Raw Material, season 2: Manifest. Episode 4

AMBI: Intro Music

AH-SUE: This is Raw Material. An arts and culture podcast by SFMOMA. I’m your host, Geraldine Ah-Sue, for a season about art, community and social justice.

Up next on Raw Material:

TEASE:

OJIH ODUTOLA: Blackness is like a sentence that precedes you when you enter a room.

SHERWOOD: The venuses more came out of a sense of disability pride.

LUNA: Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture tonight in New York City. 

AH-SUE: We’re talking about art, and our ways of seeing.

AMBI: Intro Music fade out

AMBI: Xylophone

AMBI: Eye machine

Dr. Kim: Turning the lenses...

AH-SUE: When we look at something, how do we know what to see?

Dr. Kim: That’s good. Let’s cover the other eye. Same thing. Open your eyes, and then, where is the lowest line of letters you can read?

Geraldine: E V D T? Z …

AH-SUE: To make sense of an image, we’re drawing from things like our experiences, what we think, what we know, what we’re told. But that means that even though you and I might be looking at the same thing, what we see might actually be different.

Dr. Kim: Are you ok?

Geraldine: My eyes feel weird. 

Dr. Kim: Ok. You will feel weird because your eyes are numb. Because of the anesthetic.

Geraldine: How long does it last for?

Dr. Kim: About maybe 5-10 minutes. 

AMBI: Ticker

Dr. Kim: Yeah, you will just feel a little numb. [chuckle] 

AH-SUE: In a world that’s constantly trying to tell us how and what to see, how will we awaken different modes of vision?

AMBI: Timer goes off

AMBI: New York City, Camera focusing, snapping

LUNA: Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture tonight in New York City. Take two. Leave one. Take one home. America loves to see her Indians dance with them. America loves to say ‘our Indians.’ America loves to name their cars and trucks after our tribes and people. America doesn’t know me. Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture tonight, free. 

AH-SUE: That’s from Take a Picture with an Indian, by contemporary installation and performance artist James Luna.

AMBI: Music

AMBI: Birds

LUNA: I am Pooyukitchchum, Ipai and of Mexican/American descent. I am an enrolled member of and live on the La Jolla Indian reservation in North County, San Diego.

AH-SUE: Luna’s been living on this reservation since he was 27 years old. And even though he grew up in Orange County, his ties to rez life have been part of his experience ever since he was a child.

AMBI: Children playing 

LUNA: We’d have people come to visit, or come visit or do seasonal work in the area. Or we would come down to the reservation for, what we call ‘doings,’ which might be a funeral, or, you know, a festive occasion of some kind, a fiesta or you know, some kind of thing like that. So, um, that was really important not to lose that bond. 

AMBI: Stream

AMBI: Music ends

AH-SUE: Native people aren’t that visible in today’s mainstream media, which  may lead us to believe that Native culture is dead. A thing of the past. But that’s simply not true. The reality is that Native communities are not only intact, but they’re alive and well. And after centuries of land robbery, cultural erasure and outright genocide, their presence, here and now, is important. But preservation, especially in today’s world, is not always easy.

AMBI: Driving, cars passing

LUNA: So Take a Picture with an Indian started out with a trip to New Mexico, and my son and I were driving across, you know, the landscape, and uh, got to Navajo, and went off the beaten path, and out in the middle of nowhere there was this guy, this Indian guy in a war dance outfit, or what I called a funky war dance outfit. But, you know, obviously he was an Indian dressed up to dance.

AH-SUE: As Luna explains, this was this guy’s work. He was waving at cars, trying to get people to stop into a shop that was selling jewelry and trinkets made for tourists.

LUNA: And it saddened me. It was like, ‘oh man, do we have to do this?’ Do we have to dress Indian to, you know, sell our wares or… You know? And I thought, yeah, [chuckle], yeah.

AMBI: Chinatown, yankee doodle on erhu

AH-SUE: Cultural tourism. It happens everywhere, all the time. Think of the Chinatowns of today, rich with history but mostly hidden behind shiny storefronts for out-of-town shoppers. And though fraught with things like Eurocentrism, racism and economic inequality, it can sometimes be a mode of survival.

LUNA: Because, you know, you’re not gonna stand out there in your street clothes and wave at cars. You know? And this guy and his family, making a living.

AMBI: Music

AH-SUE: So, in Take a Picture with an Indian, Luna invited people to take a picture with him, a real Indian. For the occasion, he dressed in 3 different outfits:  

AH-SUE: The first was a simple breechcloth, his hair down, maybe wearing a necklace. What he calls ‘general Indian.’

AMBI: Bow and arrow, City

AH-SUE: In the second outfit, Luna wore his regular street clothes - his everyday wear.  

AMBI: Copper bells, horses trotting

AH-SUE: The third was what he called,  

LUNA: the Indian that everybody really loves to see. You know, with the feathers, and this, and all that -- a war dance outfit on. And then, when I come out in the war dance thing, there’s this ‘oooo! I’ll take a picture with an Indian!’ 

AMBI: photos click click click click

AMBI: Music ends

AH-SUE: How does the writing of ‘history’ dictate what we see today? Who is afforded the privilege of time, with all the pain, knowledge, experience, and love that comes with it, and who gets petrified as an imagining of what used to be? In his famous piece, The Artifact, Luna asks this very question, bringing the image of Native people out of the past, and into the present.

AMBI: Bell Toll, Birds flying

LUNA: So there would be artifacts of a present Native man. Me.  

AMBI: Medicine cabinet opening, paper crumpling, pills in a bottle

AH-SUE: In this piece, some of Luna’s personal belongings were put on display: things like his Bachelor’s degree, favorite music, mementos, even medicine he was taking. But that’s not all.

LUNA: I would sort of just be there on display for the unsuspecting Saturday families that were coming to see the Indian artifacts.

AMBI: Record stop

 AH-SUE: That’s right. Lying on a bed of sand, surrounded by his things, was Luna himself. A present-day Native man. And he wasn’t just alive. He had a life to tell.  

LUNA: I had these prose that I had written alluding to different scars on my body during, done during different alcoholic frenzies. You know. ‘Scar on his forehead caused after falling on his face after drinking a fifth of whiskey when he got the call that his father had died. You know. [Luna gets choked up] Or, uh, a lump or a welt on his finger from a failed marriage between two alcoholic people trying to make it. And so. You know. And uh, you know, so, you know, it brought in emotion.

AMBI: Stage echo, forest, opening door, hum of fluorescent light

AH-SUE: Today, Luna is performing a piece called ISHI: The Archive Performance. It’s based on the true story of Ishi - a Indian man who, in 1911, walked into the small northern California town of Oroville and, at the hands of Western anthropologists, became a living specimen at the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology. For the performance, Luna digs into the archival records, and reimagines the story of his life. He wonders, what would Ishi say today? 

LUNA: You bring your children to see the wild Indian. And you point, and the children giggle. You ask me to smile for your camera. I am a man. You think of me as science. You weighed my balls and measured my cock. I am a man! I am a man! I am a man!

AMBI: Music  

OJIH ODUTOLA: You know, if you look at history, I mean, there is ‘history,’ there’s factual, like you know, the carbon dating of things, and like, the building of that, but then there’s also invention. Like, it’s invention.  

AMBI: Music

AH-SUE: Visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola makes what she calls, conceptual portraits - powerful, hand-drawn illustrations using materials such as charcoal, pastel and ball-point pen.

AMBI: wind blowing, rain falling, birds chirping

OJIH ODUTOLA: The whole style sort of started as me looking at skin as a landscape. You know, I always describe it as I’m drawing hills and plains and valleys. Like, it really feels that way. It feels like I’m traversing the terrain of the skin, and that skin is constantly engaging to me. It’s constantly challenging me. And I like that. I like that it doesn’t settle. That’s really what it is. It doesn’t settle with anything.

AMBI: Music 

AH-SUE: Ojih Odutola’s portraits are like poetry. The faces have a rhythm, a cadence, a movement. The skin of her characters are marked with striations, sometimes popped with a polychromatic palette, and other times monochrome. And these curved lines, they never quite allow your eye to rest, asking you to follow the topography of her characters’ bodies. As a child of immigrant parents myself, this intimacy with fluidity is familiar.

