We reached out to LaTasha N. Diggs, 2011 Create Change Artist-in-Residence, to find out what she’s been working on lately. Read on to find out more!
What are you up to these days?
I am curating and directing a multi-media concert for the Sekou Sundiata Retrospective that was produced by MAPP International and co-commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Also, I will be working with visual artist Thomas Hirschhorn on his project, The Gramsci Monument in the Bronx later this summer. Lastly, I am redrafted two of my own projects while on residency at Millay Colony. Oh, my first book of poetry, TwERK, was released this April by Belladonna. So I am doing the book release hustle.
What was the inspiration behind it?
Well, I will speak to the Sundiata retrospective. I first was introduced to Sekou’s work when I was just beginning to write and publicly read as a spoken word poet. The folks that I was in conversation with at the time were all exposed to his work. Some of us got to work with him. Some of us did not. I proposed to MAPP a concert that would focus on his book, “Free”, his only publication. With it, artists from my generation are invited to create new works based on it. The key with this presentation is that most of us work within improvisation and electronic music. So the project is called Free: Amplified.
What led you to The LP’s Create Change residency and what did you learn from it?
I knew I really wanted to honor my neighborhood while at the same time, critique it. Even now, I still am trying to find ways to work with my neighborhood as an artist. Doing the CC was a challenge! I had never attempted to do anything like it before and it really opened my eyes to how much work and dedication is required to create art that involves one’s community. It’s not easy and yet, it is absolutely gratifying when you figure out how to work with folks you see everyday. But having to see these people everyday forces you to work harder and deep inside, you know you cannot fail them. My project was situated in my place of childhood, teenage crushes and girl fights, crack families, arson, and everything I can list. This was me introducing myself to a place I’ve called home where my relatives are both familiar and stranger.
What else have you been doing since your residency?
Attempting to pay my rent on time!
What’s your neighborhood? Why there?
111th Street in Harlem. I grew up on 111th between St. Nicholas and Adam Clayton Powell. I make no distinction between East Harlem (El Barrio) and West Harlem. Up until the late 90s, I knew of no West/East Harlem divide. Now, according to UPS, I don’t live in Harlem anymore but Morningside. But as a Harlem native, I know at one point Harlem went below 110th street. I have lived in Brooklyn, Boston, Jamaica, and the Bay Area. But Harlem – particularly 111th – I have an off and on again relationship with this place.
What’s your favorite thing about it?
The Harlem attitude. No other place has it. Women setting up their grills for frying fish in iron cast pans right on the street. The Arab gentleman who owns the chicken spot and tolerates all attitudes and demands.
What is one thing you would change about your neighborhood?
About my particular neighborhood? The return of block parties. Seriously, the newer faces of my block (they happen to run the block association these days and don’t return emails), don’t see the point of this tradition and over the years, it has become less and less present. The last time it took place, it felt as if it were a burden to pacify the older residents. It’s sad. On Harlem as a whole? The recent branding of Harlem that has nothing to do with Harlem, its community, or long time Harlem residents who happen to be Harlem artists.
Who are your neighbors? How have they influenced your work?
My neighbors are Kenny the handy man who rides a bike and does odd jobs. A number of Mormons in my building. My childhood friend Emily Vargas who lives across the street. Miss Lydia, who I speak very bad Spanish with every morning. Yvette, who I never knew was only a year older than me but because she had two children at a very early age, she has always appeared to be “grown.” Jose, this elder man from Honduras. Herb and his wife Koren who live on the third floor. Two Haitian gentlemen who have lived on the block for over twenty years. Miss Scott, one of the last African-American homeowners in the block. Al, the cook who works for a center for recently released men from prison. This center has been in my block throughout my life. Francisco, my UPS deliveryman. He was the first one to see the proofs of my book. He thinks it’s going to make me a million bucks. All of them, I want to do right by. When I think about them, how I see them everyday, how we share small talk, I know my work comes from them and not something entirely internal, scholarly, or experimental. They are the secret ingredients.
What does “socially-engaged art” mean to you?
For me, it is interaction with folks who may not be fellow artists. Now I would argue that all people are creative and that this can go as far as brothers hustling some coin on the train or selling socks on the corner. Creative could be that lady who lives next door to you that has a genius at coordinating her pants with her shoes and her earrings. But when you step out of the studio or in front of the computer and create with them…that I feel is how I am looking at work that is socially engaging.
What advice would you offer other artists interested in socially-engaged work?
Socially-engaged art takes time. The other item is being afraid but allow your fears to challenge what community means to you and what it means to be socially engaged. When you walk down your block, are you in conversation with those that live there? Have you ever given pause to your day because you were talking shit with your mail lady? Think quickly…what is her name?
Tell us about an artist who has influenced your work.
Two artists that are really influencing the way I think as an artist presently are LaToya Ruby Frazier and Miguel Luciano. I was first introduced to LaToya’s work as a fellow AIR at LMCC and Miguel’s work through another AIR, Zach Fabri. As a writer, I think we’re often expected to always create through writing; that our choice of tools are always a pen and paper. But being in that environment I was reminded that my first loves were drawing and photography (I was a visual art major in HS), which was then followed by dance and movement (I was a back up dancer for a pop band in my early twenties). So in that environment, in the company of these artists, I was gifted with direct interaction with visual/video/performance artists who were thinking about their communities in ways I had been very afraid to approach in my work for many years. With LaToya’s work, there is something there that is extremely personal and radical and dare I say revolutionary. Although she was raised in Pennsylvania and I in Harlem, there is a narrative and a sense of place within it that I relate to and salute because of her fierceness and her genius at telling it “like it is” to quote Gil Nobel. Her art and her mission are not sugary. With Miguel, when I look at his work, he’s teaching me how to have conversation with his community through sharing. Yes, sharing. Really simple but incredibly powerful and present. Of course, there are other layers that emerge from his work…but this simple offering of a snow cone from his Pimp My Piragua is about, to me, love first, art second.
Where do you do your laundry?
Ipanema Laundromat on Lenox Ave between 111th and 112th Street.
What are you reading now?
“The Matrix Poems: 1960-1970” by Norman H. Pritchard
What song gets you going when work is hard?
Right now, “The Drummer” by Niki and The Dove.
What’s your favorite NYC-themed movie, song, poem, book?
- “Strange Days” (ok, it is not about NYC but I love this movie!)
- “I Like It Like That”
- “When a Dime Cost a Nickel” by Willie Perdomo
What’s your favorite word, sound, color?
- Argot (new favorite word)
- A seasoned vocalist that takes risks
- Purple (because it’s supposed to attract money)
Your dream last meal?
Ceviche from one particular restaurant in Mira Flores, Peru with superior flan de coco or passion fruit custard.
What most inspires you?
Phrase Books. Daydreams. Mash-ups.
Any current or upcoming show/performance you want to recommend?
LaToya Ruby Frazier exhibition at Brooklyn Museum.
LaTasha N. Diggs is a writer, vocalist, and sound artist. As an independent curator, director, and producer, she has produced several literary/musical events for the stage and radio and is the co-founder and co-editor of Coon Bidness/SO4. She is a native of Harlem.