ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018
Angela Hennessy is an Oakland-based interdisciplinary artist and Associate Professor at California College of the Arts where she teaches courses on visual and cultural narratives of death and contemporary textile theory. Her current project, The School of the Dead, is a program for the decolonization of death and grief through the radical inquiry of aesthetic and social practices that mediate the boundary between the living and the dead. She has exhibited at the Bellevue Arts Museum, Exit Art, Ampersand International Arts, Pro Arts Gallery, Southern Exposure, The Richmond Art Center, The Small Gallery, and The Oakland Museum of California. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum and was featured in the Journal of Cloth and Culture and In The Make: Studio Visits with Artists. Angela volunteers with hospice and works with families on home funerals, death vigils, and grief rituals. She is certified in the Grief Recovery Method and has trained with Final Passages and the International End of Life Doula Association. This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
Black Hole, installation view, 2017. Synthetic and human hair, artist’s hair, black velvet, foam, pigment, salt, ground mirror, wood base
Angela Hennessy: I find things come out clearer if I write them down.
Danielle Wright: Me, too. But sometimes, well…I don’t know you yet so I'm not sure if you like to verbally process as well. How is that for you?
AH: It’s kind of better for me if I write first. I'm the person who always thinks of the thing I should have said afterward.
DW: Staircase wit?
AH: Yeah, totally. You know, I think for me, especially around conversations about death and grief, it’s so easy to miss nuances or to misinterpret something. A few times when I've been paraphrased I've been like, “Ooh, that’s the exact opposite of what I meant.” It’s just very subtle shifts in language and I'm only in the position I am to understand those little distinctions because I've been thinking about it for so long and talking about it for so long. I’m always questioning, is that actually what I mean? Is that actually what I believe? What is it that that word is assuming in [its] connotations?
DW: Writing is conducive for that because you have the time to reflect and process, whereas when you’re speaking, it’s just messy. There’s not as much control or time to sit with things. I have to say I like both for different reasons. So, to get started, Monterey…is that where you’re from?
AH: I was born there. I grew up there off and on and spent a lot of my growing up years in Humboldt County, up there in Eureka and Arcata and South County area, out in the woods, basically [laughter].
DW: O.K.! That’s cool.
AH: I'm very much a California girl.
DW: In my poking around on the internet to find out more about you, I didn’t find as much as I’d hoped. There’s quite a lot about the Southern Exposure exhibit, there’s a bit about your writing, and there’s the interview with Á.R. Vázquez-Concepción (which I listened to from start to finish and really appreciated). I'm curious about your origin story, how you got to art, and everything that’s happened along the way.
I’M ALWAYS QUESTIONING, IS THAT ACTUALLY WHAT I MEAN? IS THAT ACTUALLY WHAT I BELIEVE? WHAT IS IT THAT THAT WORD IS ASSUMING IN [ITS] CONNOTATIONS?
AH: Well, I grew up in a family of artists so I don’t remember a time of not being an artist. It wasn’t like I discovered art at some specific moment, it just was always there and who I was. For the most part, I always said I wanted to be an artist and a writer although I did have a period where I wanted to be a nurse or an airline stewardess. But I got over that, obviously.
DW: That’s great.
Black Hole, installation view, 2017. Synthetic and human hair, artist’s hair, black velvet, foam, pigment, salt, ground mirror, wood base
AH: That said, my family always encouraged me doing artwork from the very beginning. My grandmother took me to Europe when I was 13 to go to The Louvre. We went to Holland and to France and to Italy and we did museums. So it always felt like it was a part of my life and that it wasn’t a luxury. Like to think through Audre Lorde a little bit, this idea of poetry being a luxury. That idea was never passed down to me; that what I did or what I was interested in was superfluous or irrelevant in any way. I think of it really as how I see the world and how I move through the world. It’s very much been this place where I have manifested and processed and understood my relationship, the relationship, say, between the Black side of my family and the white side of my family, but even just more specifically what all of that means in my own body. That, as a foundation in my work, has always been really important.
DW: So I'm guessing that we have similar ethnic backgrounds. I'm curious about how you’ve navigated between the Black and white sides of your family.
AH: My father’s family, they were in the Bay Area, in Berkeley and Oakland, and my mom’s side they were in Monterey/Carmel area, and Los Angeles. My mom and my dad moved in together on the first day that they met. That should give you some indication. It was 1969, San Francisco …
DW: Say no more … that’s amazing.
