Indira Allegra’s Grieving Technologies

Endurance Tests

Indira Allegra’s Grieving Technologies

By Anna Martine Whitehead May 22, 2018

“Endurance Tests” is an irregular column on current explorations of representation, the ethereal, and compulsiveness by Black artists working in the field of performance. Across profiles and interviews, the column takes seriously the proposition of performance as a repeatable and assimilable text. “Endurance Tests” will examine contemporary performance-makers actively syncretizing the many implications of "Blackness": illegality, contagion, maladaptivity, and a privileged relationship to cool.


This essay is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.

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I first saw Indira Allegra’s work in person at the Petty Biennial, in Chicago in 2017.  The show featured all Black and Brown artists, with celebration not just among the merrymakers at the opening but also in most of the artworks. Playing on a monitor affixed to a white wall in the center of the gallery was the video component of Allegra’s multimedia work, Open Casket I (2017): small repeated frames of looping video clips of Black women in the moments and days after losing loved ones to police violence made a pattern that suggested a digital tapestry. (Allegra’s background is in weaving.) In a quiet room, this visually dark and subdued work would sound like a cacophony of Black women’s voices, grieving and raging. But during the revelry of the evening, Open Casket I was unheard.1 If one investigated the tiny video images piled over one another, one would see hundreds of mostly Black women wailing, in silence. Was that poetry? Was it Black joy surrounding Black femme grief? Or was it the other way around: grief at the center of joy?

Indira Allegra. Open Casket IX (video still), 2018; digital video collage. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery.

Grief’s complexity is at the center of much of Allegra’s work, which explores the intersections of loss, disability, and Black feminine physicality. Her video work, What Do Tumors Know That We Forget When They Are Pulled From The Body? (2017), features the artist in a white nightgown and with her hair wrapped, sensually moving on a bed from sexually inviting repose to sudden bouts of shaking and clutching of her arms as if willing them to stay attached to her body.

At moments, the piece seems to be an Afrofuturist laugh, a cyborg’s empowered in-joke with the audience. “I think that we’re really just shapeshifters, [moving] between disease states,” Allegra says in the video, with a slight smile. At other times, she seems distracted, exhausted. “Sometimes I wonder if able-bodiedness is really even a thing,” she sighs. “I mean, how much energy does it take to prop ourselves up on a daily basis?”

Indira Allegra. BODYWARP: Seamstress (performance still), 2018; performance at the Alice Gallery. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo by Alexander Boeschenstein.

Allegra is also a poet; her words in the video are delivered with intentionality, as concerned with their meaning as with the texture of the language. She has a poet’s sense of time and space: she makes room for silence. Talking with me in Oakland this past March, she paused for so long I thought she’d not heard me. I began to repeat myself when she cut me off:

“You asked me where did I learn my interest in grieving? The ovarian cysts in my twenties were my teachers. My last two tumors were my teachers. I have sadness for that, and for the experience that many marginalized people share: the feeling that you’re working really hard for something that could be taken away at any point. There are so many things in society that I am grieving.”

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Anna Martine Whitehead: But you’ve also said grieving can be about celebrating.

Indira Allegra: Maybe grief is a shade different than mourning.

AMW:  Like joy is different than happiness?

IA: Yes. Mourning has rituals attached to it; it’s what one does. Grief is felt all over the place. It’s over here, then it’s all of a sudden over there, and there’s blood rushing through your body. I think I need to be more fluent in the recognition of my grief so that I can think about technologies of mourning.

Indira Allegra. Surrogate: Decommissioning, 2017; iron, paper, wood; 4.5 x 15 ft. x 16 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

AMW:  It seems that grief is much less controlled than mourning. Mourning is a way to rein grief in. Grief is much riskier.

IA: We were talking earlier about being the weird, queer artists in our families: doing exciting things, successful, but broke all the time. Part of our presumed success comes from the fact that we’re more comfortable with risk than other folks. One has to get comfortable with the understanding that one will get hurt along the way. For example, I feel comfortable riding my bike down the street because I have faith in my body’s ability to heal if I fall, even if I were to break something. Emotionally we have to think of ourselves in the same way, to have faith in our ability to heal. When we have faith in our ability to heal, then we have more mobility in life. But we don’t have high self-esteem regarding our healing abilities.

The better I grieve, the stronger I’ll be, and the more freedom I’ll have to provide emotional support to loved ones. The more fluent I can become in my individual language of grief and grieving technologies, the more empowered I will be.

I see in my family members an incarcerating force: when people aren’t able to process their grief around events, their lives become stuck. I’ve been having conversations with a couple of other Black people, and one of the things we have in common is that our fathers never speak in the present tense. 

(We both laugh.)

AMW:  Or, they speak about the future as if it already happened. My dad is constantly adding to the ends of his sentences, “That is, if I wake up tomorrow,” as if he already died!

IA: I get text messages from my father that make me wonder, “Is this from the beyond?” In them, he’s not referring to something in the present. It comes from a buildup of trauma, and it’s an extension of a state of imprisonment. He’s trapped somewhere else.

Indira Allegra. St. Davis of Savannah, 2011; cotton, mylar, thread; 44 x 26 x 0.25 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery.

AMW:  It becomes a double bind for those who are actually physically incarcerated. In prison, where loss is a constant, there is no safe place to grieve.

IA: The work I’m doing now is about architecture associated with memorial. Memorials don’t accurately reflect the gritty process of mourning. They’re too slick and neatly compartmentalized. What could a more accurate memorial look like? The show at Mills College Art Museum is an opportunity for me to explore the messiness of grieving.2

AMW:  The messiness makes me think about the bravery of a woman like Mamie Till-Mobley, whom you nod to with Open Casket I. It’s like all those women wailing in the video are Mamie Till.

IA: What she said is: Society is expecting me to take this on all by myself, but this is not my responsibility alone. She should have won a Nobel Prize for that act, for inviting others to share her burden with her. When we take on such grief by ourselves, we get sick. How can we encourage everyone to take responsibility to support our collective grief? I would love to initiate a prize for people who are able to innovate new forms of grieving.

Notes

  1. “Open Casket” is also the title of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s fourteen-year-old mutilated body at his funeral in 1955. A month prior to the Petty Biennial, Schutz’s work had stirred considerable controversy at the Whitney Biennial in New York. Is it poetic that Schutz’s Open Casket took center stage at the Whitney just before Allegra’s Open Casket I was drowned out by Black joy at the Petty?
  2. The 2018 Art+Process+Ideas Exhibition opens at Mills College on June 6, 2018. Participating artists include Allegra and Rebeca Bollinger; https://mcam.mills.edu/exhibitions/upcoming.php.

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