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.
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.
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.