Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 18: Kiini Ibura Salaam

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011
by Kiini Ibura Salaam

I must confess, the dizzying logistics of everyday life claim dominion over so many of my overused brain cells that sometimes the pleasure zones of my brain lie fallow for far to long. And when they light up, the pleasures that triggered the brain activity are quickly forgotten, swallowed by the next days responsibilities—the household duties, the transportation necessities, the meal preparations, the workday intrigues and deadlines, the surviving.

I cannot pride myself on living well if I am only surviving—and finding pleasures is a central aspect of thriving. Even in a year that included no international travel—gasp!—I am happy to say that I did experience some pleasures that tickled my imagination, satiated my need to revel in beauty, allowed me to marvel in the endlessly inventive ways that we humans are creative, or gifted me with the opportunity to wet my face with tears sparked by witnessing resilience and resistance.

So I will take you through a year of pleasures—not necessarily the year’s best, but those that I remember fondly as I lay down another brick in this road I’m paving through life.

January: The Love Art Lab

I was first introduced to Annie Sprinkle over a decade ago when I picked up one of her books at a friend’s house. For all of Annie’s adult life, sex has been her milieu—it has served as her career, her muse, her source of healing, and her field of study. I remember being struck by her sex-positive history of being a prostitute, saying she was working in a massage parlor and having sex with clients, thinking that she was the luckiest massage therapist in town. It took her some time to realize that she was a prostitute, and her clients weren’t paying her for her massage.

In the coming years, I came across bizarre and intriguing performance art pieces:
• Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña presenting themselves as newly-discovered Amerindians and travelling the world to display themselves in a cage.

• The destructive and demanding works of Tehching Hsieh which included punching in on a time-clock every hour for an entire year and spending a year tethered to a woman (performance artist Linda Montano) by a rope.

I am intrigued when people are pulled to do something out of the ordinary—bizarre by normal standards, but somehow just right to fulfill whatever internal conversations they are engaged in.

So I was tickled pink when I discovered the Love Art Lab, Annie Sprinkle, now a mature woman and partnered with Dr. Elizabeth Stephens, created a seven-year project exploring love with her partner. Unable to be legally married at the beginning of the project, Sprinkle and Stephens decided to have a marriage every year for seven years, and in so doing explore the nature of love. Each year was guided by one of the seven chakras. The weddings were large public affairs, celebrations of love, sexuality, and life. It reminded me a bit of parties I fantasized about throwing in my childhood: everyone will dress up and wear the same color and eat oranges! Each wedding seemed like a sublime celebration of life. Would you ever dare to raise such a ruckus in celebration of anything?

February: RETNA Art Exhibition

In February, I accepted a friend’s invitation to head out on a weeknight. We were going to an exposition by the artist RETNA. She was intrigued by his large-scale murals, most of which included beautifully rendered portraits of women. When we got there, the art was completely different from what she expected. The exposition was held in a massive warehouse, so far away from the normal flow of things we had to assure our cab driver repeatedly that we had the right address. The walls were covered with humongous canvases, most of them black, covered with curling, complex lines. Were they images? Were they letters of an unknown language? It almost seemed as if I should read the canvases, that perhaps they contained some ancient message that could help me in the future.

It reminded me immediately of something called asemic writing. A term that means writing that has no message content, but retains the emotional messaging that only writing made with a human hand can muster. What was clear was that the artist had committed so much time to quieting his brain so that his hand may speak, that he could now enter into a space of deep communing with his work at will—to the point where he could cover in infinite number of canvases (and airplanes and buildings, I later discovered), with the same nuanced, graphic, graceful script. Surrounded by the fruits of his flow, I was intrigued, enthralled, and ultimately inspired to go home and let my hand dance across a canvas too.

March: Meklit Hadero, Leaving Soon

My father has a wonderful music site called Breath of Life that has taught me so much about music. Through his site, I’ve learned more about established musicians and been introduced to new artists. Listening the jukebox on his website, I was introduced to this enchanting song by Meklit Hadero that I listened to repeatedly after my first listen.

