I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The writer and visual artist discuss their work, experience as black creatives, and mutual love for Toni Morrison.
I have always had a crush on visual artists. And the sheer concentration of black artists living in New York City has allowed me the good fortune of calling some of them friends. They come to my house parties, gift me lovely pieces of art. In return, I am insanely jealous of their lifestyles—their paint-splattered studios with concrete floors and impossible sunlight, their worldly residencies, their never-ending globetrotting and hobnobbing with other art world dignitaries, and their celebrity admirers. As black, queer women educators, it was only a matter of time before I would meet artist Alexandria Smith. Our love of women, teaching black youth, and all things Toni Morrison guaranteed we’d become fast friends and collaborators.
In my latest book, & more black (Augury Books), many of the poems are inspired by the work of black artists: Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems, and Wangechi Mutu, to name a few. Three poems in the collection are after Smith’s works. So, of course, I asked if she might bless me with some art for the cover—except that the concept of the book was to have two books in one, which meant I needed two covers. She told me that her current body of work had been exploring dualities. How convenient considering & more black engages dichotomies like whiteness & blackness, queerness & otherness, the hood vs. everybody, black visual art & black literature, the black body & black intellectualism, black language & linguistic legacies, and so on. So we wound up with the painting, “This Skin We Speak” and the original drawing from whence the painting sprang. On a snowy day in March, I drove to New Haven to talk shop (and other shit) with Alex as she was in beast mode, preparing for her Queens Museum show, which opened on April 7.
Shamelessly, the conversation begins with nipples.
—t’ai freedom ford
t’ai freedom fordI have to say, I’m noticing a lot of nipples in your work as of late. The conjoined nipples that appear on the book, I see you just drew one three seconds ago, and there’s some nipples right behind your head, I believe. Those two up in the air. There’re like four nipples in total over there. So what’s going on with that?
Alexandria Smith Well, nipples—breasts—are a sign development. It’s the first indicator as we’re growing up that we are becoming a woman. Your breasts develop, your body develops, before your mind does, before you’re psychologically mature enough to understand what that means and what it comes with. Your body grows and other people notice. For me the nipples, the conjoined nipples, the touching nipples, the nipples that are sagging or reaching up to the sky, have a lot to do with ownership of that growth. These figures having a sense of autonomy and power by embracing their growth. That’s the best way I can describe it.
tff As far as age, pubescent or?
AS I call them amalgamations of growth or of the parts that remain sort of tethered to girlhood, tethered to that younger age—that prepubescent on the cusp of puberty age. But for the most part the majority of them are grown. They’ve grown up; they’re adults or entering adulthood. Also morphing into parts of the environment. That push and pull that’s happening. They’re coming, emerging from, and falling back into the spaces that they occupy.
tff That’s interesting, this idea of morphing into one’s environment and emerging from it, but still being tethered to it. I’m trying to finish this novel, which has a lot to do with gentrification, a subject that is so much about black and brown bodies occupying a certain environment.
AS Tell me about the novel.
tffIn the first chapter, a young teenage boy gets killed—y’know, cops. He has his headphones on and he doesn’t hear and he digs in his pocket … bam bam bam. And that’s it.
AS Wow …
tffThe rest of the book is really about people grieving his loss or other losses. So the next chapter is about his brother, who is three years older than him, and how he’s dealing with it. Then it’s his mother and estranged father. I wanted it to be these intertwined stories from different perspectives all tethered to the same event—the aftermath.
That actually makes me think of Toni Morrison—I know we’re both huge fans of her work. She’s like God to me. Whenever I’m stuck, I’ll pull out a Toni Morrison book and be like, What would Toni do? And I’m just in awe. Like I’m in awe that The Bluest Eye was her first book.
AS That will always remain my favorite book of hers. Tar Baby, Song of Solomon and Beloved—those three books are really hard for me. Hard. I’ve tried reading them so many times over the years, but I’ve only been able to read her earliest and latest ones. Like Paradise, Love, and Home. God Help the Child made me so angry, but it reminded me so much of my work. This idea of the character regressing, a sort of a reversal, a Benjamin Button kind of approach, was so trippy but so real ’cause it was speaking to our psychological state.
tff Is that what you see happening in your work? That there is this kind of going both ways? This coming and going at once with the character?
