Building and the Understory

I know a man who doesn't like poetry.

(I like starting this way because it makes the idea of not liking poetry seem rare and intriguing.)

He doesn't like poetry because so many poets are heavy-handed with language. If not, they often have an extremely intimate practice and one often doesn't know what they're attempting to do or why. Actually, he enjoys a good poem as much as (if not more than) the next guy, he just doesn't know why anyone would spend the sweat it takes to make a good poem if the poem isn't to be taken as a monument.

I'm struggling with this idea now. What shall I build for you? What shall I build for myself? As an artist I have several desires. Let me list as many as possible: to say what I mean to say; to enable new ways of thinking; to be attended to; to be remembered; to have where i place my work be another layer to the work; to investigate power; to get power; to empower others; to play . . . I'll have to finish this list later. I'm thinking about it, though, because I'm wondering how different the circumstances surrounding my practice as a poet, net artist, and literary/cultural critic might be from the work of a curator/art historian/photographer like Deborah Willis.

Deborah Willis is a curator and artist best known, perhaps, as an historian of African American photography. She has worked as a curator or consultant in many places, including the Smithsonian, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She has authored books such as Lorna Simpson; Picturing Us: African-American Identity in Photography; Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America; Visual Journal: Harlem and DC in the ’30s and ’40s; and VanDerZee: Photographer 1886-1983. She is also a genius. (Yes, this is to say that she is a MacArthur Fellow. I know we don't really need the MacArthur to tell us who the geniuses are, but it's nice to know they recognize.)

I first met Deborah Willis at the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, NC. I didn't get to take any classes with her, but I did get a chance to hear and see a few of her talks and have some much needed conversations with her about art, culture, and the academy. I also got to see how her presence brought a different set of people and discussions through the doors of the Center for Documentary Studies. (By different, I mean black, of course.)

Weeks ago, I saw Deborah Willis give a curatorial talk on her show, "Reflections in Black" which is now at the Studio Museum in Harlem. You can check out her curatorial statement online. I was struck by the difference in the audiences that came to that talk and her talk in Durham. I can't quite say I was surprised that there were more black people in the audience, but there was also something else that was different. I think I was struck by the fact that these places that have such different regular audiences both seem like the perfect place for Willis to give a talk.

At Willis' introductory public talk at CDS, I read the audience as mostly white, middle-aged, perhaps loosely attached to the academy, and more interested in documentation than art. At the talk at SMH, I read the audience as mostly black, I didn't note the age range, perhaps more attached to the academy, interested in art, and/though mostly interested in black culture.

Interestingly, Willis' talks were quite similar. While the talk at CDS was not about a particular exhibit and the one at SMH was, in both she addressed her concerns as a curator and historian. She also addressed coming to her work as an undergraduate student who didn't see the work she cared about represented in school. What I liked best was that she wasn't afraid of showing her own work. She is working on a series on black beauty salons (more on this to come) and on black women body builders. I find the body builders series breathtaking, in the literal sense. (There is lots more to come on this.)

I like that Willis has a sort of constant set of concerns with the documentation of aesthetic choices made by black artists. I like the range of work in "Reflections in Black" and how she chooses to talk about the work. I'll probably have to SWEAT this show twice as I am thinking of particular works I'd like to discuss. Right now, though, I am thinking about the way both of the audiences I have seen come to hear Willis cared something about the larger culture of which her work was apart, whether that meant art culture, black culture, or documentary culture.

I often wonder how people think of what I do and where people who do not identify as artist, writer, or critic link up with what I do. I have seen people who are not writers come to readings because they interested black culture. Indeed, there was a reading held at the Studio Museum December 7. Sandra Jackson, the Director of Education and Public Programs hooked up with Cave Canem to have four poets (Eisa Davis, John Keene, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, and Tyehimba Jess) respond to the work in the exhibit.

I was most interested in the different ways they chose to respond to the exhibit. Well, now, that's just a lie. I was most interested in the way they put together their words. But I was also quite interested in their differing takes on responding.

Some of them responded to an actual moment that had been captured in a photograph. Some of them wrote the story beneath that moment. Some of them wrote about similar moments in their own lives. Some of them wrote about a person pictured in a photograph. Some wrote about a city. I've been thinking about each of these responses as a kind of understory.

This reading interested me not just because I went to go hear friends, and not just because I loved their work, but also because I was finishing a chapbook of responses to the work of another artist. While in the process, I received a note from a friend Ronaldo Wilson, also a Cave Canemer. He wrote about imagining the paint on the insides of Faith Ringgold’s quilts—that is, the part between the canvas and the cotton. For him, the fascination was to think about the places where Ringgold is making a mark but is not in complete control over the appearance. It occurred to me that there is always an inside to every creation and maybe that is the part to which others (other artists?) respond most passionately.

The question I am left with (and must unravel at a later date) is what are we building? Or how can I both tear out the insides of the things to which I respond and build something? I know this question doesn't follow what I've just said. Please just excuse the loose weave and listen. Right now I have the desire to write some extremely intimate responses language and writing. I want to get (at the) inside(s of) language in a way that disrupts something like a formality and build something that responds to the Big, to Documentation, to History, to my People.

In a way, what I've just told you is that I've seen these things work together. Still, something in me wonders if my desires along these lines are counterintuitive to one another. Does the way I think I should build work against the way I think I should deconstruct? Maybe I should go consult Derrida. Maybe he has some answers for me about how to take something apart without destroying it.

With gratitude and still hoping for peace,
Mendi Lewis Obadike PS. Check these links for more information on Reflections in Black:

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