I’ve been awed and inspired by the resistance and resilience that today’s generation of young activists demonstrated over these past weeks, with a widespread mobilization of people power compelling long overdue action and serious global engagement to eradicate longstanding systemic injustices and inequities.
I felt honored when Phong Bui, the Brooklyn Rail’s editor, recently asked me to engage in a conversation with the philosopher Mackenzie Wark for “The New Social Environment,” a recurrent live online event held via Zoom with artists, thinkers, activists and influencers. In the magazine’s June 2020 issue you can read an edited transcript of our wide-ranging conversation, which revisits my early experiences as a young artist engaging racial and gender stereotypes while challenging social norms as well as those of the art world of the 1990s, many of which have remain entrenched to the present day.
Iconic self-portraits produced in my youth as well as images of my latest work punctuate our conversation, including The Watering Hole and selections from my Ektachrome Archive, which offers a visual history recalling formative personal moments and seminal public events such as the Black Popular Culture conference held jointly at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York and the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1991 and the “Black Nations/Queer Nations?” conference of 1995 on lesbian and gay sexualities in the African diaspora—a reminder of earlier voices of resistance whose concerns still echo in present day protests.
As another art form with the special power to transport us back in time, music has always been a force of connection and inspiration when living through difficult times. Recently the Dia Center for the Arts affirmed this by having commissioned a series of music playlists curated by artists. While together “sheltering in place” in the Hudson Valley during the early days of the pandemic, I collaborated with artist/writer extraordinaire Rico Washington to compile a diverse selection of twenty-four cuts ranging from The Dream That We Fell Out Of by Sonny Rollins and Afro Blue by Abbey Lincoln to Chopin’s Piano Sonata #3 in B Minor. I invite you to check out our unique playlist on Spotify, a musical time capsule reflecting the shifting moods of two creative spirits.
Finally, in light of all that we’ve been experiencing, I want to share a piece that I was recently inspired to write as a letter to my young self, reflecting on the complicated promise of freedom, both personally and politically:
I just want you to know that I love you, that I respect and have trust in you. I understand you’ve had many disappointments in your life. Yet as Essex Hemphill said to you, these warrior marks that you have earned have been your saving grace. It’s time to take that abundance of love, the surplus of grace you have been anointed, and transform it into a deeper service to others. I trust that the many obstacles you have faced over 55 years time have shown you that you are a leader and that you can take this time of deep social unrest, violence, and uprising to speak truth to power. You can find a way, as you have done for the past 30+ years, to provide a healing balm to others through your work, your art, and your gentle and abundant heart. Your brokenness has given you so much, you’re a survivor and thriver. Stay close to that which affirms and nurtures you and begin to go deeper in the process and understand this is necessary work. When this is over, whether victory or defeat, this voice, my voice, your voice, matters. Be the custodian that you are and sing its praises. Sing the praises of the deep love in your community. Affirm the grace of love and healing that Blackness has given you, for you have been anointed with the gifts of being seen and of being witnessed by so many. Drink deep of that. Affirm it. Affirm the wellspring of Africa, America, the global resistance to white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Work in your community to speak to the neocolonialism in our hearts and in our bodies, in our sex and in our fantasies. I’m so grateful to be sober. To not be in fantasy during this period of the pandemic and this uprising, but to be fully present. I am here fully loving myself and practicing containment without the need, a minute at a time, for the hit, the “like,” the me, me, me. I am free just for now—I’m free to create, to practice joy, to soar. I am enough—filled with gratitude for allowing me to share and trust more, to love more, to give more.