AH: [laughter] My mom was really young, 19. They were in love at some point and were together off and on for several years. My mom was trying to get her life together and my grandmother had gotten her an apartment in SF. She was supposed to be going to school, you know, there were some requirements. And then my dad showed up [laughter]. They were not together when she got pregnant but that was a turning point for her and she was ready to get her shit together. They got back together when she was five or six months pregnant and they were together until a couple months after I was born. Basically, my dad just wasn’t ready. He just didn’t have the emotional skills to be a father so my mom backed him out the door one day and he never came back. She didn’t have any contact with him after that. When I was a teenager I had looked for him, back then we had phone books and you could call information [laughter], you know? I had an address of his mother and his name but nothing ever panned out. In my 20s I went to this house where his parents had lived and just knocked on the door.
AH: … My Auntie was living there, it was her house at that time. She was my dad’s half sister. They had the same mother and she had inherited the house and one of her sons answered the door. I said who I was and I asked if my dad was there. He told me that my dad had died a couple of years before. I kind of don’t remember what happened after that, but I left. One of the first things he said to me, you know, it was kind of this moment, he looked at me and said, “Where have you been all of these years?” and that was the beginning of this whole side of that family opening up to me. I basically went from having a very small family of 5 people to having like 30 cousins overnight, a very classic black family community where you realized that we’re all related somehow. It’s been many years of getting to know everyone because we didn’t grow up together, and the whole reason why we’re connected, that person, is dead and was never present for both of us at the same time.
Black Hole, installation view, 2017. Synthetic and human hair, artist’s hair, black velvet, foam, pigment, salt, ground mirror, wood base
DW: I appreciate you sharing all of this. From my perspective, I immediately see this connection between your work about death and what you just said. I'm curious about if you want to talk about how those things might be related, how that might inform some of the work.
AH: The work that I do now is about making space for death and making space for the dead. And a big part of how we do that is by reclaiming these ruptured lineages, the family ties that have been shredded, completely unraveled. So always in my classes, and in many of the talks that I do, we will actually speak the names of our dead people. Part of it is about other forms of existence and energies, and things that we can’t necessarily see, that aren’t about flesh and body, but have an implication on who we are and how we move through the world. I find that even just being able to claim having a father is really significant to me. And yes, he does happen to be dead, but I do still think of him in that way. Whereas even ten years ago I would say I didn’t have a father, or I grew up without a father, or sometimes I would say I didn’t know my father. Even though for the first couple of months he was there so I couldn’t say we never met. And, yes, I don’t have a memory of him as an adult, of course, which is what people really want to know and they say like, “Oh, did you know your Father?” or “Were you close?” My body does come from his DNA. What does that mean to have a relationship with someone you didn’t know in conventional terms? Even just making space for that is always really important to me. I don’t know, I guess to go back to your original question, I think when I learned of my father’s death that was the beginning of thinking about and talking about death consciously and intentionally. That was a big turning point. All of my graduate work came out of reflecting on his life and his death. I've been on this path my whole life, but that was a specific turning point for sure.
THE WORK THAT I DO NOW IS ABOUT MAKING SPACE FOR DEATH AND MAKING SPACE FOR THE DEAD. AND A BIG PART OF HOW WE DO THAT IS BY RECLAIMING THESE RUPTURED LINEAGES, THE FAMILY TIES THAT HAVE BEEN SHREDDED, COMPLETELY UNRAVELED.
DW: You know, I meet different artists and I see them get attached to, maybe not only one, but one primary thing that really grabs them. How did Death show up in your life before that moment?
School of the Dead Manifesto, risograph artist book printed at School of Art / College of DAAP, University of Cincinnati. 2017
AH: Maybe it was the death of my dog, my first death (not that I had any language or any way to articulate it). I have such specific images from that death and from how my mom reacted and the way that emotion was present and not present, of not even being sure how I felt about it. And you know, I mean, certainly early childhood trauma that followed me through my teenage years and early 20s. I think that set me on the path of thinking about death symbolically, like a kind of symbolic death where you don’t actually die but there’s something that needs to be recovered in a particular way. Or maybe it’s actually uncovered. Yeah, there was a feeling of loss in my artwork early on. I have drawings from when I was a kid that would depict a family, you know, so there’d be a mom and a dad and me, and I would write “Mom” and “Dad” over their heads. But even with various boyfriends of my mom’s, there was never anyone that I called “Dad.” So I think it was already manifesting in my work. I don’t even know if I answered your question!
