Feature: A Collective and an Outsider (Or am I a Witness?): Notebook on HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?

By Tiana Reid Sunday, May 25th, 2014 Categories: Features, Updates

Tiana Reid writes exclusively for ARC about HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?, a group of 38 artists across many disciplines that, although many of the members have collaborated for a number of years, became established as a collective in 2013. Reid shares her thoughts on their first publicly screened digital project ‘Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera’ which was included as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial but has since been withdrawn from the exhibition by the group. Read more below:

“It feels, in a weird way, too… it’s scary. Because it feels like we’re not supposed to be doing this.”

Plumped in an email chain with global arts collective HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?, sometimes I felt like I wasn’t there. Who’s in the New York City area and wants to meet up for coffee? Or, sure, the interview sounds great but also, “would the yams be into getting together soon for some food and yamversations? catch up and bellies full :) ”? A group of almost 40 members of dancers, visual artists, musicians, poets and actors, they’re also just known as Yams. While some of them had been working together for years, they were officially founded in 2013, and their coming-out party space ain’t half bad. Their first public endeavour, a digital film of just under an hour called Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, debuted at the 2014 Whitney Biennial on March 7. It seems strange but the idea of this many people working together on a film screened at a major art institution is hard for publics to wrap their heads around. Beyond all the artspeak, they’re simply a group of folks working together—and alongside—each other. They foster transnational collaboration. I wouldn’t even go as far to say that they are “one”; they are indeed many. And the email chain was one small mark of how Yams negotiates that authorship.

Still from Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, 2014.

Still from Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, 2014.

Individually, they work in every discipline in contemporary art, said Yams member Jasmine Murrell, a Brooklyn-based visual artist. “I’m new to the group and many of the artists have been working together for over 10 years, which is so inspirational because the art market has a tendency to create an atmosphere [that] pins artists against one another,” she said. “Many New York artists today have become more about themselves instead of the collective community that we are all a part of.” And, come to think of it, practicing collaboration at such a mass level is fairly astounding: it draws out the ability to get this many people together to agree and disagree on something as tenuous as beauty.

According to a behind-the-scenes video on HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?, the name comes from ideas of production, nourishment and inexpressibility. “African” isn’t a language but a set of cultures, not that Yams is trying to be representative. “How do you say yam in African” is perhaps a play on what Brent Hayes Edwards, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, wrote in his 2003 book, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism: “the cultures of black internationalism can be seen only in translation. It is not possible to take up the question of ‘diaspora’ without taking account of the fact that the great majority of peoples of African descent do not speak or write in English.”

A rejected name for the collective, according to the same video, was Yam Black, which alludes more to a historical condition rather than the politics of translation. When it comes to Yams, the contemporary debates around black artists and abstraction are at the forefront. But I’m not sure if I want to have to think of them. The New York Times piece on the collective also made reference to this space of contention even in its title, “Singular Art, Made by Plurals.” Here, plurals means the (renegade?) idea that black people aren’t only black but that they’re also other things. That we contain multitudes. That we can create and play. That we aren’t defined only by blackness. I’d like to think, yes and yes, but also yes and no. The art world has had a particular recent relationship to blackness and abstract art especially since the heated Studio Museum Freestyle exhibition in 2001, which is often credited with ushering in “post-black art,” which curator Thelma Golden described in the catalog as including artists “who were adamant about not being labelled as ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.” It was, I think, a distinctly American debate.

With much of the current reclamation of James Baldwin in New York City especially, the “just” black and “more than” black dialectic is part of a much larger conversation on artistry itself. “There’s so much more to the artist than his prescient views on race,” wrote Hilton Als (my italics), who authored one of my favourite books of last year, White Girls. “When [Baldwin] was a boy, he loved books and the stage. That he then took on the burden of race is part of his complicated legacy—that of a man who would not allow himself the freedom of pure creation, even though that’s what his mind and heart were attracted to in the first place.”

Still from Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, 2014.

Still from Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, 2014.

