Interview: Jillian Walker, UMS Research Residency Artist
For the 2017-18 season, we are excited to welcome Jillian Walker as our Education and Community Engagement Research Residency Artist. The UMS ECE Research Residency provides time and resources for an artist to spend an extended period of time in Ann Arbor developing a new performance work. A graduate of University of Michigan (B.A.) and Columbia University (MFA), Jillian is an established and accomplished artist, dramaturg, playwright, writer, and activist.
During her time with UMS, Jillian will be developing her latest project, a play called Tignon, inspired by a late 18th century law in New Orleans that required women of color to wear a covering—called a tignon—on their heads to hide their hair. Through this project, Jillian hopes to use “this fascinating slice of legal truth as an intersectional site to explore sex, power, policy, religious practice, gender roles, race, and economy in one of the most interesting and still misunderstood American cities our complicated country has to offer.”
We chatted with Jillian about her writing process, decolonizing history, and returning to Ann Arbor.
AT: How did you first come to hear about El Bando du Bierno, the law that required women to wear a Tignon?
JW: It was actually on a blog. I think it was Black Girl with Long Hair, which is a really popular blog. I got an article in my inbox about the law, and I was like: “This can’t be real.” So, I clicked on it and kept reading. I was so fascinated by the fact that this was actually a mandated law. So, I filed it away in my mind and didn’t do anything with it at first. But I held onto it and knew that I would return to it at some point.
AT: Do you feel that the act of coercing non-white women into covering their in 1786 hair instilled a sense of humiliation that women of color still feel today about their hair and overall appearance?
JT: I think that it definitely proves the point that hair has always been political for black women. If we can go all the way back to 1786 for evidence of that, I think that speaks very loudly to relevant cases today. But what I’m finding in my research and what I’m excited to investigate more with UMS, is that black women made the most of that law at the time. They made their wraps really elaborate and they said, “Okay, fine. If we have to cover our hair then it’s going to be in a fabulous way.” But I do think that even with that, it’s sort of impossible to not feel “less than,” and to not internalize the negative side of what happens when we mandate people’s bodies.
AT: You are already quite an accomplished artist and playwright! How do you think this work compares to your other works in terms of your writing process, inspiration, and goals?
JW: I think the main question that I ask in pretty much everything I make is, “How do we heal?” But, I think it will manifest very differently in Tignon. I’m basically constructing a language. I’m trying to see what women in the 1700’s sounded like. They’re living under Spanish rule at this time, so there is Spanish woven into a broken sort of English that is also very directly related to West Africa, because we’re talking about women who have just come from Africa 20 or 30 years before this. I’ve never tried to make a language before. But the thing that’s going to be the same is the deep investigation of whatever world I’m creating, and it usually happens through and in tandem with my own life.
AT: Can you tell me a little bit about the “Speculative Histories” workshop you’re offering in Ann Arbor on MLK day?
JW: The idea for the workshop really came out of this sense that as I was doing research about the edict of the government, and trying to learn more about New Orleans from the perspective of women of color. I had a lot of trouble, and one of the big reasons is that many of these women were illiterate and weren’t writing their stories down. So far, everything I’ve found is written by colonialists–white men at the time who were surveying New Orleans basically to see how viable it was to make money. Every once in a while they mention a black person, and that’s sort of how I’ve been finding information.
So, Speculative Histories is really about the importance of filling in the holes that are left in the narratives not constructed by people of color. This is a revolutionary act that we can all participate in, to imagine those histories, and bring those histories forward, and not just stop at, “Oh, well we don’t know. There’s nothing we can do.” I think this idea that you only get to tell the truth when you win (and in this case winning means access to language and the ability to tell your story in print) is a racist idea or at least a colonialist one. So how do we decolonize this idea of history? I think we do this by valuing imagination as much as we value fact, and by valuing art making and creation as much as we value the census, or whatever. I feel it’s always a really healing thing to go into an imagined space where I can just place myself into those circumstances and construct the truth out of it. So the workshop will be about that.
AT: What does it mean to you to be developing this piece with UMS and at your Alma Mater?
JW: *Does a happy dance* Woo! It means a lot! It feels full circle. The University of Michigan has one of the best libraries in the world that I didn’t take advantage of as an undergrad. Since leaving U-M, I’ve really fallen in love with research. The irony is not lost on me, that I ended up at Michigan, one of the best research institutions in the world, and then came to New York and went to Columbia, which is also a really incredible research institution. So I’m really excited about being back in Ann Arbor. I’m a proud Wolverine, always have been!
AT: What are you looking forward to most about the residency?
JW: I’m looking forward to what will be uncovered; what voices will be speaking. I think part of how I write is by listening, so I’m excited to have my ears open and all of my pores open and hear whatever strikes me.
Jillian Walker is the 2017-18 Education and Community Engagement Research Residency Artist. Her workshop Speculative Histories takes place on Monday, January 15 at 7 pm and is free and open to the public.