DW: I mean ... it’s all there. O.K. well I want to transition a little bit and talk about your work. So you volunteer for hospice and you work with families in their homes and around funerals. I'm interested to know more about how long you’ve been doing the work with death vigils and grief rituals. I also briefly looked into the Grief Recovery Method and, this may be me projecting this, but I'm interested in decolonization in terms of that as well. I looked at the man who founded it and the team of people on their website and I saw a lot of white faces. I'm curious about what your perspective is bringing to that work. I know it’s a lot [laughter]
AH: I think for a while, I mean certainly when I first started volunteering with hospice, I didn’t understand the complexities of Black people and access to health care in the way that I do now. Certainly, I understood historical abuse in terms of medical institutions, thinking about, you know, eugenics and forced sterilization and a lot of things like that, but I didn’t really understand the legacy of that in terms of the contemporary moment. Even just in the last year there’s so much more information that has come out. So when I first started volunteering with hospice I was like, “I'm in Oakland, I'm going to be with a lot of Black families” and that’s completely not the case. I think I've only had one African American family in four years and I only visited with them maybe twice. They ended up having to move out of our service area. So that’s one thing I'm thinking of. I'm always noticing and calling to attention who is present and who is absent and what that might signal. I’m thinking about what is the context to either bring those missing voices into that space or to create some alternate space completely outside of a particular system. With the Grief Recovery Method, I kind of have issues with the word “recovery,” so I haven’t fully embraced that title. I did a training program, I'm certified as a Grief Recovery Specialist, but that language really falls short for me. There’s a lot of value in the work itself, though. All of the different things that I do, the different trainings and things I've participated in really filter into my teaching at CCA and the more I do work out in the public. I'm looking at developing more workshops and having spaces outside of academia, which is something I've been thinking about for a while. There’s really only so much that I can do in an academic institution. My students are there to get BFAs and MFAs, they’re not really there to process their grief, you know? [laughter] I'm interested in doing more work outside of that particular institution, but it’s been an incredible testing ground for me. My students have been willing participants in a lot of ways, in terms of me just figuring out what works and what doesn’t work and how to do certain activities and exercises. Basically, what I have observed over the last ten years, really specifically, is that the whole death care movement right now is completely being led by white people.
There are a lot of issues that are specific to people of color in terms of death and dying and the work that needs to be done. The way that families and communities can be served that is radically different than what non-people of color need. I'm in no way an expert on what people of color need at the end of their life but what I do know is that Black folks die younger than White and Asian folks, sometimes up to as much as a ten year gap. We don’t access health care as often as other people do. We don’t have the same access to education or economic wealth and, obviously if you’re here in the Bay Area, there’s the housing issue. You can track the exodus of brown and Black people in the Bay Area. A lot of the issues like that are on my mind. The top three reasons for how and why people die are the same across different racial groups, but after that, the reasons that people die change pretty dramatically. Even just thinking about mourning practices and ideas about the afterlife, the spirit, and the soul in relationship to the body. There are very specific traumas that happened to people of African descent that you can kind of track particular ideas that emerge now. All of that is really important and I'm trying to understand those dynamics more in order to not make assumptions. There are a lot of numbers and statistics. I wish I had time to just do research all the time, to write a whole book about all of this, or go get a PhD. I try to take in this information and ask, “What does this look like in my artwork? How does that translate in a material [way]… or what does that mean for the materials that I choose?”
Mourning Weave, 2014. woven velcro, velvet fuzz, frame. 24"H x 20"W
DW: I have so many follow up questions and I want to go where you’re leading, to talk about materials and how specific you are (which I really appreciate). Talk to me about hair, about using the synthetic versus the natural, about the crocheting and braiding of it and the forms that it takes. I saw the lantern piece...
AH: Yeah, oh my gosh. The “Black Lit” piece, that is brand new and I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about it. I'm not totally in love with that piece yet. It started out being inspired and informed by Simone Brown’s book Dark Matters, which is all about theorizing around early forms of surveillance, or just theorizing about surveillance of Blackness in general. And in that book she writes about the Lantern Laws of the 1700’s [colonial laws that required black people to carry lanterns to remain illuminated at night], so that was the original idea for making a light. I guess I was specifically thinking about doing it with hair, kind of, the shade would be made out of hair. But even now, I don’t know that it actually needs that. It’s also just about the light itself as a material. I mean I've made lit pieces before. And the whole reason years ago, in grad school, that I started working with black velvet was because I wanted to work with a material that would absorb light. And black velvet has one of the highest [amounts of] “albedo,” which has to do with how much a surface absorbs or reflects light. And black velvet is also a slang term for Black women. But, I had originally turned to that material because of how it interacted with light and I was thinking about grief and mourning practices and ideas around the soul, and light, and reflection, absorption, and the dressing in black mourning clothes—all of those things were kind of layered there. So the "Black Lit" piece is sort of in those ideas that I've been working with for a while. And it’s very much about when and where do I step into the light? When do I stay in the shadows and in the darkness? But my idea for that piece is that it would be used as a performance where Black people would do readings of Black texts within that light in an otherwise darkened space. I sort of have this desire to make a smaller one, like a hand-held lantern. I mean that one became like a 70s lampshade part-chandelier thing. It’s actually pretty big. Maybe the next iteration of it is a smaller, hand-held, like a hanging lamp. I would have to enroll some white people to participate in this, but they would hold the lantern for the Black person standing there reading the Black text; to implicate the white body and the Black body. I think about those terms all in parentheses, or in scare quotes. You know, as I say in the show and in that work, I'm thinking about Blackness as a spectrum and I'm thinking about whiteness as a spectrum as well. It occupies that in a really different way because it has become this sort of absolute, this idea of purity. So you have all of these issues around purity and contamination that come up. So that’s my sort of vision for the "Black Lit" piece [laughter]. I think I said this that night at the closing talk, for me as a kid, hair was how I processed my grief. Cutting and trimming my own hair when I was a kid, and sometimes cutting and trimming in really drastic ways, I think it was me trying to externalize what I was feeling, what I couldn’t say I said through cutting hair. So that was probably the beginning of my relationship with hair. When I was in grad school and doing research around mourning practices, one of the more well-known narratives around hair and mourning comes out of Victorian mourning practices, but it’s very much a cross-cultural sort of material that has, in so many different ways, navigated relationships between the living and the dead. And so hair as an offering, and hair as a sign of grieving, that is not just exclusively a Western European practice.