I love creativity and hearing someone’s authentic voice come through whatever art form they engage in. I find this song to be both beautiful, in the flow of established music forms, and also completely original and unique to Meklit. Here is my father’s write up on Meklit:“meklit-hadero-mixtape”/

April: Revisiting Jennifer Holiday, “And I Am Telling You”

We live in a world of remakes and do-overs, when classics are done over again, and then again. I—being a person of great calm and subdued emotional expression—am always fascinated when someone has access to emotions in performance, then top it off with a god-given talent, well it gives one pause. At about 3:30 minutes into this scene from the original Dreamgirls stage play, Jennifer Holiday rolls into “And I Am Telling You.” The power of her voice alone can shake you to your soul, but the all-out gusto she puts into her performance is so intense it’s almost shocking. Is it over the top? Certainly, but it’s also spellbinding. Her own personal emotional marathon of pleading and pain, raw emotion vocalized with gut-bucket desperation. Just when you think she’s already left it all on the floor, she puts more hunger and terror into the performance. It is confounding, exciting, and astounding to witness.

May: JR, a bridge for change
TED Prize Speech

In this TED Prize speech, JR—a former graffiti artist who is now a photographer—walks viewers through his development as an artist. He talks about how art carried him into a new area of artmaking and into new worlds. He travels the globe making larger-than-life size portraits and plasters them to walls all over the world. He photographs people who live in the shadow of poverty, neglect, or conflict to trigger communication and connection. He’s photographed the children of immigrants (his peers) after major class-based riots in France, residents of a favela in Brazil and a slum in Kenya, and people on both sides of the Isreal-Palestine conflict. In Brazil, the media was forced to seek out a people they traditional ignored to interview them about his project. In Isreal and Palestine conversations across the political border were sparked. His project in Nairobi caused one onlooker to explain to another: "You have been here for a few hours, you've been trying to understand the art, discussing with your fellows. In that time, you haven't thought about what you are going to eat tomorrow. That's art."

June: Jose James @ Weeksville Heritage Center

For me, one of the most pleasurable parts of living in New York is the summertime, especially the outdoor music festivals happening all over the city. There are always great concerts in Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect. But there are also smaller scale venues like the Weeksville Heritage Center.

Weeksville is the site of a free black community where three of the community’s original homes have been preserved and the organization is building a multimedia arts center on the site. Each summer they have an intimate concert on their grounds. This summer I was treated to Jose James, a young jazz singer who has received nods and accolades from established jazz musicians for working in the old tradition. I appreciated his recorded music, but seeing him live took my appreciation into another stratosphere. His love for the music was clear, the ease with which his gorgeous voice slipped out was enchanting. He took us on a melodic journey through jazz both traditional and modern. It was a highlight of my summer.

July: Amy Winehouse, “Valerie”

When Amy Winehouse died last summer, I spent a few hours listening to her music online. I found this live session of her singing “Valerie” infinitely more moving than her stage performances. Her hair’s a mess, and she looks like she rolled out of bed and just showed up. Yet she sits in that chair, without an audience, and tells a story through song. With the music and the lights and the fashion stripped away, her power as a vocalist takes center stage. The textures in her voice and the vocalizations she chooses throughout the song make this a moving piece of artmaking for me. It was on constant repeat during the month after her death. I can still listen to it over and over.

August: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the MET

One of the highest attended shows in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Savage Beauty exhibition was one of the “must-see” museum shows of the year. When I finally dragged myself there, the line was incredible, snaking through two hallways and two other exhibitions. There were regularly two to five hour waits to get into the show, and once in, you were surrounded by a mass of bodies all trying to see what the fuss was about.

The McQueen show demonstrated that an artist is an artist, no matter the medium. From the fashions themselves, to the collaborations with jewelry, shoe, and hat makers, to the spectacles he mounted as fashion shows, Alexander McQueen was truly a visionary who put all of his creative fiber into his work. The show itself was mounted in such a way to demonstrate the whole environment of McQueen’s creative output and intentions. It was satisfying from the level of spectacle, artistry, and creativity.

September: Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Actor Michael Rappaport decided to go on tour with A Tribe Called Quest when they reunited for a 2008 tour. He planned to document the innerworkings of one of the most popular and commercially successful hip-hop groups, but he ended up capturing the interpersonal struggles that prevent them from continuing to work together. The documentary reflected the group’s beginnings and the raw creativity that fueled the group’s successes. It also highlighted the different approaches of the members in the group, from anal perfectionism to the trickster jokesterism to freeflowing kindheartedness and peacemaking. Artists are a complex bundle of talent, artistic impulse, issues, and personality. What we dare to do or dare not do defines us. Watching how the group successfully invested in their creativity made me want to free up my own creative impulses and make good on my potential as an artist.

