By Elliot J. Reichert
What does it mean to be a working artist in 2018? What are the moral and ethical imperatives facing the so-called creative class amidst today’s chaos and uncertainty? Should artists cultivate community at home or spread their messages around the world? Newcity connected with artist Rashayla Marie Brown to discuss her journey through photography, performance, film and writing. With Chicago as her home base, she is globetrotting more than ever, building new ways of speaking her distinct perspective to an ever-expanding audience.
You are constantly traveling these days. What takes you on the road so often?
It’s been a while since I’ve had a long stint outside of the United States. I feel really good to finally start doing that more because I am in an interesting place right now, personally and professionally. I have a clear understanding that Chicago is a city that I could consider a home base, but I need to leave and do things internationally and figure out what kind of residencies and fellowships I can get to take my work to the next level. This time, I’m going to Rabat for a fellowship to learn Arabic. I’ve been there for four weeks before and I am returning for two more weeks with funding.
Why Arabic? I know you have also been to Dubai recently—what about the language or the culture interests you?
I am always interested in learning languages, and I have been exposed to learning at least a little bit of French and Spanish. I have incorporated a significant amount of Spanish at least in my installations and sometimes in the titles of works. And because I work also as a writer in addition to being a person who makes visual objects but also performs at times, words and language and different systems of communication are becoming more and more a primary focus of my work. I thought that I should focus more fully on being able to have a good understanding of different languages so that I can incorporate them into my artwork. But I also have this decolonial agenda that’s becoming more of the subject of my work, and I feel in order to do that you need to make work that can speak to more than just people who speak English or even people who speak a European language. All the languages that I’ve studied were European languages until now.
I’ve been interested in thinking about which languages travel well in the art world in terms of how people are developing institutions and what kind of concerns those institutions have. My trip to Dubai was enlightening in that sense because I wasn’t even thinking about the Middle East or the Arabic-speaking world in general as a place where I might be, mainly because I identify as queer. I just thought that it would never be something that I could be accepted for there, and my work deals with those things. As I was traveling I started to realize that there probably is a way that I can translate what I am interested in into different cultural contexts where I may or may not perceive myself as belonging there. I think it’s important to me to do that right now because I just don’t want to be in America. America sucks right now for obvious reasons, as a black American and a queer-identifying person.
I want to connect especially with cultures that I feel would be perceived as not relevant to me as a queer, black American. The Middle East and North Africa have always had that mystery for me in that sense and I want to break through that. I feel that my work doesn’t only deal with race and it doesn’t only deal with sexuality. It deals with a kind of despair of what happens in historical omissions and what happens to people as individuals when they’re dealing with these large, looming social conditions.
I don’t want to be pigeonholed to only talking about Black Lives Matter. These things are all interrelated—my oppression or my experience of America is going to be connected to a history of imperialism and colonization that affects people all over the world. I am trying to connect that interest and break down some of the walls that maybe even I created in my practice. For instance, I think using certain cultural references that are specific to my community and are important to me, but not at the expense of making an argument that is grander.
In your performance work, you appear extremely confident, but it sounds like you are pushing yourself into new areas of discomfort. In the United States right now, do you feel that there is a limit right now to how your work is understood?
I want to be very careful about how I characterize that because I don’t want to make it seem like I am no longer concerned with race—I am not one of those post-black people who just doesn’t want to be black anymore. But it does feel like the opportunities for black American artists are very limited and only certain subject matter is being promoted at certain levels. As a person who is trying to figure out a lot of where I am, it feels important to me to find other ways to relate to people outside of my particular experience of oppression.
Ultimately, the art world wants me to perform a certain kind of identity for them as a black American artist who is queer and uses images of the body. I am very frustrated with that and I am very sick of that. I think that seeing how other people contend with how their bodies are being commodified or their cultures are being disrespected or how they are being systematically oppressed—it opens up this conversation for me in a way that I don’t feel is happening for me personally in the United States. Even the major cultural institutions who are supposed to be supporting people from my community usually talk about the same kind of rescuing of forgotten histories—fetishizing an archive that excludes them in the first place—or there’s this overt attempt to engage in what is essentially just activism and certain kinds of infrastructure design which may or may not actually be art. It’s trying to resolve a social ill and it may have an aesthetic component to it.
Or, it’s just literally a fantasy, like how do I make myself as extravagant and fantastical and beautiful as possible to deal with it all, or how do I make the people in my community appear that way? So I am going to adorn them, use a lot of sparkly things, colors, whatever. Those are the three spaces I am expected to occupy and I don’t find myself completely outside of them—I engage in them sometimes—but I am trying to find another language, another set of references, another way to connect with people. And I felt that more and more language and actual communication is part of that.