...ONE OF THE MORE WELL-KNOWN NARRATIVES AROUND HAIR AND MOURNING COMES OUT OF VICTORIAN MOURNING PRACTICES, BUT IT’S VERY MUCH A CROSS-CULTURAL SORT OF MATERIAL THAT HAS, IN SO MANY DIFFERENT WAYS, NAVIGATED RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.
[We pause and laugh here as a restaurant worker began vigorously tenderizing meat in the background, making it very hard to hear each other]
AH: It makes me think of my friend Marvin K. White. Do you know Marvin? Oh my god, Marvin is this brilliant poet and preacher. He did this piece last year and I was one of the participants. It was a spin off of Black Skin, White Mask. He had Black writers do these performances at Yerba Buena [Center for the Arts] where we got up and read things with this white noise going on in the background. So we almost had to shout into the microphone ...
DW: That sounds amazing.
AH: Yes! Marvin K. White. So we were talking about hair and mourning. What I tried to do in those pieces, and in that show overall, was to think about the inheritance of European hair traditions and the inheritance of African and Black traditions. Kind of wondering, could those things even exist in the same space? [laughter] Right?
DW: [I gesture to my hair]
Unidentified Grieving Objects, 2017. Synthetic hair, artist’s hair. wall installation, dimensions variable
AH: They do! Right [laughter], so not just on my own head but in other objects. Yeah, so I wanted all of that to be present, all of those complications. And just to think about the other question you were asking earlier around aesthetics. How do we create or redefine our own aesthetics? Not that I just want it to be a binary between Black and white, but to think about all of those spaces in between.
DW: I get a sense that naming a spectrum is already trying to explode a binary by starting to talk about it that way. I read a bit about Teresa Margolles and how you wrote a piece about her work. I guess I want to know how her work influences yours and about how materials can say something that you can’t say with words.
AH: Well, one of the things I think Teresa Margolles does is to use her materials so provocatively and unapologetically to the kind of horror and dismay of museum-goers. One of the things she says, and it comes from the titles of one of her pieces, is "What Else Could We Speak About?" I have so much respect for that kind of material truth. I started to use the word “authenticity,” which is so loaded and complicated, but there’s a way that her materials are raw and direct, and they’re exactly what they say they are. So I appreciate that and the risks that she has taken in her work. And over the last four to five years, she’s received broad recognition and attention for her work and I'm really happy to see that. The thing about her work, too, and my interest in how she uses textiles, is that she’s not interested in comforting people, which is so often how textiles are used; to make something soft and warm. In a recent interview, I I was asked about the “coziness” in my studio and what that meant in terms of the gendering of domestic spaces and materials. That is something that Teresa Margolles doesn’t do. Even when she uses whole pieces of cloth and large shrouds, you know, her shroud pieces are sort of hung like big drapes or paintings, in a way. In some pieces, she uses thread from autopsied bodies to tie and knot things together. It’s so incredibly spare and minimal, the materials are doing all of the work. That’s why she’s so brilliant because she really lets the materials do the work. That’s something that I talk to students about all the time. There’s so much there already, you can step back a little bit and let your materials do that work. What are the structures actually doing? What do they need to do? What is it that makes a textile a textile? How do we amplify or push up against that, or work with that? But you have to know that first about your materials, and maybe that gets to the materials speaking things that can’t be spoken. Because certainly, if I could just describe to you in words everything that I was thinking about or everything that my work was about, then like, do I really have to make all of that work, you know? [laughter] I find that that’s why so many artists become artists, because there are maybe things that they can’t say or don’t know how to say. Certain materials and certain forms and shapes, a certain pallette or process, these are ways of speaking.
DW: Respecting the language of materials is important to me in my practice which is what drew me to want to talk to you about yours, and specifically, about your use of hair. I'm thinking of your manifesto now and something I read about Margolles’ work. In this article, the author describes the notion that the more difficult something is to describe with words, the more difficult it is to commodify it. I thought of the piece where you talk about all of the ways that Blackness can be described as something you can consume. So I don’t know if you want to talk about that, this connection between exoticism, fetishism, and colonialism, or how to put things outside of the realm of something you can distill, almost.
Black Rainbow, 2017. crocheted synthetic hair, artist’s hair, LED lighting, frame 15’W x 10’H
AH: Well, I think because there’s always been, even despite the presentation, of the way that the Black body has been pathologized, despite that there’s incredible desire, exotification, and consumption of Blackness and Black bodies. I find myself also partly seduced by some of those terms. You know, I have cousins named “Ebony” and “Brandy” and those are, like, incredibly beautiful names. So there’s a kind of … I guess I used to think of it more as a conflict, but now I'm more comfortable with things seemingly in opposition, actually coexisting in the same space. It’s probably just getting older and discovering my agency and how particular stereotypes might be used against me. I have developed a kind of facility with using those same stereotypes and turning things around in a way. I'm really interested in this idea of flirtation with things that are potentially damaging, perhaps … [laughter]
DW: [laughter] Go on …
[we pause as the banging starts up again with a vengeance. We decide to move outside]
DW: I was particularly moved by the gallery being painted Black for When and Where I Enter. That combined with the notion that we who find ourselves in/on the spectrum of Blackness must "step into the void" and redefine or create an aesthetic of our own. I'm wondering if you'll tell me more about how you step into/navigate that void through your array of roles, as a cultural worker, death care activist, death doula, mother, and teacher?
WHAT ARE THE STRUCTURES ACTUALLY DOING? WHAT DO THEY NEED TO DO? WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES A TEXTILE A TEXTILE? HOW DO WE AMPLIFY OR PUSH UP AGAINST THAT, OR WORK WITH THAT?
I love you to all the black holes, 2014. pierced copper sheet, LED light panel, framed 16"H x 20"W
AH: What that means for me is that I am willing to see the politics of representation, of visibility, or invisibility, in those spaces. I am looking for who is not present, who is missing in the conversation, who or what is being silenced or dismissed. It means that I am hyper-aware of being the only person of color in the room and that I am willing to ask why that is the situation and what I am going to do about it. Right now, I am trying to create more space and open up dialogue about how Black folks die and grieve and I want to do that outside of conversations that are dominated by white folks. I talk about this in my classes already, and while the demographics are increasingly diverse, I usually have only one or two Black students every time I teach a death class. Aesthetically speaking, there is great opportunity to examine who we are, where our ideas of beauty originate, and how we have been systematically fed misinformation and straight up lies about Blackness, Black identity, Black beauty, Black sexuality, and so on … For me, growing up mostly surrounded by western European cultural aesthetics, I have had to do a lot of self-education. I would never deny what I have inherited, however I am very careful and conscious about what I consume, what I choose to believe, what references I bring into my work.
DW: I’m thinking of this in the context of a comment of yours about how our dead people are incredibly marginalized bodies and energies. Given that, I'm curious about what the decolonization of grief and dying actually looks like in your variety of roles. What does it look like to intentionally engage in cultural work and other forms of work outside of (as much as that is possible) the systems of white supremacy?
AH: There has to be a reckoning with history, with your personal, familial, and cultural histories. Decolonization is perhaps becoming a floppy word, to borrow from Sara Ahmed. But in my work it means that I am always interrogating my inheritance. I am always questioning assumptions about things, about what I think I know, about what I teach. I often begin with language, with the words that are used to describe or articulate experience. I observe how and where language fails or undermines human-beingness. I am looking at the role of the Black family, how it functions in the ways that it does. I am looking at how colonization and slavery intentionally, effectively, and efficiently broke up African families, severing lineage and kinship. This had a major impact on how we mourned the dead.
DW: To follow that line of thinking, I'm also very curious about something you mentioned in another interview about envisioning white supremacy and patriarchy in its death throes. How might you approach witnessing that process through the lens of your work around caring for the dead and dying?
AH: I have been thinking about this very question and beginning to write a new piece about it. You are the first to ask! Sometimes dying people need to hear that it is O.K. to let go, that it is O.K. to die. I think this may be the case with patriarchy. We must tell the patriarchy it is time to die. But this dying time may be long, drawn out, painful, ugly, etc. Death is not always beautiful. Patriarchy is a set of systems, though, so I don’t know if it can or should be given personhood in the same way. I bring deep generosity and forgiveness for people in their dying time and I don’t know that I have that kind of compassion for the patriarchy. That might really test my limits. I just can’t tolerate the way that patriarchal systems perpetrate violence and domination in the name of superiority, and then enables and protects itself acting all innocent, as if it were the victim. Unacceptable.
