One week after the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) residency in Vermont and the day before she upstaged Coldplay in the Super Bowl halftime show, Beyoncé released “Formation,” her first new song in over a year. The next day, she “slayed” the halftime show in a pointed act of semiotic and political acumen. With the pulsating command, “Ok Ladies, let’s get in formation…,” Beyoncé led two lines of dancers decked in Black Panther Party-inspired berets and harnesses through a choreography of revolution punctuated by Michael Jackson moves. Their bodies “in formation” marked an X across the stadium that had just minutes ago, undulated with rainbow-colored flowers and Coldplay’s squishy” plea to “Believe in Love.”
Former MFAIA faculty member, Dr. Naila Keleta-Mae, called the song and video “a master class in how pop artists can clearly articulate political views that differ from the mainstream without being labeled didactic and marginalized by the media.”
Beyoncé masterfully appropriates the signifiers of the radical arm of the Civil Rights movement to effectively wrest the black female body from the grips of the white male gaze and re-assert female revolutionary leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement. Beyoncé’s choreography reclaims the female body in what Naila Keleta-Mae calls “the embodiment of a particular kind of 21st Century black feminist freedom in the United States of America; one that is ambitious, spiritual, decisive, sexual, capitalist, loving, and communal.” The exquisitely timed intervention reveals a kind of witnessing far from a passive act of bystander to cultural resistance.*
Artist as Witness
Coincidentally invoking our residency theme, “artist as witness”, Naila writes that Beyoncé’s song-video “invited…us to witness—to “get” it; to get her as an artist.” In our Vermont January residency the week before the Super Bowl, we had just witnessed a truly memorable concert by Archie Shepp and The Ronnie Burrage Trio. These artists invited us to “get” it—to get how artists are shaped by the struggle for justice, and who also shape the political discourse that makes for deep, enduring change. Reading Naila’s article just after experiencing the powerful convergence of social justice activism and the arts embodied in the sold-out concert, her words offer a vision for the Black Lives Matter movement going forward.
“Formation” is perhaps most impactfully a blueprint for other mainstream artists on how to unequivocally delve into the politics that matter to them while simultaneously holding mainstream attention. The Super Bowl halftime performance was a visceral reminder of what black music was and could again be in the United States.
Ronnie Burrage grew up witnessing family and friends jam in the living room, and then strategize in the kitchen on how to grow the Black Panther Party. Archie Shepp spoke in his Commencement speech of the practice of naming streets after Civil Rights leaders–Malcolm X Blvd, Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. The renaming of streets such as 125th Street and Lenox Avenue—names that had such resonance for the Harlem Renaissance—purports to raise awareness of racism. Archie called these specious acts, done for show in order to make superficial changes, while the condition of the lives of people who reside on these streets remains largely unchanged. Like Beyoncé, Archie and Ronnie positioned their black cultural aesthetic in protest and in celebration.
The concert was bookended by two activities aimed at opening up the typically retreat-like environment of residencies to engage what we are witnessing in the wider world—social, economic, and environmental global crisis, Black Lives Matter and other grassroots movements.
Our Opening Session took on a discussion of a manifesto drafted by the “Council of Councils” at Goddard (representatives from the Faculty Council, Student Council and Program Directors Council), a statement asserting the community’s commitment to social justice work. After the concert, Claudia Ford, Nyx Zierhut (MFAIA ‘13) and current advisor, Rachael Van Fossen, facilitated workshops on “Creative Responses to Institutionalizing Diversity in Higher Education.” I came away with a deeper understanding of how people of color are differently racialized.
As a woman of Taiwanese descent whose racialization is often overlooked, I’ve walked in Black Lives Matter marches, but struggled to find a way to embody political solidarity with the movement in my artistic practice. I’ve struggled to make visible the construction of race that pits racialized groups against each other, and to cultivate alliances across commonalities. A year ago, Leanne Simpson wrote in a Yes! Magazine article about the rage with which black communities responded to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the murder of 18-year old, Michael Brown. She resonated with that rage, linking it to the rage she feels in the struggle for decolonization:
I have seen an expression of tremendous black love for children and family, a tremendous black love for culture, body and people, coupled with a tremendous outrage against a colonial system that is designed at its core to destroy black and indigenous love. This same fertile ground birthed the so-called “Oka Crisis” and the Idle No More movement.
