tonite, thriller was
abt an ol woman, so vain she
surrounded herself w/
   many mirrors

it got so bad that finally she
locked herself indoors & her
whole life became the
   mirrors

excerpt beware: do not read this poem, Ishmael Reed, 1972

(there goes the neighborhood…)

excerpt from (there goes the neighborhood…), Site-specific installation, 2015

I grew up in North American suburbs. Although as an adult I’ve lived mostly in cities, ultimately, I came back to the ‘burbs.

The redeeming qualities of suburbs are few, and, like cities, socioeconomic equality is not among them. In the US in particular, suburbs are emblematic of the racism at the heart of the nation’s character. But, in their sprawl and ‘quaint’ neighborhoods, I’ve always found ‘scope for the imagination’.

At night in the city, I am anonymous; at night in the suburbs, I feel alone.

I’ve always wondered where my neighbors – whom I’ve never known – are. Whereas for urbanites the city is their living room, I guess most suburbanites like their homes – a lot.

And that’s the tip of a phenomenon: without equivocation, in the suburbs, we are keenly aware of each others’ surface lives (comings and goings, new driveway, new baby, the strange language of stickers on the backs of SUVs) and totally disconnected from the substance below.

It’s this paranoid reading of appearances that drives (there goes the neighborhood…): at what point does watchfulness turn into surveillance?

daytime view of (there goes the neighborhood...), 2015 installation site
daytime view of the installation site for (there goes the neighborhood…), 2015

I am, I think, one of maybe four Black people/families that live in my gated community. Here, there are grassy knolls where people can run or walk themselves and their dogs. Each knoll slopes down into our back gates and decks, so, stop long enough – to ‘chat’ or watch the dog poop – and see right into the neighbors’ homes. I feel particularly ‘glanced’ at because I’m Black. Hyper-visible.

For one month on even days from 7:30P to 8:00P (prime dog walking time), I gave my neighbors something to look at.

installation view of (there goes the neighborhood...), 2015
installation view of (there goes the neighborhood…), Site-specific installation, 2015

(there goes the neighborhood…) is a site-specific single-channel video installation. Through translucent vertical blinds, I project a looped scene from a mainstream film about voyeurism images of an idyllic Black family waving at their neighbor. These ‘screenings’ are my protest, a response to the bass note of dread that accompanies my every act in my neighborhood.

installation view of (there goes the neighborhood...), Site-specific installation, 2015
installation view of (there goes the neighborhood…), Site-specific installation, 2015
still from (there goes the neighborhood...), 2015
still from (there goes the neighborhood…), Site-specific installation, 2015

Tell Me About Your Mother

excerpt from Tell Me About Your Mother #3, Multimedia, 2013 –

Tell Me About Your Mother is a project built from filmed interviews I conduct with those closest to me. To create each piece in the series, I ask sitters similar sets of questions about their mothers, remove ‘textual’ information like sound and visible talking, and use footage from moments just before and after questions are asked and answered.

Mythology surrounding the phrase ‘tell me about your mother’ holds that it was central to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and practice. The trope of Freudian analysis is embedded in American pop culture consciousness; thrown around in casual conversation and played for laughs in movies is the notion that the root of our ability to adjust to the world around us is ultimately tied to our relationships with our mothers. And, while Tell Me About Your Mother owes a great deal to this surface reading of the phrase, its source, and its current place in American culture, the project was borne not from discussions about immediate anxieties or neuroses, but rather of conversations about home and heritage, our private origin stories.

Yet, what meaning is really there when I remove from interview footage my questions and sitters’ responses?

still from Tell Me About Your Mother #1, Multimedia, 2013
still from Tell Me About Your Mother #1, Multimedia, 2013
still from Tell Me About Your Mother #1, Multimedia, 2013
still from Tell Me About Your Mother #1, Multimedia, 2013
still from <em>Tell Me About Your Mother #2</em>, Multimedia, 2013 still from Tell Me About Your Mother #2, Multimedia, 2013
still from Tell Me About Your Mother #2, Multimedia, 2013
still from <em>Tell Me About Your Mother #2</em>, Multimedia, 2013 still from Tell Me About Your Mother #2, Multimedia, 2013
still from Tell Me About Your Mother #2, Multimedia, 2013

Allison Bolah is a fiscal year 2014 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. The on-going project Tell Me About Your Mother, 2013 and its corresponding activities are made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

Allison Bolah is a fiscal year 2014 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. The on-going project Tell Me About Your Mother, 2013 and its corresponding activities are made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

On the same page

On the same page (Secret Stash), Lending library as installed, 2015
On the same page (Secret Stash), lending library as installed, 2015

On a shelf within the Language Arts Department’s warehoused novels, On the same page is a lending library of fiction literature that is NOT being taught this school year.

Before and after school, between classes, at lunch, and during my planning period, readers (students) can check out books from the Secret Stash. Readers who make notes/notations in Secret Stash texts can add a corresponding unique mark and their initials to the Key on the inside or back cover of the book so that future readers can know where and perhaps what some previous reader thought about passages in the text. Selections in the Secret Stash go in and out of ‘official’ circulation based on Department instructors’ syllabi.

