What did you work on in Wassaic?
Primarily, I was making paintings and doing some screenprinting, and the works that I was making were really based on these books I was reading. One book was All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks. The other book is called My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, and that’s by Resmaa Menakem.
The first week, things got kind of crazy for me because my materials were lost and my phone stopped working. I was just trying to get adjusted into the space and figure out what I was going to create. I had some ideas. Usually, I work within systems: I take time trying to take apart a system, to understand it, and to define it within the ways that work with my identity. So while there, while reading these two books, I was analyzing ideas of trauma and ideas of love, and ideas of how love can be transmitted through trauma — but also understanding how society idealizes this ambiguous system of love and trauma.
Can you talk a little bit about how that came through in the paintings/screenprints you were making?
One painting, I started it on found objects because my materials did not come. I started working with a towel I brought that happened to be from a fair in Virginia — it worked within the realm of the book that I was reading about racialized trauma, in the sense that the first slave ship that actually came over to America was docked in Virginia. To me, it was a very crazy coincidence that I happened to have this towel in my bag. With that, I started doing some research — looking up how we deal with trauma, how our brains work, how trauma lives within our body, and how it’s passed down even through DNA. One instance I found was that, people of color, they would clap or sing songs as a means of handling traumatic experience, so I made some screens with hands clapping. I also found different symbols within Native American culture that were representative of a renewing type of idea and protection, so I started to add those symbols onto this towel as well.
For me, this time around, I was really trying to stay away from the figure because, while doing my research, I was taking notes on all of these things — laying it out in a very specific language of cause-and-effect. And ultimately, this large screenprinted painting on found pieces was more representational of function — because of these ideals of trauma and love, but also just the idea of a conversation that is not had, and the idea of trying to reach some type of utopia or equilibrium. It's something that we discuss, as people: Do we want to have a utopia? But I don't think — the way that love works and the way that trauma work — that that is actually what we would want. Because in an equilibrium, that means it’s a stasis. Nothing is actually happening. In regards to our society and its capitalistic frame, there's no love in that. There’s no love in capitalism.
So those are the things that I was unpacking while I was reading. Mostly more about the materiality of what I was bringing with, because I didn't have my resources that I expected. It was kind of interesting to see how everything worked out.
Was that a situation you’d ever found yourself in before? Or was it a sort of interesting, new artistic opportunity to be forced to make do with the things around you?
I generally work in that manner, so it didn't bother me too much. But it was interesting to see how the forms were made, because I was really trying to stay away from doing portraiture. That was very different for me. The paintings that I ended up with, and that I'm still working on, are very, very abstract and surreal. I think it works with the conversation of these systems that are very ambiguous for all of us, because we all have different ideas of what these things mean.
That actually connects to another question I had. In one of your essays that you have on your site, you quote W. E. B. Du Bois saying that “Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.” But on your artist statement on your site, you say that your work is “not to be confused with propaganda.” Can you say more about your relationship to propaganda in your work? Especially given that propaganda is something that frequently makes use of the figure.
In terms of my work, I want it to be provoking as propaganda, but I don't want it to be considered something that is trying to sway anyone. I believe that my work is to be a catalyst for conversation. I think that, as an academic and as someone who tries to read and be cognizant of the matters around me, I try to propose instances in which I may agree, but can disagree at the same time. Like this bell hooks book that I’ve been reading: there’s part of it that I identify and agree with fully, but there’s also parts I just feel I can't. I don't have space within myself to agree with.
My work is all about questioning, and I think that's just who I am as a person. My friends are always like, “Oh my gosh, you just want to argue.” And I’m like, “Well, even if I agree with something, I'm going to try to argue the other side just to have more of an understanding of why I feel so passionately about what I believe.” I also recall, another artist at the program, we were deep in conversation and he's just like, “You know, you don't have to understand everything.” [Laughs.] And I’m like, “I know I don't have to understand, but I would like to try. Just so I can have an open mind to understand your point of view, so we can possibly work towards something together.” If you have an understanding of yourself, and then you have an understanding of the needs of the person next to you, then there wouldn't be so much violence, I think.
Right now, at the moment, I'm just reaching out to family and to friends to help me find space. I feel I'm learning more about my tolerance — like I have more self-awareness of what I need and how to actually vocalize that to people, so they can help me with my dreams, or with my career, or just with my necessity to create these things. Because it's not that I'm creating them with the intent of selling them — I'm creating them with the intent of speaking with people about them afterwards.
It’s just like when you wake up in the middle of a dream, and then you're like, Oh fuck, I wish I could finish the dream. I wish I could know what was going to happen at the end. That's where I am right now. I'm in the middle of that process, just trying to finish getting the conversation that I had in my mind out on the canvas.
Artschoolscammer (Denae Howard) is A Brooklyn-based conceptual artist, educator, curator and advisor. At the moment she is solely a collaborative artist. Working with her cooperative #Dayonesart and other Black creatives invested in making work that forces necessary conversation. Her work is a coded-guide that promotes discussions that reveal the similarities and differences in the way individuals’ experience systems. Her practice stems from a need to create space and conversation around the systems that govern our natural existence. As a visual artist and contributor to culture she feels it is imperative to create art that reflects cognitive, emotional and social pedagogy. Her works are re-appropriations of negative archetypes and stereotypes to reclaim and transcend positive meaning for Black people. But also re-imaginings of the limitless opportunities of Black Existence.
2019 Summer Residency