Protection and Resistance: Stephanie J. Woods Interviewed by Hallie McNeill

A multidisciplinary artist addresses personal and collective experience.

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A person wearing camouflage with an America flag wrapped around their head titled, When the Hunted Become the Hunters, by Stephanie J. Woods

Stephanie J. Woods, When the Hunted Become the Hunters, 2020, detail. Courtesy of the artist.

Stephanie J. Woods is a multidisciplinary artist whose work examines Black American identity and the effects of forced cultural assimilation. Her work is equal parts proactive and reflective: from participatory, community-engaged installations to mixed and multimedia works, she weaves together—sometimes literally—objects and symbols that question longstanding assumptions, expectations, and delimitations placed on Black people in the United States. 

Over the months that Stephanie and I corresponded, much transpired. When I first wrote this introduction, I cited the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Upon revision, I added Jacob Blake’s name. Now that we’ve reached publishing, I feel strongly that no shortlist of names or events will ever properly describe the violence, anxiety, and disappointment of these past months; bullet points will never do justice to what real bullets do. Yet the most infuriating reality is that none of this is anything new; it’s the opposite. Until real change occurs, every list, every tally will continue to grow. Though these circumstances are not what prompted our interview, they did impress a sense of urgency upon our conversation.

—Hallie McNeill

Hallie McNeill I’d like to start by talking about your piece Relax. Relate. Release. Would you describe it?

Stephanie J. Woods Relax. Relate. Release., or RRR, is a community-engaged project that I began in 2018. I invite participants to take a seat and write a response to a question that is tossed into the center of the installation. Satin hair bonnets inspired the formal elements of the project; they’ve since become a visual language in my work that is a metaphor for protection, resistance, and comfort. The goal is to stimulate reflection and conversations among black people in what I consider to be a meditative space for those who seek to maintain their dignity in the face of prejudice, aggression, and violence. There are six cushions or “bonnet seats” that surround the focal piece and another larger bonnet that holds the completed responses. Depending on where you sit, you are asked a different question. Each seat has a single word on it: Radiant, Magical, Determined, Bold, Strong, and Brilliant. Essentially, you choose a word, or if there is only one seat left, the word chooses you. Since beginning this project, I have received 321 written responses.

Two Black women sit on two of six blue cushions on the floor while writing titled, Relax Relate Release, by Stephanie J. Woods

Installation view of Stephanie J. Woods, Relax. Relate. Release, 2020, Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Art + Culture, Charlotte, NC. Photo by Wonderin Jones.

HM Have the responses surprised you, or did you anticipate the kind of answers you received? 

SJW I was surprised. I noticed that the majority of them read like survival tips or affirmations, which I’ve started calling “Protection Politics.” I’m exploring ways to take these reflections and translate them into a book. When I created the project, I was expecting people to tell more personal stories or that participants would allow themselves to be more vulnerable (and a lot of them did end up being personal). But the theme of survival speaks a lot about this feeling I often felt growing up to be strong, to overcome, and to roll with the punches. These are traits I see in a lot of people in my family, and oftentimes we do not take the time to ask ourselves how we are doing because we are instead spending so much time just trying to overcome everyday obstacles.

HM Would you share some examples? 

SJW So many to share, but here are a couple: 

“Sometimes I make a point to prove people wrong about how they are labeling me. Other times I just walk away or ignore. Every obstacle is different but in general I just push through no matter what. Sometimes I wish I didn’t and just let it go b/c it’s not worth it.”

“We are the ones who … do not get treated nicely.

This second response spoke to me the most because it was written by a child and addresses the psychological effects of institutionalized oppression and intergenerational trauma. Imagine feeling alienated due to your identity at such a young age, and also imagine carrying that feeling with you throughout your entire life.

A purple notecard with the words "We are the ones who ... do not get treated nicely" written on it titled, We Are the Ones Who..., by Stephanie J. Woods

Stephanie J. Woods, “We Are the Ones Who…,” 2020, one of the six questions that accompany Relax. Relate. Release. Courtesy of the artist.

HM Wow, yeah. I think so much of the potency of these responses comes from the fact that they’re handwritten: even though they’re anonymous, they are an intimate record and connect to the person who wrote them through the script and the content. As you’ve gathered more and more of them from different iterations of the project, have your original intentions for the piece or its future possible embodiments changed? 

SJW When I created the project I was listening to Solange’s album A Seat at the Table, specifically her song “F.U.B.U.” I was also watching A Different World on repeat in the studio, which inspired the title of the project. On the show, the character Whitley Gilbert was taught the chant “relax, relate, release” by her therapist to calm her anxiety. With all these influences around me, and because I personally deal with anxiety, I just wanted to create a space for us. Which is also why I chose to use lavender cards for the responses, because it’s known to be a therapeutic that relieves mild anxiety.

