Dwelling in Our Softness: Abdu Ali Conjures Space for Black, Queer and Trans Artists

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Art AND: Emily Bach

The past few months of this pandemic have summoned the grace, patience, and craftiness of my West-Indian Great-Grandmother Creque pinching the dough of beef patties inside of a brick, un-air-conditioned project building. The challenges that continue to face all of us this year require just as much elbow, spice, and sweat as she put into her labor. On par with our hardworking and talented ancestry, many Black, queer and POC cultural organizers and workers (including myself) created emergency funds for artists, among other ways to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. 

The coronavirus lockdown also forced everyone to adapt to mostly virtual engagement. On June 10, the Baltimore Museum of Art launched two online initiatives aiming to directly support local artists, including a new Screening Room, which broadcasts video work, and the BMA Salon, which highlights galleries, artists, and arts communities based in Baltimore. It all feels like a relevant and timely way to imagine new futures for social justice, equity, and creativity.  

Featured in both the Salon and Screening Room is Abdu Ali, a treasure that could have only been fired, set, glazed, and decorated in the cultural kiln that is West Baltimore. Ali is a fluid performance and music artist, cultural worker, and organizer of platforms such as the dance party Kahlon and, more recently, as they lay, a nomadic curatorial initiative that has so far included sound and performance art, poetry, and more at Waller Gallery, the Copycat, and Lexington Market.

Before speaking with Ali for BmoreArt, I took a digital walkthrough of as they lay’s work on the BMA’s website. I was first ushered into a multiverse of meditative sound as Ali’s vocal cords vibrate on another plane in the video piece they co-produced with Karryl Eugene entitled “Imagining As A Praxis,” in the BMA Screening Room. I was provoked to curiosity by the guttural sounds with which Ali guides this dystopian land. “Imagine, imagine… a new world, a free world” seem to be pledges of allegiance to this uncharted geography. Symbols flashed across the screen and I wondered what they could mean, eager to learn this new dialect.

I exited the Screening Room in a nostalgic trance of a familiar childhood show repurposed, and then I browse the carousel of art by Jalynn Harris, Darius Johnson, Sydney J. Allen, Khari Johnson Ricks, Moses Leonardo, Asha Jamila Holmes, and Kyle Vincent Scott in the softer I feel, the freer I be… which ranges from photographs to scanned words by poets and modern-day Black scribes and sages. I’m in love. Can I lay here and gaze forever?


Darius Johnson, “Darius,” 2020, digital photograph. On view in as they lay at BMA Salon
Abdu Ali. Photo by Elliott Jerome Brown, Jr.

Alanah Nichole Davis: What is as they lay, and how did you come up with it?

Abdu Ali: I’ve imagined as they lay for quite some time. I’ve always been involved in arts organizing and conjuring space for Black, queer, and trans artists in the creative community of Baltimore. After some years of doing some groundbreaking shit organizing Kahlon, I decided to focus solely on my music career. Arts organizing and constant events organizing is whole-bodied labor, especially when you approach it from a radical lens, and I don’t think people don’t realize that. My goal has always been to create space for marginalized artists and it is tough work. Sometimes you can lose yourself within it or feel burnt out. The mental space I took to just be able to dwell in my practice, tour the world, and nurture my artistic voice was integral.

Being a cultural worker is a calling, my calling, and I can’t run away from it. After a while I just accepted it. In thinking of ways to support my fellow artists, especially young, post-academic, Black, early 20s artists who are often overlooked, I came up with as they lay. I know what it’s like not to feel supported or have mentors so I thought it would be best to create a platform that acts as a curatorial operation but also a resource for young artists to be supported by. As they lay is inspired by our elders and ancestors who laid the foundations for people like me to be able to imagine and do the work. There aren’t many Black or queer leaders here in Baltimore; I imagined all this and now it’s here.

Tell me about your influences in creating visuals for your piece in the BMA Screening Room, “Imagining As A Praxis.”

You know we are the music video generation. I think these kids don’t know what they miss when they don’t invest in the power of video or music visuals. We came up at a time when Michael Jackson was still alive, when Missy Elliott was thriving. Missy is one of those early queer, butch, femme, low-key genderfluid folks who inspire me. Someone like Missy shows a Black queer kid like me in West Baltimore that I can do what she does; the intersections of her identity reflect in me. Those ‘90s videos changed the game of the music, period. It was beyond race, period. In my eyes, Michael Jackson was the one who created the music video. Janet Jackson is in that tier, Busta Rhymes is in that tier. 

Is this new generation of artists lost in not having those influences? What can folks expect to see in “Imagining As A Praxis”?

I think we are getting back into the music-visual craft and it was a pleasure to produce with one of my key collaborators in as they lay, Karryl Eugene, again on this meditative, multidimensional piece. Laced throughout you see nods to ballroom culture and Black icons like Grace Jones and Octavia Butler, even deities like Sun Ra. We took a swing at creating our own language. You’ll see symbols popping up and it’s like we don’t know what they mean. But as we decolonize our minds why not create our own language too?!

Pangelica and Jalynn Harris performing during As They Lay event at Waller Gallery, Nov. 2019. Photo by Amira Green
As They Lay at Waller Gallery, Nov. 2019. Photo by Amira Green
As They Lay at Waller Gallery, Nov. 2019. Photo by Amira Green

Why did you choose the artists featured in as they lay’s BMA Salon exhibition the softer i feel, the freer i be…? Why that title?

First off, I was trying to give Maya Angelou with that exhibition title, can you tell? Asha Jamila Holmes, Jalynn Harris, Khari Johnson-Ricks, Darius Johnson, Moses Leonardo, and Kyle Vincent Scott are all in the BMA Salon. Each of them approaches tenderness from their own lens; for instance, I live for how much Khari leans into Afrofuturism in their piece “ight bet,” where two queer bodies are depicted on an octopus. You can see the gaze of one figure locked onto the other—that’s tender. Kyle, Asha, and Darius all explore the tenderness and satisfaction you get from that relationship to yourself. 

I’m obsessed with the idea of tenderness and Black folks dwelling in our softness. Society projects limited ideologies onto Black bodies—for instance, the notion that ALL Black femmes are strong and tough, that they’re supposed to be taking care of everybody else but themselves, or when Black AMAB bodies want to play with their femininity and embrace their softness they’re ridiculed. With all that pressure, how can they have the capacity to be tender? 

I encourage Black folks to dwell in our softness to resist oppressive ideologies. I believe that tenderness and softness are connected to the erotic, the feminine, and, as Audre Lorde suggested, when we tap into those energies we can tap into our deepest knowledge of selves and collective knowledge, to tap into what we feel. In our society, feelings and emotions are taboo, especially with Black bodies. So we gotta resist against that to truly know our whole selves and this world. To be soft is to feel and to be soft is to be free. 

Each of the artists selected explores softness and when we do that we imagine like these artists did. When we do that we dismantle, challenge, and threaten the existence of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.

What have you done with as they lay so far?

As they lay supports queer’d counter-ideologies, artistic partnership, and radical creative work that set fire for visions of new worlds that are delivered from modern-day oppressive pathologies. 

  • “blakkFRUIT” at Waller Gallery (November 2019): A celebratory sound & poetry performance with myself, Pangelica, Maya Martinez, and Jalynn Harris whose poetry is featured in the BMA exhibition. DJ Hoeteps spun some records.
  • “Legacy Legacy Legacy” at BMA Lexington Market (December 2019): Myself with one of my key collaborators, Karryl Eugene, who is also in the BMA Screening Room as part of the current virtual BMA exhibition. We were accompanied by Theljon Allen, Michelle Luong, and Bashi Rose for a collaborative multimedia performance at BMA Lexington Market, located in the historic Lexington Market at 400 West Lexington Street. 
  • “Things I Imagined” at Trophy House (February 2020): This was a one-night-only joint, an ephemeral exhibition featuring poetry, text, sound, and visual art that speaks to how Black, Indigenous and People of Color using our power of imagination serve as a form of resistance against oppressive metaphysical structures.
  • “What Is Your Legacy” at the Baltimore Museum of Art: I was so honored to have a video and sound piece I created with Karryl Eugene featured in Mickalene Thomas’ A Moment’s Pleasure, alongside some of my friends and favorite artists. Black folk in collaboration is a radical act!
  • Black Arts Legacy Fund: Being reflective of the economic disparities of COVID-19, I decided the best thing to do was to give financial support to women-identifying and/or LGBTQ-identifying Black artists based in Baltimore. I called my design collaborator, Rush Jackson, and on April 26, I launched a digital fundraiser to gain $1,000 so that I can distribute ten micro-grants of $100. I met my goal in less than 24 hours and even gained some extra coins on top of that! The success of the fund has inspired me to make this annual grant with even bigger goals in 2021.

