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It’s like a Death Dance: An interview with Demian DinéYazhi´

Death Dance honors indigenous and brown punk energy during TBA on Sept. 16

Death gives way to life, to regrowth, and to rebirth, but there is a certain nuance to the dying that has much to tell us about the times, observable in the particular ethos of destructionbe it environmental, social, or political. For Demian DinéYazhi´, a Portland-based indigenous queer artist born to the clans Naasht’ézhí Tábąąhá (Zuni Clan Water’s Edge) and Tódích’íí’nii (Bitter Water), ideas surrounding a death have become the lynchpin of an evening he has curated to honor “the labor and intelligence of indigenous and brown punk energy.” Set to take place Sept. 16 and happening as part of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Arts Festival, it will be a Death Dance.

Rebecca Jones, lead singer of WEEDRAT

A person of many practices, including poetry, visual art, curation, and organizing through R.I.S.E.: Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment (of which he is founder and director), DinéYazhi´ is no stranger to culling a variety of mediums into one compelling happening. However, the name of the event was originated by another indigenous artist from the region, Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos and American) in a pivotal conversation with DinéYazhi´ after the 2016 national election. “This is a conversation that I was having numerous times with primarily indigenous and activist-based friends,” DinéYazhi´ explained, noting their pervasive sense of being overwhelmed by the burgeoning of white supremacist momentum in the United States and its perpetuation by the government.

Through these conversations, DinéYazhi´ was seeking clarity. “Of course this makes sense,” he reflected. “These people will be out of power. They stole this country. They will be out of power in a few generations, and this is just one of the last attempts to maintain and assert that power, and really just f*ck people over as a way to hang on to this archaic heteropatriarchal, settler colonial mentality.” DinéYazhi´ was discussing this mode of thinking with Siestreem during a visit to her studio, when Siestreem made the connection: it’s like a death dance, like the morbid movements that salmon do as they are in the process of dying—the final throes.

When invited to curate an evening of performance for TBA, DinéYazhi´ explained, “I was just really interested in continuing this idea of the Death Dance, but while also trying to support indigenous and brown artists, indigenous and brown communities, that continue to be largely underrepresented within the Portland contemporary art scene, the Portland music scene, but also the theoretical and critically engaged communities who are really trying to dissect race politics, you know, death and survival politics. All these communities are, I still feel like, ignoring indigenous and brown bodies.”

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cvllejerx talks SUPER TANTRUM

TBA resident artists bring together fashion, performance, and poetry "as a form of resistance"

“Is it…‘civil-jerks’?” I posed this question to cvllejerx, aka. artists angélica maria millán lozano and maximiliano, on a three-way call last week. I could hear millán chuckle in response to my attempt to pronounce the name of their collaboration, which is in residence with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Arts Festival. Merging “fashion, performance, and poetry as a form of resistance,” cvllejerx will be presenting an event on Wednesday, Sept. 13, as part of TBA called SUPER TANTRUM—a title that gestures to the name of their collaborative as well as the ethos of their work.

“We’ve gotten that a lot from different people, which is actually kind of cool I think,” millán said in response to my mispronunciation. maximiliano added that a funny unplanned aside to the project has been “this ongoing thing about how people pronounce the name, all the different ways it’s been pronounced.”

In fact, “cvllejerx” is a version of the Spanish word “callejero,” which, as millán described, could mean something like “hooligan.” She continued, “you’re like a callejero when you hang out in the street, at least, in Colombia that’s how people use it. That’s kind of the attitude we want to have, and so the ‘x’ is just de-gendering the word.”

cvllejerx emerged from millán and maximiliano’s experiences of multicultural inbetweenness. “I’m Mexican and black, so I feel like and that’s kind of like where that speaks to for me, and all of these ideas and influences coming together” said maximiliano, who is also part of the Portland-based Nat Turner Project. “There’s this very specific space that is in-between, you know, being from two different places,” added Millán, “…this kind of in-between space that we always operate in that is very rich.”

The artists have specifically named the white supremacist roots of Portland, which is the birthplace of and current homebase of cvllejerx. millán described her experience of moving to the city: “I’m Colombian and I came to the U.S. at about 12, and moving to Portland has been a huge sort of change, almost like culture shock, too, because I’ve never been surrounded by so many white people,” she said. “It almost felt kind of like when I first moved to the United States…like, this is a very strange place, (I) don’t feel totally welcome.”

