why ask why?

whyIn search of meaning, Nigerian-American writing professor and novelist Chris Abani told us he always asks his writing students the question why. While we may want final answers, that come along with what, how, where, and when questions, there are questions which can not be so exactly answered, and this is where the why comes in. Unlike how the question why demands we know the purpose and reason behind something, the heart of the matter. This will always leads to more questions before any sort of answer. Asking why is a sign of deeper consciousness. It is where we go when we do not know but we want to know if it is possible for such a thing to really be true.

How does the sun come up? In a curved line in the sky (one of many ways to answer this question). Why does the sun come up? Now we are getting to the heart of the matter of the universe’s existence.

How do you like your tea? Slightly sweetened with honey and a little less than boiling hot. Why do you like your tea this way? Now you’re asking me who I am, and how I have come to be this way.

How does this skyscraper work? This is a question of architecture. I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine who studied architecture for four years before deciding to become a writer. He describes the architecture of a building as a matter of functionality. By this reasoning, whatever is most functional determines the structure and look of the building, how many windows there are, the curve of the walls, the location of the elevators, maybe escalators, the material used, and many more minute and large decisions which go into the construction of a large space such as a 30+ story building. In considering all these elements one might assume there is a general agreement on how to measure functionality. But how are we choosing this measure? Or more appropriately, why?

Say you have a building that lets a certain number of office workers move through the space fluidly, here the measure of functionality would be  their ability to move quickly and save more time getting in or out of work. Here we are using a measure of functionality based on the concept of efficiency most likely based on the concept of profit, net profit, and making money. Of course what if we decided that the office workers were not very happy because moving quickly made them feel like they were in a factory line, and their mental health deteriorated, then we might want to build bigger windows to let more light into the space they are moving through. Then we could say we are including mental health in our measure of functionality. What happens, though, if mental health and net profit conflict? What ultimately decides what is most functional? By deciding what we consider most important. How do we decide what is most important? By determining what our beliefs about life are. 

My reasoning is that even in answering a question of functionality you inevitably end up asking a why question. The point being, even in someone deciding to use a measure of functionality for the architecture of a building, it is not devoid of the subjectivity of the human experience, of opinion, of bias, of ideology, of belief of what is most important. This is important, because we usually conflate functionality with a sense of objectivity. Yet, we can see even the concept of functionality here is imbued with ethical considerations, and sometimes ideological answers, when faced with a why question. 

How does the U.S. government work? You might begin to answer this by explaining the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, democracy, and maybe even get into explaining how democracy is compromised due to heavy interference by large corporations on the stimulation of the economy. Okay, now, why does the U.S. government work this way?

We might not bother to think often about why the government works the way it does. It’s trouble enough keeping up with the damn how. However, in not asking why, we are accepting that there is some inevitability to the way things are. That there is a natural course to “organized” society which we have unavoidably fallen into. Despite the fact that there are 100’s to 1000’s of people everyday making decisions that make things the way they are, and these people are often asking why questions- consciously or subconsciously- in order to make these decisions, we still imagine that the answer to why is “just because” or “that’s just the way things are.”  

To really answer why, you would have to go back to the origins of free market ideology, manifest destiny, and colonialism. A combination of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin. Eventually it becomes evident that the story of why reflects more of an ideology and politics than a natural course. There is nothing deterministic at all about the way that the government works. It is the result of a very strong ideology and belief in capitalism and the free market, self-determinism and individualism, racism and sexism, greed, and manifest destiny. To answer the question “why does the government work this way”, you would come across the horror that is the subjectivity with which our lives, i.e. political and economic, are governed and dictated. The social constructs and concepts which shape our lives come from an ideology and a fervent belief in that ideology to accompany it. Once again, certain concepts fall apart in the face of a why question. 

So, it is also easy to see how rapidly the need for some sort of belief, be it religion or ideology, is necessary for a human to live our ultimately subjective lives. How else would we organize our life and experiences, make decisions for ourselves, make decisions for other people? As neuroscientist Beau Lotto mentions in a TED Talk “perception is grounded in our experience, the brain takes meaningless information and makes meaning out of it, meaning we never see what’s really there, we only ever see what was useful to us in the past, and perception underpins everything we think, we know, we believe, our hopes, our dreams, everything begins with perception,” describing the reality of our subjective lives.

The idea is that we are all products of our environment and that our perspectives shape how we see the world, we are never neutral or objective. The word objective is an insidious concept which is used to validate the experiences of some by co-opting the idea of “normal”, “natural” or “rational” and making others’ feel marginalized in their “abnormal” or “subjective” experiences. In sociology this can be considered a hegemony or when a dominant culture uses its cultural ideas to establish a mass domination of center and way of being. As black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins puts it, “those who control the schools, the media, and other cultural institutions are generally skilled in establishing their view of reality as superior to alternative interpretations.” (words of fire p. 340).

Then imagine that our entire world is being run by subjective decisions based similarly. We come across the idea that this society (American) is not as static and rational  as western culture likes to claim, the culture that has heralded objectivity and rationality as its emblem. In saying that we are objective, we are saying that we are making a decision based on the ultimate truth. How convenient if that ultimate truth is one we already believe in and experience. Understanding the subjective nature of our reality might then begin with asking the question why. In some spaces, this is widely accepted, especially for example, amongst women and femmes, we usually speak from a subjective perspective and explain our decisions based on why we feel they are justified.

