Interview with Conjure Artist Amara Tabor-Smith

Amara Tabor-Smith. Photo by Lashon Daley

Amara Tabor-Smith. Photo by Lashon Daley

By Lashon Daley

On September 24, 2015, Amara Tabor-Smith premiered EarthBodyHOME, a multimedia performance art piece in honor of the life and work of artist Ana Mendieta, to a sold out audience at the ODC Theatre in San Francisco.  The work featured dancer Zoe Klein as Mendieta and Tabor-Smith as the orishas or dieties that birthed Mendieta into life and embraced her in her death.  EarthBodyHOME encapsulates not only the cycle of life and death, but all of the areas in between including love, curiosity, despair, abandonment, betrayal, strength, and most of all grief.  In order to resolve my own grief that resulted from the viewing of the performance, I met with Tabor-Smith to explore her intentions for EarthBodyHOME as well as how to seek resolution or restitution for others who were taken from this world too soon.  In this edited interview, I discuss with Tabor-Smith the beauty and the hard work that was manifested through her performance of EarthBodyHOME.

Lashon Daley: How did the performance of EarthBodyHOME meet or not meet your expectations?

Amara Tabor-Smith: Overall, I didn’t know what to expect going in.  I was delving deeper into a process that I had been investigating for the past few years, which is to incorporate ritual more prominently in my work.  I will say that some wonderful moments that happened were because of the audience’s engagement in the process and because of their experience of the work.  People were engaged in the grieving and in the celebrating.  I felt their participation.  The most difficult part was being presented with not having enough time to get things where I wanted them to be for the “performance.” However, that is just the nature of the beast. Things were still being figured out on opening night.  We had some glitches with our video.  There was a moment when, because we were sold out and people were sitting on the floor, that the cable somehow got disconnected.

LD: I was wondering about that.

ATS: There were these things that I was still figuring out on opening night because of the mass audience that I felt that at the Friday and Saturday shows were more realized, definitely.  And that always is challenging for me because I don’t want to feel like any show, any experience for someone is not at the place I had hoped it would be.  And it happens, you know?  You just have to accept that this is part of it.  And when you only have a 3-day run, there is always potential for challenges.

LD: And what did it mean for you to have a sold show three nights in a row?

ATS: It was great!  I was hoping for that not so much for the idea of having a sold-out show, but more in the way that a full audience would fill up the space.  I was hoping that it would take away some of the aspects that made it feel so much like a theater.  It’s not a piece that I ideally want to do in a theater where there is a boundary between the stage and the audience.  We really wanted to find a way to communicate that the boundary for us was not real.  That the boundary could be crossed, especially as it got towards the end of the performance.  One of the things we really hoped for was that people could feel that they could come onto the stage.  I know that’s a very difficult thing to impart unless you say it and when you say it, it takes people out of the experience.  If we were in an environment where that boundary was not so delineated—already by virtue of the architecture—that might have happened more readily.  Going back to your first question, the sold-out show helped to create that kind of intimacy with the people on the floor and on the sides.  It felt like a packed church.

LD:  I’m starting to get emotional just thinking about it.  I felt like I was at a funeral of someone that I didn’t know, yet in a space of people who loved this woman.  And even thinking of the end of the performance, when they were saying, “She got love,” I felt like those weren’t my words to say.  I felt like I was in a very privileged space.  I wanted people who felt that way and who knew her to speak those words.  I felt like a stranger speaking those words.  And of course it brings back, my mother passed away a few years ago and being at her funeral, it was very packed, standing room only, these whispers, all of this stuff, I felt that so much, but I didn’t want to feel it there.  Because of that I want to ask the question about how the audience should seek resolution from that piece if resolution is even possible?

ATS: Yes, the piece is about and inspired by a specific person’s life experience, but I did not feel like that experience was exclusive.  My hope was to create a space of grieving. We do not live in a culture that respects the grieving process—doesn’t allow for it.  And if you do grieve, it’s like death is wrong and grieving is wrong.  However, both things guaranteed: you will experience grief and you will experience death.  It’s this crazy contradiction that we never have the space to truly explore.  My hope and my intention was to use the story of this woman as a way to recognize that she was not properly grieved and how we don’t properly grieve in general.  It’s great to know how you felt, but in actuality I was hoping for it to be a portal to explore grief.  I wanted her story to be used as an opening for anyone’s experience of grief to be expressed in that space.  And again, it’s a lot to ask an audience.  You know, you come for a show where you think you’re anonymous.  Then the space opens up. How do we create these open spaces where you can actually allow yourself to fill in the experience of the show? 

