NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
There is no such thing as art being too aggressive, or too depressing, or too dark. Art is just visual, realistic, contemporary observation, after all, based on everyday facts. We are currently experiencing modern conflicts that cannot be ignored, while issues such as social injustice and global warming are seen as platforms or tools for political gain instead of as failures that need an immediate attention. Art has always served as tool of documentation of a particular age or time. It has the power to make people think, even if only for seconds.
Art can be a constant, powerful graphic reminder that warfare and poverty continue to exist, that the lack of fairness in a government exists, that basic human rights are being denied and there is nobody to defend those affected.
In Philly there are many artists who do work which reflects on our contemporary distresses. I am drawn to the aggressiveness and the messages in the work of YOMI, DOOMED FUTURE, and Joe Boruchow, which is based on our everyday reality. There are also, of course, many people who are not themselves artists but contribute, and support and guide political messages. For example Robert Perry (owner of Tattooed mom) and Conrad Benner. This support from “outside” is now, as always, vital to artists’ work.
I created the “DENIED” project as a symbolic emblem that represents contemporary peril and global unrest, using symbolic elements and imagery to unify my messages. In some of my newest work I respond directly to our political environment. My work as DENIED responds to gun laws, immigration, global warming, and the prevalent lack of access to clean water and human rights.
YOMI’s work is poignant and powerful, usually informed by experiences in communist in Bulgaria and the contemporary political climate. We talk about the politics of street art, and how he expects his own work to be received.
Amanda Victoria Wagner: As someone who creates political street art, do you think there is something inherently political about street art?
YOMI: Early graffiti, even since the Roman Empire, has showed us that street art is a vehicle for protest. In that sense, yes it is.
Recently there has been a lot of buzz about street art in Philadelphia with the Streets Department curating a bunch of pop-up shows, one of which was mentioned in the New York Times. There are a lot of talented artists who live here and who have come from Philly and they are coming into the spotlight. It helps that Philly’s reception to street art is pretty good. That’s not the case everywhere.
AVW: Taking that into consideration, in our current political environment, is street art an effective vehicle for political commentary?
Y: I believe it is. As a tool of protest, street art gives a voice to those who are afraid to use their own voices. It gives voice to the vulnerable and people who are frightened to speak up because of the repercussions of speaking up.
Today you see people incorporating contemporary issues into their work instead of broad ideals. There are several examples in my work; I’ve done work for Standing Rock and for DAPL. I made work for the women’s march. The idea that these messages can be a physical instrument of change is really interesting. In this way street art becomes art to help people feel empowered.
AVW: What are you doing now?
Y: I recently launched a series of executive orders, which is a mockery and reaction to the Trump presidency. The pieces aren’t lasting very long, though. Once, as I was putting them up, I saw someone taking it down right behind me. The piece speaks volumes and people are reacting. I’m also doing a lot of work around environmental issues.
AVW: Is there something about your personal experience that speaks to your interest in political art?
Y: Coming from an ex-communist state, and being under communism for 16 years, political art sinks into you. I grew up around constant propaganda. Growing up in that kind of environment, there is a point when you start to open your eyes and you become repulsed by the regimes and oppressors. You get sick of being told what to do.
Chernobyl is a big influence of mine and sparked a lot of my feelings around political art. Up to present day, it is still considered one of the largest man-made disasters in history. Even in recent history we have been learning more about its impact. Being a kid in Bulgaria when it happened, we didn’t find out about the accident until months later. Prior to finding out, were experiencing weather anomalies. I was seeing these deep yellow clouds in a clear sky. Rain would follow and form into deep yellow puddles. It was 2-3 months later that the government radio mentioned the accident, saying it was being taken care of. They never mentioned how much damage was done. So many people have died of radiation and nearby environments are still uninhabitable.
I think that experience led me to create more environmentally-focused work, even though I was a kid back then and I had no voice. Street art was an incredibly dangerous thing to do in my country. At the time there were a lot of intellectuals killed or put in prison for their opinions.