This reminds me of a piece I saw on the internet by Grada Kilomba:

“When they speak, it is scientific;
when we speak, it is unscientific.
When they speak, it is universal;
when we speak, it is specific.
When they speak, it is objective;
when we speak, it is subjective.
When they speak, it is neutral;
when we speak, it is personal.
When they speak, it is rational;
when we speak, it is emotional.
When they speak, it is impartial;
when we speak, it is partial.
They have facts, we have opinions.
They have knowledges, we have experiences.
We are not dealing here with a ‘peaceful coexistence of
words,’ but rather with a violent hierarchy, which
defines Who Can Speak and Who Can Produce Knowledge.”
– Grada Kilomba, in “Decolonizing Knowledge” (2016)

Politics is where the battle of the subjective experience is played out. At least one of the many ways. Thus in this way political is referring to the ways in which we act in accordance with the interest of a certain group or ideology. We must recognize that in this way we live inherently political lives. To claim to not participate or be interested is way of claiming one’s experience as objective and void of subjective experience and ideologically-influenced decisions. Most likely that kind experience is more validated by the hegemony and thus gives the appearance of being “objective”. 

The question why requires honesty and courage. It requires honesty to admit that you can only answer this question through your own subjective experience. It requires courage. Everything has a why and we must delve into it wholeheartedly.

Why delve into the why? Because why reveals the heart of the matter, the paintbrush movements behind the painting, a soft echo reminder that to exist is more of an art than a science. Even when we want it to be a science, we find that science has its own art. So why reveals the art of being, in the decision made based off of the whim of that moment, the inclination, or the mood, the ideology, the strong belief, the hope of why it makes sense to you. We need to know that our world is constructed out of people’s why’s and their answers to these why’s. If “democracy lies in the expression of the effort, made by every person, to understand and be understood by everyone else,” as Cuban-Spanish artist Michelangelo Pistoletto says, then asking why is the beginning of this understanding. Thus my attempt at finding this ideal of democracy and equality or the destruction of it, in the answer to why.

Now in that same spirit I am going to explain why I believe it is so important to our human experience, political, emotional, spiritual, and social. Well for the very fact that solutions to some of the bigger human issues have been found by asking the questions why. We can begin to solve some of the bigger human problems we face today through this question. It begins with understanding the human forces, i.e. beliefs and ideologies, which shape our reality and society. That behind every condition in society is a decision and it does not occur independent of human will and consent.  Answering the question why is easily political because we are led to the political motivations behind things.  If we begin to ask the question why about every decision we make, we come across their very political influence.

If we already think with a set perspective, how can we ever think differently? To me, by asking the question why. Giving space to the why is what this place is about. Accepting uncertainty and dipping into the pool of the unknown why. That is what this space is about. If you asked me what heaven is, I would say it’s the answer to every why question I’ve ever had. For now I’ll accept asking the question. 

Posted in tea

the futility of the straw

brunch

When I first got to the united states, a myriad of alienating experiences would come from the most unexpected places. The funny thing about culture shock is that it manifests itself in mundane objects, minute facial expressions, redundant body language whose ordinariness to others is a neon sign of oddity for you. This morphs your perception into a sense of alienation, you feel alone for noticing what is supposed to be accepted as normal.

One can experience this kind of alienation across various spaces. From workplace to workplace, country to country, bar scene to bar scene, state to state, town to town, group of friends to group of friends, community to community, ritual to ritual, day to day, street to street. If you consider them long enough, these cardinal signs can be followed to larger trends and social constructs explaining aspects of this new culture which you might never understand organically. This is my experience of the straw.

I’m sitting at a restaurant with my new college roommate, feeling awkward as I try to figure out what we’re going to talk about. I haven’t gotten a hang of the American college-student-art of quick subject change and witty pop culture references. Still trying to understand how we covered driver’s licenses, STDs, Disney princesses in our conversation on the way here, I’m silent after the waiter has brought our drinks.

My roommate shouts “straw! straw! I need a straw!” to no one in particular, and I stop, mid-slurp, from drinking my Sprite out of the rim of the giant red plastic cup. The waiter forgot to bring us straws and our other friend at the table did not pick up her drink either. I am confused, is there something stopping them from drinking these giant beverages in front of us? Did they learn to drink differently growing up? Not out of the rim of a glass? It is not until the waiter brings the straws to our table that plastic is stripped off swiftly, expertly, and the tubes are dunked into carbon bubbles and ice. My new college friends slurp away happily on their drinks. It takes me a little longer to get the plastic off my straw and into the drink, by that time my roommate has muttered something about avoiding mouth herpes with straws and they have moved on to making jokes about how much sex each one of us will have before the end of our first semester. I am still wondering about the straws.

Of course, I had come across straws and used them before, but I did not consider them an integral part of my dining experience. I learned about the popularity and utter futility of the straw in the United States dining culture. Drinks are placed onto the table while you make a decision about your food choice, a clever staggering of service in a “to-go now” culture. In this time you also get a straw, sometimes already in the glass, but often wrapped in plastic or paper which you get to take off and dunk into your drink before slurping away like a 5-year old.. Straws are seen as such a fundamental extension of the mouth that a lot of the time people will not drink without these devices. But for all intents and purposes, straws are utterly useless.

Let’s consider the purpose of a straw: to help draw in liquid from a glass or can or juice box to the mouth without having the mouth touch the rim or lid of the container.

Now let us consider the act of drinking. The sucking of liquid that comes to us naturally from the moment we are given water, breastfed, or drinking liquified foods. We weren’t raised, for the most part, learning to drink through a straw. We form our own straws with out mouths and slurp and suck it up. No problem.

Let’s consider the functionality of a straw to drinking. It allows liquid to be slurped up faster, maybe. It allows the mouth to not touch the lid of a container that might not be as clean as the straw, maybe. It eliminates the spread of germs, maybe. The straw is used once and thrown away, allowing for the convenience of saving time, maybe.

Drinking faster is neither a necessity nor even a benefit to life. The spread of germs might be minimally countered by the use of straws if at all. Further, we are exposed to far more germs than a straw can prevent. If we are looking for convenience we already have the “genius” invention of the plastic cup with a lid fully equipped with a sipping hole to enjoy drinking on the go. Straws add very little to the functionality of a plastic cup, especially if it is engineered right. Essentially the only utility the straw provides is a false sense of security and the satisfaction of extending the oral fixation phase into adulthood, yes.

