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Disrupting the FRAME

By UMS Lobby

This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances. The U-M Institute for the Humanities and UMS will offer  two more open dialogues around contemporary visual art, performance, and identity on Monday, February 19 and Monday, March 19 at 7 PM in the Atrium at 202 South Thayer Building in Ann Arbor.

Angela G. King

“Disrupting the FRAME” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.

Getting a glimpse into the heavily-shrouded quandary that we African-American women have had with our hair throughout time. And coming face to face, of a sort, with 73 civilians – 72 men and one woman – who were killed over four days in the 2010 drug war in Kingston, Jamaica, known as the “Tivoli Incursion.”

Such was the impetus of the first of a three-part series of public discussions being held at the University of Michigan that examine how contemporary art, be it exhibited or performed, can challenge the very framework of social conventions.

“These kind of disruptions can be groundbreaking,” summed up Detroit native Taylor Renee Aldridge. “We need to have these dialogues.”

Of burgeoning prominence as an art critic, curator and co-founder of the ARTS.BLACK online journal, Aldrige was speaking before a diverse gathering of some 30 attendees who filled the atrium of the 202 South Thayer Building last Monday evening. There, in this site of the U-M Institute for the Humanities, educator and contemporary dancer and choreographer Jennifer Harge joined her in helming the exchange. As did Jillian Walker, a U-M alumna like Harge, who’s taking time out from an award-winning career in New York writing plays to draft her latest script back here in her home region as a resident artist with the University Musical Society. Michael Awkward, the Gayl A. Jones Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture at U-M, was also on hand as a key speaker.

Aldrige, Harge, Walker and Awkward were brought together by the university and UMS, the independent performing arts group housed among the downtown Ann Arbor hub of this sprawling, venerated center for higher learning. Their casual but decisive conversation kicked off “FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity” that’s slated to reconvene on February 19 and March 19.

“Amanda Krugliak, who is the curator at the U-M Institute for the Humanities, and I had noticed that many of our artistic projects were in dialogue with each other,” explained Jim Leija, the director of education and community engagement for UMS.

“For some time now, we’ve wanted to build that implied dialogue into something more explicit and intentional,” he elaborated. “The notion of an informal salon surfaced as a counterpoint to the many academic platforms that already exist in our most immediate university community in Ann Arbor. This year in particular, our institutions are both presenting shows that are dealing quite explicitly with questions of identity, and even more specifically with race.”

The all-black cast of creative professionals who launched the FRAME series speaking with assorted guests on Jan. 22 about the show from the current UMS season and exhibit they attended together embody what Leija began seeking out for these dialogues this

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

past summer – diversity. And their commentary ranged from the discomfort that Taylor and Harge articulated about some of the expressly cultural lingo included in “Hair & Other Stories,” the interpretive performance brought to Ann Arbor by the Urban Bush Women on Jan. 12. To the sense of empowerment Walker, in contrast, shared that she gleaned from her account of the rare showcase of African American vitality presented by this Brooklyn-based company dedicated to melding artistic expression with community engagement to promote social justice.

“I took this as an opportunity to be seen with other black women,” Walker said of an evening of music, movement and declaration that literally brought her to her feet. Brought her to her feet among a multiracial crowd that packed the more than 1,200-seat theater in the U-M’s towering, mirror-encased Power Center for the Performing Arts.

The Ann Arbor performance kicked off a 14-city tour through April for the Urban Bush Women. And the company was true to its internationally recognized penchant for weaving contemporary dance, music and text – accentuated by strobe lights and haze at the Power Center – to defy boundaries in sharing the gamut of the African-American experience with people of all backgrounds. An ambition that wasn’t lost on any of the speakers at the ensuing first FRAME discussion. But one that certainly wasn’t universally received, either.

“I was really taken by the physicality of the performance, so much so that I could have done without the didactics,” admitted Aldridge. She, like Harge, took exception to the liberal mention of “naps” and “kitchens” – hair vernacular long rooted strictly among black folks – during the event.

“I felt like I was having a family discussion in mixed company,” Harge added. “I felt exposed.”

And Harge, a lecturer at both U-M and Oakland University, is no stranger to mining the African American experience – from protest movements to hip hop – to help strengthen community engagement and promote social change. Trained in modern dance, with a

Jennifer Harge teaching with Harge Dance Stories. Photo by Carlos Funn.

master’s degree from the University of Iowa as a Dean’s Graduate Fellow, and a bachelor’s from U-M, she has run a Detroit-based performance collective called Harge Dance Stories for the past four years.

Yet it was the ambivalence of Harge and others to what the Urban Bush Women conveyed onstage in this area most recently that had Awkward zero in on the disparity that can result from exposing some of the darkest secrets of black hair. Beyond the black community.

“Part of the performance was like letting out a nappy secret about the preparation that needs to go into black hair in order to be seen as what’s considered presentable,” he surmised at last week’s FRAME discussion. “Then they turned the lights up in the audience [at one point], so we were as visible as they were on stage.”

An apparent moment of vulnerability that never surfaced the next afternoon, in Detroit, at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. That’s where Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who founded the Urban Bush Women in 1984, took some of her dancers from the Ann Arbor performance to host a community workshop delving into the historical connection between hair, social consciousness and dance among African Americans. The rest of her troupe that had traveled here to Metro Detroit with her from their Brooklyn creative base conducted the workshop at the Ann Arbor YMCA that same day.

With the gallery space at the Wright Museum where this event took place cleared of any seating, the dozens of people who showed up, many with children in tow, found themselves on foot the entire time. And doing their best to keep up as Zollar and company led them in doing the Stroll, the Twist, the Jerk and other vintage moves.

She didn’t avoid any of the hair terminology that her dancers had bandied onstage in Ann Arbor, either. Yet contrary to any of the varied audience reaction from the previous day, the spirited, diminutive 67-year-old managed to provoke quite a few wistful smiles among her exclusively African American audience.

When all was said and done, the occasion turned out to be quite family-centric, made all the more so with Aminata, the not quite 2-year-old daughter of Urban Bush Women dancer and associate artistic director, Samantha Speis. Having performed with Speis and her colleagues in Ann Arbor, Aminata was with them at The Wright as well to participate with the Urban Bush Women.

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

Alongside local mother and wife Sherita Gosha-Williams during this occasion were her daughters, 13-year-old Jaylah and 9-year-old Siana.

“It was important to me to bring my daughters, very important,” Gosha-Williams, whose husband and 4-year-old son were back home in Lenox Township, said while flanked at The Wright by her other two children. “Being that our culture is not often promoted positively in the media, I wanted them to know the foundation and beauty of our hair.”

Her mission speaks volumes about the possibilities of a better future for children of color. Far better, hopefully, than the one that was snatched from the black men, and one woman at the hands of their own people during the Tivoli Incursion.  Tucked away in a small gallery at the front of the Institute for the Humanities atrium where last week’s FRAME session transpired, the mixed-media vision of Kingston-born artist, Ebony G. Patterson, brings this still-haunting massacre into glaring view until Feb. 9.

Known as “The Of 72 Project,” Patterson employed fabric, digital pictures, embroidery, rhinestones, trimmings, bandanas and floral appliques once again to offer commentary on the United States’ bid to extradite a Jamaican drug lord named Christopher “Dudus” Coke. It was a demand that plunged Kingston under a state of emergency in May 2010 as Jamaica’s military and police forces battled Coke’s Shower Posse cartel, leaving dozens of individuals dead whose identities remain a mystery to this day.

And, according to Awkward, author of six books probing race and gender representations in 20th and 21st century black American expressive culture, a calamity that parallels what it can mean to be black and meet a violent, untimely end in the U.S. Namely, in the frustration over crucial truths concerning the lives and deaths of these people that remain elusive, elaborated Awkward, who’s now writing a book on Emmett Till and other black American boys famously murdered or psychologically mangled since him.

“It’s the same story, the fear of the other, and the desire to obtain power over the other,” asserted George Shirley, 83-year-old emeritus professor of the U-M School of Music who attended last week’s  FRAME discussion.

More like a narrative in overcoming that fear to break down barriers among people that’s given more lip service than anything else, to hear 19-year-old Lanae Jefferson tell it. Even at a long-regarded progressive institution like U-M, where she’s a sophomore.

“I don’t like how the university likes to say we’re so diverse, and I don’t see the diversity,” Jefferson, also there at the FRAME dialogue, charged. “Personally, I don’t feel comfortable on this campus. It’s very large and has many cliques”

Which raises the question of how to get more students “who really need to be there out to the many UMS performances about diversity and inclusion [on campus],” according to the Southfield native who’s interested in art history.

Her sentiment magnifies the challenge facing UMS and the U-M Institute for the Humanities, with two open FRAME discussions that Aldridge and Harge will host remaining, in moving forward in their mission. That is, Leija reiterated, “to bring a diverse group of people together to explore how visual art and performance can be used as a tool for disrupting the status quo and building a different culture and reality for all of us.”

And while talk alone isn’t tantamount to bringing about actual change, Aldridge pointed out, “Having cross-cultural dialogues about marginalization and our respective differences and attributes is necessary to upending the status quo of patriarchal white supremacy and white-centered gazes in art-making. It has the potential to foster change, and to consider how we perpetuate these gazes.”

This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances. The U-M Institute for the Humanities and UMS will offer  two more open dialogues around contemporary visual art, performance, and identity on Monday, February 19 and Monday, March 19 at 7 PM in the Atrium at 202 South Thayer Building in Ann Arbor.

 “Disrupting the FRAME” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.

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