It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
This piece was originally published in March of 2019. Check out Monèt's next performance at Scalawag Jubilee Durham on July 12th at Arcana Bar.
Monét Noelle Marshall is an artist, director, curator, and cultural organizer. She is also the founding Artistic Director of MOJOAA Performing Arts Company and Director of Programs at VAE Raleigh. Saba Taj is a visual artist and current Director of the Carrack Modern Art Gallery in Durham, North Carolina. Scalawag editor Zaina Alsous interviews Monét Noelle Marshall and Saba Taj on navigating the tensions of collective accountability and individual creation in the arts.
Zaina Alsous: How do conceptions of community or collectivity inform your art practices?
Saba Taj: There is something really solitary about my art practice. I spend many hours by myself making work, and in my own head, but since the first projects where I really started coherently thinking about the work, I have brought in other people. Starting out in a portrait practice of Muslim women—some of whom I had grown up with and then became disconnected from, others I didn't know as well—there was a kind of interview practice [to start the piece]. I would spend up to a full day with the subject before photographing them. People just bust right open when you give them that opportunity, and that deeply informed the work that came afterwards. Symbols would be directly or indirectly related to things we had talked about. Having other people in my work, it felt incredibly important to honor them, without diminishing them in the process. Over time the idea of 'us, who is us?' has become central to my work regardless of if it is a portrait or a collage monster creature. Right now, I've been thinking a lot about apocalypse and who survives, and embedded within that is a story of 'us,' how do we survive? Identifying who I mean as part of that 'us,' who I am accountable to when I'm creating this imagery and who I am not; what narratives of people of the human and of hierarchy am I disrupting.
Monét Noelle Marshall: The work I make almost always includes other people, as a theatre and performance artist. There are many performance artists who work solo but that's just not me, my shows have always included other people. I think for me it's always a practice of radical relationships—those relationships that would not exist without intentional disruption. When I did "Buy My Soul and Call It Art," casting it felt like 90 percent of the work, because I needed around 20 people in a room together for almost two weeks, and the show was technically really difficult. So who can I bring together and what relationships do I want to build that would not happen otherwise? I want my people to know each other while also serving the needs of Black storytelling, so I think part of my work is building community through the experience of performing together.
ZA: Monét, your work speaks pretty directly to questions of commodification, resources, and space in the art world. How do you both navigate the tensions of wanting art workers to get paid adequately and this fear of "selling out," or our art institutions being bought out by corporate entities?
MNM: I would say, one, we know capitalism is bullshit, so there's no one-size-fits-all answer to that question—as a producer, as a queer Black woman making art in the American South, in direct lineage to enslaved folks in direct lineage to sharecroppers, my relationship to capital is going to be very different than the local institution that is sponsoring one of my shows. Which is to say that when I did the first show ["Buy My Soul and Call it Art"] I was really grateful just to be able to pay everyone who participated $100. I think we had eight rehearsals over two weeks and two weekends of shows, and that is nowhere near an equitable minimum wage. For my next upcoming show I have grant funding and I can pay people a little bit more money, and I'm able to do that because of access to institutions, not because my personal capital has increased. I may go on to do the next show and again be grateful just to pay people $100. I think we have to look at who is presenting it, who is producing the work, the 'why' of the work. I am also totally okay if an artist has to tell me no because what I could pay them is not enough, because I get that. We are all trying to survive in this inequitable system, and I would rather someone tell me no because I love them and I'm in community with them than for them to struggle to say yes to me.
ST: I think this is a tension that comes up for a lot of folks—how can you survive in capitalism while deeply knowing and understanding that the entire system is fucked up. Even in small ways, whether I'm working at a restaurant, etcetera, I'm still participating. I try not to be judgmental in general of folks trying to get their bills paid, and there's a lot of pressure on artists because of the public nature of their work. Artists at large are not being supported at all levels. There's this idea of artists as glamorous when in fact most artists are working other jobs and [those jobs] end up becoming central to their identity. The language that we often use for art is 'work' but we aren't considered workers, and our labor isn't considered labor. You get a lot of 'social capital' for things, and not money. In other fields of work you don't see quite the same gap. As someone with a kid, I can't just be trying to get grants because I need something sustainable. There is still a mindset that this is luxury, that this is extra, as though we don't rely on art on a basic level for survival and imagining liberation. It is embedded into every aspect of our lives. Sometimes I wonder if we could all go on strike and erase art from the world, would people see?
ZA: Saba, you now direct the Carrack Modern Art, a community nonprofit gallery in Durham. Around the country we've seen a pattern of art being used to create an accommodating atmosphere for developers who want to capitalize on working-class neighborhoods, cultivating the conditions of displacement. How do you reckon with or navigate those processes? Is that something you've seen happening in Durham?