Let us consider the effect of the straw on the earth. The straw is consumed roughly three times a day by one hundred and sixty six million people every day. That is five hundred million straws used for one minute to an hour per day. Then the straw goes wherever all the other plastic stuff magically disappears to. Most of the time it  piles up on the beach or ends up on the sea in the esophagus of some marine creature. Then it becomes a killer of marine life. Consequently has a devastating effect on ecosystems around the earth and on human lives.

Now the question that always comes up is why? Why is the straw so prevalently used when it so obviously destructive? First, we might start by answering by how. The history of the straw is the answer to this. Reed straws were used in the 1950’s in the U.S. to avoid the spread of polio. Some man thought it was not convenient to use a reed straw which left residue of reed in his drink so he devised various tubes out of paper in order give himself a better experience, later patenting it. Then the revolution of the plastic instead of paper straw came about in the 70’s. Still my question is, did the popularity of the straw just naturally catch on? Was there a combination of economic and labor culture shift that induced the necessity for the straw? The question of how becomes somewhat redundant and we must then begin to ask the murky question of why.

The story of the straw tells of seeking fleeting convenience. The minuscule, very slim, amount of functionality the straw provides to the average human being’s life is nothing compared to the devastating effect of throwing away the straw and of the entire straw culture. The act of a single action as divorced from the collective consequences of multiple individuals performing that same single action over and over again in an individualist perspective. Using a straw because you haven’t grown out of your kid ego means there are 500 million adult eight-year-olds using straws while the rest of the world has to deal with their mess.

Why choose to use a straw? Sure it is one single, fleeting action that does not make a difference in the multitude of actions everyone is making everyday. Still, stop to consider how many straws you have used in the past year, 5 years, 10 years, a lifetime if you live/grew up in the U.S. That’s 5,840 straws in 10 years. Your life will not be altered significantly if you stop using straws, but on the other hand you are clearly responsible for and attached to a significant amount of straw-trash in this world. Take responsibility for the impact of your actions and consider giving up the straw.

There are numerous campaigns sparked from the same concept as my own which I was only aware of after writing this. They seek to eliminate the use of straws through individual action and through imploring restaurants, bars, and coffee shops to stop giving them to customers. None of them truly focus on the utter futility of the straw as much as the destruction of the straw. So I hope this adds some fresh perspective to why you should really #stopsucking and refuse to use the straw.

oranges

vitaminfresh.net

“What’s your favorite color?” When I was a kid people always asked me that. What is your favorite anything is an inquiry that made me stop and think. If it’s your favorite is it something you have/see/choose all the time or is it your favorite because it’s so special you only have it every once in awhile? It instigated some deep thought about my favorite thing of that category of things and why I had to choose. Maybe I was a bit existential as a kid. Maybe I was also onto something.  This question was somehow meant to provide me with a blueprint of sorts for my personality, and I wasn’t ready to decide that just yet.

I didn’t like the idea of relying on the everything all the time of the “rainbow color!” kids. But I couldn’t decide with single-handed determination like the “pink is my favoritest color forever” kids either. If a light blue was my favorite one day because it was the color of a flower I had seen, the purple of a woman’s purse was my newfound favorite the next day.  Knowing I could experience a new color at any moment excited me and the anticipation left me indecisive.

“What’s your favorite season?” This one is a tricky one because it always seemed I could like any season if I really chose to. I decided I liked summer. The endless sense of adventure brought on by the seemingly endless daylight hours excited me. Anything could and did happen in the summer.

“What’s your favorite fruit?” As a kid, this meant I had to come up with the most exotic fruit I could think of. Something you eat once a year when you are in the only part of the country where they are grown on a summer trip with your family. Something like cactus fruit or pineapple. Not watermelon, peaches, or oranges. Those were things you could eat everyday. Especially oranges. In the winter, Baba brought them home by the bushel and we tossed em back like skittles, piles of orange peels turning up everywhere around the house. When the stock dwindled it wouldn’t be a whole day before another bushel would be brought home.  Like you wouldn’t even notice they were gone.

Why would it be my favorite if I could have it everyday? Encountering the tiny oranges every winter season after a long summer and short fall was delightful, but then they would easily blend into the color of everyday life. I didn’t experience orange. I didn’t notice the oranges. They weren’t special. I wanted special. It’s a recipe for unhappiness: you either get special or you get everyday. And you’ll definitely be disappointed if you expect special everyday. I spent a lot of time disappointed until I realized that maybe I was defining favorite wrong.

What if favorite means the thing you are most grateful for. Suddenly my life turns inside out and the oranges come into relief, the air, the trees, the tea, each season has its own favorite part. I am grateful for all the things I rely on everyday for happiness, stability, comfort, and peace of mind. Then the novel and new does not qualify anymore. If you ask me what my favorite fruit is, it is the orange. Oranges are reliable, they are simple and sweet with enough sour to feel cleansing. They have always made me so happy and healthy. Choosing a favorite, or reminding myself of a favorite becomes an act of healing and self-care. I am dedicated to appreciating the oranges in my life. Most of the time, that’s all I need. This is a dedication to that appreciation. Welcome. This place is softer and more quiet. It needs a certain amount of stillness to appreciate.

 

My Week with Afropunk’s Army

Screenshot 2017-10-19 at 5.18.43 PM
Photo by @souliscrying

My week as an Afropunk volunteer made me wish it was my everyday life. For the past four days, though, it is has been and now I’m feeling like why is it so hard to accept that the party is over? Afropunk became my life in a good way, in a I’m-part-of-something- bigger-collaborating-with-people-to-realize-a-bigger-vision type of way. I mean, y’all, we built an Afropunk pop-up village in four days.

