Black Salt Collective is a multidisciplinary group of four women artists of color based in Oakland and Los Angeles: Sarah Biscarra-Dilley, Grace Rosario Perkins, Anna Luisa Petrisko, and Adee Roberson. The collective’s first curatorial project, Visions into Infinite Archives, which opened at SOMArts in mid-January, first struck me for its wild ambitiousness: the exhibition includes over thirty artists of color intervening with themes of time, oppression, history, and narrative. I met with Black Salt Collective soon after the show opened to walk through the challenging, at times dizzyingly complex body of work. We then moved online to expand on the themes of presence, magic, hospitality, and the presence of the artist’s hand that emerged in our conversation.
Visions into Infinite Archives runs through February 10th at SOMArts in San Francisco. The closing reception will take place on February 4th.
One of the starting concepts for this show was creating “overwhelming presence,” which plays out in one way into the multiplicity of voices in the show (30+ artists) and formally in terms of the sheer maximalism of the exhibition. Can you say more about this initial impulse to create overwhelming presence and how you translated that impulse into your curatorial choices?
Anna Luisa “Jeepneys”: Whether or not the Western world validates it, people of color have BEEN here and we will continue to BE here making art. This show reflects that, and it largely represents a diverse spectrum of not only race but of gender, sexuality, ability and class– many underrepresented groups. It’s not that we’re not making work; it’s just that it’s not being shown, documented, publicized or archived. This infinite archive is a way to honor the voluminous and multiplicitous past, present and future work by artists often left out of the contemporary art canon.
Adee Roberson: When I think of the overwhelming presence in the show. I think of the artists we chose and their authenticity. In a culture that is currently held back so much by “Not being real,” it feels especially important to me, as an artist, to be real and vulnerable. That energy is overwhelming when you walk into the gallery. Not only do you feel the presence of the artists via their work, but you feel their ancestors. Multiple people who came to to opening, and ourselves, at times were in tears!
Another theme that emerged in conversation is the role of spells and the role of the object as a conduit for magic (for example, with Petitions to Saint Anthony). Grace said that this setting of intention in offering objects as prayer is another way of seeing the exhibition as a whole. Can you say more about the role of magic in Infinite Archives?
Grace Rosario Perkins: In the case of Jose’s work, as well of a lot of the work in the show, I think magic is a coded way of describing the way we all transmute our experience, our pains, our traumas, and joys into objects. I think as a whole… Adee and I were talking about it just yesterday and getting really emotional about it– this exhibition exemplifies this because it is full of energy and intention. Just in the way one would set an altar with objects, each representative of a hope, this show itself feels similar to that. There are dynamics we are creating in the space itself where all of us come together with cohesion because in a lot of ways our experiences of oppression and existence are not dissimilar and here we are all in 2016 working through it.
Our collaborative installation, which is what you see as you immediately enter the gallery space, is a way in which we are conjuring a mass meaning through objects with personal weight. Nothing arbitrary. It’s really funny to me how still, though, this idea of magic or work that has a spiritual basis is being criticized. One of our artists in the show whose work is all about magic, all about spirituality, and all about culture was pretty much dissuaded in grad school at CCA from making that work– being told that it wasn’t necessary, that it was questionable, so I’m kind of at a place where I’m wanting to pull people up and have us all come together again and say, “Well, anyway, here it is” in the face of dominant art culture because to separate those aspects from us as people of color has happened too many times, through force and cultural breakdown.
Sarah Biscarra Dilley: A teacher once explained to me, “Intention is nine-tenths of the magic.” This has stuck with me through times of duress and spiritual fatigue as well as moments of beautiful regeneration, expansion and change. Intention is our ability to shape the world(s) around us, within us, beyond us.
In some circumstances, intention is all we have had: a sheer faith in our prayers being heard. In others, intention becomes a political act, a testament to our belief and grounding in relationship to spirit, to land, to blood, to our people, to each other, to ourselves. This show was crafted with the same intention we each hold in our day to day lives, one that is founded in mutual care and respect, in prayers for intergenerational healing and cultural resurgence, in our fumblingly human attempts at honesty and transformative joy. The varied manifestations of magic or communion with spirit that present themselves in this exhibition are gifts to ourselves and each other, from artist to audience and beyond, impacting us in embodied and intangible ways. It reflects a worldview that deprives nothing of life and enlivens us to everything. It represents the responsibility we claim to collective change that is needed on all levels, physical, emotional and spiritual.
One powerful aspect of Infinite Archives is the effect of hospitality that radiates through the work. I’m thinking most immediately of Essence Harden and Jihaari Terry’s quilt, but this impulse is everywhere in the work, from preparing for a social event in postcommodity’s work, Eve’s photographs about the gifting around the sun dance, and the bar furniture for some times. What does hospitality and being a host or guest mean in the context of visiting this exhibition? Does that have political resonances in terms of the show’s criticality about (post)colonialism? And finally, how does this play out in the form of the exhibition itself?
Sarah Biscarra Dilley: I think what is being read as hospitality in the exhibition are actually topographies of our resilience as indigenous people, as descendants of survivors of the middle passage, as peoples displaced by colonial expansion and imperial warfare. These are examples of our abilities and emerging attempts to transmute generations of grief and anger and fracture. These are examples of how we remain dedicated to loving ourselves and our communities despite being told our entire lives by dominant culture that we aren’t worthy of it. These are examples of our respective communities’ abilities to sustain vibrant and changing cultural practices that serve our communities and their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. And because there is nothing post about colonialism, in the context of the exhibition and where it is situated, unless we are of this place, we are all guests (welcome or not) on unceded Ohlone land.
Anna Luisa “Jeepneys” Petrisko: For jeepneys and some times’ piece, we talked a lot about hospitality and how we as Filipinos are proud of our hospitable nature, but at the same time, we are uncomfortable with the fact that Filipinos are labeled as “hospitable” by Westerners, which we believe stems from a 500 year Colonial history. It’s like one of those things– we can call ourselves “hospitable” but when you call us this it’s problematic! Like most of the ideas in the show, it’s complicated. And it’s further complicated by the fact that we (as children of Filipino immigrants born in the US) are settler colonialists ourselves (on stolen Ohlone and other indigenous Native American land). If you sit with our piece for awhile, we hope that you will understand the complexities of this. People of color navigate complex situations everyday and one of the things that this show does, in my opinion, is sit with complexity and contradiction.
So much of the work in Infinite Archives shows its own process. Grace talked about how the presence of the hand was important to this show– versus the usual impulse in contemporary art to perfect, smooth, and not show the seams. Can you talk about the role of hands-on creation or “heavy-handed” process in the show as it moves into the contemporary art space?
Grace Rosario Perkins: I think the role it plays is basically just a vehicle of visibility. Thinking of a recent trip to a folk art museum got me thinking about how art that has a basis of cultural significance, spirituality, and tradition imbedded into its creation always gets a title that is not seen as “contemporary,” but “folk” or “craft” or something completely tied to its origins/time. This keeps the work itself pinned into categories used to continually “other” the work. The way a lot of the artists work in this show is through a process where the hand is visible, and I think that is directly tied to the cultural experience of many of us– using what we have, abstracting tradition, and not feeling the need to align with the tidiness of that particular seamless white box work we see time and time again in galleries and museums. In a way that white box work isn’t meant for us, really, so with that we work with what we have. It’s like what Lonnie Holley (one of our artists in the show) said at an art talk I attended when he was called an “Outsider Artist,” he responded, “Outside of what!? I’m an American and I’m an artist.” These titles are so limiting so I think just having a bunch of objects with seams, with cracks, with hand stitching is really important.
Adee Roberson: When I think of the presence of the hand in the work the first things that comes to mind for me are the working class and touch. Building, planting, sewing, and painting. All of these actions infuse the maker/workers energy into whatever they are interacting with. As someone who is also a bodyworker, I also view touch as taking care of something or someone. Tending to. I watched Jose install his work for hours. Each addition and object has so much intention and I feel that work, time and care when I see his piece. And most of the pieces in the show.
