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Juneteenth and MAWU

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My memories of my childhood aren’t perfect, but I do remember bright moments, and many of those happened in our church. I grew up pretty religious and the church I attended the most with my mom was Pleasant Mount Gilead Missionary Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas. I can still feel the smoothness of the red velvet seats that covered wooden pews, I can hear my mom’s voice chastising me for falling asleep, and I remember the warm and powerful echo of the pastor’s voice. Our family celebrations always began in the church, including bigger holidays like Christmas and Easter, but also those that I didn’t yet realize were more regional and specific, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth. 

My mom loved celebrating Juneteenth. She told me that it was “the celebration of when enslaved people in Texas learned that they were free.” I remember expressing dismay that these men and women in Texas continued to work until Union soldiers arrived in Galveston to deliver the news of their freedom on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. My mom referred to Juneteenth as a holiday that we, as Black people, celebrated, and my hometown’s dedication and veneration for Juneteenth runs deep. Growing up, I remember celebrations, barbecues, parades, and lots of unrelenting Black joy. 

 

Growing up, I remember celebrations, barbecues, parades, and lots of unrelenting Black joy. 
Teri Henderson

 

Opal Lee, a 93-year-old freedom fighter from Fort Worth is leading the nationwide movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Although Juneteenth originated in Texas, it is now recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in 47 states and the District of Columbia. This year, Fort Worth filmmaker Channing Godfrey Peoples’ film Miss Juneteenth which tells the story of a woman who competed in the annual beauty pageants that occurred in Fort Worth, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Both of these Black women are examples of individuals from my hometown drawing more attention and acclaim to the Juneteenth holiday. 

Recently I’ve been contemplating and tracing the migration toward national recognition of Juneteenth, including workplaces marking it as a paid holiday. This is important in 2020, especially in a time where Black people carry the tremendous weight and fatigue of not only the vestiges of slavery, white supremacy, and prejudice, but also the strange cognitive dissonance caused by so many white people suddenly speaking out about race when previously they ignored it, all in the midst of an unrelenting global pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and brown people. 

Ada Pinkston's Installation at VisArts

When I migrated from Texas to Baltimore four years ago, I heard little more than whispers about Juneteenth celebrations. This is the first year that I have noticed wide celebrations of Juneteenth, and it makes sense. Baltimore is observing the holiday through parties like the #BMoreFree Juneteenth Cookout and ceremonies like Say Her Name: March For Black Women and Femme Survivors at the Ynot Lot, as well as other events organized by artists. Curated and led by Ada Pinkston, MAWU: TheEndisTheBeginningIstheEnd is an eight-hour durational performance that combines the history of Juneteenth with the legacy of Lucy Parsons, the revolutionary labor organizer who fought for the eight-hour workday and a co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, a woman called “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.”

Pinkston, the co-director of LabBodies, organized MAWU as part of her fellowship at VisArts. According to Pinkston, MAWU “is a ritual, in honor of Lucy Parsons, and in honor of a lot of other women that came before us whose names we don’t know, and all the other people who are still continuing to do this work towards abolition of the prison-industrial complex.” This ritual carries on the legacy of the struggle and fight for freedom that mirrors the origins of Juneteenth.

When I spoke on the phone with Pinkston about the performance, I expressed regret in not knowing who Lucy Parsons was, especially as a native Texan, but Pinkston replied that my ignorance of the story was “all by design.” That statement is true—I am quite familiar with the revisionist history of textbook makers, the vestiges of George Dubya Bush’s No Child Left Behind educational decree, and the inherent and almost inextricable racism and prejudice embedded in the sometimes-red Texas soil. My journey has actively involved undoing and unlearning white supremacy and understanding how it has affected my upbringing and existence. I see my own recollection of my history, narrative, and evolution mirroring the spread of awareness of Juneteenth to the east coast. 