 

 

Apparently, there were around 2,000 people who signed up to volunteer for Afropunk and they chose 40 of us. At first, this seemed odd to me, why wouldn’t you want more free labor? After being a part of the whole festival production process I understand: everyone, from the core group to the production crew to the volunteers, is there because they chose to be, because they wanted to be a part of Afropunk (it’s true, I learned this from being there). They only want people there who want to be there. Not a lot of festivals are for and by black people so it’s important to have people there who support this. Ironic because I didn’t know what I was getting into at first but of course, subconsciously, I was always moving towards it.

Day 1 

I show up to the site, an empty warehouse in Mechanicsville, not knowing what to expect. I had recently left my job, so my week was free. Nothing to lose right?

I have no trouble finding the team I’m going to be working with: environmental design. Meaning I’ll be setting up the look of Afropunk… the feel if it. I see Yemi, one of the coolest volunteers turned Afropunk crew members I met, and the one who showed me the ropes, i.e. spilled some insider knowledge about how shit is run in festival production. We’re in a big empty warehouse filled with dust and trash from a previous event. Huh. This is where afropunk is gonna be? Ok, I get it, it’s grungy, but where are people gonna sit?

The first thing I get to do is sweep, what seems like mounds of dust. I try not to be too excited to be working behind the scenes- but of course I am, I live for this type of stuff. As we begin unloading a rat pack (semi-big shipping container) and a semi-truck, I see all kinds of west and south African print fabric, lights, chairs, lamps and other decorative items pile out. I realize there’s going to be a lot more to it than sweeping up a warehouse. By the end of day one I had swept the entire corner of a warehouse and stuffed more pillows and cushions than you could find in all suburbian Atlanta.

Day 2

Most of the people I have met in leadership positions of production are women of color and that inspires me. I had been out for a day for a prospective job and I am surprised at how eager I was to get back on site. By the time I came back, progress was made: the warehouse now sectioned off into different areas and the flow of space was starting to make sense. Vendors’ booths and seating was put up with chain fence, signs and artwork covered grainy walls. Fences are up, scrim lining is up, palette furniture is made (on site) and now we get to do the fun part of decorating. Adding aesthetic appeal to a grungy warehouse is fun because you get to be pretty experimental. Dressing the walls, meaning basically putting up cool fabric and letting it look DIY but intentional:

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Artist dressing room in green stage

 

This was definitely my longest day, I stayed on site 10 hours. I didn’t even notice the time passing by. Physical labor and repetitive movements are meditative to me. They release the anxiety I get about time moving forward; a.k.a. boredom. I was so focused on building the dressing rooms and setting up the furniture, I didn’t notice how tired I was. When I got home, I couldn’t feel my legs. I had staple-gunned fabric to walls, and stood on my feet for pretty much all ten hours. Still I couldn’t wait to get back on site Friday for the final push before the show began.
Day 3

I arrive on site later than usual, knowing I’ll be working late at night helping to set up the last dressing rooms and other spaces. There’s definitely a buzz in the air, time is shrinking faster than anyone liked. Production crew members are running around faster and people’s voices are getting sharper. The excitement is building momentum and drive to get the whole layout set up by Saturday morning.

Too many cooks in the kitchen definitely defines the soup of a mess we were dealing with while setting up the last dressing rooms. These cooks in particular being us volunteers. We were eager and eagerness can come at the cost of efficiency and precision. This was a hectic day and night, and by the time I left around midnight there was still much to be done. Everyone is being pushed to their limits. Luckily, Afropunk treats its volunteers well, and everyone on site always says hi, including founder Matthew Morgan.

Day 4 

It’s finally festival day! I get there 3 hours before I’m supposed to start my shift, hoping to catch some festival time. Instead, I get pulled into a job as soon as I get there. I am switched to work with the artist relations department. This means “flipping” or switching dressing rooms for the next act and running around getting necessary items, restocking snacks, and serving drinks in the artists’ lounge. It doesn’t matter, being behind the scenes and having access to all the behind the scenes spaces I helped build is cool enough for me.

Some highlights of working with artist relations department involved making Diana Ross’ son a drink in the artists’ lounge and not knowing who he was because I’m a grandma. Asking  rapper Denzel Curry who he was three times. Finding Willow Smith a tea kettle.

Day 5

Last day of Afropunk and today is a lot more intense. Security upped several notches, the crowd expanded, and there’s an electric feel in the air. The only person I really want to see that day is Princess Nokia, so by the time I get on site and backstage I am crestfallen to hear that she has cancelled her show because she’s sick. Damn.

Still, being at Afropunk and seeing the festival go live after helping to set it up for three days was amazing. Highlights of the actual festival: going to the red stage and dancing to Werc Crew’s Atlanta-famous WHINE set. Talking to an older security guard about his many gigs guarding famous people’s spaces. Reuniting with a friend I hadn’t seen since we volunteered for Afropunk when it got cancelled in 2015. Moses Sumney’s spiritual performance on Sunday. After Solange’s performance, winding down with Atlanta-based DJ Ash Lauryn’s deep house.

Day 6

There is nothing like the left-behind feeling after an event has crescendo-ed to its climax and died down. It’s amazing to me how a certain space can change its feel and purpose from one day to the next. I stroll onto site for the last time without any trouble. The space that once had heavy security has become free-flowing again. I promised to help break down, pack up, and clean up and there’s a lot to be done. I also kind of want to see the people I worked with one last time before they went off their separate ways, mostly back to NYC and to prepare for Afropunk Johannesburg in December. Various pieces of afropunk village are broken down to become a regular warehouse space again. The place is a lot quieter and the wind whistled through the warehouse walls. Afropunk 2017 is wrapped up.

