The art world is not what it used to be. The presence of the internet along with
copious amounts of new technology has opened doors for the artist to be able to explore art in ways that have never even been imagined before while also
redefining who exactly the artist is. Most importantly though is that this evolution
has brought into question whether the museum or traditional gallery even matter anymore in validating art, when there are a plethora of venues and avenues to take advantage of.  HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? is an artist collective of poets, actors,
writers and visual artists that are all too familiar with these questions and
constantly battling them in their dynamic mixed media work. Most recently known for their withdrawal from the 2014 Whitney Biennial over race/gender related objections of the curatorial program, the YAMs are quickly gaining momentum with a very powerful, uncensored voice. Covering all things race, gender, identification, sexual orientation and incarnation several members of the 38 person collective sat down to answer a few questions about their feelings towards the art world and what’s in store for them next.

Beginning at the roots (no pun intended) how did the formation of HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? occur?

post racial? most racial!
HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? was my response to Michelle Grabner’s
studio visit and invitation to participate in the 2014 Whitney Biennale as a single artist.
I didn’t want to be a token black artist. The Whitney has a long history of racism
and I did not want to validate them. Tired of 100% white curatorial teams and attending 98% white art shows and functions I decided to reach out to fellow queer POC (people of color) artists and collaborate on a piece that would examine racism in the art world by infiltrating an aspect of it. I asked artists to work on a film-poem that challenged the need by white supremacy to define and regulate the black body. Dawn Lundy Martin was
commissioned to write a poem. Collective members who participated in the Black Portraiture[s]: the Black Body in the West Paris conference in 2013 began
regionally meeting and connecting through the internet to choreograph,
workshop, debate, sew costumes, install sets and teach one another about operating film and music equipment. The film poem we collectively made was for ourselves. The artists involved are from my biological family and queer family. We have lived and worked together for years. We feed, house, and support one another. I was kicked out of my
family for being gay and only survived because a wider queer family opened their
arms and sheltered me. Many members of HDYSYIA? have similar experiences.

I originally met Sienna, Anthony, and other group members over a decade ago
through art parties and happenings at the DUMBA Cooperative. Over the years we have worked together on multiple art visions that have increased in imagination, scale, and ambition. We have become a communal support network, contributing our specific talents and resources for each other’s projects, which is vital these days as financial support for the arts continues to dwindle in the midst of continuing budget cuts.

IMG_2544_CR2-720 Luvinsky
Group mentalities can be extremely helpful in creating a cohesive and powerful idea with action behind it to make it happen. Do you feel that this collective has elevated each other’s priorities in their art or do you find them constantly shifting and evolving with so many
different influences involved? 

We have all worked together and have lived together at some point of our lives, so our togetherness and our banding is just as natural. This is best said in terms of the previous question: Yams is root, root is earth veins, pumping lifeblood. Ground food is Yam, Yemanja’s yams, thighs of the mother, mother of ocean, keeper of the tides,
waves of healing from the wages of war. War and peace, the polarity of this
dimension, holding space and time as counterfeit condition. 

The word, “fugue” brings me to this, too, or “fugue state” — that there is a multiplicity or at least a duality (a tension between the root and rootlessness, remembering and forgetting) that is necessary for this present potentiality, as in the future, which is now. I wonder if all our bodies are the containers for split

My art practice has definitely been enriched with the push and pull of ideas and aesthetics within the group. The experiences we have shared from Alaskan odysseys, mansion communes, to desert cult happenings make for a chaotic flux that surprisingly or not surprisingly injects complexity and vigor in my work. We constantly encourage each other’s ideas and philosophies no matter how “out there” they may seem.

photo-3-720 Annilee
After the withdrawal from the Whitney Biennial and the massive amounts of press that surrounded it, has the group found a new sense of direction or do you feel that this action has only strengthened what YAMs already stood for?

We already have the bond. Ideation is just part of the process that goes along with it. In essence, it is best put by Mitch McEwen: This idea that de-stabilization is the last grasp of white male authority deserves thought. I am sitting with it. At the same time, I keep having the feeling that our disdain for post-blackness traces the very problems that post-blackness
successfully resolves. I am actually thinking that the genius of post-blackness is that it’s not about post-black at all. It’s about post-white. It’s about creating a space for black artists to not have to think about or address or assume white authority. Calling it post-black was just a trick, like the supposed story of the Vikings calling the green landmass Iceland and vice versa, to confuse the outsiders. I am interested in the ethics of making a world, the failure of science to create a meaningful model of the world after quantum mechanics, and the necessity to create a cosmos in order to produce a politics and to make possible the myth of civilization.

We like to constantly question artistic structures that are built as hierarchies
rather than support systems. Who is benefitting? Who is getting shut out? If art is
supposedly about presenting new visions then why run it like a corporation?

Why do you feel presenting work in the gallery is different than presenting
it at a locally curated artist space? As a follow up, why do you think that in
such a liberated society with information being spread in so many multi-media faceted ways that we still allow the gallery to hold such a heavy weight of authority?

Galleries and art institutions are the rubber stamp of approval validating artists as
important or worth looking at when really art is everywhere, and the web and
other multi-media forums are making that more apparent and accessible. There are many ways to get to the mountain top.

Will HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN attempt to showcase in the gallery again or will you aim for more grassroots organized projects?

There are many roads and there are many of us. Why not explore them all, or better yet, make new ones.

The process of birth represents something, but is it necessarily and only the past? Can birth simultaneously represent the past AND the future? I’m thinking about spirits/beings/ancestors from the past/future traveling forward/backward and being born into an incarnation of the now. Bringing the future or past into now. I don’t have the language for it, but doesn’t this idea have something to do with how DNA works? And, the forgetting that Dawn wonders about…can forgetting also be a political strategy? A psychic buffer? A method to literally transform reality? A silent partner to doublethink? Is forgetting an act of the witch (a natural phenomenon) or the magician (a trick to deceive)?

“Good Stock on The Dimension Floor: An Opera, 2014” was one of the first pieces that the collective has really created together rather than working on smaller group or individual projects. After this experience are there any upcoming projects that we can expect from
HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? that will be on a similar scale?

What incarnation does doubling take? Tripling? I love this possibility of thinking
about history/the historical/future/present/non-linearity, etc. Can we liberate the past from the past? In this vein, I want to say that forgetting, too is not erasure.
It’s more like a steel box in the chest. Maybe this steel box is a second self. What I’m really interested in is what this possibility produces. What it conscripts. In another vein–the question that Christa Bell raises regarding whether forgetting can be a political strategy. I think it might be a necessary one, a necessity toward imagining a future.

Putting a scale to purpose is not the main concern, but separate from what we are drumming up for “Good Stock” and future projects, here are some of the things our members are working on within our silos. I am currently finishing a feature film project with some YAM members. “Lilly Galaxy” (originally titled Dance Bitch Dance) is a sci-fi dark comedy about identity fractures and cultural subversion. Glam yet gritty, the film is a surrealist take on urban youth angst, viral culture, and queer rebellion. Visually and metaphorically, it explores the notion of identity schisms via the twin as both mirror and doppelganger, actors playing multiple selves, and alternate realities colliding with each other. Sienna Shields and Molly Caldwell are producers, Kobie Maitland is composing the original soundtrack, Pozsi Kolor is one of the stylists and set designers as well as playing a lead club diva character, and Richie Adomako plays a modern Shakespearean gentleman in New York.

A large portion of my work deals with community and collaboration. Currently I’m finishing a full-length electronic mystik wave album with collaborator Jade Payne. We work under the name Holotropik – the album Blessed Be is due this Fall. I’m also DPing a feature film produced and directed by Quito Ziegler tentatively titled “The Life of Our Dreams” — Yams’ Andre Springer, Maureen Catbagan and Molly Danger are also working on this queer-centric magical narrative. Jasmine Murrell, Jason Issacs, and I are currently working on opening the New York Sound Lab in Bed Stuy – an experimental and educational workspace where all facets of sound are explored. Workshops, lectures, and a digital lab full of resources in circuit bending, electronics, recording, editing, mixing, music/sound history, and Foley will be held weekly. A variety of topics ranging from sound in science, nature, art, architecture, war, health, film and cognition to name a few will be presented by field specialists. The NYC Sound Lab is a place of opportunity and investigation into the multi-layered experience of sound that embraces its critical impact on us and our surroundings. A library of resources including books, essays, schematics and an ongoing online sound database will be on hand alongside professional instructors and fellow audiophiles. The NYC Sound Lab is an all age space that focuses on empowerment, cooperation and education for people of color and the LGBTQ communiti es.

We also have an Opera House in the works… Inspired by the flexibility of uses for houses in Detroit, in proximity to major cultural institutions for opera and diverse forms of performance, this project stages an opera as a house, the house and its dramas of occupancy and vacancy, demolition, and repurposing, as an opera. The more serious and dry implications at the urban-planning level include: How can residential vacancy be converted into an opportunity to support local cultural assets? What are the zoning, planning, and building code changes that make this possible? The project will address these questions, while developing a suite of spatial and architectural tactics to facilitate this exploration of performance, community, and form. The experimental aspects architecturally include strategies of interactivity, portability, and expanded territories of adaptive re-use.

Words: Ashley G Garner

Stills and screen shots taken from “Good Stock on The Dimension Floor: An Opera, 2014” (the film they withdrew from the Whitney Biennial) courtesy of HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?