named Madison reminded me why ”reading is fundamental.” Yes, Madison, the world needs books. It is like you said, books “fuel our minds like cars and gas.” You told us that when books first came into being, colors came. You told us that inventors were born and inventions were made. In your future, dear Madison, I sincerely hope we catch up to your radiance from reading more about others and ourselves. When we do, just maybe we will be able to expand our hearts. So let’s share an iddy-biddy suggested reading list of books that came out in 2014 and will drop in 2015:
Towards the Primeval Lightning Field, Will Alexander, Litmus Press
As We Know, Amaranth Borsuk, Subito Press
All Is Not Yet Lost, Betsy Fagin, Belladonna
As/Us Literary Journal, edited by Casandra Lopez and Tanaya Winder
LIFE IN A BOX IS A PRETTY LIFE, Dawn Lundy Martin, Nightboat Press
Four Electric Ghosts, Mendi + Keith Obadike, 1913 press
Big House/Disclosure, Mendi + Keith Obadike, 1913 press
Petition, Christina Olivares, YesYes Books
Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, Morgan Parker, Switchback Books
Citizen, Claudia Rankine, Graywolf Press
Silent Anatomies, Monica Ong Reed, Kore Press