Eight months ago, I went to see a friend’s show.  It was really beautiful work.  He’s always playful, but he did something that hit me so deeply that I was sobbing in the audience.  I was the only one.  I was so moved by his story that I was sobbing and I couldn’t control it.  I was trying to keep quiet because I was thinking about the people around me and I thought “God, what does it mean to create this kind of space?” We’re the audience, but we’re deconstructing this, we’re transgressing these boundaries of audience, performance, ritual and saying that you can have the experience you need to have.  You may come and not feel like you want to cry, but if you did or if you felt like you wanted to express it in some way that you had the space to do that.  How do we create that space for an audience?  To finish answering your question on what is the way to best seek resolution was the reason for us making that full circle and coming back to the lobby was to then celebrate.  It was ceremony and it was celebratory. It was a way for people to release—people danced.  It was incredible.  I do think that happened more successfully at the Friday and Saturday shows.  But that was one place for the release.  And what does it mean for us to actually reveal or have revealed to us that we are still holding these deep feelings of grief that need space to be expressed?  If you can’t fully express your grief, you can’t fully express joy.  And that’s why we live in a culture of dulled depression.  We’re not willing to go to the depths necessary in order for us to have a full sense of what happiness or joy can be without a full expression of grief. 

LD: What certainly sparked my emotions was that Zoe looks a lot like Ana.  What that intentional or was that just happenstance?

ATS: How it happened was kind of profound.  When I originally set out to do this work, it was going to be a solo.  I was going to manifest all of these aspects through my own body. However, at a certain point I realized that it didn’t seem like the solo piece.  I started thinking about what people, what additional bodies and spirits would I bring into the work to manifest this story.  I’d known Zoe for a couple of years.  I happened to be at a show, where she was the stage manager.  She was running around before the show and I was seated on the floor of the theatre.  The moment she passed by me, I felt like something from behind had pushed me.  Suddenly, I saw her in another way.  I said, “Oh my God, she’s Ana!” I started to cry.  And I knew that Ana wanted her as her avatar.  I asked her right in that moment.  I never do that kind of thing, it’s not the most professional way of bringing people into your work, but I asked her anyway; “Do you want to be in a piece?”  And she looks at me like, “Uh yeah.”  She agreed and she didn’t even know what it was about.  We then met the next day. There were so many aspects of both Ana’s story and Zoe’s story that are really—the synchronicity in their experiences is uncanny.

LD: Now that you’ve told me how Ana was manifested, I want to look at the performance more closely.  I want to ask you why you chose to use nudity in the work where the Orisha gives birth to Ana.

ATS: I see the opening birth as both the idea of being birthed into the world, but also being birthed into death.  The reason that I had her in underwear is because that is exactly the way Ana was dressed when she died.  When Ana fell out of the window, she was only wearing underwear.  I dressed Zoe accordingly. 

Symbolically it’s both about there being a loss that happens for both the spirits that look over you.  They lose you in one regard.  The world loses you.  A mother loses their child from the womb.  There was a lot of metaphors that was co-existing wrapped up into that experience that I see when I think about the death of Ana Mendieta.  I also see how the spirits grieved her—that they lost her as a sprit and body connecting to them, although they did gain her in another world.  I think a lot about what it is to die suddenly and tragically.  And depending on your belief system, I’ve always thought about what it means for a spirit to suddenly lose connection to that body and what kind of process does the spirit go through to know that they are no longer of this flesh, but still identifying with it.  There’s this journey that happens that’s about connecting or seeing your life as a way to let go. I mean these are ideas that I contemplate.

LD: And when Zoe puts on clothes, she puts on khaki pants and a white t-shirt.  Was that symbolic as well?

ATS: I was looking to represent as closely as I could to what Ana wore when she was out there making work.  When I see pictures of her, she’s in jeans or in khaki pants.  She’s in these clothes that were for working.  I think that is one thing I would think about more intently.  I’m not good with costume ideas, but I thought I can I put her in her work clothes.  And in clothes that are neutral enough to have some color symmetry with my character as the spirit of them.  I wanted us both to be dressed in earth tones. 

LD: Let’s discuss your “character?”  How would you describe it?  What was happening for your character behind this large sculpture of frames?  What was the audience supposed to understand about what was happening behind this frame?

