Johannesburg-based Tabita Rezaire and New York-based Richard Kennedy found a likeness in their missions as artists: dismantling defunct colonial mechanisms by finding personal and collective solace through their work—and more simply, occupying space. In the midst of hectic preparations for their Performa 17 AFTERHOURS commissions, the two discussed how to navigate healing and de-colonization in their respective practices and identified water as a point of connection binding their artistic, spiritual, and ancestral influences as artists from the African Diaspora.
Rezaire and Kennedy will present interactive works, with music by SHYBOI, at Performa 17 AFTERHOURS on November 16, 2017, 9:30–11:30pm at Public Arts (215 Chrystie Street).
Rosemary Reyes: Talk a bit about what you’re both planning for AFTERHOURS.
Richard Kennedy: I am doing something completely new. I've been thinking about healing in the context of everything that's going on in the United States right now and political history at-large—it's always been so violent.
A big part of my process is exploring ideas, movement, and music through listening. And the ocean is a place where I'll just listen. Music and culture emerge from Mother Nature and penetrate consciousness. I'm working with a small orchestra of musicians, singers and dancers and I am acting as the conductor of this big body of water—like conducting waves. You hear the waves smash on rocks then break apart and return.
The work is inspired by the French proverb, “Faut pas jeter le bébé avec l'eau du bain,” or "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water." I’m constantly reminding myself not to forget where I came from, and not to throw out the essence of my work in the process of maturing. I’m committed to metamorphosis and change, but I also want to hold onto the good things.
I’ve been building this new language over the last two years and I’m excited to share it for the first time at AFTERHOURS.
What are you going to do for AFTERHOURS, Tabita?
Tabita Rezaire: I'm going to facilitate a healing circle with participants journeying through a Kemetic yoga session. Kemetic yoga is a regenerative healing science from ancient Egypt—it merges breath, movement, and sound to connect the spiritual and material realms. The session will end with sound healing meditation where I play the gong. Sound is a very transformative technology. I'm working with group energy to shift and clear some collective blockages. That's the intent of the technology that I'm using; it's like music—it's movement and body position with sound and narrative interwoven throughout. We channel guidance from ancient Egypt’s cosmology to open channels of communication and knowledge for people beyond the confines of the brain. Perhaps by engaging their heart center, their womb, or site of creation they can access healing or messages from the spiritual realm and bring those into material reality.
Richard: I would sign up for that.
Lately it seems like there's a collective urgency around healing, especially for communities of color, and many of us are seeking out different indigenous technologies for healing, as you mentioned, Tabita. It's hard to measure the progress of healing when you're in it. How do you identify how and if the work is happening?
I use performance as a vehicle for personal healing. I’ve been working to create multiple points of access into my work, so that anyone from any perspective can enter inside the landscape of new possibilities. My focus is exploring the connections that we all have through sound and movement, which are such universal languages.
I can totally relate to this, especially about healing—it's a matter of experiencing. We have to leave our heads for a bit to do the work in the world of spirit. We are all spiritual beings having human experiences; these human experiences are inevitably shaped by our gender, race, class, or sexuality, but deep down we all are here on the journey of our souls. I think the state of the world is working to remind people of their soul, because it’s in dire need of revival. I understand my work as a practice of soul revival somehow.
I want to return to this notion of the ocean that you brought up Richard. I've also made work about water and I see it as an interface for communication. Especially in African spiritualties, water has been considered as a technology for communication and used to connect with spirits and ancestors, with libation or the worship of water spirits. There's a deep connection with water.
I think about my performance as an exploration of using water to transport myself somewhere. That was the first form of global transportation, and I always get blown away when I'm flying or traveling. I try to create that feeling of wonder in all of my work.
I asked my collaborators to imagine themselves submerged in some sort of liquid. What does the texture of that liquid feel like, sound like, and smell like? Water can be still and calm but also violent and destructive.
Our bodies are made of 70% water; water is the origin, the source of life. We also come from the water of the womb. We are water.
Water is home. It's important to have these narratives about water because there's a lot of trauma attached to the ocean, especially for African-American and Caribbean people. It's through water that we were dispossessed; that our ancestors were deported. There's a lot of fear in black communities around water. It’s important to remember how or what it used to mean for African people in different cultures. And for us now, as Afro-descendants, it's necessary.
Water is my way of thinking cyclically and processing the world. The moon controls the waves and the tide, when it's rising, when it's safe to be in the water, when to come out. There may be fits and starts, but ultimately, we're all constantly moving, changing, and growing.
Water is always flowing, it’s always moving.
Yeah, that's amazing. I guess it's the same for us. Everything always changes, but somehow, we are very much attached, too much, to a certain idea of how things must be. It's easy to understand the world is energy that is constantly moving and shifting and transforming; we're always recreating our selves. This is very profound, to flow with the transformation and surrender to it.
Yes. That's beautiful.
I wanted to discuss more about identifying how you consciously decolonize the white Western canon that is so pervasive in the industries that you work in. Richard, you mentioned negotiating how to work in different spaces and what spaces deserved your time and intention as an artist, but perhaps that’s in conflict with the reality of how to make a living. How do you negotiate privileging blackness while navigating institutions that so obviously center whiteness?
I've stopped putting that in the foreground of my reality. We shouldn’t have to navigate differently than anyone else, because I think that ultimately feeds the same systems that are falling apart.
The institutions need to de-colonize themselves and give all artists room to simply be. I’d rather shift my focus to all of the incredible artists of color reforming archaic systems and forcing the world to rethink what is being centered. I’ve been consciously pushing myself not to accept the title of the “other” or allow my experience to be dulled to fulfill someone’s curatorial needs.
Tabita, I'm sure that we have similar but very different experiences, being artists in these spaces.
For me, trying to de-center whiteness is still an ongoing process. Not whiteness as a race, but whiteness as an apparatus, and what it does to your psyche, to your body, to your dreams, or soul. It’s about reprogramming your mind so that it no longer dictates the way that you live your life. Once you do that, so many possibilities open up, about who you can be, what you can do, and how you can live your life. That's what I'm striving for; for myself, and for my communities.
It's still very hard, and even now there are so many areas of my life that need a profound reboot, especially that inner voice that is self-bullying. I'm trying to control my mind and a have a de-colonial approach in everything that I do, the way I love, think, and feel.
The industry is very much a mess and we are contributing to that mess while we are trying to subvert these mechanisms of exclusion and erasure by occupying space. Yet that makes us complicit in a system that we despise. It's tricky.
It is tricky and I'm always conflicted. While it's hard, it needs to be a collective effort to curtail elitism and convenient inclusion. There’s this new wave of self-identified liberals with lofty ideas, but when they're in action, they don't know how to remove themselves from the position of power or being in control of resources, and placing value on you.
I'm so honored to be in conversation with you Tabita, and to meet you on this platform and talk about these issues and our work. A huge part of decolonization is actually showing up with our bodies, our minds, and our ideas, to places that have historically shut us out—to prompt change for the future. I am far from a first generation American. I am a descendent of Kentucky slaves and pioneering black business owners in North Carolina. I represent my ancestors proudly in every space I occupy.
I'm hoping that the conversation illuminated some things for you.
Yes. When it comes down to it, we have to dare—to have the courage—to imagine another reality for ourselves, and everyone else. How can we be together, and what does that togetherness look like and feel like? When you imagine, you create pathways for things to shift and manifest.