OJIH ODUTOLA: I was definitely a migrant kid, for sure. Um, I came to the U.S. when I was 5, and then I actually lived in Berkeley for 5 years.

AMBI: Plane, crowd of people 

AH-SUE: While in Berkeley, Ojih Odutola experienced herself as an ‘international’ kid. Her family moved here from Ifa, Nigeria, and they arrived in a college town full of people from all over the world. In Berkeley, she was identified more by what she did. Practice. Action. Behavior. Less so by skin.

OJIH ODUTOLA: And then we moved to Alabama. And all of a sudden, I was black. And it was this moment, you know, when 9 year old Toyin was like, what does that even mean, um I’m brown, actually, um, [laughter] and I’m African. And, I don’t understand -- you know, this history was unknown to me. And I had to learn it. I had to learn about race relations in America, I had to learn about slavery, I had to learn about Jim Crow, and the implications of that on my person, and my personhood. 

AH-SUE: Confronted with a new reality, she couldn’t help but question it.

OJIH ODUTOLA: It was very enlightening to me. But it was also this idea of like, well, why is this is so? Why am I defined before I even speak for myself? That’s a power that has been taken away from me. And I’m so young, you know, I mean I was just a kid realizing this. I think that’s what sparked this idea in me that, this is all a lie. This is an illusion. Right? I am obviously multilayered simply just from the various locales that I’ve lived in. And then, to become this person who has become so flattened because of a history that is out of my control, really made me kind of want to question it in some way.  

AH-SUE: Ojih Odutola’s portraits challenge the blanket description of ‘blackness.’ The unique contours and patterning on the dark skin of each of her characters feels as unique as a fingerprint. In her most recent series of works, entitled A Matter of Fact, Ojih Odutola continues this inquiry, but she extends it to the question of wealth.

AMBI: Music

OJIH ODUTOLA: Does wealth, as a construct - the same vein as, for instance, Blackness - limit movement within a space? Does it define the people who exist in those spaces? And are they beholden to it the same way that you are beholden to Blackness? Because Blackness is like a sentence that precedes you when you enter a room. And is wealth the same?

AMBI: Walking around, glasses, palms in the breeze, sighing

AH-SUE: In A Matter of Fact, Ojih Odutola depicts the story of the UmuEze Amara clan -- a completely made-up Nigerian family whose name in Igbo  means “royalty” and “grace.”

Here, the characters lounge within bright, colorful foyers, against the backdrop of giant green palms, elaborate wallpaper, gold-framed art, and books bound in leather. Their bodies are adorned with stylish designer clothing, but their faces, their faces bear expressions of  complete and utter boredom.

OJIH ODUTOLA: You know, because so much of blackness, historically, has been assigned to the body. Like, literally, the black body. And so, to have black subjecthood be in the place of that, surrounded by wealth. And having that be unquestioned. What would that look like? And the only thing I could think of was the privilege that wealth could afford was the privilege to not care.

AH-SUE: By surrounding black subjects with common tropes of class, status and wealth, these portraits question the assumed 'truths' about 'blacknes'. In doing so, Ojih Odutola begs the larger question: is identity ever, really, a matter of fact? 

OJIH ODUTOLA: I think there are many selves to everybody. But the problem is it’s easier to to be one ‘self’ in order to brand yourself and to advance in the world. Because the smaller you compact yourself, the more flattened you’ve become, the easier it is for you to sort of like, move through the world. But, If I am to look at what I do in my career and my overall career, and as a person, it is incredibly layered. And it’s multifaceted. And it doesn’t settle. It’s not going to settle. It can’t be stagnant and still and constant. It has to shift. It has to mold itself.

AMBI: Music 

SHERWOOD: Well, it was, it happened in May, and it wasn’t until November that I got back into the studio. 

AH-SUE: That’s mixed media painter Katherine Sherwood. She paints on the linen backs of prints from the 1960s and ‘70s, and integrates images of cerebral angiograms and MRIs of both her brain and other people’s brains too.

SHERWOOD: Well it was funny because I started using brain imagery in 1991, and I continued using it for a few years, and then I had a cerebral hemorrhage myself in 1997.

AH-SUE: Before 1997, Sherwood was mostly using MRIs in her art - bold, dark, shadowy images of the brain and brainstem that she found deep in the biosciences library of UC Berkeley. Interested in theories of perception and its construction of reality, Sherwood would also embedded abstract holograms on the surface of her paintings.

SHERWOOD: So, I like to say that it took a while for my life to catch up to my art.

AH-SUE: Sherwood was 44 when she had her stroke.

SHERWOOD: It came over me very quickly, and within 2 minutes I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t walk.

AH-SUE: After being rushed to the hospital, she lay unconscious for about 5 days. When she woke up, as she was lying in the bed, listening to the doctor talk about her recovery, she saw them. 

AMBI: Sitting up from bed

SHERWOOD: I sat up on the gurney, and looked at these beautiful images on the computer screen.

AMBI: Music

AH-SUE: The MRIs Sherwood was used to using were a somewhat bulky, cross-section image of the brain - almost like you’ve cut a cauliflower in half. But what she was looking at in the hospital were angiograms. And they revealed the intricate, root-like network of blood vessels in her brain. And she loved them.

SHERWOOD: So, they reminded me of the Southern Song Dynasty landscapes. And I immediately said without thinking, ‘I need those images.’

AH-SUE: The hemorrhage in Sherwood’s brain resulted in the loss of use of her right hand. So, as a right-handed painter, Sherwood’s process of making art changed radically.

AMBI: Footsteps, dragging furniture on the floor, opening the door

SHERWOOD: I started using my left hand. I also, I had a platform for my bed that I was, it was too tall for me to get on, and I brought it out to my studio, and I’ve made every painting on it. So, I work flat. So, I’ve gotten really used to seeing things flat and to imagine them vertically. Also, I go around and around the painting, and work on it that way, so that occasionally, I’ll believe, ‘oh this is up, or this is down.’ And so, that also changes during the course of the making.

AH-SUE: In 2014, Sherwood exhibited a series called Ever After: Venuses of the Yelling Clinic.

SHERWOOD: The Venuses of the Yelling Clinic are all large, female nudes, reclining female nudes, based on 18th and 17th century Western reclining nudes. They all have a visible disability, and their faces are all made up of all the brain imagery that I’ve worked with for, you know, quite a few years.

AMBI: Music

AH-SUE: Lounging on patterned surfaces, the venuses don tiaras of angiograms on their heads, and as you cast your gaze on their splayed nude bodies, their canes and prosthetics in sight, it’s their faces, replaced with MRI brain images, that are looking right back at you.

SHERWOOD: The venuses were, more came out of a sense of disability pride, and that, seeking the beauty in things that aren’t normate. But things that I find very beautiful. 

AH-SUE: Ablism - which is about both discrimination in favor of able-bodied people and the ways in which we think of disability as inferior to able-bodiedness - it’s everywhere! When thinking about art, it can be embedded in our very ways of seeing, from the types of bodies we celebrate, to the way we talk about artists and their ‘genius.’ Even this very episode assumes ‘seeing,’ ‘looking,’ ‘sightedness’ as the preferred  mode of engaging with visual art.

SHERWOOD: So, do we think about the blind visitor when the visitor goes to the museum? How do we accommodate that? And so a lot of it is prejudice that is so deep down, that people don’t even normally recognize it. So, that’s something that I personally feel that it’s part of my work to get them to realize it. Not as easy as it sounds. But, anyway!

AMBI: MUSIC

Dr. Kim: Ok. Just put your chin over there. And then lean against the bar. Very good. Open your eyes. It doesn’t hurt. 

AH-SUE: In a world that tries so hard to control our ways of seeing, we resist. Art is our way of questioning presentation, of rejecting subjugation, and insisting on something else. Through art, we create new narratives and new meaning, to envision a world for all of us.

AMBI: OUTRO MUSIC

AH-SUE: Next time, on Raw Material...

TEASE:

HEMAMI: A lot of my work, especially in recent years, is focusing on the revolution as a pivotal point, because it changed my life and my country the way I knew it.

FAYEZ: I mean, I'm a generation after the revolution, you know? And I assume my practice is really derived by the situation, by the condition, of Iran. 

