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.

"Dis Tew Much To Carry" tote bag by Melanie Stevens

“Dis Tew Much To Carry” tote bag by Melanie Stevens, the first and the last’s first featured artist

On the subject of curatorial process, tai—a Portland-based video essayist, film scholar and programmer—spoke about working in the film programming here in Portland. Trying to market film work created by or focusing on black women or femmes “to outside contractors or pre-existing festivals,” could end up feeling “really exhausting or limiting,” tai observed.

In light of this, tai concluded it would be more beneficial to create programs and events where interest in and desire for this film work was a “pre-understood fact” by all involved.

Along with this, tai was also considering the the array of ways this type of artistic work could be compromised by the means to make it, e.g. how artists must tailor their visions to meet audience desires or comply with confining restrictions around grant funding.

A writer and artist currently based in North Carolina, nicole illustrated tai’s point, recounting what it was like to be reached out to by curators with no resources to offer and how it felt to be curated for events that did not necessarily feel like the right fit. “I would question the kind of motive behind it or where that was coming from,” nicole said.

After receiving funding from both the Precipice Fund and the Regional Arts and Cultural Council for the first and the last, nicole and tai, who first met when they became roommates in Portland, found themselves poised to implement a more equitable ethics of curation, in which serving their community would be central. “It’s really important to work for the people who have supported me,” said tai, “in really real, tangible, and financial ways.”

“How can we ask to share and to give these artists platforms, but make sure that we’re giving them enough in return to support themselves, to support further iterations of their work,” asked nicole, reflecting on their process. “How can we just kind of right those wrongs that a lot of curators do for marginalized, especially, black femme, artists?”

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The solution involved offering a platform for artists, curated from nicole and tai’s immediate circles and awareness as well as their internet and long-distance communities, who would not be exploited, but instead, would be celebrated and “given the chance to be seen and to be honored,” as nicole described.

The practices of both artists are tied to their carefully considered approach to the first and the last. tai’s artistic practices include making “video essays and gifs that use glitch to play with the materiality of images,” including images appropriated from television and movies of black women and femmes. tai recently had an exhibition, hoe dor, at Open Signal, where they were a Summer New Media Fellow.

While certainly generative, this fellowship—which offered tai access to Open Signal’s library of expensive video processors and other equipment—furthered an awareness of the ways in which lack of access to expensive technology had not only precluded tai’s own practice in the past but also continues to preclude creative possibilities for other artists in tai’s community.

“There are a lot of black people doing a lot of amazing video work and amazing internet work, but using certain technologies is a huge limiting factor,” said tai. Even basic technology like computers, cameras, and programs such as Adobe Premiere can prove prohibitively expensive.

nicole—whose practices also include poetry, as well as performance and fiber arts—is a fellow for the literary and arts magazine Winter Tangerine. nicole is also currently being mentored by artist jayy dodd, who will debut a film and teach a workshop on using cellphones to create media as part of the first and the last’s programming at Grapefruits Art Space May 5-6.

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nicole spoke directly to limited access to technology. Without proper knowledge of complicated video production software, nicole continues making video using what is available: an older version of iMovie. “In my video work, I kind of make video fan fictions of archived footage of myself juxtaposed with found media from film or TV, in which I can kind of exist in these fantasy tapes,” said nicole, “because I wasn’t the type of person they had in mind to begin with.”

kiki nicole

screenshot of “negro faerie by kiki nicole

tai reflected on the nature of nicole’s work, linking it with the trend of self-documentation as an articulation of internal experiences—something common to those of us who grew up with the internet.

“There are these really hard lines that get drawn between what makes something art, and what makes something not art,” tai mused.

“Very often that line is always drawn closer when black people are expressing themselves on the internet—thinking about those forms of media that are available to us and the forms of technology that are available to us, and how we use them in creative ways and in ways that are expressing our different regional vernacular, or our ways of storytelling, or our own emotional journeys, or our histories of storytelling, or our own archival work that we do through social media.”

One historical site for this was vine, an app that allowed users to create six second videos that could be shared with their friends. “I feel like it’s a platform that really became dominated by young black people, but didn’t really enter any sphere of artistic conversation because it was just written off as being a social media fad,” said tai. “This was a specific visual vernacular that was totally mastered by black youth who were just doing really super funny, interesting, cultural critique.” Vine was eventually shut down by the company’s owner, Twitter.

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Even with the advent of similar outlets like Instagram stories, the fundamental questions linger: “How do we see platforms that are the most widely used amongst black communities be the most written off and erased as being trash or being totally frivolous?”  tai asked. “Instead we’re seeing people putting all their attention into something like VR technology, like stuff that’s super expensive and super difficult to learn.”

tai circled back to nicole’s work: “I see kiki’s work, and the things that they’re doing with such limited means are so incredible—breaking apart narrative, thinking about how we exist as black queer spectators, who imbibe so much media. And not from a marketing perspective, but rewriting cultural criticism and film criticism in ways that are much more accessible to people like us, built to speak to other people like us.”  

As our conversation drew to a close, tai made a point to emphasize that “there are a lot of a lot of amazing black artists in Portland who are doing really incredible programming consistently and have been doing so for a long time.” the first and the last’s programming dovetails into this community of artists, building bridges of reciprocity and care with artists and organizers who are here doing the work, artists such as Melanie Stevens and Jaleesa Johnston and groups like Ori Gallery and Nat Turner Project. “We’re just trying to contribute one small avenue of expression to the pre-existing community here,” said tai.  

“I feel like it’s super important to continue being in dialogue and bridging forces with different folx who have already been doing this,” nicole added, “Just to keep doing this and making it more expansive so that at some point no one is left behind.”

NOTES

the first and the last is accepting donations for their projects and artists via Venmo @firstandlast

The Screening and Media Literacy Workshop with Melanie Stevens, presented by the first and the last will take place April 19 & 20 at Ori Gallery. All events produced by the first and the last will prioritize the attendance and participation of black and POC attendees. Events will be catered by Platano Rising.

Follow @firstandthelast.blk on Instagram to learn more.

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