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REVIEW: Ishmael Reed’s Play “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” Comments on Black Artists and White Sponsors

[Haitian-Puerto Rican American artist, Jean-Michel] Basquiat rose to fame in the neo-expressionist art movement in the 1980s and [Andy] Warhol, one of his mentors, had gained renown for Pop Art and drug use in the 1960s. They died within a year of each other, Warhol at age 59 in 1987 and Basquiat died of an overdose at age 27 in 1988.

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Detective Mary van Helsing (Roz Fox), left, rescues Jennifer Blue (Kenya Wilson), one of the victims in the continuing exploitation of Blackness. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Detective Mary van Helsing (Roz Fox), left, rescues Jennifer Blue (Kenya Wilson), one of the victims in the continuing exploitation of Blackness. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

By Wanda Sabir

Ishmael Reed’s current play, directed by Carla Blank, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” at Theater for the New City until January 9, explores Black culture and white exploitation in the relationship between the Haitian-Puerto Rican American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.

Basquiat rose to fame in the neo-expressionist art movement in the 1980s and Warhol, one of his mentors, had gained renown for Pop Art and drug use in the 1960s. They died within a year of each other, Warhol at age 59 in 1987 and Basquiat died of an overdose at age 27 in 1988.

There are so many analogous parallels, both fictional or mythic and actual that it is amazing that the play only has one intermission.

In his play, Reed postulates that the older, white artist presented himself as a benevolent father figure. While under the influence of drugs, a willing Basquiat allows Warhol to install him in a basement where Basquiat churns out art like an assembly worker.

Reed’s premise here is that Warhol had gotten away with a crime.

The cold case is reopened by two forensic scientists, Grace and Raksha, (Monisha Shiva and understudy Kenya Wilson) who want to bring the perpetrators to justice. As the contemporary team investigates, time shifts back and forth as what happened to Basquiat had perpetuated with other captives.

Slave owners used cocaine — which Basquiat used excessively — to increase productivity among the captives, Reed says. Just as slavery was once legal, the Warhol machine also had legal protection, money and power.

Reed’s writing is crisp and sharp as are the actors who deliver and deliver and deliver some more. Carla Blank’s direction is also on point as the diction and storylines unfold clearly in nuanced layers.

I love the scene in Act 2 where the ghost of Richard Pryor — appearing as a shadow puppet danced by actor, Kenya Wilson — tries to prevent Basquiat from going up in chemical flames like the late comedian had.

Pryor’s ghost speaks to the art of selling out to Hollywood, another type of killing field for Black art and artists. We sense Pryor’s regret that he didn’t stay with people who loved him. It’s hard to tell friend from foe when engulfed in f(l)ame(s).

Reed’s characters also convey the prevailing attitudes by police that allow the wealthy and famous to get away with everything from theft to murder, a very real problem on and off the page.

Roz Fox’s Detective Mary van Helsing is a cool sleuth who goes looking for the missing appetizer, “Jennifer Blue” (actor Kenya Wilson) despite legal disinterest. She is our hero. Don’t worry, this is a spoiler, but there is so much going on here, you will probably forget I told you.

In “Slave” we see too often how historians are propagandists who lie to keep the empire solvent.

Remember Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in “1984”? I am reminded also of Jimi Hendrix (1970) and his demise—yes to a drug overdose. . . Fuquan Johnson (2021), Shock G (2021), Juice WRLD (2020), Billie Holiday (1959), Whitney Houston (2012), The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (2006), Michael Jackson (2009).

Since it is Ishmael Reed, we can actually have a happy ending.

The late bell hooks wrote in “Outlaw Culture: ‘Altars of Sacrifice: “Re-membering Basquiat’,” that the young, yet masterful artist “journeyed into the heart of whiteness.

White territory he named as a savage and brutal place. The journey is embarked upon with no certainty of return. Nor is there any way to know what you will find or who you will be at journey’s end. . . . Basquiat understood that he was risking his life—that this journey was all about sacrifice [. . .]” (36). this and his refusal to allow the dominant culture to tell our story, the 99%, the percentage who matter.

