Each year, our artist development program, Create Change, supports 15 to 20 artists developing their socially engaged creative practice through our Fellowship, Residency, and Commissions program. In 2012, we began asking our Create Change artists to pair up for Creative Conversations: open-ended creative exchanges to be published on our blog. Read on to meet our Create Change alumni.
What are three things you would share with 13 year old Nancy if you could sit with her? And/or describe such a meeting between the two of you?
I would try to get 13 year old Nancy to open up. I would ask her, “What kinds of things do you like? What kinds of things don’t you like? Who are your friends? Do you like boys? Do you like girls?” And then I would listen to her.
I have a fear that 13 year old Nancy would be too afraid to talk to me! But if she trusted me, I would tell her, “You may think you are weird, but weird is good. Your dubiousness and resentfulness of your body changing is normal. You may feel alone in this, but you’re not.”
I guess I would be really curious to hear what she has to say, as I suspect a lot of it would still resonate with me, and that I could grow as a person from my conversation with my pubescent self. When I read my old journals, I am always astounded by how the same issues I have now are represented there, though expressed through the language of a kid, teenager or young adult. I had less patience and understanding then than I have now, but I still struggle. And that is why I write.
Ladi’Sasha, I know you are working on an oral history project about the girlhoods of Black women in Harlem. What was your motivation for the project?
Eagerness to piece together my experience and inquiries around my maturation into womanhood was my motivation and interest in tackling a documentation project around Black girlhood. The leading questions for the project were (1) how do we learn our bodies and sexuality as girls and (2) how have these experiences shaped our personal politics around (& how we enact) our Blackness and woman-ness in American society and most importantly our very own communities. I launched the project after writing a draft of a short story featuring a young Black girl protagonist whose narrative of trauma and identity was just as much a telling of her mother’s story as it was her own. This writing led me to develop this project as a critical storytelling and documentation of the themes within the creative piece as my culminating project for my graduate degree.
I love the stories of Black women and will be honest and share that I needed to create a space and process for healing and storytelling for my own growth at the time. Witnessing someone’s story and sharing my own is a sacred and spiritual process for me and this project definitely deepened my understanding of my artistry.
These stories sound amazing. I wonder if you can speak more about witnessing and telling stories with other Black women and the spirituality within it. How is it different than experiencing Black women’s stories through art, like seeing a performance like “For Colored Girls…” by Ntozake Shange. Also, I am wondering how oral history can get shared with an audience in a way that is similar to how an oral historian practices — the way they ask questions and listen in a room with another person. When/where/how will you share these stories?
There is so much movement involved in witnessing one share their story. This spiritual element is informed by the extended legacies of women and girls who have been taught to traditions of silence, invisibility and fear. We are moved when someone not only listen to our stories, but dare to believe the truths told. Many of us are in need of a witness and a believer and this work disrupts whatever internal and/or generational struggles with said needs.
Originally, I planned to share these stories on stage, something I’ve never done before, yet felt that the narratives had a place with a live audience. Now, I believe I am indeed interested in the involvement of collective witnesses to the documentation process. I believe it would be a stunning performance to bravely unveil that space and create a wider experiential reach to oral history. The when I am still unsure of. I would love to circle back to this work again soon though.
Can you talk about your interest in sound and why you want to explore it in relation to your oral history work?
Working with sound art in relation to oral history documentation speaks to my goal of offering a space for creative and intentional listening through my work. Sound can tell stories all on its own. It can evoke emotion, add context and create texture to a story and this is something I am interested in introducing into my work and skill set.
I’ve done two projects that kind of relate to your project, in that I taught writing workshops for women in Armenia. The first one lasted a few months and was pretty tense until we gradually built trust and established bonds near the end. The second one was only four weeks long, but we bonded immediately. It was quite strange. I always thought it had to do with the personalities in the room and interpersonal dynamics. But now I think it might also have to do with the content: the first one centered around a bunch of different issues, like work, family, war, and the body. The second one was JUST on the body. Women were dying to talk about when they first got their periods, about anything relating to the body. My sense was that they hadn’t been able to tell these stories, nor even read about them in the post-Soviet realm which was a very traditional, conformist time. Not to mention whatever shame got passed down through the history of mass violence against women during the Armenian genocide. It seemed clear that the body-based theme was a particularly heightened area for stories. I also found myself needing to write about the body, about a difficult relationship, with problems that were rooted in the physical. Though they were hard and scary for me to reveal, I felt the women in the group would understand, and it turned out to be a healing process.
