Across multidisciplinary activities and immersive performances, BAMPFA's Black Life series features contemporary artists whose work expresses the vitality, range, and history of cultural production in the African diaspora. In this spirit, programmers Ryanaustin Dennis and Chika Okoye commissioned a vibrant banner by Oakland-based artist Jade Ariana Fair to frame future events, starting with Ra Malika Imhotep's program on Saturday, July 20.
In this short interview, step into Fair's studio to discover the artistic and conceptual processes that ground her expressions of Black life and living.
Describe the many facets of your creative practice, from multidisciplinary artmaking and writing to social practice and arts education.
I’m just an incredibly curious person. When I feel passionate about something, I’m compelled to pursue it in some form. I have to be able to have multiple modes of working and engaging with community in order to feel whole. I used to feel vulnerable about this because I felt a societal pressure to make my art practice or practice as a healer fit into one field. It has felt useful and generative to dismantle those segregations in my practice and to listen for all of what calls me. At various turns that has looked like me focusing on continuing to learn herbalism and healing my body, painting, noise and performance art projects, printmaking, sculpture, working at the Richmond Art Center as a Teaching Artist and Summer Camp Coordinator, and event organizing through the Multivrs is Illuminated fest that I co-organize with DJ Shawna Shawnte.
Tell us about some of the signs and symbols that comprise your visual vocabulary.
The primary one, the most continuous, is the black figures with white marks that populate the majority of my work. I started painting them as a visual representation of my unknown/unknowable ancestors who were lost in the Middle Passage and to the four hundred years of the slave trade. The use of black paint evolved into an exploration of the possibilities of black materials in the creation of sculptures and mixed media pieces. The marking is intuitive, and also connected to a Kenyan dashiki that got passed down to me from my uncle who passed in 2013. He went there on a cultural pride type of excursion in the 1970s. Symbolically it’s related to that diasporic longing that pulls on us as Black folks, a yearning to return to a space that’s utopic and rewrites history. Related to a reality, but not quite achieving that reality. That’s the psychic space a lot of my work occupies.
Everything that I make is intuition first and research second. Things come out of me from a vision in my mind. It’ll start with a color, or I’ll see a figure in a specific pose and then just go from there. Things I work with a lot are images of snakes, of eggs, ranges of expansive sky and the ground below that looks like a geological cross-section in the earth. Primordial stuff. I’m kinda out of step with time. I have this dichotomy in my personality that is incredibly childlike but also ancient. I like simplicity that conceals complexity.
What are some of your creative influences?
Speaking back to the figures that are central in my work, I started researching a bit more about Igbo figure sculpture and saw a lot of visual similarities after the fact to the way I proportion my figures. I also really enjoy the work of Tanzanian artist George Lilanga and the work of Afro- Cuban artists Maria Magdelana Campos-Pons and Belkis Ayon. I also find myself in relationship to Black folk artists in the American South, as well as Black Arts Movement assemblage and mixed folks like Betye Saar and Elizabeth Catlett.
Your work is both research-based and intuitive. How do you approach a new project such as the commission for the Black Life banner?
Working with the Black Life banner was an interesting exercise for me, and I think for [series programmers] Chika and Ryanaustin as well. We talked about the piece being able to stand alone as its own artwork, to be informative about the series, and to speak thematically to what the concept of “Black Life” could contain. So it was an opportunity to challenge myself towards creating something that would feel expansive, inviting, and fresh. That started with color for me first. That bright yellow in the piece was the first thing that came. Then came the notion of Black Life being a thing that is spoken into existence, crafted through breath and speech acts. Since a lot of the performers and lecturers rely on breath for powering instruments, making songs, or generating lectures, I thought that was appropriate.
How does this mural interpret the spirit of the Black Life program?
As an artist who has performed in an earlier Black Life event and having attended the program over the past three years, I felt that the work Chika and Ryanaustin are doing uplifts facets of the African diaspora and people of African descent in ways that are purposefully humanizing, and that support the creation of a culture that foregrounds aspects of Black experiences worldwide that may be otherwise marginalized by homophobia, transphobia, or misogyny.
I have been exploring the impact of the emergence of the AIDS crisis and crack addiction on a Black queer and trans sense of legacy and history. Like the first ACT UP “Stop the Church” demonstration happened in 1989, the year I was born. I think about the nightlife cultures which are/were driven by queer sex and Black music that were transforming the way people thought about intimacy and one anothers’ bodies as social and sexual beings that was suddenly destroyed, violently through negligence and ignorance. It had an effect in the present where we are driven to document ourselves, for one another, to glorify ourselves while we are still here and to restore that sense of intimate connection to another.
I think I am seeing in my generation of Black queer and trans contemporaries a re-emergence of an appreciation of house and soul and disco, and the importance of documentation of our sensual bodies and selves as a response to inheriting a gap in queer and trans eldership. The line “what we have is much more than they see” from the L.T.D. song “Love Ballad” is all of that. The acknowledgment of those unsanctioned histories, the recovery of that soulfulness and invitation to come to closer. Black life and living is so much richer and more complex than what could be contained by the white gaze and I think the series highlights those complexities.
Join us each month for an exciting Black Life program, where performers will activate the BAMPFA space against a backdrop of Jade Ariana Fair's work. Stay informed about her practice on Instagram (@plurnotded). In addition to this new work, Fair is currently working on a remix for artist and musician Anna Luisa’s Green Remixes album and will exhibit work abroad in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she was an artist-in-residence at the Khyber Center for the Arts.