AH-SUE: We’re talking about art, and legacy. Join us.

Season 2 of Raw Material is produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and me, Geraldine Ah-Sue. The music you heard in this episode was from Revolution Void, Podington Bear, Gospel of Mars, Kosta T, James Luna and local Bay Area artist ONIKHO. Our special thanks to Rose Krzton-Presson, Taylor Alexis-Wizner, and World Vision Optometry in Oakland, CA. To learn more about what you just heard today, visit sfmoma.org/raw-material. We’ll see you next time.

Raw Material, season 2: Manifest. Episode 3. Transcript.

AMBI: INTRO MUSIC

AH-SUE: This is Raw Material. An arts and culture podcast by SFMOMA. I’m your host, Geraldine Ah-Sue, for a season about art, community and social justice.

Up next on Raw Material: 

TEASE:

FERNANDEZ: What if this place didn’t have a wall? What would it look like? What would it feel like?

HOWARD:  Home is not always safe. Some of the most tragic things happen in the home. 

GAMEROS: I was living in the shadows, completely. Not even my best friends knew about my status.

AH-SUE: We’re talking about art, and the ‘home.’ 

AMBI: Intro Music fade out

AMBI: Door open and closing

AMBI: MUSIC

AMBI: Gameros: ¿cómo hacer que la vida perdure

(how can we make life last? ) 

AH-SUE: Art is a refuge. A landing, to rest, to restore, to question.

Gameros: Que nada ni nadie escase?

(so nothing and no one is scarce) 

Si nadie es eterno

Nada es nuestro

(if no one is eternal

nothing ours )

I’ve searched for the meaning of ‘home’ my whole life. A first-generation daughter of parents born on an island in the Indian Ocean, my hair is dark, my skin is fair, and my mother tongue is a french patois, itself the inheritance of a colonial past. I grew up in the U.S., eating hotdogs and rice, pleading for pizza and pickling cabbage with my mother at the kitchen table. I straddled cultural lines that often made me wish I was born in another skin. Who am I? And where do I belong?     

AMBI: RAIN FALLING

AMBI: THUNDER

HOWARD: “I am invisible. Understand? Simply because people refuse to see me. Like the body-less heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows. It is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they only see my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination. Indeed, everything and anything, except me.” Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.  

AMBI: Mildred closing the door

AH-SUE: I’m meeting with mixed media sculptor and Bay Area legend, Mildred Howard. She’s an older African American woman. Her hair is long and dreaded, and she’s wearing a bright purple shirt and red lipstick. She greets me at the door, warmly, and offers me tea and coffee. It feels like she’s inviting me into her home. But this is not her house.

HOWARD: I have all this stuff. Not only things that I’ve made, but things that I’m going to make things out of. And, so, it’s like 40 years of stuff that I’m packing from place to place.

AMBI: MUSIC

AH-SUE: Howard’s been making art for decades. Her studio is - well, was - based in Berkeley, California, where she grew up. In fact, her childhood home was a mere 2 ½ blocks away. But like so many places in the Bay Area, the neighborhood is changing. After 18 years, Howard’s been priced out. Her rent suddenly doubled, and now she’s in the process of moving. We’re actually recording this interview at her friend’s house. 

But her neighborhood wasn’t always so expensive.  

HOWARD: South Berkeley is a community -- when my family moved there, that was redlined.  

AMBI: TRAIN, CROWD

AH-SUE: During World War II, more than 5 million African Americans relocated from the South to major industrial cities in the North and west of the Mississippi. Cities like Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco - places where the naval shipyards were booming - saw a huge influx of African American families that were looking to escape the Jim Crow South and start again. But racism, as it turns out, is everywhere. Banks began denying services to black families, shutting them out of the market to keep white neighborhoods white. This practice of “redlining” is ostensibly what kept cities racially segregated.

But life, as it does, continued, and folks made a home for themselves. Howard’s family eventually settled in South Berkeley.

AMBI: CHILDREN PLAYING OUTSIDE, PEOPLE GREETING EACH OTHER, PEOPLE LAUGHING, BIRDS

HOWARD: It was a real community. And there were things to support that community. There were grocery stores, two banks, bakeries, restaurants, cleaners. My mother was friends with the grocery store owners. They knew our parents. We played with their kids. Everything you needed was right there in that community.

AH-SUE: As people of color started settling down, white families began to flee, moving to the suburbs. A phenomenon known as “white flight.” But, over time, trends began to change. Values started to shift. Priorities started to get rearranged. Suddenly, the city started to look pretty good again, and those who had once left, now wanted back in.

AMBI: FADE OUT

HOWARD: And, next thing you know, it’s an all-white neighborhood again. 

AH-SUE: One of the ironies of this situation is that Howard is an artist well-known around the world for her installations of houses, made of glass.

AMBI: MUSIC 

HOWARD: Well, I started building these glass houses as a result of working at the Exploratorium. And we were looking at light going through. The physical aspects of it, how, when you look through a clear object, what kind of shadow does it create, and how light transmits and reflects. But as I was working in that area, I began to realize that it had other metaphors.

AMBI: Chimes, trees in the wind

AH-SUE: Have you ever walked by someone’s yard and seen a tree with bottles on its branches? You might have seen these in the South, states like Texas and South Carolina. They’re sometimes called ‘bottle trees.’ Thought to have originated in Africa, the story goes that bottle trees are actually protectors of the home. They ward off evil spirits by luring them with their colored glass and playful shadows. Mesmerized, the evil spirit has no choice but to follow the light, into the bottle, where it’s then trapped, never to escape again.  

AMBI: WIND BLOWING ON BOTTLE

If you ever hear the wind blowing against the mouth of a bottle, that’s how you know you’ve caught one.

AMBI: Outside, springtime, digging dirt

HOWARD: I had been reading James Weldon Johnson’s “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” And in doing that, he talked about the bottles in the front yard being stuck neck down to keep the spirits away.  

AH-SUE: Sometimes bottles would be stuck in the dirt instead.  

HOWARD: Anyway, he proceeded to dig these up. These bottles up. Because he wanted to know if the bottles grew like the flowers did. And I just loved that part of that book. So the next day, I said, I think I’ll make a house out of bottles. And that’s how my use of glass began.

AH-SUE: Howard’s created many glass houses. Some small. Some big. In 2011, Howard created a glass house, which stood at 10 feet high and 12 feet wide! Supported by a light wooden frame, she arranged thousands of large and small clear bottles to create the panels for the house, which once completed, stood outside, under the sun, in front of the Palo Alto city hall. Depending on the time of day, or even the time of year, it could take on a whole new look.

AMBI: Music End

AH-SUE: But while the lore of glass bottles feature prominently in Howard’s installations, as she points out, ‘home’ is not always what we think it is.

HOWARD: Home is not always safe. Some of the most tragic things happen in the home.

AMBI: Slow closing door

AH-SUE: In 2005, Howard made Safe House

HOWARD: Safe House is a house that I did, made for the opening of the Museum of the African Diaspora. The frame of the house is made with knives.

AMBI: Knife being pulled out

AH-SUE: It’s an open house, no walls. And inside the house there’s a slew of silver objects that you might see on display, maybe in a cabinet, or as the fancy dinnerware that you never use.

HOWARD: Silver objects. A lot of the silver objects, the companies that made silver objects also made shackles that were on Africans who came here to the quote “New World.”

AH-SUE: Some of the silver items are crushed. Others are intact.

HOWARD: And then there’s a trail that leads, of these objects, that lead to a wall. And in the wall are these, I guess, maybe 120 knives that I stuck in the wall.

AH-SUE: Home’ can oftentimes be a very fraught place. Sometimes a place of protection. Other times a place of danger. The very meaning of ‘home’ itself is unsettled. Are we talking about a house, the home you make in that house, or even a homeland? What is ‘home?’ Who gets to belong, and who gets shut out?  

AMBI: Street, Music

HOWARD: What’s happening in the San Francisco Bay Area, the number of homeless people is just astronomical.

AH-SUE: One of Howard’s most recent projects is called “Print Public.”  

HOWARD: We do pass by these people as if they don’t exist. And that led me to this new body of work that I began doing.