Sarah Biscarra Dilley: I think this also emphasizes the interdependence of our bodies with the work. It’s what brings each work to life in this world, this collaboration between emotion and spirit and our physical form, what makes each work performative in its own way. It is our own expression of generations of experience that maps lessons passed down to us from blood family and messages from otherworldly realms, lessons learned in stubbornly and ones that are gleaned through the ways we are changing on cellular levels. It asserts our presence with every stitch on marred canvas and fingerprint in smudged paint. It asserts our commitment to embodiment in a world that has tried to erase our histories at every turn but still cannot. The presence of handwork, of the body, in this exhibition disallows the separation of our lived experiences from the visual work and our practice as artists.
These two previous questions point to one of the most successful elements of Infinite Archives, which is its critical approach to institutional spaces while also inhabiting them. How planned was this move?
Jeepneys: This is the way we have to navigate everyday life! So in a way, it is both planned and unplanned, pre-meditated and intuitive.
Adee Roberson: The show coming together the way it did, was a really intuitive leap of faith. We put a lot of trust in the process of connection. I’ve never really been one to inhabit or create in institutional spaces. So when I do, as a black, working class woman, naturally it’s always going to be a creative subversion.
How does the film series on January 30th relate to the rest of the exhibition? What will you be showing?
Jeepneys: We will be showing a group of multi-generational filmmakers, most of whom are emerging. I like how these films are both contemporary and archival, shot on various formats including 8mm, 16mm and digital, reflecting the sense of non-linear time that is one of the exhibition’s themes. The feature film is Bontoc Eulogy, and it is one of my favorite films of all time.
More information about the screenings can be found here.
I’d love to hear more about how this show intersected with your own practices individually and as a collaborative group. Would you ever curate a show together again? What’s next for Black Salt Collective?
Jeepneys: I have been thinking a lot about artistic and curatorial processes lately and how they differ when you are a person of color or any systematically-oppressed person. I am so interested in how identity and ancestral memory inform the artistic and curatorial choices we make. Whether they are aesthetic, political, formal, or content-based choices, our identities, histories and futures play a role. I think this interest is something we all share in the Collective.
Black Salt is a family. We know each other so well that we can work intuitively and with an immense trust for each other. And we all make each other laugh which helps. And make fun of each other, just like family.
Adee Roberson: I would love to curate a show with Black Salt again! What I would really love, though, is to see this show travel to different spaces. The work that we curated for this is so powerful and big. I’d like to see what it would look like to install in various spaces over time, and possibly add more to this current archive.
Our next endeavor is a book; we are working with E.M. Wolfman Editions in Oakland. We are still working out the content and vision. I’m excited to have this hand held tangible object filled with stories, interviews, and reflections on our process and practice. This year we are also all doing our own individual residencies around the country. So I’m excited to see what we all make and how it will come together back in the the collective process.
Grace Rosario Perkins: I just want to echo the sentiment, “Yeah! I want this show to travel” and we definitely are not done curating together. I think doing this show and walking through one day after install with a little space between the process and the result I was like, “WHOA. What did we do?” in the best way possible, so yeah, so excited to keep the momentum going.
Sarah Biscarra Dilley: Yes! This has been such an immensely growthful process, one that we are still fully in the throes of- something that is marked in the ever-changing ways that our individual work is continually linked to our collaborative work. This collaboration has always felt like a natural extension of my personal practice because these babes are my family and co-conspirators, such immensely inspiring influences in my life. Black Salt has so much more to do together as goofball loners, as loving friends, as chosen family, as curators, as healers, as artists, as conduits, as archivists in our own understandings of that word. So yeah, from the book to other incarnations of this show and our entwined individual and collaborative practices– bring it on, universe!
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- Visions Into Infinite Archives: Interview with Black Salt Collective - February 2, 2016
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- Obsolescent Performance: Tercer Cuerpo/Timbre 4 at the MCA - September 27, 2013