AS Yeah, it’s about impermanence. It’s about instability and impermanence as it pertains to age, just like being in a space and being in your body. I don’t see the age of the figures. I call them “girls,” but I put that term in air quotes usually because the ages of the girls or the figures kind of go back and forth. They sort of oscillate between masculine-presenting and feminine. At times they’re physically stable in their body and their bodily state, and at other times they’re part of the environment. Some figures, you can’t tell if they’re being absorbed into the environment and the space or if they’re emerging from it. And that’s a lot of what’s happening in my newest work. Parts of the environment become part of their skin. You know? I do feel like there’s this constant back-and-forth with the figures and their age, their sexuality, their gender presentation.
tff In some of your earlier works you have these picket fences and it seems like the characters are almost a part of the fence, kind of emerging from it, their bodies distorted and in some cases almost limbless. But then in other cases they’re like, multi-limbed.
AS Definitely, yeah, they’re going through it. But the ones that are what we would consider limbless also feel whole to me, and I think it’s interesting, we think about how these hybrid characters would exist in our space, so we try to connect it to the real. But we’re also eliminating what magical realism does, right? Magical realism creates this absurdity in some instances. Things that cannot happen in our world, but it’s real and it makes sense in that world, and that’s what’s happening in my work, too.
tff In literature the rule is anything can happen as long as you ground readers in time and space, right? So if I know where I am, I will go with you, but I need to be able to hold on to something. I’m just thinking about … You just had these gallerists in here, and that’s the real world, right?
AS(sigh) Yeah …
tff And ultimately, you know there’s a business side of this art world. I don’t know about you, but for me it’s super hard to deal with the business side of it. I’m like, just tell me when and where to show up and I’ll rock the fucking mic.
tff I’ll sell some books, I’ll sign some books, and then can we go eat and drink? But I think what I was going to ask is about your aesthetic. Do you feel like you have to conform or perform to this sort of mainstream audience? I mean, when I first started in the MFA program it was like I was writing what I thought these white people wanted to see or hear.
Then I started writing my own shit and just listening to my voice and writing for black folks and thinking about what I would want to read. And then everybody was like, Oh my god, this is so amazing. I had broken through. I was like, Oh yeah, what the fuck was I doing?
AS It’s so real, because whiteness is always centered when people are looking at our work. Thank goodness for the ancestors and the spirits because I’ve never been able to try to conform. Even being in grad school, I was making work and I didn’t like the conversations that were happening. I’ve got to figure something else out because this is not the way that I want the work to live in this world. So, it doesn’t feel performative to me because I’m always myself. But I do know that there’s a different self that I present. There’s a different self that all of us present. I used to talk about this with my high school students, and I’m sure you do too. It’s code switching, but it doesn’t mean I’m not being my authentic self. It just means that this is a compartmentalized persona that I’m allowing you to see and the other part you only get privilege to, y’know, if it’s a safe space and I’m allowing you to see me and allowing myself to be vulnerable. So it doesn’t feel performative. But I haven’t been able to say that my work is about and for black people, because there are other formal aspects of art and design that I’m exploring.
It’s definitely by us, right? It’s by a black woman, but I don’t know if it’s only for black women. I’m trying to also universalize the black experience, because it’s always separated. It’s always put in this closet that you take out when it’s convenient, and that’s negating our impact and influence in the world, making it seem as if this is a separate experience. It’s everyone’s experience. Am I making it work for black people, or am I making work for people? Is that the question? Is that question something I even want to concern myself with? I really don’t know, but I refuse to change who I am and what I do for anyone’s comfort.
tffI think my first audience is black folks, but it’s tiered. It’s for everybody, and I encourage everybody to read it.
AS But that’s the problem too though …
AS We’re the only motherfuckers that are asked that question: Who’s your audience?
tff Right, right.
AS You didn’t ask no fucking Picasso who his motherfucking audience was. No one asks those questions of white people. And I challenge that too.
tff Exactly. I mean the fact is: Do you read? Okay, you’re my audience. But the audience question does come up a lot. I think for me it’s about a positioning of the art. The position is toward blackness, black folk, my folk, my people, queer folk. You know what I mean? If you are in those audiences, you will probably understand and have a better chance of receiving it in the way that I intend for it to be received. On a visceral level, on a heart chakra level, as opposed to on a cerebral level, you know what I mean? For everybody else there might be a couple of barriers that you might have to get through to get to some sort of comprehension or feeling. I feel like white folks can enter my pieces cerebrally, conceptually, formally. But that’s not necessarily the way I want it to be received. I want it to be received here (thumps chest).
