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Artist in Residence Spotlight: Vulnerability of Spirit, a reflection by Ash Arder

ash arderThis post is a part of a series of posts from UMS Artists in Residence. Artists come from various disciples and attend several UMS performances throughout the season as another source of inspiration for their work.

Ash Arder, the author of this post, is a Detroit-based artist who creates installations and sculptural objects using a combination of found and self-made materials. Through both process and output, this work investigates the relationship between people, objects, and place in order to understand use patterns and value attribution at macro and micro scales. Ash’s work is primarily rooted in urban culture.

Instructions for becoming a black African man:


What happens after death? What is step 5? Step 6? Step 142?

Nora Chipaumire’s portrait of myself as my father took place in a dark room. A boxing gym in Detroit to be exact. I was with two others: an art critic specializing in the presentation of counter narratives within the contemporary art world, and an artist/curator exploring black mentifact.

Nora Chipaumire
Photo: Moment in Nora Chipaumire’s portrait of myself as my father. Photo by Chris Cameron.

We sat, dark skin, in this dark room in Detroit – a Black city. I was mostly comfortable. The spotlights would get under my skin eventually. Not when they orbited toward the section where we were seated, but when they exposed the audience. The white, white audience perched uncomfortably on bleachers in the round.

Chipaumire’s presence alongside that of two male dancers, in the middle of a boxing ring surrounded by white faces made me self-conscious. The rhythms and vibrations I felt in my gut and in my heart throughout the evening made me vulnerable. Vulnerability produced by comfort and familiarity. A vulnerability of the spirit. A vulnerability accustomed to roaming free when it is called upon. In this space, my spirit wanted to dance but could not. Too distracting were the spirits of others, scrambling to find safety and shelter where there was none. Rather, my vulnerabilities transformed into beacons of redemption. A strange humor arose out of watching this particular group respond, perhaps for the first time, to a story I already knew so intimately. The moment when the choir and the preacher simultaneously direct their energy outward.

With choreographer Nora Chipaumire at Detroit's Downtown Boxing Gym.
Photo: Choreographer Nora Chipaumire at Downtown Boxing Gym. Photo by Peter Smith.

Chipaumire’s voice sounded like pain and love. Her movement’s resembled life and death. She and the other two performers literally held in their hands the stage lights, positioning and re-positioning them in the ring to conceal and reveal themselves and us in the audience. Snarling black bodies leaped from the stage into the audience from time to time. Sweat and spit flying through the air upon jerks and cracks of the bones and backs and hips and hair of Chipaumire and the other performers. Spotlights blinding spectators on one side of the room, while those on the other side search their painfully exposed faces for meaning or comfort or simply a sign that we were going to be OK. That the experience was the good kind of uncomfortable, right? The kind that would eventually go away until we decided to remember them, of course filtering out the parts that might disturb our spirit. The tension in the room made me smile. I thought of my father and his life and smiled harder. I thought of my brother and almost laughed out loud.

Fight. Run. Fuck. Die. This was what I already knew. What black people already lived. For further instructions, go to the place where your spirit is most vulnerable. Where it can dance.

Follow this blog for more updates from Ash throughout this season. Learn more about Renegade this season.

On Being African at the University of Michigan

Moment in portrait of myself as my father. Photo by Gennadi Novash.

Nora Chipaumire’s portrait of myself as my father  is a piece of many origins. All aspects of Chipaumire’s identity as an African, a woman, a black woman, an African woman, and an African-American woman seep into her work. In this “love letter to black men,” she explores the complex tangle of conceptions, stereotypes, expectations, vulnerabilities and strengths of the black African male.

Zimbabwean influences, unique venue

A dizzying combination of Zimbabwean and African dance traditions, garb, and music help to tackle these big questions. Traditional Zimbabwean music rooted in polyrhythmic beats combines with Zimbabwean dance, an art form which requires a considerable amount of strength and agility to perform. Chipaumire uses these tools to celebrate the strength, resilience, and inherent defiance of the black body. She fuses her Zimbabwean heritage with her contemporary dance training to create this pieceWearing traditional African gris-gris (a talisman used in Afro-Caribbean cultures for voodoo) with football pads, Chipaumire explores the black male at the crossroads of two cultures and identities.

Nora Chipaumire in portrait of myself as my fathher.

Nora Chipaumire in portrait of myself as my father. Photo by Elise Fitte Duval.

The piece is set in a boxing ring and will be performed in at the Detroit Boxing Gym, where a program to support kids living in Detroit’s toughest neighborhoods is based and focuses on helping young black males find fruitful after-school activities to grow and develop real-life skills with positive role models.

It is not only a fitting location for Chipaumire’s exploration of black masculinity in a postcolonial world but also serves as a perfect setting for her vigorous, high-energy performance. Chipaumire has also spoken out about the brutal policing of black sexuality and masculinity, and celebrates her heritage through her art.

On Being African at the University of Michigan

African students at the University of Michigan have a unique perspective on the challenges and stereotypes Africans experience in America. Tochukwu Ndukwe, a Nigerian-American kinesiology student born in Nigeria and raised in Detroit, spoke about how his identity as a Nigerian-American student informs his experiences at the University of Michigan. In a school that is overwhelmingly white (a mere 4.4% of the population is Black or African-American), he immediately stands out.

In fourth grade, Ndukwe met a Nigerian student who embraced his culture unapologetically. This student was unafraid to educate other students about why he brought a different kind of lunch to school, or the differences between his how his parents raised him in an African household. Ndukwe was inspired by this classmate, but did not to truly publicly embrace his culture until high school. Torn between wanting to fit in with other black students and wanting to celebrate his culture in public, Ndukwe was both surprised and excited by the strength, unity, and pride of African students at the University. He now serves as president of the African Student Association (ASA), an organization that arranges cultural shows, potlucks, and mixers with other ethnic organizations on campus. Their flagship event is the African Culture Show, a massive celebration of African music and dance that packs the Power Center every year. This year’s show is titled Afrolution: Evolution of African Culture, an inquiry into the future of Africa by African students.

Ndukwe lauds African music as a crucial tether for African students to relate to the culture in their home country. He says that music allows African students to connect with their culture no matter where they are, which is especially important in Ann Arbor, which lacks the music, values, and language of their home countries.

“African music and dance are becoming more and more American,” Tochukwu says. “People there look up to America, they want to be American. African artists are beginning to collaborate with American artists, and I’m like ‘No, don’t lose your culture! It’s so rich!’” Africans are bombarded with American media and feel an increasing pressure to conform music and dance styles to that of American–particularly black American–culture, Ndukwe says.

A very loaded question

We begin discussing gender norms in Nigerian societies (he says many of the Nigerian gender norms are found throughout Africa) and a broad smile spreads across his face. “Oh, boy…you’ve asked me a very loaded question. I don’t even know where to start.”

He says, “African men are expected to be the breadwinners. They’re supposed to be strong, stoic, devoid of vulnerability. They are expected to be the disciplinarian of the family while women are expected to stay home…cook, clean, care for the children.” He explains that the expectation for men to be “macho”, and “hypermasculine” oppresses women, and that the division between genders prohibits women from getting an education and becoming financially independent.

“Mental health hasn’t even begun to be a topic in the general cultural discourse. There’s no such thing as depression, as anxiety for anyone, let alone men. So many men suffer in silence because of it.” As pressures mount for men to be sole breadwinners, disciplinarians, protectors of the family–stoic and strong–many men are subsequently unable to express their emotions with the women they care about. Ndukwe’s background as a Nigerian-born man raised by Nigerian parents tightly bound to their culture informs his relationship with women today. On a personal note, he says that he struggles to express his affection with his significant other. This leads to gaps in communication and rifts in his relationships that are often difficult to repair.

portrait of myself as my father comes at an especially important time. As the consequences of the narrow and stereotypical perception of black men enter the mainstream consciousness, this piece opens the door for discussion.

How does the representation of the black body impact the perception of self as a black woman, an African woman, and an American woman? How has colonialism seeped into the treatment of the black performing body?

Nora Chipaumire asks and investigates these questions in portrait of myself as my father.

See the performance November 17-20, 2016 at the Detroit Boxing Gym in Detroit.

Unique Venue: Downtown Boxing Gym

November 17-20, 2016, UMS presents choreographer Nora Chipaumire’s portrait of myself as my father in Detroit at the Downtown Boxing Gym. Find out more about the amazing youth program at Downtown Boxing Gym.

Learn more about the performances of Nora Chipaumire’s portrait of myself as my father November 17-20, 2016.

Artist in Residence Spotlight: Why Renegade?

ash arderThis post is a part of a series of posts from UMS Artists in Residence. Ash Arder, the author of this post, is a Detroit-based artist who creates installations and sculptural objects using a combination of found and self-made materials. Through both process and output, this work investigates the relationship between people, objects, and place in order to understand use patterns and value attribution at macro and micro scales. Ash’s work is primarily rooted in urban culture.

Nora Chipaumire
Photo: Choreographer Nora Chipaumire in portrait of myself as my father, part of Renegade and playing in Detroit November 17-20. Photo by Elise Fitten.

According to our trusty friend Merriam [Webster], a renegade is someone who “rejects lawful or conventional behavior.”

To be unbounded by laws is to posses a sense of freedom. To be free is to move throughout space and time according to one’s own urges and desires. The boldness of a program called “renegade” is what drew me into exploring the artists and performers in this year’s line up. The audacity of the UMS, an institution I associated with more conventional and conservative programming, to name a program Renegade was intriguing to me. This audacity felt like a direct challenge to my understanding of what UMS is or does, a challenge I am grateful to accept and confront as an Artist in Residence.

My work is inspired by the relationships between people, objects, and place. I am interested in the way people use objects, and in the way that use is shared with the public.

I think of objects as artifacts, with politics and lives of their own. How can existing objects be used to understand societal conditions? How can new objects be created in a way that rejects (or supports) societal conditions?

Place roots my thinking about people and objects. It frames my understanding of people’s relationships with objects. I think of place as the environment where people and objects live and engage with one another. To be clear, I understand objects to be as small as paper clips and as large as buildings. Environments can be controlled, like during performances on a stage or in a specific venue. I am also interested in naturally occurring environments. Those that have no agenda other than to be what and where they are.

In the case of controlled environments, like stages, I am inspired by narratives that push up against the status quo. Narratives that embed radical concepts into seemingly mundane events. In my own artistic practice, I attempt to expose counter narratives through normalizing elements of their existence. I am inspired by works that require intellectual effort on behalf of the audience. Works that are simple in practice but complex in theory and vice versa.

In naturally occurring environments, I am inspired by ritualistic behavior. Quiet observations of people and things in a space reveal countless narratives about their relationship to and value of one another. I use these revelations as motivation for new objects and experiences in my work.

I understand that in my use of the word “living” in relation to inanimate objects, I perhaps straddle the line of conventional and unconventional thinking. It has been my goal to operate in a space of lawlessness in my creative work. To freely express my thoughts.

It is with this goal in mind, that I was attracted to UMS’ Renegade programming. I hope to investigate the properties of each performance to understand how and why certain elements of these controlled environments play a role in the success of the piece as a whole.

Follow this blog for more updates from Ash throughout this season. Learn more about Renegade this season.

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