The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues
SEPT 2020 Issue
Art In Conversation

TORKWASE DYSON with Robert R. Shane

“A close distance and a far distance can only be collapsed with touch. I'm pulled in by this productive tension.”

Portrait of Torkwase Dyson, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Torkwase Dyson, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.

In abstract paintings and sculpture, as well as architectural projects, Torkwase Dyson explores visually and materially how Black and Brown bodies move through spaces. Spanning great distances both geographic and temporal, Dyson’s work bears witness to the histories and futures of Black liberation and environmental racism.

This summer, Dyson sat down for a live online conversation with the Brooklyn Rail as part of its New Social Environment series. The present interview contains excerpts from that conversation, including select audience questions, as well as a private interview.

Dyson responds with urgency to the current and ongoing racist violence and environmental crisis, celebrates the improvisational work of Black geniuses, and shares how she creates liberatory spaces of belonging.

Robert R. Shane (Rail): Torkwase, you’ve written that “The design of our physical world informs the methods in which motion emerges and spatial strategy is organized. For Black people, moving through a given environment comes with questions of belonging and a self-determination of visibility and semi-autonomy.” One of the things that strikes me in terms of visibility are the mirrored surfaces in a number of works, but particularly Nautical Dusk (2018) which remembers Samuel Osborne. Osborne was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833 and migrated to Maine in 1865 where he worked for several decades as a janitor at Colby College where you sited your work. What is your strategy as you employ mirrors?

Torkwase Dyson: We talked a bit about mirror as metaphor and mirror as idea of recognition. Further how humans look to see themselves at a certain register around the world. I’m interested in those ideas but I use reflective surfaces in different ways to create conditions of refractions and create conditions of reflection, so that when the viewers enter the space, there’s an inherent awareness of the architecture of the building, the architecture of the work and the different surfaces in the paintings.

The mirrors allow, in particular, conditions of architecture where the geometries are shooting/projecting through a space and the viewers to feel embedded. So there’s a condition around—a sort of body-politic—being embedded in a space. How do we come to each other in these sort of architectural spaces that are made to display art objects and become a part of that? How do we create a space that welcomes a sociality? How do we create a space that welcomes and acknowledges the interiority? How do we create a space where both of those things, in public and private, invite improvisation and understand that there’s power and that there’s a lot of places where improvisation—as we talk about public space and what’s improvisation and the intelligence beyond, with improvisations are not acknowledged and invited out. So I think as I make these installations, I’m trying to invite things out of the viewer. I’m trying to invite things out of the guest that have necessarily been not regarded as something that is beautiful or about freedom/liberation.

Rail: There is also with the refraction a sense of displacement…and moments of instability. It seems this instability can be used to critique or deconstruct oppressive structures. Is instability as a liberatory strategy in your work?

Dyson: Well, I think instability is tricky, right? I mean, politically. I’m not sure I think about it directly in my work, but I think it’s tricky as a condition in the sense that people who live in a condition of constant instability, that can be used as a weapon and/or instability can be used as a kind of condition or tool for freedom.

For a people that have systematically, through film, through law, through image, been fixed, to destabilize that, or to behave, to perform, and to create conditions where that destabilization really rocks or, I’ll say, shutter those things that are trying to fix you, that can be a mode of resistance, yes.

Torkwase Dyson,<em> I Can Drink the Distance: Plantationocene in 2 Acts</em>, November 19, 2019. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Hyla Skopitz.
Torkwase Dyson, I Can Drink the Distance: Plantationocene in 2 Acts, November 19, 2019. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Hyla Skopitz.

That can be a mode of refusal. To employ a condition of destabilization upon someone who is only trying to fix you as one material…or a non-human, is a way to get out of that, and to destabilize a kind of economic condition that is built on non-renewable resources. What does it mean to destabilize, or unkeep, or undo? So that’s what I mean. Destabilization can be a tool of resistance, when it’s deployed for justice/liberation and to attain a kind of morality that is inherent in your own being when other people are trying to erase that.

Rail: Speaking of the economic condition of non-renewable resources, let’s talk about your work on the environment and the Plantationocene, a term used by Donna Haraway and others to highlight that the Anthropocene has always been racialized in ways that the term “Anthropocene” masks by reducing the climate crisis to species-level thinking. It also shows the way in which the logic and the structures of the plantation and the plantation economy, particularly within global capitalism, are still operative today.

