CULTURE

Montavilla Jazz Festival: turning crisis into community

This weekend's festival shows how arts can help build community in an unaffordable city

by DOUGLAS DETRICK

With rents and property values continuing to rise astronomically in Portland, the affordability of physical space and the role that space plays in the arts ecosystem is coming into sharp focus. The space is sorely needed, yet many arts organizations with limited budgets can’t afford it.

The affordability crisis is a reflection of Portland’s growing pains, but instead of just complaining about the problem, perhaps our arts community can see this crisis as an opportunity. With some creative problem solving, we can help to make Portland a better place to live and also make it a better place to perform and experience the arts.

Portland drum legend Alan Jones performed at last year’s Montavilla Jazz Festival. Photo: Kathryn Elsesser.

This is indeed a crisis, though it’s not unique. Even a quick study of the city’s history will reveal other crises in the past, especially the challenges that people of color have faced when seeking housing in the days of redlining, after the Vanport flood of 1948, and up to the present. But even as poorer Portlanders struggle in an increasingly expensive housing market, there are encouraging signs that the arts community is waking up to its power as a force for positive change in our neighborhoods. This weekend’s Montavilla Jazz Festival is one of them.

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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!).

Becoming Welcome: giving center stage to all artists

A contentious review sparks a critical conversation about Portland arts

by MARY McDONALD-LEWIS

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch invited Mary McDonald-Lewis to write this essay based on a meeting at Artists Repertory Theatre of members of Resonance Ensemble and others with our editors. She speaks for herself and the group in her response to ArtsWatch’s original review of the Resonance concert, ArtsWatch’s subsequent response to complaints about it, and the ongoing implications of both.

The Circle Gathers

Studio 2 at Artists Repertory Theatre was tense. It was a hot day on the last Friday in July, and the air was close, but that wasn’t why.

Mary McDonald-Lewis

In an uneven circle, 11 people, many strangers to one another, arrive in ones and twos to review a tough month in Portland’s arts world. Entering the room are a mixed group from varied backgrounds and professions, but they all have one thing on their mind: a review that caught fire on the virtual pages of Oregon ArtsWatch, and that continued to spark controversy and division in the arts community.

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The Art of Inclusion

ArtsWatch apologizes for concert review's errors of judgment and fact

by BRETT CAMPBELL, BOB HICKS, and BARRY JOHNSON

“Reviews now are different kinds of battlefields. Who is writing them is just as important — perhaps more important — than what is being reviewed.”

That’s from an insightful and important story called “Like it or not, we are in the midst of a second arts revolution,” published a few weeks ago by our friend and colleague Chris Jones, chief theater writer for the Chicago Tribune. We thought it said so much about the state of the arts and arts journalism that we immediately posted a link to ArtsWatch’s Facebook page. “Administrators, artists and critics all have to get used to the intensity of amplified opinion, and the widespread desire for empowered involvement, that now surrounds their work.”

A few days later, ArtsWatch found itself engaged on such a battlefield. One of our regular freelance writers, Terry Ross, who’s covered classical music for decades, wrote a review of a June 17 concert by Portland’s Resonance Ensemble that sparked outrage — “amplified opinion.” You can follow the action here.

Resonance Ensemble performed music by Renee Favand-See and welcomed other musicians in its last concert. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.

To give our readers the chance to express themselves, we have let that battle play out before weighing in ourselves, and in general we’ve been impressed by the passion and thoughtfulness of many of the responses. The comments taught us important lessons about our community’s arts culture. As hard as it was to read them without contributing ourselves, we thought this thread was important beyond anything we could add. Now it’s time to state clearly where we editors stand, and to apologize, appreciate, and explain.

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‘Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun)’: cross cultural combination

Bag and Baggage's new theatrical mashup of Shakespearean and Persian classic tales involved collaboration across cultures

Scott Palmer was stuck. The Bag & Baggage Productions artistic director had just auctioned off the choice of its annual summer Shakespeare production to a patron, and this year’s choice was… Romeo and Juliet.

Palmer silently groaned. They’d staged the popular perennial ten years earlier and Palmer, an expert on the Bard of Avon’s work, didn’t want to revisit it so soon. Now he had no choice. How could he do it differently than before?