You recently wrote a letter to Mayor Jack C. Young that has gone sort of viral online. Why did you write it?

When I saw the proposed budget for Baltimore City in 2021 I gasped! I mean, we all expected an increase in police funding. They are doing that all over the country. That’s some bullshit. How is Baltimore’s police department still one of the most funded police departments in the fucking country? It is wild. I think we’re number one actually, per capita. We get more funding per capita for police officers than New York fucking City. So when I saw that not only is the police department budget increasing by $13 million combined with the fact that there is a next-to-$0 increase in the budget for arts and culture, I gagged! I went the fuck off… if anything the artists of the city is what makes this city. 

Why do artists in Baltimore City deserve more funding? 

Artists make Baltimore the beautiful, golden, charming city that it is. [The city] relies on us so much to make Baltimore seem like anything other than what the media paints it to be. They exploit our labor, our talent, our legacy that we’re building when it’s convenient for them. It’s crazy. Arts and culture—within any culture, within the fabric of humanity—are important for economic development, intellectual development, cultural development, and educational development. They need artists. I’m tired of this country not recognizing that. I’ve been to European countries that realize art is just as important as food and health.

Everything I do is a part of a collective entity and movement in the African diaspora. When it comes to Blackness and the diaspora I think we realize that what we do is what we do, but it’s not necessarily of us, it’s beyond us.
Abdu Ali

Throughout history, artists are the storytellers, the keepers of time. Do you see a lack of funding for the arts as a form of censorship? 

OHHH YES, you’re going to do what the money wants you to do. It’s unfortunate. I understand that a lot of people can’t or aren’t willing to take certain risks or be adventurous or radical with their voices. I am. Most people don’t want to upset elitists and oftentimes white benefactors. I feel like we ain’t got shit to lose honestly. Our ancestors did the most, our elders did the most, they taught us to have an unapologetic voice. At the end of the day money being an influencer of your work is just toxic. We have to step out there, broke and all. You can get the funding not being your full self, but why would you do that? 

Artists shouldn’t center their work on something outside of who they are or in something that doesn’t speak to who they are. That can disrupt your spirit, your soul, and make you miserable and depressed. And I don’t think that’s ever worth it. You grow old and realize, damn, I did all that… and for what. Do you know what I’m saying? That unrighteous money and that undue support are not going to live with you forever.

We’re slowly reopening from a COVID-19 lockdown. How important is it for you to reconnect with the artist community?

I’m a community bitch. I’m a social bitch and community propelled me into my creative career. Just coexisting amongst other artists in a collective way is so important. In the US we idolize individualism too much. I think everything I do is a part of a collective entity and movement in the African diaspora. When it comes to Blackness and the diaspora I think we realize that what we do is what we do, but it’s not necessarily of us, it’s beyond us. I think that when you move under legacy, you start to make more impactful work and impactful moves within your artistic career. 

What advice would you give to emergent Black artists?

Be able to do your work everywhere. I think it’ll be in Black artists’ and cultural workers’ best interest to begin to think beyond regional borders which are a very white colonial ideology. Start communicating and knowing people from all over the world, use social media. That made it easier for me to travel to different countries and tour in Europe.

I’ve seen your travels to places like Berlin on social media. How can we integrate what you’ve seen overseas to our arts and culture landscape in the US?

On the east coast specifically, we need more solidarity in creative thought to foster collaboration. We need more inner-city engagement, especially in Baltimore and the DMV. When I was in Europe, I met so many artists who were casually doing work in between cities and it was normal for them to have extended visits in other European countries. They were really on the move and their work consisted of constant dialogue and collaboration with other artists across the continent. 

How should artists move at times of civil unrest?

It just goes back to the Reconstruction Era and Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement. We work too much and too often in communities and institutions that don’t care for us holistically. We are all we got. We need to realize that more and more, and not necessarily in a capitalist way, but in a preservational and survivalist way. Laying collective roots where we have autonomy and agency is how we’ve always survived these times. We need to create a world where we are extremely connected—not just in Baltimore, but with places like DC, Philly… the whole east coast building this web, and there’s an underground railroad to sell Black art and cultural work. We need not always rely on white communities or elitist institutions to survive and thrive. If we have each other’s backs we can pay each other and put property, coin, and intellect into each other’s pockets.

As They Lay at Waller Gallery, Nov. 2019. Photo by Amira Green
As They Lay at Waller Gallery, Nov. 2019. Photo by Amira Green
Showing up as myself, myself has become a pillar that I can rely on that helps me not to be anxious or worried.
Abdu Ali

I want to talk about the importance of intimacy in platonic relationships, which is something I see you carry forth a lot. I would love to know how you explore that. 

I’m a Cancer so I’m very emotionally invested in my life and my work. I think that’s why I’m able to share myself like that. I know that me being close with someone doesn’t necessarily mean that they have complete access to me, even with family and close friends.

How do you set boundaries as someone who is so widely loved and supported?

I’m an old-school bitch; even in the age of social media, I have what I call a healthy dissonance where I’m able to be somewhere in my full self and engage with other people. I was just speaking to my good friend Markele about this, but showing up as myself, myself has become a pillar that I can rely on that helps me not to be anxious or worried. I’m not afraid to speak up when someone is doing too much. I affirm those boundaries for myself; I’ll say, baby, it’s OK but do not touch me like that. Everybody thinks they can have access to you but we know better from those elders who taught me not us not to walk on eggshells. Who taught us to tell it like it is with kindness. I take a lot from them, they have their shit too, but they are a lot more vocal and direct. Our generation is so worried about being politically correct on respectability politics.

Are there consequences or unintended results in being so honest and transparent?

My therapist told me that when you keep it real with yourself and you live in your truth, a lot of people who live behind a mask (which is a lot of people) won’t be able to take you because when they are around you, they have to deal with who they are. And that’s why people can’t take an honest bitch. We have to do a lot of work to dismantle those patriarchal desires within ourselves to own somebody. No one should feel entitled to someone’s whole self. The real direct and honest girls in the scene are usually all the ones that people do not support. 

Amen, ase, say that! Many of us Baltimore-based artists are self-taught and not fueled by academia. If you had to build your own curriculum what would it entail?

I would make these lessons universal for artists and cultural workers… The Abdu Ali Syllabus:

  • Lesson 1: The Work Is The Relationship and The Relationship Is The Work | This lesson would be about the importance of fostering relationships within your creative practice and within the notion of hustle and networking. The importance of collaboration and investing in other people. Because when you’re investing in other people you’re investing in yourself.
  • Lesson 2: Coin Management | This lesson would stress the importance of not living beyond your means, saving your coins, and learning how to write for and research grants and residencies that fit your work because so many of us get tripped up on that. Residencies give housing, studio space, and help you build the capacity to sit and focus on your work. 
  • Lesson 3: Self and Community Advocacy | This lesson would have the objective of telling artists not to wait for permission or validation to do the work for themselves or their peers. The importance of finding ways to exhibit, perform, and showcase your work without looking for outside affirmation, people with privilege, and institutions.
  • Lesson 4: Preventing Burnout | Taking breaks and resting and not being so worried about doing the most or getting things done by a certain age. Recognizing your mortality and finding a balance in self-care.
  • Lesson 5: Political Education | This is so important in an artist’s life to have a revolutionary practice or praxis. The importance of dialogue is a measure of reflection against the world you are dealing with. It’s important to be engaged and remain complex in doing so. The importance of questioning the world and not being a mere object in the world. 

I can’t wait for the Abdu Ali Syllabus to drop! If we were to come into Abdu’s space what would we see?

A lot of dope art on the walls, lots of books I’ve read and some I haven’t yet. Cute furniture and a super cozy vibe.

Leave us with a quote.

Can I do two? “When we center our trauma we cease to be agents.” And “Black love is Black wealth.”

Sydney J. Allen, “Care,” 2018, digital photograph. On view in as they lay at BMA Salon
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