Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Toni Morrison & Ishmael Reed @ Harlem Arts

This past Sunday brought the sort of event that too seldom occurs: two of the leading African American writers and cultural avatars--two of the leading American writers and cultural avatars--in a conversation guided by the third, in an intimate, welcoming non-academic setting. Or perhaps this does occur frequently but I have not been around to catch it. As soon as a friend alerted me that Toni Morrison (1931-) and Ishmael Reed (1938-) would participate in a conversation, led by Quincy Troupe (1939-) in Harlem no less, at the home of Quincy and Margaret Porter Troupe, as part of the Harlem Arts Salon, which has been presenting amazing programs for years now, I let friends know and got a ticket so as not to miss them. I have seen (and drawn) Toni Morrison a number of times, I studied with Ishmael Reed as an undergraduate, and I have heard Quincy Troupe read his work and was fortunate to have him select one of the first poems I ever had published in a mass circulation publication years ago, but I had never seen them all together chatting publicly. And it goes without saying that they did not disappoint.

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison, after the talk (Eugene Redmond behind her)
Before I provide a few highlights of their conversation, let me first note that a number of other wonderful writers and literary folks (and I will certainly accidentally miss some people, so forgive me) were present, among them John Edgar Wideman, Marilyn Nelson, Eugene Redmond, Steve Cannon, Elizabeth Nunez, Keith Gilyard, Kate Rushin, Tyehimba Jess, Tonya Foster, Randall Horton, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Lorelei Williams, Brenda Greene, and Charles Ruas, just to name a few. That was just (part of) the audience, which poured into some three or four rooms of Margaret and Quincy Troupe's beautiful home. So packed was the gathering that I sat in a side room, with many others, and watched the luminaries on a screen, though I could hear them clearly just a room away. Acclaimed Bay Area artist Mildred Howard prepared a range of delicious, healthy meals, as well as some of the softest, most scrumptious but not too sweet sugar cookies I've eaten in years. Also, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Open Space blog featured a streaming livecast of the event, and you can watch the entire conversation here. (A head's up: I'm briefly visible behind the video technician.) Lastly, poet Rich Villar, co-curator and one of the main forces behind the Acentos Foundation, which nurtures and promotes Latino/a writers and literature, delivered a spirited introduction to the event and for all three writers that did him and them proud.