AH-SUE: For “Print Public,” Howard set out with her camera to meet and photograph   people living on the street along San Pablo Avenue in the East Bay. Her work asks us to look. Closer. It invites us to notice, to question, what does it mean to be visible? And what does it mean to be invisible?

HOWARD: I like to investigate what is not there. And - as Ralph Ellison says - Just because you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

AMBI: Music 

AMBI: Television turns on, White Noise

AMBI: News clip  

Reporter: Protesters clashed with police again in the state of Guererro where the 43 students disappeared 6 weeks ago. Many fear the students have been murdered...

AH-SUE: In September of 2014, forty-three Mexican college students went missing from the city of Iguala. They were on their way to Mexico City, when their buses were ambushed in the middle of the night. The students have not been seen since.

AMBI: MUSIC 

FERNANDEZ: And I remember the first time I came across the news, where people in Facebook were beginning to put their profile picture black, as a way, as a way of doing luto, which is to mourn. But I think in this case, the entire country was in mourning after hearing that these 43 students had all of a sudden been obliterated.

AH-SUE: Wanting to do a protest of her own, Mexican-born painter and performance artist Ana Teresa Fernandez began by blacking out a corner in her studio. Wearing a black dress and black shoes, she then proceeded to erase herself.  

AMBI: drone whisper gasp inhaling

FERNANDEZ: So from the dress I started painting out my arms, so, wearing the blackness of sleeves and then painting out my legs and then continuing to paint out my face, until I entirely painted myself out black. 

AH-SUE: This act, together with paintings, a larger than life sculpture, a text installation, and a video, comprise an exhibit Fernandez called “Erasure.”

AMBI: distorted sound

FERNANDEZ: As I was waiting for the painting to dry, you feel like how it’s drying, and it’s constraining against your skin, and it just tightens, and I just -- there’s this feeling of, a little bit of suffocation, just of wearing that blackness as I sat there in the black space.

So it’s really talking about the injustices of, who has value and why, and who’s allowed to live, and who gets erased so quickly and easily.

AH-SUE: It’s a silent protest. A quiet strength behind a loud statement. A form of resistance she learned from her mother.

FERNANDEZ: She’s just a lot of light and a lot of like, warmth and stubbornness packed in one. I think my mother was always really rebellious silently. And I think I took that, that type of voice that’s silent rebellion, and I’ve been applying to my work ever since.

AH-SUE: That silent rebellion is evident in Fernandez’s 2012 piece, “Borrando la Frontera” - a public art piece that she did at the physical border that separates Tijuana and San Diego.

AMBI: Music End

AMBI: Wind, People playing on the beach, waves and ocean

FERNANDEZ: This physical fence is actually, they’re train tracks that are welded together that are perforated into the sand, and so they stand vertically up into the sky, and they run across the sand all the way into the ocean. And this is the object that is the symbol as the wall. And has been for over a decade now. And so what it looks like is that Mexico is behind prison bars.

AH-SUE: This border didn’t always look like this. In 1971, then first-lady Pat Nixon visited the border between Tijuana and San Diego. Back then it was just a flimsy chain linked fence. She was there for the dedication of Friendship Park, a patch of land meant to celebrate the relationship between Mexico and the United States. Friendship Park eventually became a much beloved space for people who were separated by the border.

AMBI: Families talking

FERNANDEZ: Families actually could come and meet on Sundays there. And through the bars, were able to have meals, and share stories, and spend hours together just congregating.  

AH-SUE: People would come to Friendship Park to reunite. They’d bring their beach chairs to sit, and catch up with each other. Though the fence they’d talk, laugh, look at each other’s faces, touch hands, and recount the time they’ve spent apart Yes, over time, the chain link fence evolved into the high steel beams of today, but the park offered a moment where the separation of the border could be transcended. Until, that is, in 2009, when the park closed its doors for the construction of additional border fencing, which changed everything.

AMBI: Closing of iron doors, Children and parents crying

FERNANDEZ: And they were no longer able to -- people were no longer able to touch. So there were these meshes that got implemented between those posts. And, people can only touch through their fingertips across these really thick metal meshes. And when you see that, it is just absolutely heartbreaking. I mean, you don’t know what it’s like until you actually witness it. And you see grandparents that go see their grandchildren, and they have to see them through these layers of fence and physical obstructions. And how they’re crying, and all they want to do is touch each other and reach across and be able to have a connection, you know? And I think that when I saw that, that was what tipped me over the edge, and I was like, fucking ay, I need to do something about this. And you know, you wanna kick and scream at it, and spit at it, and come with like, a torch and burn the whole thing down.

AMBI: MUSIC

AH-SUE: But paint is the weapon of choice for Fernandez, and so one morning, she went to the border with her mother, a videographer, and cans of paint, and began painting the wall out of existence. She created a blue that perfectly matched the color of the sky, and then painted the wall with this blue, until essentially, the wall vanished.

FERNANDEZ: That was me, trying to visualize a different possibility, of, what if this place didn’t have a wall? What would it look like? What would it feel like? 

AMBI: MUSIC

Gameros: the sun is so bright

there is enough for both of us

there is enough for all of us

the sun is so bright

AH-SUE: People would walk by the wall, and as Fernandez was erasing it, they’d cheer “I get it! I get it!” In painting out the wall, she wasn’t simply omitting something. Fernandez was also creating something new. A new landscape. A new vision of what could be. For her own imagination, and for those around her.  

FERNANDEZ: When we live out our possibilities, like the fullness of what’s possible for us, I think that we experience the beauty of the lightness of being. You know? Where we’re almost floating. When we have that epiphany, when we’re in that moment of creation. It’s like, we don’t experience gravity. But instead, the fullness of what we’re capable of. You know? Because, I think, if anything, that’s always the big question of like, who are you going to be in this world? And how much access do you have to that?

AMBI: Music fade out

AMBI: GAMEROS SINGS

Duermase niño chiquito

AH-SUE: We’re listening to singer, songwriter and performer Diana Gameros. She’s remembering a lullaby from her childhood in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

AMBI: MUSIC

GAMEROS: I grew up going to my grandparents’ little town, really little town, like, 200 people. And my uncles would play music all the time. And my grandma would always sing. And so, anytime there was a celebration I was surrounded by music.

AMBI: Desert, wind, coyotes, car driving in the dust, water, boats

AH-SUE: A child of the desert, Gameros spent most of her young childhood surrounded by open, vast landscapes. When she got older, her family offered to move her to Michigan, IL to live with her aunt. The landscape looked different. And new. And she fell in love. With the water, with her life, with a boy. She shuffled back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico during her adolescent years, but when she was 18, she decided to go to college in Michigan.

GAMEROS: That was, kind of the part of my story where it gets, you know, really confusing and really hard for me. Because I, I ended up coming back, and going to school as an undocumented person. 

AMBI: MUSIC

AH-SUE: At the time Gameros did in fact start the immigration process, with the long, drawn-out legal procedures and the mountain high stack of formal paperwork. But as a full-time student, time and energy were hard to come by. Combine that with her need for money to pay tuition, which she was paying in full because with no papers, she was ineligible for financial aid, and then compound that with the difficulty of finding a job to begin with, and it starts to feel like the system is designed for failure.

GAMEROS: I was living in the shadows, completely. Not even my best friends knew about my status. And colleges in Michigan, they don’t have programs like they do in California. Where they, you know, they help undocumented students and you can talk about your story. There was none of that for me.  

AH-SUE: There were also the emotional complexities of her situation.

AMBI: MUSIC 

GAMEROS: There are different emotions that come up. So many. ‘Cause you also, so you think, you’re by yourself and the emotions that you have. And then you think about these other people. And also your family, the family you left behind. And how sometimes you even feel like a traitor.

GAMEROS: I mean it’s kind of a strong word, but you know, whenever they were having a really hard time, or whenever a family member passed, it felt hard not being able to be there and deal with the things that my family had to deal with. Like, I knew these things were happening there.  And yet, I’m in the United States. And getting my degree in music, and getting an education. Definitely. I had, really, a lot of mixed feelings. And part of me really wanted to be there with my family, and another part of me felt that this was also important to do. Yeah.