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Being a part of Afropunk, with so many women of color giving directions and running shit, and being surround by people with ambition for creative visions has definitely induced some inspiration and wakefulness that has changed the way I feel and create. I crave that feeling and when I am pushed into it, it’s always a reminder to be here. I know the power the present moment has on me, and often I forget that here right now, this is it. Create your vision from here. Being a part of Afropunk has validated my decision to pursue writing and creative visions because there are so many beautiful, ambitious, creative people in one space. From my fellow volunteers to the various people who create Afropunk, to the festival go-ers who equally make it afropunk, I was surrounded by people who all want to be (t)here.

Split Realities at the 2017 Atlanta Zine Fest

20626576_10154939077978233_5395618970190200357_oThe Atlanta Zine Fest this year was a great coming together of artists and activists, those with strong online presence and those who do work on the ground. A gathering of everything zine and DIY in Atlanta, the 5th year in a row and exhibited workshops, discussions, and film screenings on Broad Street in downtown Atlanta put on by the wonderful people at murmur gallery. The schedule was split between Mammal Gallery on one side of the street and murmur on the other side. With the theme “Reality Schism” this split fits the irony of the subject matter.

I found myself at home amongst activists and artists. This year focused on the dichotomy of being an artist with a marginalized identity and how activism shapes your art. The ways in which making art as a marginalized individual feels like a “reality schism”. The ways in which marginalized voices create art and culture while simultaneously being ignored and silenced. The ways in which you experience a double reality, much like “double consciousness” as an artist in which you not only create art that counters the dominant narrative but you have to take in news and media and break it down to understand this narrative and resist it.

 

The only discussion I got to sit in on, because I’m perpetually late, was titled “My Other Other Account” led by Pastiche Lumumba. The topic was exactly what it sounds like. That moment when you have to create two, three, four accounts to direct your self, identity, and work to the right channels without getting the wires crossed. If you are a poc in Amerikkka, you might wonder, is something I’m posting considered too radical? But I am trying to be unapologetic, but at the same time what if this is too much for their privileged asses? The constant negotiation of how to curate yourself to both maintain a “marketable” status and your own voice and vision is maddening. Pastiche delved into this by at first describing the six or more different social media profiles he maintains and curates.

 

Pastiche is a brilliant meme artist or “memestress” and takes on the political through creativity and humor in memes. Often taking on controversies of the art world or mainstream internet culture, Pastiche breaks complex conversations down through these memes. For example, he took on the complex issue of who can and cannot depict black trauma, sparked by white artist Dana Schutz depiction of Emmet Till titled “Open Casket”. His meme brilliantly featured a shot from the popular satire Get Out and labeled the scene as a situation of the art controversy, with various characters representing various interests and people in the situation. A common meme technique, this immediately makes the premise of the situation, that of white supremacy and hegemony, accessible, but also uses pre-established internet culture to bounce the discussion off of.

In describing his work, Pastiche also brought on the discussion of finding work which would feed him and pay the rent while also maintaining the strong voice he has achieved which makes his work so good in the first place. A lot of the time as an artist newly forming your identity you have to decide if you are going to be unapologetically radical and if that is going to be enough (to eat) or if you will have to censor and fragment yourself in order to be successful (to eat). Given that fragmenting yourself means more labor, how much is it worth it? When are you simply contributing to the narrative which you seek to oppose?

Pastiche Lumumba has also led an online class specifically for black people on “mediating information from news media through art culture and memes”. This is interesting because not only do you have to learn to filter what is going out from you into the online world, you also have to filter what you take in. Hence, a reality schism, in which you perceive everything from a double lens. Although this double lens is your truth, you can spin yourself around too many times trying to keep up because more often than not the oppressive forces which create the hegemonic notion that your identity is not part of the mainstream end up being the ones which dictate your life. Whereas your art and consciousness, your intellectual understanding is more complex and advanced. Hence the fragmented online personas, which are nonetheless exhausting to maintain and obviously a heavier burden for those with less privilege and a more radical message.

So then the question becomes, why wouldn’t you want to fragment yourself as an artist? Who do you make work for? Where is your most authentic voice? This led me to come across the conundrum of being both an artist and a marginalized individual. As an artist fragmentation occurs often. Many artists deal with the conundrum of being heard through more than one language so to speak. Fragmentation happens when your creative voice becomes delineated to a single track/medium/outlet/genre, and you start to be confined by the parts of your work that are more acceptable. These lines of acceptability further intersect with and are built upon lines of privilege and hegemony with the white dominant culture determining what is acceptable and cool, and you must further split yourself as a person of color. Thus the space to be an artist becomes even more confined. So the question is then, when can you say “Fuck it, if you want me you have to take me as I am”? The answer is when you’re that fucking good. Unfortunately “good” is also an arbitrary marker dictated by power and hegemony. But there is still a space in which you are an amazing artist who dictates your art. The question for me as a writer then is, do you get there by just doing you, or do you continuously do good work that’s less you until you can do you?

I think that as a writer my work is very much about my social and political experience (is there anything else to write about?). Stories are always political, because they always have a message. There is always a “why” to writing which even when it is answered in the psychological or social realm eventually ends up in the political realm (because the political is personal). So to me this dichotomy seems an impossible one to breach. If I write poetry, I am drawing from my experience, I can write about love but I can also write about pain, this pain is tied to a political reality. If I am writing a story I believe I have a message to deliver and I don’t want to waste my time contributing to the narratives which have made my voice marginalized in the first place, thus my work becomes more or less political.

We finished off this night with a “light art” workshop with Black Noize Media, a startup media group that is trying to become a creator, diffuser, and distributor of black art and media. In this DIY workshop we learned how to make signs that light up with lights and some cardboard, and how to project an image with a power light onto a wall. I think using light as a creative protesting tool to make a political statement is a great idea. If you project an image with light onto a wall everyone has to see it and it is simultaneously so transient no can take it down and you aren’t breaking any laws. You take up space in a way that escapes power grips and censorship. You become as light as air and untouchable. It’s clever and powerful. 