DW: This is a bit of a pivot but one of the things I haven’t asked you yet that I want to hear about is that you were about to give up your studio ...
AH: Yeah! I was. I was at a point where I was doing more writing than I was actually making. And I felt like all of the things I was making were just failing. I was really questioning my relationship to things that took up space and the way that my work took up space. My work was much smaller then. The work I produced in the SoEx show, I've never made work that big, ever. I basically made this 180 from where I was. I was going to give up my studio because I didn't think I wanted to make things anymore and that I wanted to write and I didn’t need to pay that much rent to sit and write. I'm interested in the way that words take up space in a completely different way. For me, right now, even after all of the work I made for SoEx, it kind of makes me uncomfortable to have things take up so much space. I mean it was perfect for that show, to have things take up space, and that, of course, was all very intentional, it feeds into the content and the concept of that show about Blackness and Black bodies being highly visible but also wanting to have some say over that visibility. The reality right now is that the Black Hole is in my living room, you know? [laughter] I contend with it many, many times throughout the day as I try to navigate around my living room. That piece has taken on a really interesting life post-exhibition. I didn’t want to make things that took up space and I made a bunch of work that did the opposite. It shows I'm not really in control of what I'm doing … [laughter]
When and where I enter, Installation view, Southern Exposure, SF. 2017
DW: Can I ask you about the notion of not taking up space? I mean, there’s so much in what you just said …
I’M INTERESTED IN THE WAY THAT WORDS TAKE UP SPACE IN A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT WAY. FOR ME, RIGHT NOW, EVEN AFTER ALL OF THE WORK I MADE FOR SOEX, IT KIND OF MAKES ME UNCOMFORTABLE TO HAVE THINGS TAKE UP SO MUCH SPACE.
AH: Well, I was in this shooting. I got shot. And afterwards my experience of processing that, you know, I would say maybe for the first four or six months I basically spent a lot of time at home in bed looking around at all of my stuff, looking at my work, and not being sure if any of it really mattered. Questioning the meaning of things, of making things, of keeping things, of a desire for things. At the time, I really wanted to get rid of all of my possessions but because I have a son and I'm trying to maintain a home for him, I felt like that would be too shocking. But that was kind of my secret desire, that I wanted to give everything away, and I did give a lot of stuff away, and I continue to purge things on a regular basis. Partly, it was that I didn’t want to be responsible for all of those things that needed something from me. Possessions, they needed to be taken care of. All of my plants died at that time and I just let them die. I had no interest in taking care of them. I had one plant in my house that refused to die [laughter]. Interestingly, I've had that plant since I was about 20, so maybe that’s part of it, too. But really, I just let everything die. I let relationships die in my life and my need to take care and be responsible for things. I just, I wasn’t able to, I wasn’t able to be responsible for things. It was enough to take care of my son, who was ten at the time. He had just turned ten a couple weeks after the shooting so that was kind of all I could manage, and you know, doing physical therapy. I did try to go to my studio as much as I could, though, once I was up and about and driving. My studio is only about five minutes away from my house so I would go there a lot. Early on I would go there and I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to make something out of it. I knew right away, like, “Oh, I think this is going to affect the rest of my life, and my art,” you know? I was just trying to figure out what that was. But then there were little moments in the studio where things would open up and I see how some of those early attempts did eventually lead to the recent work. I did a lot of drawings. It really brought me back to writing, in a way. I was really developing my writing voice in graduate school but then set that aside. You know, the gift from getting shot was that it brought me back into my body in a way that I had never understood or appreciated. That was a big part of developing my writing voice again. You know, a lot of amazing things have come out of it. The last two years of my life have been pretty blessed. I mean, a lot of fucked up shit has happened too, but some amazing things have happened, also.
DW: I knew we’d get to talking about this eventually, too. I was really struck the night of the closing when you talked about this, you mentioned someone came up to you and said that you had gained a bunch of street cred as a result.
AH: Yeah! Well, you know, the fucked up thing about it is that it’s actually true. Because certainly when I speak to people about being a survivor of gun violence, people listen. Especially white people. It’s been fascinating and disturbing also, to observe the reactions that I get from different groups and types of people. Usually if I am speaking in a predominantly white space and I'm talking about gun violence or talking about my position, it’s like shock and horror, and completely unimaginable. But when I'm with people in the Black community, and this has happened a number of times where I'm telling a Black person or a person of color about getting shot, they’re like, “Yeah, you know my cousin just got shot last week,” or something like that.
I've gotten used to feeling uncomfortable talking about it. I think in the beginning, I thought, you know, “O.K., at some point this is going to get easier.” I created strategies for the language I wanted to use. I used to worry about dropping this big bomb in the room, what that meant to be the person who brings gun violence into the room, but I’ve gotten used to the fact that it’s uncomfortable, and that I still need to say it. For the most part, the spaces that I choose to bring that part of myself, it’s also about wanting to dismantle the stereotypes of people who get shot. There are a few sentences in the manifesto about that, all these things that didn’t save me, or would be very common assumptions about people who get shot and what they’re up to. There's a lot about the shooting that I haven’t talked about yet, aspects of the story I haven’t told. I try to be really conscious about when and where I reveal information. I certainly reveal a lot more in my writing than I do in my objects, or maybe it’s just easier to understand in the writing because it’s really specific words.
Mourning Wreath (detail), 2017. Synthetic and human hair, found hair, artist’s hair, gold leaf on copper, enamel paint, chain, wire frame, cement base. 8’9”H x 6’W x 36”DIA BASE
DW: I'm curious to hear how that experience has informed the work you are doing, however much feels comfortable to share.
AH: You know, I feel pretty open about it. Actually, I was just recently looking at my bio and thinking, like, I think I should just come out and say it. I don’t know if I've reached the next level of understanding this particular identity, but I feel like I'm heading into the next cycle of whatever it means to be a survivor of gun violence. I've worked through a certain degree or level of my own trauma, and I feel like it’s time to take that next step. I know that it’s uncomfortable and awkward; people want to ask and don’t want to ask at the same time. I think that’s just kind of how it is. There’s something for me about my role as a teacher, I feel like it requires a certain level of transparency. I recognize that that is something that I signed up for. I'm really transparent with my students and in some ways I think it comes out of wishing that some of my teachers have been a little more transparent with me. Not that they should be revealing their inner-life stories, but like practical things about being an artist. There’s a lot that is not shared with younger artists that are coming up, and I feel like that it does a disservice all around.
Mourning Wreath (detail), 2017. Synthetic and human hair, found hair, artist’s hair, gold leaf on copper, enamel paint, chain, wire frame, cement base. 8’9”H x 6’W x 36”DIA BASE
DW: Can you give me some examples of what you’re referring to?
AH: Well, even just things like how much you might get paid for a class as a lecturer versus an adjunct versus a tenure track professor. Or what it really takes to get hired into a tenured track position. I've been telling people about the When and Where I Enter show and about the realities of what the materials budget was, which was $1,000.00, but that I spent almost $4,000.00. I think that’s important to know. Yes, Southern Exposure can claim that they commissioned these works but there's also a little part of me that’s like, “Well, I don’t know…” I appreciate everything that they did for me and I appreciate the opportunity, but it’s also like where does the funding come from? Is an artist’s life actually sustainable? And just to go back to thinking about the shooting and that particular event, it’s very clear to me that it’s had a big impact on how I teach. Certainly the kind of urgency I bring to my studio work and just the things I'm doing in my life, and like why I work so hard [laughter], that’s also part of it. It's been a motivating factor. I had good work ethic before, but it’s kind of amped up in the last couple of years. It’s strengthened my confidence in terms of my ideas and the things that I'm thinking about. I'm not making work about gun violence or about being shot, although the idea of the hole and the circle has been in my work for a long time. So having a bullet wound in my leg, it’s like, “Oh, look there’s another black hole,” you know? It’s brought a lot more information and depth in a particular way.
I WAS REALLY QUESTIONING MY RELATIONSHIP TO THINGS THAT TOOK UP SPACE AND THE WAY THAT MY WORK TOOK UP SPACE.
DW: What in terms of circumstance feels O.K. to share?
AH: You mean the “What happened?” Let me see, it was December 15th, it was 2015, it was a Tuesday morning ... it was the end of the semester and I had slept in. I was laying in bed watching Grey’s Anatomy and I had some meetings that afternoon so I was about to get up and I heard all of this shouting out in the street. Sometimes you can’t tell if black people are shouting because they're happy or because something’s wrong, so I went to my window and there was this couple out there and they were fighting and yelling at each other. As a survivor of sexual assault and sexual abuse, I just do not tolerate violence against women. I put on a sweatshirt and went out on my front porch and I remember wanting to make my voice big. I yelled out to him that I was going to call the police. I said, you need to back off of her, I'm about to call the police. He stopped and looked at me and I felt like, at that moment, things kind of went into slow motion. He had her in a chokehold and he was dragging her around to the side of a car in front of my house. The only thing he said to me was, “You need to mind your own business.” I've been thinking about that phrase and doing a bit of research around it, the roots of that in Black cultures. There’s a Frederick Douglass quotation addressing Black people and slaves minding their own business. I don’t know, I haven’t quite figured out how to get to all of that yet, but that’s something that's kind of floating in my thought process. I've also realized in the moment that when I said to him, “I'm about to call the police,” that I knew the police wouldn’t come if I called. Which is why I hadn’t called them already. But I underestimated that language as a threat to him. In that moment, he’s emasculated and then also threatened by a system that’s known to not serve Black and brown people. That’s definitely something that’s unresolved for me in terms of my participation. I escalated the situation in a particular way. But he let go of her and I thought they were going to leave and at that point, I had started to go back into my house. I was like, “Wow, that actually worked!” That was what I was thinking. When I turned back around just to be sure that he was leaving, I looked over my shoulder and he was pointing a gun at me. I have such a clear memory of staring into the black hole of that gun. He fired four shots and one got me in the leg.