AH-SUE: Gameros did eventually finish school, and after that, she moved to San Francisco to make it as a musician, still undocumented, but with conviction in her art . And with nothing left to lose, she started singing. Truly singing. The song of her own story.

AMBI: MUSIC

Gameros: ¿cómo hacer que mi tierra me perdone?

¿cómo hacer para que su jardín ya vuelva a florecer?

y hacerle saber que lejos duele

decirle también que vivo por volver a verle

(how can i make my land forgive me?

how can we make her garden flourish again,

and let her know as well that

far hurts

i live to see her again)

GAMEROS: And in the way that I sang my story, people were sharing with me how much it had touched them and inspired them. You know, people who had similar stories that I did. And so, when I start to recognize that my music serves as inspiration and as, as a voice, for others who did not have the time to pick up an instrument, it also felt like a responsibility, too. And so I guess for me, this is the way that I’m making all those years back in Michigan worthwhile. To finally be able to put them to use and to service.

Yes there are laws, but laws were invented by men, and borders were invented by men, and despite what laws allow you or not allow you to do, you can never forget that you do have an identity.  

AMBI: MUSIC

AH-SUE: I’ve searched for the meaning of ‘home’ my whole life. What is home? Maybe it’s not defined by a structure or a border, or a place at all. Maybe it’s just about being human. And art is a way of expressing that humanity. It invites us to explore what we can’t fully explain, but that we know in our hearts to be true. That we are already home. With no doors, no walls and no fences, art is the home where we all belong.

OUTRO MUSIC 

AH-SUE: Next time, on Raw Material...

TEASE:

OJIH ODUTOLA: Blackness is like a sentence that precedes you when you enter a room.  

SHERWOOD: The Venuses more came out of a sense of disability pride.

LUNA: Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture tonight in New York City. 

AH-SUE: We’re talking about art, and our ways of seeing. Join us.

AH-SUE: Season 2 of Raw Material is produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and me, Geraldine Ah-Sue. The music you heard in this episode was from Revolution Void, Pavlove, Podington Bear, and yes! Diana Gameros. To learn more about what you just heard today, visit sfmoma.org/raw-material. We’ll see you next time.  

Raw Material, season 2: Manifest. Episode 2. Transcript.

Ambi: Intro music

Ah-Sue: This is Raw Material. An arts and culture podcast by SFMOMA. I’m your host, Geraldine Ah-Sue, for a season about art, community and social justice. Up next on Raw Material:

Antoni:We don’t usually lick sculptures [laughter], or take it in the tub.

Ibarra: When I abandoned La Chica Boom, in some ways I also felt like I was abandoning this idea, or this fiction, about Latinidad.  

Cassils: How could I grow and manipulate the meat of my body to have a sort of expression of gender?

Ah-Sue: We’re talking about art, and the body.

Ambi: Cybal clash

Ambi: Intro music ends

Ambi: Music

Ambi: Boxing

Ah-Sue: Feel that. The beat of your heart, the knot in your chest, the tension in your muscles, the drop in your breath.

Ambi: Music

Ah-Sue: Art is a sensation. An experience, mediated by the body. Flesh and bone, our bodies carry us through this world. They’re what we’re made of. They are the conduits for our actions, how we feel, our relationships with each other. Bodies. We all have them. So why are they treated so differently from each other?

Ambi: Music ends

Ambi: Laughing from Ibarra's Nude Laughing 

Ah-Sue: We’re listening to an outdoor performance of artist Xandra Ibarra’s piece, Nude Laughing.

Ibarra: The practice is to embody a certain type of “joie d’essense” of white femininity. What I think of as the pleasures of white femininity.

Ambi: Music

Ambi: High heels walking

Ah-Sue: Ibarra is an Oakland-based artist originally from the El Paso/Juarez border. In Nude Laughing, she walks around in high heels, completely nude, hair down, dragging a long beige nylon sack of what she calls her “white lady parts.”

Ibarra: [laughter] And so in there, there are pink ballet flats, blonde wigs, white pearls, some furs, other things I associate with white femininity that might be played out, or that are more camp.

Ah-Sue: But the laughter eventually becomes cackling, which then escalates in volume and vigor, and after 20 minutes, the pleasure begins to dissolve into downright discomfort.

Ambi: Laughing from a performance of Nude Laughing

Ah-Sue: That’s when she crouches down and envelopes herself into the nylon.

Ambi: Rummaging into a bag of stuff

Ibarra: At that point when I enter into the sack, I really am exploring the relationship between white womanhood and my own raciality at that moment. Those knots. And the complexity of those knots. And how white womanhood informs the way in which we see women of color.

Ambi: Music Ends

Ambi: Music

Ambi: Horse trotting, people talking outside

Ah-Sue: In 1903, Black intellectual and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, and in it he describes what he calls “double consciousness.” That is, the psychological struggle that African Americans, or perhaps people of color in general endure, having to hold both the identities of ourselves as we know ourselves, and the racist stereotypes that society places upon us. The dual work it takes to be and not be both of those identities, all of the time.

Ambi: Music end, horse trotting end

Ibarra: I do think that there is a natural inclination for me to think of my body as a medium because so much of my life, or at least I focus a lot of things in my life that have to do with the way in which I am perceived. As a human. As embodied Latina. Or embodied woman. Or both, Latina woman.

Ah-Sue: As Du Bois puts it "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one-self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." This was more than a century ago. And today, while the struggle continues, the possibilities for power in these identities have expanded.

Ambi: Music

Ibarra: The series of works that I made with La Chica Boom. They all play with race, sex and humor, and make a spectacle of it. You know, what I call a “spictacle” idea [laughter].

Ah-Sue: La Chica Boom is a persona Ibarra took on in the early 2000’s. As a self described “humorous pervert,” much of Ibarra’s work as La Chica Boom explores the historic and cultural linkages between racialization and sexuality. You know. Like the subservient Asian who will love you long time. Or the hot Latina, sizzling and sultry, her body practically burning her clothes off for you! As La Chica Boom, Ibarra’s art explored these tropes, shall we say, ‘full throttle.’

Ambi: Whipping, sexy sounds

Ambi: Music

Ibarra: The Tapatio Cock came about because I was trying to think of ways in which I could perversely engage Mexicanidad and Mexican iconography. For many Mexicans, some of them will use the word chile in different ways. You can say someone’s ‘enchilada,’ that means someone might be angry. Or, you can also call a penis a chile. And so, it’s already there [laughter], so I just needed to figure out how do I make this visual. And so then I thought about a bottle of salsa.

Ah-Sue: At the time, Ibarra was actually making her own strap ons - which is a harness one wears to attach a dildo for sexy play times.

Ibarra: [laughter] So I decided to place the bottle in there, that I had at the house. And it happened to fit!

Ah-Sue: And that, as they say, was the money shot.

Ambi: Bell ringing

Ibarra: Then I was able to think more clearly about the object and thinking about it as sort of like, the idea of, bondage or racial bondage to salsa and to chile, and how Latinas are always tied to this idea of chiles and being hot headed and all that stuff.

Ambi: Music end

Ah-Sue: But race is a social construct. An enduring performance which can get tiresome, but which we can also never escape. Over the last few years, Ibarra, while still in her own skin, has also been morphing, moving away from her character of La Chica Boom in search for another truth.

Ibarra: When I abandoned La Chica Boom, in some ways I also felt like I was abandoning this idea, or this fiction, about Latinidad. And I think the reason it felt like a fiction is because I was playing with iconography. But also in some ways when we think about it, the U.S. is a fiction, but so is Mexico. And so is race. And that doesn’t mean we don’t feel the detrimental effects of race or racism. But in some ways I felt like, I don’t need to perform the raciality anymore.

Ambi: Cockroaches

Ah-Sue: The new figure she’s been playing with: cockroaches. Biologically, the cockroach will actually go through a process called ecdysis: a process of shedding its skin, not to transform into a butterfly or something like that, but simply to grow new skin. For a few hours, it’s raw, exposed, vulnerable. It takes some time for the new cuticle to harden. But eventually, it becomes new... in a way.

Ibarra: And a lot of times people from Latin America are called vermin or cockroaches. A lot of immigrants are actually, around the world. And so I started to feel that I could identify with the cockroach. I also identified with it too because of its ability to survive a bunch of stuff and live between the cracks. And be an abject figure.

