damali abrams

October 2013

About damali:

damali abrams is a New York City-based artist working primarily in video. She received her BA at New York University and her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. damali was a 2009-10 A.I.R. Gallery fellowship recipient. Her work has been shown in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Memphis, New Orleans, Denver, and Miami. In New York City, her work has been exhibited at The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA), A.I.R. Gallery, JCAL, Rush Arts Gallery and BRIC Rotunda Gallery, among others. damali is a member of the women’s artist collective tART and one of the NYC coordinators for The Feminist Art Project.

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Week 1

damali1

Damali Abrams making a presentation to the BCC Fine Arts students

For the past six months I have been participating in an off-site residency, collaborating with Fresh Milk on the Fresh Performance project. To find out how performance art manifests in New York City and the Caribbean, I have been conducting a series of interviews with artists who engage performance in different forms in their work. This includes performative photos and videos as well as live performance. Each month from April through September, I interviewed one artist in NYC and one in the Caribbean via the internet. Each month the interviews had a different theme including defining performance art; gender & sexuality; and how performance communicates. Now I am here in Barbados to edit the interviews together into a full-length documentary.

The first week of my residency here on the Fresh Milk platform was lovely, though I also felt a bit anxious. I have about six hours of interview footage from the past six months, though the videos that I have been posting online have only been about ten minutes each. I finally have the opportunity to add in all of the interesting things that the artists said that I had to edit out. Though it is an interesting project, it is somewhat daunting as well.

When I’m at home in New York and I am working on editing video projects, I often take dance breaks to shake out my body as well as my brain. I’m too shy to do that here but I have been taking collage breaks, collecting images from books and magazines that Fresh Milk provided and covering them with glitter. I’m not sure how any of this will turn out or if it will even turn into anything concrete, but it is an enjoyable way to take breaks from sitting in front of the computer all day.

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Week 2

Damali's glitter covered dress

I presented my work to art majors at BCC (Barbados Community College) on Monday. Seriously one of the toughest crowds ever. They seemed to have a lot to say based on facial expressions and whispering amongst themselves but would not say much to me no matter how I tried to engage them. I learned afterward that this is common among students here. One student also told me privately after class that the fact that I framed my work as feminist made the males afraid to respond based on what other guys might think of them. He also thought that the young women in the  class might be afraid to respond, not wanting the guys to think that they were man-haters. When I mentioned feminism, one male student sadly asked “Why feminism? Why not something that includes everyone?” I tried to quickly define feminism and told him that it does include everyone. Then I prescribed some bell hooks.

I went back the next day with just Annalee’s class (a much smaller group than the day before) to watch Herb & Dorothy. It’s a really sweet documentary about this average couple (librarian & postal worker) who live in a cramped one-bedroom apartment and and spend their 40-something year marriage cramming the space with an amazing art collection worth millions. And then they refused offers to sell the work and instead donated the entire collection to the National Gallery.

After the film there was some very lively debate about what art is and what it is isn’t. Some of the students were quite offended that I’d said in my presentation the day prior that I believe that everything is art. They didn’t raise it during my talk but apparently talked a lot about it  afterwards. It was great to hear the students’ views and I really enjoyed engaging with them and getting to see one student’s work after class.

At the end of the week I went with the same group to a gallery called ArtSplash where a local artist exhibiting there spoke with the class about his work. It was nice being able to interact with a local artist and hearing about his practice and process.

I feel like my consciousness is expanding in so many ways. I have been consuming so much beauty here on a daily basis. I have been absorbing art and conversations. I have experienced new levels of solitude. It takes me a long time to process things so I have no idea how all of this is going to manifest in my art in the long-run…

I have been filming a lot (as always). The scenery is magical and I want to capture everything. I also make sure to pause at moments to take it all in without the camera. On Saturday Mark King, another local artist, took me to Bathsheba Beach so that I could get some footage. It was overwhelmingly beautiful and I’m really thankful that he was willing to be so generous with his time.

On Thursday Katherine invited me to her zumba class. It was absolutely amazing! Nothing but soca and dancehall music and a fun opportunity to wine up and wuk up! I learned some new moves to bring back to New York.