Morrison and Reed have known each other for many years, going back to the period when both were living in New York and beginning their careers, and both have known Troupe as well since the late 1960s; Morrison and Troupe met at the loft that late, great writer Toni Cade Bambara had once maintained in Harlem. Rich Villar even read biographical notes for each from the mid 1970s, when they were already quite accomplished and yet still early in their careers. The conversation proceeded with Troupe asking open-ended questions about several topics, ranging from teachers who had an influence, to literary and cultural models, to the importance of geography, to how each writer wrote on a daily basis, to their thoughts on contemporary literature, and each spoke at length, with Reed (one of the best teachers I have ever had, and the first person to publish me in my adult life) often divagating into topics he wanted to discuss, and Morrison mostly sticking to the question but providing delectable anecdotes and motes of wisdom as she did so.
Margaret Troupe & Ishmael Reed
Margaret Porter Troupe and Ishmael Reed
Some of my favorite Morrison comments were when she was describing how, as an undergraduate at Howard, she had wanted to write on blacks in Shakespeare, but her professor felt this was outlandish and denigrated her. (She would have been ahead of her time on this topic, as subsequent scholarship has made quite clear.) She mentioned this anecdote as a way of distinguishing such professors from the ones who were more open, nurturing and forward-thinking, among them Sterling Brown, the great poet, and Alain Locke, the philosopher, whose "personal idiosyncrasies," such as using a handkerchief to touch doorknobs and folding a napkin on the desk onto which he placed his thereafter unmoving hands she found even more compelling than his difficult philosophizing. With regard to influences, she mentioned how important James Baldwin's essays were, particularly his evocative and effective use of language, and she also praised Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka for not "writing under the [white] gaze", something she has always striven not to do. One powerful aspect of Achebe's work she noted was a moment in which a male character is about to depart his home, and loving runs his hands through the thick hair of his wife. This small loving gesture towards hair that is so often reviled (even in Africa) was something many readers might overlook, but she found it telling about Achebe's mindset and larger aesthetic and social outlook, and worth thinking about in relation to her own writing.
Quincy Troupe
Quincy Troupe
Morrison also talked about being a radio story-telling child, and how, growing up in her family, people would tell stories and then retell them over and over, often changing and transforming them, and expect the children to do the same. (I grew up in a similar environment; stories were retold, and changed, though certain elements were invariant.)  Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, she recalled there were no "black neighborhoods" and that her world was integrated, though her home was a different sort of place, and that the segregation she encountered in Washington while at Howard University, which she chose to attend so that she could be around black intellectuals, black thinkers, her professors and fellow students, became "theater" for her. As she noted, the care and detail, and money, that went into maintaining segregation and segregated facilities was noteworthy--and, I often think, a sign of an societal-wide psychosis, but that's for another time. About her writing routine, she noted that she woke up early, when she was sure she could still be smart on the page, and she provide a bit of insight into her method of characterization, noting that she usually does not describe every attribute of a character, instead writing in such a way that the reader will draw her in our heads, but also know her when we see her in the world. She described this is as "call and response," perhaps the first time I've heard that term used in this regard, and it struck me as deeply insightful and apt.
Toni Morrison signing a book
Toni Morrison signing a book
Ishmael Reed was his usual volcanic self; the years have turned hair almost titanium, but he has lost none of the fire I've always admired. He told the audience that one of his models was the Modernist satirist Nathanaël West, particularly West's non-linear, collage method, which one can see in not only in Reed's earliest fiction but in his most recent novel, Juice (Dalkey, 2011). He also mentioned J. A. Rodgers, the famous autodidactic historian whose work re-educated several generations of black readers, and his peers in the Umbra Group, one of the New York-based early 1960s predecessors to what became the Black Arts Movement and the other innovative artistic movements of that era and ones that followed. Freestyling and riffing off Troupe's questions, Reed moved from "geography" and "region" to a discussion of 19th century Black poets--one of the second moments he appeared in intellectual sync with the work of my former colleague Ivy Wilson--and discussed the courage of some of them in terms of their overt critiques, with so much more at stake, of President Andrew Johnson and other powerful, white figures. He offered some choice quotes, among them that "A good writer is a rival state" (he was quoting ), and "We don't get to tell our stories," meaning that the pipeline remains a narrow one, we often write to the expectations of publishers and certain groups and readers, and so on. (This is far more true in other genres than fiction and poetry, though.) He ended this electric slide of commentary by saying that he wanted to be "like Mike Tyson" in his literature. I think he's achieved that many times over.
Lorelei Williams and Kate Rushin
Lorelei Williams and Kate Rushin
Responding to the question of how he wrote, Reed discussed waking up and reading the papers every day, and getting angry. (Among his prodigious literary production was a blog he maintained for a while at the San Francisco Chronicle, which I had linked to on this blog. I particularly enjoyed his editorial cartoons, which can acidly funny.) He was angry on Sunday too, noting how Law and Order (I think he said) was planning an episode based on Chris Brown's domestic abuse of Rihanna, only in the episode the Brown-like character was killed. The exploitation and spectacularity of it are the kinds of things Reed has long pointed out, and he was no less acute in his comments. He went on to say, anticipating what Morrison would say, that he was always writing and urged people in the room never to stop writing, but also to write in a variety of genres, undertake a "full-court press." He even spoke about a program for low income students he and his daughter had developed that got them reading and writing, and described it as a "Midnight Basketball During the Day," or Midday Basketball program. The participants, mostly black and latino, told him when he asked why they'd gone off track that they had no idea where they came from, and addressing this problem had long been an aim of his work.