Ah-Sue: The abject figure. A low existence that we take for granted. Pay no attention to them. Never mind their presence. But the abject figure survives. It finds a way to not just exist, but to thrive. And it sees it all.

Ambi: Cassils stricking clay

Cassils: To beat 2,000 pounds of clay requires a cardiovascular capacity of keeping your heart rate at 170 beats per minute. I have to be able to strike repetitively. My tendons and bones have to be strong.

Ah-Sue: We’re listening to Cassils, a gender non-conforming trans masculine visual artist. Reflecting the plurality they occupy as an artist, Cassils also uses gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘them.’

Ambi: Hospital

Cassils: I think a lot of my early experiences were informed by being pretty ill as a child. I had undiagnosed gallbladder disease, which really sounds like not that big of a deal. But it’s an unusual thing for a young person to have. And so, the doctors were unable to treat it or recognize it. And so, for many years of my life, I guess from ages 9-14, I was really ill and would be profusely vomiting bile on hours on end and would end up in the emergency room. And doctors would say that it’s psychosomatic. It was all in my head. And send me home from the emergency room. So, I had this early experience of being told that what I was feeling in my body was in my head in fact. This sort of sexism around the medical industrial complex.

Ambi: Hospital ends

Ambi: Heart monitor

Cassils: And so, I wanted to learn and master my body and understand, and have enough understanding of the physiology of my body to be able to explicitly speak to somebody else as to when it wasn’t right.

Ambi: Heart monitor ends

Ambi: Weights

Cassils: Most people don’t feel their body unless they’re having sex, or they’re in tremendous pain. And other than that, they don’t think about their bodies. And so, I became interested in having a much more nuanced relationship to that. So, what it looked like back in the day, I don’t think I would have articulated it like that, it was more just like, “screw you, I’m gonna be strong!” Was probably more…[laughter]. And then the underlying more subconscious of that was, “I don’t wanna go through puberty and be a girl.”

Ah-Sue: Cassils puts their body through rigorous transformations as a kind of examination of history, violence and representation. They’ve been training their body ever since they got out of the hospital, decades ago. Staying in shape, gaining muscle, eating well. It hasn’t been an easy road.

Cassils: So it looked like me at the YMCA at 16, you know, hanging out with some french canadian meatheads, and trying to figure it out.

Ambi: Drone

Ambi: Water dripping

Ah-Sue: For Cassils, the body is a kind of social sculpture. This is apparent throughout much of their work. For example, in Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, they explore societal norms of physical gender expression by undergoing extreme muscle development. This was inspired by Eleanor Antin’s 1972 performance “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture” in which Antin crash dieted for 45 days, documenting her body’s  emaciation and decay through daily photographs. In Cuts, Cassils flips the script, and instead of decaying their body, they grow their body.

Ambi: Weightlifting

Cassils: For 160 days, which is a 6-month project, I underwent a very grueling body building practice. I intook the caloric intake of a 180 pound athlete, force feeding myself 6-7 meals a day. And for 6 weeks of those 6 months, I underwent a realm of steroids. As a way of really trying to think of the materials of flesh and blood and bone and sinew, just as you would think of materials of clay or bronze. You know? And, how could I grow and manipulate the meat of my body to have a sort of expression of gender?

Ah-Sue: In another piece, “Becoming an Image,” Cassils explores the violence of historical documentation. What gets created through the act of representation? What do we include, and what do we leave out?

Ambi: Moving furniture, closing doors and windows, masking tape

Cassils: And so what I did is I gutted one of the rooms of the archive. We took out all of the filing cabinets, and we made a light locked space.

Ah-Sue: The archive Cassils is referring to is the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, California. It’s the oldest LGBTQ archive in the world. Cassils was invited to create a piece that examined the missing q’s and t’s of the archive - q and t being queer and trans.

Ambi: Heart beat, heavy breathing

Cassils: And I built a 2,000 pound monolith of modeling clay in the center of the room. The audience is loaded in in the dark. And there’s sort of a dark room chamber at the entrance. So, as you move through the chamber into the actual performance space, it’s so dark you really can’t see your hand in front of your face. And so you don’t know what’s in there. You don’t know there’s a monolith of clay. You can maybe smell the clay, but that’s about it.

Ambi: Cassils striking clay, flash photography

Ah-Sue: In total darkness, Cassils then proceeds to beat the clay, over and over again, repetitively, unrelentingly, brutally. Throughout the course of the performance, a photographer snaps a shot, emitting a bright flash. The light from the flash is essentially the only chance the audience has to see the performance, but the contrast creates what’s called a “retinal burn”-- a prolonged afterimage of that single illuminated moment.

Ambi: Cassils striking clay ends

Cassils: And so what I was hoping to do was to make people, number one aware of the camera as being the thing that is instigating that moment of truth. But moreover, all of the darkness where there is no light, all of the histories, all of the moments in time that are never recorded and that exist outside of the realm of representation. And so it was about putting those two experiences side by side.

Ah-Sue: When we look at each other, for each other. When we are asked to see. What is it in fact, that we are seeing? What does power hide? And how can we reveal what’s hidden?

Ambi: Rearranging the room, phone ringing

Antoni: Hello?

Ah-Sue: We’re speaking with contemporary artist Janine Antoni. She lives and works on the east coast, so, we had to call in for this interview.

Antoni: Ok.

Stringer: It’s much better.

Antoni: It’s much better!

Ah-Sue: In 1993, Antoni made two sculptures titled Lick and Lather.

Antoni: Well, I guess I should start by saying that I was interested in beginning with an exact replica of myself.

Ambi: Music

Ah-Sue: They’re both molds of her own head, with a below the shoulder base. Oh, and they’re also made of chocolate and soap.

Antoni: The piece was originally made to show in Venice. And I knew there would be lots of classical sculpture everywhere. And so, I wanted to make a piece that would somehow relate to the place where it was originally going to be shown. And so that brought me to the notion of the classical bust.

Ambi: Chiseling

Ah-Sue: We’ve seen these before. Smooth marble sculptures of Caesar Augustus, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo’s David. Usually resting on a tall, elegant pillar, these busts carved in stone conjure images of greatness and immortality, as they look beyond the viewer, towards the horizon.

Antoni: And, I thought, well, I’m going to work against the grain of that by working with these ephemeral materials.

Ah-Sue: Antoni started off by using a product called Alginade - you’ve probably come across it before. They use it at the dentist and it usually tastes like mint. But it’s also known as a substance that can create almost exact replicas, down to your skin pores! So, Antoni used it to get a mold of her head.  

Antoni: So, I started with, really, my likeness, except of course imitating the classical stant. And then I reshaped my image by licking the chocolate and washing the soap.

Ambi: Piano ends

Ambi: Drawing a bath

Ah-Sue: After she made the original castings for Lick and Lather, Antoni took her soap bust into the bath with her, and gently lathered it, softening the features of her face. Similarly, she blurred the face of the chocolate bust by licking it. Yum.  

Antoni: My work deals with identity, and I sort of naturally came to self portraiture as a way of trying to discuss notions of identity. And oftentimes I like to work within a tradition. So, I started just thinking about what it would mean in this day in time to try to make a self portrait, and how would that look different from a portrait that was made a long time ago?

Ambi: Humming in bathtub

Antoni: So I thought to myself, is it more interesting to describe myself through these everyday activities, like eating or bathing, and are we more ourselves at home taking a bath or having a meal at night? And, so I tried to use these everyday activities and these materials associated with them as a way of describing myself.

Ah-Sue: This is a stark contrast to the traditional busts we are used to seeing. With Antoni’s work, it’s like the illusion of everlasting significance and power are being discarded, and instead, the inner workings, those private moments we keep to ourselves, are now on display. The inside is now on the outside, and the work we hide to appear invincible ultimately becomes the object itself.

Antoni: If you look at my body of work from the beginning of my career, I kind of walk that line between object, performance, relic. And what I try to do, in most cases, I try to put the history of the making on the surface of the object.

Ah-Sue: But in this reversal of the relationship between inside and outside, Antoni also switches the roles that permanence and impermanence have in the ways we view ourselves. Typically, a sculptural portrait is about legacy, the things that will carry on. But rarely do we think of this embodied legacy as fragile, perishable, as inextricably tied to the mortality of our own bodies.