AVW: Growing up in a communist regime, why do you think it’s so important to advocate for your rights in the US, a country that has never seen or experienced anything like you have and whose people often carry a bit of naivety when it comes geopolitics?
Y: What happened to my country can happen anywhere and at any time. I think it’s already happening here. I think there’s been a suffocating of democracy here since the election and I think we are seeing the rise of an autocracy. You see people trying to bypass congress, rewriting and ignoring laws to get what they want. You’re seeing the beginning of a dictatorship. The US is sitting on decades of mismanagement, lies, and abuse of power. What we are experiencing now is a corrosion of the political system and public trust.
It’s a part of the artist’s responsibility to bring political awareness to the people. Art has always had a strong voice, especially political art, and that’s also what makes art so dangerous. It’s a serious tool. Philly artists can step up to the plate a bit more. We have to be louder and sharper without any apology.
I first saw Jake in a weird production of Waiting for Godot. I can’t remember if he was Vlad or Estie, but I remember he was quite good. Many years later, he got married to my friend Jenni, and I scored an invite to their amazing wedding where they served donuts and coffee instead of cake.
Jake has done many things, like acting and directing and playwriting, and is the rare person who is both very kind and very smart. I say “rare” because the cynic in me believes that all smart people must be acutely aware of how disturbed and unfeeling the universe is. But Jake carries himself with such compassion and warmth that extends not only to family and friends, but to everyone he encounters. This is precisely why I asked him to write an article: I think we could all benefit from the profound joy he brings to his work. – Jenny Kessler, curator
I read once that Ray Carver could knock out an entire short story in an afternoon. I thought: that fucker didn’t have to contend with a smartphone. And he had cigarettes.
Cigarettes never made me productive. I always wanted to be the guy who typed a hundred words a minute with a bogie hanging off his lower lip, but I’m very clumsy and I worried about ash falling into the crevices of my keyboard. Also, the sludge I made in my French Press every morning reacted with the nicotine and made me feel like I was coming onto a heart attack and/or a particularly unpleasant potty session.
But I still miss smoking: the smell, the whispered crackle of tobacco, the suck and inhale, the meditative targeted exhale. If I quit my iPhone, would I miss it the same way? And is it, I wonder, the sensory experience that I’m addicted to: the overstimulating light from the screen, the surprisingly effective speakers, the bounce of my thumbtips against the glass?
More likely, I’ve become dependent on the distraction a phone provides from boredom and loneliness. I can listen to any album, watch any movie, stare at any picture, order any pair of cutoff jorts, read any Twin Peaks recap, and thus obliterate the idle moment at which my mind might otherwise have wandered into deep thought. Which—
remembers that his phone, which he set down on the other side of the room so he could finish what he was writing, has very low battery, goes to charge it, is lost briefly in a heavily circulating New York Magazine article about climate change which unnerves him so that he needs to take another look at the picture of a dog’s head on a giraffe’s body that he finds oddly soothing, sets his phone down, remembers that he meant to plug it in . . .
This is all anathema to creativity, as I’m sure you’ve read in several motivational or finger-pointy blog posts and interviews by the artists you look to for spiritual guidance. Time and again, young creatives are told to physically disable internet connectivity, to switch the phone not just to airplane mode but all the way off, to bury all smart devices underground in a nearby park for an hour or two while drafting, sketching, practicing, thinking, spacing out. Statistically, it’s very unlikely that anyone will need to contact you in the time that you’ve set aside for art. The world will not change unalterably when you unplug, and you will return to check your text messages, email, and social media accounts with a sense of accomplishment and productivity.
Or, in the time you were away from your phone, you will have putzed around for a bit without having gotten anything done, and you will wonder why you decided to put your phone away in the first place, and you will feel a strong sense of your own mediocrity. You will then spend an inordinate sum of time on social media checking the feeds of those who appear to be doing better than you, and you might wrap up with another few feel-bad pieces about our ongoing national nightmare, only to find that you’ve passed forty minutes on the couch without moving.