ST: This is something that me and Monét have had a lot of conversations about in particular, that the arts are being mechanized for the purpose of gentrification, and then once they are done with us, we get priced out too. It's a very short-term positive impact. Even when it seems inclusive, fundamentally galleries and theatres are not accessible to large groups of people. Not because there's something inherently complicated that workers aren't getting, but there's a story about who belongs in these spaces, a story about who the arts are for.
MNM: Going back to this systemic question, I'm now director of programs at VAE Raleigh, the first Black person they have hired in their 30-plus years. You see Saba directing the Carrack. Even as more of our art institutions are being led by people of color, what remains in the arts is a culture of whiteness. Until that is fundamentally changed, if you bring an arts institution into a neighborhood there is still a way it is codified that you have created a safe space for whiteness and white people. How do we do the work of building or shifting or completely overhauling institutions so that they don't just feel like 'oh this is a bastion of whiteness?' If we were to take an organization that was truly centered around working folks, people of color, then the developer may recognize 'actually, you are not my people,' and then we can actually be a weapon to protect our communities instead of weaponized against our communities. But I think that takes some deep cultural organizing—slow, arduous, committed work. Again, because of capitalism and a condition of living in scarcity we often don't get the time to build those relationships.
ST: Even within this scarcity model, we need to empower people. Even these small organizations, even individual people, we need to support our artists, so they can say no to problematic jobs that don't give them enough to survive long-term. How can we push the [question] more towards socialism, and harness collective power for the arts so we have choices?
MNM: Because the people are the artists. There's that weird debate that happens where it's like who is an artist and who is not. 'Arts worker' is what makes the distinction for me. Especially in working class communities of color, we have to be artists. We have to be creative and resourceful in order to survive. So, I want to invite you into a space that is ours to paint it out, write it out, photograph it out, sing it out, draw it out, because I want you to have access to use your creativity for other than just trying to survive. It's your right. You are there. You are generative.
ZA: Have you all had the opportunity to use your art in explicitly political organizing spaces? Why or why not?
ST: The most direct way that I use my art in political organizing spaces is creating visuals for marches, rallies, and gatherings, which is quite straightforward, but it is work that I find to be really important. I've been through the academy, I did a thesis show, I'll write those artist statements and all of that, but this work that is directly communicative, with a clear delivered impact and image, to me is even more important. There are hierarchies that exist in the art world that need to be broken down, what is considered 'high art' and what isn't. Anything that has a feminine history to it becomes 'craft,' immediately stratified on a lower level and dismissed. The other concrete experience was with the Durham Artists Movement, a group of folks coming together as artists who knew each other from movement. All of these folks were pretty explicitly showing up for a number of causes locally from a queer context of disrupting capitalism and pushing for racial equity. Not all of them necessarily even embedded in an artist practice but knew themselves as artists and showed up for the call. This group of people were really thinking about how to use space, how to come together, and how to be accountable in the work that we do as artists and as human beings where we live. One of the best things that we did was projecting across onto a building a list of names of those who had been killed by police downtown. It didn't have anything else beyond those names. Just a really visible intervention that was impactful. But on another side we also struggled with how to be truly inclusive—which, as a word, feels so liberal to me now—but without doing active base-building, even this group of radical folks were showing up from some level of privilege. There's a power dynamic in that. We weren't necessarily pushing outside of our bubble. How do we push that out further? We recognize that was a limitation, and I think it was important for us to go through the motions and have that realization. Even if we create this space for 'us,' there's limits to 'us,' and think through how to move with that. We can't be pretending we are the most amazing radical thing in the world.
MNM: A lot of my work is very topics-driven, so they are going to be about the things I care about: Black people, women, queer folks, domestic violence, or capitalism, and body image. And of course all of those things are political, but I haven't yet worked within movement organizations. I don't know if that has been a conscious decision, I think I've been out here making my work the best way I know how and caring for my people the best way I know how, and feeling like if the right partnership or right relationship were to come forward, I would be like 'hell yeah let's do this.'
ST: We [Monet and I] have really come together in a way where we think of art as movement work—pushing, and supporting each other in radical ways, and pushing on our city government with a real analysis coming with that. Some of these stratifications of art as an object, or art as a product that is somehow connected to a campaign, is one way of thinking about it. But imagining a different way of being is inherently creative work. There is a lot of drudgery involved in it, but that is a radical imagination. For me that's one of the reasons why I love movement so much—what gets me on fire is direct action, and that is so much theatre and performance, and it's so obvious and it's creating a direct impact. Pulling down a statue, that is fucking art, if I have ever seen it. Folks locking arms and blocking traffic and what that says. The way we think about direct action, the media might give it some credibility but most likely they will criminalize it, but look at every layer of meaning that comes out of it. There is a response from an audience, there is so much that is deliberate in those actions that to me is exactly what art is.
MNM: As a queer, Black, full-bodied cis woman living in the American South, me performing and moving through the world in my own truth feels political every day, so if I'm creating from that place of truth and vulnerability is that movement work or naw? Maybe for some folks it's not, but for me it is, and it is actually the work that is saving my life and I hope impacting other folks' lives.