A three-channel video exploring geographic and cultural movement of song through embodied performance.
Archival footage moves between renditions of Eugene Smith’s “I Know the Lord Will Make A Way, Oh Yes He Will” (1941), and documentary footage from Kansas City and Quindaro Ruins–a historical site is known to be an underground railroad entryway.
Quindaro’s presence in the work reemphasizes performance, embodiment, and song meaning in relation to utopia. The gospel blues song composition follows a four-line poem structure with a narrative hinged on utopian wishes–hope and reassurance are common motifs in Black political and cultural expression.
April 22-June 17, 2022 Future/Elsewhere: Dreams Are Transitory Things was a solo exhibition of text, video, photography, and a textile banner that reflected on the tensions between imagined and external reality.
Video still of Strait-Way Apostolic Church with multi-colored fabric banners lining the back wall (Courtesy of Charlene Durham)
HD color, 3-channel, 00:07:11
“The importance of utopian wishes hinges on the unfinishedness of the material world. The world that is in a constant state of process, of becoming. The future is ‘not yet’ and is a realm of possibility. Utopia reaches toward that future and anticipates it. And in so doing, it helps to effect the future.”
Ruth Levitas, “Educated Hope: Ernst Bloch on Abstract and Concrete Utopia”
This body of work acknowledges the push and pull of certain facts of blackness, survival and freedom. In the field of utopian studies, defining the term utopia has been of contentious debate. In “Educated Hope: Ernst Bloch on Abstract and Concrete Utopia,” Ruth Levitas situates Bloch’s The Principle of Hope as a “rehabilitation of the concept of utopia” (13) by drawing on his distinction between abstract and concrete utopia. Ernst Bloch defended utopia against the disciplined and undisciplined dreaming problem, arguing that hope must be understood “as a direct act of a cognitive kind” (1:12). Moreover, the function of a/an utopia wish is to enact change, or “a transformed future,” according to Levitas.
In Freedom Dreams: Black Radical Imagination, Robin D.G. Kelley affirms that, “The map to a new world is in the imagination, in what we see in our third eyes rather than the desolation that surrounds us” (2). Invoking both the spiritual and the speculative, the Black imagination engages experiments of freedom through and beyond the logics of time and space. As I pieced together oral stories passed down to me, I can’t help but have gratitude for the clarity and boldness of my grandparents, for their escape, and freedom-seeking. My intention with repurposing archival material and the select literature is to interpret, speculate, and locate nuance in the complexity of experience, embodiment, and expression. Here I consider: How do you get freedom? How will you get there?
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen.”
Strait-Way Apostolic Church, where I was baptized, often referenced Hebrews 11:1 during morning service. It was Dr. Charles C. Queen’s reminder for churchgoers to stand firm in their faith and know that it’s built upon a solid foundation. Hebrews 11:1 was also the anchor to Dr. C.C. Queen’s tenacity in materializing a vision given to him by God: to establish a church and provide instruction and teaching of the gospel.
Prior to his ordination, Charles Queen grew up in rural Vicksburg, Mississippi. As a young man, he was drafted into the Korean War, and his pathway to the pulpit was cemented by a kind of barter for his freedom: If God got him out of the war alive, he would dedicate his life to Him, and he did.
In the 1930s, the Great Migration signaled an exodus from the South toward Elsewhere. Throughout the 1950s, African Americans across the United States participated in movements resisting human rights violations that left many without property and economic opportunities. With my grandmother, Elvira Queen, and their young children in tow, Charles Queen was advised to flee Vicksburg after refusing to cross the street for white women to pass. The Queen family migrated to Los Angeles, California where they founded Strait-Way Apostolic Church.
As one of the last grandchildren to spend time at Strait-Way Apostolic Church, I had a unique opportunity to not only witness how the church functioned but also how religion structured my grandfather’s life. Between 2008 and 2014, I was the Administrative Assistant for the church. I was immersed in my grandfather’s teachings. My workday consisted of performing general office duties and making the weekly Sunday bulletins. I also archived recorded sermons on cassette tapes and produced copies using a 4-cassette Telex analog duplicator, which later preserved Dr. Charles C. Queen’s voice and legacy.
My role expanded from the office to the main sanctuary, where I worked from a computer and ran a presentation software, EasyWorship. The computer was tethered to three 60-inch flat screen monitors installed across the sanctuary, and an HD camcorder that broadcasted a live-feed on the church website for remote viewing.
It took me some time to realize how this techno-video office work predated my art practice, a influential asset to my thinking and production. The use of tabs and multiple screens (or channels) in the sanctuary foreshadows my thinking and process through desktop collages (layering windows and images); my multimedia practice (text, image, video); and video installation explorations (monitors and projectors).
I am equally encouraged by the legacy of Henrietta Curtis, my paternal grandmother. In 2019, during an interview with my father, he remarked how she wished to attend cosmetology school. As he spoke on record, I was struck by how my grandmother’s wish (to become someone) moved her deeply enough to board a train to Los Angeles alone. I don’t know th extent of the dream my grandmother materialized; however, she became someone other than who she was confined to be (or embody) in Kansas City. Henrietta Curtis’ willingness to imagine another “self” settled heavy within me.
The interview with my father took place during a trip to Kansas. Over a few days, my father talked about his childhood in fragments. I captured the memories he chose to release from his body before trauma caused him to switch subjects. We drove around the parts of Kansas where abundance was once evident. The nail of his index finger tapped the car’s window glass at Black-owned retail spaces that have now been abandoned.
We visited with family who remained in Kansas, his late cousin Johnny, Cousin Buster and Lyman, and Cousin Valarie. Johnny had a brain like a library, housing the mundane and historical. At Red Lobster, he asked, “You know who else is from here? Janelle Monae!” In the same breath, he asked if I had ever heard of Quindaro Ruins. I had not. Quindaro Ruins is an Underground Railroad site that was ten-minutes from his home. Due to Johnny’s ailing health, he suggested that Cousin Buster would be perfect to accompany me down the 1-mile slope to the ruins.
Under the high sun, Buster and I walked down to the flattened area where an oversize entryway had been excavated. Unfortunately, it had been blocked by a massive boulder due to a shortage of funds that has halted the historical preservation project. Nonetheless, it was an honor to have walked the land of Quindaro and
smelling the air.
“Dreams Are Transitory Things” (2020)
A custom fabricated banner exploring the immateriality of anticipation through religious iconography. The banner’s text phrase derives from three texts, each being entangled in the intangible: Hebrews 11:1, Gwendolyn Brooks “kitchenette building,” and Solange “Dreams.”
Documentation courtesy of Visible Records
“For Quindaro, Where They Caught Dreams” (2019)
A series of photographs made in Kansas City, Kansas, once a frontier free state. Photos were made using Rollei Redbird Creative 35mm negative film to gesture toward red zoning and city planning tactics to maintain Quindaro’s invisibility.