Alexandra Pinel chats with Rakiya Orange about her movement-based response to exhibition themes for the closing of FUTURE PERFECT / indices & marginalia. In the exhibition, curated by Ali Rosa-Salas, Brooklyn-based artist Kameelah Rasheed pieces together fragments from institutional collections, the Internet, and Weeksville Heritage Center’s archives to illuminate the under-told history of liberation that shaped 19th century Weeksville and continues to take root in Black communities across the nation.

Image by Lily Bo Shapiro

Image by Lily Bo Shapiro

Alexandra Pinel: Can you talk about the piece you are presenting and how it relates to Kameelah Rasheed’s exhibit?

Rakiya Orange: I created a new piece specifically for this exhibit that is in conversation with her work. I got the call maybe two weeks ago to do this so I created the piece not having seen her installation yet. I talked to her, I got pictures, but at the end of the day it’ll be about how I experience and feel that space (Weeksville Heritage Center). But I’ve had these ideas about what it means to access archived materials and a lot of my work tends to deal with identity and accepting multiple identities and sort embodying it as I move through the world; so, I feel like I am going to create a piece that has a lot of crossover with her work. I am seeing her work this coming Wednesday so that might guide me in a new direction or confirm what I am doing.

AP: By being in conversation with the exhibit are you leaving room for an improvisation practice within your piece?

RO: Absolutely. When I am trying to create I am really not a person who can create choreography, memorize it, and do it that same way. My work is very driven by ideas of identity, blackness, and womanhood so every time I perform a piece it sort of shifts depending on the moment. I create a sort of overall structure or framework; this is how I’ve been working since grad school, and then I have a sort of timeline of events and a lot of it is improvisation-based. I am moving through different ideas while in conversation with myself.

AP: So you have never met Kameelah Rasheed in person nor been to the Weeksville Heritage Center?

RO: No, I haven’t met her yet nor been to this space.

AP: From talking to Kameelah on the phone, do you feel like your experiences as black women, a centerpiece for both elements of the exhibit, have similarities?

RO: I think a lot of my work is focused more on black female sexuality and I don’t think that her work necessarily pinpoints to that particular category. But I am not sure if our histories are similar and I feel better that way. It gives me more freedom to create something that is not the exact same experience that she has gone through. I just wanted her to give me very basic ideas or phrases because then I can create movement based on larger ideas and not be so specific. She sent me pictures of her work and it’s general enough that I can choose what I want to attach myself to for my work.

AP: And what are those elements that you are choosing to take in?

RO: Well, she refers to blackness as this process of creating a community within a community, a nation within a nation, a black utopia. And, on the other hand, I think a lot about archived materials and the archival process and about how you can retrieve memories just within your own body. I think about my body as this cultural source system so I have been thinking about how I can access memories and my own history within my own body; how I can create movement and choreography that eludes to current segments of culture. So my movement has been a sort of practice of that embodiment of memory. I think about how memories can impact our bodies later and how they sort of never leave. I am creating movement based on this question of how my body can remember memories. I grew up in Baltimore, which is of course very interesting right now, and I am thinking about my personal childhood memories in relation to these recent events and this moment of blackness. You go on CNN and it feels like the world is watching us. So I have been thinking about that and how my body has been retrieving this archived material. And I really believe in being moved through different spaces and places. I think about how I may walk through one street and be entirely different on another street.

What Kameelah Rasheed is putting up on the walls is blackness and self-determination, which I appreciate because it’s kind of affirmative; I am creating a work where I am embodying blackness and the history and memory around it. Her work has layers and layers of information around it, which makes it tangible. I feel like I am tangible, too. Some of the themes from my Double Plus piece at Gibney are present in this new piece, which I am calling bothandor. This piece is a bit more esoteric in my mind. I am using a lot of circle songs that have a simple baseline of vocals. I think that people may see similarities in my last two pieces but the way in which I move is through memory. I move in similar ways because I am still Rakiya and I am performing another solo, which I think is awesome because that may mean that my language is becoming coded.

AP: It’s interesting that you’re focused on solo work and that in this particular setting you are in conversation with someone else’s work and therefore not entirely reliant on yourself. How does it feel to be dependent upon her structure?

RO: Yeah, it’s kind of stressful, but in those instances I just think about this mentor I had who would just tell me, “Rakiya, just do whatever the fuck you want”. Although I am in conversation with this work, I have my own ideas about blackness and womanhood and community which are at the heart of me making this work, so it’s stressful in the sense that I haven’t seen it yet but I just have to be confident that what I am doing is right for me at this time.

AP: It seems like you’ve found out a lot about your identity by making work that enables you to access your own memory. What memories have defined you and your artistic practice?

RO: Definitely growing up as a woman in urban Baltimore. A lot of it has to do with education, as education is the practice of freedom. I think of myself as being raised by my grandmother with two parents addicted to crack cocaine in the 80s. I have this image of my mom and my dad not being able to be there for me because their addiction was greater than me. I also think about being a student in the black Baltimore public school system and coming of age there. And then I think about the next stage of my life: attending Bowdoin College, a white small liberal arts college. It literally was a culture shock for me and I didn’t know who I was in conjunction with or who I wanted to be. Of course I looked different but I also had very different experiences, which were sort of hard to communicate. I was in school with people who owned companies and who went to boarding school and that was foreign to me. So I think about that shift and leaving a city I knew and loved. I was just completely blindsided by this new community. And then the next shift for me was — I didn’t go to college for dance, I studied anthropology but wanted to dance — realizing that I wanted to be a dance maker. I wasn’t great at ballet but decided to get an MFA so I entered the Hollins MFA community, which was the best experience of my life. It was a time to think about all the communities I had been through and I finally found myself. It was diverse, accepting, and allowed for you to figure out as an artist what you wanted to do. That shift made me want to make solo work because I don’t need to coordinate rehearsals, so I moved into this sort of “I” space which was really nice because I had never had that time to figure out what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. It was a time for me to be selfish. So I was heavily influenced by those moments of time and they are under my skin as I move through the world every day. It’s really interesting to see how it affects you.

AP: Absolutely. What does this memory retrieval process consist of?

RO: I work completely in silence and I improvise for awhile and don’t record it. I do that for the majority of my rehearsal process. And if movement comes back it gains more meaning. But I am thinking as I am moving along throughout this whole rehearsal process and I don’t put something together until the very end. I’ll put on random songs because I like the way they feel and that’s how Aziza [presented at Gibney DoublePlus, December 2014] actually came about.

AP: Is there anything you would like to communicate to your audience?

RO: Reading things about Aziza, I’ve realized that there is a strong assumption that solos are always about identity but I hope that people who come to this broaden their lens to this solo being about the black struggle versus identity. The black struggle is about what it means to be a black woman in America. You don’t have to be a black woman or a woman to identify with me in this work so I hope that people will find a connection to it that isn’t blatant.

FUTURE PERFECT / indices & marginalia is on view at Weeksville Heritage Center from June 5-24, 2015, Tuesday-Friday 9am-5pm. Rakiya Orange’s performance will take place on June 24 at 7pm. RSVP here.

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