On the same page exists within the purview of the institution; all Secret Stash texts are school/board-approved and purchased. I keep track of who checks out and returns a book. But, wherever current readers communicate with future readers through notes/notations, a ‘radical opening’ exists.

Current Secret Stash Book List

Public Speaking ( )

excerpt from Public Speaking (Read-Along), Multimedia, 2014

The on-going installation series Public Speaking ( ) began as my contribution to Shh! at Minneapolis Central Library. Because it is available for public use, Azisa Koesoema, Adam Hamilton, Sieng Lee, and I used Cargill Hall exhibition space to consider the meanings of various public silences.

What happens after a speech is made?

still from Public Speaking (Marginalia), Multimedia, 2014
still from Public Speaking (Marginalia), Multimedia, 2014

In Public Speaking (Read-Along) and Public Speaking (Marginalia) respectively, I source and ‘re-mediate’ into contemporary dialogues about citizenship and scholarship speeches like Barbara Jordan’s Statement on the Articles of Impeachment and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence. Installed like a ‘study partner’ across from the seated viewer, each video is accompanied by a hand-bound draft of the text of the speech and a #2 pencil that invite the viewer to contribute to the community marginalia elucidating each speech’s relationship to contemporary life.

still from Public Speaking (Marginalia), Multimedia, 2014
still from Public Speaking (Marginalia), Multimedia, 2014
still from Public Speaking (Marginalia), Multimedia, 2014
still from Public Speaking (Marginalia), Multimedia, 2014

Game Face

  • Game Face #1 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #2 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #3 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #4 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #5 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #6 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #7 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #8 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #9 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #10 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #11 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #12 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #13 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #14 Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #15, Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #16, Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
  • Game Face #17, Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
Game Face #1-17
Game Face #17, Digital InkJet Print, 8" x 10", 2012
Game Face #17, 8″ x 10″ Digital InkJet Print, 2012

Throughout the contemporary African diaspora, there is a way that many Black women put on make-up when we mean to mitigate the impact of Western controlling images of Black women as hypersexual and fit only to entertain or labor in domestic spheres. This make-up demonstrates knowledge of and intent to negotiate white-defined spaces to potentially increase our economic and social mobility or maintain economic and social stability. We know that when we enter those spaces that we are subject to a gaze that is not our own and we respond with a ‘respectable’ visage that specifically eschews cosmetics and accessories associated with lower socioeconomic Black communities.

In photographs that are similar in style to ‘before’ and ‘after’ make-up sequences, Game Face confronts this narrative of respectability to challenge the idea that this ‘look’ conveys and consolidates the appearance of authority; although it appears to simply enhance her, it eventually masks the individual and replaces her with the ideal.

Passages

Passages, Multimedia, 2014

Passages
Ed Bok Lee, January 25, 2014

God in the fields mid-blossom.
Overhead screeches a metal giant with fins.

On the checkpoint screen, I watch a dark, bearded man’s carry-on
illumined like an infant in ultrasound. But it’s only
purple-striped socks, a hair dryer, six linoleum samples.

Mid-morning, daylight savings has a few confused.
Others smile into the little black pools of their phones.
Palms and silk flowers along the moving concourse erect, artificial.

Mid-flight, I dream of a pagan dance
framed by molten harvest moon like overripe
fruit that will satiate the farthest, most personal
hunger in every human.

Evil rides a bicycle home, combing its hair.
Moans on a cloudy, pink-lit operating table.
Future antelopes plant plums with a wooden clothes hanger.

We won’t ever arrive at the lighthouse.
Of course, we do scrape ashore, past midnight.
Someone I don’t know flashes gang signs by the village’s only well.

Near dead, the scent of a sawmill
awakens my blind grandfather and four-year old father
mid-forest, mid-blizzard.

For a long time, nothing else.

Metatranslation of the unpublished poem, Sommarmorgon by Mathilda Benson (ca. 1910s)

Passages is a :60 single-channel video commissioned by the American Swedish Institute (ASI) as a response to Ed Bok Lee‘s metatranslation Passages. Lee’s Metatranslations Project, wherein he “translated” found texts in the ASI’s collection with no knowledge of the Swedish language, is the result of a writer’s residency sponsored by Coffee House Press and hosted by the ASI:

I’m specifically looking for the oldest, most buried, private, unpublished, unseen, unread texts from the 1800s archived at the American Swedish Institute—buried inside donated diaries and letters from the library or its bowels, the 1904 boiler room sub-basement storage collection, otherwise known as “The Pit”—long “lost” texts and poems that private folk could not help but write in their private diaries, or letters back to the homeland, because otherwise they would have gotten ulcers or exploded or maybe been just really frustrated or sad. While working on these metatranslations, I’ll be thinking of my own immigrant parents’ letters home, or my own diary entries or poems or letters while living abroad—in an effort to ground the whole thing in something both confabulatory and “real”.

