Triana Davis, still from WonderLust, © Jeffrey Gibson 2018.
“It almost feels like this has been so bottled up, it just needed someone to come and just, you know, pop the cork on it.”
– artist Jeffrey Gibson
We could not have asked for a more appropriate contemporary artist for our first CAPE National Artist Residency than Jeffrey Gibson, who unleashed upon us this Summer a collaborative, process-driven art project that challenged community members to reach beyond their past and present circumstances and turn their vulnerabilities into art. The resulting video artwork, titled WonderLust, will celebrate the individualized narratives of LGBTQ Mississippians while casting them as a unified and reverberating American chorus. Gibson has roots in the Mississippi dirt, through his lineage as a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. “I have a romantic notion of Mississippi and I also have a fearful notion of Mississippi,” said Gibson, who felt during his childhood visits South that he had to edit his expansive identity to exist in these spaces. On this trip, as one of the most dynamic artists on the national scene, Gibson actively sought the unexpected and trusted it would come. This is the story of what he found.
“The South is so underrepresented and is so untapped in terms of really being able to articulate, as part of the larger picture of this country, what the trajectory is that has happened here over the last couple hundreds of years,” added Gibson. “Conversations since I've been here, about … how are the histories of civil rights taught here? How are the histories of slavery taught here? How are the histories of the Choctaw people taught here? And to see that there are equal gaps here, and for me gaps are a space for inventiveness.”
Permeating our grand project here at the Center for Art & Public Exchange is the idea that we have much to learn. We seek this education and re-education through visual art and the makers who prompt us to see the world with fresh eyes and to make meaning through piercing contemporary gaze. You would probably not blink at the notion that the state of Mississippi also has amble room to progress. But if there’s anything we’re sure of so far, it’s that the rest of the nation also has much to learn from Mississippi. The time for looking across the swaths of the deep South through a gauzy, generalized lens are long gone. It is not the case that the people here are doomed to reside in a place that H.L. Mencken described for the New York Evening Mail in 1917 as “that stupendous region of worn-out farms, shoddy cities, and paralyzed cerebrums.” Jeffrey Gibson came to unearth truths about what it means for people to aspire for more in a place so pressure-cooked by history and misunderstanding. He played multiple roles on his journey. Confidant and fellow struggler. Rockstar New York visionary and humble pupil.
“These peoples' narratives are a way for me to tell my own narrative,” said Gibson. “These people have a strength of existing as themselves here in this environment that I don't have. And so, it's a strange kind of accessing strength from people who are doing things that I'm not sure that I can do.”
The residency project took place over the course of three intensive, four-day weekends in July and August 2018. Before Gibson arrived, we invited participation through public channels and grassroots networks. Ultimately, eight LGBTQ Mississippians committed themselves to what would be a daunting and turbulent process: learning to live and work as a group; delving into childhood memory; confronting demons; exorcising (and exercising) them through meditation and self-care; writing and speaking about their truest parts; developing original characters that embodied their core strength; and performing these characters for the camera – using movement, voice, and costume – in a cabaret-style show. Each week built upon the last. What began as a loosely organized ball of proverbial clay soon became choreographed and fine-tuned form. By week two, participants were rehearsing monologues and movements in preparation for the final shoot on week three, when the group turned local LGBTQ bar and dance club WonderLust into a film set. The performances and process were to be documented by on-site videographers, providing Jeffrey Gibson with the raw material to produce a non-linear video artwork, the most nascent strain in his multidisciplinary artistic practice that includes painting, sculpture, and textiles.
“It's a continuation of me exploring movement, in particular,” Gibson said. “A lot of the physical materials I use in my artwork originate in dance regalia in the powwow circuit. So I wanted to see the differences between people. How are we moving differently? How do we move the same? How does trauma impact how we move? How does confidence impact how we move?"
Between now and November 3, when the artwork will be unveiled, Gibson will be crafting a two-channel video projection that will layer performance footage, audio, and found visuals to tell “the story of movement in this local place.” This vehicle – movement – was animated by issues and perceptions of race, class, trauma, and LGBTQ visibility and invisibility.
“Everyone has a complicated family, everyone has complicated relationships with others and with themselves,” said Gibson, reflecting on the progress during the second week of the project. “The commonalities are crossing over and I'm almost beginning to curate a narrative from those people. It hovers somewhere between reality and fiction and fantasy, and then somehow it comes back to reality.”
Left to right: Wesley Guthrie, Daniel Ball, Andrew Breland, Jensen Matar, Cody Walker, Ivory Cancer, Jake Thrasher, Triana Davis, and Jeffrey Gibson.
The project participants represented a variety of experiences. Their names are Daniel Ball, Andrew Breland, Ivory Cancer, Triana Davis, Wesley Guthrie, Jensen Matar, Jake Thrasher, and Cody Walker. Their vocations and roles include teacher, parent, counselor, bartender, professional drag queen, artist, student, political cartoonist, activist, apparel designer, and more. They have lived through sexual assault, abuse, HIV diagnosis, addiction, gender transition, racism, and various manifestations of belonging and isolation. But just as one material practice does not define artist Jeffrey Gibson, no single thread ties down the stories of the group. Their strength was revealed through discovery – of who they are and of who they hope to be. It was the idea of collective self-creation, a notion championed by Malcolm X and written about by Ta-Nehisi Coates that suggests people can, by force of will (and by facing fear), remake themselves.
Above: stills from forthcoming video artwork, WonderLust, copyright Jeffrey Gibson 2018.
“Not just finding the solution, but being the solution. Living the solution. I’m trying to figure out how to get more people on board with that. Racism is always going to be there, but how do you combat that in a way that moves it forward?”
“That person is human just as I am human. That person has struggled just as much as maybe I have struggled. They’re worthy of dignity and respect and they should be given love and shown love just as someone like myself should.”
“It’s like going to get groceries at Wal-Mart or going to Kroger or going to Target. It’s a different bag on the outside but it’s the same [damn] groceries. That’s it.”
“I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no right or wrong. Just compromise and understanding.”
“I think it goes beyond LGBTQ… I would love for people from my community to just go to the museum and look at it… I want them to see something different. Making connections, but also ‘hey, diversity is here.’ Diversity can work together. And it’s okay to open yourself up to different things and different people … so that you can grow from it.”
“A lot of times being a gay person in Mississippi you're told that you aren't actually a Mississippian because you don't fit in this box of what a Mississippian is, so I'm hoping this project will expand that box and make people realize that queer people are Mississippians, too. Mississippians can be gay. They can be trans. They can be all these different things. There's not one right way to be a Mississippian.”
“We are able to have a voice when some of us didn't have a voice before. I think it'll help a lot of people that also feel that way and feel like maybe sometimes their voice is hushed. With this project, they'll know that they have a voice, and they can use that voice.”
Assisting Gibson was a team from beyond Mississippi that included Elizabeta Betinski, who led creative writing exercises; Kyralesa Wiley, who guided the group through yoga, meditation, choreography, and movement; choreographer Wendell Cooper, who worked closely with participants to bring their characters to the stage; and Sancia Nash, videographer and editor, whose role was to document the process and, now, to help Gibson bring an edited vision to bear. At various points in the process, colleagues of the artist from Jeffrey Gibson Studio in Hudson, New York provided additional support: Kirby Crone and Kate Minford.
From Jackson: Neha Sharma assisted on set and behind camera; New Horizon Church welcomed the group for fellowship, singing, and expressions of acceptance; WonderLust, a steadfast partner, provided a setting for filming and rehearsal that, as Gibson would attest, was as perfect a location as he could have dreamed.
I and other Museum staff embedded ourselves with the group as much as possible. I danced and meditated and wrote and shared. I sang at New Horizon Church and shuttled folks to the Saturday drag shows at WonderLust (and climbed the pole on the dance floor) and stopped by the Whataburger drive-thru after. I marveled at the performances, having seen the progression of the movements from day one. I listened to the stories of the participants as I ran sound during production, the clarity of the voices coming in through my headphones and right into my head, where they swirled together in a current of mighty truths.
Week 1, singing with parishioner and choir members at New Horizon Church in Jackson.
People in the group disagreed passionately at times. Different world views and personalities bumped and scraped against one another. There was discomfort and vulnerability. We sat in it. Leaned into it. Found courage. Trusted that by reaching out, we could close the gaps and understand. Triana Davis, one of the strong voices in the group, called the character she performed “Just A Bridge.” A mediating force that would step into the gap for the good of the community. Her character wore a piece of white tape down her face that read “I Am America” in black lettering. The tape seemed to symbolize the realities of boundary and separation between races, cultures, consciousnesses. W.E.B. DuBois’ color line refracted in a million hues. A dividing line that had to first be understood before it could be peeled away. “Who are you bridging? Who are you bridging?!” Triana’s voice boomed. “Are you just a bridge? Just a bridge? Just bridge?” She stared into the camera and moved across the stage. She posed another question in refrain to the imagined audience, “What are you bridging? What are you bridging? What are you bridging?!” She came down the catwalk, toward the camera. “Are you a just bridge? Are you a just bridge? Are you a just bridge?” Glistening beads of sweat. “Bridge specifically. Bridge consciously. Bridge intrinsically. Bridge internally… But bridge still.” Pause. “Bridge still.” Pause, then a crescendo. “Bridge still, bridge still, bridge still, bridge still, bridge still! Bridge! Still!” Another silence. Calm settled. “Just bridge.”
The production is but one stage of the process. It will become an artwork and be shared with Mississippians and visitors to the state. It will travel far from here, to New York and to museums and galleries across the country. Gibson assured the group of this – that most of those who saw this film would see it not knowing what it was like to move through Mississippi. That the visual language they developed over the course of the project would speak for them and make it known that no one reality stands alone here. They are all here. Multiple histories, presents, futures. Many issues that intertwine and coexist, like people must.
Cody Walker, one of the project participants, has a fake eye. I’m not outing him. He made it known. It was a running joke during the project. His parlor trick. He’d pop it out from time to time after a long day. Cody assumed this puckish role, bursting into pop songs and needling us, then playing coy when we humored him. But Cody shared that he had also been to the depths of personal despair and come out stronger. He was growing into himself, and through the project. Cody would punctuate these performances with his standard locution – “Live yo’ best life!”
Live your best life. In the end, that’s all that Jeffrey Gibson asked of the group.
It’s all that’s asked of any of us.