How difficult it must have been for the artist to have his say as he dangled from a purveyor’s noose. Herein lies Black genius. Herein lies the tragedy. Ishmael Reed’s ability to cultivate success for the past 60 or so years stems from his artistic eReed’s research is impeccable—I lose track of some of the names, like the artist who boycotts with other Black artists a museum that sets out to exploit them.

Reed is certainly prescient as is the Theater for The New City’s Artistic Director Crystal Field. As confederate monuments are toppled throughout the nation and reparations are a very real possibility, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar” certainly sets a precedent. “Slave” is a challenge and a wakeup call to those who have not been paying attention to the right thing. “Slave” says, change the channel. What did the Last Poets say about the Revolution?

The play is streaming through Jan. 9, 2022, at Theater for the New City. Streaming tickets are just $10+ small fee. For in person ($15.00) and virtual tickets visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/35441/production/1091241

You can learn more about Reed on my radio or podcast interview here.

We had a conversation with many members of the cast January 5, 2022 on Wanda’s Picks Radio Show podcast. Tune in (subscribe): http://tobtr.com/12046944

 

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Art

Richmond Art Center Announces Trio of Winter Exhibitions

Community members can check out Art of the African Diaspora Jan. 18 through March 18 in the RAC’s Main Gallery, with the opening reception being held Saturday, Jan. 21 from 2 – 4 p.m. The exhibition will spotlight the work of more than 120 artists of African descent “through representation, professional development and building a creative community,” per the RAC.

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The Remembrance Project (left). Caption 2: Amanda Ayala Ancestor Wheel 2020 (center). Fulfillment by Cynthia Brannvall, 2021 (right). Images courtesy of the Richmond Art Center.
The Remembrance Project (left). Caption 2: Amanda Ayala Ancestor Wheel 2020 (center). Fulfillment by Cynthia Brannvall, 2021 (right). Images courtesy of the Richmond Art Center.

 

By Kathy Chouteau | Richmond Standard

The Richmond Art Center (RAC) has announced its lineup of three winter exhibitions, including Art of the African DiasporaConnected Always and The Remembrance Project, on display at its galleries Jan. 18 through March 18, 2023.

Community members can check out Art of the African Diaspora Jan. 18 through March 18 in the RAC’s Main Gallery, with the opening reception being held Saturday, Jan. 21 from 2 – 4 p.m. The exhibition will spotlight the work of more than 120 artists of African descent “through representation, professional development and building a creative community,” per the RAC.

Artists Derrick Bell, Cynthia Brannvall, and Pryce Jones will be featured in the exhibition and community members can find the Art of the African Diaspora print catalog at the center for info about open studios and satellite exhibitions off-shooting from the RAC event. Learn more about the exhibition https://richmondartcenter.org/exhibitions/art-of-the-african-diaspora-2023

Amanda Ayala’s exhibition, Connected Always, will take place in the RAC’s South Gallery Jan. 20 through March 11, 2023. An opening reception is set for Saturday, Jan. 21 from 2 – 4 p.m., while a free Ancestor Wheel Workshop and artist talk open to everyone will be held by the artist Saturday, Feb. 18, 12 – 2 p.m.

Connected Always will see Ayala — who identifies as a Xicana indigenous visual artist — explore our ancestral connections through her latest works. The interdisciplinary Santa Rosa artist runs workshops “that combine artist liberation and social justice for people of all ages,” per the RAC, and will have one as part of her continuing Ancestor Wheel project during her RAC exhibition. Find out more about Ayala’s exhibition at: https://richmondartcenter.org/exhibitions/connected-always/.

The third winter exhibition, The Remembrance Project, will be shown in the Community Gallery Jan. 18 to March 18, with the opening reception being hosted Saturday, Jan. 21 from 2 – 4 p.m. The Remembrance Project Workshop will be held Saturday, Jan. 28 from 2-4 p.m. and a book talk with Sara Trail will happen on Saturday, March 4, from 1-2:30 p.m.

The Remembrance Project is not only “a cloth memorial of activist art banners commemorating the many people who have lost their lives to systems of inequity and racist structures,” per the RAC, but also two special events for community members — the aforementioned workshop and book talk.