Dyson: When I became aware of the way in which we were using resources to power public and private spaces that were unsustainable—coal, oil—I also understood the history of plantation slavery, and cotton plantation was another agricultural condition that was also unsustainable. So I began to think about resources and energy and the ways in which again, sociality, publics, can happen, in relation to light and renewable energy…and to play with solar technology. In my first public work thinking about renewables I used an off-grid solar system, where we had a small battery bank. It was a short installation, it was a test, and it failed in a lot of ways because the object itself wasn’t sustainable and the artistic infrastructure that was around it wasn’t sustainable. But I took this moment to think about public nomadicity and movement even further. I'd begun to think about my architecture.

My first adventure into architectural spaces was Studio South Zero (SSZ). This is where I started making places that could be shared. It is a small piece that was a half of a Quonset hut made from modular wood components that Theaster Gates invited me to make in the back of his house in 2010. I had been talking to him about this idea of solar energy, renewable energy, spaces for people to create something around architecture and modularity. I knew architecture as a general form in the West was never built for Black bodies, so I wanted to make something that invited these questions of what if we had a space that was embedded with us, by us, with our needs and senses and sensibilities, and then use it, with that embeddedness inherent in the space, use it to create other kinds of conditions.

Torkwase Dyson, I Am Everything That Will Save Me (Bird and Lava), 2020. Acrylic and string on wood, 36 inch diameter. © Torkwase Dyson. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Kris Graves.

So I made it for myself as a studio but then invited other artists—Duriel E. Harris the sound artist—I invited artists in particular who used electricity in their work. I opened the space up, I invited people in, and then they had, in SSZ, studio visits, and we had very small to large audiences come in and listen to Duriel. I learned the kind of energy she needed to power her work, day and night. So again, using this idea of renewable energy to teach myself how to think about solar technology and the equipment behind it, but also at the same time, learn more about nomadic architecture and architecture mobility.

For In Conditions of Fresh Water (2016) Danielle Purifoy from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University invited me to bring the second iteration of SSZ, a solar powered mobile studio on wheels to the South. Danielle was a doctoral fellow at the time, and she was studying the infrastructural rights of Black people in the Black Belt.

We’d gone from North Carolina to Alabama interviewing people who were having conversations about their community and their land and new infrastructures that were coming south for what I would describe as a new colonization of the south. An expansion of economic industries and trains, new train stations and new kinds of infrastructures in relation to old undeveloped infrastructures. Questions of water and health and displacement were the issues that Danielle was looking to talk to people about in her ongoing work. So she asked me, “Could we collaborate?” And I said, “Yeah what do you need?” And she was like, “I need a microphone.” I got her a microphone. We needed desks, I got her desks. I need a chair; I got a chair. So SSZ_2 became her office and we would drive it and whatever she’d need I’d put inside of it. I didn't participate in the interviews. I was really adamant that I was there to serve Danielle’s research needs. And in each community we drove this small architecture to, all of these relationships got built and made strong because we were practicing autonomy and semi-autonomy. Which is the question all liberated people always ask.

John Cappetta: Regarding questions of water, I’ve also been thinking a lot recently, in general, but particularly in the last week with Elijah Weatherspoon’s mysterious death in the waters around Charleston, that there’s this really strong, quiet history of Black Americans trying to reclaim—fighting to reclaim—the ocean as a space, outside of the Middle Passage like the wade-in protests. I’m really interested in how you think about the subaqueous and the ocean as a space that you kind of inhabit and work with.

Dyson: Sure. Katherine McKittrick talks about the ocean as geography, and I understand it as a complex place that has been riddled with extraction. I also understand it as the peoples in the Carolinas, in the Gullah region, understand water as culture. And the history of water as metaphor, and water as a way back—and all of the poets who are in relation to movement and water and how that language comes out. So I’m interested in that.

