Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2014: pt. 26: Kiini Ibura Salaam

Pleasures of 2014 
by Kiini Ibura Salaam 

When I’m well nourished and rested, making art comes naturally to me. However, adult life seems to be about navigating the necessary tasks that may not nurture you, but do support your survival. I went through a dark depression when I crashed against the realities of adulthood. It was frustrating to realize that I would be too tired at the end of the day to face my paints. That if I didn’t invent some new reality, I would never develop as a writer.

The pleasures of 2014 were full of unconventional ways of doing things: artists who mounted shows from another country, artists who participated in shows posthumously because another artist recreated their work, relationships that happened through lunchboxes, masters who uncovered new ways of working when illness and frailty made their established ways of working impossible.

The Shadows Took Shape, Studio Museum of Harlem

 In January I had a fantastic trip to the Studio Museum of Harlem for The Shadows Took Shape, an exhibition on Afrofuturism: The show demonstrated artists interested in interdisciplinary thinking and expression—bringing in math, unconventional materials, and mixed media.

David Hammons selling snowballs

While at the Studio Museum, I was surprised to find another exhibition—the Radical Presence performance art exhibition—up at the same time: Performance art always gets my mind racing. The idea of breaking form, breaking preconceived notions of what art is or isn’t and exploring the ideas that come to an artist is so intriguing to me. To me, it represents freedom, something I deeply desire as an artist.


Using a complex delivery system, 5,000 deliverymen in Mumbai, India, pick up hot lunches from homes and bring them to workers for lunch. The lunchboxes change many hands before reaching their destination, but somehow only one in million are lost or delivered to the wrong place. In The Lunchbox, when a lunch box is delivered to the wrong person, a correspondence ensues creating a sweet love story between two people who never meet.


From 2012 to 2014, there was a traveling retrospective of Carrie Mae Weems’s work under the subtitle "Three Decades of Photography and Video." In 2014, the retrospective came to the Guggenheim. She started her photography career taking pictures of her large family. A shift came when she decided to set up a tripod and stage pictures of herself at the kitchen table. The Kitchen Table Series is now iconic: What isn’t shown when you just look at the images online is the narrative that is installed on the gallery wall along with the photographs. The text and the story behind the series is equally as compelling as the images.


At this year’s Whitney Biennial curating seemed to be as central to the biennial as artmaking. There were three curators who developed the show, yet many of the artists selected to participate played a curatorial role. One artist built a wall in the gallery, then selected the artists he wanted to exhibit on his wall. A young artist used photographs to recreate the work of artist who was not celebrated when she was alive—hence her work was never conserved: There were organizations committed to specific themes, materials or approaches: Other artists curated rooms recovering the work of artists that had passed away or practiced during a specific time period. This show within a show structure created a tension between the artists and the gatekeepers which suggests a storming of the gates in which artists curate alongside their creation of artwork.


Nick Cave Video Still

Nick Cave, a former dancer, has long been making soundsuits—full body costumes that mask the identity of the wearer and make sound as the wearer moves. The suits are beautiful and otherworldly. At the Black Eye group exhibition in May, he showed a video that captured a black-fringed soundsuit in motion. The video was altered to make a symmetrical pattern with one side mirroring the other. The result was a series of mesmerizing movements that piqued curiosity as the brain tried to categorize the image as alien, animal, or inanimate. It was a beautiful meditation on movement, at once otherworldly and serene.


A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, Kara Walker

This summer the NYC art scene was abuzz with conversation about Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” a 35-feet high and 75-feet long nude sphinx mammy coated in sugar. It was, among many other descriptions, a spectacle. Over 350,000 people made the pilgrimage. Everyone had something to say about it whether they had seen it or not. Whatever I thought I thought about it completely shifted when I saw it in person. The sphinx’s scale was awe-inspiring and she had a calm, regal presence. It was quite a conversation piece.


I found the Dear Sugar column on the Rumpus website only after its author—bestselling author Cheryl Strayed—had been unmasked. This unmasking did absolutely nothing to diminish the power of Strayed perspective, writing, and voice. It was exciting to hear that the columns had been collected into a book—Tiny, Beautiful Things. Strayed tackles all manner of thorny topics from the meaning of life, to surviving as a writer, to abuse, to abandonment and everything in between. All throughout the book, I unearthed quotes worthy of being saved and savored. It’s a moving, fierce, and fantastic collection of columns.


