In late October, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) program staff flew out to the east coast for visits with SHIFT artist Emily Johnson and LIFT artist Mobéy Lola Irizarry.
At the New York City premiere of Emily Johnson’s SHIFT project, “Being Future Being“, Emily called the audience to action, standing on top of a car streetside in front of the theater at New York Live Arts, megaphone in hand. She asked, “What if every one of us turned every one of ours cells toward justice?” This storytelling, gathering the audience outside of the theater before leading us inside, has been integral to Emily’s work over the last decade, from stories about black fish to stories about trees. And like previous projects that guided participants through community quiltmaking, these threads, among many, tie her greater body of work together. As the performance opened, the quilts had now become the costumes of “future beings”. Set to the score of experimental sound artist Raven Chacon (2021 SHIFT artist and 2014 National Artist Fellow), with costuming by Maggie Thompson (2015 Regional Artist Fellow), the dancers’ movements were sewn together by a rhythmic stomping, drawing up energies from the earth, grounding us in the moment. It’s a pulse that we all walked away with. In all, the evening was incredibly moving and to think that the in-theater performance itself is just one aspect of the overall work of “Being Future Being” is testament to the way Emily’s projects gather community around notions of land stewardship, scholarship, participatory practice, and action. Their scope is truly extraordinary.
Post-show, as part of the project’s “Branch of Knowledge”, a cohort of Lenape matriarchs took to the stage, mostly from geographies outside of the Lenape traditional homelands in the region. They had traveled to Manhattan to participate in the project and they described the emotional experience returning home, most for the very first time. It’s hard to imagine that overwhelming sense of emotion and yet it is so much a part of many tribal histories – being removed from their homes and forced into an all too familiar catastrophic diaspora across the country to unfamiliar lands. The poignant narratives offered by the women were at once heartbreaking and inspirational, yet another of aspects of “Being Future Being”. In that light, the work is expansive in its consideration of an artist’s practice that sets out to bring people together in acts of healing and political agency, pointing us toward freshly imagined futures.
We were also able to visit with members of SHIFT awardee New Red Order (Jackson Polys and Zach Khalil) and their organizational partner in NYC, Creative Time (Diya Vij, Curator). Ever at work, they shared about some of the related projects they are doing leading up to the project with Creative Time. In the moment, much of their practice revolves around notions of Land Back, in their terms, “Give It Back”, and the multiple projects they had and have going on around the country as it leads up to the project’s SHIFT iteration. As part of NACF’s work, more informal visits like these allow for relationships to continue to develop and provide all of us an opportunity to catch up and talk shop.
Next stop, Brooklyn, and we headed across the East River for a visit with the talented and thoughtful LIFT artist, Mobéy Lola Irizarry. Mobéy’s work spans disciplines and genres – they are musically gifted, working as a composer and performer, moving across pop, experimental music and traditional music with grace. Mobéy is an academy trained violinist and it is evident inside his richly textured compositions that now draw upon multiple instruments. Even the simplest of acoustic guitar and vocal tracks deftly transition through subtly complicated phrasings. Mobéy is also a poet and a visual artist and as soon as we walked into their apartment it was clearly evident – the walls and tabletops were covered with Mobéy’s paintings and constructions in various stages of development. Some of the pieces related to their project, which involves the development of visual scores. The scores are a mix of paint and collage and include various symbolic elements that make up the musical “notations”. While in their abstractions they stand alone in their intrigue, the imagery is also a container for the movements of each “song” as they are to be interpreted by musicians. There is nothing classically western about them.
We then spent some time in the practice studio, where Mobéy introduced us to their various recording gadgets, guitars, drums, keyboards and all manner of sound makers. They then performed some songs for us – one a new piece they play on a drum used in their Bomba practice, a traditional Puerto Rican musical form Mobéy is learning. Another a piece on acoustic guitar, a poignant track in memory of a friend, Mobéy’s voice resonating in melancholy and personal journey. Beautiful. And then we talked about the technicalities of recording in a home studio, building tracks, adapting to available equipment and what their performance has involved of late. Mobéy showed us some video of a live performance of his experimental band, Dendarry Bakery, which involves elements of their LIFT project, with musicians interpreting the visual scores. The performances are wild, costumed, with each performer at their energetic peak, much like a bop jazz band turned on its head.
Our visits like this with artist awardees cannot be understated. They allow for each of us to contemplate our shared work in the field and to consider the place of Native artists in the broader community. In a longer view, the visits develop a more familial bond between the artists and NACF, setting the course for continued relations over the span of our respective trajectories.
Written documentation provided by Reuben Roqueñi and photography by Robert Franklin.