In conjunction with Ayanah Moor’s and Krista Franklin’s two-person exhibition at Produce Model Gallery, Quiet Storm, CAW editor Dan Gunn sat down with the artists to discuss their individual practices, the overlap between their works and their current interest in abstraction (or the act of abstracting) within their respective interrogations of black aesthetics. Moor and Franklin also curated an evening of performances and readings by avery r. young, Jamila Woods, Brandon Markell Holmes, Jamila Raegan and Reginald Eldridge Jr. that was held in the space. The exhibition at Produce Model in Pilsen runs until November 4th.
Dan Gunn (CAW): So why is the exhibition titled “Quiet Storm”? What does that signify to you both? And how is that reflected in the works and the show?
Ayanah Moor: In some ways, Quiet Storm was a funny description for these abstractions that were happening in my studio and this kind of mood or atmosphere that I was inspired by. I plucked Quiet Storm out of the memory of these radio shows that I would listen to in the early 90’s. It provided a soundscape for an emerging storm which is part of a metaphor for the soundtrack that this program created. But also this space that felt like a very social sensual black space. That’s the way that this language emerged and then having an opportunity to connect with my dear friend Krista who is also making work that shares the same visual language.
CAW: So the abstract paintings came first?
Ayanah: There is a reminder that a lot of times the language comes after the making, right? It is not that you are following an idea in a very linear way.
CAW: So then Krista how did you interact with “Quiet Storm” as a background?
Krista Franklin: So when she said “Quiet Storm” to me, I was like, yeah! And I was really excited about it because a lot of my work to date focuses on sound, black music, and black culture. So any pointed reference that emerges out of those spaces I’m down. It was a logical step for me from the series of work that I call the Heavy Rotation series with the handmade paper made from the pulp of album covers. It was a natural progression from Heavy Rotation to Quiet Storm. You know it’s funny though, today as I was driving over here I was thinking about this notion of “Quiet Storm” as a need for a place of silence and a space without a lot of frenzy. Instead, stillness and a focus on that both creatively as well as personally. So it’s interesting how those two words keep emerging with different resonances for me. Like Ayanah pointed out, sometimes the work proceeds the name or the idea or description for it. It’s been both ways for me. When I created the sculpture Zora, Darling with Norman Teague it didn’t dawn on me until it was finished that in the Zora Neale Hurston novel Their Eyes Were Watching God there’s a hurricane, you know? So there’s the storm again.
CAW: And that book is set in…?
Krista: In Florida. In a few locations in Florida. The storm happens there. This is one of the things that emerged subconsciously for me and that continues to emerge from our exhibition’s title.
CAW: I would like to go back to the album covers really briefly; the Heavy Rotation series. I was curious if they were pulped out of the album covers themselves or if the album was covered by the papermaking process? A lot of your work is written or spoken language so when you’re making paper it becomes this site of possible language. I was wondering how you think about the activity of making paper? And the physicality of paper in that regard?
Krista: It’s a ritual for me in a lot of ways. I love it. It’s one of my meditative spaces. Papermaking is one of the things that I studied in graduate school at Columbia College (Interdisciplinary Arts – Book and Paper). I consider hand papermaking to be a natural progression in my work because I’m also a writer. A lot of my work privileges paper and what we can create with it and on its surface. Also, the poet in me thinks about “making paper”!
What does paper mean to me? What are the different transmutations of the concept of paper? How can it be written on, inscribed on, produced?
CAW: These handmade paper pieces seem to be a little bit about erasure because you’re choosing particular parts to leave. Can you talk a little bit about what’s going on? How do you decide what gets to stay as an album cover and what gets dissolved into paper?
Krista: It’s intuitive. Usually, it has to do with what I want to see, what I want to keep around, what I want to maintain. Even in that pulping process, it’s like “OK, do I just rip all of this up or do I keep a little fragment of it and put that to the side and reintroduce it later in the process?” It’s intuitive and a very sensual experience. It’s about my own pleasure, really, at the end of the day. I’m learning the value of the empty space though with the handmade paper pieces because my collages are so busy, with every inch filled up with something, some kind of activity. These handmade paper works are about the quiet, visual quiet.
CAW: Ayanah going back to your abstract paintings, there are still images peaking out from inside of the abstract paintings. A lot of found imagery in there too. Can you talk about what you chose to show, or not show? Or how you think about it?
Ayanah: That feels like the ongoing dialog between our works even if the medium is different. It feels very familiar to hear her describe the process of pulping even though in this case, I’m using materials that have a certain kind of touch or texture that interests me. I’m thinking about pulling together what’s around me in a way that has no hierarchy of materials. All of this is legitimate for making an image or trying to create a mood or space. There is a process that feels like making a collage but also trying to create tension or meaning between materials that I don’t even have a concrete idea around. I want to see what happens when things sit next to each other. That is a path that my work has been taking recently that feels a little bit more like an investigation or a more open or improvisational way of working. The process is probably just as important, right now, as the end result that is about me stopping at a certain place that I wouldn’t have before or revisiting something over a period of time.