My scuba diving comes from wanting to see what extraction points look like. What does it mean to have an artificial reef? What does it mean to physically take my body to this ginormous extraction point in the middle of the ocean. And then the Gulf Coast, mainly because that’s where my people are from. So, next to New Orleans, next to Texas. And to get out there and see, by means of these artificial reefs, those sites that disseminated marine life, actually, and ironically, become a site where marine life is now gathering because coral reef has attached to the bottom of these extraction points. So what does it mean to understand that kind of cycle of condition of lived experiences? And what does it mean to understand how water works in relationship to culture, in relationship to memory. In my work I have to understand ecology and geography as an ongoing condition of Blackness. So when I go to the ocean now, and go out to these points, I understand the distance that I have from my ancestors, but I also understand that their bodies, their energies, their essences, are absolutely wrapped in those regions.

Torkwase Dyson, <em>I Can Drink the Distance: Plantationocene in 2 Acts</em>, November 19, 2019. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Torkwase Dyson, I Can Drink the Distance: Plantationocene in 2 Acts, November 19, 2019. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Maria Baranova.

So when I go out there I see architecture on top, you see the infrastructure on the bottom, and then beneath that water, you see droves and droves of marine life—that kind of complexity in, on my body, is translated into the paintings. So, I know what water 100 feet above me feels like on my body. I know the weight of that. So I think about scale, scale in relationship to the paintings, but also scale also in relationship to industrialization. And as we try to move toward something of a democratic industrial condition, as we try to do these things, we have to unkeep how we understand scale. Women in the Gullah, who understand water as culture, and as our sea levels are rising and that culture is now being very much compromised and disproportionately compromised around the planet for people of color, what does it mean to understand those complexities? So, that’s the liquidity in the work. It’s the water in the work. It’s the ocean in the work. It’s the Atlantic Ocean; it’s the Indian Ocean; it’s the rivers; it’s the ponds; it’s the meadows; all of these things that we all belong to, no matter the distance. So I think it’s imperative that we, all over the planet, who have life in water, recognize it, and know that it’s a lifeforce and continues to be.

Rail: I hear a transtemporal quality as you talk about water in relation to memory and culture. You’ve written about beginning your work from a state of deep subjectivity, in your drawings in particular, aligning your thoughts with Black spatial strategies; so there’s is a connection to the past: bearing witness to and embodying histories as you’re working with the shapes that ancestors’ bodies have inhabited. And as a liberation strategy your work points to a future.

Installation view: Studies for Bird and Lava, Pace Gallery, East Hampton, August 1 - 9, 2020. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

However, I know that instead of talking about time so much, you prefer the term distance. The work at the Sharjah Biennial was titled I Belong to the Distance (2019), and you have a number of other works with “distance” in the title. What is that the concept of distance affords you that you get that you can’t get from, say, a notion of space or time?

Dyson: Often the work can be discussed under the umbrella of something temporal, I completely understand that, but what I like to think about in relation to distance and these liberation strategies is: What does it mean to imagine the distance? What does it mean to think about a kind of structural condition of globalization, and globalization in this sort of macro way, in relationship to geography, but also to the quotidian, in relationship to intimacy. So oftentimes in my work, I’m trying to get at something that hasn’t been asked before. So, when I think about these histories of liberation today and then, I wanted to set up a condition or a question that I needed to figure out that wasn’t about time, that in the question in itself, set up a different understanding that then I could bring into a form and communicate the very tension of distance, like going from one place to another, movement from one site of intimacy, to another site of complete dispossession.

And because of the whole conversation about climate migration, and the future of climate migration, and the history of self-emancipation, I’m more interested in thinking about distance as it relates to liberation and movement, in the work at least. So it brings a sense of tension to my surface, it brings a sense of urgency to the geometry; it brings a sense of projection, that lends a kind of force.

I did not realize that last year and the year before, I had spent so much time thinking about distance, and I didn’t realize or know COVID would sort of drop upon us, and everyone now is talking about this idea of distance, distancing. So, this sort of moment where we’re social distancing…I’m struggling with, around that language. Because I have been thinking about distance in other ways. And so, that’s okay. I’m still struggling with it, and using that word so frequently in relation to the history of movement, of peoples, all across the planet, by choice and by force. What does it mean to think about distance in that way, and to understand that those distances are related—very much related—to climate change, very much related to what we talk about in the Plantationocene. So I’m very careful, I’m still very careful and cautious around conceptualizing distance in the way that informs my work.

Rail: I think distance, as opposed to a sort of abstract notion of time or Euclidean space, affords a way to talk about—well, it’s relational. It has the potential for making a connection—a distance in time can be traversed in a work that brings, say, your long time collaborator Zachary Fabri’s body in contact with Osborne’s in his performance on your work at Colby, Osborne’s Ascent. Your work acts as a sort of conduit to close that distance, or bring these two bodies together.

Dyson: Well let me say something because you dropped “Euclidean” in there. I just want to decolonize that. I want to point to distance and movement and architecture and a shape-language that I learned and I think about through African nomadic architecture. So, I’m thinking about the Tuareg women, Tuareg women who create these modular architectural conditions, with their body, with materials, with the idea of kind of impermanence. So what does it mean to belong to a people whose very existence is a nomadic existence, so that other ideas of permanence and impermanence, and stability and instability, can live in relationship, in relation, to the environment that you’re embedded in.

So, I need to go back and maybe recalibrate and self-direct this a bit and say that those are the kind of histories, and so the idea of time is completely different. It’s a non-Western condition, and so ideas of distance in relationship to peoples on the continent who are very much acutely already in relationship to sustainable living and helping each other move and transverse geographies in that way. […] I have these structures in mind, but what makes everything liquid about my work are these histories of being Black and being in relationship to a continental intelligence, the intelligence of the continent, right? So that, I just want to make sure that that bend and that curve, in these geometries, in the hands of a Tuareg woman, you know, that’s a kind of magic.

Rail: These geometries and the notion of nomadicity play a role in your homage to historical Black geniuses. Your core visual vocabulary consists of the rectangle, the triangle, and the curve, and each of these is taken from Black individuals who traversed geographies in the United States to escape slavery. Henry Box Brown had himself shipped in a rectangular box from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia in 1849. The triangle is culled from the experiences of Harriet Jacobs who had spent seven years in a triangular prismatic space above a porch, recounted in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). And your third shape is the curve which comes from the hull of a ship that Anthony Barnes escaped in from Richmond to Boston in 1854.

Dyson: This idea that I'm trying to develop—it’s a form that for lack of a better term right now I'm thinking about as a hypershape. And the hypershape is geometry culled from history of Black liberation…. When you think about these histories you see that each one of these individuals self-liberated through a kind of architecture whether they found the architecture or built it. For instance, Box Brown built the architecture; Harriet Jacobs found the architecture. So what I'm doing is thinking about these ideas of improvisation, infrastructure, architecture, and thinking through, as a painter, a system that I'll need to produce something—that’s paintings and drawings—that reflect that liberation, that reflect that freedom, that reflect that knowledge, that reflect that sense of movement and insistence on liberation by any means necessary.

So what I've done is taken those three geometries and married them together in an abstraction. And I listen to music as I often do when I'm trying to evoke a sense of improvisation that I can't necessarily do on my own at the moment. The Hypershape Drawing (2018) came out of one-minute drawings listening to Cecil Taylor. I use gouache, I take these large brushes and I sort of go at these 9 by 12 inch pieces of watercolor paper, so they’re all very quick. I don’t overthink them. They’re usually no more than three marks, and they're all wet. I let the wetwork dry and then I go over them with ink. So then what happens is that there are these ink marks that become very much about a rectilinear condition. As I build these rectilinear marks on top of this wetwork, what emerges for me as an artist is a sense of perception again, of what it means to think about movement and distance and pressure and ideas that are really paying homage to and regarding a kind of Black liberation strategy that we always constantly need.

Torkwase Dyson, Space as Form: Movement 1 (Bird and Lava), 2020. Acrylic on canvas 40 1/4 x 48 inches. © Torkwase Dyson. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Kris Graves.

I don't mean to reference these histories directly, what I mean to do is bring them into my work, create a poetic abstraction, and understand that I am in the register of belonging to those histories. So, yeah, that’s what the hypershape is for me. It’s a system that I've constructed in my studio where when I wear the hat of a geometrist, I can create abstractions that are from a kind of lexicon or idiosyncratic language that I've developed and then use them to make something, I think, that I want to share with the world that says, hey, what is it again about this interiority? What is it again about reaching for a moment of vision outside of oneself, and to connect with these histories that are ongoing, you know? It’s an urgency that I feel that I needed to respond to in my work, but I needed it to have a sort of ontology that’s very different than the histories and the ways of becoming unlearned in this sort of western world, right, by way of all these other kinds of systems.