Ishmael Reed, on camera
Ishmael Reed on the monitor
A few other points he made involved him talking about learning Yoruba, the language and literature, as a way of studying the roots of African American culture and of another tradition of storytelling. He also talked about his study of Japanese, and how after Reckless Eyeballing, which deeply enraged white feminists and their allies across the country, he became "literary roadkill," though he noted Morrison supported both him and that book, but also that after that he'd followed Langston Hughes's example of going to Japan (and this connection with Japan in particular, I must note editorially, has a history in black innovative art practice; it came up at the Now Dig This! conference as well), where his book Japanese By Spring, as well as his other works, were praised and he was feted. Among his final thoughts were praise for contemporary American writer, in part because of the changing technological landscape, with e-books and print-on-demand possibilities unavailable to earlier generations, and "more players" out there, as opposed to the gatekeepers and literary elites of the past. He did admit to addiction to Facebook, an enthusiasm I'm thankful I've been able to avoid but which many writer friends have not, but Reed flipped it by noting that for him it was also a "platform" of the kind he is so fond of, and so even on Facebook, he is being none other than Ishmael Reed, writing and fighting.

Poet Marilyn Nelson, at center (looking towards camera)
Marilyn Nelson

It was an amazing event, and whetted my desire to catch any and every future Harlem Arts Salon event. It was also a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon in New York during Black History Month!

John Edgar Wideman (behind the camera)
John Edgar Wideman

Monday, February 25, 2013

Random Photos

These last few weeks have been so busy I haven't been able to post a thing, though I have a few things in the basket almost ready to go. In place of those, here are a few images from around the city/ies:

Jonathan Franzen, at Rutgers-Newark
Author Jonathan Franzen, at Rutgers-Newark
Jayne Anne Phillips, Amy Hempel, Jonathan Franzen
Rutgers-Newark MFA Director and author Jayne Anne Phillips, and
guest authors Amy Hempel and Jonathan Franzen
Fashionista, Marchesa Show, NYPL
A fashionista, entering the Marchesa show at NYPL
People heading to the Marchesa show, NYPL
Fashionistas gathering outside the Marchesa show, at NYPL
Fashionista, Marchesa Show, NYPL
Fashionista air kiss
Skateboarder, NYPL
Skateboarder, oblivious to the Fashion Week goings-on
Line at Baked by Melissa cupcakes
Line at Baked by Melissa, 42nd St.
The gathering crowd at Newark Penn Station
Gathering crowd, Newark Penn Station
Bike basket (aka garbage can)
Bike basket (garbage can)
The Powerhouse, not yet transformed
Rampart in front of the still untransformed
Powerhouse station, Jersey City
Readying for a Chinese New Year celebration, 42nd St.
Preparing for a Chinese New Year's celebration, 42nd St.
Ivy Wilson, delivering his talk at CUNY Grad Center
Ivy Wilson, delivering a talk at CUNY Graduate Center

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Black Surrealism Conference @ NYU

Left: Journal cover of Légitime Défense (Self-Defense) (1932).
Right: Adam Pendleton (American, b. 1984) with Jaan Evart (Estonian, born 1981),
Marc Hollenstein (Swiss, b. 1980). Black Dada (Ian Berry, couple dancing, independence
celebration Congo, 1960) (2008/2012).  Courtesy the artist, Pace Gallery,
and Shane Campbell Gallery.
Blizzard Nemo struck, but it wasn't a knockout blow, so I bundled up and hopped on the trains to make my way to NYU on Saturday so as not to miss a Performa conference with one of the longest titles I've ever seen, GET READY FOR THE MARVELOUS: BLACK SURREALISM IN DAKAR, FORT-DE-FRANCE, HAVANA, JOHANNESBURG, NEW YORK CITY, PARIS, PORT-AU-PRINCE, 1932-2013, but which could easily go by the title "Marvelous Black Surrealism(s)." Held at NYU's Barney Building, the conference included the standard talks and panel discussions, but also film screenings and several performances. Since I attended the MoMA PS1 Now Dig This! conference on Friday I had to miss the conference's first day, which RoseLee Goldberg, the Founding Director and Curator of Performa introduced, and which included a keynote address by Robin D. G. Kelley, "Blues People and the Poetic Spirit: Recovering Surrealism's Revolutionary Politics; artist Adam Pendleton's "Black Dada" performance honoring playwright Adrienne Kennedy; a panel on "Black Surrealist Beginnings: Dance, Theater, and Visual Art," featuring NYU professor Awam Ampka and Barbara Browning; Lowery Stokes Sims, Curator at the Museum of Art and Design; and RoseLee Goldberg; a screening of Maya Deren's famous film (completed by Cherel Ito and Teiji Ito), Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985). Poet Holly Bass, who I saw on the Saturday, told me that the panel was especially good.