CAW: Some of the abstractions seem to have a repetitive motif of mouths or teeth. Am I picking up on that or is it something else?
Ayanah: There are things that we, the artists, have been learning from our conversations and by putting our work in the same space. So I wouldn’t say that was necessarily at the forefront of our discussion. Although at my own studio I have been thinking about what a smile can mean or suggest. A smile as a kind of shapeshifting moment. What’s behind the smile? So that has been of interest, but not at the forefront of the idea for the show but instead something that has been revealed.
CAW: I was also sort of struck by looking back at both of your works. How much of your respective practices are textual. And then realizing that there are only a few words in the album covers or a ton of Hurston’s words from Krista’s piece, but what’s the aesthetic of not saying something? Ayanah, Some of your most recent performances use these placards with statements on them. And then Krista I know you’re a well known and published poet…
Krista: I think the language is there. It’s funny. I agree with you. It’s abstracted. Outside of the work that Ayanah has in the exhibition, I’ve never thought about abstraction as a motif of this show but that might actually be an element that’s noteworthy in this exhibition. The words are there – like even when I’m looking at this particular painting (Now you’ve got your head on another cloud) there are these shapes that look like boobs or “B’s”, I think of them as the letter B, and they could also be mouths, they could be smiles or grins. You know, I think that the language is there but it’s just blown out. You can see some words left in the handmade paper pieces but they’re out of context. They’re more fragments, more suggestions than statements.
Ayanah: I would say that it is a bit different for me to not have a concrete kind of statement or to be drawn to the possibilities of a given phrase that I’m pulling out. In the case of a work like Never Too Much, Never Too Much, I’m abstracting from an ad. As a process, I’m liberating that portion of the image from the way that it was framed. I’m interested in abstracting it from the text. It no longer has the responsibility to communicate whatever it was designed to do.
CAW: I feel that loss a little bit. Not that I really want to see the full advertisement, just that I feel that something is expected and it is not there.
Ayanah: I’m somewhat interested in a non-figurative abstraction but also we both are image hunters, looking through magazines, looking for inspiration. So abstracting from something that I didn’t create is of interest without any text or even with text that I introduce.
CAW: I was thinking about your All My Girlfriends project from 2011. And that project which relies on Jet magazine as a cultural reference like the radio program “Quiet Storm” as a body of black culture. From Lee Ann Norman’s exhibition essay I assumed that the show would be a more explicit comment on that program. But it seems like it describes more of an aesthetic sensibility than a direct reference?
Krista: It’s more dynamic than that. That’s definitely one way of thinking about it that deserves exploration but it’s broader. For me, it’s even many things that have not even been fully articulated in the work itself. I’m much more interested in what the work invokes in other people when they encounter it.
CAW: I guess I was sort of low key wondering if there was a gender critique of “Quiet Storm” as a genre with these music icons are encased in paper. I don’t know. I think that was just based on my reading of both of yours’ prior work.
Ayanah: These are things that are fascinating to hear, these interpretations. And it is not in an unwelcome way. For sure there’s a kind of queering as a part of the history of my working and then when I make a move like Never Too Much, Never Too Much it is connected to the ways in which the multiple has operated in my work which is about a “same-gender” love reading but also this looping decadence. It’s not apart from how we’re thinking about these moves but whether or not the theme has that kind of agenda I would say is not consistent with what we’ve talked about. It’s as much about a kind of atmosphere for what can occur or a bubbling up of some kind of action as opposed to a very specified or coded meaning.
CAW: That makes sense. I was going to ask on decadence and also on atmosphere if the plants in space or the full meal that was served at the opening …
Krista: [laughs] You can thank Maggie and Javier for that!
Ayanah: Which you know we are in alignment with Produce Model’s mission and what this gallery is doing in this neighborhood as tied to the food and creating a welcoming environment that acknowledges the cultural practices of the neighborhood. We respect and are aligned with that. But the plants were another way to create a certain kind of black space as a support for the work or another form of the work. There’s something about the feel of being here that the plants seem to amplify or compliment. It’s as much about mood as much as it’s this thing on the wall. I like the notion of caring for the plants for the run of the show. That there’s an echo forced between the work and the plants in the show. It’s a new move for me so I feel like I’m learning about it. That piece, In your secret garden, is a modified potted plant of sorts. The macrame holding the pot includes yarn braids that I’ve previously worn. These braids are also adorned with gold jewelry.