If “race” is an afterthought to the whole, fuller, better human-writer and not a truth that informs the very structures in which we live, this question about legibility, then, is really a question of: How do you see us? Or worse, how do we make ourselves seen? And these questions recall longstanding debates around not only the stakes of inclusion and representation but also the stakes of legibility. Further, if the question is, who is “privileged” enough to be seen as an abstract subject (or art object), I think we’ll get an answer that wouldn’t dare to satisfy even the most austere.

A related comment by Dawn Lundy Martin, a poet and assistant professor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh who wrote the libretto for Good Stock, got a few cheers by some of the other Yams members so I will quote her at length here:

I’m thinking, too, of the role of abstraction in the contemporary black avant-garde. It seems necessary as we are bodies that are mis-recognized, overly-recognized, put into tiny boxes as being X or Z. This is done to us, but by extension, we sometimes do it to ourselves and each other. “Good Stock,” I think, wants to decentralize representation as a way of knowing what cannot be known: “the black body.” Abstraction to me is not about privilege; it’s about revolution. It’s about stepping out of social and cultural constraints of “blackness” and into the imagined future, a refusal to adhere to the idea that we can be known, categorized, and thereby randomly shot in the face.

While the work of HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican? invites these discussions, not everyone is necessarily having them. A recent essay in The New Inquiry critiqued the Biennial’s use of the language of diversity by doing a stacked inventory on the racial and national diversity. Here’s a gist:

—There is one black female artist (we refuse to count your fictional black female artist)

—You put the two Puerto Ricans in the basement …

—HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN is a collective of 38 mostly black & queer artists but barely gets treated as one artist. How amazing would it be if their 38 people counted as 38 people at the Whitney, which would accord them 40% of the museum’s space? They have been allotted an “evolving” temporary screening slot. They are the largest collective in the Biennial yet their real estate is virtually nonexistent.

—Gary Indiana, another white male artist trafficking in racist fantasies, receives more space, time and visibility than the 38 members of HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN

Still from Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, 2014.

Still from Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera, 2014.

And not everyone is buying the sexy black art and abstraction wrangle either. Sienna Shields, director of Good Stock, said:

Abstraction I don’t mind but I don’t know, too. Abstraction has a lot of baggage. Maybe [I’m] not interested enough but not to say I shouldn’t be thinking about it more.

For me it was all about poetry. Words are vibrations…. Words are never 2D. They are multidimensional. Dawn ate waves of remembering and forgetting and breathed out an epic poem. We ate and drank her poetry. We indulged in transmigration. Birds flew.

What Shields is getting after is more along the lines of not merely an autocratic practice of abstraction but rather the insistence on the importance and urgency of impossibility. “In a non-linear world, conclusion has become an abstracted idea. There isn’t a conclusion; existing in constant rebirth whether symbolic or existential ‎is another beginning (in a non-linear world there is not a beginning either) this film does not desire to invoke the feelings of a beginning, middle or end,” said Yams member Andre Springer. Poetry is a crucial form of experimentation and I’m reminded of how Nathaniel Mackey’s poetry, a practice of a never-ending and fugitive failure, was recently described as having “no beginning or end.”

This strategic tactic is echoed in the work of the Good Stock poet, who Shields calls just “Dawn.” Take her “Negrotizing in Five or How to Write a Black Poem.” Step one is formlessness: “One enters an unforgiving, inchoate world. No mold to make, fossilizing. Here is the secret: I cannot tell you because it is not known.” If anything, that is a move to describe the incommunicable, and the project that is Good Stock, the only kind to make itself known to the world, is a constant deferral of knowledge. The tease in “Negrotizing” is the reliance on a step-by-step guide but once in it, and all the way in it, there’s not much stability to float on. It’s a sub rosa operation but once the veil is pulled, there is no concrete object underneath it all. It’s an articulate attempt in the form of a stutter. Or was it a stumble?

