Hannah Krafcik

 

Fragmentation in motion: An interview with Jaleesa Johnston

A free screening and animation workshop for black femmes, women, and non-men in Portland, hosted by the first and the last

This past April, I had the pleasure of interviewing artists kiki nicole (they/them) and ariella tai (they/them) about their work through the first and the last—an experimental film/video and new media arts project. This endeavor offers a platform to amplify and support the artistic work of black femmes, women, and non-men through screenings, skillshares, and workshops based in Portland. During our discussion, nicole cited the influence of another Portland-based black femme artist, Jaleesa Johnston (she/her), whom they were excited to curate into their year of programming.

Johnston will be facilitating a screening and workshop as part of the first and the last’s programming this weekend, July 28 and 29. I had the opportunity speak with her about her incisive body of work and conceptual process, and how all of the above will inform these upcoming events.

Lesson #1: Fractioning Gaze(s)” by Jaleesa Johnston

Johnston describes her artist practice as interdisciplinary: The ideas and concepts come first, followed by mediums for their expression. “If I don’t know that medium, I just find a way to learn it or teach it to myself,” she said, reflecting back a sense of determination that nicole and tai emphasized when I spoke to them earlier this year about the work of various self-taught black femme artists.

“Pretty much all of the themes and ideas that I deal with have to do with black female subjectivity and understanding what it means to stand within this in-between space of being both the subject and object in my work, and historically being seen as both subject and object,” Johnston explained. She described how blackness becomes a “liminal space” that can be defined, in certain senses, but also remains undefined. “That actually can be very beneficial and very freeing,” she continued. “I can use that to harness and activate a radical space that allows me to expand beyond the confines of what blackness has conventionally meant or historically meant.”

On July 28, Johnston will screen an excerpt of the video “Compared to What” (2017) by Ayana V. Jackson. A US-born photographer and filmmaker, Jackson often references 19th and early 20th century presentations of black bodies through her self-portraiture. Her performative and photographic work calls into question the ways the camera has historically been used to construct identities.

“It’s an animated video piece, but through photography, stitching together different photos,” described Johnston, who first encountered the film when she was teaching a photography class at Pacific Northwest College of Art. That same semester, Jackson visited the school and came to speak to Johnston’s students.

“It was through seeing her piece that I started really thinking about what’s not said,” she remembered.

The film piqued Johnston’s interest in the difference between live performance and performance that is mediated by photography or video. “Watching her video piece, I just was thinking about the body…the body in fragments caught through snapshots,” she said. As she encountered the film, Johnston considered how live performative work is often presented comprehensively, from beginning to end in real time for an audience, while performative video or photography can sometimes allow for more discretion and choice-making around what is revealed and what is obscured.

In this sense, for Johnston, what is is not said and what is not seen becomes paramount.

“There’s this fragmented piece of body that is actually still finding a way to function and interact and come alive on the screen,” Johnston reflected of the film.

Following the screening, on July 29, Johnston will facilitate an animation workshop seeded by the notion of fragmentation, a concept that shows up in her own work as well, in pieces such as “Lesson #1: Fractioning Gaze(s)” and her collage work, Between Contact. In this skill-building workshop, participants will have the opportunity to learn how to create a .gif through Photoshop and an animation through PowerPoint.

“Antique White and Flesh” by Jaleesa Johnston

Johnston expounded on the phrase “Fragments from the (W)hole,” her choice of title for this offering. “As people, we break off little bits of ourselves, and that’s what people get to see and interact with, but they all tie back to this part of us that is a larger, whole person,” she said. “There are moments where I feel whole, and then there are other times where I feel like a void, like an actual hole.”

Johnston spoke to the notion of fragmentation as a mode of moving through the world, the act of sharing pieces of oneself that connect back to a unique and complex human identity—yet, without revealing its wholeness. For her, there are a range of affective states evoked by this fragmentation, experiences of “feeling fully present and alive, and then moments of feeling like you’re not really here, not really there.” It is critical to consider, as she articulated, “what that means in terms of blackness, and what that means for how we [black folx] have constructed our identity, especially given the history of blackness as its constructed through photography.”

“My rat race of a mind has wired all these things together that I hope to communicate during the workshop,” said Johnston, musing over the marriage of concept with practical skill-building.

Ultimately, she hopes to give others, especially black femmes, opportunities to work with the camera and to create a kind of narrative—one that “allows for this complicated sense of being to exist.”

*****

Join the first and the last for a screening of Ayana V. Jackson’s work with Johnston on July 28 at 6 pm and an introductory animation workshop on July 29 at 6 pm. These events will be hosted at Alberta Abbey with the Black Life Experiential Research Group (BLERG). Both events are free and open to the public, and the animation workshop will be catered by Platanorising.

the first and the last is accepting donations for their projects and artists via Venmo @firstandlast. Follow @firstandthelast.blk on Instagram to learn more. 

 

A safe space for deep criticism of art

manuel arturo abreu discusses home school, a free pop-up art school in Portland, and its upcoming "field day," June 23

In a recent discussion with manuel arturo abreu (they/them) the co-founder of a Portland-based pop-up art school called home school, a fundamental question surfaced—a question that directly relates to the relevance of this very platform: Why would someone hate art?

For abreu, a poet and artist from the Bronx, the answer is ready and waiting: “Because art sucks. It’s really violent. It’s a violent colonial enterprise. How do we reclaim it?”

In the following discourse, which centers the labor and thinking of home school and its organizers, nothing is sacred. Readers with a love for art, academia, and many of the institutions and frameworks designed to support these, might find themselves set off—but please take that response as definitive sign to keep reading.

Image courtesy of home school and MoMA PS1

The way home school came to be is “a classic story” within the home school-community, said abreu. Victoria Anne Reis (she/her), who now runs home school with abreu, previously lived in New York City and studied at New York University, an institution infamously known for being inaccessible to many students without the aid of punishing loads of student debt.

In search of a different option than “the very marketized education that she was paying for,” Reis began taking classes with the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, an alternative arts education structure that self-identified as “a learning experiment” and “New York’s freest art school.”

BHQFU—which is now defunct—was started by several Cooper Union graduates who, initially, remained anonymous and who derived inspiration from German artist Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture. “Rather than an artist working with paint or cardboard or noise or language, an artist is constructing an aesthetic experience from the social interactions of others,” an unnamed source from Bruce High Quality Foundation said of social sculpture in an interview with Social Text Journal.

Social sculpture is “sculpture where society and community is the medium for the art,” abreu explained.

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the first and the last: An interview with kiki nicole and ariella tai

A new experimental film/video and new media arts project launches a series of programs by and for black femmes, women, and non-men

I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name.

the first and the last, an experimental film/video and new media arts project germinating in Portland, takes its name from the epigraph above. It is spoken by the character Nana Peazant in the seminal film Daughters of the Dust, produced and directed by Julie Dash. In 1991, it became the first full-length film directed by a black, female-identifying director to be released in theaters across the nation.

Last week, I spoke with the first and the last curators, ariella tai (they/them) and kiki nicole (they/them), as they were gearing up for the Screening and Media Literacy Workshop with Melanie Stevens, taking place on April 19 and 20 at Ori Gallery. This will be the first of ten programs at various venues organized by the first and the last, including exhibitions and more screenings, skill shares, and workshops.

In a contemplative back-and-forth, tai and nicole—who are both black femme artists—articulated how the convergence of their experiences led them to create a series of programs by and for black femmes, women, and non-men in the context of the city of Portland, where the erasure of black communities and crisis of gentrification continue to propel dialogues and organizing efforts.

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How to create community with art, and other lessons from Field of View

An artist residency program for people with developmental disabilities rethinks the value of creative labor

Most stories are more complicated than they seem. To really understand why we–individually and collectively–have ended up at this particular moment in time under the often baffling conditions that inform day-to-day life, the simple story just won’t suffice.

This particular story, which looks at how five Portland-based artists ended up at a very special artist residency called Field of View, is far from simple. To understand how this program came to be begs for a brief glimpse into the ongoing public policy debate over how the State of Oregon should support individuals who experience developmental disabilities, for example. And all the nuances, twists, turns and triumphs in this story illuminate the Field of View resident artists’ resilience and creative capacity–as well as the possibility that art-making could play a vital role in the movement toward a more holistic, integrated city, state, and society.

My journey into this story began on a Sunday evening late this past August. Carissa Burkett, the artist who initiated Field of View, a program of the nonprofit Public Annex, invited me over to her home for dinner, where I met five of the program’s resident artists, along with Lauren Moran, Burkett’s co-organizer. Thanks to funding from the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund, Field of View was able to place these artists, all of whom experience developmental disabilities*, in three-month-long artist residencies around the community in Portland, at sites including King School, Performance Works Northwest, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center.

We sat on Burkett’s back patio that warm night and chatted for a couple of hours about the artists’ experience in their residencies. At the gathering, I met Dawn Westover, a visual artists who makes drawings; Sonya Hamilton, a painter and ceramicist; David Lechner, a visual and dance artist; and Olga Shchepina, a painter and sculptor. I also reconnected with Larry Supnet, a prolific visual artist whom I had met earlier in the year.

What made this gathering of artists especially interesting, in my eyes, was their familiarity with one another–the way they cracked jokes and smiled knowingly. I could tell there was a lot more to their stories as colleagues. “How do you all know each other?” I asked…

Dawn Westover’s Instagram @dawn_westover_art

*****

As it turns out, the story of these artists coming together goes way back–so far back that it required a detour into the history of the Oregon state legislature’s attempts to improve its services for Oregonians with developmental disabilities. Burkett filled me in on some of the details.

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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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