Three women slowly make their way into a gallery, their arms and legs stretching down and up to a low, pulsing synth from the speakers. Their bodies are dressed in repurposed cotton in loose-fitting pastels. Their feet wear white, brand-free Keds; their faces don fabric masks in azure, rosewood, and chartreuse. Moving in, through, and around the installations, their torsos twist, contract, release — sometimes in unison, other times improvisationally responding to the breaths and footsteps of the gathered onlookers. A lone flute accompanies what seems a subaqueous migration across the floor. Suddenly, their hypnotic motion shifts into synchronous dance — to a harmonica-driven Dixieland beat and then a bouncy ragtime score. The tune of a gospel organ shifts into classical stylings of Bach or Brahms, then back into a resolutely contemporary spiritual vibe. Their palms and soles pound the concrete, as light pierces their diaphanous sleeves and their brows lift toward the heavens.
In last weekend's "Without Ever Leaving the Ground (She Flew)" performance at the Luminary Arts Foundation on Cherokee, the intersecting projects of Black women's collective care-giving and liberation were made gloriously kinetic, awakening what could otherwise seem a static gallery experience. As part of in ℅: practice — the exhibition on view until Saturday, November 13 — "She Flew" both navigates and celebrates modes of historic and contemporary Black feminist care within institutional spaces traditionally "rife with harm." Curated by Andrea Yarbrough, and featuring the works of Adero Knott, Nia-Amina Minor, Racha Tahani Lawler (Queen), and Blair Ebony Smith, in ℅: practice plumbs the depths of Black women's ingenuity, resourcefulness and creative agency in organizing networks of care against a backdrop of trauma and marginalization. "We realize that the only people who care enough about [Black women] to work consistently for our liberation are [Black women]," reads an excerpt of the 1977 Combahee River Collective manifesto on display at the gallery's entrance, a Black feminist text at the crux of Yarbrough's vision. "Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters, and our community which allows us to continue to struggle and work."
Known for her in ℅: Black women initiative on the south side of Chicago, reactivating vacant lots with sculptural objects and live performance, Yarbrough stressed to me the connection between the movement of the dancers on view and the ever-present contribution of Black women's physical labor to care-giving efforts. "Nia-Amina and I were thinking about what care means for folks who use their bodies as their jobs, and as movement, thinking about Black feminist practices within that — how we reclaim particular spaces and particular objects ... the role of Black feminine environmentalism and eco-feminism, and how we're left out of that conversation as well." In the back of the gallery, behind a series of curtains constructed of single-use plastics, a film of "Without Ever Leaving the Ground (She Flew)" screens on a loop, the camera moving in and around the trio as though a fourth dancer. Part of the Dreams of Flight series created by Minor, of Seattle, the piece channels "dreams of flight" within the Black experience — from the Great Migration to motifs in spiritual and gospel music. Outside the installation stands Yarbrough's "refuge | refuse," a fully functional jimmy skiff that latently reminds one of the Middle Passage but feels redemptive in its careful stitch and glue construction.
Other sculptural objects on display include "Her Conductor's Chair: Caroline Quarlls (Watkins)" by Racha Tahani Lawler (Queen), a handmade wine barrel transformed into an upholstered seat that pays tribute to the first documented Black woman to travel the Underground Railroad from St. Louis, hiding for a time in a Wisconsin crockery cask. Near the gallery entrance, Yarbrough's "site of care (soundhaus)," made of plywood from a former Luminary show, plays Blair Ebony Smith's audio recording "Do It Again...And Just Do It Again Until You Can't Do It No' Mo'" on a loop, intermingling the voices of Black girls in playful and introspective modes.
"There's a place where improvisation and vernacular — Black vernacular, social dance, jazz — meet that interests me as a choreographer," Minor explains in terms of how "She Flew" evolved. "When we look at the past, how do we reinscribe that legacy into the present? In this exploration, both the film project and the live performance are navigating that in very specific ways." During our conversation, Minor expresses the importance of bringing live performance into gallery spaces, along with adapting the choreography in site-specific ways. "This was our first time actually being here with the work in person. I wanted the dancers to have the chance to engage with each object in the moment. It's very reciprocal — giving and receiving, like the nature of caregiving itself."
More than 40 years ago, the Combahee River Collective proclaimed that "if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression," and Yarbrough emphasizes that, for her, in ℅: Black Women is ongoing. "A lot of what is happening today is a draw on the past. We're not doing anything new, it's just molded for the time. We are pulling on the genealogy of Black feminist thought and history ... the folks who coined intersectionality before that word was even in our lexicon, who have been invisibilized in a lot of spaces. We wanted to bring that to the forefront."
The Luminary Arts Foundation is located at 2701 Cherokee St, and is open Wednesday and Thursday from 12 to 5 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. during exhibitions.
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