Kai Lumumba Barrow is a zealous visual artist. We met for the first time at Joe van Gogh, a coffee shop. I was there engrained in a battle of comprehension with one of a number of dense reading assignments. As Kai entered the space, her presence ripped the fabric of an atmosphere infused with the static aura of roasted coffee beans and over-committed academics. As I recall it, the faded legs and tattered torso of her blue coveralls were adorned with blotches and streaks – a conglomerate of white, yellow, red, and green paint. Not long after our initial encounter, I visited Kai’s home-gallery[i] to take in the first act of her traveling opera, Gallery of the Streets, a love song to pre/post-Katrina New Orleans.
Once one enters, the mundane, single-story white panel home becomes an ecology of hybridity comprised of paint, sand, LPs, script, books, and sculptures. Walls, floors, and ceiling, once consumed by Kai’s creation, are no longer, as each room exhibits a motif and connects to another as though a rhizome – to black geographies, to one’s ancestors, to black feminist brilliance. Viewers shuffled throughout this installation, at once, hearing and feeling the synethesiatic crunch of materials beneath their feet. Fixation set as their eyes were brought to attention by a makeshift coffin or a totem of books. One was reminded that this space was a “home” only after stepping into a habitat with a bed or a tub and toilet. Kai’s frenzied domestic expression would contribute to her eviction. For, the significance of this conceptual piece was lost upon her landlords, who did not share her vision for the home’s décor. Furthermore, the rampant renewal of Durham’s urban core and its immediate periphery only served to hasten her lessor’s desire to evacuate Kai and her black spatial imaginary in order to make room for one of a number of white middle-class residents relocating to Bull City.
This five-part traveling installation represents what I see as a form of new genre public art set in the black south and influenced by black southern experiences of migration, displacement, and cooperative courage.[ii] Regarding the essence of new genre public art, and its move away from traditional public art,[iii] Suzanne Lacy (1995) states,
Unlike much of what has heretofore been called public art, new genre public art – visual art that uses both traditional and nontraditional media to communicate and interact with a broad and diversified audience about issues directly relevant to their lives – is based on engagement” (p. 19)
Thus, equally important as the completion and placement of a sculpture or sketch, are the social and political issues it addresses, the multiple audiences one’s artwork engages, and the experiences it produces while on display and thereafter.
During a recent guest lecture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill[iv] Kai discussed how she sees her art as opening space for a form of politics based upon perpetual passage, or the “fugitive movement[s]” of the black political subject (Moten, 2008, p. 179). It is precisely (and poignantly) her own dislodgement, and the ongoing displacement/placelessness of blackness within civil society (be it in search of a home or in flight from surveillance, capture, and death), that Kai sees as encompassing an alternative politic project. By way of its refusal to be netted (by the museum, the State, or the police) black artistic fugitivity becomes a constant haint to the anti-black, socio-spatial realm of existence (i.e. civil society) upon which America’s system of racial capitalism rest and reanimates (Wilderson, 2003). Mobile blackness – the embodied and artistic – also discharges alternative modes of protest foreclosed by marches and rallies, which, according to Kai, only illustrate the “spectacle of protest” (Personal communication, October 25, 2014). Instead of generating rupture and change, the replication of generations old practices of dissent, serve as forms of discord that the current structure of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism is willing to accept, and is well equipped to subvert/convert.
Since her eviction on April 15, 2014, Kai has relocated to New Orleans. Before leaving Durham, she dispersed her extensive personal archive, a dossier of bound materials amassed during decades of political organizing. The deliberate scattering of texts, to parts and people throughout the country, was her contribution to future efforts to haunt the ever-evolving structural mechanisms of oppression. Kai was photographed during this performance. In the image, she stands stage left, ejecting herself forward while emanating a seemingly blithe energy. Yet, behind her jovial façade lay anxiety and frustration over her precarious existence – concerns that emerged during the day as fitful soliloquies.
Through (dis)placement and movement, Kai’s mobile opera and the performative
dispersion of her dossier, have generated political apparitions; “Let us call it a hauntology” (Derrida, 1994, p. 10). Existing beyond a given place, her installations and archive reside in ephemeral space, resulting in an absented, yet active, “presence of a specter, that is, of what seems to remain as ineffective, virtual, insubstantial as a simulacrum” (Derrida, 1994, p. 10). Their defiant lingering, stands as a constant reminder of deeds undone and ongoing. As such, her artworks provide a basis for re-imagining black fugitivity, within today’s contexts of captivity, as a dual strategy of subversion and survival.
Derrida, J. (1994). Specters of Marx. New York, NY: Routledge.
Lacy, S. (1995). Cultural pilgrimages and metaphoric journeys. In Suzanne Lacy (Ed.), Mapping
the terrain: New genre public art (pp. 19-49). Seattle, WA: Bay Press.
Moten, F. (2008). The case of blackness. Criticism. 50(2), 177-218.
Wilderson, III, F. (2003). Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the slave in civil society?. Social
Identities. 9(2), 225-240.
[i] I remain intrigued by how black artists incorporate the home-space into and as the medium through which they make art. I am thinking, in particular, of Project Row Houses (PRH), Dorchester Projects, The Heidelberg Project, the creations of John Biggers, and the homes/art and ecological spaces of individuals like the Flower Man in Houston, Texas and Pearl Fryar in Bishopville, South Carolina.
[ii] Recent performances by black artists in Houston’s the Third Ward in response to the community’s uneven spatial redevelopment have a similar public function: see MF Problem’s Sunday Social, The Black Guys’s 24Hrs, and Lisa Harris’s melodic goodbye to her family home.
[iii] Traditional public art consist of the sculptures and paintings that adorn public spaces in cities throughout the world. These artworks are often commissioned, large in scale, and permanent fixtures. Examples include Chicago’s “Cloud Gate,” the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” in Washington, D.C., or any number of Houston’s approachable artworks.
[iv] On April 1, 2015, Kai led a lecture entitled Decolonizing the Imagination: Improvisations on Anti-Black Violence and Spectacle.
beau-willie is a writer, an over-analyzer, and a PhD candidate in geography at UNC-Chapel Hill. His research interests include spatial/political theory and expressions of blackness(es) in urban and rural life. He muses often at being-beau-willie