Antoni: I was struck by the licking and washing as these kind of loving acts. But, of course, I realized that in the process of these loving acts, I’m slowly erasing myself.

Ambi: Whispering, heavy footsteps, sniffing

Ah-Sue: When viewers approached Lick and Lather, there was an intimacy that often occurred. They would approach the replicas of Antoni, which were made of chocolate and soap, and they would look. Close. Very close. And then they’d smell. And wonder. And the more they engaged, the more they learned about the process and materials of the pieces, which in some ways, were surrogates for Antoni herself. A relationship was formed.

Antoni: Well, the thing I always say about how I would like, the kind of experience for my viewer, when they experience the work, I don’t know if you can recall this experience. But when you get on the subway. And you sit down on a seat. And you feel the warmth of the person who sat there before you. There’s something very uncanny about that experience, but to me it sort of comes down to the root of the human condition. You know, you recognize this body that you don’t know. But you feel intimate with it because it has the same experiences as you do.

Ambi: Music

Ambi: Boxing

Ah-Sue: [Breathe in, breathe out] Through our bodies, we take art in, we incorporate it into the making of our being, and allow it to transform us. It excites us. It moves us.  And we gather for it. It breaks us from the isolated shells of our individual lives and it offers us a shared moment. Art is an experience that brings us together.

Ambi: Outro Music

Ah-Sue: Next time, on Raw Material:

Fernández:  What if this place didn’t have a wall?  What would it look like?  What would it feel like?

Howard:  Home is not always safe.  Some of the most tragic things happen in the home.

Gameros: I was living in the shadows, completely.

Ah-Sue: We’re talking about art, and the ‘home.’ Join us.

Ah-Sue: Season 2 of Raw Material is produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and me, Geraldine Ah-Sue. The music you heard in this episode was from Revolution Void, Remus, Seymour Lipkin, Marceau, and Terratombats. The sound you heard from the performance, “Becoming an Image” is entitled Ghost, a four channel surround sound installation by the artist with sound design by Kadet Kunne and Richard Barley, and comes courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Art, New York. Our special thanks to the Pal Boxing Club in Vallejo, CA, and Erika Aguilar. To learn more about what you just heard today, visit sfmoma.org/raw-material. We’ll see you next time.

Raw Material, season 2: Manifest. Episode 1. transcript

AH-SUE: The great writer - one of my heroes - Toni Morrison once said, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.” This was in 2015, for an article in The Nation. She wrote that, in times of despair, “this is precisely the time when artists go to work.”

AMBI: INTRO MUSIC

AH-SUE: This is Raw Material. An arts and culture podcast by SFMOMA. I’m Geraldine Ah-Sue, and I’ll be your host for a season about art, community and social justice. We’re on the move!

AMBI: MUSIC END

AMBI: Footsteps, walking on dirt, birds chirping, walking in grass, birds chirping, sky and wind, lapping waves in distance, gets closer and closer, walking stops, we’re standing on the shore.

AH-SUE: Art is a journey. A departure. An uprooting from ourselves, our thoughts, our homes. We take leave of the familiar. We are snatched, we embark, we are transported.

AMBI: END

BHAUMIK: So, this is my -- even though I don’t like to cook with curry powder very often, I do have a soft spot for S&B, Japanese curry powder.

AMBI: OPENING OF TIN

BHAUMIK: It always comes in this tin which I love.

AMBI: DEEP INHALE

BHAUMIK: Ah! I gotta say! It’s a pretty, it’s a pretty homey, homey smell to me. [laughter] It reminds me of my mom! [laughter]

AMBI: MUSIC

AH-SUE: Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik is an artist working in Oakland, California. Her art is an encounter with both the materiality of migration and the ghosts of its history. Her instrument of investigation: the spice commonly known as ‘curry.’

BHAUMIK: So, in its more current form, I’ve been doing a lot of installations of curry powder into the walls of galleries, museums.

AH-SUE: The vibrant color of curry powder can be a shock to the institutional walls. Its aroma an oddity to the sterile air. It’s these collisions that interests Bhaumik.

AMBI: TIPTOEING IN MUSEUM

BHAUMIK: We’re used to experiencing gallery spaces a certain way. That you’re supposed to keep your hands to yourself, and it’s ok to talk but not so that it’s overtaking the room. And so when people are presented with a piece that asks them to interact with it or maybe even shift down or crouch down really low, or taste something, it’s breaking those rules. And so, I see a lot of times, people tiptoeing towards the wall, and it’ll take a while but then finally someone will go up and smell it.

AMBI: MUSIC END

AMBI: KITCHEN

AH-SUE: We’re in Bhaumik’s kitchen, and she’s fixing us a snack It seemed appropriate since she uses food for her art!

AMBI: COOKING

BHAUMIK: My mother is Japanese, she was born and raised in Colombia. My father is from a tiny village outside of Calcutta in West Bengal. And, I remember being maybe 5 or 6 years old, and my mom would make the decicious, salty, um, Japanese curry that comes out of a box, usually S&B golden. So that was one kind of curry that we ate. And then my dad, you know, he didn’t really call it curry, but the really kind of funny thing about Indian food is that people in India don’t call the dishes ‘curry.’

AMBI: MUSIC

AMBI: OCEAN

AMBI: DISHES, SETTING THE TABLE

AMBI: WRITING

AMBI: PAGES FLIPPING

AMBI: OCEAN

AH-SUE: ‘Curry’ is not in fact, ‘authentically’ Indian at all. When the British first came to India in the 17th century, they were introduced to thousands of dishes they had never encountered before. The story goes that the word ‘curry’ comes from the British, who took it from the Portuguese, who themselves were adapting it from the South Indian word ‘kari.’ But while ‘kari’ referred to spices that season sauteed meat and vegetables, ‘curry’ came to describe rich sauces made with nuts and spices that were poured over rice. That’s very different. And, as we know, history is written by the victors, so when the catchall term ‘curry’ traveled back to Britain, it traveled to other places as well.

BHAUMIK: [laughter] So, you know. I really went down this huge multi-year rabbit hole, of, thinking about, oh my god, is this me, as a self portrait? You know? Is curry powder, because of its connection to so many -- to the spice trade, and to this moment of globalization, is this me in a can?  

AMBI: MUSIC ENDS

AMBI: NIGHTTIME

AMBI: KEYBOARD TYPING

BHAUMIK: And, along the way I realized also that curry is a way of identifying people as different. So, I was on yahoo answers one night, super late, and I found this question, and it said, ‘Help my neighbor smells like curry, what should I do?’ And the answer said, ‘Call the INS,’ which is now ICE. And, to me, I had been researching race and the construction of race as being something visual. That you see race. People as black, yellow, brown red. But this is the first time that I thought, oh my god, people are actually thinking about race as something that you experience, or that smell. Or deciding if someone’s legal status makes sense based on what they might be cooking. And that was really disgusting and horrifying to me.

AMBI: MUSIC

BHAUMIK: So, I flung it on the ground, I dyed tablecloths and napkins with it, I made perfume out of it. I worked with Yosh Han, a local perfume artist, to make a curry scented perfume.

BHAUMIK: I figured, why just South Asian people smell like curry, why not make everybody smell like curry? [laughter]

AH-SUE: Bhaumik’s work with spices includes installations titled To Curry Favor, Dear Future, and Acquired Taste.

AMBI: MUSIC END

BHAUMIK: My dad had given me in India, this, this little replica of the Taj Mahal. And it was wrapped in this kind of crumbly, beautiful paper on the outside that kind of vaguely looked like the evil eye. And I was looking at it one day, and I was like wow, you know, this little replica of the Taj Mahal speaks to this idea of our fantasy of what we think India is. Not what it actually is. And that’s in a way what curry is. It’s like this fantasy of what we think India is. It’s not actually what India is.  

