I read the first section of my thesis this past Friday to my colleagues. The reading was held at the stunning 500 Capp Street Foundation.
It was beyond daunting. I'm a talker for sure, but not a confident public speaker. I always manage to perform, but surely with the most vulnerable places in my soul in knots...Here's what i shared with everyone. It's still a work in progress. I edited everything to flow according to the cadence of my speech, so excuse if there are places where the rhythm seems awkward.
Finally, I wrote my thesis as a nautical journal that provides insight into my art practice. Therefore, the themes, material choices, and artists/thinkers that influence my project (The 10th Department) are sprinkled throughout via a first person narrative. It's imperfect and forever in a state of navigation.
give me water and i’ll plant seeds.
give me darkness and i’ll sow the root.
give me sunlight and i’ll grow the tree,
for us to sit up under its shade and be.
+Tania L. Balan-Gaubert
Nou tout ap mache ak sèkèy nou anba bra n
We all walk with our coffins under our arms.
[Space] The In Between
I walked into the gallery today and quickly noticed a fragrance in the air. Following the path of the perfume and moving around a white wall, I make contact with Promise. A repurposed nautical bookshelf, it lays flat on its back on the gallery floor. The wood is completely covered in sequins, and resembles the brightly painted transportation vehicles popular in the Global South. Light enters the gallery from a window, catches the sequined letters on its right side that spell out its name, and reflect red specks in all directions. Looking it over, my eyes come to rest on the origin of the scent. Three white flowers bloomed overnight on a tiny tree that sits inside the bookshelf turned vessel. My heart skips at the sight of this lovely surprise, and I receive it as a good omen.
I’m up for review in my MFA Fine Arts program. The evaluation will determine whether I go on to my second year or undergo re-review. I’ve cared for the tree for over 4 months and this is the first time it’s flowered.
Citrus limettioides is the scientific name for the Palestinian sweet lime tree I purchased at a Home Depot outside of Oakland. In addition to the flowers, tiny buds are now visible on the tree’s delicate limbs. As the boat’s solo companion, the tree recontextualizes Sanford Biggers haunting 2007 work, Blossom, which resides some 3,000 miles away in the Brooklyn Museum.
In Blossom, a mature tree pierces through a piano. Its bench, abandoned and overturned, lays on its side. The keys, as if touched by a ghostly presence ― or perhaps the spirit of the tree ― plays Billie Holiday’s equally haunting and beautiful 1939 classic rendition of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit.” A song about lynching and the U.S. South, the tune plays like a funerary hymn. It laments the violence, erasure, death, memory, and what Saidiya Hartman describes as the afterlives of slavery, and “the detritus of lives with which we have yet to attend, a past that has yet to be done, and the ongoing state of emergency in which black life remains in peril.”¹
At the same time, Biggers is influenced by the universal significance of trees as sites of exploration and enlightenment, and more specifically by the Jena 6 ― an incident in Jena, Louisiana, where six nooses were hung from a tree on the grounds of a high school. A noose for each Black student who dared to sit under the green canopy, a space some white students colonized for themselves. Thus, in my estimation, Blossom is not just a work situated in the U.S. South, but can further be read through the framework of empire and colonization throughout the Global South.
Promise channels Biggers’ piece as both an art object and a message. It straddles the line between the physical plane and the spiritual realm. A statement about migration, diaspora, and the generational ripples caused by separation and isolation from one’s home/land, one could imagine it navigated the gallery space until it settled and banked upon the rolled up carpet I’ve propped beneath its fragile frame. The tree tilts but remains comfortably placed atop satin pillows, black and covering the length of the boat like a coffin.
As vessel, it can hold a petite body of nearly 5 and a half feet tall. I know this because, in the making process, I climbed inside and dipped into my culture’s myths and family history to tell a part of my personal story. I am the tree my parents and their parents journeyed from Haiti to the United States to see blossom. I am the child seeking her mother/land. And I am the promise, an ever-unfolding potentiality that navigates between failure and triumph, love and fear, and life and death.
The relationship between life and death, in particular, holds sway over the work not only through a sense of perilous voyage but also in the form of spiritual symbolism. Together, the boat and the tree materialize Baron Samedi, the Haitian Vodou spirit of the dead, healing, and resurrection. Traditionally imagined through the symbol of a cross atop a coffin, as great elocutioner, the Baron resides at the intersection of this realm and the beyond: the crossroads. A ferryman to the afterlife, the Baron is one of countless spirits that endured in Haiti long after slavery ceased on the island ― surviving the collision of cultures, languages, religions, customs, and politics that syncretized to constitute the Atlantic World.
A rope hangs on a nail across from the boat. A disconnected tether, it reaches, limply toward the vessel, sometimes away from it, but always present. Negotiating the distance between the rope and the boat became my first step toward imagining proximity to one’s home/land and various transnational connections.
These ties, ambiguously developed through both migration and the formation of new relations in receiving lands are known as hybrid or third spaces. In Diasporic Citizenship: Haitian Americans in Transnational America, Michel S. Laguerre characterizes the concept of third space through the following:
It is a space shared by both the resident population and the diasporans. It contains spatial elements of the receiving and sending nation. In a sense, one may refer to it as a third space, neither the space of the nation-state nor that of the diaspora, but rather a combination of both. It is the space where the diaspora, the sending nation, and the receiving nation meet. It is a space of mutual influence that transcends the vicissitudes of its components.²
If the boat (once bookshelf) is a carrier or extension of physical bodies and bodies of knowledge, then the rope is the means through which both become anchored to land(s). This is a significant departure from the violence evoked by a noose, which although implied, is visually absent in Bigger’s piece. As the rope’s relationship to Promise alludes to function and bonds, the violence this piece addresses resides in the perils of boarding a ship that holds both the key to one’s salvation and possible death.
Therefore, Promise attempts to communicate that space in between, or the blurring of timelines, understandings, and cultures, linking a home (receiving nation) and a homeland (sending nation). Through the form it takes and its materiality, Promise is the realization of a decision I made early in my practice to codify my use of sequins, wood, paint, rope, and color. Similar to artists like Mickalene Thomas, Ebony G. Patterson, Nick Cave, and the late Thornton Dial by using nontraditional materials imbibed with a history of craft or found objects, I am translating from reality, as well as my cultural and artistic influences. My material choices both pay homage to outsider or alternative artists and represent an act of self-rendering. In particular, sequins and glitter become a mark of culture, as well as an aesthetic gesture toward seduction and beautification.
However, unlike Blossom, no music plays and the gallery is absent of melody. All I hear is the steady dripping of water moving through exposed pipes that line the gallery’s walls. There is only silence and water.
Perhaps if I stand here long enough and listen closely, I may hear the tree bloom.
¹Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2, (June 2008): 13.
²Michel S. Laguerre, Diasporic Citizenship: Haitian Americans in Transnational America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 167.