Why did you go to Japan in preparation for this residency and what were your goals in visiting?
Essentially it sprung out of an interest in Japanese culture I’ve had for a long time. While there, I thought deeply about cultural co-option, and appropriation vs. admiration and appreciation. The nuances of American, African-American, and Japanese sensibilities came into focus on this trip. I also wanted to give myself parameters to work within while at Artpace. I visited during the start of the New Year—the country’s busiest holiday. This wasn’t so great for seeing museums, galleries, and performances, but it was a great opportunity to visit shrines and to observe (and participate in) rituals associated with this time of year. In Tokyo and Kyoto, it was easy to join the masses in public celebration and reflection, but harder to get invited to the private space of people’s homes—something that I was really interested in.
How did that experience translate into your space?
Meiji Jingu Shrine was one of the most populated shrines I visited in Tokyo on New Year’s Day. Among the many activities you could get into there (walking around, entering the shrine, eating good food), you could also get a fortune for the year for 100 yen (close to a dollar). To receive a fortune, you shook a tin can until a chopstick fell out. The number on the chopstick (1-100) corresponded with a number on a drawer inside a large chest of drawers. You open the drawer and there is your fortune! I’ve played around with the idea of dispensing fortunes and the omnipresence of automation in Japan by creating fortunes that dispense themselves automatically.
My work often deals with bittersweetness and discomfort, so the fortunes are both hopeful and full of skepticism. This skepticism is related to what I imagine many Black Americans (like myself) are experiencing at this moment in America. I’ve used an episode of the television show Good Times to think about the eternal roller coaster of fortune/misfortune—a constant presence on every Good Times episode. JJ also says “Sayonara!” on this episode—so it was perfect.
What are some of the themes in your exhibition?
Matcha or green tea powder is definitely a theme in the work. I liked matcha before visiting Japan; when I got there, it was in everything—foods, desserts, and drinks! In the exhibition, matcha is used as a symbol of (my relationship with) Japanese culture. It is a tactile and textural way to talk about consuming culture in many ways.
Another theme is mimicry. I explore the intention of mimicry—to learn, to become—by inserting myself into Japanese comedy sketch television (via green screen). I also included a sculpture/installation that has faux Japanese architecture and is meant to represent elements of Japanese spaces—minimalist—tight, yet airy. All of these things I am recreating as failures at becoming Japanese. (This is also why I’ve included a screen door—a very American, Southern housing feature that is performative in its own way.) These acts of mimicry are about questioning why we mimic other cultures. What psychological, emotional, and spiritual spaces are activated when we encounter, adore, or even mimic other cultures?
Finally, there is this idea of quiet—a very rich and internal world—that is somehow present. There were so many people in Japan, yet it was very quiet. I had been reading The Sovereignty of Black Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, a book by Kevin Quashie, before the trip. In this book of essays, Quashie articulates the ways in which Black American culture has remained in a state of public resistance and expressiveness (necessarily) for eons. He advocates for shifting to a development of our “interiority” or harnessing “quiet” in an effective, progressive way. He notes that there is a difference in “quiet” and “silence,” which can be forced on you by others.
There was a sense in Japan that the silences were very full, and this was very meditative. This might not show up in what one sees when they walk in the gallery space, but it definitely influenced the performance, the videos, and the installation.