Knowing all that, where is your studio practice right now?
More than anything else, I am trying to integrate and make sense of all of the moves that I have made in the past five years and taking stock of where I’ve been. Depending on who you ask, a lot of people know me for one medium or overemphasize their familiarity with one particular aspect of my practice. It’s important for me, in order to control the narrative around my work or at least steer it toward what I am actually interested in talking about, to revisit and look at how these projects are interwoven.
That to me is where my mind is at—how do I break out of Chicago into a more international art conversation? I am working on a film in Atlanta called “Reality Is Not Good Enough,” so I am pretty sure I will be taking most of the spring to finish this film, which I have been working on about my family for the past four years or so. And in the next year, I will be presenting a major performance in New York with the support of a Franklin Furnace grant, a film version of my ongoing performance project “Rage to Master.” A book version has been funded by DCASE. It’s a lot of looking at where things have been and pushing them into new spaces, or finally wrapping up those extended projects that I have been embarking on that are mostly film and performance related.
And I have a few things coming up that will be published, like the first in my series of small essays called “Staircase Thoughts” for the “On Civil Disobedience” series with the Green Lantern Press. I am thinking about how my work in performance and in film, with its narrative arcs and narrative qualities, can be translated into a print form that is more portable and accessible to a wider range of people, especially as I increase my language skills.
How does writing shape the narrative around your work and develop that longer arc, especially as you look back on the past five years?
Writing is always embedded in my practice because there is a lot of writing embedded in performing, at least for me, and making films. It’s not about closing chapters, it’s about making what’s clear to me in my brain clear to other people. I have made a lot of work that refers to popular culture, to a certain kind of specific black, female interiority. And then I made a lot of work that deals with these broad, sweeping historical omissions and also the effects of colonization on the idea of identity. It’s about maintaining a certain specificity of my position and then expanding that to talk about the idea of attachment to identity. I think to overly identify with your suffering is not a position that you are going to liberate yourself from your problems, I think it makes it worse.
I am really interested in how people can go about addressing their specific suffering through a broader lens. So I am using myself as an example—I have my particular brand of suffering, and how do I expand that to understand that this is all part of a grander, larger interconnected scheme that takes things internationally? It’s not just about American slavery—American slavery had to exist from a European perspective first and it originated out of a certain location in Africa. These things are important to me, to actually go to these places and talk to the people, mine the history and then find a way for what I have been saying all these years from my specific perspective to connect. And I think that I have been doing a much better job of that in my writing more than anything else because it can directly address the viewer in an intimate object people can hold in their hand. I’m thinking a lot about different modes of creating intimacy that doesn’t feel forced or contrived, or maybe even spectacular in a performance.
But the writing is not diverging in any structural way from the rest of your practice?
If it ever diverges, it’s because I write about other artists’ work. I’ve published a couple of essays in the past on Howardena Pindell, Rashid Johnson, different folks, and I will probably continue to be asked to do that because institutions like my unique artist lens in looking at other artists. Maybe it will diverge a little bit because it’s not so focused on my particular experience but it’s more on finding a way to talk about somebody else’s work in a way that it hasn’t been talked about before. There’s some of that and there’s also these personal essays that tell a lot of my life story. Those are in line with the rest of my work because they still give bits of my story mixed in with some sort of larger cultural or social issue. And then, lastly, I make a lot of installations with small pieces of text in them already, so it’s just a matter of connecting that to another space outside of the temporary installation.
I do write poems and songs sometimes that I don’t really share. I do have a lot of things that I write that I don’t share because those are just things that make me feel good, it’s not about the narrative. I appreciate Adrian Piper’s own art historical writing about her work, but I question whether or not an artist should do that because it overdetermines interpretation at times. I am not interested in that. I don’t want to foreclose those options. I like it when people bring stuff to me that I didn’t think about.
You have spent some time within art and educational institutions. How do you see your relationship to institutions and their role in your work?
I will always be connected to institutions because institutions are made of people. I want to have a dialogue with people across identities and institutions have an interesting way of putting you in contact with people that you would never meet otherwise. But I also have a very contentious relationship with institutions because I realize that I can very easily be tokenized or put in a particular place within a structure of bureaucracy that keeps me from being effective. So, I will always have a complicated relationship with institutions and as long as the people who run them are okay with that ambivalence than we can get a lot of work done. If they want me to be a champion without criticality, then that’s not for me. But because institutions are made of people, you can always find people inside of them that are unsatisfied with the status quo and want to change things. And that’s where I come in, and create a space for them to actually do that, where I can take more risks than they can.