You can’t quit your smartphone, can you? Sure, there are places in the world where no one owns a cell phone at all, but your partner, best friend, colleagues, parents would all be pretty irritated to find out that they’ll no longer be able to reach you at a moment’s notice—this is, after all, 2017. Then again there are, I believe, still companies in the world which produce flip-phones, or other similarly graceless devices, on which one can make and receive calls and text messages and little else. But then you might go up to eight hours without being able to check your email, and this may drive you insane during a long, slow shift on the floor of a restaurant or behind a retail counter—many young creatives do not otherwise have internet access during day-job hours.
Which, now that I think of it, isn’t such a bad thing—would Kafka have gotten bored enough at his own day-job to write “The Metamorphosis” if he’d had a Pixel?
That slightly older generation of artists and writers is right to warn us to get off our phones, of course. But I’m hesitant to think that the only reasonable reaction for creatives (or for anyone who wants to get anything done) to these distracting and exhausting devices that have pervaded every corner of our public and private lives is a hardy shun.
Can we lean into our smartphones, instead, as a force for some kind of artistic good? Is there a way that my iPhone could make me more creative, not less? Would my writing life begin to expand if I stopped lurking at the fringes of social media and became a contributor instead? Can I repurpose the internet as a sort of endless writing prompt—the stuff which garners enough of my attention for a click and a minute or more of eye-time becomes fodder for fiction?
About a month ago, I decided that I wanted to meditate every morning after I woke up. I’d been having trouble managing my anxiety, and I thought that meditation was probably the healthiest non-pharmaceutical, non-exercise option. It’s working, I think. At my day-jobs, or when trying to solve a creative problem, or when puttering around the house, I’ve gotten a little better about keeping my stressors in perspective.
Still, I suck at meditation. My mind drifts away and I think about the food that’s going bad in the fridge, the movie I watched before bed last night, my concerns about money. And then I return to the breath. I keep breathing. I drift, I return.
Perhaps this is where we can start with regards to putting away our phones. Sooner or later, we’ll hear the buzz—a NY Times alert, a text message, a glitch—and we’ll follow our first swipe with fifty more until we remember to return to the breath. We set it down. We get to work. The buzz will come back. Notice and adjust. Return to the breath, to the work.
And if you’re having a hard time, just remember: this guy wants you to return to the blank page. Don’t disappoint him.
If you ever have daughters, you would want them to grow up to be like Jenni. Jenni is whip-smart and doesn’t hide it away. She is good at all the things she aspires to do, but doesn’t feel the pressure to pursue things she doesn’t want to. She is honest, and steadfast, and absolutely hilarious.
Granted, I might be biased because she was nice enough to come see Pirates of the Caribbean 5 with me, in theaters, and then make me mushroom risotto afterwards.
I’ve known her as an actor, a director, an LOTR fanatic, and a secret gourmet chef. She is also a writer, and an event planner, and sometimes a lobster murderer. Most importantly, she is a person with many good ideas, and good thoughts, which is why I asked her to write an article. So . . . you’re welcome. – Jenny Kessler, curator
I’ll confess, when asked to respond to the prompt “discuss a social issue that can be addressed by art” my first thought was “what social issue can’t be addressed by art?”
“Art” is an enormous, vague term that describes the emotional resonances generated via application of the human imagination to the physical world. Art is to communication as form is to function. Art is inherently social in that it requires a creator and a consumer, and by necessity, it reflects a point of view. We’re influenced by these distant authors all the time, from the art we choose to engage with—what we watch on Netflix, what book we borrow from a friend—to the art that enters our sphere on its own—advertising, the song playing at the bar.
In Philadelphia, I’ve seen art endeavor to lift people out of homelessness. I’ve seen it revitalize neighborhoods (Mural Arts, duh—one of my favorite things to brag about in my new city). I’ve seen how Philadelphia Young Playwrights helps kids learn how to express themselves and grow confident through storytelling. Even at the incredible Mike Nichols exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (go, now—seriously, stop reading this until you’ve seen it) I read about how his evocative photographs led to the protection of the African Megatransect.