Krista: For me, it’s also about bringing the natural world into the space. Using plant life in exhibitions isn’t new for me. When I created “Library of Love” at the Arts Incubator, I bought flowers and the flowers were a significant part of the installation. You could come into the library and sit among the books and just read or relax. When you walked into the space you would be assaulted by the smell of the flowers! So tending to the plants throughout the exhibition was a part of the ritual work that I was doing in that space. I had to constantly change them out so it wouldn’t get smelly in there. In terms of my work around the surreal and around Afrofuturism, there is a collision of the natural and synthetic worlds. Even in my papermaking process – which largely involves things that were once alive, such as plants – there is a constant engagement with and respect for the natural world that is linked in my imagination with black aesthetics. It is also connected to my experiences with black domestic space, which I guess is still about black aesthetics.
CAW: I wanted to return to your collaborative piece with Norman Teague called “Zora, Darling”. The form itself feels a bit like literary furniture, with these kind of talismanic stones on top. Maybe you can talk a bit about its shape and relationship to Hurston’s novel.
Krista: The [book] used on that work is an American classic. One, the sculpture is a kind of conversation between Norman and I and our different art practices. He’s a designer. I went to him and told him that I wanted us to do a collaboration that loosely referenced Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s second film, and her headboard for her bed. I wanted to reference that iconic piece of furniture. It’s a part of contemporary black iconography and significant throughout the film. I wanted us to nod to that object but I also wanted Norman to play based on that suggestion. There’s a mirroring that happens, too, in She’s Gotta Have It and Their Eyes Were Watching God because there are three lovers. There are one woman and three “husbands”. In the Hurston’s novel, Janie the protagonist gets to her true love eventually who is her third lover Tea Cake. Tea Cake is iconic in my imagination. There are fictional men who I am in love with like they’re secret boyfriends in my head!
Most of them are from Toni Morrison novels but Tea Cake definitely set a tone early in my life for a particular kind of a man who I would fall in love with. Anyway, there’s a mirroring between the two stories. Both the film and the book are about black women’s agency, sexual agency in particular. To love who you want, to be free, to still be able to be in love and be free simultaneously. To find your soulmate even if it’s yourself. All these things were at play when I went to him about this. So “black women’s agency” was clearly something that I said to him.
He created this piece and he brought it over disassembled because I had to wrap it with the pages of the book. We lay it on the floor and as I’m looking at it I think, “it looks like a diamond” and started laughing immediately! I said, “Norman, it’s really fucking hilarious that I ask you to create a piece about black women’s agency, and you come over here with a work that looks like a diamond ring!”
The ring, signifying marriage, which does not necessarily resonate with “women’s agency” to me. We both started laughing! But it was beautiful as a form. It’s not a replica [of Nola Darling’s headboard], it’s more suggestive. I had to giggle, you know? Then there was this loving act of wrapping the pages around the wood that was, for me, transforming the structure. A ritual in its own right. The piece is called Zora, Darling, a combination of Hurston’s name and Spike Lee’s iconic character. The candles are a nod to Nola Darling’s headboard. The weathered edges of the pages became a hypnotic element for me too. The gemstones foreshadow what’s to come in my work in the future. These are materials that I want to use more and each gemstone was specifically selected to emanate certain energies when people are near. Most of them focus on emotional healing and the transcendence of past wounds, pain, or loss.
CAW: Ayanah, what kind of information is leftover in your pieces? How you think about color and texture because some of them are scraped down are sanded. You’d talked about wanting to bring in different materials into the work. What kind of information do you try to impart or remove?
Ayanah: It’s important to me that the process be additive but also kind of reductive, that I’m adding because I know that I’m going to take away. There are times when I’m pouring or using a brush that I know I’m gonna use sandpaper and see what remains. The quality of residue suggests which steps have happened. That feels really different for me, to embrace that kind of mark making. I’m aiming for residue which means that I have to take it through these permutations. And the collage and textile elements feel new. In the past, they’ve been used in an image but not fabric for its sake. The pleather elements are me being excited about the possibilities of something not being an image. And maybe that openness helps me learn more about how this thing can function. That’s been particularly exciting. I’m not sure if this openness is just getting older and revisiting work, revisiting process, and thinking about ways that it can be made new to refresh it, or just to be open in a different way. That’s what the show really marks for me. This period where I’m as much interested in being in dialog and seeing what emerges, then I am in this singular gesture or even a sole author.
The ways in which we’ve defined collaboration, the coming together, as an agreement to collaborate, which has taken the form of having our stuff in the same room or let’s build and read something and talk about it because we’re friends. Let’s have a little argument about something that might generate something. Or it takes the form of actually working on a little panel together. The work, Sway to soul, and maybe sweat offers something distinct from the rest of what’s on display in that it is a literal negotiation. I think it shows a different level of touch.