So much of my (Allison) immigrant experience is about the existing in space between two cultures, two ‘homes’, maintaining roots in two (but really four) lands. The act that links me to these places – flying – is a great metaphor for the whole thing.

I was six months old on my first flight ‘home’ to Jamaica to visit my great grandmother, and I was the only one of her great grandchildren that she met. I selected footage I made on my last trip ‘home’ to visit my father in Grenada. Like the Swedish laypeople’s poems Ed found on grocery lists and in scrapbooks, I made these ‘movies’ while flying, not as a part of any particular project, but because… the water reflects the sun just so or something…

No Accident

excerpt from No Accident, Multimedia, 2012

In my Black communities, a ‘neutral’ North American accent is either prized for the doors it might open, or reviled for its seeming alliance with whiteness. As a child I was admonished for adopting my parents’ Caribbean accents and made to repeat Ts, ‘th’, and other sounds precisely. Built from an alphabetized list of those primary words, words used in accent and stutter reduction classes, and my own word associations, the video installation piece No Accident examines accent as an embodiment of a Black middle class aesthetic.

You’re not looking at this in the right light…

excerpts from Misunderstanding II, Video Installation, 2014

You’re not looking at this in the right light… is a multi­media installation in response to Pillsbury House + Theatre‘s Winter 2014 production of Johnna Adams’ play Gidion’s Knot. Because Gidion’s Knot hinges on adult interpretations of children’s texts in a public primary school setting, You’re not looking at this in the right light… focuses on sending/receiving meaning – particularly between children and adults. You’re not looking at this in the right light… and Pillsbury House + Theatre are participants in the Audience (R)Evolution Program, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and administered by the Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the professional not-for-profit American theatre.

First Floor (main lobby)
The center piece of You’re not looking at this in the right light… is the installation Understanding (A Classroom). Four sets of classroom desks, chairs, workbooks, and writing tools line up in front of a replica of a wood-framed chalkboard. Placed as it is in the lobby (and ‘excerpted’ in the clinic waiting room on the third floor), Understanding (A Classroom) invites Pillsbury House + Theatre’s clients and patrons to recollect their own experiences in school, participate in the translation/interpretation exercises in Understanding (A Workbook), or simply take a load off!

Understanding (A Classroom). Multimedia as installed at Pillsbury House + Theatre, 2014
Understanding (A Classroom). Multimedia as installed at Pillsbury House + Theatre, 2014

Looped on three displays in the first floor lobby, the video recorded performances in Misunderstanding II give voice to young people in FANS and CREW, two of Pillsbury House + Theatre’s after school programs. Like their fictional peers in the play, CREW and FANS kids are not always ‘heard’. But young people do speak up for one another; each video is a CREW member’s performance of a FANS teen’s experience of being misunderstood.

still from Misunderstanding II, Video Installation, 2014
still from Misunderstanding II, Video Installation, 2014

Second Floor (‘home’ of Pillsbury House + Theatre’s after school program)
The photographs in the installation Misunderstanding I were taken of FANS youth as they shared their own stories of miscommunication. These stories are the ‘origin’ of the performances in Misunderstanding II.

Third Floor (clinic waiting area)

Azisa creating instructional graphics for the third floor excerpt of Understanding (A Classroom), Multimedia Installation, 2014
Azisa creating instructional graphics for the third floor excerpt of Understanding (A Classroom), Multimedia Installation, 2014

Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Theatre Communications Group

Some Changes

1996-1999

Family

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Rehoboth

Charlie Brown / Our Town

excerpt from Charlie Brown / Our Town – Act I Part 2: Azisa is Emily, Dennis is George, Multimedia, 2013

excerpt from Charlie Brown / Our Town – Act I Part 2: Azisa is Emily, Dennis is George, Multimedia, 2013
excerpt from Our Town, Thornton Wilder, 1938

I hear bells ringing when I listen to my Jamaican mother and aunts in conversation. When I think of my Canadian sister and I talking, I hear pianos playing an abstract score. And, as a child, I swore I could make out what Charlie Brown’s teacher was saying! Working in collaboration with producer Lister Rossel, I explore the musicality of speaking and accents and the meaning of ‘American’ and ‘English’ in this re-staging and recasting of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

still from Charlie Brown / Our Town - Act I Part 1: Ornella is Mrs. Gibbs, Maria is Mrs. Webb, Multimedia, 2013 -
still from Charlie Brown / Our Town – Act I Part 1: Ornella is Mrs. Gibbs, Maria is Mrs. Webb, Multimedia, 2013 –
still from Charlie Brown / Our Town - Act II: Carlotta is Mrs. Soames, Multimedia, 2013 -
still from Charlie Brown / Our Town – Act II: Carlotta is Mrs. Soames, Multimedia, 2013 –
still from Charlie Brown / Our Town - Act III: Sree is The Stage Manager, Multimedia, 2013 -
still from Charlie Brown / Our Town – Act III: Sree is The Stage Manager, Multimedia, 2013 –