The response written by the child really stood out to me. Looking back on the project, I’ve been reflecting on ways that I can involve children more. My anxiety started when I was a child, so having spaces specifically for black youth is where the project is headed and where I feel it is needed. So, I am reimagining the aesthetics of the piece as well as the participation component. I want there to be more play!

HM In a separate conversation we had, you mentioned that RRR also led to the creation of the work in the current Smack Mellon exhibition, Bound up Together: On the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Would you describe the piece and its genesis? 

SJW The work, When the Hunted Become the Hunters (2020), is a defensive performance that I call a moving audio photograph. I call it a moving photograph because there is no beginning or end. It’s essentially a video capturing a performance of me sitting still in a guarded, unwavering position while everything else around me is moving. I’m wearing hunting clothes and a satin bonnet featuring an american flag that was dyed lavender and embellished with the text “The Right To Life.” The text was taken from a written reflection I received from RRR in response to the question “What is worth fighting for?”

The work is accompanied by Fourth of July audio that I captured on the porch of my childhood home in Charlotte, NC. In the audio, you can hear fireworks, cicadas, and karaoke. It sounds like a war zone, but at the same time it’s accompanied by the sound of people singing and celebrating. It’s kinda creepy.

Every Fourth of July feels weird to me. It does not feel like a day of celebration but a day that personifies the reality of constantly feeling at war in a country that was built off of free labor by my enslaved ancestors. So essentially the performance is about agency and no longer claiming or allowing ourselves to take on the labels of victimhood, but to reverse the roles and put power back in our hands. Those that are often preyed on assume the role of predators through confidence, strength, and the unwavering knowledge of self-worth.

A man sits on a bench in front of a projected video featuring a person sitting on a rock while wearing camouflage and with an American flag wrapped around their head titled, When the Hunted Becomes the Hunters, by Stephanie J. Woods

Installation view of Stephanie J. Woods, When the Hunted Become the Hunters, 2020, moving audio photograph, seven minutes, thirty-nine seconds, Smack Mellon, Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Etienne Frossard.

HM This makes me think of Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” given nearly two hundred years ago, yet still so powerfully relevant. Would you explain the performance a little more? Is there a relationship between the idea of a defensive performance and the concept you mentioned earlier, “Protection Politics”? 

SJW Yes, it is related. The phrase “Protection Politics” is about self-preservation and self-governing. What are the ways that we maintain our dignity when faced with tribulations? Is it through affirmations and perseverance, as I saw in the responses from RRR? And are these coping devices a form of defense developed for our survival? For example, code-switching and the idea of double consciousness. For me, triple consciousness: not only am I black, but I am also a woman from the american south. Over the years I’ve traveled to many places, and it never fails that when I say I am from North Carolina, people immediately cringe. 

But the issues do not lie just in the south. The performance takes place in Massachusetts, the state where the first publicly funded, organized police force was created. I was essentially taking the south up north through southern tropes like hunting clothes—where I am from hunting clothes are everyday attire even when you are not hunting! My performance is saying enough is enough and that this antiquated need for passivity is coming to an end. Personally, I’m fed up. A lot of us are. 

I captured this performance at the beginning of 2020, yet with the recent BLM protests and the topic of defunding the police, I feel like the piece is coming to life. Especially with the sound of fireworks that accompanies the performance, but even more so conceptually the idea of being fed up and no longer allowing ourselves to be preyed on. 

The performance also addresses the hypervisibility, dehumanization, and inevitable erasure of black women. Of course, “The Right to Life” is the belief that a person and or living creature has the right to live and should not be killed by any person, but it’s also used in debates by those who wish to end the practice of abortion. This brings up questions of ownership, objecthood, and commodification of the body. As a black woman I am four times more likely to die during pregnancy and/or childbirth than a white woman. And not only are we fighting for our lives in hospitals where adequate health care is a right, we are also fighting for our lives every day, as we have to deal with police brutality, over-sexualization, adultification, redlining, voter suppression, economic inequality, institutionalized oppression, and “micro” aggressions on a daily basis. We have to ask ourselves who are the ones in this country who are living, and who are simply breathing for air? 

Stephanie J. Woods: FALSE ILLUSION is on view at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in New York City until December 13; When the Hunted Become the Hunters is on view at Bound up Together: On the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment at Smack Mellon in New York City until December 13. 

Hallie McNeill is an artist and writer. She teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

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