In his video work "The Day I Stopped Kissing My Father," artist James Gregory Atkinson makes a black cock walk through the Adam Strohm Hall of the Detroit Public Library. He explains why in a conversation with author Mearg Negusse and artist and musician Ahya Simone.
Mearg Negusse Your first collaboration was in 2019 for “The Day I Stop Kissing My Father” at the Detroit Public Library, where you, Ahya, very beautifully performed a song of yours on harp in this monumental building that tells the story of the city, just through its architecture, murals, books, etc., and that appears very white, at least on the surface. And although your performance was ephemeral, it was manifested through James' recordings. How do you both feel about this project today, three years later?
Ahya Simone It’s interesting when coming back to places where depictions of what is considered as beautiful art is always depicting white people. And what’s really jarring to me, is that from my perspective these places have most likely been built by Black people in service to white people. However, it’s very nostalgic because I grew up going to that library almost every day in high school - it was a huge part of my upbringing, and it shaped my experiences around authority, around what it means to be Black in a place like in a library.
James Gregory Atkinson Interesting that you say that because I also felt very alienated by the space in a way. Although the public library does have a lot of Black employees and it does have after school programs and offer free lunches and things like that. But the building and especially these murals are almost fascist that’s why for me this project was meant to be a critique of representational exclusivity. And now when you talk about authority and your upbringing, I am thinking: what kind of authority is to be learned? What kind of knowledge is to be reproduced? Reading in Black gay tradition is a mistrust of discourse, a decorative gesture in finding flaws and exposing truths and that’s what we did at the library; we read, asked questions. Deconstructing the binarism of so called “otherness” which marks discursive alienation and domination.
What kind of authority is to be learned? What kind of knowledge is to be reproduced?
AS I mean, I have always been bearish because you have to think about the structures that are publicly funded. This is Detroit. That is the same city whose government is in cahoots and embed with investors to buy and to gentrify and make this the entrepreneurial playground for rich, affluent white people from New York or L.A. - all over the world to come in and to make Detroit better, bring Detroit back. Because these institutions are run by the government you have to keep in mind, they are public and therefore there are also a lot of poor, homeless or houseless people that we meet every day. And one thing I've learned about housing through just the Detroit landscape, but also across the country is that homeless people in public environments must be surveilled. Those are the people that we have collectively sanctioned as people that we know need to be watched.
JGA That’s why it was important for me to document the security cameras spread throughout the Adam Strohm Hall. The big black cock, alienated, walking through that space, not so big, after all, because of this huge totalitarian architecture it is surveilled from all sides. Cornered by identities (we) never wanted to claim. Historically the Black body has been oversexualized and made to be hyperverile and powerful out of a white inferiority complex. So, controlling the “others” narrative of the from a majority perspective upkeeps the power structures at place.
AS Yeah and these murals are watching, whiteness is always watching, it surveils and enforces its ideology on everyone like that. The film itself, like the black cock juxtaposed against these colonial murals and these security cameras, is very symbolic. And what I find is also illuminating to me now is, what it actually means to be Black, queer and trans in a space like that where whiteness is determined to enforce and to be an authority to surveil and control. Where I feel like, Blackness, transness, queerness, gender expansiveness serves to be free, it doesn't need to be surveilled and it doesn't need to be enforced. It just needs to be accepted as is and space to grow, and I think that, as a Black queer trans gender expansive people, you know, we are really juxtaposed against that.
JGA That was kind of the idea to bring your body, our bodies, into this space to question this kind of typical authoritative way of knowledge production. And that's also why I love you playing the harp. Because you're doing all these translationial acts within your performance, translating this classical white instrument into Black music histories, scores, language Ebonics, the way you play the harp is influenced by this multiple intersectionality. Black texts are double-voiced. Code-Switching has been our historical means of survival. But has also created this beautiful hybridity in our culture that makes the signal difference.
What I find is also illuminating to me now is, what it actually means to be Black, queer and trans in a space like that
MN Speaking of controlling one' s own narrative, that brings me to the next question. You both always work with people who are close to you. How important is it to you to implement your work with people from your community, also in terms of what you want to say as an artist?
AS I do take pride in working with people who are close to me. But when you think about it, we don't have much of a choice but to implement our projects with our community because the community is the people you know, who may live nearby, or you have had some sort of connection. And those are the best collaborations.
JGA It’s so important not to start at zero, I absolutely agree.
AS Also, in Detroit, there aren't that many funds, residencies, or anything like that for musicians or artists to really work on their art. And even the infrastructure that is there is not always really there for their own aims.
JGA But even here, I mean in Germany, we have this privilege of funding, but the institutions don't have the knowledge to contextualize or discuss your work. They can’t speak for us, and that's why we have to work together, because otherwise we would probably just make art fixated on market success, mimicking western art history.
MN Ahya, with “Femme Queen Chronicles” you had the opportunity to have not only trans women in front of the camera but also behind it, precisely because you had the funding. Enough money to hire local trans women for makeup, hair or even interns for example. Same for writing the script. That you managed to have an almost exclusively Black, trans writers room as well. That's just ideal, you know, to not only have a series about a particular perspective from Detroit, but also to have people who know that perspective and can tell those stories.
AS But you know, most of the stories of Detroit are usually not even told by people from Detroit. All I can say is that I often have no choice but to work with my community. And that's not to say that is a bad thing. I think I really love that because you know we just have a different set of values, we have something that we genuinely want to say, and that is that we really push back against the dominant culture.