Beatriz Serves the Tea at Dinner

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Beatriz says “the world doesn’t need you Doug, killing is easy, try healing for once,” and we are all left fantasizing about what we would say to a multimillionaire white man if we confronted him. This scene encompasses a great deal of tension and conflict throughout the film Beatriz At Dinner, this is the part that feels right, that confirms that no matter how much power you have accumulated through money you are still weak and have no power against your own humanity and mortality.

Salma Hayek can make an entire movie worth watching through her facial expressions alone. In Beatriz at Dinner, the story is told mostly through Beatriz, someone with a strong capacity for empathy and healing, and her face. You cannot believe a character who is unaware of themselves, and Salma Hayek brings a believable and profound awareness of self alive in Beatriz. With several long up-close shots of her face and only the sounds of conversation, the scenes she is witnessing before her are ones we have to imagine on the other side of the camera. In particular the close-up is a powerful filming device because Beatriz is all but invisible, sociologically and historically, in the space she is in throughout most of the movie.

Beatriz ends up at an intimate business dinner at an upper upper (upper?) class white client’s house after her Volkswagen gives out on her. She finds herself in a space she is used to but a position she has not occupied before. That is as the dinner guest of her wealthy client. This client, the wife of a wealthy money mongrel, asked her to come up to her secluded mansion home in the hills outside of western Los Angeles for a therapeutic massage before her husband’s business dinner. The woman, Kathy, quickly invites Beatriz to dinner when she finds out she is stranded until the mechanic gets there. Of course Kathy insists that Beatriz is part of the family, and despite her husband’s slight protest, Beatriz is invited to dinner.

The idea that a woman of color would take up space at a dinner table that is meant to be commanded by white men is a profound one played out subtly and powerfully by Salma Hayek throughout the movie. She speaks to them as if she has known them since they were children, conveying that she has abundant compassion and understanding to deal with them all. Further she demands they have compassion and understanding for her. Of course this is a tall order amongst the privileged. Beatriz is unapologetic. She shares space with these people and takes up space, as well as commands attention. That she insists on continuously speaking while they are interrupting her and attempting to exclude her is appalling to them. So, the cognitive dissonance which these upper class white people experience when a woman of color commands attention is hilarious and disturbing.

It becomes evident that Kathy’s wealthy business guests do not often interact with someone like Beatriz. “Someone like Beatriz” referring both to her unique personality and to her marginalized identity. Beatriz, a working woman of color and Kathy’s wealthy white business guests. This is plays out when she gives mandatory hugs and sincerely asks personal questions. The guests are uncertain around her, although they do their best not to display it. It is namely Doug Stewart, capitalist mogul and exploiter with whom her encounter reaches a crucial point of tension. Beatriz is unphased. People are just people after all. There is no material wealth that makes this white man better than her.

They both experience the same world, yet their realities are very different. Throughout the evening these realities clash. While Doug sees an opportunity to make money building a resort in a village in Mexico, Beatriz experiences the displacement and ravagement of her community and people. Doug directly kills elephants, Beatriz protects them. Doug doesn’t mind clearing away a known bird sanctuary to build a mall, Beatriz takes in goats to feed them. Doug has contributed to the displacement and mass murders of Mexican people and Beatriz spends her time (spoiler alert) trying to heal from the displacement that tore her family apart- and help others’ heal. Eventually, it becomes evident that these realities are impossible to reconcile. Yet, this dissension is not something Doug has ever had to address seriously. Neither does his wife have to imagine that her vacations cost a family their lives. That is the nature of privilege. This is the moment Beatriz presence becomes so powerful.

The question begins to surface, once the complex history connecting them is revealed, of whether or not Doug is the source of Beatriz’ and countless others’ suffering. And the answer is yes, of course. Yet the way this is played out is through the proxy of animals. Doug is an avid hunter, he likes to go out to the plains of “Africa” and hunt wild beasts whom he claims would otherwise be extinct if they weren’t hunted (how funny). Beatriz, who is recently mourning the murder of her goat, who she raised and provided with shelter and love, finds this appalling. Their attitude towards the creatures we live on this planet with, compassion for animals versus pure ego-gratifying exploitation of animals, becomes the point of their dissonance. It would almost cliche if it weren’t perhaps ironically touching upon the hypocrisy of privileged people to see animal lives as more important than human ones.

This point of contention between them is interesting because on the one hand it represents the perfect juxtaposition of their characters. On the other hand it provides a soft controversy-free area to display this conflict. Because it’s animals and not people, and everyone’s supposed to love animals. If you don’t, you’re obviously evil. So the questions regarding human rights to life which might be ironically considered too “political” are avoided. While this might also be interpreted as satire on the ongoing joke that people in first world countries often seem to care more about animals’ lives than humans’ lives, it could also be a clever way of skirting a potentially highly politicized message addressing the real phenomenon that is the destruction of Central and South America, as well as working class United States, that capitalist trade agreements such as NATO have caused, and which characters like Doug benefit greatly from.

 

South African Artists’ Paintings Open Portal to Ancestors

Once I pulled on a joint with the leather vintage shoe seller in the back of his car, trunk open and merchandise lined up on the street in front of us, I sat back and calmly contemplated the comings and goings of the Sunday Maboneng Market in Johannesburg. I tugged his ear with some discussion questions, and then I made my way inside the market. I was looking for the little loft gallery that had caught my eye on last Sunday’s visit.