So I wonder what you think about women in general telling stories about the body, but also why is it meaningful for Black women to do so? What space did Black women provide for you?
The body is central to the socio-political narrative of Black women in this country and their heritage as African people. Historically and in contemporary times, the Black woman’s body is tied to injustices surrounding reproduction, labour, land, poverty, representation, health, violence and education. The very humanity of the Black woman is waged with her body politic – its production and [economic] accessibility. To sit and talk with a Black women about her body, you are inviting conversations on home, healthcare, housing, food, childcare, relationships, welfare, sexuality, family, and beauty. I needed to erupt my own histories with my body and leap to the next stage in tool-building towards survival and sustainability as an economically poor educated Black woman artist in urban America. I needed to return to the languages, movements and synergies that did not exist in academia or in abstract modern art spaces. Hence, I used my tools and skills in oral history and documentation art to co-create private spaces that filled and fed me and others.
Storytelling and record building with women is a necessary tool for healing and change-making. These space are real work. You have experienced this as you noted in the spaces you took part in with Armenian women. The body has a hold on our experiences and movement as women globally. Also, as you shared Nancy, the women and stories of our home-places (our family and kinfolk) live within and through us. To work from the home-place is tough, courageous, and joyous work.
What do you think are the connections between art and humanity?
I think there are probably a million connections between art and humanity. But inspiration is a key one, and it can come from so many experiences. Mourning, injustice, playfulness, curiosity. Expressing something that hasn’t been uttered before, and that urgently needs to be voiced. Breaking silences, like Audre Lorde said.
Tell me a bit about your knowing and beliefs in the mystic?
I have a sense that we’re all connected somehow through spirit. And that we’re connected to nature, too. I never felt comfortable with the religion I was raised with: the Armenian Apostolic church. Very high orthodox service, very strict, traditional and patriarchal. It never made sense to me that women’s spiritualism couldn’t be fully expressed in church, but was instead tamped down and controlled. Why wouldn’t all humanity be spiritual? I feel that all human spirit is sacred, whatever gender we are, and whatever form our gender takes.
When a friend asked me to be the godmother to her daughter, and I found myself at a loss. To figure it out, I did a performance, titled “Water and Wine”: I told the stories of my mother and grandmother and the sacrifices they made as Armenian women, and demonstrated how I find mysticism in this. I did yoga, sang Armenian church songs, bathed myself and made tea while creating a priest’s vestments for myself out of newspaper. It was a cathartic ritual to navigate a rite of passage: to figure out how I could think of myself — and my experiences of religious angst, confusion and revelation — as a spiritual resource to a child. Now I try to share art with her, send her books about different cultures, send her postcards from my travels, and just pay attention and listen to her when I visit.
As we close, I would love to hear about your work at the Schomburg Center programming artists and writers, and how it intersects with your own work as an archivist and oral historian.
My work as a cultural arts programmer and documentarian is a direct response of my work within specialized archives. Accessibility and engagement with history, material culture and processes of preservation are at the center of my creative work. Libraries have always been important to me. They are at the top my list of safe and happiest places as a child and shaped the reader, investigator and creative individual I have grown into. They are also important and critical staples within any community in regards to literacy (cultural, political, etc), access to computers and introductions and trainings on other technologies and software, and free public programming. And these are just a few applications of libraries within our communities. I believe my work at the Schomburg Center is grounded in my belief in sustaining the public service libraries provide its patrons, the Harlem community and the larger community of African people throughout the Diaspora.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Nancy Agabian is a writer, teacher, and literary organizer. She has written extensively about Armenian and LGBT issues, including the books Princess Freak, a collection of poems and performance texts dealing with sexuality and rage, and Me as her again, a memoir that casts her bisexual coming-of age within her Armenian-American family history.
Ladi’Sasha Jones is a cultural arts producer and documentarian with a special interest in documenting Black women’s stories and Black American family life. Her documentation practice is approached through the intersections of archiving and art; preservation and healing; cultural equity and collective community memory.