The project I came here to work on feels stagnant right now. I am trying to breathe new life into it but I’m not sure how. I feel extremely inspired but it’s like I’m in a completely different dimension than when I began working on the Fresh Performance  interviews way back in April. On the positive side, editing the work means deep listening to the words of the artists I’ve interviewed and I am gaining a lot of inspiration and insight from them as well.

And as you can see in the photos and video, I’m still enjoying covering things in glitter.

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Week 3 – Groundation Grenada

The first day of the performance workshop with Damali Abrams at Groundation Grenada.

The first day of the performance workshop with Damali Abrams at Groundation Grenada.

I spent last week in Grenada and facilitated a two-day performance art workshop with Groundation Grenada. The workshop was absolutely amazing!

There were twelve very enthusiastic participants. Students, teachers, actors, models, photographers, writers, videographers and more, representing a wide age range.

The first day we were at The National Museum. I created a presentation showing as much of a variety of performance art as I could in an hour. Rather than presenting in chronological order, I went back and forth between contemporary and older examples. Sheena Rose’s recent Sweet Gossip performances in Barbados, Lorraine Ogrady as Mlle Bourgeois Noir, My Barbarian, Anna Mendieta, Michelle Isava in Trinidad, Yoko Ono and so on. I showed photos and videos. The group was very engaged and we had some compelling discussions about the topics raised in each performance as well as the methods utilized by the various performance artists. After the presentations we broke into smaller groups to plan public performance pieces for the next day. We placed topics in a bag and let a representative from each group choose. The topics in the bag were high unemployment rates; stigmatizing mental illness; domestic violence; and Grenada secondary schools expelling girls who become pregnant.

The second day we took it to the streets!

Malaika, Damali and Aisha during their public performance. Photo by Zoë Hagley

Malaika, Damali and Aisha during their public performance. Photo by Zoë Hagley

I spent last week in Grenada and facilitated a two-day performance art workshop with Groundation Grenada. The workshop was absolutely amazing!

There were twelve very enthusiastic participants. Students, teachers, actors, models, photographers, writers, videographers and more, representing a wide age range.

The first day we were at The National Museum. I created a presentation showing as much of a variety of performance art as I could in an hour. Rather than presenting in chronological order, I went back and forth between contemporary and older examples. Sheena Rose’s recent Sweet Gossip performances in Barbados, Lorraine Ogrady as Mlle Bourgeois Noir, My Barbarian, Anna Mendieta, Michelle Isava in Trinidad, Yoko Ono and so on. I showed photos and videos. The group was very engaged and we had some compelling discussions about the topics raised in each performance as well as the methods utilized by the various performance artists. After the presentations we broke into smaller groups to plan public performance pieces for the next day. We placed topics in a bag and let a representative from each group choose. The topics in the bag were high unemployment rates; stigmatizing mental illness; domestic violence; and Grenada secondary schools expelling girls who become pregnant.

The second day we took it to the streets!

The group doing a performance around domestic violence. Photo by Zoë Hagley

The group doing a performance around domestic violence. Photo by Zoë Hagley

IMG_20131018_172954[1] (1)

The group doing a performance around domestic violence. Photo by Zoë Hagley

The next group’s performance was about stigmatizing mental illness. They had a table in the center with four chairs. The three performers came out in different states of eccentric dress. On their plates instead of food they were “eating” cell phones, condoms and jewelry. The one male performer in the group blew up a condom like a balloon and stuck it into the one shoulder that his t-shirt was covering. Students from the crowd came close to see what was happening. One boy sat at the free chair at the table and began interacting with the group.

The group doing a performance dealing with the stigma around mental illness. Photo by Zoë Hagley

The group doing a performance dealing with the stigma around mental illness. Photo by Zoë Hagley

The final group’s performance was about high unemployment rates. They marched out in a circle and then performed various gestures under a long black cloth, symbolizing domestic violence, neglected children and prostitution, some of the affects of high unemployment. At the end the group dropped to the floor and just lay there with their heads covered by the black cloth for about ten minutes, completely still. The crowd was riveted and when the group finally stood up from the ground, the audience cheered.

The group doing a performance dealing with the consequences of unemployment.

The group doing a performance dealing with the consequences of unemployment.

The group doing a performance dealing with the consequences of high unemployment rates.

The group doing a performance dealing with the consequences of high unemployment rates.

It was an exhilarating experience for all of us. It was intense to create these performances around such weighty topics.  It was also a bonding experience. We took a huge risk thrusting ourselves into the public sphere and there was great reward and a feeling of camaraderie. I felt creatively rejuvenated and inspired by the entire experience and seeing what all of the workshop participants came up with. There was a certain level of freedom performing in a place where I don’t know anyone. But I also felt nervous about doing an unsanctioned performance in a public place. I couldn’t imagine how people would react. I also didn’t know if as an outsider I had a right to claim this space and comment on these issues in someone else’s country and community. Those issues remain unresolved for me, but I feel inspired to find ways to continue this kind of work wherever I am.

Infinite thanks to Groundation Grenada for inviting me and allowing me the space to share my passion for performance, as well as making my week in Grenada unforgettable.

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Week 4

Damali Abrams. Photograph by Mark King.

damali abrams. Photograph by Mark King.

This residency has brought me to a new level of possibility in my work. I am extremely grateful that I’ve had this opportunity. Every single moment has been a chance to learn and grow and be inspired. In Barbados and Grenada I absorbed more natural beauty than I ever thought possible. I have also seen the value of being part of new (to me) conversations in new (to me) places. I have learned a lot about myself and my limits and my strengths. I am filled with an incredible amount of inspiration and I am excited to see how it all manifests in my work.

Fresh Performance: Contemporary Performance Art in NYC & the Caribbean, the documentary that I came to this residency to complete, came out very differently from what I expected (but I expected that as well). During the last two weeks of the residency, the video took a huge turn. Its form completely transformed. When I was in Grenada, I found myself editing out huge chunks of the film. Things that just weren’t moving me in the same way that they had before. It became clear to me that if I was no longer finding it interesting, there was no way I could expect an audience to care. I began to leave in only the portions of the interviews that clearly explained the importance of performance to these particular artists. I wound up cutting about two-thirds of the piece. It went from about 90 minutes to roughly 30 minutes. Then I had to rearrange the clips so that the words of all of the artists I interviewed flowed together. It wasn’t until I got back to New York that I realized that the project had taken shape based on the conversations and experiences I had during the residency (which I think must be the entire point of a residency anyway).

Watching damali abrams' documentary Fresh Performance: Contemporary Performance Art in NYC & the Caribbean

Watching damali abrams’ documentary Fresh Performance: Contemporary Performance Art in NYC & the Caribbean

The final presentation far exceeded my expectations. People in the audience were excited and inspired and said that they learned a lot about performance art from the documentary. I had been feeling pretty wrung out trying to get it done on time, and felt good that my intentions had come across clearly to the audience even though I view it as a work in progress. The audio was not as smooth as I would have liked but the next day I sent it to someone to have it cleaned up, because I have an opportunity to show Fresh Performance again very soon.

The documentary will be part of an exhibition called Face Time: New Portraiture Now opening on Friday November 8, 2013 at Ground Floor Gallery in Brooklyn. I am excited to see how it is received in a gallery setting where people are just seeing bits and pieces of it versus the sit-down screening that we had at Fresh Milk. Also, how will the New York art audience’s response compare to the Barbadian art audience? The questions that led to this project about art in the Caribbean and in New York are even more intriguing to me after this experience. I want to continue to find ways to keep that conversation going. Especially since many of us in New York are either born in the Caribbean or are part of the Caribbean diaspora, it seems like a natural discussion to continue having.

I cannot thank Fresh Milk and Groundation Grenada enough for allowing me this opportunity to travel through art and connect with so many artists and creatives. I felt completely supported and because they were willing to believe in my work and invest in me, I feel more confident in my work as well. And thank you to the twelve amazing artists who were willing to share their time and their processes with me. I would also like to thank the U.S. Embassy Bridgetown for funding this residency.

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