What I have a harder time recalling is art that helps artists.
There is a crisis of perceived value in the arts. This is not news. It’s harder than ever to pay your bills by producing creative fare. But it strikes me as odd that this crisis is one that art itself has not been able to address. Now, I get it. Creating art about the value of art can feel like a kind of intellectual masturbation that leads to hyper-sentimental works. So how do we cross-pollinate? How do we, as artists, use our imaginations, our technical skills, to advocate for other artists?
Most, if not all, artists, buy into a whole sacred text of myths about how they are supposed to behave and look and act. It’s time to reject the idea that suffering equals good art. It’s time to reject the ridiculous purity test that true artists must be willing to live ascetic lives, and must sacrifice families, financial security, and mental and emotional health to prove their commitment. Artists do not have to be grateful for unpaid internships and no-pay-but-great-exposure gigs that require full-time work. Your day job doesn’t make you less of an artist. You don’t have to be an obsessive, unlikeable genius in a failed relationship to legitimize your work. There is no such thing as “making it” or “selling out.”
If artists can heal wounds and give hope and effect powerful change in communities, hearts, and governments, then certainly artists can create work that inspires other artists to think beyond the boundaries of what is defined as the creative life. “Art for artists” is a label often used to dismiss the obscure or the formally inventive, but what if “art for artists” could define work that breaks down the myths of the creative life? How might art address that issue?
Photo: Home Safe by Ernel Martinez and Shira Walinsky. Photo by Steve Weinik.
I met Jenny Kessler when she was directing a production of Mac Wellman’s Cellophane in last year’s Fringe and I interviewed her about putting the impossible on stage. Her range of talents is pretty expansive, including graphic design and illustration, costume and puppet design, and directing, among others. I suggest perusing her illustrations—from the mystery and vulnerability of floating in space to the grotesque cuteness of alt meat, and my current favorite, the 9-1-1 cow. We’re very excited to have her curating a week of content at Curate This!
This guide to the PMA is foolproof. I have personally taken this route every time I’ve visited the venerable institution, and it has always made the experience a great one.
When euphoric and soulful creativity is flowing without hesitation from an intellectually and politically conscious adult body, you are in the presence of someone very special. Wit López (they/them pronouns) is like a fire dragon bubble tea with grass jelly to the white cup coffee drinkers of the art world—perhaps too fabulous; these art gallery scene kids wouldn’t even know how to make sense of what they’d just sipped. During the planning of their solo show at 40th St AIR Space and the Rotunda, an interactive, tactile exhibition of fiber and mixed media works intended for participation by visually impaired folks, I was immediately struck by Wit’s approach to and philosophy of their practice. Wit’s work reflects their experiences as a disabled, gender non-conforming/nonbinary trans person of African American and Boricua descent through joy, macabre humor, and total absurdity. They often explore concepts of hairiness, accessibility, queerness, gender identity, Blackness, and Latinidad through mixed media, fiber arts, imagery, performance, and independent curation. They are Brooklyn-bred and Philadelphia-based. For excellent experiments in craft, self-portraiture/performance, and on-point commentary, you can follow them on instagram at @witnotwhit.
– Eva Wǒ, curator
In keeping with the theme “My Problem with Arts in Philadelphia,” I wanted to poke fun at two things that are reoccurring for me. Blocking is meant to look like an unfinished quilt or banner that is being worked on while the text on it says “*Dies of Exposure*.” The title of the piece is a play on the word blocking, which can refer to the fiber craft technique of blocking, being blocked on social media, or dealing with gatekeepers in the art world. The words on the piece are meant to critique all of the times artists have been offered exposure instead of money for our art, since exposure can’t feed us or give us shelter.