Sheila Pepe: One of the best things about this work is how well you repossess and realign formal art, the formal aspects of artmaking. And so you’re struggling between many things, I feel deeply the fluidity is about coming from this intergenerational space of, I’ll say, transport, and your artmaking and art objects and this idea of sustainability is so embodied that there’s no parallel for it now that we’re having to do all this stuff by Zoom. And so I want to re-offer something that we talked about a lot in the ’90s which was parallax. And wonder what happens now that you’re forced to use your eyes so much more than, like an anecdote to, for the other thing. Can you maybe riff on this idea of parallax works while we’re distanced physically, and having to strain through the computer screen?

Dyson: Yeah. I was talking to someone the other day about this condition of being inside, and being inside but moving around, but not moving around in a way that is very measured. So, what I’ve been doing is going into a place where I’ve been afraid to go. So, Dionne Brand talks about in The Blue Clerk (2018) this idea of the left hand. Like, what are the things that you would never, that I would never do? And what are the things that I haven’t really thought about? And what do I have? And that keeps the creative condition generous? I keep trying to stabilize my own emotions when all of this hate and violence and dispossession is happening. And how do I use my own safety and my own resources to go in my own creative self, not think about it as a limitation, but think about it as there’s somewhere in there you haven’t gone in a long time.

I made a video thinking there’s some place I hadn’t gone in myself in a long time. I have this building, you know, it’s an empty storage building. I have a good friend of mine, Shani Ha, who makes body sculptures, and I have this 46-year-old body. And I used to—you know, I majored in ballet in high school, and I was trained under a condition of many, many African dance traditions in Chicago, mainly Muntu. And I needed to really face who I was, who I am as an adult artist, that had something else that needed to come out.

And so that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to, with this condition, dig into what is already inside of me, and listen closer to people I’ve listened to before, and to reread and rethink work from artists like someone like Mendi + Keith Obadike. To revisit poetry that really, some of the reason why I have the tattoos that I have, these older memories of the body that I felt really self-conscious about. And movements, and ideas that made me feel messy and vulnerable, and pull those things out, right? And I think the way we can be together right now is to go inside ourselves and dig out places that we haven't seen in a long time, and then share that with somebody else. So that’s my riff on that.

Rail: And in the past few months you’ve also been working on animated drawings, as well as performances in isolation. So there seems to be a new shift happening in this work, organic and expressive elements no longer tempered by the geometries we’ve just been talking about?

Dyson: So, I think I’ll just talk about this sort of moment in time, and the recent—the most recent—state-sanctioned murder. I’ll say this: As you know, I went to Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi. Before I was at Tougaloo, I was in Chicago. So I went from Chicago to Mississippi, to Virginia, to North Carolina, from Chicago—so I’ve traversed these southern states, and understood. And northern, midwestern states, and then the north. And understood what it meant to live in different places in the United States where violence was in the fabric of the police, which meant it was in the fabric of the economy, which meant it was in the fabric of the capital condition. So this sort of supercapitalism, and the violence of racism, and the terror of white supremacy, it always reveals itself. It never goes away. It always reveals itself, in this way that shocks some, but does not shock most. So in this moment, we were already inside, we were already sort of distancing, and I needed to figure out how to really deal with what I was seeing in terms of Black bodies now, in relation to the history of Black bodies.

So I turned to my desk in my apartment in Harlem, I made things very small. I sat at a table and literally started drawing and needed more. I needed something to do with my hands. I needed to get away from all the screenwork, I needed the haptic right away. I needed to put some immediacy in my life. So these animations come out of a moment where I needed improvisation. I needed to embody what it meant to be alive and touch and stay grounded. All of those animations are made in one, maybe two sittings. They’re all made with my camera, and they have been a real moment of meditation for me, because as I’m making them, I’m listening to Dionne Brand; I’m listening to Angela Davis, I’m listening to Robin Kelly; I’m listening. And I needed to, in lieu of moving around, you know. I’m a scuba diver; I walk; I move around the planet, and I needed to feel liquid. I needed to feel earthed. I needed to make space. So those kind of come out of a need to—and I missed, you know, being touched. So they came out of all those things. And they’re still coming out of those things. I really can’t at this moment explain what they are, what they do, or how they work. I just know that they’re new in my practice, and I’m going to make them as long as they make me feel right.