ATS: The frames have several symbols.  For one thing, although Ana’s work was done in nature, you only really get to see them in picture form.  There maybe a few that still exists in Havana, Cuba on the cave walls of Jaruco State Park.  But most likely, the viewer will only ever get to see these works in pictures.  In her early work, when she tried to bring the physical earth into the gallery space, the earth bodies, she felt like they were a failure.  She felt that they no longer held their magic. 

It’s an interesting idea of the way nature gets excluded from gallery spaces and is regulated to being behind the frame.  At the same time, the gallery space is built on top of nature, yet excludes nature from inside it, which is symbolic for everything about our culture now—we take what we want and exile the source.  For me, it was about how she had this very strong connection to the spirits of nature, the orishas, the goddesses she was evoking, the earth deities in her work, although they weren’t allowed to come in.

I represented several different orishas.  It was not important that everyone recognized what they were and how many there were, just that internally, I knew what was happening. 

LD: During the performance, there is a duet between you and Zoe, which involved stomping and braced arm movements. There were also these various levels of movements when she would go to the floor, but you remained erect.  What was your intention in that scene?

ATS: That was the moment where my role as the earth deity takes on a dual role as Ana’s sister. I originally called that duet “Sisters.”  When Ana came to the United States, she came with her sister.  Her sister was 2 years older than her and they were put into foster care together.  But at some point her sister went away to college so then they were separated.  It was this idea of her having dual support: she had the support of her big sister and the support from spirits of nature.  They were with her even then. As a result this spirit energy manifests as her older sister. 

The inspiration for some of the movement came from when we did investigations in nature.  Part of our time was to go to the woods or go to the beach.  One day, we went to the woods with the video artist, Eric Koziel.  He found this rock and it was in two pieces, but the broken piece was perfectly on top.  When he opened it, it looked like dried blood.  And I said, “That’s a blood rock.”  He pulled them apart slowly and put them back together again.  That became the gesture that we took on as the blood rock—how nature has all of the elements that we need, fully represented.

LD:  In talking about nature, there were ways that you were able to bring nature into the theater space?

ATS: It was subversive.  I was originally told that I could not bring dirt in and then we did it.  We just did it!  We had trees.  We got the shell of trees that were cut down.

LD: Was that fulfilling for you or was that just…

ATS:  For me, my question was does this reinforce the artificial environment that the theater is?  We brought in dirt, but it’s not the same as nature, right?  What happened for me towards the end of making this piece was that these elements needed to be in that space even if it was just a symbol of nature. We endowed that space and that earth as a representative of the element that she worked in; it was important.  Is she in the woods?  Do you feel like she’s in nature?  It was more about how she was connecting to that mound of earth, how we felt about that dirt, and how we worked with it ritualistically before we had even set it on the stage. To me, that’s what mattered most.

LD: I think it’s helpful to recognize that even as an established artist, there are all kinds of limitations…

ATS: There are…

LD: And all kinds of boundaries.  But there are also ways in which you learn to work within those boundaries in order to complete your vision.  At the end of the performance, the audience was encouraged to repeat this mantra of “She got love.” Tell me about that.

ATS: The language of she got love…Ana Mendieta didn’t use very many words in her work.  She didn’t write words that often, but there was one time when she took red paint that was mixed with blood and she wrote on one side “She got love” and on the other side she wrote “There is a devil inside of me.”  We started to contemplate that if Ana Mendieta’s spirit is an elevated spirit in the way that we hold up certain spirits then it seemed fitting that she would have a praise call like other elevated spirits.  So we took on “She got love” as the way of saying amen to Ana Mendieta.  The orishas all have praise names that when you’re calling them down or when you’re praising them you don’t just say their name.  We thought of “She got love” as praise name for Ana Mendieta.

LD: Are there any final thoughts that you would like to share about the EarthBodyHOME?

ATS: I would like the opportunity to do this work again.  What came up for me was both the challenge and the importance of creating work that is ritualistic.  I want people to have an experience that is more meaningful—hopefully.  And I want to continue working in this way: listening, figuring it out, and being open to the necessary rituals that need to happen in order for an audience to have that experience.  I’m not really looking to make the audience uncomfortable in the work, but I’m also not looking for comfort as the goal, meaning that in order to have deep impact, we have to go to some places that may not be so comfortable.  Not everybody is going to love or like everything I do.  And it’s not that I don’t care because I do care.  However, I need to stay true to the work and stay true to the way that I feel drawn to create work.  I want to keep investigating and finding ways to be truly honest in the work.

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