Creating Through the Pain: Interviews and Reflections on 'Listen, Look'
My latest work for Long Wharf Theatre
As we approach a full year of dealing with COVID-19, a new "normal" forms through legislature and community action. For Black and brown communities, we're disproportionately affected by not only the virus but also the failures of federal and state governments to provide relief. In these times of duress, we walk on the over-beaten path of resilience brutally embedded into our spirits so deeply like a trench hidden in the darkness of the ocean’s depths. We watched and listened with tight chests and clenched jaws as the news reported yet another Black person brutalized by white supremacists. We marched and protested with the ever-present threat of COVID-19 and death by law enforcement. We share this collective experience whether we are in the thick of taking action or coming across a GoFundMe link for a family affected by violent conditions. However, we live an individual reality as well and these everyday experiences also shape the ways we react and respond to our environment and circumstances.
This journey of resilience requires us to adapt, become more resourceful, and embrace vulnerability to achieve personal freedom. I observe how the sliver of space given to our needs and representation is adorned with hoops through which to bound and leap. The entitlement to our gratitude for meagerly acknowledging our humanity is presumptuous. I recognize we often find ourselves walking the tightrope of a line between staying silent or making noise—that noise being our individual truths. When I’m in a space where grief strikes like a forceful blow, stealing the breath from my lungs, I am less able to receive joy. It is here in this space where I must learn to transmute the arduous weight of grief. These are the moments where the weight feels heaviest, and I have no other option but to embrace it.
This transformation of grief illuminates the road to joy and creation. We are often much too comfortable with the gravitas of grief and with hardening ourselves to withstand the pressure. There is an innate power in knowing grief and its many faces, and Black people historically use this power to create and maintain an oral and visual history encasing the lessons of our personal and collective trials and tribulations. The evocation of joy through music, poetry, visual and performing arts not only validates the reality we face but also creates a space for healing and learning. We are on the precipices of reclaiming power over our bodies and our experiences by being the voice, movement, canvas, and pages where these stories live and breathe. This expression requires space, transparency and compassion.
Here in New Haven, some may argue that there is diversity in artistic spaces and with the stories they tell. However, for many Black artists here, that expression is quite limited and spaces glow red from bureaucratic obstacles like funding and space due to racial biases. When I saw Salwa Abdussabur promoting their live EP, Breath, as a part of the “Listen, Look” installation, I wanted to support them. I’ve worked closely with Abdussabur and other Black artists in Connecticut over the past five years and this taught me the importance of showing up for my peers. Empathy and cultural connection are vital ingredients to collaboration especially when it comes our differences. I was elated to see a Black woman spearheading this project and I immediately reached out to the curator, Precious Musa. Poet and pending MFA graduate of Washington University, Musa recognized the importance of having this space herself and sought to provide other Black artists with an opportunity to exist freely as well. I had the pleasure of speaking with Musa about the road to organizing and curating her first (virtual) art installation, “Listen, Look: A Reconciliatory Journey Through Black Grief and Joy”.
Musa is currently living in St. Louis as she prepares to complete her MFA program in a couple of months. Last week we convened over Zoom to peel back the layers needed to bring this installation to fruition. The sun was shining and the energy of the day buzzed with opportunities to create from a place of joy. After we gave each other a synopsis of who we are and what we do, it was time to dive into the details of “Listen, Look.”
Ashley Raymond: With “Listen, Look”, how did you come up with the name, and how did your personal evaluation of your creative process lead you to curating this installation?
Precious Musa: The idea did form, or began to want to form, in a more concrete way at the end of 2019. At the time, I was working with a professor whose class I was taking and he was like “at one point, you have to stop theorizing and having these anxieties around it and just do it.” In that theorizing, anxious place, I was like “okay what exactly am I doing? If this is called a reconciliatory journey through Black grief and joy, am I just using Black people as a catalyst for other people’s reconciliation?” I had a lot of friction in me because I was like “am I just doing the thing that I don’t like [it] when other people do?” Yes, giving Black artists a platform but giving them a platform to speak their truths to elicit some type of empathy that I know doesn’t resonate with white people? So I struggled a lot at the beginning with how to frame it and how to do the installation in a way that really was just me trying to create a space for me and these other Black artists to create a Black world where we’re just thinking about ourselves and our different identities.
AR: How did you navigate through the process of funding this project?
PM: Ms. Lois [Conley] at The Griot [Museum of Black History] really did just take me under her wing. She’s applying to grants all the time. She was able to put the verbiage of the installation in the grants that she was already applying to, so that was really helpful. Then, the grant that I applied to through Wash[ington] U, I didn’t get the full amount I asked for. I got that grant before Summer 2020 and it was hard to realize that I have to fill out this and this and this. Yeah, I'm interfacing with this institution that is keeping this money and also makes you go through all these hoops to get it. And then you may not even get it. When I did get the money even though it was less than half of what I asked, there’s so many steps that I now have to take so that they can see ‘Oh we put our money towards a good thing. It did have some impact’. The survey link, QR code at the end was required in some ways, right? I had pushback for that at the beginning because it bothered me that in order for them to feel good about giving money to a Black person, they needed results.
AR: How did you discover these artists and how did you get everyone to convene?
PM: I just put a call out to artists and disperse that link among like, different groups that I was a part of, and trying to become a part of in St. Louis. Then I did interviews and knew that I also wanted to create a space that was mostly like queer too. And just lifting up those voices quite a bit, which happened, and that was beautiful for me. We were gonna meet in person but the pandemic hit. I was like, okay, we had our first zoom call, I think March of 2020. It was cool. It was like introductions. We sort of just got down to it. I was like “We can talk about why y’all applied” and from there I think I had us doing a check in every three weeks throughout 2020. I really wanted it to be like a very collaborative space. So I was always updating them. I was very transparent about the process. We did dress rehearsals throughout January  then recording days at the beginning of February.
I had the opportunity to gather more insight from some of the artists about their journey creating the works for this project. Physical distance and social distancing kept us from congregating in person, but I sent out some questions via email to check in and get a deeper look into how participating in the “Listen, Look” installation impacted them. Shevaré Perry (poet and visual artist), Raja Zuri Nairobi (dancer), and Jason Vasser-Elong (author and poet) grant us a further glance into their artistic process and growth.
AR: How did working on this installation help you reconcile your own grief and/or joy?
Shevaré Perry: For me, working on this installation showed me exactly how compartmentalized I am. I knew that I was, but I didn't know to what extent. I compartmentalize different sides of myself and my emotions. This awareness of different versions of self and distinct separation of emotions led me to assign emotions (joy and grief) to parts of myself. Thinking on this idea of various versions of self; I created the short poem, She is Her, I am She.
Jason Vasser-Elong: I dedicated this installation to my best friend, who took his own life in early December of 2020. His passing felt so different than losing a relative to an illness or of natural causes and I didn’t know how to cope, at first. I’m a writer, and penned a poem that I read for his funeral, but found myself unable to write after all of the dust settled. I needed something different to do with my hands, so I painted instead. And I found joy in doing so.
AR: Did being a part of this project teach you something about yourself as a Black person and artist?
Raja Zuri Nairobi: I've learned that being a part of this has taught me that no matter what's going on all over the world, or in our personal lives at the same time, we all need one another. We must have love, prayer, meditation and self care. We're just passing through this life. This world is not our home.
JVE: It did,it showed me that I can be vulnerable. That creating art can serve as a form of therapy while also living as a statement of beauty. As a black man, I live in that liminal space; the therapy of mutual understanding always sits juxtaposed the sheer magnificence of being black, at least in this country. Art has been the gateway for me to find ways of expression that allow for the shared experiences of being black to exist in safe spaces. It allows for questions to be entertained that should be in our daily interactions. I think, oddly enough, that being Black is an art in and of itself. If you think about it, black people continuously reinvent themselves and are generally creative. We have to be.
AR: How are you looking to move forward with your art?
SP: I am looking to connect with more galleries, museums, and publications. Feel free to connect with me on IG at shevare_theartist. I am also excited to continue with She is Her, I am She. She is Her, I am She is the start of a multidisciplinary project that will include new media, photography, and filmmaking. She is Her, I am She will also be a future solo exhibition.
RZN: I'm looking to move forward in exploring globally how others project their grief. I'd like to be the vessel to impart joy and strength through dance.
JVE: It would be a lie to tell you that I write every day, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I am always thinking about the craft, writing poems, essays, and stories. I am working on a collection of creative nonfiction, and will continue to paint and explore ways of healing, in addition to seeking professional help where appropriate. Appearing in this installation was the first time in which I was referred to as a visual artist and so who knows. Perhaps as I find new pathways of approaching the written word, I will also pick up a paintbrush from time to time. Either way, I will give God the Glory as I try to make sense of the world around me the best the way that I know how.
The other artists involved include Salwa Abdussabur, Mozella Ward, Lillian Gardner, Maurice Tracy and De'Joneiro Jones. When it comes to creating space for truth, we must also accept the discomfort that truth brings. Precious Musa and The Griot recognized the need to cultivate space for the realities of the Black experience specifically told by Black people. We are granted little to no freedom to exist in full with our complexities and imperfections and recognize our humanity. Yet, as we tear down the walls suffocating us and rebuild from the ashes of loss, we blaze a trail for revolution and the power to thrive.
Watching the installation during its premiere truly brought me into a space of understanding of experiences to which I could and could not relate. As Musa mentioned earlier, these works stimulated a conversation within myself about my experiences with grief and joy. Writing is my art and ‘Listen, Look’ provided an opportunity for me to connect with my artistic and emotional expression. Throughout the installation