I floated through the crowded food vendors to the back, past the bathroom, and up the stairs, most people missed the fact that the stairs were an entrance. I climbed them and was not ready for the white figure-head protruding out of the black canvas that met me at the top. The figure head, with hollow eyes, red and white beads dripping out of the open mouth, a nail sticking out of the crown, bruising the otherwise dead grey forehead with blotches of pink, became a flat surface as I realized I was looking at a painting and not a sculpture. This is how Cassius Khumalo’s pieces come to life.
pasted image 0When Khumalo first told me about his art-making process I thought I was hearing a spiel tailored for tourists. Khumalo described an underwater convening with his ancestors where he goes into a swimming pool, yes in the literal sense, and hears their voices telling him what to create. This last part I had to fill in with my own imagination as he told me he could not divulge what he sees in the depths of the water, only saying, “when I do an artwork it is no longer Cassius anymore the spirit of God takes place in me that keeps on revealing the secrets of knowledge power and strength to inspire a living mankind as god gave me the hand of god.”

Khumalo calls upon the spirits of his ancestors to communicate with him in this realm through his art, or as he told me “most of my work comes from my dreams and the past I went through where I had a problem with connecting with my ancestors. It is revealing dark secrets I want to share with the world cause I believe we all have secrets which can inspire us to make ourselves more than what we are.”

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When I observed the paintings I got the sense that a message was being conveyed to me from another time and space to be deciphered now. The interaction between white and red colored beads, alive, and used today, and the worn down, derelict masks that look like they have been dug up from the ground, bring a chilling awareness that we are continuation of the past and not as new as we like to think. Much of Cassius’ work surrounds healing this rupture which the “modern” era has created between us and our ancestors, this breach in communication that robs us of our power. In this sense, Cassius achieves his purpose in creating a link between his ancestors and their descendants. “[They] learn about [how] the past creates the future, it is important to know where we came from and where we are going to, so that we can leave more information for other generations to come.”

Cassius describes the beads as “represent[ing] the healing power of my culture which is a positive thing which reveals what you don’t know but have to know,” and is the “wise advice and enduring love of the mysteries and spiritual truths that lie at the heart of this life of ours. I retain the hope; and the expectation that our dialogue is not over and that death is not the end of all things but simply a transition to another life of consciousness.”

Cassius is from the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg and has been working on his pieces for the past 7 years. He is continuously creating and exploring his craft. His show LOST had been on exhibition in The 13th Floor Gallery on Commissioner Street in Joburg since this April, “with the Gallery of the 13th Floor, my second solo show titled ”LOST” [is] only huge works . I call it LOST because the works will explain more about not knowing where you come from. It is going to be huge because it explains my lost of self.” Cassius opened new show titled “102” on July 9th in the same gallery, which features the following triptych titled “The Awakening of the Kundalini”:

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Posted in art

Cubanos: The People

“When you’re walking, you appreciate life in the moment, you experience it as its happening, when you’re in the car, you are losing time…” our Cuban companion Sewler explained to me as I complained about how far we’d walked on our first warm night in la Habana, still not arriving at the street we wanted to go. Of course we had managed to be picked up by a couple of Cuban guys, but given that in a way we had come up to them and not the other way around, it felt adventurous (or at least I told myself). Sewler was right, walking is enjoyable in Havana.

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Plaza Vieja

The people-watching experience is of a superb quality in Havana. To sit on the side of a street somewhere between the Old City and near the Barrio Chino area is to watch people (lots of tourists) from dozens of different countries passing by as well as see Cubans with numerous ways and expressions of life. It is at first occasionally difficult to tell who is Cuban and who is a tourist, mostly because I seem to witness a different way to be Cuban at every turn.

A few days later I figure it out, you can tell a Cuban apart from a tourist by the way they walk around, with a comfort in themselves and their body. A sort of disinterest in tourists even though I don’t know how many people from other places are filling the streets of Havana. It is with this confidence that you can spot a Cuban walking through the street. It does inevitably rubs off on everyone here visiting. The more time seeps by the more I absorb a feeling of acceptance with myself.

Cuba is rich in its awareness of itself, through art, education, and even the culture and interaction it seems to me. You might not notice this, however, if you are too busy taking in the paradoxes and contradictions, the lack of material wealth and the simultaneous appreciation of life. You might not understand unless you speak to a Cuban that it’s a  deliberate way of being resulting from both cultural and economic influences. The culture of Cuba feels like a conscious attempt at being alive and enjoying time with others. The politics and economics of Cuba of course are a part of this, and also a complex topic for another time. It seemed to me that people in Cuba are very purposeful in the way they interact, they do not ignore each other or certain realities the way Americans do, nor is everything a performance.

I immediately see a recognition in most people’s eyes when I tell them where I am from. We speak to an old man in a book shop on our first day and he tells us about the history of Andalusia and the influence it has on Cuban culture; when I tell him I am from Morocco or Maruecos. A Spanish tourist walks in and asks the man for a book on the economy, there are none. “Graciath,” the tourist says with a lisp that only a Spaniard could manage. My friend Sarah makes a joke about it and the old man laughs, immediately taking a liking to her, and us. He gives us a hug and says ‘I love you’ as we walk out. Somehow I felt I understood the intimate yet informal feeling behind the unexpected phrase.

A few strolls down busy narrow streets later and we saw a poet, with a “Poem for 1CUC/Poema for a tipp” sign. Sarah saw the longing in my eyes and pulled me towards this man, mustache turning up at the tips, tapping away on a beat-up, metal typewriter, white paint peeling off to reveal blue and rust beneath. When he was requested to write a poem by these American women for their friend back in the U.S., he jammed a piece of folded paper in and quickly wrote lines as they described her character.

I saw people slow down in front of the sign, eyes light up, squint, most absorbed the idea and sauntered off, and a few got a little closer, still curious. After a while, I spoke to him and he showed me the collection of poems he had already written. The first one grasped the feeling of adventure I crave, describing Vinales, a town to the west of Havana in a valley of luscious wild green. The poem was in English with a few Spanish words splashed in, and the word ‘elefants’. I decided I would take this poem in exchange for 1 CUC. Sarah asked why I didn’t request a new poem, and I said because I wanted something which he had written with his voice and not for someone. I found out that he was from Germany, travelling the world by selling poetry or other panhandling, and only travels by sea, getting on ships by asking if he can work with the crew. He was trying to get to Mexico next.