Photo by Lani Milton

cvllejerx practice and celebrations entail a form of resistance, all which will erupt during SUPER TANTRUM on Wednesday night. “For me is this righteous like burst of energy, whether that’s either kind of irrational, or happy, or whatever. I like this idea that we’re celebrating that, especially, in this moment, obviously, having Donald Trump as our President,” said Millán, “This idea that we have the right to cry out about it, and we have the right to also bring attention to ourselves, and celebrate ourselves, and be unapologetic about it.”

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Artists Who Fly Like Rocks

The Self-Taught Artist Fair opens Thursday at PNCA, expanding definitions and identities

September 7 is a big day in Portland arts and culture. Along with First Thursday festivities, which herald exhibition openings for many a gallery in the Pearl District, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art kicks off the 15th annual Time-Based Arts Festival with multiple (yes, multiple) performances and parties jam-packed into one evening. What a time to be in Portland! As the floodgates prepare to open with a barrage of visual art and performative offerings on Thursday evening, keep in mind a unique exhibition afoot at Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Commons Gallery: the Self-Taught Artist Fair: Flying Like a Rock.

The title of the exhibition, produced by The Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA and Public Annex, begs plenty of questions—for starters, what qualifies someone as a self-taught artist?

“Britney Spears,” by Dawn Westover, colored pencil and pen on paper, in the Self-Taught Artist Fair.

While, on the surface, it seems safe to assume that a self-taught artist is someone without any formal training, Public Annex’s Lara Ohland, the lead organizer on this exhibition, explains: “There have been a lot of questions, and I am continually trying to re-clarify for myself what this does mean.” As an artist with a level of formal training, Ohland emphasizes that she does not wish to be the “keeper to the definition,” noting instead, “I want to leave lots of space for people to choose their own identity in that.”

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“We cannot fight old power in old power terms only. The way we can do it is by creating another whole structure that touches every aspect of our existence, at the same time as we are resisting.” — Audre Lorde in an “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich” (1979)

What are the literary works that have defined the educational experiences in the U.S.? Which authors continue to shape the thinking and writing of those entrenched in this country’s educational systems and academic institutions? De-Canon, a newly launched project in Portland started by literary artists and educators Dao Strom and Neil Aitken, is turning a critical eye on popular understanding of this country’s literary canon—bridging the idea of a site-specific “library” with digital resources, visual art, and performative practices, all centered on literary artists of color.  

De-Canon at UNA Gallery

Questions of educational pedagogy have fueled the organizer’s drive to offer an alternative to the hierarchy of western literature. “Courses, and even workshops (practice-oriented workshops), are consciously or unconsciously built around the assumption that there’s only a western canon to have a conversation around,” explains Aitken. Gesturing to his and many of his fellow writers’ shared experience, he notes, “When we sit in an MFA workshop or someone teaches us the craft of writing, the texts that they reference are almost always exclusively white male writers, with a handful of white female writers. And it ignores generations, hundreds of years, even millennia of other aesthetic work that’s out there. And it also ignores contemporary writers of color.”

With aspirations to “create a forum in which many voices contribute to the defining–or un-defining–of the literary canon,” De-Canon was launched with funding from Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s granting program, the Precipice Fund. In addition to a website of literary resources and an archive of dialogue between writers of color, De-Canon is also taking physical shape this August in the form of a pop-up library at UNA Gallery that will host a slew of cultural programming. Library open hours are 12-5 pm Saturdays and Sundays through August 26th.  

According to Aitken, the foundation for De-Canon began to emerge in 2015 after Wordstock, Portland’s major book festival. “Portland’s literary spaces can be very, very white,” notes Aitken, nodding to the lack of local POC writers at the festival that year. Shortly afterward, a group of writers of color began meeting and found that a common theme surfaced.

“In those home-based conversations, this type of a conversation would come up often, about both people sharing their experiences in university programs and writing workshops, and frequently feeling silenced or excluded from a discussion about literature, or being told that their experiences or their stories didn’t fit within what other people were writing about,” says Aitken. “So the question then becomes, well where are those stories? Why are we not exposed to other people who write from a world of experience that’s more in line with ours?”