October: Teaching Good Sex

An essential aspect of being an artist is freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of expression, the freedom to create. As passionately as I believe in artistic freedom, I also believe in personal freedom. I am equally moved by displays of artistic expression as I am by people working to help others reach a higher level of personal freedom.

There’s an artistry to truth-telling and nudging people toward new understandings. I recently came across an article in the New York Times called “Teaching Good Sex” about a unique sex education class that delves into the depth and breadth of the sexual experience—from the physical to the biological to the emotional. The high school students in this class have a unique experience in a world/country where honest, authentic conversation about sex is unsupported and difficult. There are far too many of us who have been abused or have become abusers for lack of sexual clarity and awareness. This class is a chink in the wall of silence and we are better for it.

November: September 11 Memorial/Occupy Wall Street’s Liberty Plaza

On a beautiful mild Novemeber night, I took my daughter to the 9/11 Memorial site. There are so many things can go wrong with monuments. This monument was so emotionally-charged and there was so much public wrangling, political intrigue and conflict about the memorial, that it was anybody’s guess what the final outcome would be. I am grateful that it wasn’t some soaring mass of metal; it isn’t even a statue—it’s a hole. Two holes to be exact, molded to mark the sites of the oft-mentioned footprints of the two towers that fell. The memorial is sweeping in scale, yet it seems to humble itself to honor the losses, rather than push a nationalistic perspective or a political agenda. Water falls along the sides of the footprints, cascading into a seemingly still pool of water. That night, moonlight gently illuminated the rows and rows of names of the dead etched around the memorial. The intelligently-designed monument elicits contemplation and reflection, and beautifully memorializes those who died.

As we left the monument and walked two blocks to Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park to visit the members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I thought about how close the two landmarks were to each other. We talked to anarchists, artists, and a transgender activist. As a bookend to our visit to the 9/11 memorial, Liberty Plaza left me feeling hopeful. On 9/11, we were violently connected to the world through a level of death and destruction we had previously not experienced. The Occupy Wall Street movement, drawing on the fierce commitment of Egypt’s protestors, connected us with a worldwide movement of the people using their voice. Sometimes it feels that the United States stands alone and it feeds the illusion of solitude. We are, like any people, bound by interdependence needed to be alive. We rode the waves of inspiration that the Arab spring spread throughout the world and became both a part of and a propellant of the communal unrest going on all over the world. I felt, standing there on a warm November night, that we Americans were connected to the world in the spirit of change and humanity, and it seemed that maybe, just maybe, we as humans had taken a step forward in a positive direction.

December: Neil deGrasse Tyson Interview

Stunning minds are always a pleasure to experience. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, is not only an intelligent scientific voice and passionate voice of astronomy, he is also a wordsmith who obviously takes pleasure in words, communication, and oration. This interview starts slow, but once they settle in, Tyson is an engaging and compelling communicator. His passion, zest, and commitment are invigorating as he shares with us the wisdom of the skies and the stars. He is rapturous and poetic about science. I will leave you with this gorgeous rant he has about “star stuff.” You can listen to it at about 24:08 on the video, or read it below. Wishing you a new year filled with varied, profound pleasures.

"We Are Star Stuff"

The atoms and molecules
in your body
are traceable
to the crucibles in
the centers of
stars that manufactured
these elements
over its lifespan
went unstable, on death,
exploded its enriched
guts across the galaxy
scattering it into gas clouds
that would ultimately collapse
and make a star
and have the right
to make planets
and people
Which means we are
part of this universe
Not only are we in the universe
but the universe is in us

We are star stuff

--Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist

Kiini Ibura Salaam is a writer and painter from New Orleans, LA. Her work is rooted in eroticism, speculative events and worlds, and women's perspectives. Her fiction has been published in a number of anthologies, including Dark Matter, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and Dark Eros. Her essays have been published in Essence, Ms., and Colonize This. She is the author of the KIS.list, an e-column that explores the writing life. Her first collection of short stories, Ancient, Ancient, is forthcoming from Aqueduct Press in May 2012. She lives in Brooklyn.

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