This year, I saw a number of documentaries, among them was Finding Fela about the groundbreaking Afrobeat musician and activist. The film covers Fela’s life, interviewing his children, bandmates, and one former partner. It also documents some of Bill T. Jones’s process in building the hit Broadway musical Fela! Beyond his talent, Fela was a singular individual, pursuing a lifestyle that ran against the cultural norms, openly criticizing the government and passionately advocating for a restoration and value of traditional Nigerian—and African—culture. Despite his excesses and misogyny, I was completely fascinated by how far he went in living his own lifestyle and how fearless he was in facing down beatings, the death of his mother, and all manner of harassment and abuse to speak his truth.


Dacia Carter, Kehinde WIley

Another documentary I saw this year was Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace. Wiley is a highly skilled portrait painter who places black men in tableaus from classic European paintings. His work deals with race as well as masculinity and self-image. An Economy of Grace was his first series using women, and the documentary followed the process from the casting—which Wiley does himself on the street—to the dressmaking process, to the shoot, and the exhibition in which the women saw their portraits. Wiley’s work is very distinctive and has followed the same structure for many years. What the film did was open the doors on the process and demonstrated how amazingly immersive and transformative the experience is for the subjects and the viewers. I loved taking that journey with the artist and understanding that even for art that looks the same to the viewer, the process behind creating each piece may be transformative for the artmaker and the participants.


One of my pleasures of this year has been the development of The 100, a series on the CW that shows a dystopic Earth, post-nuclear destruction. At the outset, it seemed as if dystopia was just a backdrop for another teen show, but as Season 1 progressed, the show became more confident in moving away from a classic teen drama to become its own animal. Now in Season 2, The 100 has reached its stride. There’s plenty to make me uncomfortable—in the show’s two years, I’ve noticed only two black women: one is a drug dealer and the other is a warrior who is the most savage of the savages. Despite hating the way I am represented in the show, I love the questions and quandaries the characters are in. People are aligned in very specific survivor camps that are at odds with each other and we watch the dissolution of characters’ identities as they make their way through a desolate world.


Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi is a strange novel that draws on Snow White to develop a narrative about identity that seems at once historical and modern. The novel has drawn mixed reactions from readers, but once I passed a few initial barriers, I read through quickly without stopping. While I had a few thorns to navigate, what I enjoyed most was the confidence the writer had in her characters. They were unique people drowning in history, myth, fear, and a measure of loathing. When I read, while I am diving into the story of the work, I like imagining how the author put the work together. With Boy, Snow, Bird, I felt the writer explored various facets, approaches, voices, and perspectives in a way that provided nuance and layers. It felt like she dove right in with her characters and set loose on the pages. It was imperfect and intriguing.


I spent the winter break on the West Coast, which brought me in contact with two artists.

Parrot and Siren, Henri Matisse

On the plane, I saw a video titled Matisse: Cut Outs. It covered the exhibition that started at the Tate Modern in London and is now at MoMA, profiling Matisse’s later works—huge collages created from paper he painted one solid color, then cut with scissors, and—with the help of his studio assistants—assembled on the walls of his studio. He did this work from his wheelchair and his bed while he was elderly, ailing, and often in pain. Despite his advanced age and failing health, the paper cutouts were a great discovery for him—and through this new medium he expressed great joy and emotion. Matisse’s cutouts are a wonderful example of the inventiveness of the creativity and demonstrates the power of creativity to surpass limitations and uphold artistic expression.
With Wind, Ai WeiWei at Alcatraz

In San Francisco at the Alacatraz Prison, I saw an exhibition titled @ Large featuring the work of artist Ai Weiwei. Weiwei had never been to Alcatraz. He was unable to travel there because he is confined to his studio and home by the Chinese government. He created a humongous dragon, beautifully painted with names of many prisoners of conscience. The parts of the dragon were all small enough to create in a limited space, but when assembled it took up a large open room. He also created an installation that shows portraits of 176 prisoners of conscience from around the world. The portraits—made entirely of legos—were designed by computer and sent with specific directions for a team of volunteers in San Francisco to assemble. When complete, the artwork covers the floor of a large prison building. One of the things I took away from the exhibition is the vastness of creativity. Through technology, he was able to research and explore Alcatraz and develop a major exhibition connecting him to other prisoners. His other pieces illuminated the prison’s history of imprisoning Hopi parents who refused to have their children taken away to an assimilating boarding school, the music of prisoners of conscience, and the reliance of Tibetans on solar powered cookers to eat. He also took his moment of virtual freedom to touch the lives of other prisoners of conscience. One of his installations was made up of thousands of blank postcards that encouraged visitors to write letters to the prisoners. What better meditation on the power of art and communication than for large groups of people to become aware of and communicate with prisoners around the world who have used and continue to use their voices for humanity, equality, and justice.

Happy 2015!

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, was published by Aqueduct Press in May 2012 and was a co-winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award. She lives in Brooklyn.

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