AS You just want it to resonate and to stay and just get under your skin and sit there too, not just be on the surface. I have a question for you. The main characters in a lot of your short stories are male. Can you talk about why or what draws you to having characters that identify as masculine?
tff Those were the voices that spoke to me. It’s funny because that voice started speaking to me even before I started teaching. I mean, I am a tomboy. I hung out with boys more than I did girls, so I feel like I was more attuned to their behaviors—how they talk, how they feel. I felt like a boy most of my life. You know, in high school I was this kid who didn’t know what gay was. But I felt like I was one of the boys because I liked girls, even though I couldn’t express that. So I think that teen voice has always been inside me. You know what I mean? It’s like my alter ego almost.
You were saying that even though some of your figures appear to be “girls,” in your mind some are distinctly masculine or feminine, but to the naked eye I can’t discern any difference. So how do you know what is what and what? Is it an energy that you’re putting into it?
ASIt’s energy I feel when I look at them. I don’t think about it when I’m making the work though. It’s after the fact that I’m like, oh yeah, that’s not a feminine figure. That’s a masculine figure. But it’s not something I’m consciously thinking about during the process. It’s just something I recognized later, and it’s not important to me. Well, it’s important to me that there is gender ambiguity and that these figures are sort of somewhere on either spectrum.
tff If we’re talking about the intent of art, it calls to mind a Toni Cade Bambara quote where she said, “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” I’ll piggyback on that and ask, what do you think is your role as an artist or the role of an artist in general?
AS The role of an artist is to change our understanding of the world that we live in, change how we see things, amplify things that we may not see on a regular basis through materiality, through form, through speaking to our emotive states. I feel like the arts is the only thing that can do that, that can really transform the way we experience the world and inspire and motivate us to get involved to make a difference. To find ways to make a difference.
But how do you think about whether your work has a purpose? Teaching high school, seeing the bullshit that our young people are dealing with, experiencing it firsthand growing up and still living in Brooklyn, and having all those gentrification experiences. There’s just a lot coming together. How do you remain motivated to make art? What the hell is the point?
tff Sometimes I do find myself asking, What the fuck is the point? What is the purpose of all of this? When I go to bookstores I’m overwhelmed by the number of books that are there, and I’m thinking, nobody reads all of these books. Is this an exercise in vanity? What is the purpose? Then I have to think about the fact that this art making process is for my well-being first and foremost, right? That ultimately, while I may not save anyone, I’m saving myself, and that is enough. That is enough. As far as purpose goes, I have saved my life. The fact that I share my art and that people buy it, in some way that’s a bonus. But this is a necessary practice for me, as I’m sure it is for you. It is enough if you just had a house full of fucking paintings and became a painting hoarder, but your sanity is preserved because you’re getting it out.
AS That’s a good way of looking at it. It feels so self indulgent.
tff But … but … it is! So is getting your hair done or getting your nails done, or taking a bubble bath or eating really good food.
AS That just connects to our own burdens that have been projected onto us as black women and feeling guilty for doing things for ourselves.
tff At some point, we have to lay our burdens down.
t’ai freedom ford is a New York City high school English teacher and Cave Canem Fellow. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in The African American Review, Apogee, BOMB Magazine, Calyx, Drunken Boat, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, Kweli, Tin House, Obsidian, Poetry and others. Her work has also been featured in several anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color. She was a 2015 Center for Fiction Fellow and the Poetry Project’s 2016 Emerge-Surface-Be Poetry fellow. Most recently she has won awards from the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) and is a 2019 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship inaugural fellow. Winner of the 2015 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize, her first poetry collection, how to get over is available from Red Hen Press. Her second poetry collection, & more black, is with Augury Books, available Summer 2019. t’ai lives and loves in Brooklyn where she is an editor at No, Dear Magazine. More at: taifreedomford.com
Alexandria Smith (b. 1981, Bronx, NY) earned her BFA in Illustration from Syracuse University, an MA in Art Education from New York University, and an MFA in Painting and Drawing from Parsons The New School for Design. She has exhibited her work in solo and group exhibitions at venues such as deCordova Sculpture Park and MuseumLincoln, MA (2019); Boston University Boston, MA (2018); MASS MoCA North Adams, MA (2018); The Union for Contemporary Art Omaha, NE (2017); Yale School of Art New Haven, CT (2016); International Print Center New York, NY (2016); Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture New York, NY (2015). Smith is the recipient of numerous awards including a Pollock-Krasner Grant and the Virginia A. Myers Fellowship at the University of Iowa. She has been an artist-in-residence at MacDowell, Bemis, Yaddo, the LMCC Process Space Residency and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. From 2016–18, Smith was also co-organizer of the collective, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter (BWA for BLM).
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee