ARTIST TALK: Sharita Towne – May 16, 2019

By | September 13, 2019

Welcome again thank you for being here. Just to give you some background on Sharita.
Sharita Towne is a trance disciplinary artist born and raised in Oregon, Washington and
California. She is most interested in creating interdisciplinary community art projects that
engage local and global black geographies, histories and possibilities. Sharita is an
assistant professor and intermedia thesis and critical studies at Pacific Northwest
College of Art. She is a 2015 art matters grantee, a 2019 open signal new media fellow
2019 precipice award he 2019 IPSE, IPRC resident and a 2019, creative capital
grantee. And I would just like to thank you for being here. Hi, I’m really glad that there’s A small group today. I think, at this time of year as a teacher,
just like so depleted, like all the smart things have already come out of my mouth, entire spring. And so it’s like this brain
mouth, kind of a thing. So yeah, we’re going to keep it pretty low key
today. I will say that when Stephanie Parrish asked me to do this, I was like, Yeah, Yeah, I think so.
Because it was like, very busy. And it feels like it was like 10 years ago, but it was,
like, six months ago. And I was like, Yeah, and I didn’t really even know what it entailed.
But I was like, I like Stephanie. I’ll say yes. And so then I figured out what they didn’t
tell which is picking a piece of art in the permanent collection and talking about it. And so I definitely want this to be more like
artists. chat and an artist talk. But I brought some
kind of source material that I wanted to bring into the chat. Yeah, so I I’ve kind of grappled with what
to pick because I came to the museum and I saw the Mickalene Thomas piece and I, you
know, realized remember that it was recently acquired. And I remember when Mickalene Thomas
was here a year or two ago with her talk with Sarah Krakjewski. She kinda like sat in the
chair and was like, when are y’all gonna get a piece of my work? You know, I really liked
that. And so it looked like that kind of nudging worked and there is a work. So I was excited to see a piece in the museum
that reflects my childhood. You know, those, those women in that piece are, you know, much
like the reason that McLean made it like we have to celebrate the mentors and the Muses
that kind of Put black femininity and all its form in the forefront. So I was really excited.
But then all of a sudden, I had this realization where I was like, Oh, I’m gonna have to talk
about this strangers. And so then I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to pick that piece
and talk about it. And so I looked back through the permanent collection online, tried to
pick another one. I was just like, there’s nothing else I really want to speak to or
talk about. So I was like, I’m going to be brave. And if anybody in the group says anything,
like racist, or sexist, or homophobic or transphobic, it’s gonna be okay. I’m gonna be okay. I’m
gonna deal with it. So I’m also very glad that there’s less humans because then if it
is uncomfortable, it’s like less uncomfortable because there’s only like five of us. So that’s
good. Great. So yeah, we’re going to talk a lot about the people in this piece. I wanted to start with just kind of naming The singers and comedians that I recognize
in it. Because I really much like citation, hence
all these books. And the reason that I also brought all these books is because in the
original installation of Mickalene Thomas, when she first showed this work and like 2016,
when she made it very much a part of her practice, like this
kind of collage of different fabrics and pillows and chairs and a place to sit and then hold
on me on so like a home or a living room, right. And in that living room, were stacks
of books, right? So she both made this homage and collage to the singers and comedians that
she says, you know, made her who she is. And she also brought in those texts and those
writers that also were very influential and very important. So I wanted to share some
of those today. But so here’s some of the comedians and singers I recognize some more.
Monique Whitney Houston, Nina Simone Joseph fame Baker. Donna summers, that comedian actress
from Night Court I had to look at her name Marcia Warfield, Wanda Sykes. Eartha
Kitt moms may Billy Whoopi Goldberg, Sheryl Underwood, adult Givens Adele Givens is the
one that says Do I look like? Naomi Sam’s Pam Grier dine Carol. LaWanda
page and Millie Jackson really Jackson has the fuck you Symphony. One of my favorite
things ever. So I just wanted to name them into this space and kind of just in seeing
them and thinking about what I would talk about. I kind of went on YouTube and look
through some clips which is similar to how you know Mickalene Thomas like made this piece
which is surfing through YouTube. And I just kind of had this memory lane of
being a kid and moving up and down the West Coast and not always Being able to find community and the new places
that we move to and just watching def comedy jam and watching comedy jam, like different
comedy shows on bt, to get like a sense of self. And I, when I watching it now I was
thinking about kind of the kid that I was and then the teenager I became and now the
adult that I am. And I just was, and still am much more fearful than the women that you
see that use that platform as a space for political discourse. They’re just so bold, and they’re very aware
of the platform that they have and what they’re doing and what they’re kind of standing up
against. And so as a kid, there was some of them that I was even afraid of, because there
was a piece of me inside of myself that I couldn’t understand or fully embrace yet.
You know, like when Aretha Franklin just passed last year. I remember I remembered being a
kid and remember hearing her voice for the first time and being kind of afraid because it just stirred something
so deep in me a type of like, grief or despair or pain that I didn’t, that I only had flex
of but something about not wanting to have to fully take it on as a black woman as you
grow older, you know that it’s kind of coming. So I kind of shocked that as a kid and was
a tomboy and things. So as I watched this, and I get to celebrate them as also to celebrate
myself fully in ways that were not always taught. And yeah, so I just wanted to actually read a transcript of Mickalene Thomas talking about
this art, you know, is the time when you could easily
go on YouTube and rip stuff, which was exciting for me because once I learned how to do it,
I was like, Oh my gosh, this is so cool. I can actually pull segments from videos that
I responded to. I just knew that these were comedians I was interested in, and I knew
that they were saying things that resonated with me. And it made sense. These women were using
this stage as a platform, there was this deliverance in this way of being able to tell a story
and make people laugh, and also make them feel uncomfortable at the same time. And then I started thinking of the comedian
is this orator or godly person, there’s also messages within the humor. It’s such a male
dominated field. And so when women is entering that platform, they they seem to find a way
to speak about their sexuality, their bodies and their desires. I feel like they have helped
me become an artist and they have grounded me and given me that foundation to create
and make the type of art that I’m making. So it’s like all of these women’s represent,
for me a reminder of myself and have that slight possibility of how things can change
at any moment. So yeah, I also was thinking about like, how
this is in some way, almost like a self portrait of Mickalene Thomas like in sifting through YouTube
and picking all the clips that resound that are, you know, resound with her resound for
her. She’s also kind of selecting these, like we’re experiencing these pieces as filtered
through Mickalene Thomas. Like if I sit on YouTube and I google some more, or Adele Givens
or Whitney Houston, I might pick some different clips, right? There’s a different, I will
probably pick some more tragic ones, you know, just just as my personality, so we’re also
seeing kind of a self portrait of Mickalene Thomas. But we’re also kind of seeing a self portrait of the type of clips
that black people upload to YouTube, like we’re seeing which ones are important to hold
on to through time, as well. Right. So and, you know, as viewers, I think it’s important
that we also all see ourselves in it even if we didn’t grow up in Orange, New Jersey,
or Houston, Texas or the same places that some of these women are from We don’t have their same experience. I think
we’re all implicated in the machine that doesn’t celebrate their voices and craft as much as
some other artists, right. And so to see ourselves in it and find the ways that some of the things
that they might say make us uncomfortable, right. So it’s also a reflection on us when
we watch it. I want to read another thing here, which is quite long. And
I wondered, because this is a piece that’s like, a kaleidoscope. That’s one of the words
Mickalene Thomas uses to describe it. It’s a kaleidoscope of kind of a collective voice
of all of these people. I just thought we can kind of pass the mic and each read pieces
from this which I’ll describe to you what it is, is a comedian that’s actually not featured
in that piece lame Lunel. And I transcribed this from YouTube because I liked this kind
of collapse between Like texts, and the YouTube and the books,
because Magdalene in the original installation, she had all these books in the, in the gallery
in the space as well. So I wanted to kind of bring a comedians testimony to what it what it’s like to be a black woman
comedian. What that work actually looks like. So yeah,
I guess I will read the first paragraph and then maybe pass it along, and we’ll each read
a little bit if that’s okay. Okay, great. So my name is Lunel. My age is undisclosed.
You can Wikipedia me. And I’m a stand up comedian, and actress. Why do we not see more black
female comedians celebrated by the mainstream media? It’s a question we ask ourselves. We’re
certainly out here working. We’re certainly selling tickets. We’re certainly pleasing
crowds all across the country and out of the country. I think that nobody really cares what female comedians are doing.
The men dominate this industry. And that’s where the focus is. comedians are already
sort of the last Renegade entertainers and the female comics almost invisible. The female
black comic is just, they don’t focus on us at all. The people who pull the strings are
not of our color, and they just don’t think about it. It’s like if you live your whole
life, and you have only white friends, you don’t really think about the fact that you
don’t have any black friends. It just doesn’t cross their minds because it’s not something
that they’re even thinking about. So this next paragraph, like imagine, she’s
like doing her makeup and segments, because that’s what the clips do. I never have an average day, every day is
different. My day can change with a phone call, so it’s hard to make plans. Yeah, very
rarely do I feel like I’m coasting. Every now and then you hit a stride Everything feels good and like all the stars
have lined up and stuff like that. And it’s a good week. But most of the time you feel
like grinding, grinding, grinding, grinding, grinding. Will I do believe that Sherri Shepherd is
doing some very, very great work. And I don’t believe that Amy Schumer, or anybody is doing
anything better than Sherry could do it. The machine’s not behind Sherry, but it could
be and it should be. This one. I’m not in competition with the girls that
I work with. We’re friendly and we’re cool. And you know, we pull for each other and I’m
happy to see there’s so few of us that get put on I’m happy. When I do see one of us
go. You know, like I’m not in competition with some more, or
Sherry or Lani or anything like that. I do like it when the good people when I do you think women in general absolutely
feel ignored as a comedian, you walk into a green room where a bunch of guys are laughing
and joking. You walk in and they stop talking, or you walk in and change and, or you walk
in and change the subject, or they all leave, you walk into a club and sign up on the list
to go up. If that’s the way they run their club, and they just keep on calling everybody
but you we don’t feel ignored. We are ignored. A lot of the time they act like you’re not
alive. Because it’s still at the end of the day old boys club. Just like damn golf or
some shit. When they partner up a guy in a cop film. They don’t think that maybe the
partner could be a girl. We have to prove ourselves 10 times more. Every time we say
something like that. People scoff at us and think and think which has been Being menstrual and being overdramatic, and
it’s absolutely the truth. I couldn’t do the same material for older
people, as I do for younger people, you have to be more relevant, not going to do the same
material in the south, as I do in the east. I change my material to suit whoever I’m with,
but the message is the same all the time. And I’m always talking about sex or whatever
and self esteem and you know, lifting yourself up and people accepting one another for who
they are, and all that kind of good stuff. So the message remains the same. Just a different
delivery depending on where we’re at. Well, if I am talking to a young boy females that are fired up to do comedy. I
just, I just say you better grow some very, very sick alligator skin. Because this job
is not for the weak. It ain’t no joke. It is not glamorous at all. Until wave later
and it’s a grind. And when it’s bad, it is really, really bad. But when it’s great, it’s
wonderful. And if it’s in your soul and in your heart, then you should do it. Don’t do
it because everybody thinks you’re funny at the barbecue. The only reason to really do
comedy is that you would die if you were thanks for sharing that with me. When I when I transcribed this from the YouTube
video and you know, this is Lunel, like getting ready to go on stage. So she just saying all
this stuff very Matter of fact Lee very plainly, just putting Makeup getting out the car, you know. And
it’s so poignant and so true. And I think that like comedians, and these singers, there’s just such a deep reservoir of truth
in black women comedians and black women singers. And they have such a responsibility, I think
of like sharing a certain kind of spatial knowledge. Right. So when she says, You know,
I don’t talk the same, you do the same material for older people, or younger people are in
the south or in the east. You know, I’m thinking about growing up and moving up and down the
West Coast and watching def comedy jam and like being introduced to the south through
the comedians that were on that show and seeing being introduced to New York by their response
to those comedians from the south. Right. And so I think that like there’s a very particular
way that you know, the clips that we see in there, there’s a certain I’m not just thinking
about them as this Kind of two dimensional representation in
the museum or as this like thing and a screen that was part of my childhood. I’m also thinking
about kind of the spatial reality of what it was like for them to grow up in certain
neighborhoods experience certain things inside of different institutions or at work or in
jails or in hospitals. And so they’re kind of speaking a truth to an entire structure
and an entire country and entire world that I think that that’s, it’s it’s very much worth
study, right? Kari Keeling in the witches Flight, a book, where she kind of impacts
movies like set it off and other black queer lesbian film moments and other moments of
black women in Hollywood. She describes kind of the need to watch these films and study
them to create kind of an explosion. So that like we explode these systems of oppression And white supremacy, because they’re actually
given showing us the way by just speaking their truth into into spaces. And so yeah,
very much like, like looking that as a type of study. I have a few like little things I can keep
reading, but I also wanted to maybe if anyone feels so called to just mention a piece that
you recognize or remember or person be Eartha Kitt or Nina Simone or any of the
people that you might see in that and just kind of talk about where you were when you
were aware of this person in media. There’s any volunteers and I also have the list of people here if you want to look around
that. pass that around. So Eartha Kitt, I have a big crush on Eartha
Kitt And I went to NYU I went to as an undergrad
in New York and I I saved up all my work study money to go see
her play at the cafe Carlisle, which she had a standing show there. This is like the early
90s. So she the standing show there, it was like
an $80 ticket. So it was crazy expensive for me to buy that ticket and it was a two drink minimum. But it was a really tiny room. The cafe Carlisle
is in the super fancy hotels and the Carlyle hotel on the Upper East Side. And I had to
go do this. It was like my bucket list. I didn’t have I didn’t really know the bucket
list was back then. But it was on my bucket list. And so I went with a friend and it was
it’s like one of those like top 10 magical experiences, like I sat in this booth, and
I ordered two drinks, and I couldn’t afford the time but it was magical and I’ve always
like to Had this thing for her. can’t describe it, but I have a thing. Oh man, day as hard okay for Eartha Kitt The first time I have
a memory of her is I’ve been talking with one of my sisters around how a lot of the
black films from the 90s I I have not seen fully like I would only see
little pieces as a as a child, and I feel like my first real kind of memory her of her
is in that movie blu ray. But I still haven’t seen that full movie. And I just remember I just have this image of I mean, for people who who’ve seen the movies
just like is interesting. So I wasn’t introduced to like her, the like,
kind of younger image of her until maybe I don’t know, a teenager or something. And also
just I would say Whitney Houston just because I think I would have been five or six or seven
when she had her songs and she was just, you know, she was like, the she was the, that’s
what I’ll say V. Yeah. Or anyone. So I’m hard of hearing and I’m going deaf.
So I’m just gonna, I could pick someone off this list, but who I really wanted to talk
about is someone who’s not on this list. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Doris Hickman, she
was this amazing black woman who taught at all white school in inner city Seattle where
I went to Catholic school and we only had a couple of people of color in our entire
school. She was Amazing. She taught me so much. And she was
my favorite teacher that I had in my entire grade school maybe my entire career and I
have a college degree, because her dignity and her strength, because the time that she
was teaching there was when the riots were going on and sila and Seattle after Dr. King
was assassinated, and how she taught us by her example. And she never let anyone bully
anyone else in her class. I remember one time in front of the whole class, she stood up
for me when someone was bullying me. And she also made it like a funny reference about
and got everyone to laugh and to see the humor in the fact that it wasn’t okay for this kid
to bully me. And it was such a profound experience because it created the safety in our class.
And it was so amazed at how could she do that she could come in to the sea of whiteness and be this incredible
example of someone who was totally herself totally comfortable with who she was. was totally comfortable with her culture.
And she was sharing it with us. It was the very beginning of Black History Month in February
and we got to do a play. Gotta have different parts in it and it just for me I wish I’d had her for the rest of my experiences
school because it was sort of like an ocean of sand and serenity and sanity and
humor and fun in the midst of a really seriously difficult time. And so I think of her and
I could talk about a lot of other amazing women I’ve now but I think I’ve talked plenty
along. So thanks for this opportunity to share. So I’m just gonna Observe. In my own experience, I am not a consumer
of media. I have never owned a TV. I don’t watch TV, I mostly don’t see movies. So I
know a lot of these names as names. But I will admit that I did not recognize a single
person in what I watched. So this is like really making me aware of this huge blanks but in my experience, and it’s partly
because they’re black, but more because it’s popular culture in a way that’s just not part
of my life. So I have an experience, actually with Whoopi Goldberg. Next Experience not fully positive. So for me positive at first when I was little,
I loved ghost. I loved the sister x. I really liked her a lot. I
thought she was amazing. And I was actually in my aunt’s house. And I was watching one
of her films, probably one of the Sister Act films. And I remember looking at Whoopi Goldberg
and and looking at my aunt who’s laughing about something. And I realized they had a
similar smile. So I told him, I was like, Oh, you have the same smiles. Whoopi Goldberg.
How cool is that? And my art was not happy with that. She was just like, really? And I was like, Yeah, why? What’s
wrong? She was like, I think she’s ugly. She looks like a man. And so I learned a lot in
that moment about blackness, beauty, femininity. Some of the like deeper things that like,
the women in my family are dealing with pressures, expectations. So in that moment, a lot was
coming. indicated to me about, like, what are these standards? You know? All right. Well, it’s already almost seven
o’clock. And I guess we get to go have chats and Bevy
in the cafe. But before we do that, I’m just going to read
from a few things. Because, you know, in the kind of spirit of collage from McLean and
bringing in comedians and singers and in other iterations of this work writers, I just wanted
to bring in some more voice, like I’m interested in there being a multiple kind of voice and
collective voice here. And so I was reminded of another time that I talked at the museum
and desire was there as well. Where we had a kaleidoscope conversation which is a conversation posed entirely of questions. So for about
40 minutes, we sat in a circle not unlike this one and just raised questions about exhibition
at the time on on black representation. And so I just wanted to read a bit, I transcribed
the entire conversation into this book. And it’s a quick read. It’s about like 20 minutes,
but are we asking the right questions? How do
we evaluate these works outside of the Western canon, that we’re all very tempted to evaluate
these works under? Is it possible to evaluate these works outside
of the Western canon in a space that is itself defined by that cannon? How do you feel what if I What if I were to
tell you that I feel odd? What if I were to tell you that it was okay. How do we address the lack of contemporary
artists in these works in this collection? What is this exhibition look like opening
in a month besides February? Well What does it feel like to ask the questions
that we want to ask? And then I want to read. This is a Zora Neale
Hurston reader. I love myself when I’m laughing and then again when I’m looking mean and impressive. And there’s a foreword by Alice Walker about
Zora Neale Hurston and I just wanted to read the start of how Alice Walker frames or anyone
herself on refusing to be humbled by second place and a contest you did not design a tradition
by now. A friend of mine called one day to tell me
that she and another woman had been discussing Zora Neale Hurston and they had decided they
wouldn’t have liked her. They wouldn’t have liked the way when her play color struck one
second prize and a literary contest at the beginning of her career. Her son walked into
a room full of our competitors, flung her scarf dramatically over her shoulder and yelled
colors struck at the top of her voice. Apparently
it isn’t easy to like a person who is not humbled by second place. Zora Neale Hurston
was outrageous. It appears by nature. She was quite capable of saying writing or doing
things different than what one might have wished. Because she recognized the contradictions
and complexity of her own personality. Robert Hemingway, her biographer writes that her
son came to delight in the chaos that she sometimes left behind. Yet for all her contrariness,
her chaos, her ability to stir up dislike, that is a strong today as it was 50 years
ago. Many of us love Zora Neale Hurston we do not love her for her lack of modesty, that
tends to amuse us an assertive black person during her son’s time was considered an anomaly.
We do not love her for her unpredictable and occasionally weird politics. They tend to
come views us. We do not certainly applaud many
of the Mad things she is alleged to have said and sometimes actually did say. We do not even claim to never dislike her.
In reading through the 30 odd years span of her writing most of us I imagine find her
alternately winning and appalling, but rarely dull, which is worth a lot. We love Zora Neale
Hurston for her work first. And then again, as she and all of Eatonville would say, we
love her for herself. For the humor and courage with which she encountered a life she frequently
infrequently designed for her absolute disinterest in becoming either white or bourgeois, and
for her devoted appreciation of her own culture, which is an inspiration to us all. Yeah, I pulled that quote because I just was
kind of I’ll end there I won’t read the rest of these
things. I it’s nice to come to this museum and be
reminded of some of those comedians and singers who I both delighted in and love but also
that I was afraid of because afraid of the parts in me that couldn’t be that bold or
loud, and kind of love them for them. You know, I think that that’s a huge work and
ongoing work. And so I’m, I’m, I’m glad that that’s the
first piece that has been acquired by the museum is one that reminds us to love them
for them and also love those pieces of ourselves. That is them that they gave us. So, thanks.
Let’s go have chats. Debbie’s down the stairs. Thanks. Yeah. Transcribed by

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