Lawrence Siulagi as the Sayyed in Bag & Baggage Productions’ “Romeo & Juliet/ Layla & Majnun.” Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

Palmer, an inveterate Shakespeare nerd whose MO involves plunging deeply into historical and dramaturgical research, started investigating the play’s provenance. He and learned that one of the most famous plays in Western literature was actually based on a 12th century epic poem by one of the most famous Muslim writers in history. He got a translation of Layla and Majnun by Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), read it — and was instantly hooked. He knew he wanted to produce it.

But Palmer quickly realized that couldn’t do it alone. “It’s the greatest epic piece of Muslim literature. I immediately realized I was in over my head,” Palmer recalls. “I had no clue about 12th century Persian culture.” He needed help.

And he found much of it in a surprising place — his theater’s own home of Hillsboro. Both onstage and in creation, Palmer’s brand new mashup of Romeo and Juliet and Layla and Majnun, which opens this weekend, represents a cultural combination — and cross cultural collaboration.

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Prints on demand: Want to see my etchings?

Portland Art Museum, Michael Parsons Fine Art, and Augen Gallery offer a summer course in print appreciation

By LAUREL REED PAVIC

The question “Do you want to see my etchings?” was the Victorian version of the mid-twentieth-century “Would you like to come up for a nightcap?” which somehow has been supplanted by “Netflix and chill?” in the twenty-first century. Prints may have lost their footing as the go-to euphemism for sex, but the many examples and varieties of printmaking on view right now at the Portland Art Museum, Michael Parsons Fine Art, and Augen Gallery prove that they haven’t lost their allure.

Printmaking may not be the flashiest of art forms, even for connoisseurs of Victorian art. It rewards slow, close looking and an appreciation of technical processes. Prints are realized through an intermediary: The artist doesn’t manipulate the product directly but instead acts upon a matrix be this a plate, a stone, or a screen. The print is the product of the transfer of the matrix to a substrate, traditionally paper. The matrix can be used multiple times resulting in multiple impressions, and this potential for multiplicity makes printmaking so powerful, socially. Artists exchange prints. Prints enable the circulation of ideas, forms, and styles. Prints provide artists the opportunity to explore themes and ideas in a different format; many painters are also printmakers. Because prints are often conceived of as forming groups or suites, an artist can offer multiple ruminations on a single topic. Prints are for collectors. It is rare for someone to have just one: like humans they exist in relationship to one another, defined by the company kept and enriched by one another. In short, prints fuel art.

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UNA Gallery and Y.G.B.: Asserting the community

Two Portland collectives are creating space for Black, Brown, queer and femme communities in the heart of oh-so-white Portland

By HANNAH KRAFCIK

Denizens of Portland’s nightlife have probably heard of Y.G.B. The name stands for Young Gifted and Black or Brown—depending on the identity of the person speaking about the work—and Y.G.B.’s events include some of the city’s most vibrant parties, known to attract lines around the block. The Y.G.B. collective identifies as “pro-Black, pro-Femme, pro-Queer,” and, as such, they explicitly make these identities the center of all events.

Anyone moving around in the visual art world might also have caught wind of UNA, a new gallery nestled in the Pearl District. This collective-run space has a mission similar to Y.G.B., and its name stands for “Uniendo a Nuestros Artistas” (Uniting Our Artists). As stated on UNA’s website, the gallery is “holding space for POC, Queer and Femme voices,” and its programming ranges from carefully curated exhibitions and performances to community happenings such as White Guilt Work Group and Tender Table. With such intersecting missions, it’s no surprise that Y.G.B and UNA are coming together for a collaboration.

Y.G.B. at Produce Row/ Photo by Rose Léon

Last month, Mercedes Orozco and Blair Crissman, who make up the UNA Gallery collective, and Natalie Figueroa, one of the founding visionaries of Y.G.B., sat down with me for separate conversations about their respective organizing work. The initial impetus for these interviews was to discuss the collaboration between UNA and Y.G.B. for Y.G.B’s 2 Year Anniversary Retrospective. This event will take shape as a gallery showing at UNA 6-10 pm July 6, featuring photography, short films, music, performance and a look back at Y.G.B.’s promotional art in celebration of “two years of Y.G.B community.”

These interviews also offered an opportunity take a deeper dive into the missions, visions, organizing, and creative work of both groups. Through our discussions, it became apparent that there is so much at play underneath UNA and Y.G.B.’s organizing work—so many rich and intersecting ideas, priorities, and messages that are resonant with one another, making their collaboration at this moment in time so intuitive.

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