“I thought a lot about how I would curate performances and experiences for a virtual audience,” Pinkston said. “Curating and organizing is part of my praxis because I am also an educator. As someone who works in the social sphere, I think that performance is another way to consider the relationship that the art object has to both public and private spaces because performance art is something that cannot really be commodified (with a few exceptions like Marina Abramovic or Tino Sehgal). In terms of concept, I am always thinking of ways to engage audiences with material that is not part of the dominant narrative found in McGraw Hill Textbooks.”

A poem by Audre Lorde (Pinkston’s favorite poet), “MAWU” inspired the title of this Juneteenth performance. In African religious mythology, “Mawu” refers to a female creator deity, but can also be translated to mean “God.” Lorde’s poem is an ode of grief to her dying mother. 

Pinkston said that, for her, MAWU is about using “performance as ritual and ritual as performance,” and that the eight-hour-long piece “will test the limitations of what it means to be a spectator, a creator, a passive consumer, and the limitations of language on universal experiences.” The durational performance and installation present new opportunities to learn how to confront these parts of ourselves and our histories. For Pinkston, the eight hours of endurance, which symbolizes the eight-hour work week that Parsons fought for, also echoes the freedom that was first denied and then obtained by Black people in Texas on Juneteenth, offering a powerful exercise in self-liberation through art, collaboration, and community.

When we discussed the seemingly new, widespread attention now given to Juneteenth as a day of celebration around Black liberation, Pinkston said, “We are in a really interesting moment. People are talking about things in a way that they never have before, I think that’s why people are recognizing Juneteenth. Right now there is a recalculation. Things are moving. Performative gestures have always been performative, but now it is just more apparent because so many corporations reach out and say things. People recognize the performativity of ‘solidarity’ and they’re trying to back up their actions.”

However, the idea of subjectivity and performative gesture is highly relevant for an artist, performer, and curator like Pinkston. “The performativity of race is always present, whether people are conscious of it or not,” she said, adding that it’s important that her artwork challenges boundaries and expectations for herself, her collaborators, and her audience, building relationships between disparate subject matter to present a multi-faceted whole.

Right now there is a recalculation. Things are moving. Performative gestures have always been performative, but now it is just more apparent.
Ada Pinkston

I started my residency at VisArts with the intention of creating another iteration of my LandMarked project,” she said. “I was going to host workshops at the library around the corner and use the historic Rockville African American walking tour as a way to frame a conversation on monuments in Montgomery County.” But when COVID-19 hit, Pinkston decided to make changes based upon the resources she had available. 

Her installation project features a series of abstract paintings based on NASA space images and the concept of black holes and quantum theory, expanding the dialogue far beyond American history. The project uses “printer paper and bills assembled to create a canvas, with food coloring and thread used as paint.” And starting on July 1, Pinkston’s installation will include digital video from the Juneteenth performance. The website mawu.space will function as the vehicle for the performance.

The virtual show consists of a group of artists and performers programming various time slots on Friday, June 19th from 1 to 10 p.m. In designing the program, Pinkston was thinking about news and television programming and how at the top of every hour there is a news brief. The line-dancing piece that she is facilitating came from “thinking about what are the group activities that we do as black people that spark joy,” she said. “And for me, that’s line dancing.”

The list of performers includes Mélisande Short-Colomb, Amorous Ebony Evans, Bobby English, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Asher Gamdeze, Justin Kennedy, Tracie Jiggetts, Lynn Hunter, Jamal Moore, Ada Pinkston, Awilda Rivera, Bashi Rose, Sheba, Dr. Thomas Stanley, Safra Tadesse, Noelle Tolbert, You, and more to be announced.

 

More Information: 

MAWU… The end is the beginning is the End: A durational performance in honor of Lucy Parsons takes place Friday, June 19, 2020, 1–10:00 p.m., hosted by VisArts Rockville on the website mawu.space. Reserve free tickets on Eventbrite.

 

Images courtesy of Ada Pinkston

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