The Social Justice Sewing Academy is presenting the cloth memorial, which has been created by volunteers nationwide “to help educate and inform communities about the human impact of systemic violence,” said the RAC.

The community can coalesce with others fighting for social justice and remember those lost to violence, while also learning about the academy’s work, through two related special events. A workshop on Saturday, Jan. 28 will blend craft, art and activism, while the founder of the academy, Sara Trail, will give a talk and book signing of her work Stitching Stolen Lives on Saturday, March 4. The events are free and available to community members of all ages. Learn more about The Remembrance Project at https://richmondartcenter.org/exhibitions/the-remembrance-project

The RAC is located at 2540 Barrett Ave. in Richmond. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; the exhibitions and events are free and open to the community.

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Activism

What Took So Long? Statue of Henrietta Lacks Will Replace Robert E. Lee Monument

In a video of a December 19 press conference posted on the city’s Facebook page, it was announced that a statue honoring Henrietta Lacks will be unveiled in fall of 2023 in the very place that once held a monument dedicated to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The new statue’s permanent home, which was once named Lee Plaza, was renamed Lacks Plaza in Henrietta’s honor.

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Henrietta Lacks / City of Roanoke Facebook page.
Henrietta Lacks / City of Roanoke Facebook page.

The Black woman whose cells have helped advance medical research will be honored in her hometown

By Angela Johnson

The city of Roanoke, Va., is honoring a Black woman who made tremendous contributions to modern medical research without her knowledge or consent.

In a video of a December 19 press conference posted on the city’s Facebook page, it was announced that a statue honoring Henrietta Lacks will be unveiled in fall of 2023 in the very place that once held a monument dedicated to Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The new statue’s permanent home, which was once named Lee Plaza, was renamed Lacks Plaza in Henrietta’s honor.

Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump, who was on hand for the press conference, said the new Lacks statue is a step toward healing some of the racial divisions of the past. “In the past, we commemorated a lot of men with statues that divided us,” he said. “Here in Roanoke, Va., we will have a statue of a Black woman who brings us all together.”

Fundraisers collected over $160,000 for the project. Roanoke artist Bryce Cobbs created the sketch for the 400-pound bronze sculpture based on two photographs.

And Larry Bechtel, a Blacksburg, Virginia, artist, will sculpt the statue of Lacks who was a Roanoke native.

“I really wanted to have a distinguished, powerful pose. And I wanted her looking up. I always remember, like, looking up as being something like a feeling of proudness and of having that confidence in yourself and the strength in who you are,” Cobbs told NPR.

Henrietta Lacks was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 when doctors sent portions of her cancerous tissue to another laboratory without her consent. Lacks passed away in October of that year at age 31.

Researchers used her tissue to harvest a line of living cells known as HeLa cells that are still used in medical research today.

According to Johns Hopkins, the HeLa cells have contributed to several major medical developments over the past several decades, such as the development of polio and COVID-19 vaccines and the study of leukemia and AIDS.

Johns Hopkins says they have never sold or profited from the HeLa cells and have shared them freely for other scientific research.

That is little consolation to the Lacks’ family, who is still seeking justice on Henrietta’s behalf.

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Art

U.C. Berkeley Student Artist Eniola Fakile’s Work Takes on Chaos as Theme

As a Master of Fine Arts student in the Department of Art Practice, Eniola Fakile says she feels encouraged by the faculty to go further, to push herself into new depths of self-exploration. It’s something she has been compelled to do since she was a kid — to put herself and her ideas out into the world, no matter how painful it might be.

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Eniola Fakile (pictured) is a second-year Master of Fine Arts student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice. This photo is from her series Mo ṣe fun e (I did it for you).
Eniola Fakile (pictured) is a second-year Master of Fine Arts student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice. This photo is from her series Mo ṣe fun e (I did it for you).

By Anne Brice | Excerpted from the Berkeley News

Eniola Fakile’s creations live in another world.

Fakile is a photographer. A performance artist. A filmmaker. A sculptor. A costume designer. She works in textiles, ready-made objects and assemblage. She’s not constrained by what has been or should be. Instead, she expands outward to see how far she can go. When an idea flashes in her mind, she imagines a new universe in which that idea, that creation, lives.