Representation falls away (Pozsi Kolor)

Representation falls away (Pozsi Kolor)

The epigraph for the “HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? talk among THEMSELVES” entry in the Whitney Biennial 2014 exhibition book starts with a Ralph Ellison quote from Invisible Man, “The end is at the beginning and it lies far ahead.” After that, there lies mostly a series of questions such as, “How do you feel? How do you feel? We’ve always felt you, but how do you feel?” There is an asterisk annotating the first “black,” which clarifies that “black is used as designated by Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). She uses black to refer to all of the racial bodies, against which whiteness is defined in the Western literary cannon [sic].” That is something like blackness. 

Meanwhile, I like that they do what they want.

What I mean to say is that there is a lot to discuss when discussing Good Stock. “Stock” could be any and all things: livestock, things for sale, a boiled-down consommé, unprocessed film, status, accumulation. “Good stock is the visible and the tangible (could be an abstracted thought but within grasp of understanding),” Springer told me. “The word ‘good’ does not imply a wholehearted moral of the idea of ‘goodness.’ Good stock references the things from our minds, collaged together, to make an audio and visual experience.”

Martin had yet another take:

The phrase “Good Stock” is, of course, a play on both “blue blood” “whiteness” and this old notion that spills over into the present that “blood” defines “race” and that the “skin” is the marker of “raced” “difference.” GOOD STOCK, to me, pokes fun at this false notion of purity. But, it also references soup or pot liquor from yams.

Even simply by way of its title, Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera meditates on form. The form of the work does incorporate the more general elements of opera such as acting, costumes, elaborate setting, libretto and musical score. The piece was also more often described as a collage. The sets, whole other worlds, were built. The score, a melee of sounds, is all original. The digital piece is a muddling of 35 parts, pummeled animal flesh, sand, costume, aerial perspectives.

The email chain felt similar to the evening I spend watching Good Stock on an iMac with a large speaker set-up in a studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn. A few of the collective members sit to my left. I am told the film’s music was recorded here. At first during the screening, I’m on the couch-bed alone but someone joins partway through. We drink wine.

3perpetuus (Luvinsky Atche)

3perpetuus (Luvinsky Atche)

As usual, I feel self-conscious about them watching me watch their work. It’s not long before I realized that maybe, like the email chain, this all would have taken place without me: enjoying each other and enjoying the work. As an outsider, what I know is true is that, no matter the web/in-real-life divide, they’ve had practice collaborating as a collective even if that practice existed prior to the founding of HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?.

Here are several erratic scenes that don’t necessarily make sense but they make sense of that practice:

—Snap cuts. Missed meanings. Dancing sheets mimic bodies overturned.

—Shields’ signature plastic hair bead sculptures overtake me. Trapped in the ornate, there’s a soothing step to the music, which gestures toward its own sounding, the mechanics of its existence, the speaker.

—Warm light is a relief, a mesmerization.

—A favourite few moments of mine take place during a performance at a Western Beef supermarket. The tightness of the film dulls here and there’s a sense of jarring when you’re finally on the street and not in some unrecognizable “inside.” Do we recognize the man swaying in a jumpsuit? The camera comes and then the dancing. This is the most powerful fight, that hesitant scene when a car drives by, filming the filming, you’re aware, then, at this moment, that you’re watching, and implicated in the watching,

—And then there are more beads against more paintings. Silences filled with the loud sound of static energy.

—There’s a line repeated in Good Stock, “representation falls away.” Black representation, a fraught and impossible consideration filled with rights and wrongs, becomes repetition, infinite multiplicity. Another line: “Why won’t you flourish?” And another: “Dear empty verse.” There’s nothing empty here but there are worlds of red sand and red, white and blue flags.

—A final surprise is Shields running naked in a post-apocalyptic space with mud. Only the apocalypse never came.

—I’m asking myself is it getting darker? Is the whispering I hear in the piece or in the studio? Can I have some water?

Editor’s note: The Yams collective have since withdrawn from the Whitney Biennial. The group plans to screen their film elsewhere in the coming weeks.

Tiana Reid
Tiana Reid

Tiana Reid is ARC's Junior Arts Writer. Her work has appeared in or on Bitch, The Feminist Wire, Hyperallergic, Maisonneuve Magazine, The New Inquiry, The State, The Toast, VICE, and more. She is also a PhD student in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.