Krista: You mentioned erasure in the context of taking away. What remains versus what doesn’t remain. I was also thinking in the back of my mind about this quote I just found. I just hung it up on a post-it note in my room this week. It was a line from the poet Roger Reeves, “…Opacity as a weapon and as a tactic of communication.” The writer was discussing what he’d been thinking about recently in his own poetry, and the poems of some of his contemporaries writing the black abstract and the gothic. Abstraction, erasure, and opacity are resonant in this exhibition. A friend of mine asked about the Michael Jackson piece, Thrilla in Manila. She said, “Are you making a statement about whitewashing?” This was so fascinating to me. I was like “No, girl. I wasn’t making any statement about whitewashing anything.” I thought, how strange that she would read that from that image. It’s really just me playing out a kind of compulsion to capture and encapsulate time in paper. It’s a time capsule of love.
CAW: I always think that the artist has a different relationship to their materials than the audience. You know what it is to make paper, but your friend only sees the image. They just see Michael a few shades lighter.
Krista: For me, it was just that he was captured in there, like an entombment. I could dig at it and find him again. I think of that work as a fossil! It’s intriguing how things can be read, particularly when we think about the opaque or the translucent. People choose the linear, didactic, straightforward explanation for everything.
Ayanah: Well, some of that is embedded in the appeal of Quiet Storm for me, or the reason why we’ve come to work in a way that you might call material abstraction. It is to create a bit more of a space for possibilities that aren’t so messaged. Sometimes there’s an expectation that “this + this” has a specific meaning. That expectation is often disappointing. I’m as much interested in what it means to use materials for their history and the pleasure of engaging those materials. And having them talk back to me before I assign them to do something for me. The choice of Quiet Storm was both designed to resonate with our love of music and also to create a world in which these other things can happen that aren’t so directed or narrow.
Krista: Loose or free association.
Ayanah: But not compromising a certain kind of black sensibility that I think is really important to us. How can we do both? How can we create a kind of black space and what are the possibilities of that space to not limit, to not be singular? This can be a kind of emerging activity or a space for the sensual. It’s not so open that it has no meaning but it’s open in terms of imaging a possibility that’s not reductive. I’m interested in things that take a long time to make but also generating things quickly so that the fast and slow can talk.
CAW: How did you select the performers for the program you put together in the space?
Ayanah: We wanted to activate the space.
Krista: Performance is also a part of both of our interests and practice. For me, to be completely honest, any opportunity that I can get to bring people that I love together in one room I’ll take it. It was the same weekend of The Retreat for Black Artists and EXPO Chicago so a lot was happening in the city. It was a great opportunity to bring folks together in a focused way. The people that were selected to be a part of the night were chosen by the both of us. The performers curated their own readings, songs, and performance gestures according to their own individual practices.
Ayanah: We shared some of the aims of the show with them and what was happening in our studios and they were invited to respond. We had a little pre-discussion in the space. I’m also really interested in extending a platform to artists that I love. Let’s have a program that brings a certain kind of energy and brings an element that might be missing. The event was well attended. Seeing beautiful brown people packed up in here! There was an element of grooming that created a smell in the space, of hair straightening while singing, in Jamila Raegan’s performance. There was a very particular kind of aromatic presence, with that and a lot of incense burning.
Krista: There was a lot of olfactory shit going on.
Ayanah: People were coming in and saying “It’s suuuuper black up in here!”
Krista: My nose was inundated with the smells of blackness. It was good!
Ayanah: It was very charged by the activity that was happening. So we were thrilled about that.
Krista: One thing that was part of the curation of the performance was “who are the individuals in our circles who embody the ideas that we’ve been thinking about; both in who they are naturally and in their work” A lot of the performances that I’ve been dreaming about curating lately are really just bringing our personal lives into the public realm; just doing what we normally do around each other all of the time. You know what I mean? Except we do it in public space.
Ayanah: In some ways, it’s acknowledging the deep kind of aesthetic choices and cultural practices that happen in our home spaces. We have some rich traditions that we’re following. How can that force be brought from the home out into a space like this? That felt really good and exhausting.
Krista: It was a lot of work. That performance night was the culmination of a lot of things.
CAW: So what’s next for you both? Relaxation, exhibitions, writing projects?
Krista: I’m writing. I’m working on a book. So that’s what’s next for me. It’s creative nonfiction and that’s at the forefront of my mind at this time. How that project will ultimately take shape I don’t know. As for visual work, I’m in the process of thinking about what are the next shapes I want my work to take.
Ayanah: My next thing is Out of Easy Reach curated by Allison Glenn, a group show of on abstraction by women of color. That’s going to open up next spring and tour several venues, DPAM, Gallery 400 and the Stony Island Arts Bank. This past summer I experimented with Anna Martine Whitehead on a presentation where we collided these artist statements as performances at the ACRE Residency. We’re talking more about how we might share that with Chicago in the future.