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Picture taken with permission

We sat by him on that wall for a couple hours watching people, a pastime we share with Cubans. At one point he wrote a poem about in-between-ness and sitting on the side of the street watching people go by while we were sitting by the side of the street watching people go by and showed it to me. It was a great coming together of thought, time, and space, bringing a meditative awareness to the moment which I have come to feel might be a mark of Cuban life. There is that kind of magic in the air in la Habana, where you find the art of being.

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View from the casa particulares, or Yorquiris’ house on San Rafael

On our way back from the Malecon one night, a long boardwalk where people play music, chill, dance, and drink at night, we were heading to Yorquiris’ house and we heard a gato yelping loudly across the street. Sewler crossed the street to go look and we followed him. The cat was stuck under a grate, screaming for its life, and drenched in whatever sewage water it had managed to fall into. At first we tried to lift the grate, but it would not come away easily. Still something came over us to save this cat and we all began frantically pulling at the grate trying to pry it open. It became evident to me that the grate, which was coming out of the building wall, was not going to budge, but Sarah and Sewler seemed determined to get it open somehow. We worked on it until somehow it came away and Sewler jumped in to the hole, grabbed the cat, and brought it out with him. I thought it would scramble away in a panic but it just stood there, eyes wide open in shock, shivering in place. It was at the same time that we were trying to put the grate back, that some of the tile on the building which was being held up by the grate fell away from the building and went down into the hole. It only struck me as we were walking away, Sarah with the cat in her arms, that the tile could have fallen down on Sewler. It was brave of him to go down there.

We went to a beach twice on our trip, one near la Habana called playa Santa Maria 10 minutes outside the city. The first thing I did was run up to the sea, and say hi to the bouncing particles of water rushing up to hug my feet and welcome me back like the nayirrah waheed poem “how does the sea remember me. every time.” It always feels like coming home, or finding something you lost, bumping into an old friend, whenever I am at the beach, or the edge of a continent as my friend Miriam likes to say. We stayed at the beach until the sun started going down, then we packed our stuff. On the way into the city we rode in the back of a taxi-truck, I looked out at the life passing by and I realized in that moment that travelling is my true state of contentment, which I seem to forget all the time. That even when it’s not all joyful boundless adventure, I am and would still be content with it.

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Veradero, Cuba

Being in Cuba for less than a week, I learned that it is not simply a “step back in time” or like going in a “time machine to the 50’s” as numerous American travel blogs will offer, as if the culture and people just happened to be left by the side of the ever-accelerating road of economic development and now live in a time behind every one else. First, this makes the assumption that all of human progress is linear, and second that the U.S. is at the forefront of that linear movement (both wrong). Rather, there is so much to learn from Cuba, especially with, and not in spite of, its complexity and contradictions. It is not a mistake but a very prominent example in understanding how to live, and I want to learn more.

Cubanos: The Art and Expression

There is a gallery in la Habana near Aguacate and Amargura called “Galleria Experimentale” with some incredible art that has impactful social commentary. I’ve noticed that a lot of art in Cuba seems to hold a clear message. It is once again very self-aware, it is not searching for a meaning but directly confronts the paradox of human life which it seeks to explore. In another gallery we wandered into on a quiet shaded street in the Old City, there were paintings in pastel colors which from far appeared as splotches ofblue with traces of red or orange, then upon closer focus you can see distinct feminine figures barely traced in red, hair hanging heavy over the face or no eyes. I felt a profound representation of women’s quiet, subdued suffering in patriarchial dominated spaces, that almost blends in the background which most women can recognize. I did not stay long enough to note the artist.

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On Aguacate in the Old City

Back to the experimental gallery, the prints of political cartoonist Ares struck me so entirely with their direct and simple message. One cartoon in particular which was not hanging up but I found in a little art book, was a human figure with two arms and a small head. One arm was dark brown and lay on a wooden chopping block, the other, raising an axe above its head, was white, ready to swing down and chop. Simple as that. The type of image that sends shivers down your back as your mind makes a thousand clicks. As it happened one of the gallery curators was sitting next to us and saw me looking at it. He said, “yes, I love this one… very powerful. It’s crazy what they do, it’s completely against the cosmos.” If we want to understand what this means it is the white and Western people’s exploitation and destruction of brown people’s of this earth is like metaphorically cutting off your arm and eating it for lunch. Then again, that sounds like a movie someone might actually come up with in Hollywood about a man who survived by chopping off his own arm and eating it, given that in the U.S. survival at all costs seems to be the dominant narrative and survival of the fittest is how to justify their own separation and destruction of the planet. I digress, can you tell how much I don’t want to go back to the U.S.? Lucky for me there is a whole world and I am excited to love, experience, and appreciate it. It seems to me Cuban art blends the real, lived world and the world of expression and symbolism and breaks down the medium between appreciating art about life and living life so that they become one and the same thing. You experience the art as if you are living it. I appreciate art that does this. Art that comes to you where you are, or where the regular person is, and reaches your emotions with its message.

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Italian artist Michaelangelo Pistoletto’s art is featured in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. One of the first installations is a room of mirrors with images, photographs of real life in la Habana, juxtaposed onto the surface, making it so that you feel as if you are part of the images as your reflection becomes part of the art. A lot of his art plays with mirrors and the idea of recreating the present moment with the viewer. It plays with your being in the space, having no meaning without anyone in there to have their reflection present in the art. Another piece is a room full of gigantic wall-length mirrors, each cracked revealing a color seeping through underneath titled “Thirteen Less One.” The piece is described as “the breaking of each framed mirror is like a small galactic explosion that multiplies the particles of reflection, and remains in the exhibition as the memory of a precise instant of the past ceaselessly reflected in the present,” as if to say check yourself out in this fragmented piece of reality.