During the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival, writer Salman Rushdie uttered the following words: “Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.” Rushdie was confronted to the ripples created by an artwork that sparked, if not a revolution, at least conversations and controversies that encouraged reevaluating current political and socio-economical conditions. Shortly after its publishing in 1989, his book The Satanic Verses was condemned by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who declared a fatwa upon him, forcing the British Indian novelist into years of hiding. Propelled to the forefront of media attention, Rushdie became an emblem for freedom of speech and didn’t cease to reassert that art’s raison d’être is to promote social, economic, political or environmental change.
For many Bay Area artists, art and activism are intertwined. So it is for ODC “Pilot 66” artist Sheena Johnson who presents DreamBoundFree this coming weekend as part of San Francisco Trolley Dances, the annual festival of site-specific dance. In a conversation over the phone a week ago, Johnson referred to herself as “an artist activist,” who is particularly interested in the notions of freedom and change. For San Francisco Trolley Dances, Johnson is creating a piece in response to the space where the work is unfolding, in front of a mural that celebrates African American female freedom fighters. The piece explores the question of freedom with the Black Lives Matter movement as a backdrop and was built on the “hands up, don’t shoot” imagery as a choreographic point of departure.
One of the featured women on the mural is singer and activist Nina Simone, and Johnson mentioned Simone’s impact on her reflections: “When asked about what she thought about the Civil Rights Movement, Nina Simone answered: ‘What Civil Rights Movement?’ and went on talking about the murder of civil rights activists. This has really stayed with me, especially when looking at Black Lives Matter and the continual fight for freedom in America. There is still so much work to be done.”
The title of Johnson’s piece is inspired both from the mural and Martin Luther King’s work, in particular his iconic “I have a dream” speech. “I was interested in the following question,” Johnson explained. “What are the ties that bind us? How do we communicate across differences? Martin Luther King said: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, we are bound together in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’ Our destiny as Americans and human beings requires us all to be involved in that conversation. What futures are possible for us in this land? What does freedom feel, taste, sound like?” For Johnson, art serves the purpose of addressing fundamental questions to bring change.
Some of Johnson’s concerns echo the issues debated during a panel discussion on art as activism that was organized by ODC as part of the NewCo Festival across the Bay Area and moderated by filmmaker and producer Michelle Hansen last week. Do artists whose work carries on a political message necessarily view themselves as activists? Why dance as a platform for activism? What are artists’ expectations in terms of how audiences receive their work? These are some of the questions that were posed to the panel, which comprised Minneapolis-based choreographer Rosy Simas and Bay Area dance makers Brenda Way and Nicole Klaymoon.
The presentation referred to works in which the three artists addressed issues such as racial profiling, censorship, and forced displacement. Thematically close to Jonhson’s upcoming piece, Nicole Klaymoon’s Chalk Outlines (2015) interweaves dance, poetry, live song, and documentary theater in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Way evoked the making of The Invention of Wings (2015), the proscenium staging of Speaking Volume, a site-specific work ODC/Dance performed in 2014 for the opening of an installation by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island. Simas introduced We Wait In The Darkness (2014) a dance that tells part of Seneca history through the personal narrative of her grandmother.
The three panelists shared some determining facts in their personal history. Simas remembered being “one of two people of color” in college. Soon after, she started a company for women who were Native or of color, before creating her current Rosy Simas Danse. Way explained how she had been influenced by the women’s movement of the 1960s in New York City, and how the images of fragile female figures that permeated the ballet world she trained in conflicted with her reality.
Simas explained that activism is not her preoccupation when she makes work. “I make dance because this is what I do. I feel strongly that being a brown body on a stage historically reserved for white performers is an act of activism. The subject matter is something I’m interested in and mostly personal. The activism becomes secondary… It’s important for me not to be commodified as a Native person. But who I am, how I grew up, who I am in my family, my tribe, my clan, make my work in the realm of activism.”
Klaymoon also debated how much of the term activism can be applied to what she does. “I don’t know if activism is something quantifiable and something that I’m doing.” But questioned about why she uses dance as a platform, she replied that she is “interested in mapping grief in the body and [unearthing] the stories that have been repressed. I’m fascinated with how dance, coupled with text, can convey subtext or activate text.”
What are these artists’ expectations regarding their audience? Simas mentioned that as an artist, “you are always thinking about who is seeing things. For me, it’s best to see myself talking to other Native people. [For] the audience who is not Native, … what they get out of it, is their own responsibility.” Differently, Way mentioned that she never has an audience in mind when she makes a piece. “Art is about values. I am proposing values, asking questions, and I hope that people will be responsive to that,” she shared.
For Klaymoon, the conversations about race or sexual trauma that are embedded in her work are “not comfortable” but hip hop’s accessibility and playfulness help carry on messages with lightness. “The humor lifts the room, it makes it ok … and allows to access deeper stuff. Sometimes dance can trigger things, but if it’s not time, don’t rush the river. If it is serving the self, if you see some healing, there is something that is chemically relieved when truth is spoken. Truth is political.”
With its ability to communicate beyond words, and convey narratives and emotions kinesthetically, dance exists as a potent platform to question and support conversations that can set change into motion. Klaymoon summarized the session by proclaiming, “the biggest artistic risk we can take is to tell the truth.”