DW: I can’t even really imagine what that must have been like for you. It feels so delicate, asking about the details so I appreciate your vulnerability. I’m thinking of this in relation to other parts of your story and how you've mentioned in other interviews that you're not so interested in your own personal narrative being on display in a gallery, but that it remains the foundation of your work. How does your work as a death care activist and relationship to personal loss inform your aesthetic work?
AH: I'm actually rather shy. I prefer to maintain certain boundaries between my private and public selves. The last two years of my life have required me to to step into the spotlight in a way that I feel reluctant about, yet I also recognize that is what is being asked of me. When I choose to reveal autobiographical details, I do so with a specific intention and quite a bit of consideration beforehand. The death care work that I do happens outside of my art and academic worlds. It is work that keeps me grounded. It’s easy to get all abstract and metaphorical as an artist but when you're sitting at the bedside of someone who is dying, or you are discussing how family members will take shifts during the active dying phase, you are presented with certain realities. There is plenty of room for poetry and metaphor, of course, but for me it often begins with the body. The dying body implicates the living body in such complex ways. There is much to be learned by just observing what happens within and between our bodies. For one of my hospice patients I did a lot of grocery shopping. She wasn’t really eating much, but every week she would give me a list of stuff to buy. Her cupboards were packed with jam and peanut butter, like 20 or 30 jars of each, and that was what she needed me to do. When I would return from the store we would sit down and talk about her death and how she wanted things to go. Hospice work holds a mirror up for my own anxieties, my own fears, my unresolved grief. It inspires me to slow down, to really look into the eyes of people that I love and sometimes people I don’t really know, which is probably awkward, but I feel present to more love and gratitude through the work.
DW: It reminds me that in the interview with Á.R. Vázquez-Concepción, you state pretty clearly that you would not say you make work "about Death" but rather about the relationships and ideas around and embedded in Death. I'm curious to hear about the gradations of meaning there and how you delineate between the concepts.
AH: I don’t know that I know what Death is. I can say that I have had certain experiences with Death, but to claim that I know Death would require a bigger ego and hubris that I just don’t have. When we claim to know things or to know a thing that can shut down or limit the possibilities for how that thing might show up. I am more interested in speculating about Death, in letting the unknownable be unknown, letting the mystery be a mystery. My work and my practice, more broadly, in all of its facets and expressions (writing, researching, reading, making, performing), is how I respond to my experiences with Death and with dying people and the exchanges that I observe in cultural, social, and aesthetic practices. But Death is too big to try to take on and make something about, especially since I have not died yet!
Black Rainbow statement
1. To say that blackness is a rainbow is to speak of a spectrum of visible and invisible color.
2. To say that blackness is a rainbow is to reveal the limitations of a black and white binary.
3. To say that blackness is a rainbow is to recognize the complexities of identity.
4. To say that blackness is a rainbow is to see in the sun.
5. To say that blackness is a rainbow is to speak of luminosity.
6. To say that blackness is a rainbow is to see light through rain.
7. To say that blackness is a rainbow is to speak of refraction.
8. To say that blackness is a rainbow is to say black is beautiful.
9. To say that blackness is a rainbow is to know black joy.
10. To say that blackness is a rainbow is to love the black hole.
Angela Hennessy is an Oakland, CA based interdisciplinary artist and Associate Professor at California College of the Arts, where she teaches courses on visual and cultural narratives of death and contemporary textile theory. Through writing, studio work, and performance, her practice examines mythologies of blackness embedded in linguistic metaphors of color and cloth. Her current project, The School of the Dead, is a program for the decolonization of death and grief through the radical inquiry of aesthetic and social practices that mediate the boundary between the living and the dead. She leads workshops and lectures nationally.
Danielle Wright is a visual artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned a B.A. in Visual Arts with an emphasis in Fine Arts at the University of San Francisco in 2007. Her work investigates the language of materials and the delineation between artist and viewer/participant. In addition to her studio practice, she teaches at Creativity Explored, a not-for-profit art gallery and studio in the Mission District of San Francisco.