Hello Everyone! I am back from my Barbados trip, where I learned a lot about the country, including finding out about some great visionary artists and creatives there. Speaking of visionary artists, below is my interview with Queens-based visual artist, educator, and community activist Shervone Neckles whose work looks at the intersections between science, nature, art, story and community. I hope you have enjoyed my Astro-Caribbean series for the past few weeks and although I am back, I will continue it for a week or two, including some of the artists I found out about in Barbados. Stay tuned!
“I’m fascinated with the idea that the source of one’s healing and nurturing can also be the source of one’s pain and suffering…”
1) Tell the readers a little bit about yourself.
I’m Shervone Neckles, an interdisciplinary artist, educator, community worker and art administrator. I am a first generation Caribbean-American raised in East Flatbush Brooklyn to Grenadian parents. My work weaves together concepts of nature and science with objects and practices rooted in Afro-Caribbean tradition.The art objects I make (book arts, printmaking, sculpture and multi-media techniques) are part of my ethnographic study on the social meaning of beauty, identity, and cultural authenticity within black womanhood.
In addition, my practice includes social experiments and curatorial projects that explores the commonalities, differences, contradictions, continuities and the many possibilities of cooperative learning and civic responsibility. I believe this exchange between community and artist is crucial to our ability to protect, preserve and make change where we live, work and practice from an informed and respectful place.
I currently reside in South East Jamaica Queens with my partner, artist José M. Ortiz and 4 year old son.
2) What inspires your work, especially works like your recent Give and Take and the Creative Wellness Gathering? How important are the roles of nature, herbalism and spiritual health in shaping your work and how have they been a major part of the survival of Afro-diasporic communities?
The botanical name for the Give and Take tree is Chrysophila argentea, a rare tree species I was introduced to during my 2009 visit to Belize. I stayed on a compound nestled in the rainforest of Chan Chich Creek. During my visit I participated in a series archaeological and herbalist walks to learn the medicinal practices of the Mayan people.
It was through those daily walks that I discovered what the Belizean locals call the Give and Take tree- a rare species that contains both a powerful toxin and its own antidote. I’m fascinated with the idea that the source of one’s healing and nurturing can also be the source of one’s pain and suffering. Drawing inspiration from the symbolism of the Give and Take tree, connecting it with the discoveries made in my own journey towards personal wellness and applying those learnings to my studio practice has been my motivation for the last five years.
The Creative Wellness Gathering Station is an example of my work attempting to preserve and build upon our ancestral memory. Since March 2016, I’ve been conducting a series of social experiments, that channels the knowledge and wisdom of community members to recall remedies and natural methods folks use to heal and cure everyday ailments. Together with local Queens residents I have developed a collaborative process that uses lively conversation and interactive demonstrations to explore the origin, multi-purpose and mixing techniques of a selected group of herbs displayed and offered at the wellness station. Participants are able to identify at least one applicable method and create an herbal mix to support their individual wellness needs.
3) In what ways does your Grenadian heritage influence your work and life?
I tend to use my Grenadian heritage as a starting point. From that knowing, familiar space, I attempt to make sense of the world and create my own interpretations of the world. In 2004, I developed Red Rag Rosie an all-black character from whose perspective the viewer follows from childhood to motherhood. I designed this character to fill a void—frustrated by the lack of positive representations of myself in children’s literature. Portraying Red Rag Rosie as an all-black figure comes from a Grenadian masquerade tradition known as Jab Jab.
Jab Jab masqueraders cover themselves in molasses, burnt cane, or black grease—as a display of racial pride—they march through the streets during Jouvét morning before the carnival festivities with chains, ropes, serpents(real or artificial), horns and drums. The Jab Jab performance references the emancipation of slaves in the Caribbean, it is considered a historical act of resistance that was used amongst the slaves to mock their colonizers.
The origins of the Jab Jab performance can be traced to the Egungun Festival, an old Yoruba tradition performed in West African countries (Nigeria, Benin, Togo) as a ritual dedication ceremony to the ancestors. It’s believed that through their use of costumes, movement, gestures and sound the Egungun masqueraders embody the spirit of the ancestors to; enact stories, recount history, express social values of the community, restore a sense of balance and grant blessings to all those in the community. For me, the Jab Jab and Egungun masqueraders are present day examples of the power of art to build and strengthen community. A standard I aspire to achieve in my work.
4) As a Caribbean-American myself, I have always felt this in-betweenness as you describe, a liminal figure maneuvering through several spaces. In terms of blackness, identifying as both black and alien from the norms of “blackness.” I think of Bert Williams, who was Bahamian, donning on the minstrel mask and the southern black accent but also how covering in black paint or grease is something done in Caribbean Carnival masquerade. How has this in-between space shaped your work and how you navigate your identity?