Common Threads is about all the folks who have asked me to collaborate, then never responded after I agreed. “Seen” and “Read” are references to how technology lets us know that someone has viewed our response, and hasn’t answered. Sometimes, that is their answer. This piece is about the upset of no response, but it also is a display of the understanding that as artists we don’t owe anyone anything.
With three cups of magic and a fist full of perseverance, ociele hawkins’ poetry and performance intertwines meditations on the search for and discovery of Black joy with profound reflections on perception, memory, and survival. ociele’s raw and fearless poetry is as profound as it is revelatory. Her words act as a serum expanding our notions of what’s possible, offering a rare glimpse into simultaneous deep pain and limitless joy. Her work often leaves me speechless and humbled, with a ceaseless sense that self-love is a necessary component of resistance.
ociele is a poor, working-class, queer Black nonbinary femme from Philadelphia. She is an organizer whose work has ranged from fighting gentrification to working with high school students in education justice. ociele is an unapologetic and brilliant college dropout, a survivor, and an artist shattering assumptions while building power for her people and approaching her work with ferocity. Preorder her forthcoming poetry book From the Dust We Rose at brightlikeblack.com, and help send her to Ghana at https://www.gofundme.com/send-ociele-and-omi-to-ghana. – Eva Wǒ, curator
If all the oppressions that marginalized me were gone how would I arrive? We had to go to the future to answer this question. In the year 2040 Obeah is in love with herself. This unselfish love was achieved through work; both the nonlinear journey of personal healing and the systemic work to dismantle capitalism through organizing. The piece takes place moments before a gala celebration of decades of labor and the 5-year anniversary of liberation; when she is in deep reflection of her journey. This video is a collaboration between ociele hawkins and Eva Wǒ, with additional support from Dana Nichols and Kris Keen.
The text of the poem featured in Obeah From Tomorrow
See that’s what oppression does to you—it’ll have you blaming yourself for the shit that ain’t got nothing to do with you.
This love was EARNED!
Shit! I feel like i’m still earning it. But you know what? Earn ain’t got nothing to do with this. This my, before I was even thought of or screeched my 1st cry, divine right. Every single goddamn day my body extends its contracts to inhale and exhale, I got the right to love me the way I do.
Allah has blessed me.
Because I choose to accept myself for who I am. I choose to no longer make excuses for who I am. Not to qualify or disclaim who I am. My life is to be lived for myself and not for the approval or appeasement of others.
That’s work. I’ve learned how to do my work: Be kind to myself. Have patience with myself. Give myself 2nd chances.
I choose to organize myself in favor of a flourishing life, denying the oppression’s that wanted me isolated, and afraid, and eventually dead. I chose to be happy.
Eva Wǒ is a mixed race queer femme originally from New Mexico now solidly based in West Philly. She is a self-taught photographer, videographer, curator, and digital creative interested in unconventional human aesthetics, homoeroticism, and survival. This year her work has been screened as far as L.A., San Fransisco, Toronto and Berlin, and been published in Mask Magazine, Afropunk, and Autostraddle. See more of her gifs at evawo.com/gifs and follow her on instagram @snaxho_.
In her portraits, Wǒ likes to set her subjects in desolate, even apocalyptic worlds. Against these backdrops we clearly see boldness of her subjects, or, perhaps, the strength of the signals they send. In this way, Wǒ subtly complicates identity and persona, person and place.
In these two gifs, made for Curate This, she explores how our newest and most vicissitudinous “place”—the internet—tangibly affects the ways we think, behave, and are seen.
Popo + the future phone
the first gif depicts my PoPo’s hands holding a future phone and experiencing an immersive digital landscape of textures and stimulation. i imagine her perceiving my work and in this way transporting her with me into a future contemporary fantasy. wifi signal is strong and lipstick samples are silently raining in the back. the model on screen is Lux Plastic with 99 new likes. – Eva Wǒ
I like your energy. I wanna experience it.
the second gif features a selection of recent texts/private/direct messages i’ve received from lovers, suitors, and creeps. it also explores my sexual and social media identities which are influenced heavily by technology, community, and being a fully young millennial. the image is a self portrait and the dove symbolizes the purity, respectability and conservatism i reject. – Eva Wǒ
Maybe you’ve seen someone around Philly wearing a cool wooden or granite watch. Chances are it was made by Analog Watch Company. When I first met founder Lorenzo Buffa he was working as a barista and perfecting a Kickstarter campaign based on his art school design project. He made $73,000. Now he has a storefront in South Philly, his watches are sold in museums around the world, and he’s been on TV and stuff. You should listen to his advice for artists—and buy one of his watches.