AMBI: WALKING

AMBI: BREATHING

AMBI: CLAPPER BOARD, PROJECTOR, SOUND, BEACH SCENE

AH-SUE: I once read this passage from Jamaica Kincaid’s novel A Small Place. In it, she describes the ocean. Imagine. It’s your vacation, you’re on an island in the Caribbean. Antigua. You’re looking out onto the water. It’s calm, it’s glittering, it’s beautiful. It’s yours. And in the stillness of this moment, as you imagine yourself on the beach, soaking up the sun, Kincaid folds into the scene the lingerings of what we’ve erase for the image of ourselves. “The Caribbean Sea is very big and the Atlantic Ocean is even bigger; it would amaze even you to know the number of black slaves this ocean has swallowed up.” That glittering water you look out to. How many untold stories have been sunk in these oceans? And how will they resurface?

AMBI: END

AKOMFRAH: Part of the political project of annihilation of these people is a disappearance of them. Is… an erasure.

AH-SUE: That’s Black British artist John Akomfrah.

AKOMFRAH: Throw them out to sea, they disappear, they didn’t exist.

AMBI: DRUMMING

AH-SUE: Akomfrah is based in London, and is a founder of the Black Audio Film Collective. His work is often described as an investigation into collective memory, shedding light on the living legacies of the forgotten.

AKOMFRAH: So this act of using the images is part of an act of exhumation, for people who will never be exhumed, practically, literally again. They are gone.

AH-SUE: Between 1525 and 1866, more than 12.5 million Africans were enslaved and brought to the quote, “New World.” Loaded onto ships as human cargo, they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Not everyone survived the journey. Approximately 2 million people perished on the Middle Passage, en route to North America, the Caribbean and South America.  

AKOMFRAH: And so one way in which one does this project is you say, something has gone. And I want to have now, a language of mourning and elegy. Which is not just a poetic language. But has a certain political efficacy. And part of that political efficacy is to say to power, you thought they’d disappeared, well think again, cause they’re back! [laughter]

AMBI: DRUMMING END

AH-SUE: In 2015, Akomfrah released Vertigo Sea, a film installation that fuses archival material, readings from classical sources, and newly shot footage as a meditation on what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the sublime sea.”

AKOMFRAH: At some point, whether you’re an enslaved african in the 18th century, or someone trying to escape vietnam after the fall of Saigon, or an Algerian political prisoner who’s been caught by the French secret service in the ‘50s - all of them at some point would have to face this question of an encounter with the sea which could prove fatal.

AMBI: OCEAN

AMBI: BIRDS

AMBI: CHAINS

AH-SUE: As a three-screen installation, you might see sweeping swells of water curling over in a sun-streaked ocean, side by side with a scene of enslaved Africans on a boat, stumbling and shackled, getting pushed, one by one, into a sea of the discarded, next to a screen showing a Black man dressed in period clothing looking out to the sea. Accompanying the visuals are spoken word references to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Heathcote Williams’ poem Whale Nation.

AMBI: DRUMMING

AKOMFRAH: Part of what I, my project has been about is trying ot in some ways erase certain kinds of borders. The blurring of boundaries and borders is in fact an ethical and an aesthetic strategy. Um, borders that delimit and prescribe the correct ways in which identities or events can be brought together in something.

AH-SUE: This is evident in Akomfrah’s commitment to the philosophy of the montage. That is, the idea that when two images collide, when they meet, they start to talk to each other. A dialogue is created. And through that relationship, a new meaning emerges - what he describes as a “third meaning.”

AKOMFRAH: You know, it’s about how one describes the world and what you think is of value in the world. Um, you see, no one asks this question about capital. No one asks this question about money. Or goods. Can goods move across.. “Well of course!” That’s just accepted as natural. [laughter] People? “Oh... well...” You know. So, it’s OK for Vietnamese pineapples to be in London, it’s OK for Malaysian mangoes to be here, Nigerian yams. But not Malaysians, Vietnamese or Nigerians. And there’s something wrong with that neoliberal logic. Where, people make goods, services, commodities more important than human beings. I’m about trying to reverse that logic [laughter].

AMBI: OCEAN, BOAT HORN, “WELCOME TO ANGEL ISLAND”

AMBI: FLOOR BOARDS CREAKING

WONG: I just saw on the news yesterday, all the states where ICE is going in and deporting illegal immigrants. If that kind of mentality existed in America in the time that my mother came, my mom would have been deported back to China.

AH-SUE: Flo Oy Wong is a Chinese American multimedia artist whose work primarily explores the history of Asian immigration in America.

WONG: I really also was very aware that people of color, and especially Chinese Americans were not present at the contemporary Art and Culture table of America. So, I had a need to do away with the stereotypes of Charlie Chan and Suzie Wong, because those were very insulting. They weren’t us.

AMBI: SF CHINATOWN BUSKING 

AMBI: BART BUSKING

AH-SUE: Wong, now in her late 70s, was born here. Her mother, however, came to States after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which essentially barred Chinese laborers and their families from coming to America. Sound familiar?

WONG: And so when that happened, my father, like many chinese immigrants, they had to come up with ways to bring their family in.

AH-SUE: With the Exclusion Act, only blood relatives of US citizens would be allowed to enter the country. But, with the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, many public birth documents were destroyed, and this created an opportunity. A black market opened up for the sale of fraudulent documents. “Paper identities.”

AMBI: FLOORBOARDS CREAKING

WONG: When I was young and curious, I would ask them questions. And they would say “[Chinese + English translations] why are you talking about that? Shh! Shh! We don’t want to talk about that” My mother was a paper sister. And so we had reasons to keep secrets, and secrecy was our currency.

AMBI: AH-SUE AND WONG GOING TO LOOK AT ONE OF WONG’S FLAG PIECES

AH-SUE: We’re at Wong’s house, and I’ve come here to ask her about the story behind “made in usa: Angel Island shhh.” It’s a 25 piece installation that exhibited at Angel Island in the year 2000. Angel Island was the immigration station where many Chinese migrants were detained and interrogated, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months.

WONG: So, the “made in usa” rice sack flags are composed of an embellished rice sack, sewn onto a flag of the United States.

AH-SUE: Each rice sack flag tells the story of a Chinese migrant who came to the United States under a paper identity.

WONG: On the interior of the rice sack, I have hand painted the definition of “Interrogate: To ask a question, especially to seek answers which the person questioned considers personal or secret.”

AH-SUE: Following that text, Wong then exposes the paper secret of that person, shedding light onto years of silence and shame.

WONG: “She claimed her husband as her brother.” This is my mother’s immigration secret.

AH-SUE: One of the most stirring features of the rice sack flags for me is the printed name of the person whose story is represented on each flag. Of the 25 flags, only 1 person agreed to have both their paper name AND their birth name printed for display. A kind of nod to their dual identities, an outing of themselves and the stories of so many.

WONG: I wanted to honor people like my parents and the other immigrants who worked so hard to help to build this country. To remove the stigma of shame that they had. You know? It was like they were always going to be second class citizens. They would always be invisible. They would always be under the radar. They worked so hard.  I wanted people who deserve the credit to get the credit. And to remove the stigma of ‘hey, you don’t belong.’

AMBI: OCEAN, WALKING. SKY, WIND, BIRDS  

AH-SUE: Art is a journey, in search of something, to belong, to escape, oftentimes both. Our journeys are not always by choice, and our arrivals are not always welcome. But we go. Because we’ve been taken, because we’ve been exiled, because we have little choice. Because we must survive. But we are never alone. We travel together, and in that, we create, something new.

AMBI: OUTRO MUSIC

AH-SUE: Next time, on Raw Material

TEASE: 

ANTONI: We don’t usually lick sculptures [laughter], or take it in the tub.

IBARRA: When I abandoned La Chica Boom, in some ways I also felt like I was abandoning this idea, or this fiction, about Latinidad.  

CASSILS: How could I grow and manipulate the meat of my body to have a sort of expression of gender?

AH-SUE: We’re talking about art, and ‘the body.’ Join us!

AMBI: OUTRO MUSIC

AH-SUE: Season 2 of Raw Material is produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and me, Geraldine Ah-Sue. The music you heard in this episode was from Revolution Void, Podington Bear, and Second Hand Rose. The drumming was performed by Zak Diouf and the Diamano Coura West African Dance Company. And a big thank you to Maurice Stierl and the Tate for the audio of John Akomfrah. To learn more about what you just heard today, visit sfmoma.org/raw-material. We’ll see you then.