A deeper dive into the field reveals that there are plenty of writers with other modes of sharing their stories and with a range of lived experiences—more than could ever fit in one syllabus, or even multiple syllabi—and many working on a local level in Portland. The idea of multiplicity emerges as a recurring theme in the organizers’ efforts to put together an entire library. This self-made space for building community is not trying to “replace” the Western canon, but instead, it offers numerous canons for people to interact with and think about on their own terms.

It is important for the organizers not to assume a position of authority in presenting de-canon(s), and this is reflected in the setup of texts within the library. “We’re not dictating ‘this is exclusively for this type of thing; This is exclusively for that’,” shares Aitken. “That part of the exhibit is an invitation to anyone there to move things around, to reform what goes into a box or a canon, and think about it differently. What fits together, what doesn’t fit together, for them?”

Art by Sam Roxas-Chua, featured as part of De-Canon’s pop-up library exhibition at UNA Gallery

While plenty of books can be found in De-Canon’s pop-up library exhibit, Strom explains, “We’re loosely interpreting ‘literary arts’ or ‘literary expression’ as something that can happen not just through words on the page or through books but also through other forms, like oral, or image text, or music, or visual [forms].” As a practitioner of hybrid literary forms herself, Strom also elaborates on the hybrid focus, remarking, “You know, that square with text on the page is not necessarily the only shape that we can receive stories or experience through.”

De-Canon’s inclusion of hybrid forms of literary art also reflects an effort to unlearn or subvert the authority of language, particularly the English language, which Strom describes as a “language of colonization, war, and dominance”—a language that many writers of color use, but that is not always the primary language of their culture. Aitken explains that one’s relationship to a language might differ, “whether they’ve grown up in a household where English is not the only language, or maybe it’s the second or third language, or [maybe] they’ve grown up where English, for multiple generations, has been the language, even though everyone around you assumes that it’s not.”

This critical lens on the English language is coupled with an impetus to move away from the tropes and narratives it perpetuates—a societal consciousness of categorization. For Strom, this includes tropes in Asian American “ethnic” literature, such as “food and family, immigrant stories that herald triumph of the spirit or redemptive themes, assimilation narratives…the unacknowledged expectation of gratitude that is wanted of the immigrant tale, which silently reinforces white savior/America as land of rescue complexes.”

“I think that all of us are trying to write beyond that,” Strom continues, “if you speak to any writer of color, most of them are reaching beyond particular tropes.”

But even as the organizers work to move away from tropes, they find themselves having to confront categories as a way to deepen and grow their understanding of the intersecting, overlapping, and expanding canons within the project. Aitken describes “the tension between the project goals of being very flexible with terms and definitions…and then the very practical side of bookkeeping, of trying to track what we’ve actually ordered, and whether or not we’re representing genres, representing different populations of people. It’s like they run at odds with each other, and yet they’re both necessary.”

Strom follows this with her own insightful interpretation of this organizing work. “I guess it develops empathy between people, like to be able to admit that you don’t know something, so you can open yourself up to listening, which, especially right now, seems like a practice to try to engage in,” she says. “And I think it’s hard because then, yes, things aren’t definite…you come in contact with your own discomfort.”

In terms of De-Canon’s aspirations into 2018, both organizers dream of a space where De-Canon can be housed permanently, something well overdue as a local cultural resource. However, for now, the act of coming together to create spaces for the POC literary community in Portland and, as Strom puts it, “a context for the work that we’re doing”—this is vital, and it includes an investment of work in the virtual world as well. “If we profile Portland as part of the website, we were thinking that could be something that could happen in other places,” she continues.

“We don’t have the power to change everything that happens out there,” muses Aitken, “but what we do have is the power to call attention to different things that we see.” This includes a host of literary artists of color in Portland, many of whom are highlighted by De-Canon in their programming at UNA Gallery this month.  

For more unlearning and de-canonization, please see the numerous resources and full schedule of remaining events on De-Canon’s website—the next event, De-Canon {Music+Poetry}, is August 19th; the Unlearning Podcast by Béalleka, one of De-Canon’s presenters; and Strom’s upcoming performance with Samiya Bashir, in collaboration with Shayla Lawson, as part of Time-Based Arts Festival. To take a deeper dive, join Physical Education for Reading Group August 26th, 3-5 pm at UNA Gallery (remember to do your reading beforehand!).