– Christopher Munden, curator
In 2013 I turned my art school thesis project into a start up brand called Analog Watch Co. Bridging the gap between creative and strategic has taken some time, but ultimately proved to be a crucial element in achieving success.
While the business side isn’t as interesting as the creative or design work, it’s become a new arena that separates the starving artist from the successful artist. Here are some tips that may help you grow your creative business.
1. Do the work you like—but also do the work you don’t like. You have to be willing to learn a new skill even if you find it boring. I still dislike using Excel, but once I got over that hump, I am now able to compile real information and data that in turn helps me understand where my business is, where it wants to go, and how much time and effort it may take to get to the next milestone. If you think something will take you 2 weeks, and do the smart thing and buffer for 4 weeks, it will actually take you 6 weeks. Always be flexible.
2. Be kind and modest, and accept help wherever it is offered. I have had to rely on countless friends and mentors not only for emotional support or a listening ear, but also to directly grow my business. for actions that resulted in business growth. Remaining modest has made it easy to find friends or friends of friends who are interested in helping and supporting a vision, whether they be a photographer to shoot some content, a web designer to help tweak some code, or someone to facilitate a connection to city government. If you are genuine others will see this, and the resources and people you need will slowly but surely make themselves visible.
3. Fake it till you make it. My mother always said this adage to me and for years folks used to laugh at me for simplifying the complex world of business into a one-liner. If you want to be a company, talk as a company. Drop “I” and replace it with “we,” even if “we” is still just you. If you think your company is too small to be doing something, you are probably wrong. It’s probably time for you to start looking into taking that next level of action.
4. Emulate those you admire. If you want to present like Steve Jobs, you need to watch his videos, take notes, then imagine you are him at your next speech or presentation. Follow what works. Pay attention to what doesn’t. You should know your market better than anyone else, which also means you are attuned to what is and is not working within your industry. Find what suits you, borrow from it, and make the changes that fit your business so you can make them your own.
5. Always prepare for growth. One day we received an email asking for our line sheet and wholesale prices. While we had not created those documents or terms yet, I had saved a few I found online many months back that I was able to reference. This subtle preparation allowed us to somewhat quickly put together an appropriate wholesale document. Our first version lost us some customers, so we asked around and learned from the mistakes. Now we have purchase terms that not only work well for us but that also engage retailers.
6. Entrepreneurship is all about risk mitigation and management. When starting a business you will find you are constantly in a position of making decisions. Do I order 50 or do I order 500? You need to ask yourself what the safest, least risky method is for you. If you order 50 and sell out right away, will it set you back two months as you wait for more inventory? If you order 500 and it turns out the item is not popular, are you now sitting on a ton of wasted inventory? Do you need to create “tests” so you can measure if something is a worthwhile expenditure? In our case, we used Kickstarter as a platform to test the market we wanted to enter.
7. Stretch your money. Pay yourself only after you’ve put the money in the right places for your business. If you weigh the risks properly and keep on building your sweat equity, you’ll have the cash you need to cover those unexpected costs.
8. Don’t be intimidated. It’s easy to beat yourself up when you realize maybe your math skills or business skills are rusty. You may compare yourself to other successful endeavors and find it hard to imagine you making it there yourself. Stop that now and re-read #4 and #5 above. You have a creative brain and just maybe that is what will set you apart from the rest.
To see material proof of the validity of these tips, check out Analog’s website or their storefront at 1737 E Passyunk.