Torkwase Dyson, <em>I Can Drink the Distance: Plantationocene in 2 Acts</em>, November 19, 2019. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Maria Baranova.
Torkwase Dyson, I Can Drink the Distance: Plantationocene in 2 Acts, November 19, 2019. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Rail: I thought we could talk about the role of the haptic in your work. Merleau-Ponty wrote that “to see is to have at a distance,” by which he meant we know what things will feel like by merely looking at them, thus demonstrating that the optic and the haptic are intertwined. But as I re-read that quotation after seeing your work, I keep coming back to that word distance, particularly given what you were saying earlier about that word. Now, in a time of social distancing, we’ve become acutely aware of how sight without touch can be heartbreaking, as we long to embrace friends and loved ones again. And I also can’t help but think again of Harriet Jacobs, whose story we told earlier, hiding in the garret for seven years only able to see her children through a peephole but not touch them, except at two moments of departure. So I am hoping you could say more about the role of the haptic in your work—surface, texture, process—but also the relationship between the haptic and the idea of distance with which you’re working.

Dyson: A close distance and a far distance can only be collapsed with touch. I'm pulled in by this productive tension. In my painting the mind/brain/body organizes the state-change of this tension. This coupling is an infrastructure for everything else to grow out of. Stillness, solitude, memory, liberation, body, presence, grace, movement, ecstasy, resistance, fire, invention…The haptic is especially inspired and informed by the technology of indigenous architecture. Because this global spatial and material methodology is prolific and the only knowledge that will put our built environments on a liberatory path in the wake of the climate crisis, I embrace it in my life's vision. Innervision. The idea of distance already built in indigenism comes out of my own work on Black Compositional Thought. Distance comes from investigating the structure of perception and movement. Black spatial strategies. Distance in the dark. Black distance is form. Dark liquid touch. Dark black liquid distance. Vision, as it is for my ancestors, is more than optical. So this in relationship to the haptic is a mediation on all the ways liberation already exists, and as rigorously as possible, my studio will be in alignment and contribute to these methods.

Rail: In opposition to the hostility of modernist architecture to Black subjectivities, architect Mario Gooden offers Amaza Lee Meredith’s home Azurest South, which she designed for herself and her partner. He notes her home is radical not so much because of its form, but how it redesigns and makes possible her autonomous movement through space, and I think this is very much about creating a space of belonging. Your exhibitions and installations are often spaces to be explored by people of color, in which your collaborators perform music, poetry, and movement. Do you see your work as constructing spaces of belonging?

Installation view: Studies for Bird and Lava, Pace Gallery, East Hampton, August 1 - 9, 2020. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Dyson: I’ve learned so much about belonging from architect/theorist Mario Gooden. We have had several conversions shaped by our ideas on this question. I'm acutely aware of what it feels like to belong. Belonging is in my soil. So my work, the installations particularly, are very much made to make manifest this belonging. I look at my installation work as service and regard my collaborators as kin to serve. Architecture/installation for kin is where I make beauty. Pure Black beauty. Everytime I make a project, that's what I’m thinking about: kinship and pure Black beauty in real time. I am very careful when building a space to be embodied. Careful enough to understand that these spaces need to speak to the scale, geography, date, conflict, poetry, improvisation, questions, theories, lived experiences that my kin bring to them. Black space is sometimes radical, sometimes not, either way I make installation architecture where liberation can be prepared and my kin are invited to have “autonomous movement through space.”

Malvika Jolly : When we spoke before, and I shared with you all my questions about your time at Yale, and institutions that take on a kind of aggressive character, you said something that really was really brilliant to me, that was because you have all these spaces that you’re embedded in already, coming in, coming out of like a historically Black college; coming out of your time at Portobelo; at these African, Panamanian communities; your time in Ghana; that by the time you got to Yale it felt like you were visiting someone else for two years and just like observing whatever the hell was going on in their house. As a person who lives in space, obviously, but also lives as a space-maker, could you talk more, first about the inhospitality of architecture and public space, to and for Black bodies, like materially, tangibly. And then second, I’m interested in hearing about those spaces that you’ve been embedded in which have been built sort of for the inherent needs of Black people, what those spaces have been like, and how they are built to do that, materially, tangibly.