Saturday's program began with a screening of the William Greaves' 1967 film The First World Festival of Negro Arts; this was the official documentary film of the 1966 festival held in Dakar, Senegal, attended by over 2,000 artists in all genres from across the African Diaspora, among them Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Alvin Ailey, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Aimé Césaire. Following the Greaves film was Zétwal, a 2008 film by Gilles Elie-dit-Cosaque, which tells the story of "Martinican legend" Robert Saint‐Rose, or Zétwal (Creole for Les Étoiles, or Stars, or "Twinkl," as it was translated in the subtitles), who built a space-ship and attempted to travel to outer space, powered by the poetry of Césaire. As fanciful as this sounds--and bizarre, no less--the film tells an enthralling story about popular beliefs, the credence given the written and spoken word, specifically poetry and more specifically the poetry of Césaire, and how myths shape and become realities. This film repeated in the afternoon when, because of the blizzard, Savannah College of Art and Design chief curator Isolde Brielmaier was unable to make it to New York to deliver her talk on contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu.

The afternoon session did begin in fulgurant fashion with NYU performance studies guru Tavia Nyong'o delivering a paper entitled "Dream, Collage, Lightning: Dark Future for Surrealism." There were so many bright points in this presentation that I could barely keep up, but I did note a few: the idea of "illuminatory fulguration" in relation to capital, surrealism, and the future; thinking of the "black in black surrealism as the back beat"; the work of the Brazilian artist Washington Silveira; the "ongoing immanence of blackness to European radicalism"; how Jean-Michel Basquiat, in "Cabeza" and other paintings, was drawing upon a notion of "The Line of Flight" from George Jackson and other black radicals, and how this linked to even older trajectories of flight and fugitivity; Lorraine O'Grady--evoked several times during the day--on the feminine body in the West not being a "unitary sign," but rather like a 2-sided coin, which led to thinking about how blackness and racial difference made possible the "sexual differentiation of sexual difference," which is to say that blackness "provides the dark ground on which sexual difference can differentiate itself"; Mutu's art building figures out of the body's palimpsests; blackness as the possibility of all colors or euchromaticity; Fred Moten (also frequently evoked) noting that "we claim all who claim blackness"; and, a revelation for me, the work of Regina José Galindo, notably a body art-performance piece in which she covered herself in multiple layers of blackened cork, curled up like a ball, and then remained impassive as two men, followed a woman, urinated on her. Nyong'o talked about how he withheld identification with her in order to "see" the performance, see her, see more deeply into what meanings it held and offered, and concluded by tying this to the old(er) idea of surrealist "second sight," which might allow us more fully to "see."

Another highlight of the day was a conversation Paul D. Miller, a/k/a DJ Spooky, held with filmmaker, director, actor and overall savant Melvin Van Peebles. Up there in years but spry as a fox, Van Peebles told stories, recited some poems, and basically served up a bounty of folk wisdom, even sharing the famous "Shine on the Titanic" poem, which I hadn't heard in years. In between anecdotes about how he, a native of the South Side of Chicago, got started initially as a painter before shifting into films, dealing with mainstream studios and the unions, and his role in helping Gordon Parks to get his first directing stint in Hollywood, he expounded on how so much of black life in America and elsewhere has drawn upon a practical surrealism that functions as a means of survival. It was a highlight of the afternoon. Another came when author, musician, cultural critic, and brilliant person Greg Tate concluded the afternoon panel on "Black Surrealism Now," which also included artist Simone Leigh, and Gabi Ngcobo, Curator and Founder of the Center for Historical Reenactments in Johannesburg, with what may have been a work of fiction that also moved critically across a range of themes and tropes dealing with what he variously named "black soul realism" and "Afro-fugitivism." I would be remiss if I didn't mention doctoral student and associate curator at Peforma Institute Adrienne Edwards, who not only organized the entire conference, but offer the warm remarks throughout the day and delivered a stand-in, stand-up presentation on Mutu, casting insightful light on that artist's works. All the events were videotaped, so I hope Performa makes them available free of charge, and soon.

Some photos from the event below:

Tavia Nyong'o @ Black Surrealism conference, NYU
Tavia Nyong'o, with a clip of Regina Galindo
Adrienne Edwards, Black Surrealism Conference @ NYU
Conference organizer and presenter Adrienne Edwards
DJ Spooky & Melvin Van Peebles
DJ Spooky and Melvin Van Peebles
Gabi Ngcobo
Gabi Ngcobo
Greg Tate
Greg Tate
Adam Pendleton, RoseLee Goldberg, Gabi Ngcobo
Final panel (l-r) Adam Pendleton, RoseLee Goldberg, Gabi Ngcobo

Now Dig This! From LA to NY Symposium

Sanford Biggers' "Cheshire"
Sanford Biggers' "Cheshire"
As part of the Museum of Modern Art PS1's current--and excellent--exhibition, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, a day-long symposium took place on Friday, February 8, 2013, at MoMa's Manhattan headquarters, in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 2. The symposium's aims included exploring the connections and parallels between the African American artistic communities in these two cities through an examination of the social and cultural atmospheres in both during the 1970s and early 1980s, in part by giving voice, literally, to some of the artists, gallerists, and critics featured in the show. Now Dig This! originally ran in Los Angeles as part of a series of exhibitions gathered under the theme and title of Pacific Standard Time, and will continue at MoMA PS1 until March 11, 2013. See it before it's gone!

Linda Goode Bryant, showing photo of David Hammons selling snowballs on NYC street
Goode Bryant showing a clip of David Hammons selling snowballs
Linda Goode Bryant, talking about episodes in the 1980s NYC artworld
Goode Bryant showing a clip from her film
Tearing up the paper to make fodder for Goode Bryant's vermiculture projects
The foolscap strips
The first panel, which I was unable to attend, took up this thread directly, with organizer and scholar Kellie Jones, Cheryl Finley, Komozi Woodard, each delivering talks, moderated by curator Franklin Sirmans. The first afternoon panel focused on the legendary Just Above Midtown Gallery, a black-owned space on Franklin Street that served as a laboratory, launching pad, training ground, and "club house," as its founder, filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant put it, for a number of figures who have since gone on to great fame, including David Hammons, Fred Wilson, Lorraine O'Grady, Senga Nengudi, and Ulysses Jenkins, the latter three of whom were present and all gave presentations or performances related to their experiences with and at JAM. Naima Keith moderated the Q&A session that followed.

Benny Andrews
Benny Andrews, in a clip from Goode Bryant's film
Ulysses Jenkins
Ulysses Jenkins
Still from Lorraine O'Grady's Central Park project
Lorraine O'Grady, showing a clip from her diaporama
A still from Ulysses Jenkins's video of Houston Conwill's *Cake Walk* (1983)
A still from Ulysses Jenkins's film of Conwill's "Cake Walk" © 1983.
I'd heard of the gallery but knew little about it except that it had been a cynosure during its existence, but seeing Bryant's film clips, and hearing her talk about how and why she started it, who passed through, and what the gallery meant and still means was illuminating. One of the video clips showed Hammons urging artists to stay out of/away from the gallery world, an admonition it's clear most of the younger generation, who can more easily and freely participate in a system that excluded their elders, have ignored. As she spoke, she invited everyone in the room to tear pieces of newspaper into strips which she would later use as part of her vermiculture efforts at community gardens all over New York.

Jenkins showed an excerpt from and talked about making his video Cake Walk (© 1983), which captured a performance by Houston Conwill and other dancers at Just Above Midtown. Jenkins talked about the challenges then of video-filmmaking and the shifts occurring since that moment. He also talked about how important the experience was for him personally and for his artmaking. Lorraine O'Grady, who is also well known as a critic and theorist, showed stills--together forming a diaporama--of her 1982 Central Park performance, RIVERS, FIRST DRAFT, an allegory of her journey into the art world, and which featured a very young Fred Wilson, among others. With and against the captioned images she read first an introduction, which discussed her and others experiences at JAM, followed by a more poetic text. Finishing the sesions, Senga Nengudi strolled the perimeter of the theater, calling out "The people all said sit down, / sit down if you're rocking the boat," as she kicked a box around the room, stopping only when she reached the stage, whereupon she broke it down, transformed it into a small sculpture, and then proceeded back to her seat.
A still from Lorraine O'Grady's Central Park performance, 1982
Lorraine O'Grady, showing a clip from her
diaporama of RIVERS, FIRST DRAFT
(Fred Wilson is the young man in the green shirt)
The panel discussion that followed contained a lot of quotable lines, but one of Goode Bryant's first comments struck me most. She noted that the words "They won't let us..." annoyed her tremendously, and that her response had been to defy such expectations or lack thereof, and say "Fuck them. Start our own." This was part of a larger ethos, certainly, of the moment in which she and the other artists worked, and it continued well into the 1990s, though institutional creep, conceptually and materially, has changed the terms by which many younger artists think and operate. Senga Nengudi eventually echoed Goode Bryant's comments, penning "AGAIN / FUCK / 'EM" on a clipboard. Goode Bryant underlined that her guiding idea was "being in integrity with" oneself, an approach she and many of the artists in her milieu had striven to adhere to, and, as is clear with her current projects, that "art can directly affect the condition of the environment where it is made." Both she and Nengudi invoked the late musician Lawrence "Butch" Morris, who had been one of many talented music makers in the constellation of artists around the gallery and in the New York black and broader arts scene.
Senga Nengudi performing
Senga Nengudi's performance
Now Dig This! panel, MoMa
Keith, Goode Bryant, Jenkins, O'Grady, and Nengudi
Senga Nengudi writing a response at her Now Dig This! panel, MoMa
Nengudi writing on the flipboard
A final panel comprised five younger, contemporary artists--Xaviera Simmons, Hank Willis Thomas, Kira Lynn Harris, Steffani Jameson, and Sanford Biggers (of "Cheshire" fame)--who spoke about the influence of the earlier generation as well as their individual experiences with the contemporary art world. Every single one of them showed formally polished artworks. Kalia Brooks moderated the discussion following their presentations, and nearly all these artists appeared to take a different approach from their predecessors. Hank Willis Thomas put it as bluntly as a hammer blow when he stated that he doesn't "believe in the engaged artist," or the statements "art is..." or "the artist should...." Although she concurred, Xaviera Simmons ended the panel discussion by stressing a point she'd made earlier, which was how "fortunate" all of these younger artists were, in part because of the sacrifices and gains of their predecessors.
One of Sanford Biggers's installations
A detail from one of Sanford Biggers' installations
A still from one of Sanford Biggers' videos
A detail from one of Sanford Biggers' films
The contemporary artists, MoMa
Brooks, Harris, Biggers, Willis Thomas, Jameson, Simmons
Assembling the room-sized piece, MoMa
Hassinger's piece
Concluding the day's events, Now Dig This! artist Maren Hassinger involved the entire audience in the auditorium in a participatory art project, which entailed extracting a length of rope, all of differing lengths, placed beneath everyone's seat, and then extending them and tying them together to whomever they reached. When completed, the entire room had been transformed, we had individually and collectively created a network and new environment, and the resonances of using the rope were no less powerful.  Both simple and effective, it was a demonstration of the ideas and practices she and her peers have been conveying for years in their work, made visible and material for everyone present.
Hassinger's group sculpture
Forming the links
Creating the group sculpture (Xaviera Simmonson the left)
People right next to me (Simmons at left)
Maren Hassinger's group sculpture
A view from above
Maren Hassinger's performance
Maren Hassinger herself

Thursday, February 07, 2013

iPhone Portraits, New Set #2

A few more recent life sketches, from the PATH, light rail & subway.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone