Conversations with Amara Tabor Smith
2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Amara Tabor Smith is interviewed by Tonika Sealy Thompson as a part of UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today.
Note from Tonika Sealy Thompson (TST): The text below is an assembly of extracts from a series of conversations that took place over the course of a month (July 2017), starting in United States and traveling from San Francisco to Cachoeira, in Salvador do Bahia where Amara Tabor Smith (ATS) and I attended a workshop on Decolonial Black Feminisms with Angela Davis. The interview is a part of longer conversation that will continue into the coming months and years as we continue to document Amara’s work and process.
The Work : Ritual Work - “I am a vessel”
ATS: I don't see the work I get to do as mine…it is always in collaboration – with the Ancestors, with the other artists I work with, with the landscapes where the work manifests itself and is performed. My job is to be a vessel, an open portal so that that Spirit of the work can come through. I see myself as part of the African-diaspora tradition in which ancestral spirits and universal forces become manifested through the power of human bodies dancing. This phenomenon has always been a part of the ritual practices of black people in Africa, the West Indies, and the Americas; and it is also a major part of my spiritual and artistic practices. In this sense, I am continuing the work of the Ancestors.
The Work - Solo but not Individual
Most of my work is about cultivating community-healing and action, and it is largely situated or performed in public sites and spaces. An example of this is my current project, “House/Full of Blackwomen" which is a multi-year, multi-site-specific, ritual performance project addressing the displacement, well-being and sex-trafficking of black women and girls in Oakland. It is a collaboration with Oakland-based performers, sex-trafficking abolitionists, housing-rights activists, and community members to create performance rituals in public sites throughout Oakland with the express intent of changing how people can engage with these issues to promote healing among oppressed women. The project is driven by a core question: “How can we as black women find space to rest, breathe, and call home?”
As an artist and citizen, I am inspired to address issues in my work that are important to the communities and landscapes that I am a part of. I am conscious that all of the issues presented in my work affect me personally in some way either directly or indirectly. Moreover, I am not trying to tell stories that I am not affected by. If I feel that I am outside of an issue, then it is not my story to tell. I would rather work to support someone else in the telling of that story. I am able to engage the community in my work because there is very little separation between my art practice and my involvement with my community. My art-making “agenda” does not take precedence over my community activist work.
Within the artistic trajectory of my career, I find that I have been much less engaged in solo work or small collaborative projects that involve a few people. These are areas where I would like to continue my emphasis on ritual practice and spiritual investigation, and they also require a great deal of solitude. Engaging in these areas will be very different than the larger-scale works that I am accustomed to creating.
TST : Solitude without Separability?
ATS: Right…. This includes many aspects of my personal life, my spiritual study and research, and my artistic study and research. These are all processes that are inseparable from each other. As I mentioned before, I have primarily been engaged in larger-scale collaborative projects that involve community healing. “House Full” is an example of that type of work; but, recently, I have found myself drawn toward solo work.
The Work : Upcoming Projects
A few years ago, I made an evening-length work titled, “EarthBodyHome” which was inspired by the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. When I started working on that piece, I intended for it to be a solo for myself. But in the end, it didn’t want to be that. However, the time I spent alone in the early phase of EBH was cruciaI for me and made me realize how little time I spend alone in my creative processes. And by alone I am referring to the absence of other people in the studio, because I never feel completely alone. I am always aware of the presence of spirit in the creative process. I have a strange relationship with solo work because I am at the center of the process. That is generally uncomfortable for me. I feel like I want to investigate this problem further. It is time. It is a conversation with spirit that needs my singular body and senses. It’s like that sit-down conversation where everything else around you is slowed down and quieted. I am eager to delve into this terrain.
I experimented with a solo this past January titled, “Black/TIME” which I performed at the FRESH Festival in San Francisco. This work was the beginning of an investigation I am doing around the concept of time and how our experience of it is gendered and racialized. I want to deepen my investigation of this work and begin to understand how solo choreography can fit into my artistic trajectory. My participation in the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative is an enormous gift to me at this juncture in my career. I also know that I won’t be moving into solo work exclusively. I will no doubt work simultaneously on my group work as well, because I am deeply fed by the exchanges I have with other artists and my community in the creative process. They inspire me and hold me accountable and I need that. Especially in our individualist culture, it is important for me to always be in relationship with, and accountable to my village.
It has occurred to me that there is a parallel between the forms of participation in religious rituals and the forms of participation I am talking about in my creative process. In religious rituals, there are times when the group—the whole community—works together to express their spirituality; and at other times individuals function alone, as when a single worshipper becomes possessed during a Vaudun or Santeria ritual. Maybe, the same is true with the creative processes I am discussing. My group works function in a certain way; but I need to explore the ways in which I as an individual function in the overlapping artistic and spiritual realms.
The Work - Future Work in Brazil
TST: I ask Amara on the bus from Cachoeira back to Salvador if she had any plans to make work in Brazil. I knew she had made work in Brazil before and that she has been coming here for more than 20 years…
ATS: The work we do through “House/Full” is not a product that can be ‘adapted’ for exportation under some kind of capitalist rubric. So, as is, “House/Full” cannot be done in Bahia… Bahia, Brazil needs its own thing. And what Bahia needs cannot be imposed by me, I would need to be invited in to do that work. This is a tenet I learned through my time as a member of UBW and doing community-engaged work with the company. Every community has their own answers, so whatever I bring to the table has to be something that the community has deemed as useful; and by community I mean the people and not just the arts presenters, unless those presenters have been in deep partnership with and held accountable by the community they are in.
Now, having said all of that, I am also interested in investigating how my work can travel. I have made few performance pieces lately that could travel and be performed in other communities effectively. Most of my recent work has been created specifically for and about my Bay Area community. During my time with the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative, I want to grapple with the problem of creating community-oriented work that is not solely relevant to my specific community. How can I create work that can be meaningfully performed in diverse communities and locations?
The Work - How: Incubation Process / Content Development / Audience / Community / Production Components / Key Collaborators
My process is really driven by extensive research and an embodied practice rooted in improvisation…I don't initially spend much time in the studio. In fact studio practice is not where I find my greatest inspiration. I am much more likely to explore movement in public spaces. I have been finding that the dance studio creates the feeling of an expectation to ‘produce’. And when I am in the early exploratory phases of my research, I want and need more freedom that the four walls of the studio allow. I need a site, an open site, to speak to me. Dance studios for me tend to be void of that thing that I need. It’s not that I don't work in a studio at all, that is just not where I find my greatest inspiration early on. If I am working on a piece that focuses on a specific issue or story, I do a lot of reading, I spend a lot of time talking to folks, going on line listening to music, traveling to places and sites that are relevant to my topic.
Since most of my work herstorically involves engaging with community partners/collaborators, those relationships seem to evolve naturally for me. It is not something I know how to describe. My life revolves around my community, I have multiple communities that I am involved in, accountable to, and supported by. How I engage with community is my life. Since my engagement with community has always been such a complex and important part of my creative process, and it has entailed working closely with many people, my attempts at creating solos and smaller group works have been an ongoing challenge for me. I look forward to having the time to reflect on this challenge at the Choreographic Center, and I also look forward to the feedback that will help me address my hesitance regarding solo work.
I have a long time collaborative partner who I refer to as my ‘Art-Wife’ Ellen Sebastian Chang. Even when we are not in direct creative collaboration, she often functions as a set of eyes/director/mid-wife to my work. We have known each other for such a long time - she knows me artistically better than almost anyone.
On my current project “House Full of Black Women”, I am working with a video artist, Alexa Burrell, who I want to continue to work with and deepen our collaborative connection. I also have been working on the past few projects with a costume designer /set designer Dana Kawano, and more recently with a set designer, Shelly Davis Roberts; these are collaborations with artists who I will continue to work with.
Driving Thoughts/Philosophies Resistance to Language and Explanation
When I am working on projects, I find that I resist using language to explain my work. However, I don’t feel that I am totally opposed to the specificity and codification that language can bring to my process. I believe it is possible for me to clearly state the underlying methodology of my work which is a marriage between my spiritual practice, my community activism, and my artistic practice. At this point, I am using the term “Conjure Art” to describe my genre of work. I am still in the process of defining the term. I am endlessly questioning it; and in my questioning, I have found that I always need to hold myself accountable to Spirit …. to make sure that I am not following cultural trends that depend on catchy “sound bites” and shallow narratives that attract attentions. I also stay away from the pseudo-intellectual explanations that I find so many artists using today in their attempts to legitimize their work. I am trying to remain in touch with something more elemental than that.
TST: So, how can we keep our research from destroying our creativity and our spirituality?
Academia tends to have its own rituals that it forces on those who are outside of the academy. The written word becomes the ultimate authority. How can we as artists develop perspectives from outside—and from above—academia that emphatically value more than the written word (while not discarding the written word)? How can we perceive, experience, write, and make work in a holistic way that does not separate art from academia; in a way that explores new approaches that blend and balance the spiritual, the artistic, and the intellectual. In this respect, the creation of art can have a tremendous impact on people’s lives.
The work needs the time to unfold. The Oracles of Ifa—those prescient spirits of traditional Yoruba religion—are hard to understand at first. It takes years of study before one can understand their meanings, and even then there is always more there that you must learn with time, study and experience… We can end up rushing to create work when our creative processes are dominated by the politics of capitalist culture that emphasize things like fundraising, marketing, and publicity. I need to keep checking myself, so that I don’t let this “drive to produce” undermine my work. I find myself slowing down, re-ordering my priorities, and remembering why I am an artist. This brings me back to “Conjure Art,” that term that I am still in the process of defining. I know that it will slowly reveal its meaning.
This is all a part of the process of the Divine Feminine… a dedication to moving slowly and allowing for the time the work needs for its own gestation, for the idea to be born in whatever way it wants to articulate itself.
I also realize that there is the possibility that at the end of the gestation period what might be revealed to me doesn't want to be articulated. I have to be trusting enough of the process to accept the outcome if that is how it should turn out. It means that I always just have to cross that bridge when I get to it. I believe that there is a spiritual grace within my process that will allow my work to resolve itself.
Performing the Sacred - “Sometimes the Book is just the Book”
TST: I ask Amara about ‘preciousness’, recalling a time when I was helping her to collect costumes after an event at Counterpulse in San Francisco. I was carefully folding all the materials, you know like on my knees and trying to be ‘reverent’. The materials had been used to build an altar. She told me there was no need to be ‘precious’ with the objects…
ATS: You know, there is a way of crossing the borders between Ritual work and Performance work. Everything is purposeful. Some things require honoring and some things just build up the landscape of the performance world. You know(,) like sometimes the book is just the book. Sometimes the book is “The Book”, and its endowed with something else… you know what I mean? I resist that Christian colonial, patriarchal notion of reverence that promotes the idea that only certain people can have a right to Spirit or The Divine. This hierarchical notion of ‘access’ separates us and the divine, and asks us to accept that separation as normal; whereas, in my spiritual practice, what is normal is our inherent connection to the Divine. The idea of the divine being so precious and untouchable that it cannot be accessed by the average person needs to be debunked. Spirit/the Divine for me is always everywhere; therefore everything, every moment should be treated as sacred.…
Acting Spiritual vs Being Spiritual
When one is acting spiritual there is a perfection in it. One attempts to present a kind of pristine version of spirituality that represents purity. Being spiritual embraces the mess, the struggle, the contradictions, the rage, the knowing and then the forgetting and the knowing again. The spiritual is a complex and enigmatic process. It is not a linear, accumulative process, moving towards some designated destination. I believe that those who have a “holier than thou” attitude are performing their beliefs in a very negative and superficial way. That is why I love both Buddhist and Orisha stories, because they bring the spiritual right down earth.
Technologies of Knowing - Yoruba Spiritual
TST: I say to Amara that I am interested in alternative technologies of learning and being… like the Sisterhood of Good Death, the Boa Morte Technique… like Sankofa, and Ancestral Black Feminism…finding ways to always stay faithful to spirit while using the structures of resourcefulness to free the unfree, including ourselves…
ATS: That word technology doesn't resonate with me at all. It doesn’t allow for intuition, for the abstract. Language is super important, I get that. The challenge of using language and the challenge of understanding language is something that we really have to pay attention to. But, sometimes you just have to be instead of speaking. Our spiritual practice in the Yoruba tradition emphasizes the experience, the embodied practice. It is a practice that is kinesthetic. Though written information and even visual media are useful tools for our studies and practices, it is embodied practice that teaches us how to live fully in the world; and that cannot be reduced to language. So, again, we come to the idea of the Spirit being expressed through the dancing human body as a key component in African-diaspora religions. The Sisterhood of Good Death—a female religious society in Brazil—is a striking example of how this type of spirituality is manifested. It is also an example of a woman-centered spiritual practice that focuses on the welfare of the community. So, it is an aspect of my research that has been very important to my creative work.
Many aspects of my research are still a mystery to me and much of it resides in DARKNESS – from a black feminist/womanist perspective of darkness. I don't mean darkness in the European colonial sense of darkness with all of its negative connotations. For me, this darkness is a place of infinite possibility. In this regard, I see myself as an artist who is perpetually emerging. I know the distinctions between an “emerging” artist and an “established” artist, as defined by the arts establishment, I get that. But my work has not arrived yet. It is not complete. Maybe it never will be. I am more interested in the journey and the questions than where I arrive at the end of my process. This is where I am. Barefoot on the dirt path.
Tonika Sealy Thompson is a PhD student in Performance Studies at UC Berkley who is concerned with Caribbean cultural and political thought, multilingual/hemispheric Black diaspora studies, Gender Womens and Sexuality studies and Afro Asian connections. She grew up in Barbados and has been living and working globally as a curator, festival director and cultural consultant on projects in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and the Asia Pacific regions. She has served as artistic coordinator of the Africa Caribbean and Pacific Arts Festival, and is the founder of the Fish and Dragon Festival a platform for creative exchange between the Caribbean and China.