Thursday, November 23, 2006

Conversations, Links, & Beauty

I can't stop thinking about Mendi's conversation with artist Leslie Hewitt in which Hewitt noted that while contemporary art about slavery communicates the experience of pain and sorrow, art by actual slaves communicates a great deal of joy. I can't help thinking of the relationship between visual art practice and music, with hymn lining and field hollers the latter which also, I would argue, eschewed obvious displays of sorrow and pain. I suppose that somewhere in this is an extension or further articulation of Cornel West's ideas about "The Gifts of Black Folks in the Time of Terrorism". Is the contemporary articulation of pain and sorrow because African Americans are able to be frank about those feelings and sensations without fear of the same degree and kinds of retribution experienced by enslaved African Americans for the same artistic statements? Or is it because in the main enslaved African Americans artists chose to focus on the beauty apparent in their lives--if all you know is slavery, and all you imagine your children knowing is the same, wouldn't you have to see the beauty where it existed or just lay down and die of despair?

This puts me in mind of an exquisitely written poem I heard read by poet/performer/percussionist Karma Mayet Johnson (pictured left) at the Cave Canem 10th Anniversary Celebration, in which Johnson had written of the relationship between two female slaves who were separated when the plantation master who had been regularly raping one of them finds the two of them in an intimate moment together. After unsuccessfully attempting to beat both of them to death, he sells one of the women to another plantation. The woman who is sold grieves the loss of her lover, until another woman opens up her heart to her, while the woman who is left behind holds the memory of her lover and the love they shared close to her by tending to the indigo plants her lover left behind. The indigo that her lover plants by the river becomes her own nurturance, the love of which she shared with her lover and became a thing that grew and wove them together, affirming their lives as more than property of the slaveholder. By the end of Johnson's reading there were tears throughout the room, at the pain these women endured, but also the profundity of love, of the spirit to insist on and pursue the capacity to feel something beautiful in one's heart and under one's fingertips.

Does this negate the work of contemporary artists who have mainly focused on the pain? Does their work reinscribe the notion of perpetual victim, completely robbed of subjecthood, either waiting for abolitionist rescue, or planning ruthless escape? Perhaps I should write "completely robbed of a complex subjecthood"? Perhaps victims are singed into purity through their pain and suffering which in turn, depending on its degree and external evidence/residue, purchases the sympathy and sense of noble outrage on the part of non-victims who are only superficially invested in the gains of a system of oppression (or so they think?). Does the complex subject who is oppressed seem as deserving of freedom, of the compassion of those who have the power to grant legal freedom--if not the internal belief in freedom which one must define and determine for oneself? Does the complex enslaved African American subject confuse (and hopefully perplex--from West's analysis) the contemporary African American artist?

Music influences continue: I listened to Georgia Anne Muldrow's "REALLYTHO"on her myspace page (another lead from Mendi), last Sunday, and then dreamed last night about hearing the song, and about folks trying to break down her compositional framework (interesting rhythmic timing and phrasing). I would have to agree with BET writer John Murph who said her melodies go in unexpected directions. I'm kinda inspired...

7 Comments:

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Mendi O. said...

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At 9:54 PM, Blogger Mendi O. said...

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At 5:53 AM, Blogger Littlemilk said...

OK. I got you on my radar. Very interesting piece.

 
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