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backstory (as told to Ralf):
There is an art space in Brooklyn (BRIC) which hosts a once monthly poetry slam. The MC is poet and Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe poetry director, Mahogany L. Browne. BRIC will also be hosting the first night of the Women of the World Poetry Slam in March. I was invited to do a poetry themed mural for this event. I invited Sonia Sanchez to participate in the photo shoot with Mahogany L. Browne and based it on the Frida Kahlo painting “The Two Fridas.” However, this interpretation of that painting speaks to the migratory, trans Atlantic movement of the oral tradition + spoken word and it’s intergenerational manifestation as poetry. Mahogany + Sonia are presented as exemplars of the tradition.
Around the time of my father’s death in June 2006 I had an experience with a bird. I was outside at a friend’s condo and after 30 minutes on the phone with my dad I noticed a small bird in a nest who remained motionless and quiet with one eye riveted on me. My father implored me to come home to Raleigh with the words “come home son; dad is dying.” The moment was dramatic, confusing and ultimately true. I flew home the following day and spent 3 wonderful days with my dad before he underwent an outpatient procedure which led to his death as he never awoke from anesthesia. The bird resting quietly in it’s nest an arm’s length away from me as my dad told me of his condition represented a messenger spirit between the worlds of the living and the dead. The seagulls in the mural are signifiers of the freedom of movement across borders and communication with ancestral spirits. In honor of one of Sonia’s poems Jess and I titled the mural “We Be Darker than Blue” as it speaks to intergenerational sisterhood.
jess + i installing
sonia sanchez reading
sonia and mahogany
shout out to supa sister ursula rucker who facilitated meeting and getting to work with sonia sanchez
sonia seeing the mural for the first time
mahogany l. browne, ursula rucker + sonia sanchez
ian cozzens assisting; jess modeling
The setting for the mural is the Hungry Ghost cafe at Bric. Before doing the photo shoot with Sonia and Mahogany in January I watched a documentary called “BadDDD Sonia Sanchez” and was moved upon seeing Sonia’s old notebooks in which she wrote and edited poems. I asked her to bring a few of these to the shoot. It was magical as she’d not looked at these notebooks for some time. She flipped through pages remembering and sharing the stories that inspired the poems and discussed her process for creating poetry. These images of her hands engaging tangible memories appear on the front counter.
Thanks to everyone who helped make this project manifest – Mahogany L. Browne, Ursula Rucker, Sonia Sanchez, Jess X. Chen, Jennifer Gerow and the staff at Bric, Icy + Sot, Clara Darrason, Andrew Erdos + Ian Cozzens. I want to give a special shout out to Alexandria Johnson who reminded us all that good spirits are amongst us. Y’all made magic happen!
In 1851 Kingston native Sojourner Truth electrified audiences at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, OH with an extemporaneous speech on the value of womanhood known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” Having been invited to create a mural for the O + Festival in Kingston, New York my collaborator Jess X. Chen and I wanted to honor the historical contribution of Sojourner Truth to the women’s rights movement and her role as an humanitarian by asking three New York City based, African-American, female poets to share with us poems pertaining to African-American womanhood. The three poets included Jennifer Falu; writer, poet and teacher T’ai Freedom Ford and writer, poet and director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Mahogany Browne. Sadly, due to time constraints only Mahogany Browne and T’ai Freedom Ford were included in the mural.
In celebrating these poets Jess + I chose to include verses of their poems as halos around their heads. Mahogany Browne’s halo is extracted from her poem “Black Girl Magic.”
They say you ain’t posed to be here
You ain’t posed to wear red lipstick
You ain’t posed to wear high heels
You ain’t posed to smile in public
You ain’t posed to smile no where, girl
You ain’t posed to be more than a girlfriend
You ain’t posed to get married
You ain’t posed to want no dream that big
You ain’t posed to dream at all
You ain’t posed to do nothing but carry babies
And carry weaves
And carry felons
And carry families
And carry confusion
And carry silence
And carry a nation — but never an opinion
You ain’t posed to have nothing to say
unless its a joke
Cause you ain’t posed to love yourself Black Girl
You ain’t posed to find nothing worth saving in all that brown
You ain’t posed to know that Nina Beyonce Tina Cecily Shonda Rhimes shine shine shine
You ain’t posed to love your mind
You ain’t posed to love
You ain’t posed to be loved up on
You only posed to pose voodoo Chile’ vixen style
You posed to pop out babies & hide the stretch marks
You posed to be still
So still they think you statue
So still they think you a chalked outline
So still they keep thinking you stone
Until you look more Medusa than Viola Davis
Until you sound more Shenananay than Kerry Washington
Until you more side eye than Michelle Obama on a Tuesday
But You tell them you are more than a hot comb & a wash n set
You are kunta kente’s kin
You are a black Girl worth remembering
& You are a threat knowin yourself
Loving your kin
Loving your children
you black girl magic
you black girl flyy
you black girl brilliance
you black girl wonder
you black girl shine
you black girl bloom
you black girl black girl
And you turning into a beautiful blk woman right before they eyes
T’ai Freedom Ford shared her poem “I Sell the Shadow to Sustain the Substance” which she dedicates to African-American conceptualist Glenn Ligon and to Sojourner Truth. Verses of her poem were projected onto her and used in her halo.
“I Sell the Shadow to Sustain the Substance”
As a Black woman I am untitled – nameless.
My heart a faint glow of neon wire buzzing toward some shameless demise.
I stand against walls looking nonchalant.
Flashbulbs mistake me for celebrity or bored whore.
As Black woman I am installation art as negress.
My heart a black plastic bag ghosting streets.
What parts of me ain’t for sale as woman?
A sincere word of thanks goes out to Gaia, the Kingston O Positive Festival, Michael Pisacane, Andrew Erdos, Clara Darrason, Mahogany Browne, T’ai Freedom Ford, Jennifer Falu, Jess X. Chen and the good people of Kingston, NY.
with mahogany browne, jennifer falu, t’ai freedom ford and jess x. chen.