As a child, I struggled with not feeling American enough in America and not Caribbean enough in Grenada. That in-betweenness was where I lived for most of my childhood, teenage and young adult life, however, it’s in that nebulous space, I discovered my creative voice. The middle offered me the unique perspective and creative space to critically analyze, question, intervene, and intersect the serious with the playful.
I feel most grounded and centered in that creative space. It’s where all parts of my identity align and ideas take shape.
5) How does time, memory, and real and imaginary spaces play into your work? I know that you used West African philosophy of time and space, and that different temporal and spatial sense has created distinct cosmologies, mythologies and stories that are different from current Western ideas.
The symbolism in my work, specifically in the Give and Take series, explores life as a continuous cycle. I’m continuously researching early civilizations that charted the stars for navigation, harvesting crops and for connecting their sense of identity to the cosmos and the universe.
My most recent inquiries have lead me to investigate the connection between West African philosophies of space and time with the hemispheres of the brain. For instance, recent studies have shown how the brain thinking pattern is altered when a person has a traumatizing experience, ultimately resulting in the individual loosing a part of their identity.
I’m fascinated by the brain thinking patterns; the left brain is said to think in language, past and future, and the act of doing. The right side of the brain thinks in the present moment, in being and thinks in picture or constructed image. It’s from these discoveries that I am able to weave together personal memories, with objects and practices rooted in the Afro-Caribbean Diasporic tradition as a way of forming a connection, continuing the tradition, preserving the memories and inserting myself into the historical narrative.
6) You’ve been studying how humans have used the stars to navigate, to farm and to understand the world around us and ourselves through myths. We are also made of the elements from stardust. How has story creation, whether through language or image, allowed us as humans to realize that connection to that “other space” and see that “other space” as part of us, as shaping us and as directing our everyday lives?
I believe I answered this question in responses 2,3,4 &5.
7) As a book artist, how do you see the relation between books, memory, image, imaginary spaces and story creation? And does your work as a book artist connect to your other work in quilting and use of fabrics in terms of the “fabrication” of story and identity?
I believe for a concept to become a practice and eventually a way of being— the information, values and beliefs shared must be repeated and presented in multiple and accessible formats of: visual, oral, dance, performance, sound and written form. Our cultural heritage has been anchored by many traditional folktales. I’m interested in using those traditional storytelling formats to introduce my narratives.
8 ) You’ve developed your own kind of folklore with Red Rag Rosie and Little Miss Pinky, which you tell with quilts, rugs and other materials. You also mentioned that it is related to jumbies. Can you talk more about the relation between the supernatural and the material world in your work and your view of it in Afro-diasporic culture?
Jumbies in the West Indies are considered roaming spirits. The physical manifestation of these Jumbies can be seen in present day Caribbean Carnival stilt performers. I grew up with the understanding that creating a patchwork of discarded pieces of fabric had both a functional purpose (quilts, curtains, cloths, dolls etc) and a spiritual purpose—to ward off unwanted spirits.
Through the accretion of imagery and physical material, I’ve developed a language and historical narrative. Choosing to wrap, drape, sew, collage, weave, draw, print with and on fabric, establishes my relationship and understanding for the nature of materials; its process, conceptual design and symbolic meaning.
9) What are some upcoming projects on which you are currently working?
I recently closed the Give and Take exhibition in Portland, Maine; I’m currently working on traveling the show to other cities. I do have a few upcoming group exhibitions in 2017. I also intend to continue connecting with communities members throughout Queens as well as in other cities through my Creative Wellness Gathering Station. While hosting these social investigations, I plan to begin the second phase of the project, which involves the fabrication and photo-documentation of the Creative Wellness community garment.
10) How do you see Queens as a place of futuristic and/or speculative possibility?
Queens has a long history of nurturing amazing thought-leaders and cultural producers. The cultural value of Queens lies in our diverse perspective and collection of voices. Our ability to operate within multiple communities creates a cross-fertilization that has great potential to influence the overall advancement of Queens as a borough. Our presence and voices (not limited to just artists) are extremely important at these decision-making conversations—it will ensure that the community’s priorities, values and even solutions are incorporated into the projected economic and social development/expansion plans that are currently taking place in Queens.
11) Since the blog is Futuristically Ancient, in what ways are you both futuristic and ancient?
I find, the more I reference the physical and spiritual resources of my Afro-Caribbean lineage the more my work is associated with futurism, which reminds of the symbolism connected to the Belizian Give and Take tree. Our ability to thrive in the future relies on our ability to preserve and build upon our ancestors’ teachings.