At the January residency, I was moved to embody allyship in a performative act. On hands and knees, I scrubbed clean the floor—where the words, “They see me, they see me not” were inked between words added by workshop participants—using my spit as solvent. Reflecting on my experience in the people of color caucus at residency and on the discourse around Beyoncé’s intervention “on the altar that is the Super Bowl” (Keleta-Mae), I began to see how we might respond to the state of being racialized differently by using the strategies of “zap actions”—a form of political action popularized by the Yippies! Cornell Professor and Public Voices Fellow, Sara Warner, linked the political spectacles of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamarr in a Huffington Post blog as Black Panther influenced zap actions. Naila’s description of Beyoncé’s performance as a “blueprint for other mainstream artists” reveals how all artists, mainstream or edgy, can appropriate and refigure the tools of misrepresentation in acts of ally-ship. Artists can also craft interventions that embrace the complexity of identity and community, power and empowerment, more fully than the mainstream media’s tendency to paint issues in black and white.
Flow—a somatic experience of opening
As we look ahead to the residency in Port Townsend Washington, the theme of “welcoming flow” challenges us to reconsider how we enact revolution—not only through protest, but also through embodying values. We can find a thought provoking connection between the act of witness and of flow. “Welcoming flow begins bodily — a somatic experience of opening,” reads our theme. At best and when most impactful, bearing witness is also a full-body engagement.
We will host multi-media artist, weaver, poet, cultural critic, and First nations elder, Gail Tremblay and also interdisciplinary performing artist and alumna, DawN Crandell (MFAIA ‘06), who works at the intersection of burlesque, dance, theater and poetry. Both artists employ political savvy, humor, and pop culture reclamation to demonstrate in radically different ways, how artists embody their values, putting into practice ideas on social consciousness and social practice, literally putting their bodies into the craft and work of political protest and cultural resurgence.
Gail’s basket sculptures, made from found film footage, bear titles that succinctly critique the industry’s misrepresentation of Native Americans. And Then There Is the Hollywood Indian Princess (2002) turns an educational film about sexually transmitted infections into cultural critique. The title, Mountain Men and Indians: A Hot and Prickly History (2009) is a story unto itself, making reference to the white settler colonization of the Southwest lands obscured by the romanticizing of the (white) wilderness hero.
DawN Crandell’s performance, Xenophobadelica, blends poetry and burlesque, storytelling and movement to ask: “Not Black enough, Queer enough, sweet enough, sexy enough… all mixed up? What happens when you find hypocrisy in the heart of your community?” “A force in the neo-burlesque movement since 2007 when she co-founded Brown Girls Burlesque, DawN, aka Miss AuroraBoobRealis, celebrates black female sexuality as a political act, as a signifier of black female resistance to the marginalization of women.
We talk a lot in the MFAIA program about relevance—we persistently ask, how is your/our work relevant? DawN and Gail model for us the ways that interdisciplinary artists make their work in dialogue with the questions most relevant to them and their communities. Beyoncé ends the “Formation” video with an image of her black female body sprawled across the top of a police car, her body astride the sinking vehicle of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies. With both of our guest artists this March, we look forward to a somatic experience of opening to the cultural and political potential of reclaiming “the master’s tools” in the long project of decolonizing colonial systems and reclaiming our stolen culture.
*Beyoncé’s video and half-time performance continue to stir up controversy among both supporters of the Black Lives Matter and supporters of the police unions’ position.
MFAIA-WA Residency Events Open to the Public:
Gail will be talking about her work in “Evolution of an Artist: the Art of Gail Tremblay on Saturday, March 19 at 4:30 pm – 6:00 pm at Fort Worden in the Reading Room, Building 204, and will be working with students and faculty creating a week-long multimedia work Shadow Magic: A Collaborative Multimedia Installation for the duration of the residency
DawN Crandell will talk about her practice in “Introduction to the Art of Political Burlesque” on Sunday, March 20th at 11:00am – 12:00 pm in the Reading Room at Fort Worden.
Dawn will perform Xenophobodelica on Saturday March 19th at 7.30pm to 9:00 pm followed by an artist reception at The Madrona Mind Body Institute, Battery Way, Port Townsend, WA 360-344-4475. The performance occurs during the MFAIA-WA residency and is open to the public.
Xenophobodelica is made possible by a partnership between the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts Program at Goddard College and The Madrona Mind Body Institute.