“I’m addicted to making things complicated,” she says. “I can never make something basic and easy. I like chaos of my own making because I made it.”

She builds sculptures. Some that people wear — and that she wears — and often posed meticulously. The harder the costumes are to build, the better. They might be made of fuzzy, neon-colored fabric. Or long, fluffy wigs. Or cotton balls and beads and crumpled tissue paper. Right now, she’s trying to figure out how to build a dress out of concrete — with an emphasis on the word “try,” she says.

As a Master of Fine Arts student in the Department of Art Practice, she says she feels encouraged by the faculty to go further, to push herself into new depths of self-exploration. It’s something she has been compelled to do since she was a kid — to put herself and her ideas out into the world, no matter how painful it might be.

Berkeley News spoke with Fakile about the process of creating art — “It’s 0.1% bravery and the rest is, like, I need to get it out,” she says — and how she’s learning to accept her wide-open nature, even when she doesn’t want to.

Berkeley News: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?

Eniola Fakile: I grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I have two lovely immigrant parents who would do anything for me. My parents are from Nigeria. Even though I was born in America, the vibe in my house was like, “Don’t forget that you’re Nigerian. Don’t forget culture and family.” I’m exactly the same as how I was when I was a kid. I wasn’t the kid who everyone was like, “Oh, they’re going to be an artist.” I just did weird stuff. I liked to play outside, and I liked to talk to trees, play in the dirt. I was a bubbly kid. I cried a lot. I still do.

Have you always been interested in creating art?

I feel like I’ve always been doing art. I had an active imagination as a kid. The first time I really got into it was my freshman year of high school. My parents got me my first digital camera when I was a freshman in high school. It was this basic little point-and-shoot thing. I always had my camera with me. I was always taking photos. I took photos of my friends. I took endless photos of trees. I took photos of my feet. I took photos of my hands. I took photos of food. I just really wanted to reintroduce myself to the world through a camera lens.

As a sophomore, I took a film photography class. I fell in love with how physical of a practice it is. It’s learning how to handle things with care, working with chemicals, going out and making mistakes, going out again, making it better.

(Using herself as the ‘model,’ Fakile worked on a video series. Part of one is her exploration of what it means to be a Black woman.)

Eniola Fakile: With each video, I wanted to dig deeper, but then, I also wanted the filming to get better. So, I was trying to progress as a videomaker. I made it over a year, and during that time, I started to become more and more comfortable with myself in front of the camera, talking about these things. And I’m always trying to be really careful about how I talk about being Black in my work because the way I feel about it is complicated.

Don’t get me wrong — I love being Black. But I feel like I want to make work about being Black without being exclusionary. So, I try to make work with little markers that I know other Black people can identify with, but then also everyday things that I know other people will respond to, so that it’s work that anyone can feel connected to. But especially Black people.

So, the series is about all those things. It’s about me as a Black woman dealing with my body image issues or how to deal with my hair. But it is also about me as a person dealing with the stress of everyday life, imposter syndrome, not feeling like I’m good enough. All of those things.

Berkeley News: How do you approach creating art? Once you get an idea, where do you begin?

Eniola Fakile: Every time I start a new series of work, I buy a journal, and I write down what I want to talk about. The process involves a lot of crying. It involves watching the same things over and over again to get the design juices flowing. Like, I’ll watch New Girl over and over again. I’ll watch Cruella — love that movie. The Devil Wears Prada. There’s a show called A Discovery of Witches with a season set in Elizabethan England.

When I get an idea for a sculpture or costume or whatever you want to call them — I still don’t have a name for them — it’s like a quick flash in my mind. I’ll do a really quick, messy sketch. Then, I try my best to build it. And it changes along the way.

My ideas manifest out of everyday things, like a hamburger. I’ll think: What is a hamburger? What if that hamburger had feelings? How do I turn that into a shoe? It sounds ridiculous. It involves a lot of fantasy and imagination, and I love doing it.

See more of Fakile’s work on her website and  Instagram page.

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