Article by Nicole Gurgel
2014 marks the beginning of Alternate ROOTS’ three-year initiative, A Call to Action, in which we will be deeply reflecting on our work as artists and cultural organizers. Each year of this initiative is focused on a particular element of arts activism; in 2014 our focus is on Aesthetics, followed by Transformation in 2015 and Emergence/Organizing in 2016. In an effort to open up this year’s theme, we gathered a few ROOTS members –Ashley Minner (Baltimore, MD), Ebony Golden (Brooklyn, NY), Gwylyne Gallimard (Charleston, SC), and Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier (Atlanta, GA) – to talk about aesthetics.
Aesthetics is a complicated term in our organization and in our field. As one of the principles of Resources for Social Change, it has taken on several variations – Aesthetics of Transparent Processes, Aesthetics of Diversity, Aesthetics of Beauty and Justice. Historically, the term emerges from European philosophy, and as such, brings with it a history of hierarchy and domination that is at odds with Alternate ROOTS’ mission to undo all forms of oppression. As Lynn explained, because the word originates from classical Greek ideas of art and beauty, it often brings us back to those standards: “that’s where you start to run into snags and that’s where the pond gets real thick with weeds and the boat gets caught and you wind up kind of spinning around with the oars tangled up.”
For this reason, and so many more, the conversation these four ROOTers engaged in was thick, rich, and complex. Please take the time to listen in on it, and join us for future conversations via ROOTS Lounge, on Facebook, and at ROOTS Week. To get you started, here are a few excerpts from their dialogue:
Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier: “How might we … broaden the way we discuss things – even the semantics of it? … I just put up a piece on Nellie Mae Rose… and someone asked me, ‘do you think they considered themselves true artists?’ And these are visionary artists. And I’m like, ‘It doesn’t matter whether they considered—no I don’t think they considered themselves artists, they just made things.’ They saw a need within themselves to make something and that’s what they did. And you see that kind of thing, I know, throughout the South—that you know you have people that just do stuff. It doesn’t have to have a name or a label—you do it because you have an ability to do it. You do it because it’s beautiful to work with your hands, and your hands are creative and that’s why you do it. And so, you know, I think that’s kind of where I am right now, dealing with passion and the community’s need to make things, to use their hands and to come together, to make things and talk about it.”
Ashley Minner: “In my life and in my experience as an artist, I had an epiphany a couple times, how what I’m doing is just naturally a thing, it’s something. And this sense of validation, I’m not sure why it was lacking – like why wouldn’t where I’m from and what I do as a result of who I am and as a result of who came before me – why wouldn’t that be something?
Through collaborative projects with community here, we work toward realizing our taste and what’s beautiful to us and what we do as people is just as valuable and wonderful as any one else’s. Particularly working with Native American communities today … to recognize that who we actually are is beautiful and valid, I think that has a place in this conversation…
The word aesthetics – I’m pretty sure I could walk into the Lumbee church in Baltimore and ask everyone what aesthetics means, and I’m not sure that they’d be able to answer – I’m not sure it means anything to us on the whole, that’s my supposition. But could we all say what we feel is beautiful or articulate our style in other ways? I’m sure we could.”
Ebony Noelle Golden: [Referencing Luisah Teish’s concept of Gumbo Ya Ya] “Gumbo Ya Ya is a practice that takes place…when everybody in the room is talking at the same time, and everybody knows what the conversation is … To me, a definition of aesthetics that is rooted in the tradition I come from, in the communities that I come from, is that practice, is what happens when multiple conversations, multiple actions, multiple inputs and outputs are happening all at the same time. And it takes translation for people who are not invested in that culture … but the people inside it know…
From where I come from, aesthetics is not linear; it’s a cosmology. And there’s no one pinpoint, there’s no one entry, there’s no one exit. Your senses are washed or bathed in information … I think of aesthetics as a cosmology, as a system of mapping, a system of practices – and some of which you cannot be taught in school … in my communities some of this stuff is inherent and intuitive, it comes through spiritual practices, it comes through community, it comes through apprenticeships, it comes through sitting at someone’s knee and watching and learning before you’re able to talk about it and sometimes, you know, the best practitioners are not able to talk through it … aesthetics is much larger than language or the English language, it’s a practice.”
Gwylene Gallimard: Aesthetics needs to be rooted to be appreciated. Aesthetics for me is a tool to be used, just as dialogue is a tool… I think if we want to go much further in the discussions, we should choose which meaning of the term, or in which context we use that term. For example, we might talk about aesthetics and its history, or we might want to talk about each other’s aesthetics, or we want to know if that word is useful and sometimes it may not be useful because it’s too complicated or it’s too vague or it asks for a pre-discussion about it. Or we might start by saying aesthetics is a tool, what kind of tool is it? Aesthetics is a challenge, what kind of challenge is it? Aesthetics is a cosmology, what is the relationship with cosmology? We could go to aesthetics as direct activism – is that a possibility or not?”