Dyson: So, I’m going to give a direct answer to the first question, something I experienced. I was invited to come to Philadelphia and work with the Mural Arts program, and what I realized is that what—and this is really specific, and there are a ton of examples like this—that the Mural Arts program was an anti-graffiti program, okay? Through my eyes. So what that meant was that not only do we have cities that have been designed in relationship to labor, a hyper and modern form of colonization and imperialism, through the ways in which these cities have been built and stripped, and through the way industry in this country has been built and stripped and dismantled, right, from the institution of chattel slavery. All of it has been. All of the buildings, all of the cities, all of the suburbs, have been built in service of hypercapitalism. So if that is true, then the buildings are built for that as well, right? So they’re built for the servant, the other, to live in annex of. Mabel O. Wilson talks about this. Like how are these spaces built for the other, and in that otherness, they isolate, they divide, they lack light, they hide bodies, this is Monticello. All of these kinds of underbellies. So our bodies are not embedded in the soil. They’re not embedded in this architecture. The well-being of these conditions has nothing to do with us.

I’m talking about this sort of aggressive invisibility of Blackness and Brownness, through a kind of false legal condition, through a false complete visibility, as if portraiture can do that in a particular kind of way. And this is just one really close to my heart anecdote because it was so shocking, you know, to understand the strategy of replacing graffiti was conservative portraiture. Like, what does that mean, on buildings, inside of buildings that these children live in and move out of. So, you’re talking about outside the outside. And so I’m very constantly troubled by that. And I know teenagers belong to the streets! That’s where they are. That’s where they can be. They belong to the ways in which the outside works, that’s where they play. That’s where they live. That’s where they breathe. That’s where they sing. That’s where things are made. So the interiors that they come in, depending on what that condition is, can love them or not. But either way, those interiors aren’t historically built in a way that intends to create a revolution against capital racism. So that’s one way that these histories are built. From Monticello to Philadelphia, it’s all in there.

A different way to answer the second question is that, what does it mean to insist that the places that you occupy, the Black body is embedded in the architecture that wasn’t built for you? It takes work. It takes labor, and it takes understanding infrastructure and architecture and building and materials. It takes changing the walls. It takes painting a different—it takes song. It takes a kind of both sociality and hard science to recreate a completely new condition for another kind of lived belonging, right. So how do we offer outside a hypercapitalist condition of ownership and space and these oppressive architectures and understand, and how do we get something that wasn’t built for us, how do we get embedded into it. That is a kind of instability and an unkeeping that needs to happen. And then you replace it. You replace it with thought, Black thought. That’s it. Just to be left alone, let’s talk about Tulsa. Just to be left the fuck alone, right, is a way in which these things thrive. The way in which we thrive. Just to be left alone.

So because I come from Chicago, which is already a segregated city, I went to schools that were built for beautiful Black children. To say that the same way I think about, I mention this all the time, indigeneity. Children. What do we speak? What do we say to each other? What kind of songs do we sing? What kinds of equations do we exist with? What kind of industrial democracy with kindness do we create, in a small-scale way? So, the embeddedness is the understanding that community, education, creativity, expansion, trade, bartering, resources, food, all of these things, have to belong to the people who occupy them. They have to have some ownership over them. And that’s where the embeddedness comes in. So, I’m very fortunate that D. Soyini Madison brought me onto the planet and made sure that I went to Edward Wilmot Blyden and Ujima, Black schools that she and her friends created in Chicago. I was very fortunate that she said, “No, you’re going to go to an HBCU, let me tell you the 8,000 reasons why.” So by the time I get to Yale, my nurturing? I’m good. So I can spot the institutional racism from a mile away.

So, I’m interested in these embedded spaces, and continuing them. I’m willing to work with anyone who is on that page. With anybody. Any human who is on that page of liberation and justice and fairness. If you can get there, if you can get there. White people, if you can get yourself there, if you can get yourself—I’m not going to. If you can get yourself there, that’s what it means, to have beauty embedded in these kinds of things, you know, so I’m very fortunate to have experiences of spaces that…where I’m just fine, you know. As I am.

Read Jason Rosenfeld’s review of Torkwase Dyson: Studies for Bird and Lava here.


Robert R. Shane

Robert R. Shane is Associate Curator at the University Art Museum, Albany, NY, and a frequent contributor to the Brooklyn Rail. He received his PhD in Art History & Criticism from Stony Brook University.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues